The Problem With HD Radio Isn't the Technology

The Problem Is Poor Programming and Lack of Quality Control
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The Problem Is Poor Programming and Lack of Quality Control

Is there something wrong with HD Radio? Perhaps, but I don't believe minor technical issues are the problem.

Yes, there are some. For instance, I'm not sure whether I agree with the idea of authorizing a 10 dB increase in the level of the HD Radio carriers for FM broadcast. Will it extend the coverage? Undoubtedly; but will it cause more damaging interference to other stations in the market? That remains to be seen. I'm willing to take a wait-and-see attitude on it.

Another technical issue is the interference to local broadcasters by AM skywave signals related to adjacent-channel HD Radio carriers. Personally, I haven't heard any objectionable interference. Still, there are some areas where this has become a real problem.

The solution is to study it objectively and determine whether the interference would have been there if the interfering station had been broadcasting a full 20 kHz wide analog AM signal. If so, then the interference has, in essence, always been there and therefore the perceived interference to the local station is a moot point.

However, the real problems are lack of good programming available to the HD Radio listener and the nearly non-existent quality control exercised by radio stations.

QP and QC

For years radio has been plagued by a severe lack of quality programming in most markets. Back in the '70s radio began a slow decay cycle, as the programming department's budget was cut and PDs had to look for alternative means of programming their stations. Automation came upon the scene and canned music formats were being broadcast on many stations. You could drive across this great land and hear "Sunny 98," "Sunny 101" and "Sunny 106" — all airing the same format. You'd hear the same announcers giving the time and temperature in each market. And, if you were lucky, there might be a brief news segment at the top of the hour.

As we descended into the 1980s and '90s the computer took over the broadcast. Now radio stations had the ability to voice-track! You could turn to three different stations in a town and hear the same announcer on each — often at the same time! As the voice-track technology matured that same announcer could be heard in other markets as well.

Now we have this glorious new tool called HD Radio. According to the proponents, this gives radio stations a chance to compete with satellite radio. But why do we need to even think about that? If radio stations would have followed a working model that carried us through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, competing with satellite radio would have been unnecessary. Radio would have still been the shining star and satellite would have been a service that would be completely secondary, similar to CDs or MP3 players.

Radio needs to be relevant to the listening audience; just playing music isn't enough. There needs to be a sense that the station is important to the community. Without that connection, radio will become a secondary service.

My second point is the lack of quality control.

There are a large number of HD Radio signals in the Denver and Fort Collins market; roughly half of them have some sort of problem with their HD Radio broadcast. Some have time-alignment problems. Nothing will frustrate a listener more than tuning into an HD Radio broadcast and hearing a delay when it transitions from analog to digital.

If you are in a strong signal area, the problem is relatively minor. But in the fringes, where transitions can happen every few seconds, the station becomes unlistenable.

Still other stations are not broadcasting text information with their programming. I can understand that many stations don't have the infrastructure in place yet to send the title and artist of every song to their HD Radio exciter. However, within the exciter is a provision to send out a custom text message. Therefore, any radio station broadcasting in HD could send its station slogan, a short message to the listeners or even contact information. Yet all I see when I tune to these stations on my receiver is the infamous "NO TEXT" message.

Finally, FM stations that are broadcasting HD2 and HD3 streams need to start exercising better quality control.

Some of them are being fed a satellite or Internet stream from a programming service. And sometimes those streams go silent for extended periods. More than once I've tuned into an HD2 stream to be greeted by nothing but silence.

If the main carrier goes silent you'd better believe people are running around in a panic trying to get it back on the air! The "secondary services" don't seem to deserve the same consideration. Of course, if the stations had decided to program something "unique" and "relevant" on the HD2 or HD3 channels, perhaps there'd have been a valid reason to monitor them more closely.

We, the people who believe in and support HD Radio, will be the ones who will make or break this great new tool we've been given. Personally, I'd love to see every station in this country become a quality HD Radio station. What a great medium that would be. But until we get our act together as broadcasters and start taking radio seriously again, not even HD Radio will get us out of this hole we've dug.