All posts by Ian

Rotto, Rockingham to Bunbury and Dunsborough

It’s been a busy few days!

Saturday was spent on Rottnest Island, so-called thanks to the native Quokkas that were seen as giant rats… they’re actually closer to mini-kangeroos!

2 Quokkas

 

 

I hired a bike and rode around the island. The advice I had from the tour guide I booked with proved invaluable – plenty of empty beaches to explore! It took it’s toll though, thanks to 12km on the bike in 4 hours. The boat ride was worth the effort though!

Since then I’ve been catching up with parts of my extended family on dad’s side, starting with Joan in Rockingham and heading down to see my grandmother’s sister in Bunbury before heading to Michelle’s in Dunsborough in the far south west. I’ve also hired a car – a tiny Suzuki Swift that I’ll be using to get to Albany over the next few days before heading back to Perth on Tuesday.

I’ve also managed a quick visit to Fremantle Prison – by far the oldest place in Westwen Australia, dating back to 1852(ish). It’s the home of the original WA convicts and is a fascinating place, having operated as an active prison til 1991. How they managed without toilets is beyond me! (buckets all the way til the end). I’ll be spending next Thursday in Freo so will have plenty of time to explore the Prison and other museums there further…

I’m heading south through Margaret River over the next few days, to Albany over the weekend and back to Perth for Wednesday. The car will get me there! More soon…

 

Day 1 in Perth

I’m down… under! Strange times following the flight too…

Since I flew with Emirates the change was at Dubai – and I was sat between Malaysian and Indonesian women. I must admit that trying to choose a suitable film for them to watch wasn’t easy… but watching Toy Story 3 & the final Harry Potter film whilst flying over Baghdad and Basra seemed appropriate.

From the 2 hours I spent at Dubai airport, it’s obviously an impressive place. Even from a distance the Burj Khalifa is staggeringly big.

Perth was far more interesting, thanks to the South American next to me having a big problem with the turbulance, going so far as to ask me “Are we going to crash?” Suffice to say I’ve had better flights.

Naturally immigration took ages, with far more staff dealing with the Aussie & Kiwi nationals than everyone else combined – luckily I found someone heading to the same hostel and I’m typing this from there.

The weather’s been a mixed bag. It was obvious a storm was on it’s way leaving the airport but didn’t prepare me for 10am – good thing I stayed in bed for an extra hour! Today has been sunny since and very hot – about 37 for most of the day.

It’s been a quiet day, simply getting my bearings around Perth and finding the extra bits I didn’t bring with me. Tomorrow I’m off to Rottness island – it’s a 2 hour boat ride (so not somewhere mother would go) but the scenery is supposed to be fantastic. I’ll find out soon enough…

The big winner at the Student Radio Awards 2011

This year was the 7th Student Radio Awards I’ve been to (and yes, that does mean that I saw Greg James win Best Male in 2005). It was also one of the most enjoyable I’ve been to.

It’s on of the very few years where one or two stations hasn’t dominated the proceedings, with no one station taking home more than two gold awards and nineteen taking a gold, silver of bronze award. It’s always nice to have a variety of winning stations on the night.

After URN won Best Station for the second time in a row (a first), I won’t be surprised if there’s mutterings about why the same stations win – I could go into that but Andy Vale has covered that brilliantly on a guest post at The Pips. It’s definitely worth reading.

I’d also suggest a judges 1st time perspective of the night by Peter Donaldson of Absolute, and James Stodd’s pre-awards post about how to take advantage of being on student radio. As James says, student radio provides the opportunity to “try and fail” – you won’t get that again.

Obviously, the plaudits will go to URN for taking Best Station two years running: and rightly so. But personally speaking, I believe they were massively upstaged.

I’m talking about KCL Radio winning Best Live Event. For me it was the highlight of the evening.

Ideally I’d hope it ends any suggestion of judges bias but I know better than to say that: if only because the ~100% turnover every three years of students makes it unlikely. But it certainly proves that new stations have a level playing field at which they can can compete.

I need to go back to my own twelve months on the SRA executive in 2008-9. I was the Development Officer – not the most glamorous of roles but arguably the position that has most interaction with the wider radio industry in terms of policy making and structural proceedings (the others mainly deal with running the Association and organising the awards and conference – Development is less involved in that side of the SRA). There’s also the responsibility of answering the many emails asking for help – regardless of their origin (which led to a strange request from a French-Canadian asking whether I know anything about student radio stations and support groups from around the world… but I digress).

One of the last I received was from Fran Allfrey at Kings College London. They had no radio station and she wanted to set one up.

This type of email was fairly typcial – the bread and butter of my time being spent answering such emails. Fran’s enthuasism was far more obvious though, which led to a meeting in June 2009.

I thought it would take around two hours. 4 and a half hours in the KCL SU cafe later and basically a dump of everything student radio and SRA based in my brain led to a second meeting with the SU staff. At times it felt like the Spanish Inquisition with some particularly trick questions to answer in a way that would help get a station up and running but naturally it was far too easy for me to explain why student radio is awesome and that every uni should have a station to call it’s own.

My involvement ended there but I left the SRA knowing that I had made a difference to many stations and having possibly had a hand in getting a new one started…

From there launched a podcasting society to what is now KCL Radio, thanks to a £19,000 grant according to last year’s awards programme (I never thought I would reference one…).

So to walk away with a Gold SRA award is nothing short of astounding brilliance – especially for a station that is not even three years old and for a first ever outside broadcast. (the whole broadcast, along with the demo is online here).

So congratulations to KCL Radio – a well deserving winner.

Launching the Student Radio Survival Guide…. and the essential #SRACON Survival Guide

With the Student Radio Conference starting tomorrow, today is a good day for me to officially launch the Student Radio Survival Guide.

Having been a former Development Officer of the SRA for 2008-9 and having nearly seven years of involvement in student radio (2003-10), it’s seemed like a total waste to not use my knowledge of student radio. I originally posted on the old SRA forums, way back in March 2007, my intention to dump everything I’d learned about student radio into a single source. Following my election to the SRA exec, my intention was use my notes to put together a version for the SRA during an intended second year on the SRA exec, with a physical copy being sent out to all SRA member stations.

I didn’t get the opportunity to do that. So rather than let the draft notes I made go to waste, I’m launching it online.

You can find it at http://studentradiosurvivalguide.com. At the time of writing, it’s an extremely basic site with one article about the Student Radio Awards. It will be going through a redesign in the next few weeks and I’ll be adding content over the next few months. It should be content complete by the 2011 Student Radio Awards – possibly sooner. Since I’m going to Australia for 3 months at the end of the year, my deadline is to have the site complete before I go travelling.

I’ve yet to find a dedicated website that provides information that would be useful directly to student radio stations – there have been some good reference sites that have/had a similar focus to this, but usually are for a more general audience. And with the excellent Rad10 by Olly Benson having been closed (Olly was also a previous SRA Dev Officer) I’m please to launch an alternative.

I won’t be at the SRA conference this year – for the first time in 5 years. Feel free to share a link to the site – it’s run on WordPress so you’re more than welcome to leave comments/alternative suggestions.

The conference – my survival guide:

  1. Expect some nasty hangovers – but try not to miss any of the sessions. You’ll be handing the other delegates an advantage if you miss anything. YOU could also hurt the SRA if you’re not at the AGM.
  2. If there’s several of you from one station at the conference, make sure someone is at every split session – the more you can take back to your station, the better.
  3. Talk to other stations!!!!! The worst thing you can do is not talk to other stations. I haven’t forgotten 2007, when everyone from my station bar myself ignored the Monday night social and played drinking games in their accommodation block. You get to see the people from your own station on a ridiculously frequent basis – you won’t get that opportunity with people from other stations.
  4. Read the AGM Agenda BEFORE the AGM starts on Wednesday morning. It’s a vital part of the conference – even if 90% of you disagree, you’re choosing the people who will run the SRA for the next 12 months. I’ve seen plenty of poor decisions made previously – even if there’s only one person standing, don’t be afraid to vote RON if you want someone else!
  5. Push the exec for answers – even if they’re leaving the SRA, their work (or lack of) needs to be questioned.
  6. To those running for SRA exec positions – you need to be 100% committed to the SRA cause. If you’re running because you want an extra + on your CV, you’re not running for the right reasons. You need to care. Simples. I did when I ran. I’ve got my doubts about some of the people who have run previously – make sure you don’t fall into that group.
  7. The big name celebs aren’t necessarily the best people to talk to at the conference – most of the speakers will stay for the evening. Feel free to challenge them at drinking – and take advantage! You’ll get more from speaking to the non-presenters if my own experience is anything to go by -
  8. READ THE AGM AGENDA!!! I’ve read Sarah’s 5 page report for this year. Whilst I’m no longer involved, having worked with Sarah I’ve found her to report the truth in the past. I’d place a lot of money that this year is no different – and it’s vastly important that her report is taken on board by everyone at the conference
  9. If you’re interested in running for an SRA officer position, go for it – there’s plenty of regional officer positions still available – trust me when I say that they’re a lot of fun to do.
  10. Don’t houdn the celebs. They’ll only get annoyed if you try to talk to them too much.
  11. Make notes. Sounds obvious, but it really helps you to plan long term for your station.
  12. READ THE AGM AGENDA!!!!!
  13. Ask questions. Lots of them. You won’t get a better chance to get the information you want.
  14. Use Twitter – tag any tweet with #sracon and anyone who searches for the hashtag can find out what people are thinking/saying about different bits of the conference. Last year saw tweets appearing on the big screens in the main room – the same is happening this year. Take advantage.

It remains a disappointment that I didn’t get more time to shape the SRA and take it forward – take any chance you have to help it onwards. And have a good #sracon

In-Car DAB gets a new home

Bit of a break in posts, but my attempts at a coherent post on ILR haven’t worked so far… probably thanks to needing a few more decent sources to help make the points I want.

So I’m going back to one of my favourite topics and a quick break from my State of the Nation series…

One of the main issues regarding the planned DAB migration is the problem of in-car DAB. I previously blogged in January about upgrading the tape deck in my car to a DAB radio. And I’ve been very happy with it.

At least until my car broke.

After a failed journey to London (it made it to Maidenhead), the gearbox breaking 5th gear and a hydraulic leak, the car is, for want of a better phrase, beyond economic repair.

I’ve since replaced it and have had my new car for a month (bye-bye Australian travel fund savings) and it is, in pretty much every way, a better car.

This post is solely about my experiences with moving my awesome DAB car radio to my new car. Since the number of people that have fitted proper DAB radios to their car is pretty small, I’d guess that I’m probably one of the first to have moved one to another vehicle. So it makes sense to be the first to blog about it, to share my experiences of it and why it’s going to make DAB migration a little bit more difficult…

As I’ve already said, my new Mazda 3 is, in pretty much every way, a better car than my old Mazda 323. Though I’m mourning the loss of the much loved sun-roof. There’s also the small problem that DAB radios weren’t fitted as standard on 2005 model Mazda 3’s.

In case that wasn’t enough of a problem, I was faced with this:
Mazda 3 factory installed radio

Helpfully, it doesn’t have a standard DIN slot (officially, ISO 7736) to do a simple straight swap – a standard that’s existed since the early 1980s.

£180 later, and it looks like this:

To break down the costs:

  1. £40 to remove the radio from my old car.
  2. £35 to buy the faceplate with the all important ISO7336 slot (and a handy 2nd slot for storage).
  3. £15 for the electrical harness adapter – perhaps not a necessity but it certainly saves time installing the radio.
  4. £50 for a replacement DAB aerial (they start at £35 but as I’ve had good results from the identical previous aerial that came with the package I bought I’ve no complaints – other than DAB aerials are apparently only good for a single installation)
  5. £40 for the fitting to the new car

So not cheap. Especially after the £410 I originally paid to have it fitted to my old car.

(as a reminder, the original cost was £350 for the radio/DAB tuner and aerial package, £15 for the harness and £45 installation).

Obviously, that price is way beyond what most people would consider reasonable. For me, I can fully justify it as the radio in question is a highly functional Swiss Army Knife of Car Radio’s (LW/MW/FM/DAB with mp3/wma CD playback, Bluetooth and a spare USB port. Not to mention iPod compatibility (even if I’ve no intention of using it).

And – unlike in my old car – the hands-free part actually works for phone calls. Clearly the garage I used to install it are prone to mistakes (especially as this time round they’ve not connected the light cables for the heater controls or for the day/night colour modes for the radio).

More importantly though, I’ve found that even in South Wales it can be extremely difficult (particularly in eastern Newport where all the Cardiff & Bristol FM services collide) to find a clear FM frequency for FM transmission. My old phone had a built in FM transmitter which did a decent job but would always suffer from some kind of static. As for London…

So I thought it best to buy a full on head unit with a separate DAB tuner. This is what it looks like in bits:

The DAB tuner shouldn’t be too difficult to spot and isn’t much smaller to the full head unit. As with the average PC the microphone is connected to the pink socket, with the old harness still plugged in behind the main unit. The extra cable is the rear USB socket which has the Bluetooth adapter connected (the old aerial is on top of the head unit).

My concern with buying something like the much cheaper Pure Highway is that it doesn’t directly play the DAB signal – it pumps it out on an FM frequency. Since my attempts to play music over FM rarely work without some interference, it was worth the extra to have one combined unit that bypassed FM whilst also offering plenty of extra features.

What’s it like? I’ve already blogged that answer. But I’ve actually found my thoughts on DAB have shifted somewhat… and it’s all in the speakers.

My old car did a pretty good job of bass heavy music – but beyond a volume of 20 I had to drop the bass EQ settings to prevent speaker distortion – and even then going much louder would bring it back. I’m all but certain the new speakers are much better, especially as I can play dubstep tracks at 35+, on the hip-hop EQ setting, without any distortion (so far the only track that causes problems is the Caspa remix of I Remember by Deadmau5, and then only at 40+. Which is insanely loud – to the point that you can feel the bass resonating even at 50mph).

How does that affect DAB. Not in a good way… it sounds better than it did in my old car, of that there’s no contest as it’s generally brighter than before – but I am finding a slight dullness on both BBC R1 and Kiss 101 in the midrange compared to the FM frequencies – which is a big surprise as they both sounded better on DAB in my old car. Clearly, the quality of speakers makes a big difference – that and the electrical connections are all that have changed.

It could be worse though. Kerrang! on DAB in Birmingham is definitely far worse than on 105.2FM with some pretty nasty compressive sounds. But that’s down to the poor bitrate (64kbps mono rather than 128kbps joint stereo) which, in all honesty, didn’t sound much better than MW (complete loss of cymbals on the high-range being the most obvious on Suede’s Animal Nitrate).

To be clear though, in case anyone misunderstands me – the dullness I’ve heard is extremely subtle – you need to be specifically listening out for it to hear it. Worst case scenario, I’m finding in-car DAB  to now be equal or slightly worse than FM, compared to equal to or slightly better than before. The difference is clearly down to the improved quality of the speakers used in the car.

I’ll add that I’m not drawing too heavily on numbers, stats or general perception (except for Kerrang, but then it was obviously worse than the other stations on the same mux – MXR West Midlands if you wanted to know). I’ve based the above purely on my experiences with the unit and what I’ve heard – nothing more or less. Especially as it’s a significant U-turn on my previous thoughts on the sound quality of DAB (i.e. it sounds better than FM so I can’t understand why anyone would complain about it unless they’ve got an agenda of some kind. I can now genuinely understand the view-point. Even if I don’t agree with it – see this excellent post by James Cridland – I share the opinions he’s expressed).

Note that the above is about audio quality, not signal strength or breakup/bubbling of the sound due to poor signal. The new aerial is mounted vertically down the side of the windscreen (the old aerial was horizontally along the top on my old car ). Apart from the aerial being visibly more noticeable, the actual strength of the DAB signal hasn’t changed and is still faultless on BBC/D1 with some dropouts on the local CE Birmingham mux in the usual places in Birmingham (my old uni stomping ground of Bristol Road in Selly Oak being one example where it struggles for signal).

I’ve also found one minor advantage of DAB aerials – they can’t be damaged by a car wash…

I’ve got plenty more to say on DAB – I’ll leave the more general opinions for a dedicated post as part of my State of the Nation series (it’s definitely coming!). But the specifics of this post:

  1. My Mazda 3 dispenses with the ISO7736 standard and does something completely different for it’s in car radio – something that seems to be pretty common on most cars from the last 5 years or so. My old Mazda 323 (and the older 323 I had before it) both had them as standard (even my first ever car, an F reg Fiat Uno had one). Whilst £35 isn’t that much, it’s still an extra expense that should really not be necessary. Some Government intervention would be welcomed from me!
  2. DAB aerials are apparently single use – the one I bought with the package I bought in January is now in the bin. Whether it’s an issue specific to the type I’m using or a general problem of all DAB car aerials is another matter… hopefully I’ll find an answer
  3. It doesn’t matter how DAB aerials are orientated – vertically down the side, or horizontally along the top of the windscreen – the signal strength seems to be the same om both old and new cars
  4. DAB aerials have one big advantage over their FM counterparts – they can’t be damaged by a car wash.

Until I get my head around some ILR numbers…

The State of the Nation Part 1: Nation Radio

It’s been a while but there’s an obvious reason…. I’ve moved from wordpress.com to my own domain & it’s taken time to move everything across… now that’s sorted, it’s time to continue this ambient meandering stroll through the radio world.

This is the first of a week long series of posts I’m calling “The State of the Nation.” And it’s definitely not related to the new Government. But it is about radio. There’ll be a new post every day at midday – so keep checking back!

To kick off the week I’ll start with some thoughts on the radio station that inspired the title – Nation Radio.

Nation Radio is a predominantly rock orientated station based in Neath, near Swansea and broadcasts across the M4 corridor in Wales.  It’s currently owned by Town & Country Broadcasting and unless you live in or around South Wales, the chances are you won’t have heard it. It’s certainly an interesting beast, starting with the licence’s history…

Nation Radio started out life as XFM South Wales, after GCap Media submitted and won an OFCOM advertised licence for a new radio licence covering Cardiff and Swansea. Notably, OFCOM stated in their announcement of the award that BBC Radio 1 had a higher than national audience in the area and that the XFM format “would therefore extend the demographic appeal of local commercial radio in South Wales, and was well-placed to attract current BBC Radio 1 listeners to the commercial radio sector.”

It should also be noted that the application intended for the station to be targeted at the 15-34 male audience… again, that has more relevance later on.

The application, to an extent, made sense. But I held the opinion, both prior to the licence award and especially since the sale of the station, that the licence should have been awarded to the application to launch Kerrang! – simply on the basis that music tastes have changed in the Cardiff area over the last ten years. Indie bands and the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia,  The Stereophonics and the Super Furry Animals dominated the music scene and as a result, the artists playing the local pubs and clubs were of similar ilk. That’s since changed with Funeral for a Friend and the Lost Prophets becoming huge – which, in turn, would have made Kerrang! the logical choice.

Whether the Kerrang! format would have been successful is open to debate. XFM had the advantage of being owned by GCap, which already operated Red Dragon – co-locating, as proposed, undoubtedly made it far cheaper to launch.

There’s no doubt a fair amount of cash was thrown at the launch of XFM South Wales – significant poster campaigns, the hiring of Rhys and Eggsy from the GLC and the appointment of several backroom staff from Kerrang! in Birmingham clearly showed that GCap intended to hit the ground running.

I’ve already stated that, in my opinion, Kerrang! would arguably have been more suited for the licence – however, the XFM format is one I generally prefer, so I was certainly hoping for big things from XFM.  However, less than six months into the twelve year licence, GCap disposed of the station by selling the licence to its current owners, Town & Country Broadcasting.

I won’t go into the details of the sale, other than the official line that the then owners GCap were losing money on the XFM stations in Wales, Manchester and Scotland (the links are for reference, make what you want to of them – I certainly don’t agree with all the points raised but they’re still worth reading). There were also suggestions that the move was to hinder any takeover attempts by Global Radio (we all know how that turned out, but Global at the time was at the time nothing more than the radio assets of the Chrysalis Group, which it bought).

Without going into too much of a tangent, I still hold the view that OFCOM should have acted on the quick sale and remain disappointed by the lack of regulatory intervention – after all, the licence was awarded for 12 years – why should a company be able to sell it less than 1/24th of the duration into the licence, if the commitment is for TWELVE years?

Regardless, XFM South Wales was sold to the existing owners, Town & Country Broadcasting.  Before the Manchester of Scotland stations could be sold, GCap Media itself was bought by Global Radio, who have kept the Manchester licence and flipped the Scottish XFM to the Galaxy network (which, in fairness, is reasonable considering that, prior to the XFM format, the current Galaxy Scotland broadcast as Beat 106, a dance music station).

Town & Country Broadcasting, until they bought the XFM licence, only ran regional radio stations mainly for the 35-55 market, all bar one being in West Wales (with the licence in Southampton, via Play Radio, now being owned by Celador). So the purchase of the XFM licence, which covers Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, immediate made it the largest, in terms of MSA reach, the largest licence owned by Town & Country (OFCOM give the MSA as 857,000 people); albeit with restrictions on the type of music output.

As a result, the format that GCap submitted to OFCOM still stood when the purchase was complete in May 2008 and continues to this day – at least for now.

As part of the test transmissions, Nation Radio moved to a much softer format – playing the likes of Katie Tunstall on a licence that had formerly been predominantly rock oriented. Following some protests about the changes, Nation became a rock station again, taking a format similar to that of XFM – including their own take on the short-lived XU format, albeit without the listener input (Nation currently broadcasts without presenters between 10am-4pm).

It’s an interesting idea – I’ve previously blogged about XU and my opinions have changed significantly in the last 3 years since I wrote it but I still take the view that FM/AM stations require presenters – particularly a station that, apart from music policy, is pretty much like the majority of commercial stations in the UK. Networking – the practice of having a single presenter on several stations – is something that, in the current radio climate, makes sense from a business point of view and the argument made by Ashley Tabor (CEO of Global Radio) at the Student Radio Conference 2009 that “there simply aren’t enough good mid-morning presenters” – again, that’s a decent argument.

However, dropping presenters completely isn’t necessarily the right way to go. Jack FM can get away with it as it’s part of its USP. Nation, on the other hand, can’t – and, I believe, needs a strong presenter line-up to compensate.

More recently, in December Town & Country submitted a format request change to OFCOM – something that any radio operator can do with any licence at any time if they want to significantly change the station format in any way (the link contains pdfs of the original request, responses and decision). However, they can’t do so until OFCOM have consulted the public (should it be considered a substantial change of format) and any interested parties on the format request and made a decision as to whether it should be allowed or otherwise.

Only one individual responded to the Nation Radio format change – and there’s no prizes for guessing who that was…

..and whilst my response, in hindsight, doesn’t use the exact words that perhaps it should have, my main concern was that the format change would make Nation Radio, to quote the proposed format:

“A NEW MUSIC STATION FOR SOUTH WALES, PLAYING PREDOMINANTLY MODERN ROCK, WITH AND OTHER GENRES OF APPEAL TO THE STATION’S TARGET AUDIENCE OF 15-34 YEAR OLDS. OUTPUT WILL ORIGINATE FROM SOUTH WALES AND WILL INCLUDE COVERAGE OF LOCAL ARTISTS.” (sic)

The emphasis is my own – and highlights my main concern, format creep – using successive format changes to ultimately change the station into something completely different.

It seems that OFCOM understood me to be against the proposals (which I wasn’t) – but my thoughts were that the change should be approved if OFCOM were satisfied that “other genres of appeal” wouldn’t include a significant increase of additional genres of music. Kiss 101 more than supplies that…

Only two radio groups responded – GMG (the owners of Real Radio South Wales) and UTV, who applied for the licence by proposing a talk station format, allTalk FM Wales). I’m surprised that the GMG response was very similar, if significantly better in its wording, to my own in that we both flagged up the same concerns with the change requested by Nation but were happy for OFCOM to approve the format request should they decide to do so. UTV, perhaps unsurprisingly, were heavily opposed and submitted what I can only describe as a huge response (running to some 25 pages – GMGs, in comparison, is just 5). I assume the UTV opposition was to prevent Nation from changing to a contemporary hit format that would challenge 96.4 The Wave in Swansea.

Ultimately, I’m pleased with the outcome – OFCOM partially approved the format, with certain changes and effectively provided the radio station I wanted. Having re-read the decision, it seems that my response was actually seriously considered by the radio regulator and as such they revised the wording based on my concerns, whilst still providing Town & Country with the ability to have a competitive offering. I can’t say fairer than that.

On the other hand, Nation launched on the Severn Estuary DAB multiplex on March 1st – naturally a good day to do something new in Wales. It’s taken the slot that belonged to XFM, which in turn displaced The Arrow (which is now not available on DAB in the Cardiff & Newport area).

Interestingly, the move makes Nation Radio available in the Bristol and Bath area. Of note is the original advertisement of the licence, which made it pretty obvious that location creep northwards into the Welsh Valleys and Brecon would be considered, but similar requests into England would almost certainly be rejected (at least on FM). So I’m a bit surprised that by the move – Nation for intentionally moving to a multiplex that’s outside of it’s legal FM remit (admittedly Nation can comfortably be heard in Bristol on FM), especially as the Cardiff & Newport multiplex is very empty.

The one sad part about Nation is that it is impossible to judge how well it is doing compared to the old XFM, as XFM didn’t last long enough for RAJAR figures to be published – on the plus side, the audience figures for Nation have been growing every quarter since its launch 2 years ago and isn’t far off 90,000 – impressive stuff.

Which leaves the future of the station looking fairly healthy. I’m pleased that Nation Radio is sticking to targeting Radio 1 listeners – certainly not the business choice. And it certainly came into its own 4 weeks ago when the legend that was Stuart Cable passed away – the coverage on Nation was fantastic, which included playing out highlights of a recent interview and playing Stereophonics tracks at least 5 times an hour (helped by the presenters covering the aforementioned computerised daytime schedule to read out text messages and emails).

I just wish they would spend more money on branding – their own format request implied that it was in Wales, for Wales – yet the on-air branding doesn’t highlight that, even though their format request change certainly made a big deal out of it. The majority of the on-air imaging uses the words “This is Nation Radio” with the frequent plug to become a fan on Facebook and follow on Twitter – without incentivising either. Regardless, I’ll certainly be keeping my ears on 106.8 for a while yet… and on DAB.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the recent deregulation by OFCOM on regional stations and the recent co-location announcements and massive changes we’ve seen announced by pretty much everyone.

1

…and it's goodbye from me

It’s It’s an odd feeling typing these words but following the conclusion of the  Student Radio Conference later today, I’ll be bringing 7 years of direct involvement in student radio to a close.

It was a tough call and one not taken lightly, but looking at the future from the wrong side of my 20s has provided a different perspective on where I should be heading over the next few years. I won’t bother going through the reasons – there’s far far too many and most won’t be of interest.

It’s been a very weird journey – I joined Burn FM in Birmingham mainly by chance, making a very impulsive decision to go on a mate’s Sunday afternoon show (having been out the previous night until 3am and feeling rough after waking  up in I’ve no idea where). But that first time in a radio studio, seeing a “big box with slidey things that play music” (i.e. a broadcast mixer) convinced me that radio was something I should have a go at doing – even if most of that first show was spent holding my head as being drunk turned into a hangover!

That was nearly 7 years ago, during which I’ve been a Head Engineer, Head of Imaging/Production, Station Manager at Burn and an SRA Regional, Exec and Admin officer. And student radio remains just as awesome now as it was then – a quick listen to the 2008 awards entries more than proved that (even if the week spent ripping 100 odd CDs and scanning over 500 A4 pages for the judges of the 2008 Student Radio Awards battered me somewhat…)

Seriously, check out stations that aren’t your own – it’s not like there’s a lack of choice! And there may be a good idea or five to pinch…

It’s been great seeing the SRA improve too – my first event being the now mythical l 2005 Student Radio Awards night (aka the one where Greg James won). They’ve simply grown beyond recognition over the last 5 years – something very few people get the chance to see. It’s a privilege to have had that opportunity (even if at the expense of a failed degree and a 2:2).

Beyond the awards, it’s been fascinating seeing both my old station, Burn FM, and the Student Radio Association change in so many ways over a longer period of time than most people get the change to see. Both have made huge steps forward over the years, even though my station did manage a step back thanks to the university not taking too kindly to this particular story making the headlines.

So what’s changed for the SRA and student radio? I’ll limit myself to 3 points, otherwise this list would become very long!

1) The conference – in Southampton many of the sessions had current students talking about why their station was so good and won several awards at the 2005 Student Radio Awards – not exactly the best in terms of the speakers, even if the beer was cheap and easy to squeeze a pint or two between every session. Now, we have Andy Parfitt speaking this year and Ashley Tabor last… along with a firm commitment  from Andrew Harrison of the RadioCentre to support student radio stations in having access to FM spectrum, should the proposed digital upgrade take place in 2015. It’s been getting better and better.

Even so, kudos is well deserved for Surge (Southampton), URY (York), URB (Bath), LSRFM.com (Leeds) and Fly (Nottingham) – good times!

2) Affordability/Value for money – The membership fee has remained static since at least 2005. But beyond the conference and awards, the SRA didn’t offer as much as it could have done. It now offers much more, particularly as of 2008/9 with the new brand, the Chart, I Love Student Radio… not to mention successful integration of Facebook and Twitter – a search for #sracon proves that.

3) The awards – mainly in that the entry process is now online, rather than requiring CDs and relying on Royal Mail – something I’ll take partial credit for, as it was clear that posting CDs wasn’t going to work following the massive increase in numbers (300 in 2005 has become 500 in 2008 and 2009). But the change of venue to the Indigo has also made a big difference. It’s substantially larger than the New Connaught Rooms (which had a max capacity of 600) and allows the SRA to offer cheaper tickets without food (and can hold something like 1,500 people if required).

It’s been a mind-blowing 7 years (or a quarter of my life) , initially being behind the microphone, latterly representing it – and it remains a best way to make some awesome, unique content (12 hour outside broadcasts come to mind) whilst providing opportunities to go further into the radio industry and offering the industry with a cracking one-stop shop for talent.

I went to uni not knowing that Birmingham had a student radio station, let alone that student radio was widespread across the UK – and fully expecting to be spending most of my uni life pushing for  a career of looking through telescopes and doing astrophysicsy black hole creation, rather than talking into a microphone and stripping out servers, rebuilding edit suites as outside broadcast studios and pushing for a career in radio. I made the right choice.

Thanks to everyone who I’ve met, especially those of you who has been brilliant to work with. There’s too many people to list but Mark, Sarah, Matt, Kate and Tim deserve a special mention for being awesome to work with on the 2008/9 exec. The rest of you know who you are! (btw Mark’s published his thoughts on leaving student radio last week – have a look here).

Feel free to play the Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition - it’s the one song that sums up my thoughts perfectly. It’s tough to be leaving, but I do so knowing that student radio and the SRA are stronger and more important than ever – and I’m pleased I had the opportunity to have done my bit.

I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

But I thought it best to end by going back to the beginning, of how chance meetings and connections at my hall in uni lead me down a 7 year path down the road of student radio – and the start of my involvement with the SRA 5 years ago, which started with the now mythical 2005 Student Radio Awards night (aka the one where Greg James won).

In-car DAB radio… awesomeness defined, but can it be a bit cheaper please?

As someone who has an unhealthy interest in radio I’ve spent many years being told by the radio industry that I should buy a DAB digital radio (first by Matt Deegan at the 2007 Student Radio Conference in York). Over the last twelve months I’ve invested heavily in devices that support the platform and following a Pure Evoke Flow given to me in Christmas 2008, I’ve arguably gone further than most in the radio industry by buying an in-Car DAB head unit.

Specifically, I bought the JVC KD-R801 – a Swiss army knife of in-car radio head units. Along with DAB, it offers FM/MW/LW, Bluetooth (including A2DP music streaming and handsfree calling), an auxiliary input and even a USB socket. It also happens to play CDs, arguably the least useful addition for me (though as a bonus it manages mp3/wma CDs)… it even comes with a remote in the box!

Buying the head unit on its own isn’t a problem – the cheapest price I’ve found is £140… but there’s a significant catch.

The standard unit doesn’t immediately support DAB – there’s the small matter of the necessary DAB tuner not being supplied in the box. It’s a separate tuner which will cost an additional £120. And you’ll need a DAB aerial – add another £35… and finally you’ll probably need a harness to convert the electrical connections provided in your car to the necessary jack that’ll fit the unit (£10-£20)… along with fitting costs if you want it installed.

I took what was undoubtedly the most expensive option, though I did buy over the counter rather than online price included the head unit, DAB tuner and aerial. I also needed a harness and took the lazy option and paid for installation, which took an hour for the guys trained to do the job – goodness knows how long I’d have needed to fit it (and I know I wouldn’t have done it as neatly).

Here’s the big catch… it’s cost me £410.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s nothing short of stunning.

I had it fitted in Birmingham on Saturday and spent Sunday travelling back to South Wales via London – nearly 300 miles and 4 hours. And my experiences so far are so good that it’s put many of my doubts about DAB radio permanently to rest.

Firstly, I’ve found that the DAB radio is, in terms of audio quality/fidelity, equal or better than FM on most stations – I listened to Radio 1, BRMB, Kerrang, Capital, Galaxy, BBC Berkshire and Kiss 101, all of which sounded as good as or better on DAB than on FM. Only dabbl seemed to be lacking in treble and bass – though that could be down to it playing live music rather than a poor bitrate (and it’s not available on FM).

There’s some cracking features – I love that it can recognise that a station may be broadcasting on both FM and DAB, and switch on the fly to the stronger signal (as it did with Kiss 101).

I shoud add that this test is based on one head-unit, in a 2001 model Mazda 323 using the standard factory-fitted speakers using my ears… but I really could not hear DAB being any worse than FM quality and in most cases was significantly better (I had previously thought that DAB was slightly inferior, but have since realised that FM on my Panasonic Hi-Fi is better than FM on my Evoke Flow… and DAB/FM on the Evoke Flow sound the same).

I only have two concerns…

1) Simplicity… not in terms of use (it took about 10 minutes to find everything) but more specically the limitations, at least with my car radio, particularly compared to my Evoke Flow.

The Evoke Flow can be tuned in a similar manner to a Digital TV Freeview Box… tell it to automatically add all available stations and it adds all of them to the channel list, regardless of frequency/multiplex they are broadcast from – any available DAB station can be chosen simply by spinning the dial. My new car radio is far more limited in that it can only actively tune into one specific multiplex.

I’ll quickly outline multiplexes in this paragraph to be certain I’m making the point correctly (feel free to skip this paragraph if you wish). I’ll use the example of  MXR Severn Estuary, which uses frequency block 12C (12 have been allocated by OFCOM – 10, 11 & 12, each having 4 blocks A-D). On FM, Kiss 101 is broadcast on 101MHz. With DAB, Kiss 101 is broadcast on block 12C at a frequency of 227.360 MHz – along with Real Radio South Wales, Choice, Heart, The Arrow, Jazz FM, LBC, UBC UK and UBC Inspirational.

Here’s the issue – my new in-car radio tunes by DAB multiplex… so for example, I can use the up/down buttons on teh head-unit to switch to any of the stations listed in the previous paragraph. But I don’t get the full list of available stations, as would be listed in the station list on my Evoke Flow – I have to switch to a different DAB channel to access other stations (using Kiss/Radio 1 as an example, with FM I simply go to 99.5 from 101 – with DAB, I have to retune from block 12C to 12B, then find Radio 1 from the available stations).

It sounds like a very pathetic point – and one most people reading this blog will, I’m sure, be very dismissive of. But trust me, it could cause big problems for the average consumer of DAB radio.

Since July last year I’ve been working full time as a service engineer – basically if your TV breaks, I’m tasked with driving out and either fixing if possible or collecting it for the fully qualified engineers to take it apart and repair it. Most of what I’ve seen in the last six months are items that are usually not repairable in the home (e.g. LCD screen failure, DVD lasers breaking etc.) but I have seen some problems that are simple misunderstandings (like assuming a letter/number combination on a homecinema system with hard disk is an error code, rather than the recording quality and available time remaining), finding a DVD player that doesn’t receive analogue TV… because the aerial cable hasn’t been connected, or having a poor picture on a brand new TV… without considering that the 5 year old cable box might be the problem. They’re very simple things to spot but can easily be overlooked – and it’s not necessarily older people who are doing that….

…which is my concern for in-car DAB radio. I can see someone trying to get Radio 1, only to be offered 9 stations on a single multiplex and thinking that their radio is broken, or that the DAB platform is inherently a failure because of it.

2) My other concern is one that most people will have… Cost. Clearly a £129 premium on having DAB is not going to be a mass-market option… indeed, I’d have happily fitted the JVC radio I bought myself if it wasn’t for having to install a separate aerial for DAB. It certainly works well but prices simply have to fall, and very quickly (within the next twelve months) if the scheduled 2015 target date for the digital upgrade is to be realistically met.

Saying that, some perspective is required. The model I bought is very high-end (not quite the highest of the high end that JVC make, but I’m only losing out on playing CDs with AAC files… hardly a major loss for someone who converts all iTunes purchases to mp3 files). I’ll highlight two significantly cheaper options that, while lacking features or not being fully integrated, do at least make it easier to access DAB on the road.

The first is the Pure Highway – which can be purchased for £60. It’s easy enough to set up though this video suggests it’s not fantastic at receiving every station (the BBC article on the rest of the page about DAB vs pirate radio is a fascinating read in its own right).

The other option is to, as I’ve done, replace your car-radio head-unit. I’ll happily link to this entry-level JVC model, which, if it’s anything like mine, should be phenomenal. It also betters mine by having the DAB tuner is built in (and a DAB aerial is included in the price). It’s £170, though add £45 if you want it fitted (it’s from the company who installed my own and I can’t recommend them enough).

To be honest, I’m surprised by just how good in-car DAB radio has been so far – whilst not perfect and arguably in need of refinement it’s very good and more than usable (a price drop wouldn’t hurt though). And based on the audio fidelity I’ve heard I can’t reasonably argue that the UK should hold out for DAB+ – it may be better but I’m very much in agreement with Tony Moretta (and his views on 3g/wimax).

It’s certainly a worthwhile purchase for me. Having  just clocked 15,000 miles in my car since I bought it a year ago nearly to the day… I can comfortably say that the next year will, at least in terms of in-car entertainment, going to be far more fun.

Ahem….

Yes, it’s been a while….

Having said I’d blog more, I’ve done the exact opposite and nearly eleven months later, I’m back from the blogging wilderness.

So, I’m flipping this blog in the hope I’ll type more – I’ll predominantly be blogging on radio in the UK and have changed the title of this blog to reflect that. I’ll start by publishing a post about in-car DAB radio later…