Digital radio: hear it! read it

The coming revolution will not only be a revelation for the ears - it will be a bit of a revelation for the eyes as well. And you will love it.

The term "digital revolution" may conjure up visions of a torrent of new TV channels (mainly owned by Rupert Murdoch). But, unbeknown to most subjects of this realm, the oldest and most elementary of the electronic media - radio - is also about to go digital and do so in ways that could dramatically alter the fabric of our daily lives.

DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) has the technological potential to revolutionise radio in the way that CD has transformed the music industry, by offering consumers the following:

l interference-free reception

l CD-quality sound

l easy-to-use sets

l a wider choice of services

l text and data services as well as audio

l equal-quality reception on fixed, portable and car radios

DAB is not some boffin's pipe-dream. It is already operational. The BBC switched on the world's first national DAB radio service almost two years ago. Since September 1995 it has been transmitting Radios 1, 2, 3, 5 and 5 Live plus two new services - BBC Parliament and 5 Live Sports Plus - in this format, and has been experimenting with what it calls "programme- assisted data".

Commercial radio companies are also becoming increasingly keen. Announcing the merger of Virgin Radio and Capital Radio last month, Richard Branson enthused: "The digital media future has arrived. Digital technology has the potential to make an enormous impact on radio in the UK."

The UK DAB Forum, set up back in 1993 to spearhead the development and marketing of digital radio, is now chaired by the elder statesman of commercial radio in this country, James Gordon. Now free from the daily management of Radio Clyde, the chairman of Scottish Radio Holdings is devoting much of his energies to developing DAB. Gordon has declared: "The UK is in a good position to lead the world in the introduction of digital radio."

At present there are only 200 prototype DAB sets in circulation that are capable of receiving these transmissions. Matthew Bannister, the BBC's head of radio, has one in his car, as does the corporation's director general, John Birt.

But the technology is about to move out of multimedia laboratories and into the market-place. In September the world's leading audio manufacturers, including Sony, Grundig and Panasonic, are preparing to put their pioneering consumer sets - some incorporating colour screens - on public display for the first time at the IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung) trade fair in Berlin.

Assuming they get a rapturous reception, the first range of DAB sets should be selling in Britain's high streets by next spring. The initial cost of each set will be around pounds 500, but the price is expected to collapse as it did for CDs and colour TV sets.

The BBC is basing its development work on a projection that 40 per cent of British households will have a DAB set within 10 years of their launch. That would mean 10 million such sets being sold in the first decade.

If that sounds an extravagant projection, bear in mind that a total of almost 12 million radios were sold in the UK last year - three times more than the number of TV sets. Indeed, it has been estimated that there are 100 million radios in circulation at present throughout the UK, ranging from children's novelty sets costing a fiver to pounds 800 state-of-the-art car radios.

But how many of us can be persuaded to shell out a couple of hundred pounds for a digital radio? Quite a few, according to a survey just conducted by BMRB for the BBC's DAB unit.

This poll suggests that public interest in the purchase of digital radios is high. The findings - revealed exclusively to The Independent's Media+ section - show that more than 70 per cent of those surveyed were either "very interested" or "interested" in purchasing a set.

The poll also established that people would be prepared to pay a large price premium for a digital radio - on average, up to 25 per cent extra for a DAB car radio, 30 per cent more for a DAB hi-fi, and 60 per cent more for a portable DAB set.

The survey identified three categories of potential "early adopters": car CD owners, hi-fi buffs and affluent gadget freaks. But the broad finding was that the public in general seem prepared for it.

Sony is concentrating its digital development efforts on car radios, where DAB could bring the most dramatic immediate benefits in the form of crystal-clear reception. Indeed, the Japanese manufacturer has no plans to market a domestic unit.

Some researchers at BBC's R&D unit at Kingswood Warren, near Epsom in Surrey, have been working in this field for almost a decade. But the focus has largely switched to the BBC's DAB unit at Henry Wood House, a modern, granite-and-glass office block near Oxford Circus, round the corner from Broadcasting House.

The project director is Glyn Jones, who heads a small core launch team of eight people who liaise regularly with other broadcasters as well as radio manufacturers and regulators.

The 36-year-old Durham lad does his best to sound cautious and level- headed. "We're not dogmatic here," he says. "We're not going down one single alleyway and then expecting the rest of the world to share our particular vision of how the DAB revolution should pan out. Because digital can do so much, we have the challenge of trying to work out what listeners and consumers will really want."

But Jones cannot conceal his excitement. "We believe that the promise of more radio services and better quality sound is enough to drive DAB take-up. It is certainly a powerful consumer proposition."

Stephen Mulholland, a young Scot who recently took charge of the editorial development side of the Beeb's DAB effort, has already been engaged in what he calls "a lot of blue sky thinking and brainstorming sessions".

A lot of that thinking has been devoted to the development of text and data services, but Mulholland acknowledges that many people may not be enthusiastic about that multimedia dimension. Some may even fear that it could destroy the essence of radio as an audio medium. In short, they don't want to watch the wireless.

"Radio is the soundtrack of people's lives, and will remain so," he responds. "All we're experimenting with is an enhanced service and a more engaged form of listening. People can switch off the screen or turn away from it whenever they want. Radio will remain radio"n

What is DAB?

DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) has the technical potential to turn the wireless into something we watch as well as listen to. The new digital radios destined to hit high-street stores early next year will incorporate mini-screens that can supply graphical information, diagrams and even still pictures to accompany the programme being listened to.

For the first time, pop stations will be able to display visual details of the artist and track; classical stations will be similarly able to tell the listener the composer and name of the symphony being played.

Financial statistics plus traffic and travel information could also be transmitted in text form, as might additional information regarding ads - an important potential selling-point for commercial radio companies.

But the most basic benefit of DAB is that it will expand the number of radio services and provide vastly better quality sound in both the home and the car (where 20 per cent of all radio listening takes place). Stations will be selected at the push of a single pre-programmed button.

DAB can offer interference-free reception because it converts the sound it transmits into a stream of digits - the language spoken by computers. In this language, interference or distortion from electric wires, other equipment or atmospheric conditions is not understood, so the noise is basically ignored.

Signals from neighbouring transmitters combine with each other, rather than causing interference.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam