28 DECEMBER 2002, Page 45

Digital doubts

Michael Vestey

Have you gone digital yet? Most people haven't, preferring to stick to terrestrial radio and television stations though there are signs that this is changing. As far as radio is concerned, the digital sets have been too expensive. £800 in the early days. Now they've come down in price, the cheapest runs at £99.99, though some stores report demand outstripping supply, common enough when manufacturers are uncertain of the market.

I met someone at a party who said his wife was giving him a DAB (digital audio broadcasting) radio for Christmas. It depends really on what you want that the existing terrestrial networks can't provide, though you can also hear these on digital in what is said to be perfect quality. There are now five digital radio networks in place, the Asian Network; 1Xtra featuring black music, or what the BBC calls 'urban music'; a rock music network, 6Music; Five Live sports extra; and BBC7, broadcasting comedy, drama, readings and children's programmes, was launched before Christmas.

Personally, I would want to listen to only one of these. BBC7. and then merely to dip into. Not having sampled a digital radio yet I must take the word of those who have, that the quality is excellent. My only taste of BBC7 came before Christmas when Radio Four broadcast its launch for two hours on a Sunday evening, a 'simulcast' as it's known in the trade. Paul Merton presented extracts from classic comedy, Hancock's Half Hour, Hancock's Happy Christmas, first broadcast in 1956; The Goon Show; I'm Sony I Haven't A Clue with the late Willie Rushton in the team; Knowing Me, Knowing You; and the more recent and very accomplished, Dead Ringers.

Some comedy dates rather badly but Hancock remains as funny as ever. Perhaps it's the subtle pathos that the brilliant scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson introduced to the character, or maybe it simply came through Hancock's moody, unsettled personality. In this extract, the curmudgeon Hancock tried to resist attempts by his house-mates. Sidney James, Bill Kerr, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams, to enjoy Christmas. There would be no Christmas dinner, he decreed, 'Egg and chips, a mug of cocoa and straight up to bed, that's me.'

I had forgotten how amusing Knowing Me, Knowing You . . with Alan Partridge, played by Steve Coogan, had been. In this launch show we heard a sketch of Partridge, as chat-show host, interviewing an insufferable nine-year-old child prodigy who'd become a Fellow at Oxford, and his father. Partridge asked the father when he'd first noticed his son was abnormal, or, he added hastily, abnormally gifted. 'It was when Simon was about 14 months old. I remember looking at him there in his cot. I said to him, who does daddy love, Simon, who, who? And guess what Simon said?' Interjects the boy with the grammatical correction he'd issued from the cot, 'Whom does daddy love? Whom, whom!'

There was Alan Bennett reading from Alice in Wonderland and part of a radio play by Anthony Minghella, Cigarettes and Chocolates, before he became a film director. There are no news, current affairs and weather forecasts on BBC7. It broadcasts for 17 hours a day, starting at 7 a.m, with an hour of children's programmes, comedy from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and various segments of drama sci-fi/fantasy, more comedy hours and drama and books, until 1 a.m. Apart from listening to it on a digital radio, it can also be heard on satellite TV, cable or computer, though I know how many people dislike listening to radio that way.

When I wrote about the ending of World Service short-wave radio transmissions to North America and Australasia, an utterly foolish decision which the BBC grimly stands by, I was inundated with emails from these parts of the English-speaking world castigating the Corporation. These were from the computer-literate who didn't want to spend any more time at or near their computers, preferring to move about the house listening on portables or stereo sets. The emails, and letters are still coming in and I hope to return to that subject early next year (michael.vestey(4btinternet.com).

My early doubts about the need for digital radio remain, My view was that the BBC was spreading itself too thinly by introducing all these new digital radio and television channels, that it should have concentrated more on improving its core networks. I still think that though, of them all, I can see BBC7 becoming a success eventually. It will have the huge resources of BBC archives to draw on, a priceless collection. It depends on public demand, not helped by the fact that, at the moment, only about 65 per cent of the country can receive digital.