DAB. What a load of rubbish it STILL is.

I’ve recently bought a new (to me – it’s over 10 years old) car, and I’m struggling to decide if I can be bothered to take out the radio that came in it, and install my old DAB one back in.

The stations I mostly listened to on DAB in my old car, were Nation Radio, Absolute Radio, and XFM. And a little bit of 6music. And sometimes Absolute Radio 90s (but the sound quality is rubbish compared to the other Absolute stations, and it’s off-air for half of Saturday when it becomes Absolute Radio Extra, and broadcasts sport).

However, sadly, MXR Severn Estuary is closing down in a few months on 29th July 2013.
I can hear the collective shock from both the people reading this.
Right – so for those of you who have no idea what that even is, I’ll try and explain. DAB radio stations are grouped together on multiplexes. One multiplex carries many stations. There’s a national multiplex called DigitalOne which carries Absolute Radio, Planet Rock, and other national stations, across the UK. The BBC has its own separate national multiplex for Radio 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6music, etc.

There are also regional and local multiplexes.
 Some of the local ones are very local. You’ll struggle to get BBC Radio Bristol on DAB in some parts of Bristol. And it’s very patchy in a moving vehicle.

And then there are regional ones that cover larger areas than the local ones, but not the entire country. It means you can pick up a radio station from Swansea, in Bristol, Clevedon, and parts of Bath, but it won’t reach as far as Swindon.
 You can listen to XFM London in Bristol, as they broadcast on several regional multiplexes around the country. For that reason, you can also listen to them in Birmingham, but not necessarily all the way in between those two places. And despite how much easier DAB is meant to be to tune, those versions of XFM will likely be in different places on your ‘dial’, so you’d have to retune mid-way if you were driving from one to the other and wanted to carry on listening.

As of this year, ALL the regional multiplexes are closing down. It will depend where you live, but between July and September, you will lose access and won’t be able to pick up any station that currently broadcasts on them. This means no Nation Radio in Bristol.
 You won’t be able to get Real Radio, Kiss, LBC or Capital South Wales either.
 No XFM in Bristol or Birmingham.

Here’s a list of the stations potentially affected by these closures throughout the country:

  • Capital North East
  • Capital Yorkshire
  • Capital Birmingham
  • Choice FM
  • Gold
  • Heart (London)
  • Heart (West Midlands)
  • Kerrang
  • LBC
  • Panjab Radio
  • Real Radio (North East)
  • Real Radio XS
  • Smooth Radio
  • UCB Gospel
  • UCB Inspirational
  • Nation 80s
  • Capital South Wales
  • Kiss
  • Mountain FM
  • Nation Radio
  • Real Radio (Wales)
  • Yorkshire Radio
  • XFM (London)

I’m hoping, as there is space on the national DigitalOne network, due to the apparently high cost of broadcasting on it, and endless stations struggling financially, that XFM (who are bankrolled by a large radio group) might switch to that, and get themselves a truly national radio station.
 But for the rest of you enjoying a small local radio station which is deemed to be ever so slightly outside your broadcast area, you’ll have to resort to the Internet. 
And that likely excludes anyone in cars, unless they fancy using their monthly mobile data allowance before the week is out.
(Technically you can get Nation Radio and Real Radio (Wales) on FM in some parts of Bristol. The further you get from the M5 though, the worse the signal gets.)

Who cares?

I’m sure there are about 12 people in the UK upset by this, as I’ve still never met another person who has DAB installed in their car. This is due to the cost/convoluted nature, as well as both car and radio manufacturers not producing the radios.
 You can now, finally, get a DAB car radio from a manufacturer other than JVC (who have been the only reasonably priced option in this field for ages) for around £100.
 But other options like bluetooth streaming are not available.

You can get a car radio with bluetooth streaming for £75, or one with DAB for £100, but if you want both, add those figures together, and piecemeal some extra ‘optional add-on’ type components, for a quite messy setup.

Then it needs a separate aerial – you can’t just use the normal FM one. (I don’t know why – the home DAB radios use one cheap FM aerial for both FM and DAB, and work perfectly well.) Some radios come with free ones, but the reviews for these will soon tell you they’re completely useless, so a DAB aerial can be anything from £30-£50, AND you’ll have to run it through the car yourself, THEN decide whether you want it sticking permanently on the window (outside), or you want to drill holes through the roof to install it there.
 You can pay someone else to fit it, for yet more expense. 
With my previous cars, I bought an aerial that was meant to clamp onto the boot lid outside, then when I realised it wouldn’t clamp to my car model (or any subsequent car I’ve owned), I just clamped it to the parcel shelf inside. It works ok, and stops people nicking/bending/snapping it.

And all this, so you can get a small handful of stations like 6music and Absolute Radio. National BBC Radio 1-4, and everything local is on FM anyway.
 5live is mostly speech-based, and is on MW. Technically Absolute Radio is too, but who wants to listen to music on MW? Eugh.
I’ve had in-car DAB since 2006, and there has been unusual and niche radio stations on DAB on/off, but most have now closed down.

The website for the national DigitalOne network still lists all the stations on the soon-to-be-closed regional multiplexes as a reason to switch to DAB, and their link to what the BBC are doing about their excuse for DAB coverage (nowhere near as good as the commercial national DAB network), just goes to a page about listening online.
Absolute Radio (one of the main reasons to consider DAB in the first place), have started a thing where if you register (for free) and listen online, you hear less adverts than those listening via DAB. What sort of incentive is that to go through the DAB hassle?
I heard a public-service sounding advert on the radio in the car the other day from some digital radio group. It started off talking about digital radio, then veered off into talking about the (Internet-based) radioplayer.
 DAB definitely still does exist, right?

It would be better if the parties involved could just admit DAB was a terrible silly mistake, and have a go at something else. 
Like satellite radio. That might be better, perhaps?

Update: 11 August 2013

A nice man named Graeme emailed me regarding this post, after trying to leave a comment and my website not working for some reason. I was suspicious he might be a spammer or a stalker, as he contacted me via an email address I thought wasn’t listed anywhere, but it turns out I’m an idiot, and unbeknownst to me, a plugin I’d installed was broadcasting it to the whole world. Anyway, here’s what he said:

“DAB promised so much but money-grabbing bandwidth squeezes to get as many stations as possible into a finite amount of space meant ever-decreasing bandwidth per station and – ultimately – a better sound quality on good old FM, the very same place they convinced us we needed to leave in the first place… Sigh… (And in my car I now stream Internet radio from my phone to the aux socket. Less integrated, more choice)”

It’s a good point. If you’ve got a half decent Internet connection, I don’t know why anyone would bother with DAB. I’d be worried about my mobile data allowance, plus I’ve tried driving about listening to streaming audio – it’s seems a bit hit and miss. I’ve had some journeys where it’s been fine, and it’s probably better in the city, but it’s quite unlikely I can keep 3g connectivity driving from Bristol to Clevedon or Birmingham. I know it won’t last between here and Thornbury (Bristol and Thornbury both have 3g reception on O2, but not the bit in the middle.)

Since Graeme emailed me (it was a fortnight ago – I’ve been a bit slow in updating this), XFM has gone from the Severn Estuary multiplex completely. Which sucks.

I’ve also discovered a radio station called TeamRock, on national DigitalOne. Music choice seems good as I’ve flicked past it, signal is good because it’s on DigitalOne, but my god the sound quality is appalling. It sounds barely adequate for speech, let alone hit rock music. It seems more noticeable in the confines of my car (where I do most of my DAB listening, really) surrounded by speakers, than at home in the living room with it in the corner.

A google search tells me that it’s only broadcasting in mono ( http://www.a516digital.com/2013/05/national-dab-multiplex-changes-more.html ) and as a result of its addition, Absolute 80s and Planet Rock have also gone from stereo to mono on DigitalOne. It means Absolute Radio and Classic FM are the only two national (non-BBC) stations broadcasting in stereo on DAB. More choice and better quality than FM? Hardly.

  • David Booth

    Just lost LBC in Stoke on Trent 🙁 Really miffed off. So much for the wonders of digital radio Now I can’t get a decent chat station.