The Week In Radio: Comedy gems in a digital wilderness
Thursday 22 October 2009
If there were ever words more prone to raise an involuntary shudder, apart from "And now, You and Yours... ", it is "DAB radio". At least in those listeners concerned that one day their beloved Roberts, or bedside clock radio or kitchen transistor – along with more than 100 million other analogue sets – will become obsolete as the nation's FM and AM stations are shifted onto DAB. Most have no idea when this day will arrive. Some hope it will just go away. Perhaps that secretly goes for the government too, which has yet to endorse the projected 2015 date for switchover set in its own Digital Britain report.
The stipulation is that digital switchover won't happen until 90 per cent of the country, and all main roads, have reception. Currently around 24 per cent of people have digital radios and by 2014 all new cars will have to be equipped with DAB. Within the radio industry itself, there is an impatience for the DAB switchover to be confirmed. The public at large, however, is rather more ambivalent.
Last week, Stephen Miron, chief executive of the country's biggest radio group, Global Radio, which owns Classic FM, Heart, Capital and LBC, admitted he had stopped even using the term DAB because "it sounds like something you'd catch in a far away country".
But whatever he chooses to call it, there's no denying that Digital Audio Broadcasting is beset with problems. Channel 4, which was geared up to launch a national speech alternative to Radio 4, ducked out last October. Analogue radios, unlike TVs, cannot be easily provided with a converter, which means that when the networks abandon FM, a lot of decent radios will end up on the scrapheap. Not to mention the millions of older cars driving around unable to get any national network at all.
A lot of the problem is that DAB seems to be counter-intuitive to the whole idea of radio. The idea, for example, that we will be listening via our computers, overlooks the joy of a set in every room. Then there's the promise of interactivity. According to Miron, the future promises radios with touch screens, so that when listening to a car programme, for instance, you could also book a test drive. But who wants radio to be interactive? Isn't the whole point of radio that it gets on by itself in the background while you grapple with work or ironing or cooking or all three at once?
There's the green issue – DAB swallows battery power at six times the rate – and last, but very much not least, the sound quality. Can I be the only person whose DAB radio signal vanishes like the dew? Why is this new technology about as effective as Gordon Brown on YouTube?
"But," said someone to me recently, "Doesn't the BBC do a really good digital channel that just reads books out?" He meant, of course, BBC Radio 7, the most popular of the BBC's digital-only stations, though its audience is less than a million.
Slip into Radio 7 and you could be forgiven for thinking you'd wandered into a suburban sitting room circa 1980 – there's Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and Poirot, there's Dad's Army, not to mention The Goon Show. It does an inspired line in adapted classics – A Suitable Boy, The Colour Purple and Dracula are currently in play – and has ingenious ways of recrafting old stuff.
Comedy Controller, for example, is a kind of Desert Island Discs of the comedy world. Saturday morning featured Helen Lederer's choice of six comedians who had influenced her, including Arthur Smith, whom she met "round the back of the bikeshed of the cabaret world in the 80s", Jeremy Hardy, John Hegley and Ross Noble. The advantage of Radio 7 is that the extracts can run at enormous length, but that's the disadvantage too. Though Lederer's choices were pretty faultless, listening to these blasts from the past over three hours made one crave a bit more editing.
On the face of it, Radio 7 makes perfect sense. Recycling is a virtue, and it's a crime for the BBC archives to languish unheard. It also provides a home for CBeebies Radio. What could be better than to dip into a treasure trove of the best of past comedy and drama?
The dilemma it faces is more integral to radio itself. Unlike TV viewers who are "promiscuous" – in the unlovely phrase of the advertising suits – radio listeners tend to stick faithfully to one or two stations. Perhaps we'll all get more promiscuous when DAB takes over. Or perhaps, judging by my own children, tethered permanently to their iPods like goats to a stake, the next generation will no longer listen to radio at all. But that's another story.
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