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The decade's most important radio trends #6: HD Radio launches, but who listens? Who cares?

#6 in our series on radio trends of the decade


June 12, 2009 is a day that will live on in broadcast history. That’s the day that the nation’s television broadcasters switched off their analog signals and went all-digital forever more. But does anyone remember January 7, 2003?

That was the date of the very first digital HD Radio broadcast, originating at Detroit FM station WDMK. However, it isn’t clear that there was anyone in Detroit who could hear the digital signal besides employees of Radio One, the station’s owner, or Ibquity, the developer of HD Radio. The first consumer HD Radio receiver was actually sold two days earlier in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and there’s no indication that the buyer then drove to Detroit.

That this date isn’t so well remembered is indicative of the collective shrug HD Radio has received from the American listening public over it’s seven years on the air.

Renamed HD Radio from the technical name IBOC (standing for the method of its broadcast – In-Band On Channel), the digital radio broadcast system was launched with the promise of offering static-free digital sound with higher fidelity, along with added subchannels adding more feeds of news, talk or music. Unlike digital TV, HD Radio would accomplish right on the AM and FM bands, by squeezing in an additional digital signal alongside a station’s required analog program.

By all accounts HD Radio works, though many critical listeners question whether digital means better. In order to squeeze the digital signal into the analog station’s space on the band it has be highly compressed. While broadcasters like to call it “CD quality” the primary channels are often broadcast at pretty low bitrates, especially when they have to share bandwidth with extra subchannels.

Renaming the system HD Radio smacks of opportunism meant to latch onto the appeal of high-definition TV. For its part Ibquity claims that any resemblance to true high-definition is coincidental. In early whitepapers the HD was said to stand for “Hybrid Digital,” though that meaning has long been dropped.

The most significant criticisms leveled at HD radio result from interference concerns. The digital signal sits beside a station’s primary analog signal, which puts it closer to adjacent stations. This adjacency creates the potential for interference, especially since on an analog radio the digital signal sounds like a harsh digital hash rather than a competing audio program. In order to address this problem the digital signal is limited to broadcasting at only 1% the power of the primary analog carrier. However interference complaints continue. In 2007 these complaints gained some technical backup from a report in Radio World Engineering Extra which confirmed the invasion of digital “grunge” on adjacent stations, especially within a few miles of an HD transmitter.

Things are significantly worse on the AM dial. As any listener can attest, that band is already a stew of noise and interference. It only gets worse at night when signals travel hundreds of miles, bouncing off the ionosphere. So it seems logical that adding a digital sideband to AM stations would only make the band grungier. In fact, the situation is so bad that Citadel turned off HD on its AM stations in October 2007 amid rampant interference complaints.

Interference complaints might be just a footnote to this story if there were tens of millions of households currently enjoying HD radio. At this point there finally seems to be a ready supply of receivers and stations. Ibquity claims “2,000 HD Radio stations are on the air with 1,000 new FM multicast channels.” But how many listeners?

According to the latest research from Bridge Ratings, HD Radio reaches about 650,000 listeners nationwide. That’s about as many people as listen to the third highest rated FM station in Baltimore, MD, the nation’s #21 market. By comparison, the newly combined XM/Sirius satellite radio boasted nearly 19 million paying subscribers at the end of the third quarter this year.

Put another way, based on 2,000 HD stations, that’s an average of 325 listeners for each HD digital signal. If a station paid around $110,000 to make the digital upgrade like Washington public station WAMU did, then that’s about $338 per listener. At that rate, stations might as well start giving away HD Radios to maximize their investment.

It looks like the NAB put its hopes in HD Radio to improve the fortunes of broadcast radio, while the nation’s largest broadcasters let go of the reigns from their primary product: programming. Put simply: 4 more channels of voice-tracked homogenized crap still amounts to crap.

We might see some more interesting uses of HD Radio’s additional audio and data channels come from public broadcasters, which have also–somewhat cautiously–embraced the technology. But I don’t think that adds up to an enormous mass-appeal audience. HD Radio might not become the next AM stereo, but it doesn’t even yet look like satellite radio, either. Without some massive investments in improving programming and reinvigorating local service, it certainly won’t be the technology that turns around commercial broadcasting.

Further reading: Radio researcher John Anderson is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on HD Radio. Keep up with his newest findings at DIYMedia.net



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8 Responses to The decade's most important radio trends #6: HD Radio launches, but who listens? Who cares?

  1. Greg December 29, 2009 at 8:07 am #

    Hey john,

    Congrats on making the news! Actually, if one checks the FCC database, only about 1,750 stations have converted, and conversions have all about stalled.

  2. BrianK December 29, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    Ford announced today that HD Radio is factory installed in their autos and the at least 4X digital power increase for HD radio is on the cusp of being approved which will give listeners stereo reception upto twice as far as traditional auto FM receivers in noise-free and to my ears much better high frequency response. HD radio has almost the most efficient audio codec available so at 48kbps is sounds better to most listeners than 128kbps MP3s.

  3. Paul Riismandel December 29, 2009 at 9:05 pm #

    BrianK: that 10db increase the NAB has been lobbying for is a whole other ball of wax, especially in terms of increased interference. Nevertheless the Ford announcement certainly means there will be more people with access to HD Radio, assuming they choose the Sync option with HD. We’ll have to see how many people actually choose that option, and then how many people actually use it. But I’ll be surprised if that adds more than a few hundred thousand new HD radio listeners.

    None of this changes the fact that HD Radio is a fundamentally marginal service. Ford’s move gives a bit of hope to HD Radio, but satellite radio is also an option on most new cars and I think it’s fair to say that satellite radio is also a marginal service, still.

    That HD Radio uses a very efficient AAC codec doesn’t change the fact that it’s pretty darn compressed. I listen to MP3s and AAC files everyday and they can sound quite good. But 48kbps is a stretch, even for AAC. Talk is fine, but it strains credulity to call it high fidelity for music. The term “HD” is a red herring.

    I don’t doubt that HD Radio will live on another 5 – 10 years. Regardless of technical hurdles I still maintain that the primary roadblock to HD Radio’s growth is the fact that the commercial radio industry has no new or interesting programming to offer on it. I don’t care how many channels of crap or how high the fidelity of that crap is. You still won’t convince me to buy a new radio to listen to the same old crap with a new digital signal.

  4. paul vincent zecchino December 30, 2009 at 4:22 am #

    HD Radio jams competing stations so that all citizens can hear are a few stations owned by soulless conglomerates and the increasingly giddy government-controlled bunch known as ‘PBS’.

    HD’s promoters can say what they wish and they’ve surely said plenty but that’s the essence of HD Radio: “A carny shill” as the East Bay Express News deems this jammer which would be the envy of every Cold War East Bloc tinpot. The late and unlamented Ceaucescus’s woulda loved HD for its ability to jam all but state-approved signals.

    HD claims to be innovative but what’s innovative about willful destructive interference? Isn’t interference about as innovative as a crooked shopowner who smashes his competitors’ storefronts?

    HD claims to be an improvement over what promoters call ‘buggy whip AM Radio’ – can’t you just smell the hubris in that gaseous boast?

    Yeah, we all love new things. Many people love new tasty drinks, and yet nothing satisfies like water. And AM radio, free from noxious HD jamming can be as vital as water during disasters or any other time we want to hear it, can’t it?

    Who are these bragadocious sandfleas seemingly educated beyond their capacity who can’t see obvious reality?

    Who cares? Every year they say will be the ‘HD breakthrough’, but the only thing’s broken is the shill parrot yapping of HD cheerleaders who sound like a broken record as they jam the American citizens’ airwaves and call it a revolution.

    Meanwhile, the American citizens clearly heard HD radio for what it is and responded with rampant apathy.

    Paul Vincent Zecchino
    Manasota Key, Florida
    30 December, 2009

  5. Greg December 30, 2009 at 4:39 am #

    @BrianK: I’de like to add that Ford has been announcing that it would add HD Radio since 2007, but it never materialized. Also, Ford is an investor in iBiquity. Microsoft got itself involved in HD Radio with the failed Zune HDs, so maybe some of those unsold HD chipsets are being installed in Sync.

    BMW even has an HD Radio trouble-shooting guide, and there are nothing but complaints about HD Radio in BMW Forums, so I’m guessing that it will be the same situation with Ford. Ford has visited my blog a number of times, so from doing research on the Internet, they must be aware of the multiple problems with HD Radio, like severe dropouts and digital articfacting.

    For any power increase, yet to be approved by the FCC, very few stations will have the funds, or headroom, for any power increase. Looking at iBiquity’s coverage maps under Docket 99-325, it appears that even a -10db increase will make little difference in coverage, but will surely cause massive interference. I’m hoping at some point, non-HD stations will file a class-action lawsuit against the FCC/NAB/NPR/iBiquity partners.

  6. Robert D Young Jr December 30, 2009 at 6:58 am #

    John, great article on a really bad technology. I own an IBOC receiver which has been blinking at me since the power went out last winter since I see no reason to reprogram it.

    PS. just one little correction: CD quality is really “seedy” quality.

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