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HD Radio Faces Rocky Road

A former chief summarizes the reasons he retains doubts about the platform

It seems the radio industry had its share of mistakes and gaffes along the way. The indecisiveness with AM stereo back in the ’80s was one of the more notable episodes. Broadcasting’s latest dilemma, HD Radio, is a case of too little, too late, and to paraphrase a line from the Mamas & the Papas, “The only one getting fat is iBiquity.”

As far as I’m concerned, the first major misstep is that the wrong people developed the standard that comprises the heart of the HD system.

Companies like Apple — whose Quicktime media technology has been an online standard for many years — Microsoft, Real Networks and even Adobe have noteworthy streaming technologies that could have been adapted for HD Radio. My guess is that any royalty charges from these companies would have been vastly more reasonable for the broadcaster if you consider that the development efforts for HD Radio would have more than likely coexisted alongside their efforts to maintain their online coding technologies.

Imagine the possibilities for broadcast radio with a standards-based, bandwidth-efficient and fidelity-rich streaming platform, one that would have worked equally as well for both terrestrial use and online transmission.

This could have had the potential to help control expenses for the broadcaster if the encoding hardware could be utilized for both online and over-the-air HD. While broadcasters may view the Internet as “evil competition,” this actually could have given the terrestrial broadcaster with advantage.

How about a new generation of receiver designed to capture tuner data for station’s data stream, allowing the receiver to switch automatically from an off-air signal to a net-based signal via any available WiMax connection if reception conditions warranted?


I often have the opportunity to speak young people thanks to my role in educational-based computer support. I’ve learned about their preferred entertainment choices.

It appears students aren’t consciously aware of what HD Radio really is, and many prefer other forms of entertainment. Young people lean toward online radio and portable music players, be it an iPod-like device or a music-playing cell phone. It stands to reason that these consumers aren’t going to shell out great sums of money for HD Radio receivers, if they even bother to consider an aftermarket radio instead of the one that comes in their automobile.

From my observation, it appears that content wins out over fidelity with many of these young consumers. Of course, this is the generation I see watching “television” on cell phones and iPods, too.

Confusion regarding HD Radio exists not only with consumers but also in the retail sales environment. It’s still common to come across sales associates who don’t understand what HD Radio is. Some still think regular radio is HD radio.

(“They say it all the time, right?” was the comment from one salesperson, talking about a station’s top-of-the-hour identification, which mentioned HD. I debated whether to attempt to educate the sales associate but I left the retailer in disgust.)

The way HD Radio has been implemented by the broadcaster has contributed to the confusion among consumers. Here we are with technology that allows for greater fidelity, yet many broadcasters (including some in the public radio arena) are processing the daylights out of their HD-1 audio.

A common explanation was along the lines of not wanting the listener in the automobile to have abrupt changes when the radio goes in and out of HD. While this may make a certain amount of sense, it certainly is not going to induce the public to spend money for yet another radio, especially when the one they have operates and appears “perfectly fine” to them.

Trying to sell HD Radio to the masses with the counterargument that “we offer some excellent content on our secondary HD channels” isn’t going to be enough to induce sales either.

There are Internet-based audio streams that beat the likes of many HD secondary streams. These Internet streams have one big advantage: They offer content that the terrestrial broadcaster would never touch, for reasons ranging from the inability to attract sufficient advertising to the narrow “niche” appeal of specialty programming.

Even with low-bitrate streams, online niche programming enjoys a loyal following. I proved that myself for the seven years I operated a deep oldies format webstream via Live365.

From all appearances it seems that HD Radio faces a rocky road. Public acceptance continues to be slow. What appears to be fire sale pricing on licensing isn’t necessarily going to get those smaller station operators or those with marginal cash flow to jump in or continue operating in HD.

I wonder if HD Radio will indeed become this decade’s unaccepted technology, its AM stereo. No matter what your view is, I’m sure it’s an expense that stations are evaluating carefully in light of today’s economy.

The author is former chief engineer of WMMM(AM)WCFS(AM) in Westport, Conn., and Webmaster of the site History of Westport Connecticut Radio