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The end is near for analogue radio... Part 4, the local radio to do list

In this final part, we have a quick look at what is still left to do for local radio to match FM coverage.

In this final part, we have a quick look at what is still left
published on UK Free TV

As we saw from part one, radio started out as a regional services. From this national networks were added. Then from 1969 onwards, local radio was added.

However, running a network of local radio stations, all with their own output, staff, presenter and news has always stretched the budget of individual stations a little bit thin.

This is as true for BBC stations, which share a small proportion, 4.6% of the TV Licence (£114.7m on content, £9.9m on distribution, £27.9 on infrastructure, making £152.5m), as it is for local commercial stations that fund themselves from adverts.

DAB local radio

Almost all of the country does now have a local radio DAB service - see List of all DAB multiplexes, but there are still some on the "to do very soon" list.

The "missing" services cover 5,583,000 people, which is about 9% of the UK population.

These are:

Cumbria - 408,000 people

Derbyshire - 652,000 people, Now Digital (East Midlands) Limited

Gloucestershire - 498,000 people, MuxCo (Gioucestershire) Limited

Hereford and Worcester - 501,000 people, MuxCo (South Midlands) Limited

Lincolnshire - 550,000 people, MuxCo Lincolnshire Limited

Mid and West Wales 377,000 people, MuxCo Wales Limited

North Yorkshire - 531,000 people, MuxCo North Yorkshire Limited

Somerset - 444,000 people, MuxCo Somerset Limited

Suffolk - 541,000 people

Surrey about 1.085 million people, MuxCo Surrey and North Sussex Limited

Why can't we have local radio on Freeview?

The Freeview service is provided on six Multiplexes. Like the DAB multiplexes, these services provide a large number of channels together on a single broadcast.

The three "commercial" multiplexes operate a UK wide service, and are therefore unsuitable for local radio. One of the "public service" multiplexes is for high definition TV services only.

This leaves the BBC and Digital 3+4 multiplexes. However, even though these services are "regional", they each cover many "local radio" areas. It would therefore be impracticable to add so many local stations to either multiplex.

However, Local television on Freeview is coming. These services are designed to provide a local TV service to specific local areas. It may be possible for each of these multiplexes to have local radio added to them.

Why can't we have BBC local radio on Freesat or Sky?

The additional cost for the BBC to add the 39 local radio stations not on digital satellite (BC London 94.9 is already there) to the four DVB-S mode transponders would probably be marginal.

However, the BBC does have to currently pay Sky a large fee to add channels to the Sky EPG, so this would be perhaps unreasonably expensive (see Government to stop Sky charging public service broadcasters for "retransmission").

And whist the BBC owns Freesat, it would probably not be worth the bother of up linking 39 radio streams if Sky viewers could not also benefit.

See also BBC - Annual Report 2012/13 - Expenditure

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Tuesday, 3 September 2013
12:12 AM

'I don't listen to DAB my ears have had centuries of fine tuning listening to a HiFi system'
That's exactly it, Trevor... the DAB devotees in general simply have no idea why the criticisms and are quite happy to bang on about choice over quality and produce technical details that bore us all bit rateless!

'The burbling'... again this is the over riding audio sense you get when listening to any DAB broadcast... like it's coming through water or something and at any moment is going to disintegrate.

The whole thing is a technophile's dream come true I guess and now in the future there will be millions that never had any idea just how good radio/hi fi sounds could be.....

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Terry's 18 posts GB flag

10:06 AM

'the DAB devotees in general simply have no idea why the criticisms and are quite happy to bang on about choice over quality and produce technical details that bore us all bit rateless'

There are actually no 'DAB devotees', just people who realise that the changes in technology, economics and how people listen to radio will mean an end to national FM transmission at some point, and who point out that listening to DAB is not 'like it's coming through water' (or 'burbling'), but perfectly decent quality (See MichaelS and Charles Stuarts comments). The boring part are the number of people who keep banging on about FM, as though its perfect.

I actually don't care how people listen to radio, its what works for them thats important. In the real world, nobody cares about bitrates, Joint Stero, dynamic range, etc. What they care about is 'is the radio easy to use?, can I get my favourite station on it? and which radio has the best sound?' - thats the questions I get asked.

Most people listen on relatively small sets (one or two smallish speakers), perhaps in the kitchen, bedroom, etc. They like the fact they can get more stations, with features like song titles, etc. They generally don't really care about battery life (although it is an issue for some), because those sets are always plugged into the mains, and they are not audiophiles, just people who want to listen to some music with reasonable quality.

The idea that DAB radios were rejected because of sound quality of DAB v FM is fanciful - in reality DAB radios were relatively expensive, coverage was patchy, and the number of stations not huge. In the past five years all that has changed, which is the classic path of any new technology.

Car radios are certainly an area which should have been DAB some years ago, but I suspect it was because no car manufacturer wanted to put an expensive (everything is margin) new technology in a car, when coverage was not great, and coverage was not great because not enough people were listening to it in their cars! Chicken + Egg.

Doug - the idea that people are going to base their vote on what happens to FM is bizarre - considering the things that people are motivated by, I guess that issue is very far down the list. I suspect that some minister will try to save FM for a while (in much the same way that Jim Hacker 'saved' the Great British Banger in Yes Minister), but if the number of people who listen nationally only on FM continue to fall, economic reality takes over, and it will stop. DAB+ is not going to happen, because of the number of DAB sets already out there - its not perfect, but there we are.

I am amazed at the amount of what would be called (on other forums) 'concern trolling' - how DAB, etc has such huge problems, it could never work, the number of FM radios that would be dumped, etc. In reality, there are few major problems. Coverage is much improved, costs of new sets have dropped, and its reasonable to assume that manufacturers are working on ways to improve the energy efficency of DAB chips. Car radios can be problematic, but as new cars with DAB fitted as standard roll out, and people convert their existing cars, the number with problems should fall (we'll come on to mobile listening in a moment).

As for FM radios in the home, there are loads of possibilities to keep them. We could use something like the in-car local FM transmitters, where it streams a signal from the net and broadcasts in FM (kind of like an analogueish Sonos!), or small wifi/blutooth units could attach to FM radios, and stream from wifi. Easy technologies, and probably not expensive.

Trevor Harris and others have pointed out the use of internet radio - I agree, its going to be much bigger. 3/4/5G phone use is going to explode, and the cost of data will continue to fall. The number of people using their pc/phone/tablet (eith 3/4G or via wifi) is already considerable. At home, streaming services are becoming more popular, via Airplay, internet radio, networked speakers, etc. Yet this growth will not favour FM, but help to kill it.

Mobile radio listening would take over from FM if DAB is not practical in your car, and at home, streaming speaker systems could replace those little FM radios about the house (or use the units described above).

Here is the bottom line. Every time someone switches to listening digitally (in whatever form that might be), thats one less reason to keep broadcasting in analogue, and at some point, the balance will shift away from keeping FM. You can all keep writing about it, but change is coming, and all we can do is figure out the best way to manage it.

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MikeB's 2,579 posts GB flag
Trevor Harris

10:20 AM


Exactly. The choice argument is very suspect. Have a choice of of 55 stations with such low quality is not realy a choice at all. In any case many of the stations have very similar playlists and many are not distinguishable by content. In fact there are very few specialist stations other than pirate radio stations.

May be we need a few pirate radio stations to show how to do it properly. They could use one of the cheap transmitters Ofcom has been talking about only they could use DAB+ at 320kb/s. Then people would start to ask why the pirates sound so much better. In fact the local stations could use a higher quality too.

Of course all is not lost because we have the internet. Radio Jackie has an unadulterated 320kb/s aac stream.

Of course it is the so called FM switch off which is the big bone of contention. Why should 50% of listeners be deprived of FM national stations just to satisfy the small minority who wish to listen to the DAB only stations.

The other issue is that I am forced by law to pay for all this and all the other financial blunders the BBC has made.

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Trevor Harris's 367 posts GB flag

12:42 PM

MJ Ray: I have sorted out the map colours for Lincs.

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Briantist's 38,915 posts GB flag

6:25 PM

@ Trevor:

"Why should 50% of listeners be deprived of FM national stations just to satisfy the small minority who wish to listen to the DAB only stations."

If fewer than 50% of listening is via FM then digital listening must be more than 50% - some of it will be DAB, some online and some digital TV. It doesn't matter how much of each because the future of radio will be a mix of digital platforms.

In December 2010 FM listening accounted for 67% of listening, In June 2013 it accounted for just 58.5%. That's a fall of 8.5% in just two and half years.

No digital platform is seeing its audience fall. Imagine how low FM listening is going to be in 2020 when most people have access to a phone, tablet or DAB radio (or all three).

BBC Radio 6 Music now has almost as many listeners as BBC Radio 3 (it will shorlty overtake it).so it isn't such a small minority listening to these stations. BBC 1 Xtra is the 7th biggest station in London by reach.

"They could use one of the cheap transmitters Ofcom has been talking about only they could use DAB+ at 320kb/s"

The DAB spec only goes up to 192kbps.

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Mark's 181 posts GB flag

7:05 PM

A correction to my earlier post:

BBC 1 Xtra is the 7th biggest station in London by reach among 15-24 year-olds, not overall.

I think that's still pretty impressive though when you consider the number of stations aimed at young people in London.

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Mark's 181 posts GB flag
Trevor Harris

7:09 PM

Actually the original spec went up to 384kb/s for stereo on DAB. I seem to remember some stations in Europe were using 320kb/s. The DAB+ spec may have reduced the maximum for AAC but I need to check.

The target fixed by "The Plan" is for 50% digital listening. If the plan is happens (which it won't) 50% won't be able to listen on FM especially in their cars. Many people listen to the radio on FM in thier cars on the way to and from work. Can the BBC afford to loose this number of listeners. It would be a public relations disaster.

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Trevor Harris's 367 posts GB flag

7:54 PM

Trevor Harris:

The digital listening share in June 2013 is 36.8%, up from 31.5% in June 2012. If we assume a minimum growth of 5.3 percentage points each year the 50% threshold will be met in late 2015.….pdf

It will be achieved well before any switch off at the end of this decade.

However digital listening has increased by 2.5 percentage points since March 2013, which suggests that it's accelerating and the 50% may be reached sooner than late 2015.

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Mark's 181 posts GB flag
Charles Stuart

10:20 PM

@Trevor Harris - I don't understand why you think FM is so superior in cars. In my experience, RDS really doesn't work well. When the signal fails from one transmitter, the radio is supposed to jump immediately to an alternative transmitter. Only it doesn't. It takes an aeon to find the best transmitter and this usually happens when whatever you really want to hear is being transmitted. In this respect, DAB is much better because, as long as there is an available transmitter, the transition is seamless. Also, cars give off so much extraneous noise that I really don't think that sound quality is important. Quite different at home, where I agree that a strong FM signal gives much better reproduction. It's a shame that from my point of view all the decent stations are on DAB.

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Charles Stuart's 159 posts GB flag
Charles's: mapC's Freeview map terrainC's terrain plot wavesC's frequency data C's Freeview Detailed Coverage
Wednesday, 4 September 2013
Trevor Harris

7:52 PM

Actually I am not an FM fanatic but I am against the BBC trying to force people to go over to DAB which is what they are doing by turning off national BBC FM stations. The BBC has spent hundreds of millions on massive advertising campains with very little efffect. The idea to turn off a service still used by 50% of users is ludicrous.

If people want a separate radio service to replace FM then is should be replaced with a superior technology not the legacy DAB system. FM should only be turned off when only a few people are still using it. The 50% figure is far too high.

I personally believe the the internet is the best way to deliver all broadcasting services but I think it will be some time before it can. Whatever happens it should be consumer driven and DAB is not. It is driven by massive advertising campains and threats to turn off FM.

There has also been the problem of DAB switch offs. Some people have gone out and bought a DAB reciever only to find thier favourite station has been withdrawn. My advice to people is to buy an Internet Radio for indoor use.

It is odd that the BBC has continued to support DAB in the face of such opposition. I think the BBC cannot afford to admit to another major project failure.

As for sound quality not being important in car radios I don't realy agree. It does depend on your car but manufacturers spend quite alot of money on the audio system. Many now have seperate amplifiers with 8 speaker systems.

Another thing is that all the BBC stations are available at 128kb/s AAC on the internet. They have been designed for Itunes to use but it is possibe to use them on internet radios. The BBC seems very coy about these as I can find nothing about them on thier web site.

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Trevor Harris's 367 posts GB flag
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