For best part of a decade and a half, DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) has been in place here in the UK. From its inception it promised so much. More stations, more content, higher quality and overall, it was supposed to make the old analogue FM and AM services redundant.
With the prevalence of subscription TV and digital freeview, the analogue TV signal has now been shut down across the UK with only a couple of years lead time. So why, 15 years on from the consumer rollout of DAB has it not become the standard?
Radio is still a massive part of the day to day lives of people in this country. According to the latest RAJAR data, Chris Evans at BBC Radio 2 is posting listener figures above 10 million every day and Nick Grimshaw on the opposing breakfast show on Radio 1 is getting 6.3 million listeners a day. So across two national shows you have nearly a quarter of the adult population of the UK.
However, these are FM channels, so what about DAB stations?
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Well, they are significantly lower. The RAJAR data for DAB stations isn't as easily available as it is for BBC FM stations (they aren't reported in the news and you need to be a paid subscriber to RAJAR to get the data), however, the audience share percentages are available. Planet Rock maintains a share of 0.5% of the radio audience; Absolute 80s holds just 0.2%. For comparison, BBC Radio 1, across all its shows averages out at 7.9% of the radio audience. So the question here is; why aren't more people listening to DAB stations?
Most of the reasons for this can be attributed to technology. Technologically speaking, there are two reasons for this:
Firstly, the availability of the hardware to listen to digital radio. While it's very easy and actually quite cheap to buy a DAB radio, the hardware hasn't really found its way into the place that most people listen to the radio; the car.
That's right, studies have indicated that a large proportion of listeners do so while driving a car. Now, this presents an issue for DAB stations. In the UK, digital radio receivers have been available for cars for a while, but usually only as an option extra for an extra expense. Until you reach the higher prestige cars (BMW, Audi, Mercedes etc), digital receivers are not standard items. Most cars nowadays come with CD players/changers or iPhone/Mp3 connections but they also tend to be lumped with a normal FM and AM receiver. Considering the cost of the options to upgrade to a DAB radio, most consumers don't really see the need for it and simply don't bother.
The second issue with technology is the actual audio itself. DAB has a limited bandwidth. This isn't defined per channel, but there is simply a finite amount of information that can be passed over the spectrum in general. All of the organisations providing digital radio stations have to play nicely with each other so they can all get a reasonable quality stream to the listeners.
This presents several issues for the smaller independent broadcasters. In most cases, smaller broadcasters have to continually drop the quality of their audio streams or lose out completely to the bigger competition. Planet Rock radio, for example, recently dropped their audio stream down to 80kbps mono. Yes, MONO. BBC Radio 4's digital offering drops from 128kbps stereo to 80kbps mono after 6pm every day. For a talk station, like R4 or TalkSport (which broadcasts 64kbps mono), you're listening to people talking so the lower bitrates aren't a huge issue, but for music stations, especially the likes of Planet Rock, it's almost a killer blow.
Doing an unscientific test, I loaded up Planet Rock in a friend's car and compared it to Kerrang! radio and two FM radio stations, BBC Radio 1 and Capital FM. What I noticed was an immediate difference between the FM and DAB stations, in terms of volume and clarity. This, I wasn't surprised at. FM stations use huge amounts of post compression to maintain a dynamically level sound which naturally can push the volume up, or at the very least make it appear to be louder.
It was when I compared the two DAB stations that I got the largest shock. I've long held the belief that Kerrang! radio was the poorer quality of the two main digital rock stations. I have heard both stations through my Sky TV service and I've always gravitated to Planet Rock as a higher quality output, both in content and sound quality. Yet today, when I compared the two, Planet Rock sounded thin, cold and slightly crackly. Kerrang! wasn't amazing but it was a definite improvement from PR. I even went to the effort to adjust the EQ settings on the car stereo to see if I could coax a better sound from PR but alas, nothing was forthcoming.
Commercially, DAB appears to have been a failure. The digital only stations are constantly being sold and rebought by different companies who are then intent on making them profitable, resulting in severe cuts which can only then hamper the quality of the output. Less content, more adverts and more dissatisfied listeners tuning out.
Is there any way to improve DAB?
There is, but the UK is one of the handful of countries around the world which have not taken on the newest technology. DAB uses MP2 encoding to maintain a smaller bandwidth cost for each stream. It's universally agreed that it is not as good as the widely accepted MP3 format, but it is what it is. DAB+ is a newer version which has been adopted around the globe and boasts a significant increase in quality. It uses the newer, more efficient AAC+ format which maintains a small bandwidth footprint similar to MP2 but it encodes the data in a more competent way, allowing for an increase in quality without an increase in the size of the footprint.
However, DAB+ isn't likely to be taken on in the UK any time soon. Existing DAB hardware isn't forward compatible, so they will not be able to play content broadcast in DAB+. Considering the government and public broadcasting bodies have spent the last decade trying to convince people to invest in DAB, it would be a PR nightmare to then convince everyone to upgrade their hardware again lest it become obsolete. So we are pretty much stuck with a poor service simply because the powers that be didn't jump on the DAB+ bandwagon soon enough.
So what does that mean for the likes of Planet Rock? I honestly don't know. The lowest bitrate that they can drop to in order to save costs and bandwidth would be 64kbps mono, however, this is nigh on unlistenable for most people and borders on an actual crime for the rest of us.
The failings of DAB was based around the need for quantity of content over quality. The amount of the radio spectrum that OFCOM allowed for the service was far too narrow for the amount of stations that were proposed. Currently, internet only services are beginning to take off in a more significant way. The likes of Bloodstock Radio is gaining listeners daily, Q Radio has thrived ever since it became a satellite/internet only station and many more independent stations are popping up every day.
Internet radio is easier and easier to find. With the prevalence of smart phones and unlimited data plans, it is very easy for a listener to use a mobile app and stream the radio across the 3G or 4G networks.
DAB was a good idea, but it was so poorly managed that it never managed to catch up to the technology that was developed in its wake.