Dixons pulls the plug on the traditional wireless

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The Independent Online

Dixons, the electricals chain that has swapped the high street for cyberspace, is consigning the traditional wireless to the dustbins of technological history as the digital revolution gathers pace.

The analogue radio joins gadgets including VHS recorders, 35mm film cameras and large cathode-ray tube televisions in the electricals graveyard, the group announced yesterday. It also warned that personal CD players and so-called "boom boxes", which people carry on their shoulders, were on the way out.

The advent of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) has allowed listeners to swap crackling airwaves for pin-sharp sound and has ushered in new radio stations to suit every taste. That is, unless they live in Wales or Scotland, which have lagged the rest of the UK's switchover to digital by some margin.

Digital radios first outsold their analogue counterparts at Dixons in December 2003. Since then, the price of digital radios has fallen sharply and today the chain sells just one old-school wireless for 30 digital models.

"The growth in demand for digital radios is further evidence that we're living in the digital age," Nick Wilkinson, Dixons' managing director, said. The only places where nostalgic consumers will be able to buy analogue radios at the chain is from its tax-free outlets at airports and its remaining stores in Ireland.

Recent figures from Ofcom, the communications watchdog, showed 89 per cent of the country's population live in an area that has DAB coverage, with about the same percentage able to access the BBC's digital stations.

Ian Dickens, the chief executive of the Digital Radio Development Bureau (DRDB), said: "With digital radios outselling analogue in certain sectors, it makes sense for retailers to reconsider the range of products on offer." Last year, DAB radio sets accounted for 54 per cent of all portable radio sales, up from 45 per cent the previous year.

But when it comes to digital radios' share of the entire set market, they fare worse, accounting for just 16 per cent of all sets in the six months to March, according to the DRDB. And the total number of DAB radios sales in the UK is still relatively low at 3 million, which means only 11 per cent of households own at least one set.

Comet, the high street electricals chain owned by Kesa, said it had no plans to stop stocking traditional wirelesses "as long as there is still consumer demand and as long as the product is still available from manufacturers." A spokeswoman added: "We believe in offering customers choice and so we stock a wide mix of products to allow them to make their purchase decision based on the features that suit them best."

As well as better sound quality, digital radios offer a number of other advantages over their analogue peers. A text screen tells listeners what is on air and some models let people pause and rewind programmes while they are being transmitted.

From Morse code to DAB

Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited with being the inventor of radio after he recognised the possibility of using electromagnetic waves for a wireless communication system. In 1901 he sent the letter S across the Atlantic using Morse code. By 1912, the system was installed in many ships and helped save the lives of 700 passengers on the Titanic.

The first radio programme was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1906, when Reginald Fessiden, from Massachusetts, made the first long-range transmission of music and speech. Itwas heard by ships.

The simplest type of radio receiver was the cat's whisker, or crystal radio set. It picks up electro-magnetic waves from a particular frequency though an antenna wire. A crystal detector made from certain minerals such as galena in conjunction with a thin wire - the cat's whisker - detects and converts the waves into sound that can be picked up using headphones.

The first working television was unveiled by John Logie Baird in 1926, though broadcasts did not really challenge radio in the UK until the Coronation in 1953, when about 20 million people tuned in. But radio fought back with the introduction of the transistor by Sony at the end of the 1950s. These could fit into a pocket and were battery powered. There are now 7 billion transistor radios , making it the single most popular communications device.

Digital radio was introduced to Europe in 1998. DAB, digital audio broadcasting, works in a similar way to MP3 files on a PC. An audio signal is digitally encoded before it is transmitted and decoded by a digital radio when received. This makes the signal less susceptible to interference, and any picked up on its route is filtered out. More stations can transmit on less bandwidth, allowing a greater choice of radio.

About 85 per cent of Britons can receive DAB radio stations, but most of the world still relies on analogue.

Louise Dransfield

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