Page last updated at 09:29 GMT, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 10:29 UK

Kill or cure for pirate radio?

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How well do DAB car radios work? Zoe Kleinman puts two to the test.

Zoe Kleinman
BBC News Online

For years pirate radio has sailed along just below the radar.

Typically it takes the form of a blistering burst of hardcore dance music when you least expect it, followed by a "shout out" that is so shouted out it is almost incomprehensible.

Pirate radio has never been less loved. It is a far cry from the heyday of Radio Caroline in the 1960s, or Ireland's hugely popular pirate networks Radio Nova and Sunshine 101 that were big in the 1980s.

Now it faces a new adversary: the digital switchover.

Filling the void

The Digital Britain report, published by the government on 15 June, recommended that all national radio broadcasters cease to broadcast on FM in 2015. If the government accepts these recommendations it will leave only local community services on the analogue airwaves.

It will mean that well-known frequencies such as 88-91FM (BBC Radio 2) and 106.2FM (Heart FM in London) will fall empty.

Will the pirates move in to fill the void and entertain DAB refuseniks with mainstream offerings instead of the usual drum n bass?

It is possible to imagine a spectrum full of illegal networks jamming FM with popular show-tunes, phone-ins and love songs, think some.

"If an opening is available for any length of time, someone will take a run at it," believes Robbie Robinson aka Robbie Dale, who set up Dublin pirate music station Sunshine 101 in September 1980.

Legitimate concern

When we switched from AM to FM the audience came with us. Technology always moves people on
Clive Dickens, Absolute Radio

James Cridland, head of technology for Audio and Music at the BBC, agrees that it's a legitimate concern.

"FM transmitters are cheap and easy," he says. "We could see an explosion of unlicensed radio, although I assume the government would look after the broadcasters with licences."

Clive Dickens, chief operating officer at Absolute Radio, does not think that the pirates will come to rule the FM airwaves. He thinks the future for piracy, if there is one, is online.

"There's this romantic vision of people taking over the airwaves. But why do that when you can do it on the internet and attract millions of people rather than a few thousand in, say, Croydon?" he asks.

"When we switched from AM to FM the audience came with us," he said. "Technology always moves people on."

Better late than never

Radio critic Paul Donovan also believes that it wouldn't be worth the pirates' while to take over.

"Any audience for anything still going out on FM will necessarily be pretty small post-switchover," he says. "No switchover will be permitted until most listeners are listening on DAB sets."

Lord Stephen Carter
Lord Carter's Digital Britain report calls for a complete switch to DAB radio within 6 years

Mr Donovan thinks it is unlikely that the nation will be ready for that big change as early as 2015. He predicts that 2025 is a more believable time frame.

Regulator Ofcom too has suggested that the timetable be tied to milestones in the use of digital radio sets. Only when 50% of listening is done on digital radios will the countdown to switchover start.

Ofcom estimates that about nine million DAB radios have been sold in the UK and 32% of households are thought to be DAB enabled.

By contrast Clive Dickens is optimistic about the earlier date.

"2015 is a realistic date," he says. "The radio industry talks down the success of DAB but consumers like it, and it works. I think in 2010 - 2011 we will see a huge take up."

Whenever the switchover happens, if they can't beat them, the pirates could always join them. Most of the software required for a DAB station can be found and downloaded at no cost on the internet.

Nobody has done it - yet - but perhaps it will be the fledgling platform's first badge of honour. "When the pirates set up a DAB station then we'll know DAB has really arrived," says James Cridland.



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SEE ALSO
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At a glance: Digital Britain
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