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Letter to Radio Times

The interview with Tim Davie on the future of BBC Radio (RT 16-22 October) gives an insight into his vision of the future as far as programming is concerned but again raises the debate about FM radio and its possible "switch off".

Did he really say that FM does not offer, "...what might be called high definition sound"?

If "high definition sound" is one of his concerns why does the BBC continue to promote DAB radio when their own Research and Development White Paper WHP061 observed, with regard to transmission rates, "A value of 256 kbit/s has been judged to provide a high quality stereo broadcast signal. However, a small reduction, to 224 kbit/s is often adequate..."? The BBC currently only transmits Radio 3 at 192 kbit/s (and at 160 kbit/s some of the time) and its other music stations at 128 kbit/s? Sadly the Corporation cannot hope to aspire to the standards recommended by its own technicians as DAB transmitters are already crammed with other stations which, in the main, are looking for an audience.

This is undoubtedly the first time in the history of the BBC that they have adopted an "advance" in technology which results in a deterioration in sound quality for the customer.

If we then turn to the oft repeated mantra that half of all radio listening will have to be by digital before FM is switched off, there is a major flaw in the recording of digital radio "listening" which can be confirmed by a simple enquiry to Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) who compile the figures.

The RAJAR diary page, under the heading "Listened" and subhead "How", lists as options: "AM/FM RADIO; DAB DIGITAL RADIO; DIGITAL TV; THE INTERNET". No figure is collated for those people who listen on their DAB radio to FM and written evidence to the House of Lords Digital Report published on 29th March 2010 seems to confirm that this is common practice because of the poor sound quality of DAB radio.

If Mr Davie is really concerned about his listeners and the 130 million FM radios which will be condemned to receiving only Local or Community stations after the proposed "switch off", then he should be pressing for the actual number of digital listeners to be somewhere near 90% before National BBC stations transmitting on FM are extinguished.

#128008 • 10/22/2010 7:41am by Barry Price • Vote: Up votes (18) Down votes (16)

Questions for Ed Vaizey

Dear Mr Vaizey,

I have now had the opportunity to consider your speech to the Intellect Consumer Electronics Conference today, 8th July 2010, and I am unable to distinguish any difference between your policy and that which was espoused by the previous Government.

You made great play in your presentation of the importance of the consumer but are you really sure that you know the policy you are following as, to be honest, there are parts of your speech which do not even sit alongside each other?

For instance, at the start of your speech you indicated - and I have highlighted the part which is relevant:

"We must not under estimate the challenge of radio’s transition from analogue to digital. The relationship between the radio and listeners is a personal and emotional one.

That is why I would like to make it clear today that the needs and concerns of radio listeners will be absolutely central to our approach to Digital Radio Switchover.

So.

We will not switch over until the vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

We will not switch over to digital until digital coverage matches FM.

And we will not switch off FM, FM will remain a platform for small local and community radio for as long as these services want it."

Later on you in your speech you assert:

"But as I have already said it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover. Therefore, the target date is secondary to the criteria. We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital, or to put it another way when analogue listening is in the minority. The decision will also be dependent on significant improvements to DAB coverage at a national and local level."

Now would you be kind enough to advise me whether Digital Radio Switchover will occur when "...the vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio..." or "...once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital, or to put it another way when analogue listening is in the minority"? If it is the former then what percentage is a "...vast majority..." if the latter then what is the difference between your government's policy and your predecessors?

Perhaps you mean that only digital radio listening will be taken into account with regard to the 50% digital listening "majority" and will not include Digital Television, Internet and Digital Unspecified which, using Radio Joint Audience Research's (RAJAR's) figures for Quarter 1 of 2010, would reduce DAB radio listening to 15.1% from the headline 24%. Can you clarify this please?

The previous Government's policy on Digital Radio also made it clear that there would be no switchover until digital coverage matched FM and that FM would not be switched off but left for a "rump" of local and community radio, so where is the difference between your policy and that of your predecessors on these two items?

Now let us look at the question of sound quality – a matter which you singularly failed to address throughout your speech and the one which is surely of the utmost importance to listeners.

You appear to have been advised that "...DAB remains the most appropriate digital broadcast platform for the UK. A change in technology, to say DAB+, offers little benefit to the industry or listeners compared to the impact it would have. The benefits of DAB+ are primarily a more effective use of spectrum, but DAB already offers significant capacity for new services and there are only so many which the market can sustain. DAB+ offers very little in terms of data services and functionality which can’t also be achieved through DAB. However, we must protect against any future change and DAB+ must be a feature of future digital radio receivers."

Whoever gave you the above information about the technicalities of DAB and DAB+ appears to have told you what the industry wants you to hear with scant regard for what the consumer wishes to listen to.

Both DAB and DAB+ use multiplexers (MUX) with a bandwidth of 1.536MHz (although I understand that MUX capacity is measured in Capacity Units [CU] of which each MUX has 864 CUs but the capacity is also effected by the Protection Level so I have ignored that for the simplicity of the discussion). Using DAB this would permit a capability of carrying 4 or 5 high quality radio stations (at a data rate of 256Kbit/s), or 10 low quality radio stations (at a data rate of 128Kbit/s), or a mixture of both. Anything over 192Kbit/s approaches FM quality and it is perceived that 256Kbit/s approaches CD quality – an improvement over the existing...a step forward.

Currently most music stations are being transmitted at 128 to 160Kbit/s and speech, even Radio 4, cannot be transmitted in stereo as its allocated bandwidth on most MUXs is so low. If DAB is to be the medium in the UK because the industry has convinced you it should be then why not show your real commitment to the consumer by insisting on a minimum data rate of 192Kbit/s?

With DAB+, which you have dismissed, the bandwidth required to give quality approaching FM is about 64Kbit/s and 96Kbit/s would give the listener something like CD quality. So even at the highest bit rate (best sound quality) something like thirteen stations could share the same bandwidth and at near FM quality you could have something like twenty stations or, again, a combination of both.

The greatest number of DAB stations I can find allocated to any MUX in the UK at the moment in the "Radio Listener's Guide 2010" is fourteen on London (DRG) 3 some of which, I understand, are transmitting at bit rates as low as 64Kbit/s. With DAB+ they could all be transmitting at near FM quality with some of the more critical ones transmitting at CD quality. No extra bandwidth would be required to maintain the number of stations available on each MUX with the additional benefit that the "sound quality" critics might be forced to reconsider their opposition. In the light of the available evidence I fail to understand how the benefits of DAB+ are not readily distinguishable to yourself or your advisers.

If, on the other hand, there are no advantages then why are you going to insist that "...DAB+ must be a feature of future digital radio receivers."? You are doing nothing to encourage the network providers to convert their DAB MUXs to DAB+ so what do you think will be the motivator for them to do so? It certainly won't be public pressure because they've already displayed their contempt for the public by pressing ahead with Digital Radio when virtually nobody wanted it (and many still don't) and it won't be the Government as you've just given them carte blanche to carry on with DAB and dismissed the alternative. In your speech you stressed the need to dispel uncertainty but by insisting that DAB+ is in receivers but not in transmitters haven't you added to the confusion?

Would you not think, if you were just an interested party in this whole subject but divorced from the lobbyists and advisers, that this has all the makings of a farce? Why not insist on DAB+ MUXs now so nobody can complain about the cost of conversion in the future?

If the drawback is the 11 million or so who have bought DAB receivers (some of which are only listened to on FM I believe so don't lets shed too many tears) then do you not consider that to dismiss the 130 million FM receivers as a "big issue" is somewhat underplaying the significance of it?

Those who may not be seduced by the advertising, "spin" and marketing incentives of DAB or cannot afford to change will be left listening to small local and community stations and have no access to national radio – it's as simple as that, you said it. If that isn't creating the FM "ghetto" which you alluded to in your speech then I'm not sure what is.

All in all I believe many radio listeners will be disappointed when they get around to analysing your speech. It seems as though you have let an opportunity to move ahead disappear into a quagmire of vested interests with scant regard for the consumer – the very people for whom you claim to have concern.

#128007 • 07/11/2010 2:59pm by Barry Price • Vote: Up votes (16) Down votes (10)

GetDigitalRadio

GetDigitalRadio says:

I'm afraid we have very limited resources in order to deal with all our listener/consumer enquiries - and so we aren't always able to give a response when we get enquries with the level of detail such as yours.

Just to clarify, Digital Radio UK is the company tasked with establishing digital as the leading radio format in the UK and ensuring its wide availability and continuing take up among the UK's 46 million radio listeners.

Funded and supported by commercial radio, the BBC and Arqiva, Digital Radio UK is the central industry communicator on digital radio, working closely with all parties with an interest in digital radio, from broadcasters and the car industry to manufacturers and retailers, to deliver the consumer and economic benefits of digital radio upgrade.

Barry Price says:

Thank you once again for your reply although I am somewhat disappointed with it. I find it quite astonishing that you cannot respond to my enquiry as you consider it to contains a "level of detail". Surely to deal with a vague and indeterminate query would require much more research and resource, wouldn't it?

You cannot even give a response to the simple question, "What does "digital quality" or "clear digital sound" mean to you in these contexts?" (i.e. the quote from your website or the statement made by Ford Ennals to which I referred in my earlier correspondence). If your website and boss are happy to broadcast such terms without even understanding them it reflects poorly on the very credibility of digital radio and those trying to promote it. Surely somebody in your organisation knows what they mean, don't they? If there isn't anybody who does know, then the terms should be withdrawn, as they are meaningless without qualification.

Additionally many claims were made to the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Broadcasting clearly stating that Digital Radio would give "improved sound quality", "better sound quality", "increased audio quality", etc. Many, if not all of those claims, were made by parties which you have now confirmed fund and support GetDigitalRadio/Digital Radio UK.

In the light of the fact that you represent the very organisations who misled the House of Lords and the general public do you not think that any such nebulous claims should also be withdrawn and a public apology issued?

If GetDigitalRadio/Digital Radio UK is unable, unwilling or too short of resource to respond to enquiries would you please be kind enough to indicate an higher authority outside of GetDigitalRadio who can, perhaps, assist me?

#128006 • 07/01/2010 8:32pm by Barry Price • Vote: Up votes (9) Down votes (9)

Complaint to the BBC

It is entirely wrong for the BBC to be pushing digital radio, which is an inferior technology and downgrades the standards once upheld by the BBC.

I have a number of FM radios, capable of many more years of service. In particular, I have an expensive FM tuner as part of a modest hi-fi system. The standard of FM sound has been such that one can distinguish between live performances and commercial recordings on Radio 3. Speech quality is also high, something that is valuable for many programmes on a variety of channels.

DAB radio provides inferior quality, below the standard of commercial recordings, and far below the best FM quality.

My car has an FM radio which provides excellent service. Advertising by organisations having financial support from the BBC makes false claims about digital quality in cars. FM car radios provide excellent service in most areas whereas total signal loss is reported by many digital radio users.

New radios and other devices are currently being sold that rely exclusively on FM. There is no reason to suppose that they will not continue to be usable for many years, other than the undesirable and unwanted change to digital.

I cannot see what justification there could be for this BBC bias.

#128005 • 07/01/2010 8:25pm by Martin Brampton • Vote: Up votes (23) Down votes (10)

Radio Amnesty

To the Press:

Your readers may have been made aware of a Radio “amnesty” starting on 22nd May 2010 and running until 26th June whereby analogue portable radios can be handed in to certain retailers and a discount provided against the purchase of a brand new digital (DAB) radio. Some parallels have been drawn with the car scrappage scheme but, unfortunately, there are none.

Whereas the car scrappage scheme was designed to replace old, inefficient “bangers” with something up-to-the-minute and efficient, the radio amnesty scheme is designed to replace efficient radios which provide excellent sound quality with ones which have poorer sound quality and some even have power-hungry energy requirements when compared to the AM/FM radios they are expected to replace. The technology used is MP2 – 1980s digital technology - the forerunner of the now generally available MP3.

For the first time since its foundation even the BBC, generally regarded as providing the standard of radio broadcasting to which the rest of the world should strive, is supporting a massive reduction in sound quality.

Under current proposals instigated by the last government (unless the new coalition government intervenes) when 50% of radio listening is via digital media then FM transmitters will be turned off for national transmissions (e.g. Radios 1,2,3,& 4, Classic FM, etc.) The target for this is 2015 hence the newly announced incentive scheme to get people to buy DAB radios.

Currently, according to the industry, there are approximately eleven million DAB radios in the UK (some of which are never tuned to the DAB stations but left tuned to FM) and 120-150 million FM receivers. The FM receivers will become virtually redundant except for local stations unless the current policy is reversed.

By some perverse logic the “powers that be” feel that the owners of the eleven million DAB radios deserve priority over the 93% of the population who are happy with the current radio broadcasting arrangements. It should also be noted that there are very few cars on the road with DAB radios so if the 2015 target is reached drivers will be restricted to listening to local radio unless they are prepared to invest in, at the minimum, a self-install DAB conversion kit starting at £69 – at their own expense of course.

Even more disturbing are the claims that DAB listening permits you to: “Listen to your favourite stations hiss and crackle free in digital quality.” as though you might expect something akin to listening to a CD. When challenged on the subject of “quality” Chris Goymer, responding to an enquiry on the subject on the “Get Digital Radio” website, replied: "On any marketing material or radio ads we make, it is never said that sound quality is better than FM." Surely this must make one wonder what, then, is the point of the changeover particularly when DAB+ can deliver all that the digital radio industry perceives that the public requires but with much better quality and more efficiency. Unfortunately DAB+ is not going to be adopted in the UK at present so if your readers are tempted to buy a DAB radio they should ensure that, as well as FM, it will be capable of receiving DAB+ just in case the radio industry eventually comes to its senses.

In summary a universally available, high quality radio system – FM – is to be replaced by one which is less efficient; has poorer sound quality; is based on outdated technology; and is going to cost your readers some of their hard-earned income.

If these proposals concern your readers then they should contact their local MP who may not even be aware of the details of this retrogressive policy.

#128004 • 07/01/2010 8:12pm by Barry Price • Vote: Up votes (13) Down votes (7)

Lords should back FM Radio

Your Lordships,

I am writing to you with regard to the above subject and apologise in advance for the fact that my views are being sent to you by email rather than letter as I have only today (27th January 2010) been made aware of your "Call For Evidence".

#128003 • 04/02/2010 8:38pm by Barry Price • Vote: Up votes (15) Down votes (10)

House of Lords Committee

...is asking for evidence:

#128002 • 01/30/2010 12:00am by Martin Brampton • Vote: Up votes (8) Down votes (8)

The quality of FM

Many years ago, when hi-fi systems were more of a novelty than they are today, FM radio was the highest available quality sound source. Not by measurement, but by listening. With a reasonable system, you could listen to Radio 3, and tell the difference between a live broadcast a record being played. BBC recordings were better than records, and much harder to distinguish from live concerts.

#128001 • 11/20/2009 9:37pm by Martin Brampton • Vote: Up votes (35) Down votes (9)

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