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.

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