Personal musings on broadcast radio frequency changes
Before I went to bed, I learned about the possibility of more tasty radio stations coming my way. “Whoop whoop I thought,” thinking my erstwhile DAB receiver would benefit from a few new stations, using the DAB+ system. Then I realised the only one I would have been likely to listen to was Steve Penk’s Wind-Up channel. Chris Country was definitely out, so my opinions on the Manchester digital multiplex’s selection was met with a “meh”.
On Wednesday, I fired up the Auto Search setting on my trusty Bug (almost 11 years old and in rude health). Instead of showing Absolute Radio on the display on my usual station (BBC Radio Manchester), it showed the correct name. “Yippee!” I thought, “one step nearer to Chris Country and Penky’s station.” Then I did a search for my model on the Pure website.
DAB+ would be DAB- in one corner of Chez Vall. No chance of Chris Country, then.
Then it dawned on me that the earlier – or more modern cheaper DAB receivers – were only compatible with MP2 audio, the original audio standard for Digital Audio Broadcasting stations. DAB+ used MP3, like iPods, iPads, and iListenOnAnyOldJunkDevice has done for the last fifteen years. Why in Hoddle’s name weren’t the original DAB receivers designed for MP3 as well as MP2? Then I read on the Radio Today website that they are trying to get people to buy more radios and upgrade more often.
For what? I read about how the bit rates were embarrassing, a grave concern for anyone who prefers to listen on headphones (like yours truly). An average sounding MP3 file for me is 128kbps stereo. Hardly audiophile standard but slightly better than a compact cassette. On the said website, if found that the bit rates were… 32kbps and 64kbps! Not even as good as a crystal radio set. Then I realised I wouldn’t be missing much; of course, if I really wanted to listen to the new stations, there’s always the internet.
In this present time, thank the world for good old FM. If you look at the sales figures for DAB radios, we are nowhere near saturation coverage of DAB and DAB+ systems at the moment. Even the most modest of mobile phones have an FM radio. If you compare DAB with FM signals, there is little difference. Sometimes, a strong FM signal can surpass their digital counterparts.
Digital Audio Broadcasting, in my opinion, isn’t being used to deliver CD quality sound across the board. The technology seems to be about cramming as many stations as possible. Result: minimal improvement – or a step back – from good old Medium Wave, Long Wave, Shortwave and FM. Previous frequency changes have been about improving the sound quality for its listeners. For example, BBC Radio One’s full time transition from 1053kHz and 1089kHz on the Medium Wave to FM on the 01 September 1988 (97 – 99 FM).
DAB has been with us for fifteen or so years; the arrival of DAB+ would hasten the MP2 based format’s demise, and consign many a serviceable DAB radio to the scrapheap. Yet if you have, for example, a 1970s receiver, FM stereo can pack a serious punch. FM has been going since 1933, though gained popularity on our shores in the 1970s.
For many listeners, FM is a popular source for local, regional and national stations. It is also a boon for community stations like Tameside Radio. In 2008, the Digital Radio Working Group suggested that all analogue services should be transferred to DAB by 2017. Eight years on from the report, we are nowhere near the aspirational timetable. In fact, a recent OFCOM survey stated that 21% of those surveyed would not be buying a DAB receiver. 25% said they are certain not to buy a DAB radio.
In a February 2016 report on Radio Today, Piccadilly Radio legend Steve Penk, said that people wouldn’t want to buy DAB receivers to hear the same stations they are getting on AM and FM. He decries the lack of imagination, not least the fact you can hear the same stations on the cheapest of mobile phones. Who can blame them?
Ringing the frequency changes, 1970s and 1980s style
Manchester’s launch of DAB+ was marked by a lavish reception at the Hilton Hotel in Beetham Tower. When the BBC changed some of its frequencies around in 1978, all they had were a few words in the Radio Times, a set of stickers for your radio, and the King’s Singers.
On 247 metres, Radio One’s original AM wavelength, is Virgin 1215. From November 1978, it was taken over by Radio Three. 275 and 285 metres, is now the preserve of Talk Radio.
Ten years later, Radio One finally got its full time FM service. Prior to the 01 September 1988, listening to the charts meant going to Radio Two’s frequency. In advance, listeners were informed of this through test transmissions of Adrian Juste rabbiting on about the station’s regular fare (with an impression of Simon Bates thrown in).
With the higher FM frequencies freed for broadcast stations, Piccadilly Radio moved its 97.0 FM service to 103.0 FM in 1986. Again, there was no lavish beano involved. All they did was get Muff Murfin, and Airforce to create some new jingles. Using the Saddleworth transmitter, BBC Radio Manchester would follow suit, adding a second FM frequency on 104.6 FM. A boon for Tameside and Saddleworth listeners struggling on 95.1 FM or 1458 kHz on Medium Wave.
In 1994, GMR (as BBC Radio Manchester was known at the time) relinquished its AM service for a newcomer, Fortune 1458 AM. They were among a new wave of commercial stations brought in to increase competition for the BBC and add listener choice.
On the other end of the scale, 1988 saw similar changes which led to the first generation Independent Local Radio stations splitting its services. Piccadilly Radio would split in September that year with Key 103 taking the FM wavelength (with Piccadilly Radio 1152 on MW).
Up to the first half of the 1980s, the switch to FM from AM saw national stations improve on their sound quality. From the second half of the 1980s onwards, more a case of adding variety to our wavelength (which, to be honest, is no bad thing at all). By the 1990s, the launch of Independent National Radio station would not only increase choice, but also muscle in on ground trodden by the original wave of ILR stations and the BBC’s services. Then there was the small matter of Matthew Bannister’s scorched earth policy on BBC Radio One which heightened the INR stations’ appeal. That, my friend, is another story beyond the confines of this entry. We might touch upon it in a future post on East of the M60.
S.V., 26 May 2016.