Magazine article The Spectator

Digital Delusion

Magazine article The Spectator

Digital Delusion

Article excerpt

I don't know anyone who is in the slightest bit interested in digital radio or television or, indeed, who knows what it is. People dimly perceive that digital broadcasting means receiving more TV and radio channels but they also wonder why they should when it really means more of the same. Why, as far as radio is concerned, should a listener want more than is currently on offer from the BBC and commercial networks? We already have on our existing analogue receivers the world-class Radios Three and Four, the classical music alternative Classic FM, and a multiplicity of local radio catering for all tastes. The BBC's five new digital radio stations seem as pointless as their television versions.

It is not as if digital radio even works particularly well at the moment, judging by complaints to Radio Four's Feedback last Friday. Apart from the fact that much of the country still can't receive digital signals, these radios cost about 300 to buy. They are coming down in price, though, as Feedback discovered at last week's Radio Festival in Cambridge. A manufacturer has launched the first portable radio which will be on sale in the shops at the end of the month for just under 100. Portable it might be but it's still mains-powered only, assuming, that is, you can receive the signals. You'll have to ask the shopkeeper or look at the BBC's digital website. When I tried and clicked on my area, south Wiltshire and north Dorset, I was told limply that I might be able to.

Interviewed on Feedback, the BBC's controller of new media, Simon Nelson, said there might be some doubt about reception if `the landscape has some extreme features'. Does he mean hills? One listener, a professor of something called opto-electronics, complained that he'd been encouraged by the BBC to spend almost 800 on an early digital radio, with the promise of CD sound quality, only to find that the BBC had reduced the power of Radios One, Two and Four to accommodate its new digital networks. His digital sound quality was now `lispy speech, muddy stereo and even mono much of the time'. He thought he'd been persuaded to buy digital radio on false pretences. Another listener had also noticed that the BBC had reduced the bytes for transmitting the main stations on digital. Apparently, they're now sent out at 128,000 bytes, a rate at which the March 1998 journal of the Audio Engineering Society described as producing 'annoying' audio quality. …

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