Commentary: First Listen — RadioShack’s $99 HD Radio

I was ready to buy an HD Radio receiver about six months ago, shortly after an industry-wide offer went out making a Boston Acoustics radio available for about $200.
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I was ready to buy an HD Radio receiver about six months ago, shortly after an industry-wide offer went out making a Boston Acoustics radio available for about $200. I decided to wait after a friend familiar with the receiver warned me off. Wait for a radio with improved reception, I was told. In Somerville, N.J., 50 miles from New York and 60 from Philadelphia, I wouldn’t be able to pick up the HD signals of FM stations in either market or their multicast channels.

So I waited. When word went out that RadioShack was going to be selling its Accurian tabletop HD Radio for $99 on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I e-mailed my contact again. This time, I was told I could count on receiving at least the New York stations with the antenna that was provided with the radio. (Boston Acoustics owners had complained of having to string their own.)

On the hunt

The day after Thanksgiving, I went to www.radioshack.com to see if the Accurian was indeed on sale for $99. There was no mention of it on the homepage. There was no obvious place to click to on the homepage, for that matter, as the pull-down for “portable music” offered CD players, MP3 players, boom boxes, portable radios (smaller ones), satellite radios and accessories.

I found the Accurian sale ($125 with a $25 mail-in rebate) through a Google search, although I later found out that using the site search would have worked, too.

At RadioShack, the salesman was indeed aware of the special — an improvement, by the way, over the early days of satellite radio when the first Circuit City salesperson I spoke to was barely familiar with it. While the RadioShack salesman did have to walk around the store with me to find the display unit, it was still an improvement; the Circuit City salesperson had only been able to hand me a brochure.

But the RadioShack salesman couldn’t play me the Accurian. It wasn’t plugged in, and he told me it didn’t get any reception inside the store.

I bought the Accurian anyway; the last one in stock, he told me. Had he sold any others today? “Somebody must have bought one. It’s the last one,” said the salesman. (HD Alliance President/CEO Peter Ferrara told reporters recently that RadioShack was “overwhelmed with the sales” of the Accurian over the weekend.)

Bringing home radio

The first place I tried the radio was at home in Northern New Jersey, 23 miles from the Empire State Building. I started with the smaller of two antennas that came with the radio. The second one was recommended for “more remote areas.”

I used the station lists at www.hdradio.com to guide my tuning. There are two different station lists: by state and alphabetical by market, neither listing every station on the other.

With the first antenna, I could get only 10 of the at least 16 stations HD2 multicast channels listed for my area. Of those multicast stations I could pick up, at least three signals could be described as in-and-out, including WKTU(FM)’s country HD2 channel, which, had I been a non-industry person, would probably have been my primary motivation for buying the radio. When the digital signal on an HD1 channel goes away, it defaults to the analog signal. When the digital signal on HD2 disappears, so does the station.

At least four multicast stations, advertised on the HD Radio homepage, appeared not to exist. I got the primary signal in HD, but no option for a second station. I have since confirmed with the stations that at least three of those stations are not yet up and running. One other station’s multicasters were off the air over the weekend recently but are now back on.

So I tried the second antenna. Now WKTU-2 came in a little better; still not consistently, but I lost at least two other stations: WNYC(AM-FM)’s HD2 and HD3 channels. Eventually, I let the antenna go slack instead of stringing it up, and WKTU-2 finally came in consistently. Just as well, as I could never have actually gotten away with stringing the antenna across the living room like that.

On the other hand, just using the Accurian’s basic FM antenna gave me much better FM reception than what I was used to at home. Ironically, I was able to pick up other country FMs, including some that were two hours from me.

Then I brought the radio to work. At my desk, I was unable to pick up the New York or Philadelphia stations with either antenna. Two stations from closer markets turned out to be not broadcasting in HD yet. That left me with only one choice in HD: WAWZ(FM) in Zarepath, N.J., a few miles away, and its HD2 channel. The experience was not unlike an earlier test drive of the Boston Acoustics model from Central New Jersey that had failed to pick up New York, Philly or much of anything.

What’s ironic about having reception issues in Somerville is that it’s not a town where one wants for radio reception. Roughly 80 percent of New York and Philly stations are available — the only issue is those that are short-spaced to each other — and there also are stations from nearby Trenton, N.J., Allentown, Pa., and the Monmouth/Ocean, N.J., market as well as a few locals.

And while I’m waiting for the e-mail that explains that I’m not in the primary service contour for most of these stations, their reception on a regular radio at my desk is more than acceptable.

Join the club

As a non-engineer, I would not try to write authoritatively about the Accurian’s sound quality, except to say that I was somehow expecting the head-rush of loudness of, say, the THX “the audience is listening” movie trailer. What I heard lacked the fullness of even the average FM station, as if the primary goal were to demonstrate CD-style clarity.

I even managed to stumble across Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ “A Taste Of Honey” on WCBS-FM-2, a swinging ’60s instrumental that should have been a great audio showcase but didn’t have any particular punch here. And one multicast channel, WQHT-2, was roughly half the volume of its HD1 sister.

Okay, in case any of HD Radio’s satellite radio competitors or regular critics are gloating now, I should point out that I still put up with a certain amount of signal dropouts and futzing around with the antenna to listen to my Sirius satellite radio, as well. If I had felt like I were getting a lot of station options, or even one must-have station, it wouldn’t have mattered. But in a market with multiple choices, there were frustratingly few new ones.

Of course, much of what I did hear on HD2 was content I’d heard before from stations that also stream on the Web. But hearing the programming over a radio instead of computer speakers brought home a few points, and allows me to end with some advice for anybody who did buy an HD Radio this month.

If you were given Sirius a year ago, you had the countdown to Howard Stern to build excitement. If the industry indeed believes that the greater availability of receivers at an attractive price point is finally putting HD Radio under more chimneys this holiday season, it’s time to gear more programming to those people. Of the multicast stations I encountered over Thanksgiving weekend, only WCBS-FM-2’s oldies format was offering anything that differed from what one might have heard a week (or month) earlier.

For the same reason, stations should devote more promo inventory to explaining the advantages of HD2, welcoming listeners to the club and congratulating them on being early adopters. HD1 stations that promote HD Radio should mention that listeners are getting the radios for the holiday. And there should be some way for listeners to interact with the new stations and each other. What fun is joining the club if you can’t talk to somebody about it?

Just as stations run the audio of their TV spots as on-air promos, more HD2 multicast channels should try to reflect the “secret stations” marketing heard in some of the institutional advertisements for HD Radio, and try to capitalize on the mystique that those promos hope to create.

Stations also should try to show off HD2 with more audiophile programming. Early FM had music that was worth hearing in FM stereo. I’m guessing that in 2006, that’s more likely to be Tool than Herb Alpert for many consumers.

The multicast channels should be high-concept and deliver. As with satellite radio, I’m not in favor of stations so narrow they’re claustrophobic, or so obscure they’re of interest only to a collector. But I’ve encountered deep-cuts stations that weren’t so deep, and new-music channels that weren’t so new. As we found out after the first year of satellite radio, wide variety by itself is not enough. First there has to be tangible variety.

This spring’s optimism among many programmers about the capabilities of HD2 multicast stations seemed a little unrealistic. Much of the programming time and on-air inventory broadcasters devoted to their HD2s might then have been better devoted to stations that were being widely heard. With budget and personnel cuts now taking place across the industry, it seems unrealistic that more resources are now going to be devoted to multicast stations.

But $99 pricing suggests that HD Radio finally has its driver, and that gives any station broadcasting HD Radio a renewed responsibility to put on a show for those listeners who do show up.

This commentary originally appeared in Edison Media Research’s “Ross On Radio,” a weekly column on radio research and programming.

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