Con il suo editoriale sul Telegraph Claudine Beaumont rompe un velo di silenzio e per la prima volta, da ascoltatrice della radio, interviene sulla notizia delle raccomandazioni relative a una sostanziale migrazione delle stazioni britanniche dall'FM al DAB e parla di come stanno realmente le cose chiedendosi: ma vogliamo davvero che l'FM sia spenta a favore della radio digitale? La sua risposta è: pensiamoci bene. Il paragone tra la tv e la radio digitali, dice la critica del Telegraph, è malposto. La tv digitale ha percepibili vantaggi in termini di qualità e efficienza spettrale. La radio digitale no. E soprattutto bisogna ricordare che se nei negozi non si trovano più televisori vecchi e tutto è già predisposto per il DVB-T, con la radio non è affato così. Dove sono i veri vantaggi di una rinuncia a un mezzo che funziona a favore di una tecnologia che deve ancora dimostrare la sua presunta efficienza e la cui penuria di terminali si accompagna a un costo trasmissivo elevato e a una copertura ancora a macchia di leopardo?
Must FM die to save digital radio?
Last Updated: 27/06/2008
A new report recommends TV-style 'analogue switch-off' for radio. Claudine Beaumont has doubts
How would you feel if you turned on your radio, tuned into your favourite station and were greeted with just the crackle and hiss of empty airwaves? And it's not because your favourite station has gone bust; rather, it's because FM radio has been banished from the broadcast spectrum.
That's the slightly scary future of radio mooted earlier this week by the Digital Radio Working Group, a committee set up in November to look into the future of radio, with a particular focus on digital radio, known as DAB. The group has the job of assessing what conditions need to be achieved before digital platforms become the main means of listening to radio, and the barriers that currently stand in its way, as well as ways to overcome these obstacles.
Although it's not due to deliver its findings to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport until the end of the year, the Digital Radio Working Group has released an interim report of its provisional observations, and it makes for interesting reading.
The committee recommends a similar approach to radio to that being followed with television - namely, switching off the analogue signal and forcing listeners to go digital.
Before you start panicking about the prospect of "dead air" the next time you switch on your radio, it's worth noting that the committee doesn't recommend a definite switch-off date for FM radio, but thinks it might be a rather jolly idea if we attempted such a feat within the next decade or so.
By the end of the year, an estimated nine million DAB radios will have been sold in the UK, and almost a third of all households will have a DAB radio. And yet despite this supposed momentum, digital radio remains rather stuck in the doldrums. Despite heavy investment by the BBC in the DAB platform, digital broadcasts account for less than one-fifth of all the radio we listen to. According to Rajar, the organisation that measures radio listernership, digital broadcasts accounts for just 17.8 per cent of all radio listening. And the amount of that via DAB radios is just 11 per cent, with the rest via digital televisions and the internet.
If we look to television's example, then turning off the analogue radio spectrum could be just the shot in the arm DAB needs. However, there is one major flaw with this argument: while it's almost impossible to buy a television these days that isn't flatscreen, widescreen and chomping at the bit to accept high-definition content, let alone digital broadcasts, that's not the case with radios.
Innovation in the radio market progresses at a far slower pace than in television; whereas new televisions are launched every year promising sharper pictures and compelling new features, radios do pretty much the same thing they've always done. And there's no halfway house - whereas most televisions, even old-fashioned black-and-white sets, can be fairly easily "upgraded" to handle a digital signal by plugging in a Freeview set-top box, the same doesn't hold true for radios - they are digital or they are not.
Where's the motivation to upgrade to a new radio when the old radio cassette player you've had for 15 years, which still works perfectly well, differs very little to a "new" radio?
The Digital Radio Working Group's interim report illustrates this point beautifully: while about 20 per cent of all radio listening happens in cars, very few vehicles have digital radios - and even when new cars do offer DAB radios as an optional extra, take-up is low. According to the committee, of the 34 million registered vehicles in the UK, at best just 150,000 are equipped to receive digital radio.
It's something of a chicken-and-egg situation for the radio industry, though. It's much more expensive to broadcast across the digital spectrum than the analogue spectrum, and while listener figures for digital remain low, it's tempting not to invest too much time and money into pursuing that technology. Conversely, while listeners feel that they can get all the radio goodness they want from analogue broadcasts, where's the incentive - especially in these belt-tightening times - to splash out on new digital radios?
Then there's the issue of signal strength. One of the great benefits of digital radio is that it offers superior reception when compared with its analogue counterpart. However, full UK coverage is still some way off, and there are significant gaps in reception, while the committee concedes that even in areas with digital coverage, the robustness of the signal is a problem, especially on portable and in-car DAB radios.
And although about 90 per cent of the population can receive digital radio, the working group believes this needs to increase significantly if DAB is ever to be seen as a real alternative to FM.
Despite the obvious misgivings surrounding the future of digital radio - not least the increasing number of people who listen to radio stations online without an actual radio, as well as competing emerging technologies, such as DAB+ - the working group is certain that DAB provides the best route to a digital future. "Radio stuck in an analogue world risks becoming increasingly irrelevant, particularly to young listeners, as consumers' expectations for interactivity, quality and choice grow," says the report.
It also concludes that the Government should throw its weight firmly behind DAB, not least to dispel constant umming and ahhing about the best digital medium, and to convince people that buying a DAB radio is not to invest in a superfluous bit of kit.
There's even talk of subsidising the sale of digital radios to encourage greater uptake, and convince broadcasters that there is a sufficient installed user base to justify investing in DAB.
Whether all this is enough to revive the fortunes of a largely stagnant and unloved technology remains to be seen. By the time the industry and the Government swing into action, the entire idea of digital radio on a dedicated, single-purpose device could be laughably outdated. So, while we await the working group's final conclusions, and for the broadcasting industry to get it's house in order, I will be sticking to good old FM radio on my tried and trusted tranny.