Crossed wires

Radio - Louis Barfe on how digital technology is taking over the airwaves

Ken Bruce recently joked on his Radio 2 show that he wasn't sure what he was going to do about digital radio. He then added that he didn't think the BBC was too certain what to do, either. Although he and Terry Wogan have turned badmouthing your employer into an art form over the years, there's more than a little truth to Bruce's quip, as technical tinkering seems likely to ruin the medium's unique selling point.

The corporation launched its existing radio networks in digital form in September 1995, when receivers cost an arm, a leg and several internal organs; it advertised the service as CD-quality radio. Naturally, this appealed to audiophile Radio 3 fans who could spare a kidney, even if the sales pitch was not strictly true. The data compression algorithms used put the service on a sonic par with minidisc, so it's not quite CD, but still miles better than most VHF signals. Unfortunately, the prohibitive cost of the equipment meant that take-up of the service was limited, and the digital broadcasts carried on for the benefit of a fortunate few.

Now, however, the audience is widening. Subscribers to digital satellite and cable television instantly have access to most of the available digital radio stations, both BBC and commercial. Meanwhile, the prices of digital radios are tumbling. In addition, the choice of programming is widening. The national commercial Digital One service includes stations such as Oneword, which offers book readings and discussions about literature, as well as a measure of exclusively produced drama. In addition, there are numerous local commercial digital multiplexes. The BBC's own multiplex is in the process of opening a set of new digital-only services.

Such expansion has its price, however. Each multiplex - BBC or otherwise - is allocated a set bandwidth into which all of its services must fit. So, the more services the BBC tries to offer, the more the sound quality of each will have to suffer. Before Christmas, the BBC downgraded its digital stereo transmissions of Radios 1, 2 and 4.

Given that Radio 4 went into stereo some time in the mid-1970s, this was a retrograde move. The point of the exercise seems to have been to test how much signal degradation digital listeners will stand; but while there is an argument for using resources efficiently, that does seem to miss the original aim of digital radio - crystal-clear sound with no interference.

Regrettably, I have yet to experience digital radio in the comfort of my own home, despite strenuous efforts. First, I ordered Sky, only to be told by the installer that my flat was on the wrong side of the block to get a direct line of sight to the satellite. Then I bought a WaveFinder, but my unit turned out to have a dud power supply, for which I am currently awaiting a replacement. So, for the time being, I'm with Ken Bruce. I don't know what I'm going to do about digital, although it's not for want of trying.