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 firstname.lastname@example.org.