A brave new world

Podcasts are a red herring, but digital radio gives listeners what they want

A strange year. I have spent a lot of it feeling grumpy - in the manner of Jeremy Paxman - about podcasting, which suddenly took off in 2006, or at least it did in the sense that lots of people started doing it. How many of us are actually listening remains unclear, for there is no real way of knowing. Do I believe that there are shows out there that are heard by many thousands? Not really. My hunch is that audiences for podcasts are still very small, and may even dwindle once the novelty of the idea has worn off. For one thing, after extensive research, I have yet to find many seriously good podcasts (the BBC's are, but they don't count, in the sense that they're not original material, but the best bits of existing shows). For another, the hassle factor remains. A friend of mine told me that, in the early days of his love affair with his iPod, he would regularly download BBC shows to listen to them at the gym, but he soon got fed up with the faff of connecting iPod to computer and so on. Now he's back to the Scissor Sisters, or staring at Sky News.

Our enthusiasm for digital radio, on the other hand, grows ever stronger. At the last count, 15.3 per cent of us owned a digital set, and 54.3 per cent of us had listened to DAB via radio, the internet or television. Digital radio is giving niche audiences exactly what they want, and ratings are swelling fast. The most successful digital stations are still commercial, but the one that attracted the most attention in 2006 was BBC6 Music, with its clever signing of Russell Brand (since despatched to Radio 2) and Stephen Merchant, sidekick of Ricky Gervais. I loathe Brand, but was impressed by the strategy that got him on board. BBC6 Music started out as the audio equivalent of Mojo magazine, populated with witty but grown-up DJs such as Stuart Maconie and Andrew Collins, whose shows were two parts art-school rock to one part school disco. Now its controller, Lesley Douglas, is using it in the same way as Channel 4 uses More4: as a try-out space for things that seem dangerous or different. BBC6 Music used to be comforting; lately, it has started to feel exciting. It is my digital station of the year.

At Radio 4, 2006 has been unusually controversial. The big news involved a trio of women. First, Kirsty Young, who took over at Desert Island Discs in October. At the time, I wrote that she wasn't much cop, following her plan so rigidly that she didn't listen to her castaways' answers. Do I stand by this, three months on? I think so. Recent shows have been better, but she has had a lot of help from her guests, such pros as Stephen King and Matt Lucas. Fi Glover was put at the helm of Saturday Live, the replacement for Home Truths. This past week, I listened to Saturday Live to see if it has improved. It has not. It's Pebble Mill at One, only without Bob Langley or Jan Leeming (though since her turn on I'm a Celebrity . . . Leeming is almost bound to be booked for Saturday Live; after all, Carol Thatcher was, in its first week). Finally, there was Ruth's "affair" with Sam the cowman in The Archers. Ruth bores me to sobs, so I didn't give a fig that this was out of character; I wanted David to take up with his ex, Sophie, and start wearing Ozwald Boateng around the farm. But, no. As I write, Usha is giving David marriage guidance. Oh, well, there's always Adam's gay wedding to look forward to. Perhaps he will wear Boateng. Him or his stepfather, Brian . . .

I cannot end this without saying something about Linda Smith and Nick Clarke. Like everyone, I will miss them more than I can say. Brilliant is an overused word, but that is what they were: brilliant. Kevin Marsh, the former editor of Today, said that Clarke, as presenter of The World at One, brought "light, not heat" to the issues of the day. I think this went for Smith, too, especially in her role on The News Quiz. What she and Clark had in common was their sanity, a profound clear-sightedness that took them - and all who listened to them - straight to the heart of the matter. That they found their best homes on Radio 4 tells you rather a lot about the station; and that they will be so acutely missed tells you even more about its audience.

Christmas picks

The Maida Vale Xmas Party
22 December, 7am-7pm, Radio 1
All-day party at Maida Vale studios with performances from, among others, Sugababes and The Feeling.

Opera On 3: live from the Met
16 December, 6.30pm, Radio 3
Rigoletto - Joseph Calleja is the Duke of Mantua and Carlos Álvarez the embittered hunchback jester in Verdi's masterpiece.

A Child's Christmas in Wales
24 December, 11pm, Radio 4
Rhys Ifans reads Dylan Thomas's 1955 classic.

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