DAB = FM + 1 : is that bad or good?

"Four Ashes" by timo_w2s

On the way back from Chris‘ if:book salon last Monday I was listening to the Guardian Media podcast about the failure of Channel 4’s DAB stations. The whole podcast was odd. Firstly the presenters gloated. Why? I’m not sure any of the traditional news media are safe from future technological developments so it seemed strange to have newspaper journalists gloating about a radio station’s demise. Then there was the tone of the interview with the head of Channel 4, Andy Duncan. The interviewer’s tone suggested that Duncan had started up, staffed, and then closed the station out of malice and stupidity. What? Clearly launching a radio channel with original content whose quality might compete with the BBC is a brave thing to do, but it was done in good faith, with the expectation of a market. ‘Malice’ came from the idea that Duncan was being spiteful by shutting down the venture when a few people were working out their notice at the BBC as they had been offered jobs in the Channel 4 channel. It is sad if people loose their jobs, and there is too much of it about this year, but Duncan had a commercial decision to make, what else could he have done?

But it was the foretelling of the demise of DAB that I found strangest. The team pointed out that there was only one commercial national DAB channel that one couldn’t pick up on FM: Planet Rock. They went on to complain that the BBC were holding up a technology that was failing commercially. Surely the BBC is pushing a technology that we asked them to help with. The government pushed DAB so that, if needed, we could free up VHF spectrum for other services. Without the BBC’s amazing efforts this would not be possible at all. There are several national BBC DAB radio channels that you cannot get on FM, Asian Network, BBC Extra, BBC 7, and my favourite 6Music (Tom Robinson’s show’s fantastic). But surely even just looking at commercial radio the failure would be if there were fewer national stations on DAB than on FM? One more is not a failure.

Finally the Guardian team wrapped up by pointing out that DAB was doomed the moment that the BBC released its iPlayer. At first I thought this was a revelation: of course the iPlayer over the internet trumps DAB. It’s got all the channels (plus Radio 4 long-wave stuff) and the ability to listen again. What I should have spotted at once, since I was on a train from London to Cambridge, was that the internet is not available in many of the places that we enjoy listening to radio. Even Guardian journalists must drive through areas that are not covered by wi-fi, how does their iPlayer work then?

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