Monday, 29 March 2010

Digital Radio? No thanks.

I haven't got a digital radio. Not because I'm an unrepentant Luddite, but because I'm perfectly happy with what I've got, thank you very much, and I don't see any reason why I should throw away the six or seven functioning sets I'm currently using. True, I can't listen to Radio 6 Music - not on the radio, anyway - but nor will anyone else once the BBC goes through with its plan to close the station down. Other than that, I don't think I'm missing anything. I love radio, but like most radio listeners I have two or three favourite stations that more than adequately meet my needs. Radio isn't like television. People don't want endless choice. Digital radio may be shiny and new, but it no more represents an improvement on what has gone before than the Amazon Kindle represents an improvement on books.

The advantages of analogue radio are manifold. Sets are cheap to manufacture (indeed, you can make one yourself with a few bits of wire), use far less energy (that is, battery-power) than their digital equivalents and are, in most parts of the country, extraordinarily reliable. They are supremely lightweight and portable. The signal is cheap to transmit, too: a mere £10 million per year, far less than digital. When the reception isn't perfect, you hear a hiss. When the reception on a digital radio isn't perfect you often don't hear anything. DAB audio quality is improving, but many people find it still inferior to FM. The scrapping of millions of sets would be environmentally disastrous and would cost every household in Britain a considerable amount of money, both in initial outlay and in batteries.

Yet the government's stated intention is that as early as 2015 national analogue broadcasting will cease and the FM spectrum given over to community radio. Digital radio is to be illiberally and outrageously foisted upon us; and we are told by lying ministers and digital propagandists that it is for our own benefit. We have never been asked if we want analogue radio to be discontinued; we have merely been told (though many people remain unaware of it). Neither the government nor the BBC (which solidly backs digitisation, for its usual self-aggrandising reasons) has even thought to ask the public whether it wants to be deprived of traditional radio broadcasts. This is an elite project, decided behind closed doors and presented as a fait accompli.

To move to digital-only provision is in the interest of radio manufacturers, the government (which thinks it can get money from auctioning off the FM spectrum) and, perhaps, some broadcasters (mainly the BBC). It is not in the public interest. People do not want it: in a recent poll, 94% expressed themselves happy with the analogue radio service. In an extraordinary report released (pdf) today, the House of Lords Communications Committee accepts most of these points, but then insists that the switchover must go ahead anyway, because not going ahead "would risk turning confusion into an utter shambles." As though avoiding a perceived shambles is preferable to abandoning a process that is manifestly not in the public interest.

The report admits that digital radio is not better than the tried-and-tested analogue technology, notes that most people are happy with FM, acknowledges that up to 100 million sets will have to be thrown out (although the true figure is probably twice that) when they cease to receive the radio stations people bought them to listen to. It also highlights the lack of enthusiasm for digital broadcast shown by the commercial sector, and expresses scepticism that switchover would increase the range of radio stations available to listeners. It notes that "the spectrum which will be released by the majority of stations ceasing to broadcast in analogue has little alternative use or value." Startlingly, it admits that "there is no polling evidence on whether consumers wish to receive national radio services in digital only." Perhaps the question hasn't been asked becauset he answer is too obvious. There is, however, this:

We received written submissions to this inquiry from over 120 members of the public, many of whom are unable to see how a switchover of the national radio channels to digital only would benefit listeners. This included a number who already had bought and listened to digital radios and think that reception, particularly of music channels, is better on FM.

Had they wished, the committee might have used these facts to launch a devastating case against the whole notion of analogue switch-off. Instead, all the report has to offer is a suggestion that elderly and vulnerable people be given help - at considerable public expense, of course - to "upgrade" to DAB. And, perhaps, some sort of scrappage scheme, the cost of which would far exceed what would be required to keep the analogue infrastructure going until the time - if ever - that it dies a natural death. After all, as the report states, "the industry, manufacturers and retailers, will benefit heavily from the new sales generated by digital switchover." Not, however, the consumer.

Oh, and the report also recommends "an early and extensive information campaign to publicise the Government’s digital radio policy, its rationale and its implications for listeners." Don't ask people what they want, just tell them what they're going to get.

The paternalism is startling. The public deserve to "know what is being planned" - not to have any say over what happens. They need "reassurance", not to be listened to. There is a "danger" that there will be opposition to the process of digitisation. If the public don't want the process, then that should be that. It's not a "danger". It's democracy.

The whole report - like earlier contributions to the debate, for example last year's Digital Britain report - constructs the public as a largely passive mass, needing to be informed, and in some cases helped, informed of the great advantages of digital, persuaded to change, sold on the technology, given advice, and of course forced to pay the licence fee - everything except being consulted. Broadcasting is construed as an arrangement between government, the media and equipment manufacturers in which the people are grateful for what they are given. Both as citizens and as consumers they are shown scant regard.

Here's a telling line: "The gradual rate of take-up of digital radio services does not suggest that consumers are enticed by the reception quality, extra functionality or the digital-only content so far available." The obvious conclusion is that the vast majority of people may not want, and do not feel they need, the supposed benefits of digital radio. So why not leave it at that? Why is the fact that people are still buying analogue radios an "unhappy situation" and not a simple product of consumer choice? The only case the report is able to make for continuing with a policy no-one really wants is that "the path to digital has already been taken." It points to the fact that people have "invested" in digital radios. Yet there is no reason why analogue and digital services should not coexist for many years to come.

Digital radio may represent "the future". But that should be a matter for the market, not the government, to decide. When motor cars were invented, the government didn't act to ban horse-drawn carriages. When the telephone was invented, the government didn't phase out the postal service - and if the internet, as looks likely, kills off most physical post that, too, will have happened of its own accord, not in response to a central diktat. There's no good reason to abandon a medium that is efficient, inexpensive, environmentally friendly and popular, in favour of one that is inefficient, costly, damaging to the enviroment, and which no-one wants. None whatever.