Will digital radio ever really take off? We were supposed to be switching over to digital-only reception in 2015 (three years after the TV switchover) but with only 36.8 per cent of listeners as yet tuning in to a digital station the future of DAB is beginning to look very uncertain (and most of those 36.8 per cent will also be listening to an old and much-loved analogue wireless set or transistor). Ed Vaizey, the government’s minister for culture, communications and the creative industries, has said he will announce a new date for the switchover ‘by the end of the year’, but this seems an unlikely target given that more than 60 per cent of the population don’t have access to digital and that take-up is only increasing by 4 per cent per year.
In her response to the latest audience figures from Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research) the BBC’s director of radio, Helen Boaden, was typically upbeat and vague: ‘The continued growth in listening on digital platforms shows that radio is successfully adapting to rapidly evolving technological advances.’ It’s true the digital-only BBC stations are booming, especially 6 Music, but it was Radio 2 that ‘scaled new heights’ and Radio 4 which ‘achieved record figures’, most of whose listeners will not be digital.
Why bother to buy a new digital radio when the battered old Roberts works just as well as it ever did? The truth is DAB reception is still far from perfect in many areas. My digital sets continue to spit and crackle and switch themselves off just at the most critical moments. Those irritating episodes when the signal simply disappears remind me of what I’m missing: the underlying ambience of FM, its warm, echoey soundworld. Digital is also far less immediate, the radio taking an infuriating couple of seconds to find the signal, rather than responding straightway to the push of a button.
It was much simpler, and cheaper, to switch your TV, an inexpensive additional box being all that was usually required. Most keen listeners, though, have at least one radio in the kitchen, another in the living room, and other sets in the bedroom, the bathroom, the study, the downstairs loo…all of which will probably be years old yet will still be working perfectly well. Why replace them? Radio is not a throwaway technology, easily got rid of once a younger, fitter model comes along.
Radio production, it is true, has been made much easier by digital advances, but the sound quality, what we receive as listeners, is not so much better. The most up-to-date TVs, on the other hand, do have a startling visual clarity, tempting us to go out and buy one. Unless, though, you’re willing to betray 3 for 6 or 4 for Five Live’s Sport Extra, a new digital radio will not necessarily improve your life, in spite of the oleaginous promises of D Love, the BBC’s oddest advertising gimmick. How did the marketing committee convince themselves we would be persuaded to go digital by a bearded, medallion-wielding, miniature puppet who swoons at us to ‘Share the love’ like a Seventies soul star?
One of the unexpected bonuses of digital for radio is the way that it has given our national stations such a global reach. This year’s BBC Proms are being talked about all over the world, with listeners to Radio 3 online getting the ‘live’ experience in far-distant places, miles from a concert hall. On the World Service on Sunday, World Book Club, presented by Harriet Gilbert (and produced by Karen Holden), had listeners calling in, emailing and tweeting from places as far apart as Prague, Ethiopia, California and Zambia. The Egyptian novelist Ahdef Soueif was this month’s guest, poised to answer questions about her novel The Map of Love. First published in 1999, the fiction has a particular resonance now because of the way it looks back at the turmoil surrounding Egypt’s attempt to free itself from military occupation at the beginning of the 20th century. ‘Love or politics?’ asked the Ethiopian listener. ‘What is the main theme of your book?’
Soueif explained that what interests her is the interplay between personal and public life. The two cannot be separated, she believes. For much of the programme she talked about character, motivation, the creative process, admitting that the book started out as ‘rather a tawdry romance’, but in the last ten minutes she turned to what she is grappling with now: why President Morsi had to go.
She has been writing about the uprising in Egypt since it began on 25 January 2011, unwilling to stand apart from what is happening. She talked from her personal perspective but gave us such a clear and lucid account of what’s been happening since Morsi’s election last year and why she of all people supported the idea of the army dictating that he must stand down. It was a totally unexpected conclusion to a discussion that began about a fictional love affair between an Englishwoman and a proud Egyptian but which ended as a rapier-sharp dissection of a real-life political struggle.
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