RTE steps quietly into the unknown

Vague inklings of digital radio may have passed through your consciousness recently. RTÉ announcers occasionally quietly mention that listeners in the greater Dublin area and the North East can now tune into their favourite shows on their digital radios, or make low-key announcements to the press about trial runs of new digital radio channels. 

The nervous nature of the digital roll-out in Ireland would seem to belie RTÉ's pronouncement that digital radio is the new big thing. Officially launched by the national broadcaster in January 2006, the last two years have not seen digital audio broadcasting (DAB) make its presence felt in Ireland. RTÉ still only broadcasts to 36 per cent of the population in DAB, and whether anyone is listening in that format is another question. The lack of awareness of the digital revolution happening over our airwaves is not helped by the fact that RTÉ have really not introduced any new DAB channels worth listening to, unless you are between the ages of two and ten, in which case you can tune into RTÉ Junior, which broadcasts daily from ‘wake-up to bed-time'. RTÉ put ‘More choice and more content' as the number one reason for switching to DAB, but thus far we have been offered the kids channel, RTÉ 2XM, a talk and commercial free ‘youff' station that plays 500 computer generated radio friendly unit shifters per day, and RTÉ Gold. The latter promises lots of Elton John and Abba. A stab at rolling news has been attempted with RTÉ Digital Radio News, which endlessly repeats the hourly news bulletin.

While there are now 18 DAB stations technically available to the Irish listening public (the four mentioned above and 12 existing analogue stations), with the poor coverage available until RTÉ get approval for a full-time national licence for DAB from the Commission for Communications Regulation, only two new commercial stations have yet decided to pounce on the burgeoning Irish DAB market. All 80's Digital does exactly what it says on the tin. Mocha is a station named after a type of coffee, seemingly just so they can use the slogan ‘Smooth Hits with a Kick'. Both are the brainwaves of Dusty Rhodes, a DJ many of us know all too well from his days on Atlantic 252 and 2FM, who is now head of Digital Audio Productions.

Dusty believes that the future of Irish radio is digital. He says that 25 per cent of all radio listening in Britain is now done through digital. Already available there for several years, 85 per cent of the population can now receive DAB. While Irish audiences are struggling with the sudden loss of Medium Wave radio, Britain's population is apparently revelling in a plethora of niche stations that cater to every whim.

DAB allows the transmittance of sound and pictures as computerised bits of information, taking up much less space in the airwaves than traditional analogue systems, leaving more room for a larger variety of stations. Reception is better, with none of the hiss, crackle, fading or station overlap that comes with normal radio. Tuning is simplified to choosing a name from a screen, rather than fiddling with a dial, or re-tuning when driving. This screen also gives information about what you are listening to, such as song details or news headlines.   

This sounds like an improvement on what we have. But the theory has not met the reality. A technology writer in the Guardian called Jack Schofield has been campaigning for the adoption of AAC+ in Britain. Advanced Audio Coding was adopted as the worldwide standard for DAB in 2006, leaving the UK with obsolete technology that Schofield argues gives poor sound quality (as opposed to reception), due to audio compression.

With questions over the technology, maybe RTÉ should hedge their bets, rather than attempting to roll out national DAB. The Irish publics lack of enthusiasm for it is palpable. We could wait a little longer, until these teething problems have been ironed out, rather than finding ourselves with expensive digital radios that cannot pick up the latest coding, as would be the case if we go along with the British model, and then feel the need to change to keep up with the rest of the world.