Archive: dab

This is just a quick thought on digital radio, following my post about the BBC’s commitment to DAB.

Absolute Radio platforms

I was browsing the Absolute Radio website earlier today, and noticed just how much they push DAB. On the Listen live page, it actually highlights DAB as the most prominent option. You can see how important digital is to Absolute.

Contrast this with the recent Radio 5 Live campaign that treats digital as an afterthought.

Also, once again I was listening to Radio 4 this week when Eddie Mair mentioned people listening to cricket on longwave. But no mention of the excellent 5 Live Sports Extra service, which broadcasts the same as Test Match Special on Radio 4 longwave, just without the shipping forecast interruptions.

BBC Asian Network logo

The news that the BBC is considering reversing its decision to close down the Asian Network marks the corporation’s second major U-turn on a digital radio service closure. The first was the more high-profile threat to close 6 Music.

The dithering indecisiveness is enough. But what really annoys me about these decisions is the underlying reason behind them — ratings — and the story it tells.

Lacklustre awareness

Both 6 Music and the Asian Network had relatively poor ratings before the BBC announced that the services would close. In that sense, it was easy to see why the savings-seeking BBC was lining them up for the chop.

Then something funny happened. Ratings shot through the roof. After its closure was announced, the number of 6 Music listeners doubled from 600,000 a week to 1.2 million a week. It wasn’t just a flash in the pan either. Since 6 Music was saved from the axe, ratings have remained over the 1 million mark.

The problem is that beforehand, awareness of BBC 6 Music was extremely low. Only 20 per cent of UK adults had even heard of the station. No wonder ratings are so poor if four fifths of the potential audience doesn’t even know of its existence!

Similarly, ratings for the Asian Network have increased by a third since its closure was announced. The increase in ratings has been given as the reason for the BBC’s U-turn.

Publicity vacuum hurts BBC digital radio

The problem is that the closure threat was the most publicity 6 Music and the Asian Network had ever had. The BBC isn’t usually shy of promoting its own services, but it has completely failed to sell its digital radio stations to the public at large. In fact, it has completely failed to sell digital radio full stop.

Just look at the digital radio listenership figures — figure 3.34 in this Ofcom report (PDF) (via James Cridland).

Bar chart of digital radio listening figures

A measley 18 per cent of Radio 1 listeners listen over a digital format. The highest figure among BBC radio stations (excluding those available on digital platforms only) is 5 Live — 36 per cent. These listeners have a significant incentive to move to digital though, as otherwise 5 Live is only available on poor quality medium wave frequencies.

Meanwhile, over half of listeners to Absolute Radio listen over a digital platform. Absolute’s success in pursuing digital platforms is well-documented.

Skewed priorities

Considering that the BBC is supposed to be investing in digital radio, it is not doing a very good job of promoting it. Despite having great content on its digital services, the BBC is shy of actually promoting them.

In this department, it is being considerably outperformed by Absolute Radio, a commercial outlet that doesn’t have a chunk of license fee money set aside for pushing digital. The BBC seems to have lost all of its enthusiasim for digital, even when it is producing excellent digital services.

As James Cridland pointed out, fans following the Ashes earlier this year will not have missed a ball were they listening on 5 Live Sports Extra, as I did. Yet all over the news the following day was the fact that BBC radio listeners were deprived of the victorious moment because the shipping forecast was being broadcast on Radio 4 longwave at the time.

This provided plenty of good coverage in the shape of, “ha, that crazy old shipping forecast, eh?!” All very good. But why wasn’t the point driven home that an excellent digital service was broadcasting the cricket completely uninterrupted?

I am sure there are lots of avid cricket fans out there that rely on their longwave signal. But I have checked, and I don’t even own any equipment that can pick up longwave. I suspect if I were to go to the shops to buy a radio, I would have to make a special effort to find one that could receive longwave. Meanwhile, I could pick up a DAB radio for about £30 with no trouble whatsoever.

Where are the promos?

Why did the Radio 2 breakfast slot get a big push when Chris Evans started presenting it? The Radio 2 breakfast show is the most popular radio programme in the country, with around 10 million listeners. If there is one radio show that does not need promoting, it is this — whether it has a new presenter or not.

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network? Why isn’t it pushing 5 Live Sports Extra harder at avid sports fans?

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network?

I am quite a fan of DAB radio. It allows me to listen to two of my favourite stations, Radio 5 Live and Absolute Radio, in crystal-clear quality as opposed to the duff medium wave frequencies they have historically used. Two of my other favourite stations, 6 Music and the World Service, are not available on analogue radio. So DAB wins for me on two key counts — sound quality and choice.

But there is no doubt that DAB is troubled. Its future is constantly being questioned. There are grumbles about poor sound quality and reception issues. The fact that car and handheld DAB radios are still thin on the ground is no help either. Take-up has been slower than anticipated.

Moreover, technology is beginning to overtake DAB. Having been developed during the 1980s and early 1990s, DAB uses old-fashioned and inefficient compression techniques.

I am considering buying a second digital radio for when I move. But given the continued niggles surrounding DAB and the uncertainty regarding digital switchover for radio, I am beginning to wonder if buying a second DAB set would be a sensible move.

Is the future of digital radio on the internet?

I was therefore interested to read about the BBC’s new high-quality system, which they are calling HD Sound (not to be confused with HD Radio!).

At first it will be offered for Radio 3, then Radio 2. But given that feedback of the trial as so far been extremely positive — even among the demanding Radio 3 audience — this is beginning to look like a promising system.

Only one thing. It will be available on the internet only. So should my new radio set be an internet radio?

I hadn’t seriously considered buying an internet radio up until now. But it has a massive wealth of choice. There is huge flexibility. It is more future-proof. This platform has widespread adoption (you don’t see the internet disappearing any time soon — although somehow the future of DAB always seems relatively uncertain). And now it seemingly the internet has the potential to have the upper hand in terms of audio quality.

Do any readers have any experience with internet radios? Are they worth a purchase?

About ten years ago I shunned music radio. It no longer reflected my musical tastes, so I turned to speech radio stations instead — all on the BBC.

After a while, I began to get into BBC 6 Music. I was still interested in the speech elements of the station more than the music. Adam and Joe became a regular listen, but I also began to appreciate the music output more. Programmes like the Freak Zone and Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service simply would not exist on another station — which is why there was so much outrage when it was suggested that the station would be closed down.

But when considering alternative options in the event that 6 Music closed, I realised that the outlook was perhaps not as bad is it might seem. As a commercial alternative, Absolute Radio wouldn’t be a bad option.

Shedding Virgin Radio’s dad rock image

In the space of just two years, the new owners of what used to be Virgin Radio have given the station a completely new lease of life.

I would never have considered listening to Virgin Radio. Its playlist was limited, repetitive and fusty. It was wall-to-wall dad rock.

Looking back, the transition to the new-style Absolute was quite steady. But the day it ditched the Virgin brand was the day it could move on from that albatross and the Smashie and Nicey image. Today, I think it is easily the most interesting commercial radio station around.

More than music

The key selling point of Absolute Radio, as opposed to Virgin, is that it is now not just about music. Now it’s an “entertainment” station. When you tune in, you are more likely to hear a comedian than a dusty old Status Quo song. Its current presenters include people like Dave Gorman, Iain Lee, Frank Skinner and Richard Herring — all much better known for being funny than being fanatical about what Virgin always called “real music”.

It’s a template that has been successful at BBC 6 Music ever since it started. Its original breakfast presenter was Phill Jupitus, while other high-profile presenters have included Russell Brand, Craig Charles, Jon Holmes and… Richard Herring. And it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Absolute’s weekend morning programming has been heavily influenced by the success of Adam and Joe on 6 Music.

The really impressive thing about how Absolute have gone about it is the fact that Dave Gorman appears to have more influence over the music that is played on his programme than Adam and Joe ever did. As a whole, Absolute is more accessible than 6 Music, but it is a station that is unafraid to step out of the mainstream on occasion.

Determined to try different things

But gradually, Absolute is becoming something more than a commercial 6 Music-lite. Its deal to broadcast English Premier League football matches is a bold move to for a music station to make, particularly since Radio 5 Live and TalkSport are so well established in this area. Apparently it is the first time a music station has broadcast top flight football since Capital Gold brought Jonathan Pearce to the world 20 years ago.

Absolute have launched some interesting spin-off stations as well. In addition to Absolute Classic Rock, there is Absolute 80s and Absolute Radio 90s (that is a way to make me feel old — my decade is now for proper nostalgia!). There is also Absolute Radio Extra. The best thing is that the latter three are all available on DAB.

There was also Dabbl, an experimental station where users chose the content. It has closed down now, but it is nonetheless a sign that Absolute is determined to experiment with radio.

Doing new things with radio

The people behind Absolute Radio have a great website, One Golden Square, which takes you behind the scenes of Absolute Radio. The openness of the website is wonderful. It is a great insight into what makes them tick, and it’s all very encouraging.

Absolute are always at the cutting-edge, thinking about the future of radio and different ways to listen to it. That is no wonder — the traditional 1215 medium wave frequency is very poor quality for a music station, so it helps them to investigate alternative ways of broadcasting.

One Golden Square Labs outlines some of the really interesting things they are up to. There is some nifty iPod Nano integration. They are also pushing ahead with HTML5 delivery.

Compare My Radio - comparison of Absolute and 6 Music

One Golden Square are also behind the wonderful Compare My Radio. This website is a heaven for radio and stats geeks — perfect for me.

It is a treasure trove of stats about radio output in the UK. You can see what tracks and artists are popular, search for artists to find out what stations play them, and even compare the output of two radio stations — with Venn diagrams and everything.

A lot of people turned to this website to learn about 6 Music. Many defended the station on the basis of statistics collected by Compare My Radio. You can see how 6 Music compares to Absolute Radio.

The website is a fascinating service that must take a bit of work to maintain. It’s great that a radio station can take a step back and fairly allow others to compare it with other radio stations.

All-in-all, you get the impression that the people behind Absolute Radio are seriously passionate about radio. As a bit of a radio fan myself, that is a big winner for me.

A little milestone was passed this week when I bought my first car. I learnt to drive five years ago. I wasn’t the sort of person that started lessons as soon as I turned 17. I saw no need, and waited until I was 20. After passing my test, I don’t think I drove for about another two years.

Driving has never particularly appealed to me. A lot of people find it strange that I am so fanatical about motorsport, but have little interest in driving on the road. But for me the pursuits are unrelated. I don’t see the fun in driving on public roads. I find it more stressful and frightening than anything else.

I was lucky because my home town of Kirkcaldy has pretty good public transport connections, so it was easy to see the car as a non-essential luxury. Almost anywhere I needed to go was an easy train or bus journey away.

The current commute

But the past year or so has stretched that idea to breaking point. I now work in St Andrews. Many assume I get there by taking the train to Leuchars then a bus from Leuchars to St Andrews. But I can’t be bothered with the fuss — plus it would be pretty expensive.

Instead, I have generally gone by bus. The plus side is that it is very cheap. You can get a ticket that can be used multiple times across seven days on any journey within Fife. This costs £23 a week. That’s what I used to pay to go to Dunfermline, but the journey to St Andrews is much longer, so is better value for money.

That brings us to the very problem with the journey — its length. The bus journey itself takes 65 minutes. The walk from my house to Kirkcaldy bus station is roughly ten minutes. The walk from St Andrews bus station to my work is roughly ten minutes.

So basically I spend around three hours every day travelling to and from work. That is 15 hours a week. As far as I’m concerned, those 15 hours constitute a full day minus sleep.

I don’t mind the journey so much in the mornings. Even though I am not a morning person, getting up at 6.45am has not been as bad as I had feared. To my amazement, I have never once missed the bus — even if it has involved some Olympic walking in order to catch it. The journey itself is quite a relaxing way to start the day. I could have a wee snooze, listen to podcasts, and generally ease myself into the day.

But the journey on the way home was never so good. At that time of day, you just want to get home as soon as possible. But all of the biggest bus problems have happened on the way home.

There is a bus that leaves St Andrews at 17.10, which is normally fine. But what if that bus doesn’t turn up, or I have to stay behind a bit at work, or someone wants a stop-and-chat? I basically won’t be getting home for at least two hours. For some reason, the bus that leaves at 17.40 only goes as far as Leven, and I have to wait 10 or 15 minutes at Leven to hop on a bus that will get to Kirkcaldy.

The bus is seldom comfortable either, and it can be incredibly stuffy, even in winter. Less fuss by bus? Really?

The decision to buy a car

I became used to the lengthy bus journeys after a while. But it was a real drain on my spare time. The plan has always been to try and move closer to St Andrews, and somewhere that had a good bus connection. But that has taken far longer than I had anticipated.

The final straw came this week when I was trying to work out how I can get to Alloa to visit my brother. When the least fuss-free option was a bus journey that lasts well over an hour and involves changing at Kincardine, that was when I decided: it’s probably time to bite the bullet and buy a car.

It all happened quite quickly. It was not in my mind on Thursday. But I had more or less made the decision to buy a car on Friday. On Sunday, I bought one.

Choosing a Fiat

Fiat Panda 1.1 Active Eco

I opted to buy a Fiat Panda 1.1 Active Eco. I had experienced it as a passenger as my dad has recently bought one too. So I kind of knew what I was getting.

I find it quite an impressive car in terms of bang for your buck. I couldn’t find many cars cheaper that weren’t six-year-old French cars with a million miles on the clock. It’s nice to know also that the Panda’s fuel consumption is pretty good, and its low emissions mean that vehicle tax is £30.

The big thing I felt was the pride in owning a car. I hadn’t expected to feel anything particularly. But I realised that I have placed a lot of responsibility on myself. It is a vote of confidence in myself. The car is easily the largest purchase I have ever made. I think car insurance is almost the second largest!

It feels right to go for a Fiat. There was a big niggle in the back of my brain that somehow buying a Fiat would lead to me indirectly funding Scuderia Ferrari! But beyond that, I quite like Fiats and always have done. The first two cars I remember my dad driving were both Fiat Unos.

After that he bought a Daewoo Matiz, which is the car I drove whenever I ventured out before. But it did not seem like a robust car. Its screeching fan belt was notorious among my friends (it continued to screech even after it was ‘fixed’ two or three times), and it did not feel particularly confident going round corners.

That is not at all ideal if you are trying to drive on one of the windy, hilly roads on the journey towards St Andrews. I have a feeling that the Panda will be better to commute with.

The inevitable downsides

All except for one thing. I will not be able to listen to podcasts while driving. The car comes with an FM / MW radio and a CD player. As far as I’m concerned, that is like buying a PC that still has a floppy drive. At least with a cassette player you can use a cassette adapter to play your iPod through. A CD player is useless.

I love radio. I am also a big fan of DAB radio, which this car will not give me. I will survive sticking to bog standard FM / MW radio stations, but it will be a pain nonetheless. The Panda may be a great value car — but you still get what you pay for.

Who says I always manage to find the negatives?…

The country lurches back into its usual routine this week. But with the new year comes changes, and a vital part of everyone’s daily life — the radio — will seem very different.

My parents are concerned about what will happen to Radio 2 after the departure of Terry Wogan from breakfast. They were not happy to hear that his replacement will be Chris Evans. My parents originally stopped listening to Radio 1 when Chris Evans took over the Radio 1 breakfast show. (Quite how they tolerated Steve Wright before this is beyond me though.)

I get the feeling that they will stick with Radio 2. Chris Evans is a very different broadcaster to what he was ten or fifteen years ago and has apparently pleased most people with his performances on Radio 2 so far.

While Terry Wogan’s last show was the one that caught all the headlines, the end of two other radio programmes will be far more disruptive to my routine. I was not a listener of Terry Wogan’s, though I don’t suppose I am really part of his target audience.

The end of Adam and Joe

Much bigger news in my world has been the end of Adam and Joe’s programme on BBC 6 Music. They are raising the drawbridge at the Big British Castle for an indefinite period while Joe Cornish focuses on his new career as a film director.

This programme has been a core part of my week for the past two years. It is also unusual because due to its Saturday morning time slot, it has been the only thing that has managed to get me to wake up at a decent hour on a Saturday.

Adam and Joe have an excellent knack of doing a type of humour which is silly but not stupid — a balance that very few manage to strike. This made it ideal listening for the start of the weekend. It was perhaps something to gently lift you out of a mild hangover. The accompanying podcast was also excellent for lifting spirits during your journey into work.

Their gentle humour was mixed with sharp observations on popular culture. Increasingly, towards the end of the programme’s run, listener contributions were a larger part of the programme. Combined with the programme’s elite listening force Black Squadron and the STEPHEN! phenomenon, there was quite a tight-knit community feel to the show.

This was no doubt helped by the fact that it was on BBC 6 Music, jokingly referred to by Adam Buxton as “the secret station”. Even though it was the most popular programme on the station by quite a long way, due to its location in the outer reaches of select DAB sets, Adam and Joe’s was a cosy and understated programme. It is difficult to imagine Adam and Joe’s programme working so well on another, larger radio station.

Adam and Joe’s replacement will be Danny Wallace, who is not quite in the same league. It will leave a huge gap in my Saturday mornings. What else can I listen to? Saturday Live on Radio 4? Sorry, not for me. Jonathan Ross on Radio 2? Possibly. Or will I return to my old ‘default’ radio station, Radio 5 Live, for Danny Baker and Fighting Talk?

Changes at Radio 5 Live

Speaking of Radio 5 Live, that is the source of the other big change to my radio routine. Richard Bacon has vacated the late-night slot to take over from Simon Mayo, who is moving to replace Chris Evans on Drivetime at Radio 2.

I was a fan of Richard Bacon during his first stint on 5 Live in the weekend late-night slot, and he continued to delight when he returned to the station to do weeknights. Given his background, he is surprisingly good at dealing with big issues as well as light-hearted stuff.

He is also unafraid to use humour. It could be so embarrassing (and some would probably say it is), but I think it works well. The interesting bit after 12:30am was entertaining and brave. I can’t think of many other presenters who would get away with completely doing away with news for half an hour every day on Radio 5 Live.

I am greatly regretful that I never managed to get my hands on one of those badges. It was nevertheless an honour and a privilege to listen.

Richard Bacon’s irreverence is what makes him good as a broadcaster, but it’s difficult to see how he can leverage this in his new mid-afternoon slot, one of the most important in 5 Live’s schedule. Most disappointingly, it will be on during the daytime, meaning that I won’t be able to listen to it.

The replacement in the late night slot will be former Daily Sport editor Tony Livesey. I will reserve judgement until I hear the programme. I gather he is actually quite good. But if I don’t take to it, I might take the unusual step of switching to a commercial radio station during weeknights to listen to Iain Lee on Absolute Radio.

Richard Bacon’s move is part of a wider shake-up at Radio 5 Live, which also sees Gabby Logan getting a daily slot. With the day going from the Nicky Campbell Speak You’re Branes hour to Victoria Derbyshire to Gabby Logan, it’s not difficult to see why some people have started to nickname the station Radio 5 Lite.

It’s not quite the quality station I loved just a few years ago. Just now Radio 5 Live seems utterly bereft of ideas, aside from attempting to stealthily change it into a 24/7 Mark Kermode station. At least Up All Night is still good.

If I was being uncharitable, I might suggest that the presenters that remain at the station are the ones who are prepared to make the move to Salford when the station relocates there next year. The logic behind moving a radio station that covers news (most of which happens in London) to Manchester is still beyond me, I have to admit.

On the bright side…

It’s not all bad news on the radio front. In addition to his new daytime Radio 5 Live slot, Richard Bacon has a Saturday afternoon programme on 6 Music. He promises to take some of the jollity of his late night 5 Live show to 6 Music. But who listens to radio at that time? Not me.

I might make space in my Sunday afternoons for 6 Music though. Jarvis Cocker will have a new programme alongside the already-excellent Freak Zone.

But weekend mornings will still be a problem. And I’ll need a new comedy podcast to replace Adam and Joe. Does anyone have any suggestions? (Not Collings and Herrin — I tried it, and it was crap.)