Review: Capital Dance

I make no secret that I’m not a fan of the two big groups that now operate almost all commercial radio stations. Neither of their national or so called local stations are attractive, for various reasons too numerous to detail here.

However, with both the BBC and Global Radio announcing new dance stations within quick succession, I decided to give Capital Dance a listen, to see what all the hype was about. In total, I listened for about 1.5 hours at various times over a couple of weekends, using two DAB+ radios.

What was immediately apparent is the poor sound quality. 40 kbps is the bit rate, higher compared to other DAB+ stations, and although bubbling was minimal, there was no clarity or depth to the sound. Both radios gave similar results, ruling out equipment issues, suggesting either a poor technical set up or that DAB+ is unsuitable for the station.

In terms of music, most music played by the station can be found on other stations, albeit in lesser quantities. There was nothing immediately new or distinctive about the service. I’m not really convinced by the need for a 24/7 dance music station, with the existing Capital and Hits Radio stations already serving the market on Friday and Saturday nights.

I was also left disappointed by the fact that the existing Capital Weekender Friday and Saturday night shows are being simulcast on Capital Dance. These now have “All New Capital Weekender” jingles, despite sounding largely unchanged, perhaps with fewer remixes. These shows run through most of the overnight period, and suggest there is little new content available to fill Capital Dance with.

Although not a show I listened to, the MistaJam drive show is not enough to attract me to the station. Although a highly skilled presenter and dance music specialist, the name alone is not enough to draw me to the station.

Overall, Capital Dance appears to be a knee-jerk reaction by the commercial radio industry to the new BBC Radio 1 Dance online stream, having been announced after Radio 1 Dance and launched just a week ahead. I remain unconvinced by the need for either station and find the content on Capital Dance poor, although I am pleased that Capital Dance is more presenter led than other digital offshoots.

New Director for BBC Scotland

Steve Carson has been appointed the new director of BBC Scotland, and will replace Donalda MacKinnon when she steps down later this year.

Steve Carson is currently the Head of Multi-Platform Commissioning for BBC Scotland, and is known for both content making and commissioning.

In his new position which he will take up in the Autumn, he will be responsible for leading 1100 staff who produce content across TV, radio, and digital platforms, in both Gaelic and English.

Further BBC News Job Cuts

The BBC is to make a further 70 job cuts in its news service, increasing to 520 from the 450 job losses announced earlier this year.

The increase in the job losses are a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has increased the financial pressures on the BBC. The jobs cuts include senior management positions.

Most of the BBC News output is being retained, but more content is to be shared amongst programmes both locally and nationally.

However, some high profile shows including the Victoria Derbyshire programme have been axed, although Victoria does remain as a BBC News presenter.

Arqiva Plans Mass Reduncies

A name which may be unfamiliar to some, Arqiva is the largest UK broadcast transmission company, and they are planning to make 500 staff (around a third of their workforce) redundant.

This forms part of a wider restructuring plan at the company, owned by a consortium of foreign investors.

Arqiva operate most of the TV and radio masts in the UK, as well as operating in other areas of transmission.

Some radio stations, including Rathergood Radio and Love Sport have complained about the high costs of Arqiva’s services in recent years.

Delays to DAB Multiplex Launches

Ofcom is allowing an additional year for the licensees of three new local DAB multiplexes to launch, as detailed in the table.

Multiplex Original Launch Deadline New Deadline
Channel Islands October 2020 October 2021
Morecambe Bay December 2020 December 2021
North and West Cumbria December 2020 December 2021

All three multiplex license holders are aiming to launch the services ahead of the deadline.

Cuts to Regional BBC Services

The BBC are cutting some regional TV shows, in order to cut costs. 450 job losses are expect, with the axing of inside out the most prominent move.

Regionally news bulletins on the Breakfast programme (BBC One) will return, although a date for this has not been announced. All 6.30pm news bulletins will have a single presenter going forward. The regional politics programmes will be reinstated, but with a new format to reach a wider audience.

Inside Out, which has 11 regional variations will be replaced with a new investigation programme, from 6 larger regions. The unnamed programme will focus on single investigation per programme, rather than three 10 minute long segments.

Perhaps the biggest changes are at the local radio stations in England, which will retain the standard blocks of 4 hour long programmes introduced initially as a temporary measure back in March. Local programmes will be retained between 6am and 10pm, with a new national late show planned for 10pm to 1am. All shows will have 1 presenter only.

Some of the cuts are necessary due to the delays in reintroducing TV license charges for the over 75s, and the cost of covering the licenses for those on Pension Credit.

Review: Talk Radio Goes DAB+, is this of any benefit?

You may be aware that Talk Radio and Talk Sport 2 have both converted to DAB+. DAB+ is a newer form of DAB, which uses the more efficient AAC codec. This allows for a more efficient use of the bandwidth available, allowing more radio stations to broadcast on a single frequency.

Both stations switched from 64 kbps normal DAB (mono LSF) to 32 kbps DAB+ stereo, allowing Times Radio to launch in the 64 kbps of space made available. Talk Radio ran dual transmissions on DAB and DAB+ for a time, to assist listeners with the switch, and this gave the opportunity to compare DAB against DAB+.

The switch to DAB+ does not appear to have reduced sound quality, although perhaps there is a slight reduction in clarity. What seems a little pointless are Talk Radio and Talk Sport 2’s stereo configuration, as both are near 100% speech based stations.

Perhaps, keeping DAB+ but reverting to mono may remove the slight clarity issue.This is in stark contrast with rival speech station LBC News, which although currently uses 24 kbps DAB+ (mono), did at launch use the same DAB+ configuration as Talk Radio and suffered badly from bubbling noises and was (and still is) extremely difficult to listen to. There is a possibility that radio stations encoding equipment can affect DAB+ sound quality.

On the whole, the Talk Radio and Talk Sport switch to DAB+ has enabled an additional station to launch, without sacrificing audio quality, and can only be beneficial for listeners. However, it was worth considering those who do not have a DAB+ compatible radio, who will need to replace this to continue to access Talk Radio and Talk Sport 2. Perhaps, with the launch of Times Radio using normal DAB, this could be described as a one step forward, two steps back scenario for some.

Two radios have been used to test Talk Radio on DAB and DAB+, a Sony portable mains unit, and a Roberts pocket DAB radio. Both gave similar results.

Times Radio Now Live Ahead of Launch

Ahead of the launch of the new speech station Times Radio on Monday (29th June 2020), the station has now gone live on the SDL National DAB multiplex, reaching around 80 to 90% of the UK population.

Following the switch of Talk Radio to DAB+, Times Radio has taken the old normal DAB slot, so is broadcasting at 64 kbps mono.

Additionally, there has been a slight re-labeling of Talk Sport 2, which also made the switch to DAB+. The 8 digit station name is now ‘tkSP2’ rather ‘tkSPORT2’. On some DAB+ radios, the station now appears before the main Talk Sport station in the alphabetical station list.

Alternatives to Commercial Radio

As has been widely reported, many radio listeners (both digital and analogue) have lost local programmes on their local commercial radio station. This has been the result of two acquire monopolies, Bauer Media and Global acquiring most commercial radio stations in the UK, and merging several local stations into national brands.

There is little for the listener to do, as protests and petitions go largely ignored, and the regulator Ofcom has permitted the changes. However, one course of action is to be boycott Bauer Media and Global owned stations.

This may not be easy, as several national DAB/DAB+ radio stations are also owned by these two companies, and by tuning around the dial, chances are you’ll end up on a Bauer or Global owned station.

Bauer Media own the following stations (not including brand extensions):

  • Absolute Radio
  • Greatest Hits Radio (some FM stations carry local opt outs to satisfy license requirements)
  • Hits Radio (includes localised versions such as Metro Radio which have a local breakfast show on weekdays only)
  • Jazz FM
  • Kerrang
  • Kiss
  • Magic
  • Scala

Global own the following stations (not including brand extensions):

  • Capital FM (minimum required 3 hours local programmes on a regional basis)
  • Capital Xtra
  • Classic FM
  • Gold
  • Heart (minimum required 3 hours local programmes on a regional basis)
  • LBC
  • Radio X
  • Smooth Radio (minimum required 3 hours local programmes on a regional basis)

Starting with National alternatives, there are the usual BBC stations, plus Talk Sport on DAB and MW (owned by News UK), and UCB1 on DAB. These stations are available in most areas, with the BBC having particularly good DAB coverage.

If you can receive the SDL national DAB multiplex, Talk Radio, Virgin Radio and soon to launch Times Radio are also options (all owned by News UK). Sunrise Radio and Premier Christian Radio are also options if you’re after religion based programmes. There’s also Jack Radio and Union Jack from Oxis Media, both rock/pop music based, two Virgin spin-offs, forces station BFBS, and children’s station Fun Kids.

On a local level options will vary considerably. The BBC still maintain a network of local stations in England, and regional (nations) services for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Most broadcast 5 Live overnight, but day time programmes are still locally produced.

Additionally, some local commercial stations do remain, including Imagine Radio, Sun FM, Kingdom FM, More Radio, and Ipswich 102 amongst others. Most are on FM, but some like Pure Radio in Central Scotland are DAB only (although Pure and Wave FM in Tayside are about to merge to form an enlarged Pure Radio).

Community radio stations also exist in large numbers, although with much smaller coverage areas. Many have a local ethos, which may appeal to displaced Bauer and Global listeners. However, some of these stations are a more specialist music and religious offering, so are not a replacement for local commercial stations.

There are far too many community stations to name check them all, but they include Amber Sound (Amber Valley), K107 FM (Kirkcaldy), 107 Meridian FM (East Grinstead), Pride Radio (Newcaslte and Gateshead), and Radio Tyneside (also Newcastle and Gateshead).

Moving online, there are loads of stations to choose from, such as Cyber Rock, Pure Beat Radio, Motorsport Radio and many others. Tunein (app and online) may be a good place to start, and the Radio Feeds website does list some online only stations.

And, if you really hate radio now (and to be honest I can blame you), streaming services such as Spotify and Amazon Music offer a low cost way to explore new music. Loads of music videos on Youtube as well. You could always download an MP3 or two, or go back to those spinning disks call CDs and vinyl records.

DAB+ for Talk Sport 2 and Talk Radio

Both Talk Sport 2 and Talk Radio have switched to DAB+ transmission on the SDL National DAB multiplex. Talk Sport 2 has made a direct switch, meaning some older DAB radios can no longer receive the service

Talk Radio has begun a period of dual transmission, with the new DAB+ service identified by a ‘+’ at the end of the station name. Dual transmission ends on 26th June, allowing some time for listeners to upgrade their radios if required.

Both stations have switched from 64 kbps mono, to 32 kbps DAB+ stereo. The use of stereo is unlikely to be of benefit as both services are talk based, but the changes free up additional space for new services, including the forthcoming Times Radio. Unlike some other DAB+ services which suffer from poor sound quality, Talk Radio and Talk Sport 2 do not appear to be affected in the same way.

Talk Radio, Talk Sport 2, and Times Radio are all operated by News UK’s subsidiary Wireless Group, who alos hold a 30% share in the SDL National DAB multiplex. SDL stands for Sound Digital Limited.