In My Opinion: John Collins: Sport in stereo an easy step to take

THE BBC is normally at the leading-edge of technical developments in radio.

So many of the current standards and systems were pioneered by ‘Auntie’ and then became commonly used across the industry. But there’s one pretty straightforward thing they could do – and I believe it would be a step change in sports broadcasting.

Back in 1985, when I was undergoing the 12-week residential training course that allowed me to work in their studios, we were given a demo of the new TV technology – ‘NICAM stereo’. The system provided stereo digital sound wrapped up in the pictures to suitable receivers (and was only phased out at digital switchover last year).

The demo was obviously great for music – but in sport it was extraordinary, giving us a much more immersive experience.

Sky’s sports coverage is always at least in stereo, often it’s in multi-speaker ‘5.1’ surround sound. The BBC have followed suit and is producing sound in these formats right now. It’s even more immersive than stereo, with a real feeling of being right at the heart of the action.

Now I know that many stations don’t broadcast live sport on FM or stereo DAB channels, but some – notably BBC Radio 5 live and BBC Radio Scotland – do broadcast a lot of sport. The Scottish coverage could already be broadcast in stereo on the DAB and FM frequencies, but they are not.

Despite being in old-fashioned mono on AM, BBC Radio 5 live’s online stream is already broadcast in stereo, so the only additional resource is getting stereo sound effects back to the studio.

For major events, the cost would be minimal. Even for weekend football, so many matches already have an available stereo feed of the sound effects from the TV trucks that are covering the game. It would be straightforward to add these back at base.

Once they get the hang of the decades-old stereo format, the full-on surround sound experience of ‘5.1’ or other formats is only ‘baby steps’ away – allowing radio broadcasts to be genuine ‘theatre of the mind’.

Radio – which relies on sound and little else – has allowed competing media to nick its great advantage. The ability to use audio at little cost to tell a story in the most immersive and exciting way possible is a huge strength. A little will and about ten minutes of effort could take the online feeds of sport to the same standard as the coverage of great musical events like T in the Park and the Proms.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up occasionally on the radio at Clyde 2, or anybody else that’ll have him. Pic: Michele Dillon.