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FM to DAB to DAB+

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The British radio industry has just spent a month trying to persuade people to hand in their supposedly obsolete FM radios in exchange for a 10 to 20 per cent discount on new DAB digital radios. This heavily advertised “radio amnesty” or scrappage scheme, which ends this week (June 26), has obviously been inspired by the car industry. Unfortunately, the radio industry is trying to scrap the wrong things. It should be targeting the old DAB radios that are actually holding back progress.

The radio industry’s first problem is that the UK has more than 100 million FM radios and only around 10 million DAB radios. It’s not going to change that in three years (the government wants 50 per cent of listening to be digital by 2013) unless it starts giving away DAB radios. In fact, the gulf is getting wider every year as more and more mobile phones and MP3 players are sold with built-in FM radios while DAB sales languish. Well, even DAB radios now have FM as well.
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The radio industry’s second problem is that most of our DAB radios are already obsolescent. They can only use MP2 audio coding, which predates MP3. They can’t be upgraded to work with more efficient codecs such as AAC+, which is used in the newer world standard, DAB+.

If the UK moved to DAB+, broadcasters could use lower bit-rates to offer higher quality audio and more stations at a much lower cost per station. Everybody wins. But we can’t move to DAB+, because then the industry would have to tell all those people who bought “advanced” DAB radios that they are not advanced enough.

I can understand why the radio industry doesn’t want to do this, but not why the British government should let them get away with it. Why is it a great idea to make more than 100 million working FM radios obsolete, but it’s impossible to scrap fewer than 10 million DAB radios? That approach benefits the companies that want to flog us millions of new DAB radios, but it’s not in voters’ interests.

In any case, it’s not going to happen. We’ve bought 10 million DAB radios in 15 years, so we’re not going to suddenly start buying 10 million a year. And if the government’s proposed “digital switchover” goes ahead in 2015, it’s going to be buried in abuse from (in my estimate) roughly 25 million people who can no longer get BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 on FM. The BBC’s decision to close the 6 Music digital station would be a minor hiccup in comparison.

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