Exploring HD-R Availability in Philly

Shopping for HD Radio Receivers in the City of Brotherly Love
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As a fellow broadcast consultant and researcher, I often ran into Thom Moon in the Diary Audit rooms of Arbitron years ago. When I saw his report in these pages on the availability of HD Radios in the Cincinnati area earlier this year, I thought it would be good to check out availability in the Philadelphia market.

I am no stranger to HD Radio signals and their shortcomings, having a Dual XHD6425 USB HD Radio in-dash receiver in my car, a Sony XDR-S3HD tabletop at home and Radiosophy HD100 in my Washington office.

I chose "the usual suspects" as far as retailers, the first being a Best Buy in Conshohocken, a suburb to the northwest of the city. It is line-of-sight to the Roxborough antenna farm approximately 10 miles away and under 2 miles from the 50 kW signal of KYW(AM), 1060 kHz, which is broadcasting in HD Radio.

(click thumbnail)Photo by J.R. Russ
As I looked around at the table radios at the Best Buy, an employee named Justin asked if he could help. When I said, "I would like to see the HD Radios," I got a blank stare for a moment, then he brought Zach over, who said: "Hmmm, we don't have any of those."

He went to the next aisle and said, "We had a Sony Boom Box, uh … but, that's gone too. I guess we don't have any."

"How about car radios?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah, maybe over there. Ask for Sean. He knows all the radios there."

A stroll to the corner of the store found Sean; a repeat of the question sent him to a JVC KT-HDP1 Transportable HD Radio kit resembling a satellite radio receiver with an RF modulator to transmit to the existing car radio. These were in sealed packages and were not able to demo the sound.

In-dash radios

I said I would prefer a new in-dash radio and would like to hear one.

Their display center featured two HD Radios, an Insignia NS-C5112 and a JVC KD-HDR30. The Insignia, less expensive at $79, could not pick up a signal of any sort. The JVC, at nearly $100 more, worked.

The JVC was able to get good analog signals of WBEB(FM) and WYSP(FM) among others; however, all signals were analog. When I asked if they were HD Radio Sean replied "I think so." Then I discovered how to manually tune the radio and found the '80s format of WBEB HD2. I said "See? There are different channels." He said in slight amazement, "Oh."

I checked WYSP and received no HD Radio indicator and was unable to tune the simulcast of KYW(AM) that airs on WYSP(FM)'s HD2 and could tune in no other FM digital stations.

I then switched to AM, hoping to amaze him when he heard the all-news KYW jingle in crystal-clear stereo.

Sorry. No AM reception, even at such close proximity to the 50 kW transmitters. And the auto radio department is in the northeast corner of the store, so only a cinder block wall stood between the station and true HD Radio reception.

After about five minutes of trying to pick up more stations, I decided to allow him to wait on other customers looking at satellite radio, which was playing nicely on separate Sirius and XM displays.

Tweeter

I went to Tweeter, an audiophile store primarily serving the northeast. Tweeter is far more professional and expensive, and therefore less busy.

I was greeted by Peter, who pulled a large remote control with an LCD screen from under the central desk. He proceeded to demonstrate the Sonos ZP90 Zone Player with optional remote. This device merges the Internet and a home stereo. He was able to surf the Net and played the IBOC streams of FMs WXPN and WHYY, saying he is "into jazz and classical music."

While I was thinking "I've got to have one of these!" my mouth somehow managed to say, "That's nice but I don't want to spend $600 to $1,000. Do you have just a radio that picks up HD Radio over the air?"

He took me to a wall of shelves; near the bottom of one was a Sony XDR-S3HD. It lit up but received no no main HD stations nor multicasts.

I asked if it had an antenna and he said "Yes." This is the same radio I own and it only had a wire plugged into the Audio Out jack. There is an antenna connector for coax or the supplied 36-inch antenna wire but nothing had been connected and Peter didn't seem in a hurry to do so.

He took me into another listening room and began to demonstrate the Sonos again. Now that's a salesman!

I asked about auto radios and he skirted over it, saying "We have a couple but they aren't connected." I said, "Let me see that one." The $399 Alpine IDA-X001 he showed me lit up but wouldn't play. I said I'd think about it.

Circuit City

I went to another location in "the land of big stores," a Circuit City about a block away. That store was busy and it was near closing time so no help was available.

There were no table or boom box models. On display in the automotive section were a JVC KD-HDR30 at $159 and JVC KD-G340, which is HD-READY, priced at $104. Both lit up, but neither could receive any signals, which was just as well because someone had an XM radio blasting the hard rock of a channel named "Squizz."

On the way out someone with a walkie-talkie and no name tag (a manager?) asked if I'd found everything. When I said "No" and explained, he said, "You can probably find them at www.circuitcity.com." I thanked him and thought, "That really doesn't help me listen to it, does it?"

On another day I decided to go where my Philly experience began.

I was hired to do nights at WWSH, known as "FM-106" in the 555 Building on City Line Ave., though that was six formats and seven sets of call letters ago; 555 is in Bala Cynwyd, and across the street is Philadelphia.

The Adam's Mark hotel, a block south, has given way to a shopping complex featuring a Target, which is only a few miles from the antenna farm and "spitting distance" from the WHAT(AM), 1340 kHz, tower. Too bad there were no HD Radios available at Target.

I traveled down the street to Bala Plaza and RadioShack. In a corner of the busy store was their Accurian brand, Model 12-1686. I first heard one of these units in the offices of WHAT(AM) in 2006 when it had changed to AAA "Skin Radio." It sounded great and I was excited to hear the radio again. Unfortunately, it had no power supply.

As I looked the unit over, associate Christine came over to assist me. When I asked if I could hear the radio she said, "Just a minute."

It was more like five but she came from the back with the box containing all the associated material, including the power supply. She un-wrapped everything and the radio could receive several analog FM stations — but, again, none of the digital signals.

I mentioned that there was an antenna connection so she un-wrapped it and connected the antenna. The tuner would then pick up several HD Radio channels including the '70s format of WOGL HD2, an urban AC on WDAS HD2 and another urban on WUSL HD2.

But still, no AM. So, Christine connected the AM loop. It could then receive nearby AM stations WHAT (1340 kHz) and WDAS (1480 kHz) — but not in IBOC.

She stood there patiently while I tried to receive any AM HD Radio signal but to no avail. The city's other 50 kW AM signal WPHT (1210 kHz) transmits from New Jersey, some 20 miles away and could not be received at all.

WPEN (950 kHz) has a transmitter facility nearby but it has moved in the daytime to Norristown which is past Conshohocken, where I was previously. After much fiddling, I sheepishly said I'd think about it and left. On the way out I observed a customer buying a $150 Sirius radio package. When I got back in my car I found that WHAT was not broadcasting a digital signal.

RadioShack

Meanwhile, RadioShack people work on commission and that bothered me since Christine was so patient and willing to satisfy a customer. Having worked retail sales several times in my life, I felt bad that I had put her so many hoops. So bad, I actually called the store to tell her I was writing an article and that I wasn't a jerk. (RadioShack management: Promote this woman!)

So how is HD Radio doing in Philly? Badly.

How can broadcasters expect the public to get excited about HD Radio when it can't be uniformly heard everywhere?

How can retailers sell the product if they don't stock it? Or if the products they do have on hand can't be demonstrated and employees are clueless?

How can manufacturers justify building the product if it doesn't sell for these reasons? No wonder some automakers balked at putting HD Radio in cars when it came up tied to the satellite merger.

That's one thing satellite radio has done well: point-of-purchase marketing. Even if the sales people are not well versed, the displays can do the job. They work, they explain what channels are offered, they are easy to use; product is available.

Until recently, all terrestrial radio had to say is that there are "channels between the channels." That means nothing to the average listener. I don't think I've ever heard HD2 or HD3 programming promoted on any station's analog channel. I have only heard KYW(AM) promoting that they can be heard on WYSP HD2.

Plus, the difference between analog and digital FM is often negligible. The real difference is on AM but, since most AMs are talk nowadays, you rarely get a chance to enjoy it except during IDs, bumper music and commercials.

A recent trip across Pennsylvania to Erie found only a handful of HD Radio stations, mostly in the larger cities. I believe digital has a long way to go to sell listeners and radios and fear HD Radio is "another AM stereo," a technology that also sounded great. Those radios were installed in many GM and Chrysler cars in the '80s just as most AMs moved away from music to talk, negating the need for stereo. Plus, stations would tout, "Now broadcasting in AM stereo" so Joe Public got in his '77 Galaxie 500 and heard the same crummy-sounding AM station. Click. Back to FM.

Terrestrial broadcasters and the NAB held up the satellite merger, blaming the medium for many of their woes. I think the answer is to look in a mirror.

J.R. Russ is a long-time broadcaster, consultant and president of J.R. Russ Programming & Research.

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