Lost Opportunities

The July launch of Dublin Community TV (DCTV), at long last a small glimmering dot of “ordinary people telling their own stories” in the Milky Way of commercially dominated television, should be a cause less for celebratory hoopla than for outrage at its isolation.

Digital broadcasting on TV and radio could have been, should have been, an opportunity for a genuine expansion of access to the airwaves and the development of locally based DIY services, among other effusions of choice and variety. Digital, after all, means (among other things) being able to get a whole lot more stuff over the air and down the cables. There is no logical reason, apart from the dominance of neo-liberal logic, why the public airwaves should simply be licensed for more clones of 2FM and MTV. On TV the situation is slightly complicated because the means of digital delivery haven't appeared to be exactly public: the Sky dishes and NTL/UPC cables are corporate property, notwithstanding their own licensing requirements. (As Morning Ireland's PR-puffery interview with Lucy Gaffney of Boxer TV in late July made clear, the future of what might be called “airborne” digital TV in Ireland is also corporate.)

On radio, digital audio broadcasting (DAB), over the very definitely public airwaves, already looks like an utter travesty. And it's there we get a clearer picture of the priorities, not to say the incompetence, of those who make key choices about our media environment.  I recently bit the bullet and, with an impulse purchase in the summer sales, bought a DAB radio — not one of the little bedside or kitchen-counter boxes that seem to dominate the small market for these gadgets, but a good tuner that I could hook up to a hi-fi to check out the alleged sonic benefits of DAB.

The cheapness of the thing might have given me pause: there is the inevitable industry hype about imminent DAB-plus or next-generation or whatever you're having yourself. But I reckon my new tuner was cheap less because of looming DABsolescence than because buyers are unconvinced about DAB per se. Anyway, I soon discovered that where I live in south Dublin city there are 20-odd DAB stations to tune.

That's not much more than the number I can get on free-to-air FM, counting some pirates, and about the same as I get on NTL's FM cable. (It's also a lot fewer than the number of radio stations on the NTL digital-TV set-top box, but that's arguably an unfair comparison.) But whereas the FM cable has long given me a nice set of crystal-clear BBC stations and the likes of Deutsche Welle into the bargain, DAB just gives me a bunch of RTE and Irish commercial services, with a truly dreadful set of machine-programmed music services (RTE Pulse, 2XM etc), Radio Kerry (??!) and precisely none (zero) of the many licensed non-commercial community and special-interest services that are broadcast in the Dublin area. The priority given to the handful of unique digital services can be measured by how badly they are run. The vaguely useful “RTE Headlines” service, for example, was broadcasting two separate feeds simultaneously for several hours one recent Tuesday evening: interesting, if you like your news accompanied by, uh, other news, or perhaps an ad for Mamma Mia, but not strictly what I'd call radio.

Ah, but DAB gives you the added value of the little teletype text scrolling across the digital tuning screen, right? That's useful if, let's see, you're looking for the text-number to send a pricy message to the station you're listening to, and not much else. Stations appear to be erratic, at best, in the upkeep of “Now Playing”: one's enjoyment of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘All of Me' on Lyric is not much enhanced when the scrolling window tells you, repeatedly, that it is in fact ‘Mozart's Oboe Concerto in C (3rd Movement)'.

Ella sounds okay, and so does Mozart, because Lyric drew the long straw on sound quality. One of the ways DAB squeezes more stations into the available spectrum is by compressing the audio's “bitrate”. It's a compromise that makes some sense: NewsTalk, for example, doesn't need FM quality, really. But even Lyric's bitrate, much higher than other services, is lower than the one the BBC settled on for BBC Radio 3's DAB output, after much controversy in Britain.  RTE wastes a bit of spectrum with the DAB-likes of “RTE Playback”, a sort of “here's one we played earlier”.

Time-shifted broadcasting is an extraordinary waste of time when past programmes can be heard on the web anyway. Meanwhile, over on TV, the extraordinary efforts to add interactivity to digital can make other messes: my NTL box was running an hour late for a few days recently, ie the 10pm shows went out at 11pm — an oddity fixed only when I unplugged the box. It was, in the favourite word of my younger friends, “random”. But not in a good way.  

Even the best of what digital broadcasting provides — like the “Performance Mainstreet” channel I just found, full of wonderful old music footage — can be matched, at least, with good use of the Internet. And that's the real story about digital broadcasting: it's holding the fort, badly, while audiences and content providers work out their net models. Better quality, more participation and much more choice lurks in the intersection of PC, radio and TV.

The irony is that while the existing airwaves are “public”, the means by which most of us access Internet are resolutely private – yet users steeped in the democratic possibilities of the medium are holding out passionately for a “net neutrality” approach whereby, say, DCTV online will be as easy to use as CNN. The future of digital content is surely online, and it's absolutely essential we resist any corporate stranglehold on the net, not least for the future of radio and TV.