It was not that long ago, (technically 2002) that HD radio was born. For those of you who still are not familiar with what HD radio is, here’s a quick explanation.
A company by the name of iBiquity came up with the technology of digital radio that allows AM and FM stations to transmit audio and data via a digital signal using a part of their existing analog bandwidth. What that means is radio stations can either simulcast or transmit different programming on a hybrid version of their licensed signals. And they can have multiple digital signals transmitted on the same frequency. In order to do this, Radio companies had to go out and purchase expensive new transmitters and other equipment, decide what type of content they wanted to have on these new “sub-channels”, and build formats to meet those goals. Oh, and one other thing; listeners had to buy new radio receivers in order to hear and take advantage of the new digital technology.
It wasn’t until about 2007 that the radio industry became seriously dedicated to HD. At that time most of the major players in the radio industry decided to launch their new “HD stations” and gain programming footholds in their markets. Many offered (and still do) their programming completely commercial free in order to build an audience and create a buzz about the new technology. Major car manufacturers like Ford and BMW started offering vehicles with HD radios built in. Terrestrial radio began regarding their new HD product as a viable free alternative to subscription based satellite radio. But there were a few more obstacles to overcome.
The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) first granted stations the ability to broadcast HD at 1 percent of their existing analog power. So basically speaking, a 100,000 watt FM station could transmit HD channels at 1,000 watts. That itself put limitations on the ability of listeners to pick up their new favorite stations clearly. The digital technology threw in another monkey wrench. Just like the new television digital signals, a radio HD signal is made up of data that contains specific values. Unlike the analog signals we are familiar with, which are made up of infinitely variable values. With HD, the signal is either there or it isn’t. There is no signal fading or drifting that takes place. So the listener can be singing along to their favorite tune one moment, and then lose the signal completely for up to minutes at a time. Obviously this can be a frustrating way to listen to a radio station.
The good news is that the FCC is on the verge of granting power increases to HD radio – 6% is what I’m hearing. That will certainly make a coverage difference, but will stations go forward with the increase? Before you say, “Why not?” think about this. Radio companies have just devoted lots of money to new transmitters for this HD technology. And most of the new transmitters are already working at their maximum digital output. This means that companies will now have to justify reinvesting in a technology that so far has brought in zero revenue. That’s some pretty hard convincing for an industry already in murky waters due to the current economy. The other factor right now – HD transmitters are power hogs. So the cost of electricity to run them is also a thing to consider.
And finally, will the public ever embrace HD radio the same as its traditional terrestrial forefathers? Hard to tell. The biggest thing HD radio has going for it right now is it’s free and it’s local. Radio listeners can go from enjoying 20-30some stations in their market, to upwards of 60 or more with their new receivers. Which means more programming niches to choose from, and many commercial free – for now.
So, much like the ole chicken & egg scenario, it’s a wait and see before we’ll know whether HD radio is here to stay, or become just like Quad stereo and Beta video was in the 70′s; a passing fad. I personally would like to see HD radio survive these current hurdles and give terrestrial radio the rebirth it needs to continue growing and evolving. Of course, internet radio may already be doing that.
That’s my take. Thanks for checking out my first blog. Your comments are welcome!
Until next time…
Tags: digital, hd, new, radio, signal, stations, technology