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Digital radio? What’s that?

Digital radio? What’s that?

Aug 1, 2005 12:00 PM, Chriss Scherer, editor

The initial comments on NRSC-5 are in the FCC’s hands, and the reply comments are nearing their deadline. A few hundred stations are on the air with HD Radio, and many more have obtained Ibiquity licenses and notified the FCC. The interest in IBOC and HD Radio is as high as it has ever been in radio.

So now that the rollout has begun, it’s time for consumers to begin purchasing the radios. Unfortunately, this still isn’t possible.

We work in radio, and being close to the business sometimes makes it difficult to see the industry in the same way that a consumer sees it. I felt that it was time to act like a consumer to see what how HD Radio is perceived. I have done this before to see what information is available to the public, for IBOC and satellite radio. The last time was about a year ago.

I visited three stores in the Kansas City area to do this: Circuit City, Best Buy and Nebraska Furniture Mart. The information I received was not as promising as I had hoped. First, Circuit City never heard of HD Radio, so I tried other names including digital radio and the incorrect high-definition radio. When I asked for digital radio, I was shown an XM receiver. According to the salesperson, there is no such thing as terrestrial digital radio.

My next stop was Best Buy. The auto sound person had heard of HD Radio. He showed me the Kenwood head units, but he did not carry the HD Radio tuner. He was not aware of any other manufacturers even though he carried Alpine and JVC (two manufacturers with HD Radio auto receivers). It was suggested that if I wanted to buy one of the other units I would have to visit a high-end store. The home audio department knew nothing about HD Radio and was convinced that I meant XM or Sirius.

Nebraska Furniture Mart, despite the name, sells more than furniture. The Omaha-based company opened a Kansas City location about a year ago, and it has a huge inventory of consumer electronics. On the home side, I found the Boston Acoustics Recepter radio, but it was the model without HD Radio capability. The salesman did not know if NFM would ever get that model. On the auto side, two salesmen knew about HD Radio and showed me the Kenwood head units, but said that the HD Radio tuner was only available online. Both these salesmen said that in two years only two people had asked for it. I was the second.

This field work came at the same time that I was assembling a list of all the HD Radio receivers that were available. A list of what I found will be in next month’s Product Source. There are 12 units available. However, given the obscurity in the public eye, this is not an unexpected number.

My next effort was to find a statistic on predicted sales of HD Radio receivers for the Insight to IBOC supplement that is included in this issue. Again, I was disappointed. Ibiquity did not have the information readily available. The Consumer Electronics Association does not track or forecast this information. The receiver manufacturers won’t share any data they have. Ibiquity was later able to share a Deutsche Bank report with projections. This data shows a promising forecast, but I’m concerned that reality disagrees. This year alone the report forecasts that 100,000 HD Radio-capable receivers will be sold.

If it’s this hard to get an HD Radio receiver, can you imagine trying to get a DRM, Cam-D or FM Extra receiver if those systems begin widespread deployment?

Radio has its work cut out for it. HD Radio is the best-kept secret. Ibiquity has launched to help stations with the transition, but who will take the lead on marketing the technology to consumers? Ibiquity? The NAB? The CEA? The stations?

To their credit, some stations have worked with local retailers to promote the technology, but it’s inefficient to do this market-by-market and station-by-station. Unfortunately, it may need to start that way.

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