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Summer Blitz Anticipated for HD Radio

By this summer, HD Radios will be in stores; more stations will be on the air in digital; and consumers in 13 rollout markets will be blitzed with promotions as the result of a concerted effort by technology developer Ibiquity Digital Corp., receiver makers, stations and the NAB.

LAS VEGAS By this summer, HD Radios will be in stores; more stations will be on the air in digital; and consumers in 13 rollout markets will be blitzed with promotions as the result of a concerted effort by technology developer Ibiquity Digital Corp., receiver makers, stations and the NAB.

This was the thrust of the HD Radio message at this spring’s NAB convention. Approximately 17 stations were on the air with analog/digital signals, with Ibiquity Digital Corp. hoping that the number would grow to 30 or so by the end of the April.

One station signed a licensing contract with Ibiquity at the show. Don Danko, chief engineer of noncommercial WGUC(FM) in Cincinnati, hopes to be on with a digital signal in June. It would be the first public station in that market to go digital. The classical station has an ERP of 15 kilowatts and will use low-level combining.

Danko estimated his conversion cost at $120,000 to $125,000. A station benefactor who wished to remain anonymous is putting up most of the conversion funding.

Key players in the promotion effort were not quite prepared to detail this summer’s digital radio promotion efforts just yet; many elements were still fluid in April.

NAB President/CEO Eddie Fritts said an NAB task force promoting digital radio is consulting with a PR agency to counter the negative image fostered by satellite services about terrestrial radio.

The NAB campaign would use a positive approach, he said, “to point out that if you live in a glass house, you shouldn’t throw stones.”

One issue of immediate concern for Ibiquity was availability of receivers for stations already on the air. Managers at stations want to demo their new sound for clients; engineers want to hear the digital, period.

Some engineers told Radio World they gained access to HD Radios from Ibiquity for a short period after their stations went on the air, but that Ibiquity took the units back.

Hearing the digital

Mike O’Shea, chief engineer at WUSF(FM) in Tampa, Fla., said he and other employees could hear the station’s digital service for a day and a half before they had to return the receiver. He told attendees at NPR’s Public Radio Engineering Conference, held in Las Vegas just before the NAB, that hearing the digital was important to his colleagues.

Ibiquity President/CEO Robert Struble acknowledged that receiver availability is an issue and said the company is working to get receivers to stations.

Director of Broadcast Business Development Scott Stull said after the show that he had loaned out some test receivers to stations for implementation, demonstration and promotion, and that more would be loaned as he received them “on a rotating basis” until commercial radios become available this summer.

The date of commercial availability has slipped a bit since some industry participants made their rollout predictions at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Manufacturing sources attribute the delay to a number of factors including a shaky economy and a complicated rollout process.

Kenwood USA is taking orders from retailers and plans to ship HD Radios in June, with a full rollout the next month. It has 18 models in its 2003 line, with list prices ranging from $180 to $600. The company has been shipping HD Radio-ready car receivers since January. These work with existing Kenwood head units.

Yamaha and Kenwood are due out with home receivers in the fourth quarter of this year. Ibiquity also added Panasonic and Fujistu to its stable of licensed receiver makers at the show.

Kenwood USA Senior Vice President Bob Law wouldn’t speculate about how many units will be shipped to stores in 2003; but he said the company wouldn’t have invested in the technology unless it thought it would sell radios.

“We feel this will bring attention back to the radio dial,” said Law. Auto manufacturers also have approached Kenwood about HD Radio production.

Retailer Gregg Thomas of Ultimate Electronics said consumers want easy-to-use products. Once HD Radio is available, he said, salespeople will be able to demonstrate electronics using the customer’s favorite radio stations instead of CDs.

Ibiquity’s data demos drew attention at the NAB convention, including one of Neural Audio’s 5.1 surround sound. Harris Corp., which also showed the technology, said NeuStar, powered by Neural Audio, is an add-on product meant to enhance the HD Radio sound. It is a codec pre-conditioner to enhance digital processing at low bit rates. Harris claims NeuStar will make “digital AM comparable to analog FM and enable digital 5.1 broadcast or quality dual stream radio on digital FM.”

That local flavor

Anecdotal experiences from the first HD Radio stations is beginning to filter out.

Some chief engineers of stations that have gone digital say listeners are anxious for HD Radios.

Tom Ray, corporate director of engineering for Buckley Broadcasting’s WOR(AM), New York, which went digital this fall, said he has heard from listeners who purchased a satellite radio service and are disappointed to learn they can no longer hear local traffic reports.

Ray also said he believes the problem of AM nighttime service will be resolved; he feels it must be fixed for AM IBOC to be successful.

“At 4:30 in December, you shouldn’t have to go back to analog because the sun went down,” he said.

Currently, AMs are authorized only to broadcast HD Radio during daytime hours, due to unresolved interference questions about the system’s nighttime performance. Ibiquity hopes to deliver AM test results to the NAB soon.

Broadcast engineering consultant Glen Clark declared that IBOC’s AM nighttime bugaboo isn’t so bad, quipping that it’s “not time to drink Kool-Aid” over the issue. At a digital broadcast engineering session, Clark detailed his theory, submitted earlier to the FCC, that most AMs could go IBOC now without causing undue interference to their analog hosts or neighbors.

Of the roughly 2,800 AM stations in the United States authorized for nighttime operation, Clark said, 1,881 could go digital at night now, another 873 could go digital with a reduced digital power level and 95 could not go digital without causing potential interference to neighbors.

One broadcast consulting engineer speculated that even these 95 could eventually go IBOC at night, with the FCC approving them on a case-by-case basis.

While nighttime signals travel by both groundwave and skywave propagation, the issue of AM nighttime skywave vs. groundwave is shaping up to be a battle between group owners who own historically-protected clear channel stations that rely primarily on their skywaves at night, and group owners whose stations rely on their groundwaves at night.

‘Messy’ issue

One radio group engineer said there’s no easy way to solve this problem.

“It gets messy. There’s no clean and easy way to make it nice,” said this observer, who added that politically, the issue pits large group owners against smaller station owners and splits NAB’s radio membership.

Clear Channel Radio Senior Vice President for Engineering Services Jeff Littlejohn asked Clark whether his study took into account nighttime changes in the earth’s atmosphere, which cause frequent changes in skywave characteristics. Clark said it did not. He later told Radio World there’s no reason he couldn’t alter the parameters of the study to account for them.

One engineer said current FCC analog-to-analog skywave interference protections don’t take into account the atmosphere’s nightly changes; the calculations are based on signal strength and probability.

Littlejohn sought to dispel the notion, held by some, that skywave listening is unimportant. He said skywave listeners make up approximately 10 percent of such a station’s nighttime audience and that such listening is quantifiable by Arbitron. The percentage of skywave listeners is even higher on some stations, such as Nashville’s WSM(AM).

Also discussed was the so-called dual antenna approach to HD Radio broadcasting. An ad-hoc committee of the NAB is trying to determine under what circumstances the FCC would expedite approval of this concept before the commission issues final IBOC rules. Radio World will have more on this topic in the next issue.