James Cridland

First impressions of DAB Digital Radio

Over Christmas, we went to see the parents-in-law, who live in a fairly remote part of the country, with Christmas presents. One of those was a radio we’ve had for a year or so, but which we’ve found surplus to requirements recently, so we thought it was better given to them. It was second-hand, so wasn’t wrapped and almost given as an afterthought.

I must confess to being rather blown away by the response. Firstly, they were genuinely delighted with ‘a DAB radio’ - and said they were thinking of getting one anyway. You should understand that, in their late 60s, they are listeners to their local BBC radio station, as well as Radio 2, occasionally Radio 4, and not much else. I wouldn’t have put them into an ‘early-adopter’ category at all.

I set it up for them. First, I needed to reset it so that it didn’t display lots of London stations: a process convoluted enough to require a short time on my phone’s wireless browser to discover what the arcane sequence was to do that. Second, I needed to break the news, gently, that the radio wouldn’t work where it was. Because they’re in a fairly remote part of the UK, their coverage is poor enough to require the radio to be on the windowsill, rather than tucked in the corner of the room. However, I was told that this wasn’t a problem: in fact, “Radio 2 needed the radio moving around anyway, it goes all hissy”. Gripes about DAB’s coverage are fairly prevalent, but we forget that FM coverage is similarly poor for many people indoors.

Third, on turning the set on, the first comment was “doesn’t it sound good”. I was surprised by this being their first, unbidden, comment. First, they were comparing the sound quality of their local, FM, radio station with that of the 128k DAB signal. To me, there’s little difference (they are different, but neither is ‘worse’ or ‘better’ than the other to my ears). Secondly, the radio itself wasn’t a jump in build quality from their previous one: virtually identical size and sound.

Similarly interesting was when I asked them what their favourite stations were, so I could set the presets. On quoting her BBC local radio station’s name, my mother-in-law then reached for the table. “The number’s down there somewhere,” she said, “ninety point something”.

Finally, I showed her how easy it was to tune in. While tuning it, she recognised BBC7, and was delighted that “it had that”. She was also delighted with BBC Radio 5 Live, a channel that is impossible to pick up on AM where they live.

Market research on a panel of one is not the right thing to do: but my key learnings from this were:

  • The additional choice that digital-only channels like BBC7 offer is now understood, and the brands are increasingly being recognised
  • DAB indoor reception is poorer than FM: but we forget that FM indoor reception is pretty ropey too
  • We have failed to communicate the ease of tuning message: no more fiddly numbers to remember.
  • The public still equates DAB, first and foremost, with ‘better sound quality’. I still believe that most people are comfortable with tolerably-good audio quality, and that there is no appetite for 256k services: however, now there are three national commercial music services in mono, and some local music services sounding no better than AM, we need to remember the public’s expectations.


Three weeks later, they report that their listening habits have changed. Their local BBC station is still the most popular, but they now listen to BBC Radio Five Live for the football, and BBC World Service for the news. Which shows that additional choice is attractive. Who’d have thought it.