Curious, isn’t it? Just as broadcasters finally seem to have embraced the digital revolution, the Radio Authority is proposing the idea of a new station on old-fashioned long wave.
As Carlton, Granada and BSkyB were submitting the bid which breathes new life into Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), the Radio Authority was putting the finishing touches to a paper on “INR4”, a fourth national commercial radio station. It has asked for the industry’s views on whether such a service should be launched on a waveband most modern radios cannot receive, which is home only to Radio 4’s back-up signal and Atlantic 252.
The irony is not lost on the Authority, which is promoting the digital revolution as hard as anyone. Only last month, it announced plans to kick-start Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), radio’s equivalent of DTT, by adopting a “fast-burn” approach to give it maximum impact. It will now advertise the national commercial DAB multiplex in a year’s time, closely followed by those of the big local conurbations, to help the new medium achieve critical mass quickly.
But if DAB is about to bring lots of new stations to the air, why is the Authority bothering with one on long wave, particularly on a frequency which gives incomplete coverage? 225 kHz was an unused BBC frequency and has been re-located to commercial radio by the Heritage Secretary. The consultation document indicates some of its limitations: “By combining 225 kHz with certain available medium wave frequencies it would be possible to achieve coverage of probably more than 80 per cent of the UK population, including the main conurbations. However, international frequency clearance has still to be agreed, and some significant technical matters are not yet resolved.”
Sound familiar? Haven’t they learned the lesson of Channel 5? But it gets worse: “The viability of establishing a long wave transmitter of the power necessary is a crucial issue. Long wave installations are very expensive indeed, and run up huge electricity bills. Planning permission for the large aerials required would be difficult or impossible to obtain.”
So why is the Radio Authority even asking the question? The answer is it doesn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. Commercial radio still has fewer national frequencies than the BBC and, if the Corporation is sitting on unused wavebands, the Government and the Authority believe their market potential should be assessed.
And though the long wave station might seem rooted in old technology, its future is actually closely tied into that of DAB. For the three existing national commercial stations have been guaranteed a place on the Radio Authority’s national DAB multiplex. If they take them up, their existing licences are automatically renewed for an extra term.
The Authority is considering whether a fourth national station should also get automatic access to DAB and, with it, a longer licence. That is a decision for the Heritage Secretary, but the Authority concedes that, “if INR4 attracts a guaranteed place on DAB, then the bidding for that analogue licence might become by proxy a bid for a DAB slot”.
The question potential bidders must then ask themselves is whether a DAB licence is really worth having. Like DTT, DAB will require the audience to buy new – and expensive – receiving equipment. But it has one huge disadvantage.
DTT offers broadcasters potential rewards by opening up pay-TV (both subscription and pay-per-view), making it worthwhile to subsidise the cost of the sets and heavily promote the services and equipment. DAB offers no such rewards.
And while the Government intends that, one day, all TV will be digital, so it can switch off the existing analogue signals, it can make no such declaration for radio. The outcry from middle England would be too great, as the continued existence of long wave demonstrates.
By rights, the Government should have abandoned long wave years ago, just as it switched off the old VHF 405-line black-and-white TV signals in favour of UHF 625-line colour. FM was the future of radio, offering high-quality stereo sound. Yet even though most listeners now use FM stations, medium wave and long wave refuse to die, as the Authority acknowledges.
It notes “the success of some AM services – including long wave – and the strength of feeling about maintenance of existing UK long wave services”, (ie the successful fight by Radio 4 long-wave listeners to stop their service being replaced by 24-hour news).
The reason is that many listeners have hung on to their long-wave radios, even though most manufacturers no longer make them. They like the fact it booms into corners other radio frequencies cannot reach – whether whole towns and villages (which cannot get FM) or kitchens and bathrooms (which suffer interference). They also like the programmes available only on long wave, like Test Match Special and the Daily Service.
When DAB sets come on the market, they will be very expensive, confined to upmarket cars and stereo systems. Even when the cost comes down, people will keep their Walkmans, transistors, clock radios and long wave sets for years to come – ensuring they can listen in every room in the house.
The same is true of TV sets. When people buy a new one, they put the old one upstairs.
So even if millions of viewers do sign up for Digital Terrestrial Television over the next few years, they will still own many sets that will become obsolete if the Government switches off the analogue signal.
Such a decision would be, in the words of Sir Humphrey, “very brave, Minister”.