words Marcus Fairs
Digital audio broadcasting is supposed to be radio for the i-pod generation, so what’s with this Eighties droid affair that looks like it belongs on the nursery floor and takes a genius to use?
You’d think new product types would spawn new forms but often the opposite happens: they mimic the objects they are supposed to supercede. The first cars looked like carriages; early televisions were disguised as sideboards; the first mobile phones aped two-way radios.
Digital radio manufacturers have been similarly keen to hide technical innovation behind a derivative veneer. The first wave of DAB (digital audio broadcasting) products from companies like Pure, Roberts and Bush looked like vintage wireless sets and often featured wood-effect cabinets or Fifties faux-chrome, large dials instead of push-buttons and just one centrally mounted speaker announcing their monophony.
Perhaps this was a sensible strategy, given that the target demographic appeared to be pipe-and-slippers types who wanted to listen to Radio 4 while repotting their petunias and had the cash to replace their perfectly good analogue radio with one costing four times as much but offering brighter reception. The technical possibilities of DAB – the fact that you can rewind and fast-forward live radio, for example – might well be lost on this audience.
Now DAB is beginning to migrate from the potting shed to the teenager’s bedroom as MP3 players, audio servers and other devices capable of storing music digitally take over from CDs. The latest DAB radio is the Bug, designed by Wayne Hemingway for Pure.
Hemingway has tried hard – too hard – to break away from stylistic convention and come up with something that looks like a droid from a crap Eighties BBC sci-fi series. Let’s not mince words here: this has to be one of the ugliest products ever conceived. Instead of crisp retro-futurism, Hemingway has opted for Blue Peter anthropomorphism. The Bug resembles a skinned rabbit, with a section of shower hose for its scrawny neck and a head apparently made out of a shampoo bottle.
Yet the Bug’s intended cuteness – the screen has perky cartoon eyes that blink open as it powers up – is irritating rather than endearing, doubly so given that the radio is fiendishly difficult to use. It’s fairly obvious how to turn the thing on but after that it gets increasingly opaque. What are those six unmarked silver buttons on the head for? Where’s the volume control? How do I change station? How do I turn it off? You need to refer to the manual: to turn it off, hold down the navigation jog-dial for three seconds – an operation as counterintuitive as it is tedious.
Another problem with the Bug is that it’s hard to work out where it’s supposed to be used. Squarish retro radios by Pure and the others are designed to be ported from the kitchen table to the study desk to the conservatory windowsill, but the Bug seems to have been designed to live on the nursery floor. The controls and the speakers all point upwards and there’s no handle: you have to grab it by the neck to pick it up.
So as an object, the Bug is just as its name implies: a bothersome and embarrassing household pest. But it has one redeeming quality. It can record songs digitally direct from the radio at the press of a button (thankfully, this button is clearly marked “record”). This is – for the moment – an entirely legal way of acquiring digital music for free. Hemingway reckons he’s got two years before the music industry closes this loophole. Until then, you can grab as many tunes as you like and store them on SD cards or transfer them to your computer via the USB port.
For this reason alone, the Bug signifies an evolutionary leap. Radio downloading could be the next geek phenomenon, but whether the iPod generation will want to be seen dead with this beast is another matter.
The Bug, £149.99