HD Radio Shouldn't Be This Hard

Tom Ray finds himself discouraged based on His Ford shopping experience
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NEW WINDSOR, N.Y. — Unless we give Joe Consumer a reason to go out and purchase an HD Radio for his car — until he can obtain it easily and at a reasonable cost, and a device that works — I fear that HD Radio is going to go the way of FM quad and AM stereo, relegated to the scrap pile of history.

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The author contemplated the install of his new Kenwood KDC-HD545U, featuring built-in HD Radio… This statement may surprise you, coming from me. I'm the vice president/corporate director of engineering for Buckley Broadcasting/WOR Radio, New York City. As you may be aware from news reports and my own commentaries, I've been a vocal HD Radio supporter; indeed our station WOR was the one of the first AMs on the air with an HD Radio signal.

It's been awhile since I've written anything HD Radio-related. Well, I've had nothing much new to report on recently. Until now.

You see, I needed to purchase a new vehicle. The venerable Ford Explorer I was driving finally went to that big wrecking facility in the sky after 230,000 hard miles. So I purchased a new Ford Escape. Yes, I'm a Ford guy — Ford products have never steered me wrong, no pun intended.

In April I went to my local dealership in Newburgh, N.Y. and made a deal; then I made "the" statement: I said I wanted to purchase a factory-built in-dash HD Radio and have it installed in the Escape.

Lisa, the sweet sales person, promptly pointed to the Sirius sign and said that the car came with Sirius. Um, no, I told her. I said HD Radio.

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… to here. Photos by Tom Ray She got the head of the parts department. Nope — never heard of it. She got the head of the service department. Nope — never heard of it.

She brought over the owner of the dealership, who went to his office and came back with what amounted to a ream of paper. It contained nothing about HD Radio from Ford.

I took the opportunity to take them out to the dying Explorer and give them the HD Radio demo with the older Kenwood radio I had installed. They were amazed at one of the local Newburgh, N.Y., area stations that's running its AM daytimer on HD2 and an oldies format on their HD3. But that didn't help me. According to the dealer's staff, factory-built, in-dash HD Radio was unavailable from Ford.

I drove off the lot the next day with the factory AM/FM radio that came with the car.

So I went to an online retailer. Being that the Escape is smaller than an Explorer, I was concerned about the available space in the dash being able to accommodate something like the external HD Radio tuner that my Kenwood had.

My other concern was that the Escape has the Microsoft Sync hands-free communications system installed. The only real Sync feature I need is the Bluetooth cell phone connectivity. Since I spend so much time in the car, it's nice to be able to actually hear the phone calls and have people be able to hear me. Sync needed to stay.

Collecting all the parts

And in Car Number Two… Now, we have had another event in our family where my wife's 2002 Ford Focus started acting up. So we bought a 2010 Ford Fusion in mid-July.

First off, my wife does not listen to terrestrial radio. Her opinion is that there is nothing worth listening to in New York's Hudson Valley, 50 miles north of New York City.

She listens exclusively to XM Satellite Radio. She will be driving this vehicle 98 percent of the time and really likes having all of her steering wheel controls working, thank you.

After what I went through putting an HD Radio into the Escape, and since my wife does not listen to terrestrial radio, there will not be an HD Radio installed in this vehicle. The radio in the vehicle is adequate for her needs and will accommodate her XM radio without modifications after the complimentary six-month Sirius subscription expires.

While I was waiting for the paperwork and such at the Ford dealership, I noted numerous 2011 model year vehicles on the lot.

Keep in mind that iBiquity's website recently has been screaming the headline, "Ford Touts Benefits of HD Radio Technology Available in 2011 Edge With New Marketing Campaign." However, HD Radio was nowhere to be found on this dealer lot.

I walked around and perused each and every window sticker on Edge vehicles. This is the same dealership where I purchased the Escape. The owner of the dealership says he has had no information from Ford regarding HD Radio.

As of late July, I went to www.hdradio.com and clicked on the FORD section. The website now states HD Radio will be available in 2011 model year Ford Edge vehicles.

— Thomas R. Ray III What I found online was a new Kenwood model, the KDC-HD545U. It does not require the external HD Radio tuner, as the HD Radio tuner is built in. Cool. And I also found an adapter device that allows the new Kenwood to be integrated with the Sync system. Very cool.

Now, let's take a look at finances. I have a new vehicle with a radio that is going to have to come out — a radio that probably cost me a good $500 or more. But let's not take that into account. The Kenwood KDC-HD545U was priced at $169; as far as I'm concerned, that's a great deal, as Kenwood makes top-of-the-line gear and I found this price more than reasonable.

The Sync adapter cost is $100. This now becomes part of a kit that includes the trim plate for the dashboard, and that is included at no charge. So I'm spending $269 plus shipping to outfit my car, and I get to keep the Sync system. Outstanding.

But wait, there's more. The vehicle has steering wheel controls for the radio. Want to keep those? The adapter is $80, making the price now $349. Uh, oh. The car has Sirius Satellite Radio. And I am not impressed with Sirius. But, I do have a lifetime XM account.

So I call XM Satellite Radio and ask to transfer my lifetime XM account to Sirius. No can do. It doesn't matter if they're the same company. The answer is no.

Then I discover there's an XM Mini-Tuner made by Audiovox that will work with the Kenwood radio. If the XM Mini-Tuner would work on its own with the radio, it would only add $29 to the overall cost. But, it's not that simple. You need to get the protocol adapter, so now the cost is $129 to add XM to the mix, making the total $478.

I decided I didn't need to use the steering wheel controls. I've been reaching over to the dash to adjust the radio for more than 30 years, why quit now? I also decided XM wasn't worth an additional $129 and will stick with the small external unit I have connected through the Aux input.

And if, by not connecting the steering wheel controls, the Sync system does not function correctly — I have been assured it will — the factory radio will be reinstalled in the car and I will not be able to listen to my HD Radio stations.

Frankly, I'm just trying to listen to the HD Radio stations for which I am responsible. I am content to drive around in silence — and do so quite often, listening to the sounds of the car. I no longer am 20 years old; I do not need the whiz-bang latest and greatest abilities to pull audio files off a USB flash drive.

If there were no Aux input jack available, I wouldn't miss it. It's nice that the car "talks" to my phone; that feature is a keeper in my book. And furthermore, the factory installed radio sounds pretty damn good. If I were not trying to listen to my HD Radio stations, I would not even be considering changing out the radio in this car.

Just for fun, I called Ford corporate HQ in Detroit, and talked to many nice people. And these many nice people all told me I was their first HD Radio call, ever. And none of them could answer my question as to the availability of a factory-installed HD Radio that might just fit into the dashboard of my new Escape. And that's not to say they didn't try to help me.

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He successfully installed the new Kenwood HD Radio, the XM Delphi Roady unit and his Yaesu FT-7800R 2 meter/70 cm ham rig. Joe Consumer?

I was shuttled from department to department, speaking several department managers who shuffled through paperwork in the background. I started with the normal customer service route. These were the people who first told me I was their first HD Radio call, ever. I then called back and asked for the president's office and got a nice woman who told me she was one of the president's assistants who also told me I was the first HD Radio call, ever.

I identified myself as being the VP/CDOE of Buckley/WOR Radio, told her why I was calling and looking. She sent me to the head of audio accessories/entertainment. He couldn't help me. I was then passed around to department managers in Customer Service, Research, PR and Engineering. No one could assist me without pointing me to www.hdradio.com.

I informed them that this website is useless. It tells me things I already know, and nothing about radio availability from Ford. I just went in circles.

So I Googled "Ford HD Radio."

Google directed me to several interesting press releases available on the Ford website. One was from Dec. 29, 2009 stating that HD Radio would be available in 2010 model year vehicles. That's interesting. I bought a 2010 Ford Escape. So if HD Radio is supposed to be available in 2010 model year Ford vehicles, why does no one at Ford know anything about it?

I called Jeff Detweiler, director of broadcast business development at iBiquity Digital. He queried Ford and got a response that HD Radio would be available in 2011 model year vehicles, and would be bundled with their navigation package.

Dandy. I have a nice little $150 Tom-Tom GPS unit that works very well. I'm not going to shell out $1,000+ for Ford's navigation system just so I can get the added attraction of HD Radio. I drew the line at $269.

Ford, Doing Several Things at Once Ford has been an active and early supporter of HD Radio, first offering HD Radio as a dealer-installed option on some new Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles in calendar 2008. However, it has taken the company longer than it expected to offer a factory-installed HD Radio receiver due to the challenges of introducing a new feature in the middle of a production cycle.

In January 2008, Ford said that factory-installed HD Radio receivers would be available as an option in some 2009 calendar year models. Ford Technology Communications Manager Alan Hall tells Radio World that this timetable slipped into calendar 2010. He said factory-installed HD Radio receivers launched on the 2010 Ford Flex crossover beginning in January and will be migrated across other products throughout the year.

"We rolled it into the production cycle for the middle of the 2010 model year. The 2010 Ford Flex launched with the navigation system that includes HD Radio as an option."

Hall said Ford is trying to integrate HD Radio receivers as quickly as possible, but that's also happening in the middle of a production cycle, which is challenging. Autos are built at various assembly plants on different timelines. For example, the 2011 F-150 doesn't start production until fall, while the 2011 Mustang is being built and on sale.

Usually a significant new feature like HD Radio is introduced at the beginning of a model year "because during production, plants can't suddenly introduce something new," said Hall, who said the company has a quality assurance process and other ways to ensure new features are tested and ready to be introduced into the manufacturing process.

Ford made the decision to integrate HD Radio receivers into its voice-activated navigation system and is in the middle of that migration. "The updated navigation system may look the same, but we've added HD Radio," he said.

The Ford optional voice-activated navigation system is integrated with the Sync communications system.

By the end of calendar 2010, Hall said, an HD Radio receiver would be available in the majority of Ford products as a factory-installed option as part of its voice-activated navigation system. Ford also is launching what it says is the industry-first application of HD Radio with iTunes song tagging ability as part of the Sony Audio edition of the new MyFord Touch interface, first available on the 2011 Ford Edge (and 2011 Lincoln MKX with the THX-certified audio system).

Asked why a shopper could have the experience like the one described in Tom Ray's article, Hall said the first introductions of factory-installed HD Radio receivers from January through about April were "at the early stages" of the product showing up on lots. "There was probably a little bit of a knowledge gap there before we trained all of the dealers. It sounds like this an unfortunate instance where this dealer didn't have the information this customer wanted."

In the past six months the company has done "a tremendous job" of providing dealers with information and materials on HD Radio and hands-on training so they can demo the feature to customers.

"We are putting an effort into training dealers in HD because we think it's a strong selling point," said Hall, noting that customers get excited when they learn they can control their iPod by voice using Sync. Ford thinks HD Radio can generate that same excitement.

— Leslie Stimson WOR has been transmitting an HD Radio signal since October of 2002. That's almost eight years now.

I would like to think that I am somewhat "in the know" about HD Radio. I would like to think that in this respect, I am more than the "average" consumer. But this consumer has had extreme difficulty getting HD Radio for his new vehicle. Is this typical of what Joe Consumer encounters?

And what about the statement from everyone I spoke with at Ford who told me that I was their first HD Radio call? Add to the mix the fact that it appears adding HD Radio to a vehicle is going to be fairly costly and I wonder, why would Joe Consumer even bother?

Let's go one step further. WOR's news director recently purchased a new, high-end, foreign-built vehicle that does come with a factory-installed HD radio. He came up to me the other day and said, "HD Radio sucks!"

He lives in an area of New Jersey where the WOR Radio signal is starting to diminish. But I have driven there many times, and have not had one issue with WOR's HD Radio signal. His integrated HD Radio, which cost several thousand dollars, drops out of HD — continually — driving him out of his mind.

I told him to read the manual and see if there is any way simply to force the radio to tune to the analog signal.

Is this the experience Joe Consumer is having with HD Radio? "Not optimal" is an understatement. And what gets me is that my little, relatively inexpensive Kenwood ran circles around a high-end radio. I am told by iBiquity that all radios are certified and perform the same; this would not be a fault of the radio. Well, how about the vehicle environment the radio is installed in? Once the radios are certified at a certain level, should the vehicle not be certified for RF interference from its computer interfaces, and shouldn't a minimum performance level of the vehicle antenna be specified?

Does anyone see a problem here?

To repeat what I wrote at the start: Unless we give Joe Consumer a reason to go out and purchase an HD Radio for his car … until he can obtain it easily and at a reasonable cost, a device that works … HD Radio could go the way of FM quad and AM stereo.

My HD Radio gear at WOR is going on five years old. Seeing as this is all computer equipment, it won't be long until I need to replace the HD Radio gear. Thus far, there has been no return on investment, meaning that if an exciter cooks tomorrow, it simply may not be replaced.

Yes, I understand that moving a new technology out takes awhile. But then, someone please explain the fast sales rate of the iPad to me. That rate proves the iPad either has fantastic marketing to make people believe they must have one, or that there is a niche for this device and it sells itself.

Now is the time to ramp up the marketing and get these radios out there. Or I'm afraid it will be time to simply move on. That would be sad for the industry.

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