Torin Douglas: BBC on tenterhooks over populist digital radio plan

Digital radio looks set to become a credible medium, but doubt hovers over the BBC’s own range of channels, as Chris Smith considers his options. By Torin Douglas

Everyone seems to agree the nation is confused by digital television. The Consumers’ Association, Dixons and the Government have all had their two penn’orth on the subject, which is why a new Digital Video Broadcasting logo has been launched, backed by a TV campaign through Carlton and Granada.

But if the nation doesn’t understand digital TV, what does it make of digital radio?

Despite the gloomy forecasts, millions of people already watch digital TV. The Independent Television Commission annual report shows it has reached 30 per cent of homes, and forecasts a rise to 40 per cent by the end of this year. A mere 30,000 homes have a digital radio set.

For the past three months, mine has been one of them – thanks to the BBC’s digital radio department, which lent me one of its handful of portable sets. When they say “portable”, they don’t mean you can carry it (unless you have a particularly muscular manservant). The model they’ve lent me is the Roberts Classic 2000, a magnificent wood and steel beast that takes its look from the days when Hilversum and Daventry were all the rage. Its front bears the logos BBC and DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting – a branding concept now past its sell-by date) and the number 009, which testifies to its rarity.

Rumour has it the Queen has 001, Chris Smith 002 and Dame Stella Rimington 007.

Despite its quaint look and idiosyncratic behaviour (occasionally cutting out for no discernible reason), I’ll be genuinely sorry when it has to go back. For when it works, it works very well. Not only does it provide instant push-button access to six favourite stations, but its screen often tells me what the programme is and who is taking part.

It isn’t always right, particularly when tuned to Radio 4. At first I presumed the machine harked back, like its design, to that gentler age when Jack de Manio always got the time wrong on the Today programme. However, I soon discovered that 5 Live manages to give the headlines pretty accurately, while at least two of the commercial stations – Core and PrimeTime – actually tell me the track being played.

But the real boon is the extra choice of stations. It lists 35 in London, in alphabetical order – and of course there are plenty more to come, as more local and regional digital multiplexes start to kick in.

That may not compare favourably with Sky Digital’s 200 TV channels, but it’s enough to be going on with. And this is where it becomes more confusing, because through my Sky Digital box I can also get digital radio stations on my TV. Forty of them, including some I can’t get on the Roberts, such as BBC Radio Scotland, Wales and Ulster, the Asian Network, Premier and lots of other religious stations.

And then there’s the Technics DAB tuner I’m now experimenting with, attached to the stereo system, which looks good and is easy to tune and read. And there’s also the PC, which will pick up any number of stations online, through a wizzy new piece of Psion kit called the Wavefinder.

Now this array of competing receiving systems may be confusing, but it has also brought credibility – or potential credibility – to digital radio.

Think of DAB as Digital Terrestrial Radio (the radio equivalent of ONdigital, available through a receiver and ordinary aerial). And think of the stations on Sky as Digital Satellite Radio (you can also, of course, get some radio through cable systems).

It’s the combination of these competing systems that give the medium its potential. Whereas only 30,000 homes have a digital radio (or DAB), many millions have Sky Digital and/or the Internet – which starts to make sense of the economics of launching digital radio stations. It has certainly made sense of it for the BBC. Having pioneered DAB in the mid-Nineties, building transmitters and experimenting with new services, the BBC went cool on the idea when its Online service took off. Now that it can spread its digital radio services across various platforms it’s doing so with gusto.

Too much gusto for some commercial radio stations, it seems. Commercial radio is in two minds about the BBC’s plans to launch five new digital services. On the one hand, it wants a strong portfolio of BBC stations to sit alongside its own, to persuade the public that digital radio is worth getting. On the other, some commercial stations see the BBC’s new stations as too similar to their own output.

Kelvin Mackenzie and TalkSport are totally opposed to the idea of Radio 5 Live Sports Extra – a service that would give listeners a choice of Premiership matches or Wimbledon courts. And several black and Asian stations have met the culture secretary Chris Smith to complain about the BBC’s plans for a black urban music station and the extension of its Asian Network nationwide. They say the BBC, as the public service broadcaster, should be filling the gaps the market is not serving, catering for older black and Asian listeners, with cultural and minority-language programmes.

But the BBC – notoriously described by its director-general as “hideously white” – makes no apology for wanting to improve its service to those it admits it underserves. It insists its public service remit requires it to be popular, and not just fill in the gaps that commercial stations can’t make pay. And it says its plans for news, documentaries and new music content on the digital networks make the BBC stations very different from the commercial ones.

It’s now up to Chris Smith to decide whether to give the go-ahead to the BBC’s digital services or to placate its commercial opponents by ordering changes.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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