Last November, when Radio Shack made its Accurian model available for $99, I finally decided to buy a HD radio. I wrote about the experience at the time and what I found was:
- Not all of the signals advertised on the HDRadio Website for the New York area were available–several of the stations mentioned on the HD Radio website had never launched as it turned out;
- Many of the signals required a lot of futzing with the antenna, to use the technical term–and very few of them required positioning it in the same place;
- Even to my decidedly civilian ear, most HD-2 multicast stations were generally under processed, less loud and punchy than their HD-1 counterparts–not quite the audiophile showcase that you would want from HDRadio;
- With the exception of WCBS-FM, then in HD-2 exile as an Oldies station, the programming was jockless. There was also little timeliness, and no attempt to create any FM-style mystique around HD-2, or even link it to the “secret stations” advertising for HD Radio that most stations were running. If somebody had gotten an HD radio for the holidays, there wasn’t reward for eagerly ripping off the wrapping paper.
Okay, it’s 10 months later. And as I do about once a month, I threw on the Accurian again this week to see what had changed.
The best news is that within two months or so of the original article, the processing on most of the HD signals, particularly the multicast channels, improved dramatically, as if a whole bunch of Optimods finally arrived in the mail. WQHT-2’s Classic Hip-Hop channel was no longer half the volume of WQHT-1. Hearing stations in HD wasn’t exactly the head-rush of seeing HDTV for the first time, but going from analog to digital no longer sounded quite as flat as it had at the outset.
Title and artist display information has become more consistent since November. If the new Polk Audio receiver that can create song tags in conjunction with an iPod is to have any value, stations need to provide that information all the time, and more of them are now doing so. That said, the one HD-2 channel in New York that plays any unusual current music is WHTZ (Z100)’s New Music Channel. Since last November, that station has started identifying the 15-minute artist interview blocs it plays–but not the songs within them.
As for what matters most, there is, effectively, one new music station available to me in HD Radio: the relaunched WXRK (K-Rock) New York. (Its predecessor, all-Talk WFNY, never broadcast in HD.) The only other significant change has been that WCBS-FM is back on HD-1 while the “Jack FM” format is now living on HD-2, meaning that the one multicast option with some live personality is gone. There is one other new HD-2 multicast channel that is either not yet on the air, or which I am unable to hear 10 miles from the station’s city of license. Otherwise, my music choices are essentially what they were last November.
And 10 months later, there is still very little attempt, at least on those stations available in New York, to build much of a cult around HD Radio on its own air. The ads on terrestrial radio, still ubiquitous, promise new stations, but don’t tell you what they are. They also promise new music, but there’s only one multicast channel that truly fits that description in this market.
Are there a few New York area multicast stations I’m glad to have? Yes, particularly WKTU-2’s Country format and Jack-FM. Are there HD-2 stations around the country that I wish were available? Yes, especially ’80s gold KQQL-2 Minneapolis, which plays more “oh wow” songs than either of its satellite radio counterparts. But having hundreds of new stations nationwide is not the same as having them in New York, and if I had bought this radio for something other than professional curiosity, I would not feel like I had gotten $99 in use out of it, much less $299.
Okay, HD Radio is an easy target–assailed by friends and detractors alike. And as we head into NAB and R&R this week, it may not seem like such a timely topic to you–which is exactly the problem. Because how radio does at creating programming value for its HD multicast channels says a lot about the job it’s going to do when its job is to create hundreds of channels for the not-so-distant-prospect of the wireless broadband car radio.
Terrestrial broadcasters have thrown themselves into many of the new media challenges, as evidenced by the constant promos I hear for WHTZ and WWPR (Power 105)’s social networking sites. Many broadcasters have, we now know, been told to think of their terrestrial HD-1 signal as only one of their station’s numerous platforms. You can argue that social networking or text messaging engages the audience on their own terms, with technology that is already of interest to them. But the wireless broadband car radio will likely be of interest to them, too, and in developing the content that can be heard either there or on HD-2, radio is, for once, getting a head start on new technology.
So one now has to ask these questions again:
1) Instead of a slate of minimally produced channels in each market, many of them centrally produced anyway, would we be better off with the British model of several more fully fleshed-out national brands, whether they’re based on existing local stations or created from scratch? British digital radio is considered far more entrenched than ours–credited with expanding listening. Being able to offer eight national stations, 10 BBC channels, and a handful of regional networks has to be part of it.
2) Would we be better off turning over some of our multicast real-estate to the people who already have a track record of creating content between the stations, specifically the ethnic and other specialist broadcasters who used to be heard on stations’ subcarriers? Those broadcasters, at least, have a history of selling receivers–if perhaps at a more modest price point. And it’s hard to believe that, say; an all-Caribbean station in New York wouldn’t sell more radios than most of the current offerings.
3) Rather than coming up with an HD Radio application that puts the iPod at the center of the universe, would manufacturers’ efforts be best put into getting radio into the car in a package that centers around terrestrial radio and its HD-2 multicasts, rather than the Internet-only broadcasters that dominate iTunes?
Another good reason to develop national channels is that satellite radio–after not taking full advantage of its capabilities–is finally starting to develop its individual stations into national brands. Anecdotally, I’m starting to hear more civilians mention, say, XM’s Flight 26–a relatively unadorned “’90s and now” Modern AC channel by name. A few years ago, it would have been just “that XM soft rock channel.”
HD Radio continues to generate headlines in the industry and consumer press, and yet, tuning across the dial of my Accurian, it feels like very little has actually changed in 10 months. If HD-2 stations are worth even another second of broadcasters’ time, they are worth the effort that getting them right would entail.