Nicholas Lezard: Don't force digital radio on us

Once again 'choice' turns out to mean the opposite of how it is understood

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I once wrote an article, when I was the radio critic for
The Independent on Sunday, in which I referred anxiously to plans to end FM transmissions of radio programmes and switch everything over to digital. I was reassured no such plans were in place. That more or less was the death-knell for FM radio, I thought – nothing like an official reassurance to set the mind ill at ease – and now it has been confirmed, with the target, set in the new report, Digital Britain, for a switchover to DAB to take place by 2015.

So what, you may ask. Well, here's so what. For a start, there is no reason for this to happen. I have read the relevant section of the report and it claims "the infrastructures which deliver analogue radio are decaying" (no evidence given) and would cost £200m to maintain a full national FM network over the next 20 years. This actually works out quite cheaply, you would have thought; and you might have thought it was one of the responsibilities of government to pay this small amount.

The costs of maintaining a full national digital network, on the other hand, are probably going to be rather more than that. But the main reason the proposal is being made, it would appear, is that some swivel-eyed wonk has been told to produce something uncritically in favour of digital broadcasting and, bearing in mind that he who pays the piper calls the tune, has declared, with the kind of mindless circularity of argument one would expect from such a document: "The biggest barrier to radio's digital future is a lack of clarity and commitment to the DAB platform." Fine, then. Let us assume DAB is an excellent and infallible means of delivering CD-quality audio to the entire nation. (It is none of these things, incidentally. Type "DAB sound quality" into a search engine and brace yourself for that outraged feeling you get when you discover you have been told a whopping great fib.)

What about the millions of FM sets that will have to be discarded? You will want to discard them, by the way. If the proposal goes ahead, the FM band will in future become home to a wide range of community and local stations, or, in other words, what is basically hospital radio on, for most of the time, a grander scale (who will fund these stations, by the way?) It will mean the end of the humble transistor radio, too. DAB eats up energy – if I remember rightly, about 15 times as much as FM radio.

That figure may go down but until it does there are going to be a lot more discarded batteries in landfills. As for the economic cost of refitting every car with DAB equipment – well, perhaps there is some collusion going on between government and industry; it would be nice to be told about it.

DAB can be great – being able to rewind and pause programmes as you can TV is wonderful. "Choice and functionality" are the buzzwords in the report; that's the functionality. But once again we're seeing the word "choice" used to mean the opposite of what is traditionally understood by the term. The old, the infirm, the blind are going to be hit, for no other reason than that "digital" is the mot du jour.

n.lezard@independent.co.uk

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