BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The British national tendency or at least so the stereotype goes, is to prefer the old to the new. The nation has steadfastly dug in its feet with regard to the Euro, and like us but unlike the rest of Europe, insists on staying with Imperial Units of Measurement -- the mile and the foamy pint. Now Britain is trying to come to grips with the latest in radio technology -- digital radio. Here in the U.S. we get it on satellite through two new services called XM and Sirius. There's also a terrestrial system in the works called IBOC. As for users, the only number we have so far comes from XM which has already amassed 136,000 subscribers. So how is Britain getting on? Our London correspondent Gareth Mitchell reports. [MUSIC]
ANNOUNCER: ...change between the Metropolitan Line and the Bakaloo [sp?] and the Jubilee Line-- [STATION CHANGE]
MAN: ...this is my friend Dave--
MAN: Hello! [STATION CHANGE]
ANNOUNCER: ...well General Motors makes about 1900 Corsa cars a day, and... [MUSIC CHANGE]
GARETH MITCHELL: Digital radio in all its no-distortion, high-band-width, CD-quality sound glory -- that's what you hear if you take a quick sweep through the digital services on air at present. There's BBC Radio Six music, Bloomberg, One Word, Classic FM, Abracadabra for children and plenty more.
MIKE SPENCER: There are over 60,000 units in the UK in people's homes, and, and they are listening to digital radio.
GARETH MITCHELL: Mike Spencer is marketing director for the UK's Digital Radio Development Bureau. Funded by the BBC and commercial radio -- it's the mouthpiece for the UK's digital radio industry.
MIKE SPENCER: We're hoping by the end of this year that there'll be in excess of a hundred thousand units available to consumers. We think that that'll be encouragement enough then for some of the major manufacturers to come along and say hey, we want a bit of this action. There are not enough manufacturers making product yet.
ANNOUNCER:Here comes Tudor, and - oh, Pacenta [sp?] fails the bat there; it was short outside the [off stamp ?]. Wasn't a very good stroke...
GARETH MITCHELL: Cricket commentary on the BBC's new digital sports radio channel, one of 6 digital radio stations to be launched by the corporation this year. The way the BBC's television and radio is run is set out by Royal Charter, and the corporation is funded by a license fee --effectively a government-enforced tax of around 150 dollars per year -- compulsory for any UK television owner. Like its existing analog radio services, the BBC's new digital stations are funded through the license fee.
LINDSAY CORNELL: We're required to provide services for everybody, because of the way that we're funded, which is by a license fee. We really have to, you know, make sure that everybody in the UK gets services that they're interested in.
GARETH MITCHELL: Lindsay Cornell, head of digital radio at the BBC--
LINDSAY CORNELL: Digital radio offers us the opportunities to meet audiences that in the past perhaps we haven't served so well.
GARETH MITCHELL: Though the BBC is bringing a host of new digital services to air, they've been a long time coming -- especially as the corporation started launching the system in the UK way back in 1995. All seemed well then, but the BBC, the other broadcasters and manufacturers, couldn't agree on the best way to get on with it. Matt Wells, media correspondent at the UK's Guardian Newspaper takes up the story.
MATT WELLS: They couldn't agree on the sort of technology that would become the standard in Britain. So there was that, and then there was the whole technological issue of getting cheap marketable sets, and then they were deciding how the licenses would be awarded and how far the BBC would get involved. All that took time, and that is now beginning to come together, which is why everyone's now getting excited about it.
GARETH MITCHELL: And along the way the government, usually all too happy to intervene in media affairs, hasn't been that vigorous in pushing the new technology, though it has done its best to smooth the way by effectively subsidizing broadcasters who choose to go digital. Back at the Digital Radio Development Bureau, Mike Spencer says that as of July 2002, the equipment is getting out there, at last.
MIKE SPENCER: There are over 60,000 units in the UK in people's homes that they are - and they are listening to digital radio, and we're hoping and, what, we're in June now -- by the end of this year that there'll be in excess of a hundred thousand units available to consumers. And we know that there is demand. We've done research and people out there definitely want it, but there are not enough manufacturers making product yet.
GARETH MITCHELL: Well to really see how the digital radio revolution is taking off or not in this country, I've ventured on to the High Street, this is fairly typical High Street in a fairly typical area of North London, so I'm going to see if I can buy a digital radio in any of the several hi-fi shops along this street. Excuse me -- do you sell digital radios?
MAN: Nope. We don't.
GARETH MITCHELL: Are people coming in asking to buy them at all?
MAN: Not really. ---
GARETH MITCHELL: Excuse me, do you sell digital radios at all?
MAN: No, we don't.
GARETH MITCHELL: Why not?
MAN: Well-- mainly there's a lack of demand, and I think probably it's because of the price.
GARETH MITCHELL: Now Totland Court Road [sp?] is the place for consumer electronics in London. If I'm not going to find a digital radio here, I'm not going to find one anywhere. Do you sell digital radios?
MAN: We, we do-- we only do it-- as a full hi-fi separate. We don't do any portable ones.
GARETH MITCHELL: So you're talking about these self-contained hi-fi units and presumably they're quite expensive.
MAN: They are indeed. They retail around the 700 pound mark.
GARETH MITCHELL: Or a thousand dollars, something like that?
MAN: Yes. And you require a good aerial before you can use that anyway. People who come for the full size, once the price is mentioned, they do get put off.
GARETH MITCHELL: I'm not surprised! I wasn't going to hang around with price tags that steep. The digital radio tuner in question was the latest unit from Sony. Also on the market is the more accessively priced Video Logic at around 300 dollars. There's also the more portable but still quite bulky Pure [sp?] which cashes in at around 200 dollars. In all, apparently there are about 27 models on the market ranging from 150 dollars to way beyond a thousand. Even though it took me nearly a morning's shopping to find just one! Those elusive sub-100 pound sets are reportedly on their way within the next 4 months. Perhaps that'll be the crucial incentive to finally get people tuning in. After nearly 10 years, let's hope that the digital radio experience will turn out to be worth the wait. For On the Media this is Gareth Mitchell in London.