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banner Monday, 14 May, 2001, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Radio's digital divide
Child listening to old-fashioned wireless
"But you tell the young people of today..."
Radio is undergoing a digital revolution, yet few listeners have forked out the readies to tune in, writes BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward.

Radio as we know it could be going the way of the mangle.

Technologies that are merely good help us do things that we never could before. But to be great, technologies need to help us do the things we already do far, far better.


It's a bit like after listening to CDs, you don't want to go back to vinyl

Glynn Jones of Digital One
Digital radio may well be a case in point.

In years to come, grandchildren may listen incredulously as you recount the days of fiddling with dials to catch an elusive station, of listening to tracks with no clue as to what they may be, and missing favourite shows while away from the radio.

Well, maybe not. But radio is about to change for the better.

Digital radio promises clearer reception, CD-quality sound, information on the track playing, and the kit to download tracks. All this, and no need to re-tune.

Turn on, tune in

Digital radio has been bubbling under since 1995 when the BBC switched on the first services.

Digital radio receiver
Portable sets will make all the difference
Since then - and particularly since 1999, when new digital stations started broadcasting and existing stations were rebroadcast digitally - it's gained growing numbers of fans.

So far, they are a small but loyal band - no more than 40,000 sets have been sold.

But the converts are all enthusiasts, says Glynn Jones, of the radio broadcaster Digital One.

"The people that have it love it because it sounds fantastic. It's a bit like after listening to CDs, you don't want to go back to vinyl."

Chips with everything

People who buy one digital radio tend to buy another soon after, he says, so they can listen in both at home and in the car.


This is the year of digital radio

Peter Florence of Radioscape
After all, radio is a popular medium - 90% of listeners tune in for 20 hours a week on average, but few have gone digital because of the cost of the receivers.

Until now, these have sold for several hundred to several thousand pounds, depending on whether the receiver is for a car or an add-on for a stereo.

Psion has already cut the cost of its Wavefinder digital radio for PCs to 199.

However, most people prefer to move their radios from room to room, rather than listen in just one place.

But portable sets have been unavailable because of a shortage of low cost, low power chips that can decode digital radio signals.

But now these chips are starting to be made in large quantities.

Music on the move

Peter Florence, founder and chief executive of chip design firm Radioscape, is confident that this is the year of digital radio.

Old-time radio
Radio fans prefer listen-and-carry sets
"By Christmas, you will see digital radios for 99," Mr Florence says.

It will take the availability of small "kitchen" radios to really make people consider buying a digital set, Mr Florence says.

Once they do, he's convinced that all will become big fans. Many of the receivers due to come out will enable people to program their radio much like a video.

Added extras

But the revolution doesn't stop there.

Phone user
"Just waiting for my request to come up..."
There are many companies working on building digital radios into mobile phones and portable music players, Mr Florence says.

Digital radio provides a way to get music to these devices, so that consumers do not have to pay to listen on the move.

But on a 3G phone network, the user pays for everything they do.

Thus digital radio may provide a much-needed incentive to sign up reluctant buyers to the 3G mobiles.

It is now up to the radio and phone companies to turn this dream into an affordable reality.

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See also:

22 Mar 01 | TV and Radio
Digital radio: Q&A
16 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Free digital access for trial areas
09 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Digital radio cost 'to fall'
26 Mar 01 | New Media
Fuzzy reception for digital radio
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