HD Radio: Ace, Net or Long?

I was musing over comments by experienced radio manager Paul Marszalek that appeared in a programmer's publication, FMQB.
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I was musing over comments by experienced radio manager Paul Marszalek that appeared in a programmer's publication, FMQB. He asked whether HD Radio is stumbling out of the gate and described his experience after buying a Boston Acoustics receiver (at the earlier price of about $500).

After experiencing the pleasures of "fantastic" audio on certain channels as well as the hassles of digital drop-offs, limited choices and having constantly to reposition his antenna, he concluded, "This whole thing was just not working as advertised."

He lamented advice from Boston Acoustics that he try a Terk antenna or a coaxial converter and cheap dipole. He criticized promotion of the commercial-free aspect of multicast - why undercut radio's business model? - and worried that terrestrial digital isn't quite ready for prime time.

Any consumer comparison with satellite right now, he concluded, will fail - and that's unwise, given the importance of convincing early adopters and spreading positive word of mouth. His conclusion: Ibiquity and its broadcast partners should better test the products of their manufacturing counterparts, to get the consumer experience right, early in the game.

4F or glitch-free?

Some of his criticisms have since been addressed; for instance at the end of March Boston Acoustics decided it will include a second, better antenna with its model and make that available free to earlier buyers.

But Marszalek's and other programmer and consumer comments now audible in the wider world of radio are important. I asked several RW contributors to share their thoughts with me about critics' arguments and the general state and quality of the rollout. A kind of tennis match via e-mail resulted.

One school of thought - call 'em the cautious optimists - argues that the above comments are not typical of the HD Radio experience in most major markets, particularly since the first days of the launch of the BA Recepter HD model, which in any event has dropped in price since then.

"As for technical glitches, we've been buying them left and right since the middle of February and they have been trouble-free."

But, he continued, "Broadcasters, particularly engineers, can't treat their HD signals like they don't matter (and I know that many do). The time-alignment has got to be right, the processing has got to be right and the coverage has got to be the best it can be." Otherwise, he said, early adopters will rightly decide that HD Radio isn't worth fooling with, and that will spell disaster for the technology.

Another school of thought is more troubled by how IBOC looks to the outside world.

An RW author told me he's been hearing this kind of thing and worse from inside and outside the industry. In this view, HD Radio has all the makings of a "4F" - a "fully formed and failed format" -while satellite, despite its fiscal challenges, continues to look like a successful launch.

There's a "very big difference between digital radio on the ground and in the sky right now," he states. Unless the gap narrows this year, HD Radio will be in trouble, he thinks.

Promote

The more upbeat school of thought responds: "If that's the way HD Radio really looks to the outside world, it's mostly our fault as broadcasters." The success or failure of HD Radio - and, for the long term, the viability of terrestrial radio - is up to us.

"If we give it a lukewarm treatment, both technically and promotionally, it can't help but fail," wrote the first writer. It's the equivalent of a salesman who begins his pitch with, "Say, you don't want to buy any widgets, do you?"

"If we are enthusiastic about HD Radio, treat it as if our future depends on it - I think it does - make it the best it can be technically (enhancing the 'wow!' factor) and then promote-promote-promote, it really does represent a 'better mousetrap,'" he said.

"I think the questions we need to be asking are: 'If HD Radio receivers proliferated, would consumers listen? Would they have a load of complaints, or would they find the HD Radio experience pleasant and desirable?'

"From my perspective, as one with HD Radio receivers in car and office to which I listen all day every day in a market that is HD Radio-saturated, the answers are yes, consumers would listen; and they would find it pleasant and desirable," he wrote.

"So the success or failure of this thing really comes down to getting the receivers out there, creating the demand and driving the prices down. Our part of that is to put out the best technical product that we can, promote on the air and off, and partner with local retailers, auto dealerships and the like to get those receivers out there and create the momentum. ... I'm glad that a few broadcasters are doing their part. It's my hope that more and more get aboard while there's still time."

Volley

"I hope he is right, that the future of HD Radio is truly in broadcasters' hands," replied a pessimist. "What I worry about is that 'this thing doesn't work well enough,' that interference, compression artifacts, multicast tuning latency and cliff-effect failure - i.e., technical, not marketing problems - will be the culprit, particularly in the-ever tougher 'compared to what' analysis that consumers perform today."

If that's the case, skeptics feel, no amount of championing on the industry's part can win the day. But if HD Radio is judged technically good enough, the "trinity of requirements" for success still apply: cheap, available receivers; new, exclusive and compelling content; and heavy promotion from all quarters.

"Even then, broadcasters can't do it all themselves, but they can go pretty far with content and promotion," he said. "So there are variables at two levels, neither of which is yet settled."

A third party weighed in.

"I recently ordered a Recepter from Crutchfield and got it in seven days," he told me (before the company announced its antenna "fix"). "There was an ominous back-order message that I got initially, and then the radio just arrived. I'm hopeful they can start shipping them immediately to overcome the 'no-one-can-buy-these-things-yet-because-no-one-has-them' problem. Boston Acoustics certainly has an interest in overcoming this.

"Crutchfield is offering a $20 rebate on the Recepter, so the new consumer cost is $279," he continued (this was in March). "That is far more attractive than the original listing of $500."

His audience - public radio listeners - has shown itself willing to pay $350 for the Bose Wave radio without CD player, comparable to the Recepter; so he thinks the price point is fine for non-commercial stations.

"The sound quality is quite competitive with the Bose, if not better; the Recepter has real stereo because of two speakers vs. the Bose single-box approach."

He feels the factors of price and availability have mostly been addressed.

"Our local Tweeter audio/video store is well aware of the digital Recepter, and on my last visit there the salespeople knew of digital HD and were dying to get their hands on it. Ours is a good market to sell these radios because there is a fairly good concentration of HD stations, and also a fair selection of HD2 stations. Tweeter is a national chain so this means the attention is out there now in retail outlets; it just hasn't reached down to Best Buy or Circuit City yet.

"A year from now it needs to be down to that level. And of course, availability in cars is essential."

As to reception problems, this writer hasn't had that experience with two different Recepters.

"As table radios they work as well as anything I've ever used here, up to that $300 price point. The Recepter in fact works better than most. If you can get the digital, you can get the HD2 - some folks may assume it affects the reception but it doesn't."

Sound quality, he continued, is "far superior" to his XM units, which he says still present substantial artifacts on voice material. He doesn't think much of the quality of the XM receivers; he has reception problems and has to install an external antenna to make it work when it gets flaky. And this is in a market with a significant repeater infrastructure.

"Add to that the negatives of monthly subscriptions and reception latency - it takes a little while for a channel to come in when you retune, similar to HD - and you have a technical package that features many of the same problems as HD."

His point: consumers are willing to pay for XM, technical warts and all, in order to get the programming.

Christmas season

He takes a realistic approach to the question of multicast content.

"Even here, where there has been an enormous push to deliver HD2 programming, I have found channels that change format, go blank or work perfectly well depending on the day I listen," this third writer said.

"This is a broadcaster problem, and one that they are working hard to get ready for prime time. I can get about eight of them as of a couple of weeks ago. I know that there are two key stations in the market that are furiously trying to roll out their HD and HD2 by NAB.

"I'm now hearing on-air promotions of HD Radio on a number of stations, so they are starting to build awareness of the fact that the HD2 will be non-commercial music," he said. "I think the realistic goal for our market is to have widely available receivers and programming in place for the Christmas market, starting in September. I think they will make it."

He feels new content drives early adopters more than any other selling point.

"That is how it played out in United Kingdom, anyway. The different feature in the U.S. is the fact that XM and Sirius got there first and have made pretty good strides at getting listeners to adopt the new technology in order to get a new range of content. In the U.K. they had years to come around to the need to offer something different. HD doesn't have the luxury of that extra time."

This observer agrees that the next 12 to 18 months are critical. "I would observe, though, that Ibiquity and the broadcasters have shown themselves to be fairly flexible in fine-tuning their approach; the recent push for HD2 and the codec changes are good examples of late-in-the-game adjustments.

"I wouldn't count them out just yet; and if other issues come up they should be able to make further adjustments as needed - like including a Terk-powered antenna with every Recepter? There's a no-brainer; XM is already doing this with their boombox radios.

"This time next year," he concluded, "we will have a good idea of whether or not it is going to work."

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