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Digital Watch: Why HD Radio Isn’t Actually Radio

HD Radio is back on my mind after reading a recent article in Current about how public stations are using the technology. iBiquity, the company behind HD Radio, has hired the former director of NPR Labs to survey stations on the technology, obviously with the hope of encouraging more use.

Writer Scott Fybush talks to a handful of stations about their HD Radio operations. Only some of them use their HD2 and HD3 channels to broadcast additional program streams. It appears that one popular use is not necessarily to reach listeners directly with digital subchannels, but to use them to serve programming to translator stations. One station in Rhode Island re-started its previously dormant HD transmitter for the express purpose of leasing its HD2 channel to a former commercial station so that it could feed an previously online-only broadcast to a translator.

I’ve not been shy expressing my opinions about HD Radio. Squeezing a digital signal in with analog is too much of a compromise to deliver consistent digital reception, while at the same time it exacerbates congestion on the dial, in the worst cases causing interference with fringe stations. The good-on-paper idea of doubling or tripling the number of channels available on the dial is faced with the hard reality that those channels are mostly only receivable on car stereos–HD receivers exist in very few homes–and only for a portion of a station’s analog service area. On top of that, in my listening tests the sound quality of HD2 and HD3 channels ranges from acceptable to pretty awful.

What this adds up to is that HD Radio isn’t really a radio service–at least not one aimed at listeners. While iBiquity claims that 50% of new car models include HD Radio, and nearly 10 percent of those on the road can receive it, I seriously doubt many actual listeners are taking advantage of it. Sure, they may have a slightly less staticky signal when in the digital service area. But as my experience driving across half-way across the country demonstrated, it’s takes incredible luck to scan the dial and turn up an HD2 or HD3 channel. A listener has to know the HD2/3 channel is there, actively seek it out, and then be in range to receive it reliably. Not a formula for attracting big audiences.

The rule change that created the ability to feed an HD2 channel to a translator has been a boon for these repeater stations, which are specifically prohibited from originating programming. In effect, that means most listeners to an HD2 station are actually hearing it on an analog translator. That’s made translators more valuable, and increased their market value. It also turns HD2 channels into something more like a satellite distribution system or an ersatz studio-to-transmitter link, not a radio service like originally intended.

Some data, like album art or traffic information, can be served over HD, with a slightly larger geographic reach than an audio program, since the data stream doesn’t have to be continuous and is more tolerant of interruptions. Again, that’s not radio, but traffic data in particular is a potential revenue stream for broadcasters when licensed for use in hand-held and in-car navigation systems.

Even so, you might ask why anyone should care about HD Radio, since it seems like just a fringe service. A reason for concern is that HD Radio represents a shift from AM and FM radio being primarily for listeners to becoming utilities for broadcasters and data services. This is a subtle shift, and not one that has gone very far yet. But do not doubt that many broadcasters, as well as iBiquity, would not mind at all shifting much of their business to wireless data transmission.

It’s not that such wireless data transmission can’t be a good supplement to radio broadcasts; I’m not arguing real-time traffic info in the car is a bad thing. What concerns me is that any push to expand HD Radio isn’t really about providing better broadcast service to listeners. Rather, it’s a trojan horse to move the broadcast bands away from actual broadcasting.

Consider the very serious proposals to have the AM dial go all HD, a concept that was tested last year in Seattle. Even if stations are permitted to go all-digital on a voluntary basis, as proposed by iHeartMedia (née Clear Channel), just who is going to be tuning in those HD-only stations on the AM dial? How many listeners will go out of their way to get HD receivers to tune them in?

Will these really be broadcast stations, or effectively just a repurposing of AM bandwidth for traffic or other information services?

Since 2009 we’ve had digital television in the US, with most viewers switched over to the service. And it’s still primarily a TV service, with even some new burgeoning networks finding a home on the digital subchannels.

Arguably, the success of digital TV stems from the fact that all full-power stations had to make the transition, requiring viewers to buy digital TVs or digital tuners. It wasn’t a painless transition, but it worked. Perhaps a hybrid analog/digital system also would have worked. Though, I suspect the transition would have taken even longer, despite the fact that television receivers tend to stay in one place, unlike radios.

HD Radio is a compromise that doesn’t force a digital transition, but also ends up not offering much incentive for listeners to make that transition, either. I don’t expect HD Radio to go away, and as long it remains mostly harmless I’m fine with leaving it be. But I am suspicious of efforts to grow its use, especially in the form of all-digital stations.

Indeed, the digital radio ship may have sailed in the US. It was already well out of port by the time HD Radio finally came on the scene a dozen years ago, and has passed over the horizon as the growth of mobile broadband makes digital radio even more accessible.

This all begs the question of whether digital broadcast radio is even necessary. That’s a topic for another day.

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