BBC pulling back from the DAByss?

Simply because Tim Davie, the BBC’s new radio chief, has a background in advertising and marketing, that isn’t a reason to assume everything he says is a lie. It’s more charitable to say he’s well practiced in the dark acts of spinning, having learnt the trade at Pepsi and Proctor and Gamble. And so you might want to take the explanation he offered on DAB strategy last week with a large dose of organic salt.

For the first time, a top BBC executive admitted that DAB radio isn’t inevitable. The Director of BBC Audio and Music told Radio 4’s Feedback programme that “since I have arrived at the BBC, I certainly haven’t seen it as inevitable that we move to DAB.”

Davie continued:

“We do believe that, if radio doesn’t have a digital broadcast platform, it will be disadvantaged. I’m pretty convinced of that logic. What I’m not saying is that we have to move at 2015 if we haven’t delivered the thresholds – the right levels of listening to digital radio and to DAB. I don’t think we are on a course that is unstoppable to 2015, although we are pretty committed to a DAB switchover over time.”

Davie was responding to a deluge of negative responses unleashed by Carter’s Digital Britain report. The report, the nation’s Media Correspondents told us, would order analog radio to be switched off in 2015. Incorrectly, as it turned out. Emboldened by this, it was suddenly open season on DAB. The Tories have sniffed a vote winner, although shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt shows the same reluctance to grasp the underlying problems.

Radio 4’s Today programme sent its radio car to the remote location of er, BBC Television Centre, and discovered DAB reception “is more irritating than Norman Collier’s broken mic routine”. That is, if they could get it at all. Back in the studio, former TalkSport owner Kelvin McKenzie listed more DAB closures and concluded: “There are no advertisers out there, no listeners out there. DAB is a technology whose day is done.”

Davie was merely trying to defang the backlash. Listeners don’t like to feel bullied, and especially not bullied onto a technology that is perceived to offer only disadvantages. No one talks about the much-vaunted crystal clear reception any more, or choice, or whizzy new features.

“What we might be seeing is the opening salvo of an action folder marked ‘Possible DAB Downgrade/Exit Strategy’”, mused the radio analyst Grant Goddard. “The nuclear button might never have to be pressed, but it’s always useful to know where the exit doors are and how you are going to reach them, however little you might want to think about the DAB plane going down in flames.”

I’m not so sure.

Carter’s report failed radio by ducking two serious areas. DAB’s problems are both technological and financial, and the two are interlinked. More modern codecs offered by DMB (the DAB technologists’ preferred route) or DVB-H could cut the transmission costs, lead to cheaper sets, and give us better and more complete reception. This required something stronger than what Carter proposed – an airy desire that sets should be forward compatible somehow.

As for the financial issues which beset commercial radio, it’s hard to see how anything short of a compulsory nationalisation of Arqiva and chopping up the spectrum could help. (Arqiva is where the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s transmission facilities, along with DTELs, the Home Office’s radio network for defence and emergency services, have ended up).

The BBC doesn’t want half of its audience to disappear overnight, either (one of the two switchover criteria is 50 per cent of listeners), so here we see Davie steering it away from backing any kind of commitment. But nor does the BBC want a fragmented world where the audience wanders off to discover more engaging material, as they have since the very beginning of radio. That’s what Davie means by “a digital broadcast platform” – he means one single, nationwide, one-to-many broadcast standard, with presets in all the receivers. The sheep must not stray from the fold.

So we’re muddling along as before, without the carriage costs being addressed, and without a firm roadmap for DAB’s successors. One thought ought to keep radio executives awake at night. By 2015, IP networks will be fully capable of IPv6 multicast, as we’ll be well into 4G (LTE) deployment by then. If half of the terrestrial radio is audience is disenfranchised overnight, the mobile operators will only be too happy to offer them – and advertisers – a home from home.

BBC's science: 'Evangelical, shallow and sparse'

The BBC’s environmental coverage has come under fire from a former science correspondent. Award-winning author and journalist David Whitehouse says the corporation risks public ridicule – or worse – with what he calls “an evangelical, inconsistent climate change reporting and its narrow, shallow and sparse reporting on other scientific issues.”

Whitehouse relates how he was ticked off for taking a cautious approach to apocalyptic predictions when a link between BSE in cattle (“Mad Cow Disease”) and vCJD in humans was accepted by government officials in 1996. Those predictions “…rested on a cascade of debateable assumptions being fed into a computer model that had been tweaked to hindcast previous data,” he writes.

“My approach was not favoured by the BBC at the time and I was severely criticised in 1998 and told I was wrong and not reporting the BSE/vCJD story correctly.”

The Beeb wasn’t alone. With bloodthirsty glee, the Observer newspaper at the time predicted millions infected, crematoria full of smoking human remains – and the government handing out suicide pills to the public. Whitehouse feels his caution is now vindicated. The number of cases traced to vCJD in the UK is now 163 – and the only suicides were farmers who had feared their livelihoods destroyed.

Writes Whitehouse:

“Reporting the consensus about climate change…is not synonymous with good science reporting. The BBC is at an important point. It has been narrow minded about climate change for many years and they have become at the very least a cliché and at worst lampooned as being predictable and biased by a public that doesn’t believe them anymore.”

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The BBC, Thermageddon, and a Giant Snake

a giant snake

Listeners to BBC World Service’s Science in Action program got a nasty surprise last week. In the midst of a discussion about the large snake fossil, a scientist dropped this bombshell:

“The Planet has heated and cooled repeatedly throughout its history. What we’re doing is the rate at which we’re heating the planet is many orders of magnitude faster than any natural process – and is moving too fast for natural systems to respond.”

Hearing this, I did what any normal person would do: grab all the bags of frozen peas I could find in the ice compartment of my refridgerator, and hunker down behind the sofa to wait for Thermageddon.

Hours passed. My life flashed before my eyes a few times, and a few times more. But then I noticed that the house was still there, and so was the neighbourhood. And so was I!

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The BBC's Tragic Twitterers

Rory Celland Jones

Here’s a conundrum. Top Media People want to come out of the shadows and get “closer to their listeners” – it’s what the Web 2.0 people urge them to do. BBC people in particular are obsessed with being seen to be bossy or “out-of-touch” – especially since three out of four license payers have a gripe with the corporation.

But the more of themselves media people reveal, the more the public sees them as clueless, self-referential and narcissistic bunch so many of them are. And the more time the BBC spends on peripheral New Media wankery, the more people wonder why they’re paying a license fee. You’d need a heart of silicon not to enjoy their agony. The poor souls.

At Monday’s “Radio At The Edge” forum at Westminster a panel of three: presenter Iain Lee, a Nathan Barley-type from Channel 4 called Dan Heft, and the BBC’s website’s tech blogger Rory Cellan Jones – better known as ‘Uncle Bryn’ in the hit comedy show Gavin and Stacey – all came to praise the glory of Twittering, Googling 24×7, and user generated content.

The audience was packed with BBC New Media employees – masters of JavaScript, and people who can say “social media” without blushing. So it all promised to be a swoon – with ritual noises of self-abasement from the broadcasters.

But what spoiled this was the panel’s chair, Fi Glover, who could barely contain her sarcasm or her scorn for the “Emperor’s New Clothes”, as she called it a few times.

Uncle Bryn took to the stage and spent the first minute taking pictures of the other panelists – and the audience – using his Blackberry. Asked what he was doing, he said he was trying to Twitter live that he was Twittering live from a panel about Twitter.

Over to Dan Heft, who reminded us that “you leave a trail of digital content out there”, but Bryn’s own trail had come to a halt – he couldn’t get his Twitter feed to work.

“I haven’t done any work – I’ve been blogging,” Bryn admitted, adding that he’d been “doing a helluva lot of Twittering”, too.

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Top-slicing the Beeb: Clueless execs get busy

Some quangos, like jellyfish, seem to be able to reproduce asexually. It’s what they live to do. What this means is that without any contact, parthenogenesis occurs and they simply spawn off a little version of themselves, which may grow as large as its parent. Britain’s uber-regulator Ofcom, I learned this week, definitely falls into this class. I just hadn’t realised how badly it longs to plop out lots of baby Ofcoms.

Ofcom recently proposed that the BBC should share the licence fee with commercial rivals. But with one exception, none of the commercial rivals actually want this to happen – which leaves Ofcom keenest of all on the idea.

At the Westminster Media Forum debate on Wednesday, executives from the top of British TV management discussed the regulator’s review into Public Service Broadcasting, in which “top-slicing” the licence fee is The Big Idea.

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Earth to Ofcom: They're our airwaves. Give us them back

Sometimes Ofcom, Britain’s media and telecomms uber-regulator, likes to agonise in public whether Britain needs a media and telecomms uber-regulator.

It must feel like a stag night in SE1, as the executives fly in expensive blue-sky wonks and consultants, and Ofcom gets quite giddy with itself at the prospect of a world without Ofcom. Then sobriety returns, of course, and it wakes up and finds itself knickerless and handcuffed to a lampost.

So Ofcom gets back to what it loves doing best: Making Very Big Decisions about What’s Good for Us.

Yesterday Ofcom published its second Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) review in five years, and while this one extends itself to encompass new media – such as the very intarweb you’re reading now – it doesn’t do much more than hem and haw, and fret about the status quo. This PSB review doesn’t dare answer the questions it raises, while leaving the biggest issues untouched.

So here’s a modest proposal.
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DAB: A very British failure

Emergency talks to save digital radio are taking place in Manchester today, the FT reports. Unloved, unviable, and often unlistenable, DAB is a technology the public clearly doesn’t want; so it comes as no surprise to learn that coercion will be used to persuading the public to get on board. With DAB, we’re expected to pay for the stick that beats us up.

DAB has been a very British failure. While the specification is almost 20 years old, and (just about) adequate, bureaucracy and regulatory greed left British listeners with an experience far short of the “CD quality” sound they were promised.

Digital radio has been expensively promoted by both the BBC and Ofcom – both of whom have deeply vested interests in the digital switchover. And the vested interests range far and wide, too – media companies have digital stations of their own, and prefer cross-promoting their investments in their publications to reporting the subject frankly. Meanwhile, analogue radio remains Briton’s best-loved and most popular medium, a survey confirmed this week, with 100m analogue sets in use – compared to 6.5m DAB receivers.

Finally, GCap blew the whistle on the charade two weeks ago, when it announced that it was canning two of its DAB stations.

“We do not believe that – with its current cost structure and infrastructure – [DAB] is an economically viable platform,” the commercial broadcaster said.

The FT reports that secret crisis talks are taking place in Manchester today to try and make digital radio more attractive to commercial broadcasters. Coercion of one form or another seems high on the agenda, however.

One idea is to make the analogue receivers obsolete overnight, by withdrawing BBC broadcasts from analogue radio. Want the Beeb? Go out and buy a new set.

Running down analogue has also spawned dozens of thriving community FM stations, which provide a stark contrast to government-backed “community empowerment” programs based on web technologies such as social networking. These stations also embarrass the BBC, whose own lacklustre local radio stations too often appear to serve as a home for washed-up Alan Partridges. When given the choice, people prefer listening to real people, rather than the patronising “local” voice of the BBC.

Another idea cited is to use our own money for more digital propaganda. The FT reports that the BBC has a £250m spare license payers’ cash, in the kitty handed to it for digital radio:

“Another radical idea would be to use public money to support a huge switchover advertising campaign – and subsidies for elderly and low-income families to buy new radios – in the same way that as has happened in aiding the switch-over to digital television.”

Teachers: Feel my Truthiness – Jimbo

Yes, it’s that time of year when children eagerly gather round a kindly old man with a beard. He makes great promises to them, if only they just work hard enough. But they just get a load of obscenities back.

Only it’s not Santa.

Wikipedia’s Maximum Leader and peripatetic salesman Jimmy Wales breezed into London yesterday. This time he’s pitching Jimbo’s Big Bag of Trivia at teachers and lecturers.
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Google's founders are less humble (and jetless) than you think

Casting around for an example of the simple life to use in an Arab-bashing column, veteran columnist and editor Alexander Chancellor alighted on what he must have thought was the perfect foil to the free-spending Saudis.

It appeared right there in front of him, on his PC, nestling between some coloured balls.

Unlike Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, wrote Chancellor on Saturday, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin “don’t have private jets, Rolls-Royces, yachts or any of the other pointless accoutrements of the super-rich”.

“Page and Brin each own nothing more flashy than a modest Toyota Prius, the environmentally virtuous hybrid car,” he explained, adding:

“Like the other princes of Silicon Valley, they don’t show off. They are eager to appear unpretentious and affect to like simple things. Theirs is a world of jeans, sneakers, Starbucks, and girls-next-door.”

Chancellor didn’t mention high school bops, the Everly Brothers or bobbysox, but it was clear he’d fallen asleep by his PC, dreaming of some forgotten 1950s film (or girl).

Then the blue ball bumped into red ball, and reality returned.
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Sadville is great for bubblewrap kids – BBC

TV shrink Tanya Byron blamed over-protective parents for keeping “bubble wrap” kids away from real social interaction and tethered to technology such as the internet, we reported yesterday.

The government is hiring Byron to tout a “Live Consultation”, soliciting views on how the internet might affect children. That’s your taxes at work, Part One.

How odd then that the BBC, while making deep cuts in real current affairs coverage, is investing heavily in “virtual worlds”. That’s your taxes at work, Part Two.
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