A few years ago I grasped the opportunity to broaden my 'radio horizons' in an attempt to put the UK 's broadcasting system in context with those elsewhere around the world. It was a fascinating experience.
Whilst in China I participated in numerous lively discussions about radio and, as seems to be happening more and more these days, many of my own long-held beliefs appear to be shared by others. Specifically, in this instance, my views on DAB, the digital terrestrial radio method enthusiastically adopted by the UK, (driven largely by the BBC), which I have always struggled to get excited about...for a variety of reasons.
BRING ON THE COMPETITION…..AND WE PAY FOR THE PRIVILEGE???
Firstly, when the concept was first mooted all those years ago, as a commercially-minded and fiercely competitive programmer, the notion of pumping serious money into a new form of broadcasting that instantly made several new formats available to my listeners was abhorrent. If, as many were expecting, DAB sets had flown off the shelves, the sudden appearance of Kiss…or Planet Rock….or ANYTHING would have seriously hurt me. As it happened, DAB receiver sales were very slow to begin with and remain extremely poor to date, (despite the hype). According to Ofcom only 4% of sales of all devices that include radio receivers have DAB. However, Ofcom’s August 2005 Communications Market Update reports local commercial listening fell to a new all-time low share of 33.9%. The proliferation of digital services is largely responsible for this….and no-one should really be surprised. It’s very much in line with predictions made years ago. But it must seem odd to other business sectors that the UK commercial radio industry has actually paid out millions of pounds to allow new competition into its markets, eroding audiences to heritage brands in the process.
Another observation is that in commercial radio, few groups are really, truly, ploughing enough resources into their new DAB services. From a business standpoint I can absolutely understand why. If no-one’s listening what’s the point? A phrase I use very often, though, is “You only get one chance to make a first impression”. When I bought my first DAB set I eagerly ‘tuned around’ to see what was out there. How disappointing…..almost everything was either voicetracked or completely presenter-free. For me, radio’s big strength is as a ‘live’ medium…responding to changing circumstances and reflecting everyday life. I know from anecdotal evidence that large numbers of new DAB owners are getting bad 'first impressions' of commercial DAB services, (in terms of programme content). Of course things are entirely different at the BBC where 1 Xtra and 6 Music are lavishly funded....by we licence payers! However, despite the big name presenters, quality programming, (let's be honest, 6 Music is a terrific listen), and constant promotion on national TV, the BBC's DAB stations have somehow managed to lose listeners:
THE QUALITY ISSUE
My other big concern was over the industry’s assertion that DAB would bring an improvement in quality. Indeed, the two key selling points to prospective users were increased choice and improved quality. The sad truth of the matter, which no-one in British radio seems prepared to admit, is that the vast majority of stations on DAB sound worse than their FM counterpart. For example, in the UK 98% of stereo stations use 128 kbps, and the sound is noticeably poorer than FM. At the root of the issue is the UK DAB system’s reliance on the outdated MP2 audio codec. As I discovered in China whilst enjoying a beer or three with Jack Chang from PC Radio in Taipei, other territories that held back on DAB’s introduction are now benefiting from new high efficiency audio coding. If AAC were used at 128 kbps then the audio quality would be excellent, and it would be far easier to sell a digital radio system to the general public if you can claim that it sounds excellent, not least because people that buy DAB will tell their friends how good it sounds. The UK has only managed to sell a lot of DAB radios by using a huge amount of advertising on BBC TV, and non-stop advertising campaigns on commercial radio. But claims about audio quality on UK adverts for DAB have had to be limited to strap-lines such as the meaningless "digital quality sound" so that they don't breach advertising standards regulations. The BBC has also received many thousands of complaints about the audio quality of its radio stations on DAB, but it cannot do anything about the situation because the BBC's DAB multiplex is completely full, and removing a station from the multiplex would also undoubtedly generate a large number of complaints -- basically, it's too late to remove a station once thousands of people listen to it. Another well concealed fact is that whenever BBC 5 Live Sports Extra is on-air, either Radio 4 or Radio 3 has to run at reduced bitrate to free up space!
All of this begs the question, “…why didn't they add a new audio codec before now?” The development of AAC began in 1994, and was standardised in 1997 -- a full 5 years before the BBC started promoting DAB heavily on TV.
There’s a commonly used expression: “fools rush in”. I’m not for a minute suggesting that the major industry players and members of the Eureka 147 consortium who drove things forward were ‘fools’, but, in this instance, history would appear to show that holding back on the hype would have made sense.
Because the UK got off to an early start with over 300 stations now up and running, and the vast majority of them sampling at 128 kbps, we offer our listeners the lowest audio quality on DAB anywhere in the world!
ALTERNATIVE DIGITAL OPTIONS
DAB is just one of many digital radio solutions being developed around the world. DRM, (Digital Radio Mondiale), for example, utilises the AM spectrum. DMB and DVB-H are all the rage China-way just now, and I am a particular fan of the system being adopted by the US – ‘IBOC’. In-band On-Channel allows stations to remain ‘on the same frequency’ as far as listeners are concerned….but in much higher quality and with a range of additional benefits.
No-one can predict how things will evolve, but it has to be said – ideally we wouldn’t be starting from here! Despite the poor sales of DAB sets it would be unthinkable to make changes now to transmission protocols, (i.e. introduce the new codecs), that would render existing sets obsolete. In other territories like Germany, France, Japan and China, where a more considered approach was taken to the various digital options, they are now in the fortunate position of being able to adopt a genuinely superior system from scratch.