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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 10:34 GMT
Digital radio campaign gathers
Nick Higham
By media correspondent Nick Higham

November could be a good month for digital radio.

There are rumours that a major mass market manufacturer will shortly announce the release next spring of a range of digital receivers with starting prices as low as 99.


The problem with the digital world is that digital has been hijacked to mean all sorts of things

Quentin Howard, Digital One
It's the kind of good news the fledgling commercial digital stations could do with.

At the moment the cheapest digital sets cost 300 and the total number sold remains tiny.

The Digital Radio Development Bureau, funded by the BBC and the commercial broadcasters, is launching an autumn marketing campaign but its target is modest: 75,000 sets by the end of the year, 200,000 by the end of next year.

Major campaign

The Bureau is not alone in promoting the medium.

The BBC is committed to a major campaign as part of the price of government approval for its new digital networks.

Ministry of Sound Radio has been operating a temporary FM station in London throughout October to cross-promote its digital channel.

But perhaps it's not surprising that digital radio still has such a low profile, and that many people are confused about exactly what it is, when you realise that at least two leading receiver manufacturers are selling "digital" sets which aren't digital.

Analogue feeling

Roberts Radio, for instance, markets a number of sets in its Worldband range in this way, like the R9921 PLL "digital world radio with station name display".

It's a conventional analogue medium wave, short wave and FM radio, but it has a digital LED display and tuning circuitry.

Or how about the Sony ICFM33RDS, a small portable with "digital FM/AM/LW tuner with 15 presets"?

Or the Sony ICFSW40 "digital tuning worldband receiver with analogue feeling"?

Roberts's product director, Gerry Thorn, says manufacturers have been marketing "digital" radios like this for 15 years.

New term

"How do we describe a radio with digital circuitry if we don't call it digital?" he asks.

Since the set manufacturers have appropriated the term digital already, he suggests, it's the broadcasters who need to find a new term to describe their digital transmissions.

Such a term exists already: digital audio broadcasting, or DAB.

The difficulty is that it means little to the public, and broadcasters have quietly dropped it.

"The problem with the digital world is that digital has been hijacked to mean all sorts of things," says Quentin Howard, chief executive of Digital One which runs the national commercial digital service.

Confusion

He believes the problem is best tackled by educating the retailers, but also says it's important to develop some sort of kitemark to go on "real" digital radios.

A DAB sticker would help distinguish the two kinds of sets - but it would need a big campaign to educate the public and retailers, and could backfire by simply sowing more confusion. And that's the last thing digital radio needs.

This column also appears in the BBC magazine Ariel

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