In September 2001, the UK's Culture Secretary approved the BBC's proposal to launch five new national digital radio stations for broadcast on the Internet, via Digital Television, and on DAB Digital Radio. They were:
Radio 5 Live Sports Extra - a station to broadcast coverage of sporting events which could not be broadcast within the normal schedules of other BBC stations.
Asian Network - a mixed genre station, which was already available in some places (for example Birmingham), broadcast in English and several Asian languages.
Network X - a station to promote and broadcast 'black music' - to include UK Garage, Hip-hop, Rap, R&B, Drum and Bass and Reggae. This was renamed 1Xtra before it launched.
Network Y - a station to showcase 40 years of music and to air sessions from the BBC archives alongside live concerts and music news. This was renamed 6 Music before it launched.
Network Z - a radio station broadcasting comedy, drama and books with extensive use of archive material from Radio 2 and Radio 4. This was to become BBC7.
In The Beginning...
The first part of the launch night for BBC7 was simulcast on BBC Radio 4, and demonstrated to those as yet unconverted to digital radio just how great the station could be. Paul Merton guided listeners through an evening of great BBC archive material. Yes, that does mean repeats, and some people have taken this to be a downside of the station, but when it is taken into consideration that the shows on offer include Dead Ringers, Just A Minute and, naturally, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, this suddenly becomes a rather more attractive proposition.
There's also some superb original content, and some content, for example material used in the monthly theme nights, is extended from the original version with previously unbroadcast material. It's things like this that make the station far from a BBC version of the existing, and fine, commercial DAB station, Oneword. Unusually even for a BBC station, there are no interruptions such as news bulletins. This has caused some scheduling difficulties, since the original material usually has a length adapted to such interruptions. The solution has been to insert expanded trails - 'comedy quickies' - into the equation. Besides filling the time, these are actually also a bit of fun.
The station provides listeners with at least seven hours of funny stuff each day - much of it material that was originally broadcast on Radio 4, which is no bad thing. The station is unusual in that its schedule provides for doses of comedy througout the day. There's an hour of comedy, for example, at 8am - three hours at the weekend - and evenings are mainly composed of comedy. A vast range of shows get a look in on the schedule - The Goons, The League of Gentlemen and of course the inspired Yes, Minister - including many well-known TV series adapted to radio, and of course radio shows that have since hit the TV.
Drama and Books
BBC7 fully exploits the BBC's extensive archive of drama and book material, and again there's new material too. The inclusion of such powerful material, for example Fatherland, a story of what might have happened if Nazi Germany had emerged victorious from World War Two, adds a serious edge to the station to balance the side-splitting comedy. Drama also adds a considerable amount of addictive nature to the station - since much of the drama is serialised with daily episodes, it can be quite difficult to turn the station off for fear of missing out on the next instalment.
Big Toe Radio Show
The Big Toe Radio Show is BBC7's children's programme, and the station broadcasts two hours of it, live, from 4pm each weekday. There's all kinds of mischief, and some of the lack of children's radio programming that the BBC has been criticised over in the past has now been rectified. Besides chart music talk, there's themed discussions on the show and children are encouraged to communicate with the show by text message and email. There are book readings, and a healthy diet of competitions and quizzes on the website.
In the mornings, Big Toe's sister programme, Little Toe, provides the entertainment for younger listeners at a time when many will be on the way to school.
Surely It's not All Great?
There are of course things about BBC7 that might disappoint you - of course, not all the programmes will be to your taste. If you listen to the station all day, you'll get a good helping of déjà vu, since much of the morning's content is repeated in the afternoon. This could also be an advantage to you, though, if you're not able to reliably sit down at the same time each day to follow a series. Some of the more topical variety of comedy is diminished in impact for being archive material - particularly stand-up comedy, where much time can be devoted to the here-and-now.
How to Receive BBC7
There are three distinct ways to receive BBC7, one of which is available worldwide, and two more for UK residents.
If you live outside the United Kingdom, or beyond digital coverage, or don't want to spend more money buying new hardware, BBC7 is available to people around the world online here in both RealPlayer and Windows Media formats. The link will take you to a pop-up window containing an embedded player, along with further information on BBC radio stations and on-demand access to some shows. This is a great way to get a taste of what BBC7 is like, and is great for those with speedy broadband Internet connections, although this method of receiving BBC7 does tie you to your computer.
Listening to the radio though the television seems a little strange, but it's probably a major source of listeners since other stations such as the Core music station seem pretty excited about it. At launch, BBC7 aired on Sky Digital channel 922, Freeview channel 78, NTL cable channel 866 and Telewest channel 910.
DAB Digital Radio
Perhaps the best way to receive the station, if you are within the BBC's coverage area, is to acquire a DAB Digital Radio set. This way you get the station alongside the BBC's other stations, around ten national commercial stations, and if you're near a major town or city, you might get some local stations as well. The quality is great on the better receivers.
The Edited Entry on A296778 has more information on this technology.