"Of course, HD Radio was the main topic at the convention."
In this and the next several issues, Radio World will report on news, products, trends and sessions at NAB2006.
Seeking perspectives, I asked around among engineering participants. The comment above is from Cris Alexander, DOE for Crawford Broadcasting and an RW contributor. For him, HD Radio "was a primary topic of the radio technical sessions, it was the talk in the hallways and it appeared to be the most featured aspect of the major manufacturer offerings."
Cris saw not a lot of "new" developments but refinements of existing technologies.
"My impression from the sessions and the exhibit floor is that, love it or hate it, HD Radio is here to stay. The good news for broadcast engineers and managers is that this technology is getting good manufacturer and broadcaster support. I think the danger of another 'AM stereo' false start is becoming less by the day," Cris believes.
He noted the number of products to ease the transition into digital, including transmitters and antennas, STLs, processors, mixers and source equipment.
"In the sessions, we learned the 'whys' of some of the HD Radio phenomena we have been seeing in the field," he added. "We knew what was happening but we didn't really understand the underlying causes. Now we do, and that will do nothing but help us with our HD Radio conversions in the field and help us provide our listeners with better digital coverage and more robust signals."
Mike Starling, vice president and chief technology officer of NPR, said the news of the show for him was HD Radio's traction.
"With roughly 250 stations currently multicasting; Clear Channel announcing nearly 100 channels for their competitors as well as their own stations to choose among by year's end; and the first 24/7 surround radio station being announced in Boston, the service offerings that will drive HD are taking shape quickly."
Starling was surprised to see HD translators making it to market this year. He noted there was an entire booth devoted to an innovative single-point surround microphone solution. He was impressed by low-cost, high-quality point-to-point "IP-casting," seen in numerous exhibits, as well as "some very clever listener interaction tools" deployed by BE's Messagecasting and Mother's 411 software.
"New HD Radio service options like multicasting, surround and listener-targeted datacasting have cleared the launch pad," Starling said. "As Laura Behrens at the Gartner Group summed it up, 'Not going digital is not an option.'"
Starling feels the best minds in the industry are now concentrating their focus on maximizing innovative service offerings and the coverage and quality achievable with HD Radio.
Looking at the year to come, he said NPR engineers will be deploying the new Content Depot satellite delivery solution for public radio stations (he didn't say it, so I will: "finally"), expanding podcast offerings and increasing multicast support for NPR member stations.
At Cumulus, the vice president of corporate engineering and IT is Gary Kline. He echoed comments that the main story of the show was "a continued expansion of offerings and product evolution for HD Radio implementation. I had few surprises with regards to technology trends. Most of what I saw was either an evolution or merging of existing technologies.
"I think the overall picture is this," Kline told me. "Digital radio, surround, multicasting, IP, etc. are all merging together. Now, more than ever, these technologies are blending into one package.
"I saw more than one booth demonstrating complete studio systems utilizing IP to connect surround, telephones, mixing, multicasting, processing and digital radio. This is the way that things are headed. In fact, in a number of installations, this is the way things are being handled today in real markets."
Kline also saw a number of products on display that won't be available for several months. "That is nothing new, except this year for whatever reason it seemed to me to be more prevalent."
Cumulus continued its tradition of offering sessions for its staff (recall I told you last year about the surprise personal makeovers Kline arranged for the engineers). His agenda included a tube rebuilding presentation by Econco; an HD Radio review with Ibiquity representatives; SBE news from the society's President Chriss Scherer; a FEMA/EAS update with expert Richard Rudman; an HD Radio update from Harris; an FCC legal review that included former Allocations Branch Chief Mark Lipp, consultant Jeff Brock and former commissioner Henry Rivera, among others; and corporation news presented by Cumulus executives Lew and John Dickey.
That's a strong program anytime - and this was before the actual show began.
I asked Kline what his organization will be doing with information it gleaned at the show. "We continue to design studio and transmitter plants that merge IP, audio, RF, multicasting and STLs," he replied. "NAB2006 gave us additional products which will help us do that more efficiently."
David Layer, director of advanced engineering at NAB, said, "Multiple demonstrations of multicasting using the so-called 'extended hybrid' mode of the HD Radio system were further evidence of how the industry is embracing multicasting technology.
"Both Harris and BE were demonstrating four-audio-channel multicasts - a 48 kbps news channel, a 36 kbps classical music station, a 24 kbps non-classical music station and a 12 kbps Radio Reading Services channel for a total of 120 kbps; the extended hybrid mode of FM IBOC can support up to 150 kbps."
I asked Layer about news from the National Radio Systems Committee; he also is NAB's administrator representative to the NRSC, which NAB co-sponsors with CEA.
"The NRSC's AM bandwidth study is nearing completion. This study is being undertaken to assess how consumers react to a reduction in analog AM bandwidth, a practice which in theory could improve audio quality by reducing interference between 1st-adjacent AM signals," he said.
"At the AM Broadcasting Subcommittee meeting, AM Study Task Group Co-Chair John Kean of NPR Labs reported that a consumer subjective listening test of recordings made of AM audio using various receivers and various transmission bandwidths is now underway."
Layer also wanted to thank those who donated door prizes to the Amateur Radio Operator's reception.
(I'll add my two cents: the ham reception's organizers and their sponsor, Heil Sound, deserve a salute for turning the event into one of the social gatherings of the convention; and it's open to all, with some fabulous door prizes desirable to broadcast engineers, this year worth over $10,000.)
One thing the engineers above didn't mention was how few HD Radios were actually present to be heard on the floor.
Lest we forget, consumers need hardware if this format is to succeed. I would have liked to come to NAB and found dozens of high-impact displays with radios from a half-dozen manufacturers and signs screaming about this exciting new format. After all, stations are telling listeners about it on the air. There were only a few Boston Acoustics and Radiosophy models scattered about.
As we used to say watching baseball in New York: "Maybe next year."
Mike Starling of NPR ended his comments with an anecdote:
"Our friends with pictures celebrated their 25th anniversary of the first U.S. HDTV demonstration by hosting NHK's amazing new Ultra-High Definition demonstration, boasting 16 times the resolution of standard HDTV," Starling wrote.
"It was impressive, as was their 3-D television demo. But on the plane ride to and from Vegas, while you could 'watch' the movie for free, if you wanted to actually 'hear' it, 'that's five bucks.'
"It's just as true today as it was when the first radio broadcast emerged from the static: Audio is the 'killer app.'"
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"Of course, HD Radio was the main topic at the convention."