HALF a decade from now, BBC radio will have been on the air for 100 years, so you’d have thought that by now we would have got the art of buying a receiver down to a tee.
But today, with so many competing digital platforms, there is more choice than ever - which means that picking even the cheapest set requires some thought as to what you’re going to be listening to.
Only a few radios now offer the traditional choice of AM and FM bands; most have switched to the digital DAB format, and DAB is the only platform on which you can be sure to receive every BBC station.
However, there is now not one DAB mode but two. The original service, which is unusual to Britain, is the one on which Radios 1,2,3,4,5 and the digital-only stations broadcast, as does local radio. But it is being supplanted by the more universally-accepted DAB+ system, which sounds better and makes more efficient use of the available bandwidth.
Radio manufacturers are keen for you to upgrade your existing DAB receiver to take advantage of the new service, but unless you are in the habit of listening to Jazz FM, Fun Kids, Magic Chilled or Union Jack, there isn’t much advantage to be had, since those are the only national networks using it. There are no plans to migrate the national BBC stations, the corporation having long since nailed its colours to the DAB mast, despite its shortcomings of patchy reception, so-so sound and the expense of having to make receivers to a different standard from most of the rest of the world. That also helps to explain why DAB radios in cars never took off.
For this reason, the original DAB format is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and there is no compelling reason to upgrade your old set. Some recent models may even upgrade themselves, by way of new software sent down the line from the manufacturer.
But there is a further complication: many newer stations do not broadcast over the air at all - they use the internet. You don’t need a special set to receive these; an app on your phone will do. But if you want a catch-all radio for your kitchen, with a speaker big enough to hear while the kettle is on, you should consider a model with DAB, DAB+ and internet modes. The best of these, such as the £130 Roberts Stream 93i, also offer Spotify Connect, which lets you play tracks on the radio direct from your Spotify premium account. You will need the Spotify app on your phone to choose what to play.
Internet radio also lets you access catch-up services, so you can listen, for instance, to yesterday’s Today programme tomorrow. The BBC is particularly good at providing these, and a series of recent upgrades to its iPlayer radio service means that you don’t need a receiver dedicated to the purpose - though if you do have one it certainly adds convenience.
The iPlayer radio app runs on any phone or tablet and now allows you to download programmes to listen to when you’re offline, and a console radio that supports Bluetooth will let you stream them to its loudspeaker.
It’s all a long way from the buccaneering days of Radio Caroline - which, in a twist of supreme irony, was last month handed a licence to broadcast on the one platform true to its 1960s origins - AM.