Looking back at 2009

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This year is one which is best forgotten, except that towards the end of it some light began to show, albeit too late for some. Apart from those in the retail sector who came unstuck, 270 workers in Plymouth lost their jobs when the very last TV sets to be manufactured in this country came out of the Toshiba factory.

Factory life

I was once a part of the British TV manufacturing industry, going from school at 16 to the Kolster-Brandes (later K-B, then ITT) factory where we made black and white and colour TVs, together with  transistor radios of various sorts. Here there were a few score men and hundreds of girls – but that’s a different story. Badging, or OEM production as it’s now known, is not new; in those days we produced, alongside the Kolster-Brandes products, Ace, Alba, Argosy, Regentone and RGD brands, with only cosmetic differences. The same thing was going on at BRC/Thorn, where Baird, Ferguson, HMV, Marconi and Philco products were allied, and so on. The UK TV industry peaked in the early 1970s. For nostalgic picture galleries of British TV sets go to www.oldtechnology.net and www.rewindmuseum.com.

But there was a problem. British TV sets were unreliable because of poor quality components and sloppy production. Many of them were badly designed electrically, and many were not very pleasing in appearance. The poor reliability and relatively high cost of colour TVs was good for service engineers and rental dealers, but not for the public. In our own K-B products there were high failure rates in valves, capacitors, switches and particularly soldered joints.

Things got better later, but not enough to prevent a Japanese TV takeover, and then the factories began making Hitachis, Sanyos, Toshibas etc. The once-proud British brands were whittled down, and the few that now remain have only the name as a link with the original firms. In a competitive market production has to be where it’s cheapest, currently in Eastern Europe and China, perhaps next in India or Russia? I’m sorry to see the last factory wound up here; the same sad story, to different degrees and dates, applies to the British motorcycle and car industries.

Radio roadmap

Another significant happening in 2009 was the announcement of the ‘digital radio upgrade’, whereby UK analogue broadcasting will be phased out – except for very local community transmissions – by 2015, a rather ambitious timescale, I believe, but good for dealers and good (though they may not realise it) for listeners, especially when the strength, range and coverage of DAB transmissions has been improved. Here, British firms are in fine fettle, with market leaders Pure and Roberts set to benefit from the changeover, though I wish the government had properly addressed the DAB+ question, with a view to mandating it, initially over a ‘dual-casting’ period. I believe that this, like digital broadcasting itself, is inevitable in the long term, and that to delay its introduction is short-sighted.

Meanwhile I am a great fan of DAB, though I mourn some of the channels which have come and gone. Regarding the criticisms of its fidelity, in most situations where a better quality radio medium is not available (eg portable, mobile, tiny-speaker and similar applications) any shortcomings of DAB are not really significant, and are outweighed by its many advantages, features and benefits, especially now that energy consumption of DAB radios is coming down. DAB, in any form, is an excellent thing, the biggest advance in radio in its ninety years.

Retro radio

There are still many of us about whose first step in this industry was with analogue radio, and many businesses which were founded on it long ago. Technically it made a perfect introduction to electronics in a world where digital technology was unknown – or in relative infancy. Popular long ago (and you can still buy them) was the ultimate ‘green machine’ for radio, a crystal set, needing no energy supply at all, apart from the radio transmission itself, though you had to strain to hear it in the headphones. In today’s noisy world this would be even more difficult and  it would be hard to get DAB on it. The vendor’s profit on a crystal set would also be rather meagre.  Happy Christmas.

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