Digital diversity 

15 August 2001

With the launch of digital television services in 1998, most of the publicity and hype surrounding the digital platforms concentrated on the ever-increasing number of television services, the fusion of the Internet and the television interface, or the embryonic experiments of viewer interactivity. However, the increased choice of audio channels has been more or less neglected, and it’s likely that many potential and existing digital subscribers haven’t realised that their digital sets also carry an increasing number of diverse radio channels, which unlike the majority of television services, are free to air across the UK.

It was only a mere 10 years ago that the British radio network consisted of five BBC national stations (one of those stations barely a year old), 30 BBC local stations and around 100 local independent stations (half the number of stations in existence today). National independent radio was just around the corner, and the potential for carrying the national radio stations on the Astra analogue satellite system was still mainly unexploited. Discussion and development of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) was muted, even amongst the industry. In fact, DAB has been broadcasting in the UK since 1996, yet little publicity and marketing of DAB compatible sets has occurred, hence minimal sales and distribution, and accusations of licence fee squandering by the BBC for its investment in DAB in the late 1990s sprang amongst the media, because of the low profile of the medium. And now in an age where television broadcasting goes through another major transition period to digital formats, the non-visual medium remains virtually ignored compared to the visual media.

But let’s not bemoan an assumed mass ignorance of radio on the digital platforms; in the past year the number of stations available to the digital consumer has doubled. Of course, the BBC maintains a frontline position in providing its radio services to the digital consumer.

  • Their five national networks are available, as they have been on the analogue satellite platform for over 10 years, including both the FM and AM versions of Radio 4.
  • The World Service is also carried 24 hours a day.
  • For the first time, listeners across the UK have access to the three BBC national stations (BBC Wales, BBC Scotland and BBC Ulster) in digital stereo
  • The BBC’s Asian service is also carried.

A thriving and growing independent sector exists alongside the BBC’s presence. Other tastes and interests are also catered for. ITN offer a rolling news service to complement their similar TV channel, radio stations for Asian and other ethnic minorities also have a notable presence, there has been a recent explosion in Christian music and talk networks, and the UK’s first national radio station for the LGB community.

It’s not just British media companies that are jumping on the digital radio platform background; RTÉ has already introduced its flagship network, Radio 1, on SkyDigital, and it’s likely its other networks will follow. Contributions from many of the world’s largest and respected broadcasters can also be received via the World Radio Network, which has also transferred from the Sky analogue service.

In the same way that Channel 4 broke the ground for minority interest groups a medium of expression and communication in the 1980s, the digital platforms are now offering the same outlet to minority interest groups, whose representations may have been overlooked by the BBC and the independent sector. After all, if we can accept a multi-channel television network, why shouldn’t we acknowledge and accept a multi-channel radio network the digital platforms offer us?

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Liverpool, Saturday 18 May 2024