IBOC DAB Benefits Will Be Few

One Observer Says ‘Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain’
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I belong to a few online mailing lists. Recently, a well-meaning fellow on one radio group asked for opinions on what radio would be like in five or 10 years, what with digital radio and IBOC looming.

Hoo-boy. I steeled myself for the usual onslaught of e-mail.

If you know me, you know I’m opinionated. ("No, really?" my cube-neighbor pipes up. I smack him with my Nerf football). Also, I tend to join lists that attract folks like myself.

Not surprisingly, the posts flooded in. Also not surprisingly, the majority was pessimistic about the viability of IBOC.

"The audio quality just isn’t there." "The cost of conversion is too high." "The delay is too great." The usual suspects, if you will.

But then someone hit the magic answer: "The public won’t buy the receivers because there’s nothing better about IBOC for them."

Ahhhh. Give that man a cigar.

Benefits

It’s a question that must be asked before any business venture is started. Not "why is a customer going to buy this," but "why isn’t a customer going to buy this?"

Greg McLemore, founder of Pets.com, are you listening?

So what if IBOC is digital radio, anyway? Didn’t we learn our lesson from AM stereo? Didn’t Eureka flop in Europe?

Well, it’s a lot of extra bandwidth channels, so you could offer more services!

Hmmm, wait a minute. What exactly could we offer here?

Well, how about a national system that automatically switches from station to station to keep the same genre on (i.e., always keep the top 40 hits goin’ as you cruise from Boston to L.A.)? That’d be nice.

Hmmm, don’t think so; the system might switch a listener to a nearby competitor. Okay, scratch that idea.

Well, we could show cool announcements like "Call in and win!" Yeah, that’s cool. Hmmm, but it’s yet another thing to take my eyes off the road.

I live in Boston, which is right next door to Cambridge, where the lovable Click and Clack of NPR’s "Car Talk" have helped push through a ban on the use of cellphones while driving. I can see them choking in between their cackles when they hear about displays on a radio.

Starting to see a pattern here?

Well, Ibiquity, the surviving IBOC proponent, tells us IBOC will sound better! There we go, a real improvement!

Err ... wait a minute, FM radio already sounds pretty good. And here’s the real rub: it won’t sound any better in the car.

The numbers don’t lie: morning and afternoon drive are the main times people listen to most stations. And they’re in their cars, a notoriously poor acoustical environment.

So how will they tell the difference? They can’t. Jeez, I can only listen to my MiniDiscs in my car because they sound so awful on my home stereo, but fine when I’m on the road.

Speaking of which, haven’t we all noticed how ridiculously overprocessed most FM stations are these days? I listen to my local rocker to lose weight. After 20 minutes, I’m so fatigued I feel like I ran 10 miles.

How can they get away with it? Because most cars are so loud to begin with that you can’t possibly hear the audio loss from over-processing. But then why do they do it?

"Well hell, we gotta sound louder than the other guys," screams the PD. And God help us, but satellite radio’s coming down from above like the meteors in "Deep Impact" and they’re digital, too!

Keep up with the Joneses

Ahhhh, now there’s a reason to go to IBOC – because your GM / PD / SM / SA / VI (Village Idiot) heard the other guy is doing it, and if they’re digital, then they must be better, right?

Yes, I can hear you groaning now, and I feel your pain. I know more than a few of you engineering readers have installed a knob that does nothing at master control and pantomined turning the knob in the presence of the PD because he or she insists your station doesn’t have enough (pick one) "funk," "punch," "jazz," "life," "rock-n-roll," "presence," "awakeness" (yes, I have actually heard that one), "buzz," "loudness," or "that thing."

Oops, I just gave away our secret, didn’t I? Sorry, guys.

So what does this all boil down to?

I say IBOC is boiling down to something even my dog wouldn’t eat for most FM stations. Also it is a potential death knell for Class D, LPFM and small Class A stations that can’t foot the steep bill for a digital transmitter. Rosy picture, eh?

Sound like I’m overlooking someone? Nope, I haven’t forgotten AM stations. They’re about the only group I see benefiting from this. And it could be a nifty benefit. Certainly audio fidelity would improve.

We could see a nice resurgence of AM radio. Certainly it could be the lifeline that helps save AM from being hit hard by satellite radio … as both AM and FM may well end up be.

Ah-hah. We finally found a benefit that outweighs the detriments for IBOC. Hoo-rah!

I guess only time will tell, eh? Because this is where the curmudgeon behind the curtain puts away his crystal ball and gets back to pretending to work.

RW welcomes other points of view.

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