Local Radio after Hafren – How about a Digital Radio Mondale trial?

Following the sad demise of local radio Hafren last year, there is no longer a radio service specifically targetting the local area. The chief reason for loss of the service was lack of advertising revenue to support the service, but this in turn was more likely to reflect low listener levels

The radio band is presumably now vacant. Being an AM frequency it is unlikely that anybody will be desperate to get their hands on it because the sound quality is pretty dire. However in this post I will look at using this station and its frequently as a technological testbed. The provision of a local radio service (for which demand was lacking) might be considered more as an afterthought.

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DRM receiver. This one is made by Avion electronics (Photo – drm.org)

Digital Radio Modial – Digital radio on the AM frequency

There is one main standard in digital radio in the UK, and that is DAB. DAB is a very old standard compared to digital television and mobile phones and encodes the sound rather inefficiently. It also requires bands of high frequency to fit the necessary data – the amount of data over the airwaves is related to the frequency of a radio signal. As a result the range is less and the signal itself can be obstructed by hills. Not so clever in mid wales where most houses and roads are in valleys.

Think back to old AM radio – shortwave and long wave.The ability to to listen to signals from across continents brings a frisson of excitement even nowadays! Modern “streaming” on a mobile phone is nowhere like as exciting, in effect all you have done is ask your local cellphone provider to be a radio transmitter for one person. There is no shared experience which is important aspect of radio listening to me, and at a technical level how can this be efficient?

DRM came later than DAB when digital audio compression had come of age. Therefore it needs less bandwidth to deliver the same sound quality and this is why it can work on AM frequencies meaning the coverage and transmission range can be considerably better than DAB. The sound quality may not quite be FM or CD standards but ought to be more than a match for the equipment many people listen through nowadays, likely to be mobile devices. The system is currently being deployed by India, the worlds most populous country with many offline and offered population who rely on radio as their main source of entertainment.

Which brings us onto Radio Hafren – or at least its facilities and portion of the spectrum (assuming bot are still available). As Powys is an area with low population density it might make a perfect location to experimentally switch to digital broadcast on the original AM frequency.

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The sadly defunct Radio Hafren

A technological testbed

When a new technology is introduced, it needs to be operational for the wider society to buy into the technology and for a market to form for the required equipment. It is a chicken and egg situation to be sure, and worse for industries that are tightly regulated for safety or capacity reasons. Radio spectrum is highly regulated and is thin on the ground in densely populated areas. Powys has a piece of radio spectrum free where Hafren used to live. Moreover as a large county with towns, hills and other natural challenges to radio listening, we have an ideal testbed.

This would not be the first time that Mid Wales has been chosen as the testbed for a new technology. In railways the Cambrian line has already been used as the testbed for ERTMS, the emergent European standard train control system. The reasons are the same as our radio service: it is a comparatively uncrowded and self contained railway so all the vehicles can be equipped with the required equipment, and the implication of any teething problems is less.

So we have a new technology and an area in which it is deployed, how do people listen? There are compatible radio sets in production and it is also possible to buy “dongles” that can be installed on a home computer. As we are making a case for the radio service as a technological testbed the mission to to gather listener data, on satisfaction of the sound quality, usability of the radio sets, etc. To this end, the more radio sets that are put in the hands of listeners the more comprehensive the user feedback. We can achieve this with free or subsidised sets for those who commit to return user feedback, or subsidised sets more generally.

The receivers can be brought from India, which as we have seen, is introducing the standard en mass. They can be distributed via competition to people throughout Powys so they can be used in workplaces and homes. However this post likes to discuss the local economy and we can perhaps look at nurturing loal technology business.

Could it be built locally?

This blog likes to champion local skills and businesses. With that in mind, and as a bit of fun, lets consider if Llandrindod Wells, a very small town in mid Wales, has the skills and technological base to build its own DRM radios!

Modern digital electronics is the domain of Llandrindod company Skye Electronics. With their experience in autonomous data systems they could no doubt build some kind of low power digital radio receiver – if they wanted to try their hand at something different from environmental monitoring that is! Analogue electronics (i.e. downstream of the digital to analogue conversion that is needed for the sound output) is very much the domain of local theremin builder Jake Rothman. My chums at Stable Audio could no doubt design a nifty – and acoustically functional –  cabinet to house the system: they usually tend to build larger stuff.

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A Stable Audio system. Expect your tabletop radio cabinet to be a bit smaller! (Image – Stable Audio)

That cabinet could be made to look very nice by the folks at Aryma Marquetry.

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Marquetry! Beautiful radio in its wooden cabinet

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General Holistic consulting and Writing

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