While digital HD Radio in the US generated some light interest during January’s Consumer Electronics Show, the BBC was sharpening its hatchet in anticipation of taking a few whacks at its digital radio service. The UK has had the Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) service since the mid-1990s, predating HD radio in the US by a good half-decade. Unlike HD Radio, which broadcasts alongside analog signals, DAB uses a different set of spectrum dedicated exclusively to digital radio.
Although arguably superior to HD Radio’s IBOC system, both due to greater available bandwidth and not causing interference to analog stations, DAB isn’t necessarily doing any better in its home countries. As UK radio blogger Grant Goddard reports, many European countries are scaling back or ending their investment in rolling out DAB.
At the beginning of March the BBC confirmed rumored plans to shut down two of its DAB stations, the Asian Network, which serves South Asian communities, and 6 Music, which is a popular modern rock station. The 6 Music shutdown, in particular, has generated a significant outcry from listeners, with nearly 8,000 complaints filed with the BBC as of last Friday.
The 6 Music closure appears to hit a nerve because it was the BBC’s attempt at creating a cutting edge rock music station featuring more variety and up-and-coming bands than other BBC or commercial stations. Music celebrity hosts like Jarvis Cocker, Bruce Dickinson and Bob Dylan have had their own shows. When it debuted in 2002 it was the first new national service from the BBC since 1970. 6 Music was also intended to be a showcase for the new DAB service, supposedly taking advantage of the service’s enhanced digital fidelity.
While 6 Music listeners appear to be loyal fans, in the end there doesn’t seem to be enough of them to justify the cost of running the station for the BBC. Instead, the Beeb intends to focus more on its existing popular FM music channels Radio 1 and 2 and the digital-only 1xtra.
The BBC’s digital strategy going forward looks to be focused on inexpensive services that complement analog stations, such as the digital BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra. The popular DAB talk station, BBC 7, may be paired more closely with the FM talk service Radio 4 and renamed “Radio 4 Extra.” As talk stations, it’s important to note that these services don’t take advantage of DAB’s supposed fidelity advantage.
However, just like HD Radio in the states, there are listeners who contest the fidelity claims of DAB. Marc Wheeler of the Hi-Fi audio site TNT-Audio writes a stinging critique of 6 Music’s programming and sound quality, saying
What we actually get is banal inane chatter (so trite it fully deserves the tautology) all day, infrequently interrupted by a great tune with all the life squashed from it by data compression following dynamic range compression.
Indeed, it appears that DAB in the UK and elsewhere suffers from the same fate as HD Radio in the US: uncertain demand for a digital service, combined with mediocre programming that doesn’t deliver on the promise of better sound quality than analog FM.
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