End of the transistor era as Jowell signals analogue radio switch-off

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Indy Politics

The days of the faithful old transistor radio are officially numbered. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, has signalled for the first time that the Government is considering a date when they will switch off analogue radio for good.

The days of the faithful old transistor radio are officially numbered. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, has signalled for the first time that the Government is considering a date when they will switch off analogue radio for good.

As radio begins to attract a new audience who prefer to listen through their mobile phone, the internet or digital television, the Government is keen to push ahead with improved technology.

In a foreword to a soon-to-be-published report from the Digital Radio Development Bureau, Ms Jowell said: "Later this year, I will be reviewing the take-up of digital radio and considering how long it would be appropriate for sound digital broadcasting services to be provided in analogue form."

That means about 100 million radios, from small bedside sets to sophisticated tuners, will become obsolete.

The good news though, is that radio listening is about to become easier. New digital radios capable of recording your favourite programmes are already on the market, the audio equivalent of the VCR. The same gadget - called The Bug and designed by Wayne Hemingway - is also capable of being "rewound" so that you can hear the start of a record or an interview that began up to 10 minutes before you tuned in.

The BBC said last night it was also improving technology to provide details of interviewees, the names of songs and artists and other useful information, scrolled across the screen of digital radios.

Chris Kimber, the BBC's head of radio interactive, said advancements in technology were helping to ensure that radio programmes responded to the needs of listeners.

"Only 10 years ago, radio was a one-way experience. But digital technology has given the radio ears that provide programme makers with instant feedback," he said. "Before they had to rely on getting letters back but now we have chat rooms, message boards, text messaging and e-mail. Programmes can really connect with audiences in a way that 10 years ago they could not."

The digital radio revolution is happening faster in Britain than anywhere else in the world. There was a 444 per cent annual growth in the take-up of DAB digital radios last year, second only to the MP3 player - a device that allows music to be downloaded from the internet - in the consumer electronics market.

By the end of May, 600,000 digital radios had been sold in the UK and nearly 85 per cent of the population were able to receive the signals. Japanese manufacturers have entered the market and, later this year, £50 sets will become available in supermarkets.

Furthermore, 13 million people say they have listened to radio via the internet, often listening to programmes that were broadcast up to a week earlier. The BBC has made all its output available online on the "Radio Player" system and seven million people are using the service every month - The Archers on Radio 4 is the most popular replay.

Mobile phones are increasingly becoming a means of tuning in to radio, with 2.2 million saying they have listened to stations in such a way. Currently only FM signals are obtainable but digital radio will soon be available by mobile.

Despite the pace of change within the industry, Ms Jowell's comments still raised many eyebrows in the radio industry. Although 385 stations are already available on a digital signal, they represent only 48 per cent of the total number of broadcasters.

THE FIVE AGES OF RADIO

THE SPARK Guglielmo Marconi invented his spark transmitter with antenna in Bologna, Italy, in December 1894. He took his "Black Box" to Britain in February 1896 and although it was broken by custom officials, he filed for British Patent 12039 on 2 June 1896. He formed his first Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in Britain in 1897 at the age of 23.

AM Canadian Reginald Fessenden discovered amplitude modulation (AM) and in 1906 became the first person to broadcast words and music. Ships at sea heard Fessenden playing O Holy Night on the violin and reading a passage from the Bible.

SHORTWAVE Frank Conrad, an amateur radio enthusiast with the call-sign 8XK, invented the shortwave radio and made the first commercial broadcast from the garage of his home in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His first broadcast in 1920 was the launch of his station KDKA, which was to run for nearly 50 years.

FM Frequency modulated radio, which had a much clearer static-free sound than AM, was invented by Edwin Armstrong in 1933. It requires a greater bandwidth than AM but has a more robust signal and can broadcast in stereo.

DIGITAL Digital Audio Broadcasting was developed by a consortium of engineers in Germany in the early 1980s, and adopted in 1994, providing room for expansion through more efficient use of the crowded FM spectrum. Now the medium of choice for interference-free, crystal-clear listening, DAB markets itself as "the end of confusing frequencies". Though initially plagued by high set prices (close to £1,000) and sketchy coverage, cheaper models can now be picked up for £50, and 85 per cent of the population should be able to receive BBC and the main commercial stations. There are 385 Dab services.

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