HD Radio: It hits the airwaves, but few tune in

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Consumers still grappling with digital transitions in television, music and photography have yet another digital turn in the road ahead: HD Radio. The new format, with improved sound quality for AM and FM broadcasts, is emerging on the airwaves across the country. Unlike the recent innovation of satellite radio, HD Radio programming is free to listeners. For consumers willing to buy new digital radios, it means more programs to choose from. The format’s compact digital signal allows broadcasters to add one or two “side channels” to their primary programs. For example, in San Diego, KPBS-FM now offers news and music programming on 89.5 and an eclectic mix called “Groove Salad” on its secondary channel, 89.5-2. 

Little incentive to buy
The name HD Radio is an obvious nod to high-definition television, or HDTV. But in the radio format, the HD doesn’t stand for anything. It’s simply a trademark of iBiquity Digital Corp., the consortium of broadcasters and manufacturers that developed and own the rights to the format. Digital radio signals co-exist with current analog transmissions. Unlike the digital transition in televisions, there are no plans to phase out analog broadcasts, so today’s radios will continue to work. Without a wealth of programming available, however, consumers have little incentive to buy a digital radio. Without a sea of HD Radios capable of receiving the programming, stations have little incentive to complete costly up-grades to broadcast equipment. It has become what is called “the chicken and egg dilemma.”

HD Radio was launched in January 2004 and touted as a technology that would revolutionize the airwaves. Many areas have lagged behind cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, three years after its launch, HD Radio is showing signs of life:

• Last year, the number of U.S. stations broadcasting HD surpassed 1,000, with programming available in 85 of the top 100 markets.

• Formerly expensive and hard to find, digital radios have come down in price and increased in availability. There is also a portable model that connects to home and auto radios.

• Most major electronics retailers, including Wal-Mart, which introduced its first HD radio this month, carry one or more HD radios.

• BMW announced in January that it would offer HD Radios as an option in all of its models.

• Microsoft and radio giant Clear Channel have announced plans to create a nationwide data-delivery service—MSN Direct HD—to send information, such as local traffic, weather and movie times or national sports and stocks, to the digital radios.

Sounding good
In addition to increasing the number of stations, HD Radio will improve the quality of the sound coming out of speakers. Broadcasters say that HD Radio will deliver fidelity comparable to CD audio on FM stations and make AM sound as good as today’s analog FM. Analog radio signals are susceptible to distortion. Most people can notice the difference in quality between music on an analog FM car radio and a car’s CD player. This is because an analog radio produces approximations of the original signal, ranging from good to bad. However, a digital signal has no middle ground. It is a series of zeroes and ones that are unencoded by the radio and translated into audio. The digital radio either receives the signal and plays it fully, or it plays nothing.

The price of the digital radios is still too high for many consumers, according to Bridge Ratings, a Glendale, Calif., company that monitors radio audience trends. Holiday discounts to about $99 weren’t enough to sway a panel of consumers working with the radio research company. Not only that, “How many people are unhappy with the quality of their FM radios?” says radio industry analyst Mark Ramsey.