Crystal set

Radio - Louis Barfe discovers some surprising advantages to going digital

The primary selling points for digital audio broadcasting (DAB) are choice and sound quality - "crystal-clear digital sound", as the adverts tell us ceaselessly. Having overcome the teething problems with my digital set that I wrote about a couple of months ago, I'm not sure either of these holds true.

Although there are plenty of stations, especially if you live in London, that have five multiplexes stuffed to bursting, too many of them sound exactly the same, and play only contemporary chart pop. One new national digital-only service, The Core, is alarmingly similar to London's Capital FM or any number of local commercial stations.

As for the promised CD-quality sound, oh dear. ITN's rolling news service on Digital One is not so much "crystal-clear" as "crystal set". That's what comes of over-stuffing the multiplexes.

Thankfully, however, there is an upside to owning a digital set. Stations that have been stuck on crackly old medium wave, like the London country-and-western station Ritz 1035, can now be received in stereo. Then there are the interesting commercial operators, such as the London-only children's station AbracaDABra, which acts as an all-day version of the BBC's long-defunct Children's Hour.

Oneword (www.oneword.co.uk), the book station, has just won its second, well-deserved Station of the Year award at the Sonys. As well as readings and plays, Oneword majors in author interviews and round-table discussions, all conducted by the excellent Paul Blezard. It is a shame that the output is in mono, as some of the plays would benefit from stereo.

There are also a couple of stations proving that all-music radio needn't be obvious to be successful, namely BBC 6 Music (www.bbc.co.uk/6music) and Saga Radio (www.sagaradio.co.uk). Both resemble BBC Radio 2 in different ways. The management at Radio 2 run 6 Music, in effect, as a subsidiary, and its output is a full-time version of the parent network's hipper end, with a strong playlist straddling mainstream rock and wilder sounds, and some good presenters including ex-NME-hack-turned-EastEnders-writer Andrew Collins (weekdays 4pm-7pm). Best of all, however, is the regular recourse to documentaries and session tracks from the BBC archives, not to mention the full concerts showcased in Janice Long's Dream Ticket (weekday evenings at 10pm).

Meanwhile, Saga - which broadcasts in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow only - sounds like Radio 2 used to, with a pleasing diet of crooners, big band swingers, show tunes and light orchestral music, allied to homely presenters like Jenny "Magpie" Hanley (2pm-6pm weekdays and Sunday breakfast 7am-10am) and "Diddy" David Hamilton, a Radio 2 regular in the early 1980s (1pm-2pm and 6pm-7pm on weekdays, as well as 10am-1pm on Sundays).

It is odd that one of the brightest and best services on this newfangled medium is knee-deep in nostalgia, but it is always nice to be surprised.