Kate Chisholm

Digital watch

It’s only five years now until the big switchover from analogue radio to digital, yet the most recent audience figures suggest that the number of digital listeners is actually going down.

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It’s only five years now until the big switchover from analogue radio to digital, yet the most recent audience figures suggest that the number of digital listeners is actually going down.

It’s only five years now until the big switchover from analogue radio to digital, yet the most recent audience figures suggest that the number of digital listeners is actually going down. Less than a quarter (21.1 per cent) of listeners are now via the digital signal and most of that number are probably listening on their laptops via broadband or cable rather than on a DAB set. It’s not surprising. We may be living through one of the most exciting periods of technological advance since the great age of James Hargreaves’s Spinning Jenny and Jethro Tull’s seed drill, but in the 11 years since DAB radio was launched in 1999 it’s become more, not less, difficult to listen to. Those occasional pips and squeaks have become much more frequent, and often end in shut-offs, as the signal waxes, wanes and then disappears — no matter how swanky and credit-card-busting the radio set. Staying at my mother’s for the past few days — in the heart of the Home Counties with not a rolling hill in sight — I was surprised to discover how the digital reception has deteriorated. Without her ancient analogue radio, I’d have been stuck with Classic FM (comfort-food music, irritating ads) or Gaydar Radio. The only BBC station I could muster was BBC London.

We should be worried. If the legislation goes through Parliament then analogue will vanish overnight before new ways of funding digital radio, and its transmitters, have been devised. It’s yet another case of unjoined-up thinking. In this new digital era we need a radical discussion of how we’re going to pay for the broadcasting we want to tune in to. Not that the BBC stations should ever be jeopardised by abolishing the licence fee. But at the moment we’re speeding down the digital freeway without knowing quite where we’ll end up.

Over in the USA, there’s a huge choice of radio stations paid for in myriad ways. Some of the best stations live and die by public subscription. If you want to hear it, then you have to pay for it, donating how much and whenever you choose. If no one donates, the station dies. It means, though, that the successful stations can afford to pump out continuous music without those mad ads for erectile dysfunction and breast implants. Chicago Oldies 104.3, for example, with its constant stream of hits from the Sixties and Seventies, is dangerously addictive for anyone over the age of 40 — and a dream station for my colleague Charles Spencer.

Back in the UK, Radio Two is extending its format, airing the kind of documentary series once confined to the station formerly known as the Home Service. The Ocean on Monday nights is taking us on a trawl through the music and poetry inspired by our seafaring history. Travelling from Falmouth to Inverness by way of Robin Hood’s Bay, Richard Hawley, the singer-songwriter, talked to fishermen and songwriters, poets and singers, historians and archivists. The sea has made us what we are as a nation; yet we’re fast becoming a nation of landlubbers, escaping by air rather than by boat and forgetting too easily that most of what we buy has still to come in by boat. What the sea brings, though, it also takes away in the mass emigrations of young men, who for centuries escaped poverty at home by taking very creaky boats across the terrifying Bay of Biscay to colonies such as Newfoundland.

Being Radio Two there was lots more music than talking, with songs about the women who waited at home for seven long years, standing on the shore, their eyes fixed steadfastly on the horizon, watching for the boat that would never come back into sight. There were some haunting moments, but the production needed more editing, more preparation, more narrative cohesion. It was a reminder of how much skill is needed to create effective and economical radio; skills that take years to nurture and develop.