A Critic Lashes Out at HD Radio, Again
     

Usually I would not devote an entire column to respond to a reader's letter. But Bob Savage's attack on HD Radio (RWEE, April 15) and most of his misconceived arguments against it as well as his misrepresentation of much of my February installment simply pushed me over the edge. I guess Bob (a.k.a. Phil E. Strann) forgot to clamp bumpers on his plastic imitation guy wire.

Savage owns and operates WYSL(AM), a Rochester, N.Y., rimshooter licensed to Avon, N.Y., on 1040 kHz. Understandably, WYSL has problems serving Rochester with first-adjacent interference from WBZ on 1030 kHz during critical hours and nighttime operations, especially during the long Northeastern winters.

Ya gotta feel a little sorry for Savage and stations like WYSL. A life-long radio guy has a dream and sinks a big chunk of his personal wealth into building a shoehorned AM station that he hopes will be successful serving a larger market from his tiny suburban city of license.

There are perhaps similar stories like WYSL in every decent-sized market. Radio has seduced lots of folks like Bob Savage into challenging ownership positions.

MAD AS A BUZZING HORNET

Savage doesn't like HD Radio because it adds another order of interference to his already compromised signal. Every piece of his diatribe, whether accurate or not, denigrates HD Radio as unnecessary and defends the analog status quo as good enough for radio.

What he doesn't tell us or like to admit is that much of WYSL's Rochester coverage was already getting clobbered by WBZ's analog upper sideband skywave signal.

The more important legal issue here is whether the WYSL protected primary contour is receiving new and bona fide interference from WBZ's HD Radio transmissions.

Savage purportedly supplied the Federal Communications Commission with field measurements showing that was the case. I am told that WBZ engineers performed the same set of measurements and concluded that Savage's data or his measuring methodology was flawed.

The FCC apparently agreed with WBZ and did not grant WYSL any relief. Under these circumstances, WYSL's coverage into much of the Rochester metro area is not afforded protection under the rules. Had Savage's showing been accepted by the commission, they could have ordered WBZ to work with him in reducing HD Radio power to acceptable levels or even cease such operations at night altogether.

Whatever useful coverage WYSL had in the areas now subjected to higher interference from WBZ was simply bonus coverage he was getting for free. It's just a cold fact of life that any rimshot owner is going to have to accept.

Savage claims that "the vastly increased noise floor from adjacent-channel IBOC carriers … in the Northeast … has turned the AM dial into an unlistenable bog of offensive noise."

Earth to Bob: Other than a handful of stations like WBZ and WOR, there really aren't that many AM-HD stations on at night in the Northeast. A few still run HD daytime only for a number of reasons.

The reality is, the number of HD Radio stations causing increased noise on the AM band at night is minor, compared to the already elevated noise floor caused by analog skywave and the myriad of power lines and other noise-generating sources. That has been the rather sad case for AM listeners almost everywhere for a long time. It's one of the many reasons AM's use and popularity have waned over the years. Only AM stations with solid primary contour coverage of their markets both day and night have a shot at being fully competitive, almost always with some kind of news, sports or talk format.

CALLED OUT THE PROBLEMS

In spite of Savage's insinuations that I'm in the tank for HD Radio and iBiquity, I've closely followed the evolution of the technology from the beginning and have often been critical of its shortcomings. I've gone on record as saying AM-HD has a tough uphill climb to achieve success. HD-R just doesn't add enough compelling value to make AMs more successful or appealing. (OK, I will concede that at least ballgames do sound better on HD.)

I'm becoming convinced that the industry will conclude the hybrid mode for AM is too expensive and too much of a compromise to win over enough stations and consumers to make it viable during the hybrid transition. Except in sparsely populated regions, WiMax Internet-enabled mobile devices, including the new breed of multi-mode car receivers, will drive a lot of "radio listening" in the not too distant future.

But I wouldn't count AM-HD down and out just yet. As more AM stations go dark and/or switch to LPFM or FM-HD supplemental channels, at some point in the future surviving stations may eventually decide that a switch to all-digital will serve their interests better. The advantages of all-digital are impressive. But it's not going to be easy for the stakeholders of a proud 90-year-old legacy tradition to turn their backs on more than a billion analog AM radios in the hands of consumers.

FM-HD is a completely different animal with so many more attractive stripes and features. It has two critically important advantages AM never had. The FM band's founding fathers created channel spacing rules that actually prohibit any station from spilling energy into its first-adjacent neighbor's allocated channel. Not having to deal with skywave propagation is the other.

HD on FM has proven itself a worthy innovation that does not cause interference to its neighbors when properly installed and maintained. Very few real interference cases have emerged on FM in which protected contours of first-adjacent channels received interference from HD subcarriers. The Savage claim that "Guy insists we need to repeat the AM IBOC disaster on FM" just doesn't hold water.

HD POWER BOOST BASICS

The proposed 10 dB power increase for FM-HD does introduce the possibility of some increased interference, both to the host station's analog listeners and to some first-adjacent neighbors, mostly short- spaced stations. During the initial rounds of IBOC testing in the early 1990s, a few test receivers exhibited elevated analog white noise levels at digital injection above –20 dBc. For that reason, along with field evaluations that revealed the edge of HD reception was roughly equivalent to the analog 1 mV/m contour, iBiquity engineers chose the –20 dBc power level as the starting point for FM hybrid transmission.

As time has gone by, receiver manufacturers have made a better effort designing tighter IF filter response characteristics and smarter demodulators to minimize the leaking white noise problem. Increasing HD power from –20 dBc to –10 dBc in today's environment does not appear to degrade analog performance for the vast majority of installed consumer receivers. A real-world test case confirms that. Over two years ago, KROQ(FM) in Los Angeles received and implemented an STA to operate HD at –10 dBc. I've checked with CBS and other L.A. engineers who cite no instances of reported or even anecdotal interference complaints.

Using –10 dBc HD power may result in increased interference to first-adjacent stations, especially in short-spaced situations. This is going to be tricky to evaluate properly since most such scenarios already exhibit significant analog interference to each first-adjacent neighbor at their fringes. A lot of it is the result of front-end overloading where the D/U ratios collapse. Nonetheless, additional field testing is now under way in a number of markets to give all stakeholders a better reading of the issue.

It's probable that most stations with first-adjacent short-spaced limitations will not be able to increase HD power the full 10 dB. A lesser amount of increase should be permissible for many. A few may not be able to increase HD power at all. The rules will need to be specific and enforceable to protect all interests.

The proposed HD Radio power increase is an important step forward in FM-HD's maturation process. It will allow HD reception to more closely match the consumer's expectations of a traditional "radio experience" when capturing and holding HD Radio stations on the dial with any radio in typical listening venues.

STATUS QUO CRUSADE

Savage is calling HD Radio a "defective and unwanted innovation" that has already failed since consumers aren't buying HD radios and are perfectly happy with their old analog sets. Only iBiquity, industry "leaders" and supportive engineers want it to succeed and the public could care less, he says.

Yes, the rollout has been painfully slow for those of us working inside the industry. I completely agree that right now, there is little public demand for HD Radios or the additional services on supplemental channels. Better programming, better marketing and cheaper receivers are all needed to push it along more effectively.

Consider this: If the history of major technology advances implemented on broadcast services teaches us anything, it confirms that it simply takes many years for even nuanced improvements to catch on and become mainstream. Witness the adoption of FM stereo. Introduced in 1959, the innovation didn't truly come of age until some 20+ years later. By comparison, HD Radio as an authorized service has only been around for less than seven years.

Bob Savage and all other broadcast brothers who oppose HD Radio need to realize where we are as an industry and where all other electronic media are headed, taking much of our audience with them. Radio is the last major player doing analog. The other services aren't doing digital just because digital is new and glitzy. They've converted to digital delivery because of its superior scalability, manageability and problem resolution capabilities in creating a higher-quality product for the consumer.

And don't lose sight of the eventuality, when analog carriers give way to all digital. We can only wonder what additional roles radio will then be able to play as part of tomorrow's vast array of electronically delivered consumer multi-media choices.

HD Radio has just left the starting blocks. Don't keep insisting on the status quo for our industry, Bob. Buggywhip salesmen did the same thing over a hundred years ago and let the world's travelers pass them by … in their new automobiles.

RW welcomes other points of view to radioworld@nbmedia.com.


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Comment List:

"The reality is, the number of HD Radio stations causing increased noise on the AM band at night is minor" Obviously 'Guy' doesn't listen to AM Radio. Let's see if this makes sense: WOR kills 690, 700, 720 and 730 to give us one channel of HD Radio. Great spectrum use! Who is listening to this stuff? Yet, NRSC bandwidth filters are still mandated. Huh? FM HDs use at least three channels to plop out one full quality channel and (possibly) two low rez channels (probably including their AM station's product.) Who needs FM HD and all its problems when you could easily use analog narrow band FM and get the same results? How much spectrum space do all seven weather radio channels use compared to HD radio's sloppy ution? Mr. Savage is my hero. David needs to challenge Goliath. HD doesn't work technically. Period. Give it up, folks! All this to add computer generated jukeboxes to our lives? Ray, Ray go away! (and don't come back!)
By Anonymous on 9/9/2009
IBDAC digital should not broad-c-a-s-t at night. IBDAC means In-Band-Dual-Adjacent-Channel digital. When an "AM" station broad-c-a-s-t-s program length commercials the management needs to be replaced. When an "AM" station chooses to have less than flat to 10kHz audio someone needs to be fired. All of the little stations with less than 5000 watts should be moved to a new VHF band for the good of the medium wave band.
By Anonymous on 1/20/2010
HD on AM has been and will continue to be problematic in both larger and smaller markets. But overall, the biggest problem with HD-R is a lack of quality program. Programmers are running experimental formats and giving no compelling reason for consumers to buy a receiver. Often the only thing you hear on supplemental stations is whatever amuses the engineers in that market. Remember, in the early years of TV, it was the programming that sold TV sets, not the other way around. People bought TV because everyone was raving about Sid Cesar and Jackie Gleason. If you want consumer buy in, give them something to listen to. Radio's biggest problem right now is that creativity has left the building and we are delivering a plethora of generic blah. The irony is HD radio would never have gotten off the ground without the consolidation and giant groups in the 90's. But until the groups break up and/or local radio comes back, listeners will seek other things to listen to. Advertiser go where the people are and they aren't listening anymore. Programmers, if you want to understand what makes a station successful, know it not just what music is playing, or who is talking, it is the entire atmosphere of the station. A good radio station has its own personality. And giving it a name like Jack, does not give it life.
By Anonymous on 8/18/2009
Savage is stuck up and needs to figure out that HD Radio is here to stay. WYSL used to be a Day Timer and he's lucky to be able to broadcast at all at night. Digital is here and the FCC wont stop it, neither will congress.
By Anonymous on 7/11/2009
No, its a lack of consumer education. Even with a mandate DTV still confused people because the FCC and manufactures failed to to "in your face" education until 5 months to the transition. It has nothing to do at all with "interest"
By Anonymous on 8/1/2009
The continued lack of consumer interest will stop this debacle.
By Anonymous on 7/31/2009
Just wait for another Sept. 11 NYC or hurricane Katrina. Then we'll see what your digital communications theory does for you at the time when it's needed most - complete overload and system failure, while analog keeps on going. Wake up and take a refresher course in communications systems theory. You have enough digital elsewhere. Leave the AM band alone - there are 800,000,000 radios in americans' hands that can receive it now in emergencies. Stupid people.
By Anonymous on 7/28/2009
Could it be the fickle reception qualities of a digital signal that make this technology problematic?
By Anonymous on 8/28/2009
For some reason this software has a problem with the word "broader." Odd.
By A Michigan Broader on 8/28/2009
Kudos to Bob Savage; he's one of the few broaders willing to point out that there's an 800 lb. gorilla in the room and it isn't pretty. Unfortunately, radio reached its technology and programming high points in the '80s and early '90s, prior to Consolidation, HD Radio, and the need for everything to be DIGITAL! The public has been forcefed the notion that DIGITAL is synonymous with QUALITY for so long that they now believe it. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
By A Michigan Broader on 8/28/2009

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