I’ve finally reached breaking point over DAB.
In just about a week’s time, the government will set out plans to change the main transmission platform for radio in the UK from analogue to DAB. It’s a move popularly — but inaccurately — called ‘FM switch-off’.
It’s a controversial issue within the industry, with some groups and stations opposed to a change they fear may incur additional transmission costs — whilst other stations, generally those with a presence on DAB already, are in favour of a move.
Listeners, too, are split. Whilst many appreciate the extra choice offered by DAB — which is far more efficient in terms of frequency usage — others complain about poor audio quality, stations broadcasting in mono and ‘bubbling mud’ interference which can occur in low signal strength areas.
Unfortunately, there’s also an awful lot of misinformation flying around. Take a look at this BBC News report, for example. Here, Ceri Hurford-Jones, MD of Spire FM in Salisbury, complains about the extra transmission cost that his station would be faced with in the event of a switch to digital broadcasting.
The problem is that, as Mr Hurford-Jones well knows, stations like Spire FM — with a coverage area of barely more than 100,000 listeners — will not be, and have never been, expected to move to DAB.
FM is going nowhere. This is not, as even the copy beneath David Sillito’s report suggests, a plan to ‘switch off FM transmitters’.
Small commercial stations, like Spire FM, and community stations around the country, will continue to broadcast on FM just as they always have done. In fact, some areas where applications for community radio licences have been turned down or restricted to AM due to a lack of available space on the FM band may see new stations launched.
Yet still the misinformation flows. Speaking in the House of Commons, Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham, said on behalf of her local radio station Mix 96 that ‘DAB is fundamentally the wrong platform for local radio stations at this time due to the coverage difference from FM’. Yet, like Spire FM, Mix 96 broadcasts to just 125,000 adults, and just like Spire FM, Mix 96 would not be expected to move to digital.
When this debate comes around on December 16th, it’s crucial that MPs understand the issues and are not swayed by a small but vocal minority of commercial stations spreading, and I’m sorry to put it this way, at best misinformation and at worst downright lies.
DAB is the way forward for radio. The vast majority of listeners consider DAB audio quality to be as good, better or much better than FM. The more efficient use of frequencies means more choice for listeners — both on DAB and on the FM band which would be freed up for more local and community radio services. Stations currently paying for transmission on both platforms would see their transmission costs cut. Tuning by station name, rather than by frequency, offers usability enhancements, and exciting new developments driven by technology such as RadioDNS give stations the opportunity to enhance listeners’ experience of radio in all sorts of ways.
It’s not right for every station — there’s still no good way for small-scale stations to transmit on DAB. But that’s fine. They’ll stay on FM, with no change to their transmission costs or equipment, and their listeners will continue to listen — manufacturers of DAB radios show no signs of removing FM functionality.
So let’s get it right, shall we — and stop talking about ‘switchover’ and ‘FM switch-off’? Neither term is accurate, and both simply serve to raise unjustified fears and tensions amongst listeners and broadcasters alike.