Just since December, when I last wrote about HD Radio, it seems that new
energy is being breathed into the format. The technology had a significant
presence at the Consumer Electronics Show, and sales figures continue to climb:
4.5 million radios in year 2012 alone, according to Bob Struble of iBiquity.
This is especially encouraging because these increased sales are being driven
by a resurgent automobile industry. HD Radio needs car receivers to move
consumers to adopt this technology.
Radio’s Booth at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show
courtesy of iBiquity
It also appears that multicasting, the ability to offer extra radio channels
with one license, is finally beginning to develop traction with niche
broadcasters. This is an ideal technology for foreign-language broadcasting,
for example, a large portion of which has been confined to the greatly inferior
SCA systems developed 50 years ago. For a modest investment, it is now possible
to reach millions of people with programming that might not be popular enough
to justify the huge investment for an analog FM service, and at an audio
quality to be proud of. Many stations such as NPR affiliates have shown that if
people want a particular niche format, they will buy the radios to get it.
Why Push Now?
Here at RWEE, we have covered every aspect of the HD
Radio system and followed the technology as it has improved over the years. HD
Radio has improved in every aspect of deployment from its early days, including
cost, efficiency, simplicity and reliability. This is especially true of the FM
version, which always held more promise than the AM version.
to avoid investing in HD slowly have been disappearing. Over the last four
years, when capital investments in radio hit a low point due to the recession,
technology improvements continued to be introduced, but few stations had the
budget to upgrade. As we are exiting a recession and capital budgets are being
restored, it is a good time to look at HD Radio again.
The first wave of digital investments began in about 2003, so it has
actually been about 10 years since the introduction. If you are one of those
stations that jumped in at the beginning, it is time to update. There are lots
of new features and capabilities now.
Most important, growing numbers of listeners and radio dealers are
watching us closely at the moment. It is important to impress this group or
they will lose interest and set the whole process back again. And that could be
the end of radio’s dominant position in media, which we have enjoyed for so
While many in our
industry feel that analog is and always will be good enough, it is hard to for
me to continue to believe this.
It is in response to the weakness of the radio industry that so many new
technologies have come to pass and been accepted enthusiastically by consumers.
Digital music storage and transmission, portable music listening devices,
satellite radio and now Internet radio have all developed as ways to pull apart
the dominance of the old radio system, which is mostly a memory at this point.
These new technologies offer consumers more choices and more control over what
they hear and when. If the radio industry does not evolve to meet this
competition, it eventually will lose its audience. The slow erosion is staring
us in the face already.
Perhaps the most important battlefield for consumers is in the automobile
dashboard. Radio had an incredible advantage over other technologies for many
decades, as it was the only way to get to mobile listeners with new or fresh
content. This isn’t true any longer. In my opinion, it is the car listeners
that will decide the winner from amongst the mobile options that are now
proliferating in the latest autos. This will then move the home market.
Dress to Impress
So let’s put on our
best and show our new audiences just what we can do with digital. It’s time to
improve your digital coverage with higher power HD — with the new car radios,
you can get further than your existing analog. Get that time alignment into
shape, for goodness sake. Think about ways that messaging, and even graphics,
might add to your station. Buy some new radios for the staff and maybe play
around with some new formats on that multicast channel. Check out the
interactive radio software that can make a direct connection to your listeners.
To help this effort, we plan to offer a
regular column of HD Radio tips and tricks for the 2013 year. I hope that you
enjoy them, and we welcome any tips and suggestions that readers wish to offer.
Since this is an engineering publication, we will tend to concentrate on the
technology side of HD, but all submissions are welcome. If I get enough of them
I can build a column from just reader suggestions. Write to me at email@example.com.
Michael LeClair is chief engineer for radio stations WBUR(AM/FM) in
Boston; he has been technical editor of Radio World Engineering Extra since its
inception in 2005.