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Tuesday, August 07, 2007 - Duck, an HD Radio might be flying off a shelf and about to hit you!
 
Radio is in my blood. It's my everyday job, and it's something I do even in my spare time.

Now, it's possible you've heard of the "next-generation" of radio - HD Radio. Unlike HDTV, which every viewer can notice the dramatic change from a normal signal to the crystal-clear high definition images on the screen, HD Radio offers only a digital service for terrestrial radio, not necessarily any sort of improvement.

It's just like the switch from analog cellular phones to today's more popular digital services. Back a few years, everyone that had a cell phone, had an analog cell phone. Those sounded okay, but, if you started to get out of range, you could hear noise, or distortions based on other radio interference. Along came GSM, CDMA, and other digital phone technologies. Phone carriers sold these to us as an improvement, and wanted us to "listen to the difference." We were asked to "see how clear it sounds", and more. However, over time, carriers could greatly increase the number of users per cell, and then decrease and compress the digital signals, making each one use less bandwidth, and eventually making the signals sound worse. With digital, you either get it, or you don't. There's no fade-outs, there's just dropped calls, or no service.

So would seem the so-called "HD Radio." Stations that typically broadcast thousands of watts of power would be reduced to a mere fraction of that amount to spit out this digital signal. And, for upwards of $150, you too can buy an HD Radio and, if you hold the antenna just so, the phase of the moon is correct, and you've said the proper incantations, you can tune into these HD channels.

Oh, and there's more of them. You can have an HD-1 channel, HD-2 channel, or even HD-3. So, instead of (or alongside) one analog channel, you can now have up to 3 digital channels. You either get the signal, or you don't. For AM this could be good, as there's no fade-out as you pass under a bridge or venture too close to a building or other interference. For FM, you get about the same audio. But, the amount of available bandwidth is limited. For each additional channel you add, you've got to divide the total available bandwidth. So, those 3 HD channels now start sounding a lot like, um, digital phone service. In a case study in Radio Magazine, Certified Broadcast Radio Engineer (CBRE) Don Danko explains:
"The overall HD Radio data stream is set at 96kb/s. Streaming a second signal involves lowering the bit rate on the main channel and giving those saved bits to the second channel."
MSNBC's Gary Krakow puts it this way:
"Here’s what the industry wants you to get excited about: digital broadcast radio or HD (high definition) radio. It’s the worst of both worlds: Bad FM programming plus satellite-like digital audio quality. FM stations in your area will simulcast a digital signal in addition to the analog one you can listen to.

Bottom line: It means that you’ll be able to listen to mediocre-sounding digital music streams of the same horrible FM stations you can’t stand to listen to now."In other words, no one will ever walk up to your speakers and notice the "increased" clarity, cleanness, and fidelity like they do when they walk up to an HDTV and notice all the exciting new detailed images."
But, proponents of HD Radio, mostly the NAB and Ibiquity, the company that has a monopoly on making, licensing, and selling the technology, love to boast how HD Radios are "flying off store shelves", and how it's the greatest thing to happen to radio since transistors. In fact, although the HD Radio standard was approved by the FCC in 2002, 5 years later, it's still not in great use. Not according to Ibiquity, though.

In a article titled "HD Radio Gains Support", Jeff McGannon, Vice President of OEM Business Development at iBiquity Digital predicts, "By 2010, HD Radio will be offered on more than half the vehicle lines." Clear Channel President and CEO John Hogan, says "We fully expect receivers to start flying off the shelves because the audio quality of an HD digital radio broadcast is amazing."

So, if I am to understand correctly, 8 years after HD Radio is approved, only half of new cars will have it? That doesn't sound like anything is flying off of any shelves. An independant community station in the Boulder and Denver, Colorado area, KGNU, is telling it's staff of other issues with HD Radio, including:
  • For the broadcasters, HD is a chicken and egg deal. HD will cost a lot of money, and broadcasters don't want to spend it if HD if people won't buy HD receivers.

  • Listeners won't buy HD receivers (which cost at least $ 100 more than standard ones) if no broadcasters use HD.

  • Manufacturers have no incentive to develop HD receivers until they have reason to believe that HD will take off.

  • No one will embrace HD if it doesn't really improve the sound.

  • HD is meant to sound CD quality, but in reality it will sound like internet radio: low noise, but also digital artifacts. This may not be seen as any improvement at all compared to standard FM. (On the other side, it's going to be a great improvement in AM.) Two major examples of such conversions gone bad are AM-stereo and quadrophonic sound. Both promised great improvements in sound quality, and neither succeeded.

  • Organizations and consumers who bought the equipment found themselves with white elephants.
And the article lists whole sections of pros and cons for HD Radio. But, you certainly won't hear any cons from the NAB or Ibiquity. It's all butterflies and daisies.

An article in trade publication Radio World Newspaper from January, 2004 notes that WOR's Thomas R. Ray, III, believes "that HD Radios will be in stores in the first quarter of 2004." Or at least that's what he was told. And yet, to this day, I've yet to see any HD Radio in my local Best Buy, Target, or Circuit City. Of course, Thomas Ray repeats that often observed state of HD Radio proclaiming, "once the public hears the benefits of non-fading AM and multipath-less FM, I think you will see them [HD Radios] start flying off the shelves." That, of course, still in 2004.

But, let's update. What were they saying in 2005? Billboard Radio Monitor Paul Heine, in Nielsen's (of TV ratings fame) MediaWeek, says in an article from October 31, 2005, that "This year was tagged as the tipping point for high-definition radio," and goes on to note that "HD Radio missed the holiday buying season." That, in 2005.

So, when is this stuff actually going to catch on? Will it ever? Consumer Reports even recommends in 2006:
"...most people will want to wait before investing in HD-Radio equipment. At this stage, choices are limited and prices are high. More and cheaper HD-Radio compatible gear is coming soon, and analog radio isn’t likely to become obsolete within the lifetime of a new radio, receiver, or even a car."
Few opponents of the HD Radio system seem to exist in broadcast circles, or are published in widely read radio journals, but not everyone is blind. In a July 29, 2007 article in the Washington Post regarding the possible sale of Christian music station WGTS, Marc Fisher notes that "WGTS's current format could be salvaged even if the station is sold by putting the programming on a digital sub-channel that would be available to listeners who buy the HD or digital radios that came on the market last year. But sales of those radios have been slow."

Could it be that sales of the radios have been slow, because few are willing to purchase a radio for at least $150? Or are they reluctant to invest in a technology that supposedly missed the 2005 holiday shopping season, but just, then, came "on the market last year"? Or, are they too having a hard time even finding a radio for sale? But, hurry quick and buy one of these exciting radios, "since HD Radio is a free broadcast, all you have to do is get a new HD Radio receiver for your home or car. Prices are plummeting as more and more people are discovering what HD Radio is all about", at least according to Ibiquity's "consumer friendly" HDRadio.com.

But what about those commercials on some regular, analog stations that promote these free new channels and content that are free of commercials and subscription fees? Yes, indeed, current HD-2, and even HD-3 channels are commercial free. But, more than anything else, it's because they aren't worth anything. Few are listening, and would-be advertisers don't generally want to market to just a few. If the whole HD Radio thing took off, do you really believe those channels would truly remain completely commercial free, forever? Anyone with a business mind can see notice the lack of a sustainable business model.

And what of satellite radio? Satellite radio was supposed to be the next big thing, and although satellite radio services now boast close to 10 million listener subscribers, it's hardly become a standard. You don't hear much talk these days of the CD-quality sound that satellite radio once tried to boast. Internet music streams aren't highly regarded, unless they're at least 128kbps. Says Gary Krakow:
"Satellite radio sound is, at best, barely passable. That’s because your satellite service provider sends only one digital signal to your receiver. The receiver then splits that signal into hundreds of audio streams: some, for voice, very narrow; others, for music, a little wider. I’ve been told these streams run from a few kbps for voice to something like 30 to 60kbps for music.

A typical music satellite radio station is thus compressed and expanded at a much lower rate than many MP3s. A reader will write me to defend the sound of a 128kpbs ripped music file (it’s not near-CD quality despite what anyone tells you) but I can’t believe anyone can defend the sound quality of a 36kbps satellite radio music stream."

Chuck Gage agrees:
"No one has mentioned the sound quality! Yes, it is all digital and there are none of the usual analog problems. However, the bandwidth and thus the fidelity, is quite bad in many cases. Both systems [XM and SIRIUS] talk about “CD quality”. Well, yes, CD clarity perhaps, but not CD quality. Both companies use compression techniques to cram as much as they can down that soda-straw of bandwidth."
And what about the commercials? An understanding of "Commercial-free" for the entire service (an understanding not specifically stated by the companies, but pretty much implied), paved the way for "100% commercial-free music". From there, suddenly XM Radio was boasting "…the most commercial-free music channels in satellite radio." About.com:Radio guide Corey Deitz understands the confusion there:
"Notice it doesn’t flat out state they are all commercial-free. Increasing the number of channels allowed the company to boast of quantity – which can easily be misinterpreted by an average listener to mean they are all commercial-free."
He's even wondered "What Exactly Is The Definition of Commercial-Free?" noting that:
"A radio station (or stream) is entitled to promote itself but it’s also common knowledge in the Radio Industry based on perceptual studies that a typical listener perceives a promo as a commercial and does not differentiate between the two."
That fact, is reconfirmed by well respected radio consultant Mike McVay from McVay Media, as quoted by Mr. Deitz,
"[Radio stations]...run :15 promos, traffic commercials, weather commercials, sold and sponsored PSA's, and community activity calendars that are sponsored. They do not count these as part of their commercial load. The listeners always count them as part of the commercial load. Listeners hear anything that is not music or entertainment as a commercial."
Today, upon visiting the XM Radio site, I don't see any obvious mention of commercials until clicking a few layers deeper, where I was tempted with promises of "commercial-free music", but that's not even true, as some music channels, run by Clear Channel. also contain commercials, now.

So, as far as variety of content, satellite radio services win. Again, Chuck Gage:
"...Americans will go for quantity over quality, sadly, any day."
So what does this all mean? The advantages of HD Radio should be clear. There should be greater sound quality, more variety due to increased numbers of channels, and fewer commercials. But those advantages already aren't true, even as Ibiquity's shill site HDRadio.com still proclaims "CD-quality sound" and "crystal clear reception". Variety? Well, honestly, do you see more variety as the same people get access to more channels? Look at Clear Channel. They went from 173 radio stations in 1997, to 1,400 stations in 2004, and has the variety increased? No. Most stations are network downlinks, or voice-tracked remotely to sound identical to stations in other formats. And fewer commercials? Don't count on it.

So the verdict from a guy who has listened to, installed and maintained an HD Radio transmitter, and deals with this stuff on a daily basis? Stay away, and save your money. There's no need, at least yet, to update your radio facilities and broadcast sites for HD Radio, and there's even less need for you to dump your ghetto blaster in favor of an outrageously priced HD Radio. Forget the hype, and for a good laugh, go visit HDRadio.com. Or, just go listen to your AM-Stereo set, instead.

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