Switching to digital radio is expensive and wrong

Tessa Jowell has only partially understood the mood in the radio industry

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Yesterday was special for the Secretary of State for Culture. Tessa Jowell is unaccustomed to being taken seriously, but one sentence in her foreword to a report by the digital radio development forum merited instant scrutiny. Ms Jowell plans to consider "how long it would be appropriate for sound digital broadcasting services to be provided in analogue form".

Television did not kill the radio star. The medium, around which the nation clustered to hear the declaration of war in 1939, is more popular than it was then. That is partly because, as Terry Wogan says, "television contracts the imagination and radio expands it". But there is a cruder reason. Radios are cheap. The average UK household contains five.

It may be different chez Jowell, but in most homes these are not expensive items. In kitchens, bathrooms and sheds, Britons tend to listen on cheap transistor sets. Many households contain a dedicated radio for each channel listened to. We know that re-tuning is possible. But what is the point when a serviceable set can be obtained for a fiver, and that thing shaped like a football someone got for his birthday when Gary Lineker was still playing delivers Five Live with admirable clarity?

Analogue switch off would end this. Every one of these radio sets would fall silent. Maintaining present levels of radio listening would require the replacement of 100 million analogue sets with the same number of digital radios. Manufacturers salivate at the prospect because, although the cost of a basic digital radio has fallen from several hundred pounds to less than £50, that still leaves a beguiling margin for profit.

Why would the Government want to encourage something potentially so unpopular? Not for the first time, it seems that Ms Jowell has only partially understood the mood in the radio industry. Digital radio does make many things possible. It delivers superb sound quality and permits the transmission of an infinite number of channels. Pay per listen becomes possible, as does the supply of music direct from radio set to i-Pod with the briefest intercession of debit card. Radio executives rave about digital, but they do not advocate analogue switch off. They made that plain as soon as the minister's comments were published.

The problem is that take up of digital radio is glacially slow. When the former BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland said, last month, that the BBC made a "serious error of judgement" by investing in digital radio in the mid 1990s, it was a colossal understatement. The truth is that the corporation poured millions of pounds into services to which nobody listened. British adults listen to 22 hours of radio a week, but a mere fraction of that output is digital. Of the people who do tune to digital, most do so via their satellite television service, on mobile phones or via the internet. Sales of digital radio sets remain modest.

For all the industry's excitement about digital, there is acute awareness of the only valid comparison. Ms Jowell has not confirmed the plan of her predecessor, Chris Smith, to switch off analogue television by 2010. Despite the growth of Freeview and a relentless BBC-led advertising campaign, a bare majority of British homes has digital television. Most of them have only one, backed up by two or more analogue sets. This matters because the difference between analogue and digital television pictures is instantly apparent. On radio, despite the evangelical enthusiasm of digital believers, that is simply not true.

I consider it a treat to listen to music on my digital radio, but for speech it is pointless. The difference in the timbre of Edward Stourton's voice or the quality of Nicky Campbell's jokes is too small to notice. Like eight million others, I make regular use of the BBC's online radio-player device, but not because it is digital. The BBC's attempt to present online listening to missed episodes of The Archers as proof of demand for digital is astonishing cheek. Listeners are enthused by the opportunity to hear what they have missed, not by the technology delivering it. They can do it because they already possess computers for other reasons.

The reality is that digital listening will grow alongside analogue listening, but is unlikely to replace it. In 10 years, homes may contain one digital set for that "appointment to listen" occasion, but it will share space with several old-time trannies.

What was Tessa Jowell thinking? The cynical answer is that last time the Government auctioned analogue airspace, mobile telephone companies spent £23bn buying third generation licences. Another windfall like that would finance a lot of choice in the public sector. But those third generation licences were massively overvalued, and there will be no repeat. The other explanation is that forcing a switch off in the radio spectrum would provide useful indications about likely public response to the death of analogue TV. Livid, bordering on riotous, is my prediction.

The fact that radio is more popular today than before television was invented does suggest content, not the delivery mechanism, is what matters. Digital does nothing to improve that.

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