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The end is near for analogue radio... Part one, a Medium and Long Wave goodbye

The UK Government has announced that it will shortly consider announcing the dates of the digital radio switchover. I thought it might be an excellent time to consider the history of amplitude- and frequency- modulation - and to wonder why anyone is still using it.

The UK Government has announced that it will shortly consider a
published on UK Free TV

It is well know that the BBC was the British Broadcasting Company from 18 October 1922 until it was re-launched as on 1 January 1927 as a Corporation with a Royal Charter. Less well known is that the first radio services were the nine regional radio stations, which broadcast on Medium Wave

These were, in 1922 2LO from London, 5IT from Birmingham, 2ZY from Manchester, 5NO from Newcastle upon Tyne; in 1923 5WA from Cardiff, 5SC from Glasgow, 2BD from Aberdeen, 6BM from Bournemouth; and joined n 1924 by 2BE from Belfast.

In the beginning

This wasn't down a "commitment to the regions", but the limits of the technology. It was possible to set up medium wave transmitters in populated cities. Even though "trunk" telephone calls could be made from 1923, these were not suitable to create a radio network.

From 1927, the BBC Regional Programme moved to higher power transmitters to provide a service that covered the country. The "basic regional programme" from London acted as a sustaining service to the Midland, North, Scottish, West, Midland, Northern Ireland (opt out from North), Welsh (split from West) , North East/Cumbria (opt out from North), and West regional services. This was known as The Regional Scheme.

Long Wave, high power services were tested in the late 1920s, and March 9th 1930, broadcasting to the whole of the UK from Daventry, the BBC National Programme started.

Borg the Regional Scheme and National Programme services were mixed mainstream radio service, with a variety of programmes to suit all tastes. Listeners could switch between stations to choose programmes, but both would carry all forms of radio.

This is all shown in exquite detail in DEVELOPMENT OF THE A.M. TRANSMITTER NETWORK Compiled by Clive McCarthy Version 4, 15 May 2004 [pdf].


Worried about enemy aeroplanes using the radio towers to triangulate bombing raids, the transmitter network was reconfigured on September 1st 1939 to use just two frequencies (668 and 767kHz) and provide a single national programme. This service was known as the Home Service. Long Wave's National Programme was closed down.

From January 1940, this was joined by a lighter service called "For the Forces", later the General Forces Programme.

From July 29th 1945 the Home Service with its drama, talks and informational programmes was split into six regional services (Basic, Midland, North, West, Welsh, Scottish), and in 1963 Northern Ireland.

The Forces format became the Light Programme on Long Wave and Medium Wave. There is an excellent description of this service at Radio Rewind - Light Programme Menu.


From 29 September 1946, the Third Programme was added. It broadcast from 6pm to midnight a mixture of cultural and intellectual programmes, but this was changed in October 1957 to carry educational programmes, and was changed to having all day classical music with the BBC Music Programme, in 1965.

However, television, restarting after the war, with ITV coming on air in 1955 and BBC TWO in April 1964, took audiences away from radio, especially in the evening.

In the mid 1960s, a new challenge happened from pirate stations, which were literally broadest from off-shore locations. They introduced the concept of "pop music" to UK radio, and the playing of gramophone records, rather than having (at the instance of the Musician's Union) live music.

To this end, the BBC, still the sole legal provider of radio issued "Broadcasting in the Seventies".

This document, which was much discussed in the press and Parliament at the time, made two major decisions: the move from regional radio to local radio, and the national stations being reorganised into genre-based stations.

Local and national pop

The Light Programme was split into three: "pop music", with DJs playing gramophone records would be Radio 1. The "light music" would become Radio 2, with a mix of DJs and live music. The Light Programme's drama (The Archers), comedy (such as Round the Horne), politics (Any Questions?) and other speech (such as Woman's Hour) would move to Radio 4.

Radio 4 would also take the speech and drama from the Third Programme, and this would all be added to the basic Home Service. Radio 4 would generally be a UK-wide service.

The Home Service for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland would become Radio Wales, Radio Scotland and Radio Ulster. Only in the South West (until 1983) and East Anglia (until 1980) where there were no BBC local radio stations, would there be regional opt-outs from Radio 4 UK, aside from five-minute regional news, which were phased out in 1978.

The four BBC networks broadcast on the medium wave (with the exception of Radio 2, which was on long wave) as well as VHF.

Read more about this: BBC Engineering No 87 July 1971 [pdf] and BROADCASTING IN THE SEVENTIES (B.B.C. PLAN) (Hansard, 22 July 1969) also The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume V: Competition - Asa Briggs - Google Books [page 719] and Life on Air: A History of Radio Four eBook: David Hendy: Kindle Store.

There was a final change to the networks on November 23rd 1978, when Radio 4 moved to 200 kHz Long Wave, Radio 1 to 1053/1089kHZ, Radio 2 to 693/909 kHz and Radio 3 to 1215kHz.

By 1990, most homes had moved - after much complains in some parts - to VHF reception. The BBC took the medium wave from Radio 2 and created Radio 5 (later 5 Live), and in 1992 the BBC handed over Radio 3's medium waves to Virgin Radio, and 1994 Radio 1's medium wave frequencies to Talk Radio (now Talk Sport) .

Part 2 tomorrow, in which radio gets very high. The end is near for analogue radio... radio gets very high - Digital radio - - 11 years of independent, free digital TV advice

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Tuesday, 27 August 2013
Nicholas Willmott

3:22 PM

Does anyone listen to medium wave (MW) these days? Whereas FM has been stereo for 30 odd years, MW is still mono in 2013. Why is this? Furthermore sound quality is never that brilliant on MW, especially after dark when it tends to sound "hossily" (squeaking whining noise).

If they switch off the analogue MW broadcasts, what will they use it for? Back in March you said, in answer to my question, they wouldn't be able to use the MW radio band for 4G LTE due to lack of bandwidth. Similarly what will the FM band 88 to 108 MHz be re-used for? Back in March you said that too doesn't have enough bandwidth for 4G. Could they use the current FM band 88 to 108 for extra Freeview DTT muxes? Could it be used for wi-fi routers, wireless game console controllers, etc? Could it be used for PMSE which is currently UHF channel 38, and thus free up channel 38 for TV broadcasting?

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Nicholas Willmott's 80 posts GB flag

5:14 PM

What of putting DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) on these bands, similar to what has been tried on some of the SW bands? Very likely the propagation characteristics of these bands render them useless for data applications (lack of bandwidth), and any two-way system like 4G would be very difficult to implement - antennas are either large or very inefficient at these frequencies.
Even with FM broadcast, it's only 20MHz wide and that would not fit much in the way of data, and the propagation is still too much for it to be reused.
Possibly a bad idea then.

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Andy's 32 posts GB flag

5:52 PM

Well, Radio 5 Live is on MW along with Talksport and Absolute Radio.

Given that most Cars don't have DAB radios fitted, I'd say analogue switch off is still a good few years in the future.

There are also huge gaps in digital radio coverage throughout the country, so this move could be somewhat premature.

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PJH's 240 posts GB flag

5:54 PM

DRM would have been good had there been affordable radios available in the high street. Given the fact that did not happen is surely the reason for it's demise.

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PJH's 240 posts GB flag

5:55 PM

DAB+ may very well be the future if Ofcom ever decide to back it.

Why they haven't is beyond me.

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PJH's 240 posts GB flag

6:39 PM

PJH: Since you can get a cheapie DAB/FM radio for £20, cost should no longer a problem, and coverage has got much wider in the past couple of years and will continue to improve.

DAB+ is probably the system they should have gone for, but we are stuck with DAB. Many radio's have both, but many do not, and it would not help DAB's popularity if people who already had DAB (and were happy with it) had to buy another one!

Ian: Why is DAB rubbish? I get far more stations, the sound is better, and have features like the name of the song being played, etc. Since all DAB sets have FM anyway, you've got the best of both worlds. I actually have an internet radio, so I can listen 3 different ways, but most of the time its on DAB.

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MikeB's 2,579 posts GB flag
7:06 PM

I not a fan of the removal of DAB Regional such as Severn Estuary (South Wales & W of England) Mux in favor of such as extra local Muxs so likes of Heart and Capital can clog the airwaves with only about 5 hours of local content for Breakfast and Afternoon Rush Hour.

The lost of these regional DAB Multiplexes have resulted in less choice as these regional frequencies used to be over a further area!

Unless if you live in London or the Central Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh covered). London has at least 3 local frequencies, Central Scotland will continue to maintain past 2015 its regional frequency elsewhere regional frequencies have closed or closing. Elsewhere including Cardiff, the West Mids and everywhere else you only entitled to one VHF band frequency such as "Cardiff and Newport" Local Mux

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Jamie's 11 posts GB flag
Jamie's: mapJ's Freeview map terrainJ's terrain plot wavesJ's frequency data J's Freeview Detailed Coverage

7:44 PM

MikeB I never said cost was a problem with DAB. My problem is with DRM which would have been brilliant had it happened. The lack of affordable DRM receivers on the high street was the reason for it's demise, sadly.

I think DAB+ is still a possibility, especially with so many stations on Digital One now in mono. DAB+ would surely solve that problem, especially with many brands now adopting it as standard in their models (I'm surprised Roberts haven't done this). So the switch would be relatively painless, in my opinion, especially if they run it alongside standard DAB for a period of time..

My main grip with DAB at the moment are the huge gaps in coverage throughout the country. This needs to be addressed ASAP if any analogue switch off is to be contemplated.

Personally, I think DRM should have been the replacement for AM

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PJH's 240 posts GB flag

7:54 PM

Jamie: NI has only just got Digital One within the last month or so so you can imagine what DAB was like before this and why so few radio listeners were opting for DAB in the province.

There should be some new stations on the local multiplex soon as well, so things are looking up. 30 plus stations on DAB is far far better than a measly 10 or so on FM, even if a lot of them are in mono.

Personally speaking, I think a good FM signal is much superior to a DAB one Mike B. It's a bit like comparing vinyl to CD. Like vinyl, FM is much warmer and easier to listen to for long periods of time. CD always had a colder and more clinical sound quality. The difference is there, even in portable mono radios.

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PJH's 240 posts GB flag

8:10 PM

MikeB et al:
DAB as a digital technique suffers the same limitations as any system that samples an analogue signal and tries to reproduce the analogue original. DAB has frequency range limitations that are narrower than FM radio. CD audio recordings have a similar limitation, effectively because of the sampling rate. The effect is to not reproduce the upper frequencies that form the tonal qualities of the sound heard. Compare a CD recording of a pipe organ with that of the same organ recorded by a good analogue technique and then compare with the live rendition! Having sung in choirs and choral societies for over 50 years, I know which I prefer. (I'm also an electronics engineer.)
DAB has problems as some have experienced, just as some have had trouble with Freeview digital transmissions.
Not all DAB radios have a VHF FM capability, two of mine don't but one does. The FM signal where I live is more reliable and clearer than DAB.
DAB+ would have been preferable but that will not happen now - too much investment in DAB.

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MikeP's 3,056 posts GB flag
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