Second Listen: HD Radio

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.

25 replies
  1. Joel Raab
    Joel Raab says:

    Sean,
    I had a similar experience with HD in Suburban Philadelphia. I’m hoping that the HD Alliance will address the need for a stronger digital signal. Non-radio folks will not spend a lot of time “futzing” with antennas.
    I also believe that one of the reasons people are not buying HD radios is that we are only selling the technology; not the content. Before someone will pluck down even 50 dollars, they need to know specifically, what exactly are those hidden stations in their market.

    Reply
  2. Skip Dillard
    Skip Dillard says:

    Quite a lot to think about! As a technology geek, over the years I’ve made early excursions into mini-disc, super-audio CD and with my playstation 3, “Blue-Ray”. Just like all of these; their success or failure all comes down to content. I doubt we’ll get the average listener to understand this technology (or even care), so it will all depend on what these new stations has to offer. My solution is getting our in-house radio geeks involved. Every station has talent and aspiring talent looking to spread their wings. Perhaps it’s time we put their energy to use helping us design, program and jock these new channels.

    Reply
  3. Cliff Blake
    Cliff Blake says:

    Well. After traveling around eastern PA and the DC/Balt. metroplex last week, I sat across from a broadcaster with an HD receiver on their desk. It was a ‘canned’ format planted on the HD-2 channel to compliment the main channel country station. After… several… embarassing attempts to move the antenna, we could finally listen to a rather vacant, brandless, personality-less melange of ‘alt-country’ music dropping in and out- right on the desk of the PD. Ouch. But the bigger problem is that with programmers’ time already squeezed with staff cuts and multitasking, there’s barely time to watch over the main channel. If there’s no time and no resources to program the main channel, how much excitement can we expect from the HD-2′s? If we don’t move soon to improve the channels by creating captivating and engaging programming, the argument over marketing the ‘hardware’ will be moot. Furthermore, there’s little effort on the part of broadcasters to drive HD receiver purchase awareness. If there was even HALF of the effort broadcasters expend to tip listeners to their websites, we might have a burgeoning audience. As I’ve said all along: If you build it (worth listening to) they will come. Otherwise HD radio is doomed to a place on the shelf with AM stereo and FM Quad.

    Reply
  4. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    As I’ve said many times before, the entire HD issue is the classic “who came first?”
    Listen to most any radio station and you will hear more “commercial” time for HD radio gear than any other client would even consider buying. Yet all these “commercials” tell you is the signal quality is better.
    Oh yeah, the “commercials” also say you can experience things between the channels. The problem is, there is never a mention of what those things are or the benefits they present.
    Programming on virtually every HD station I have heard is like a juke-box or one of those endless loops of music in a store. No creativity. No talent. No…well, nothin’.
    Unless radio invests in its HD product – meaning content – there is no reason to even run “commercials” about buying the hardware.

    Reply
  5. Peter "Jackson" Oleshchuk
    Peter "Jackson" Oleshchuk says:

    I just don’t see any effort from the broadcasters I work with to do anything more with their HD channels than have them be jukeboxes. Radio station personnel are already stretched too thin with their regular stations to put any time into the HD channels. The budgets for the new channels are just not there.
    Instead of hiding your HD programming computers back in engineering, bring them out and have your talent drop some voice tracks on those stations. It’s something. I agree with Cliff Blake who says that if there is just half the effort, we could have something good come out of this. But, broadcasters just don’t seem to care.
    To promote the hardware and programming, why not hand out free HD receivers? It worked for Howard who gave away Sirius receivers.

    Reply
  6. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    From NAB/R&R: Slowly, HD-2′s Role As A Youth Medium Emerges

    On numerous occasions over the last year, it has been suggested that one of the most obvious solutions to HD Radio’s problems in creating valid multicast channel content and radio’s overall 12-24 crisis might be to just turn the HD-2…

    Reply
  7. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    Can of Worms and Can of Worms HD…Can someone play some Pink Floyd “Is there anyone out there” listening first of all. No! – The programming is not the problem. It will become a problem when these recievers become available. It’s a problem of availability. We have 4 HD stations in this cluster in Fresno and the programming is pretty decent. We were giving marching orders to roll this out and nobody is listening, because nobody has the hardware. At least CC Format Labs is trying to offer programming. Beasley is doing a real good job of providing great material on an independent basis. We have boxes and boxes of car and home recievers in the managers office. Guess who they are going to? – Clients. Meet the same boss same as the old boss. We came up with the idea of doing a six-week pre holiday promotion and giving it to Best Buy, Wal Mart, etc to promote the product on the air and on special HD remotes. Probably won’t happen, because everyone wants to be first at something new, with old ideas of how to execute it. As I write this, My HD-1 main signal is sputtering, I better move my antenna to avoid Friday “futzing”.

    Reply
  8. Johnny Donovan
    Johnny Donovan says:

    Don’t see any mention of AM-HD?
    Is it so worthless as to be ignored?
    …..I am not impressed by it either..especially at night.

    Reply
  9. Joel Wilson
    Joel Wilson says:

    Underprocessed? Not punchy enough? You want digital radio to sound analogue. Let the producers of the music decide how much processing they want in their music. Your concept of an “audiophile showcase” seems to require stations with accentuated base and trebble, no mid-range, and a constant loud volume level. The purpose of processing is to overcome a noise level; The S/N ratio of digital audio is infinite.

    Reply
  10. Kevin Barrett
    Kevin Barrett says:

    With all due respect Sean I’m confused by your use of the word audiophile. Heavy processing, especially digital processing is the first thing you would avoid in order to achieve an audiophile experience.

    Reply
  11. Tom S.
    Tom S. says:

    It piqued my interest when I heard my NPR affiliate had upgraded to HD. Then they revealed their plans for a triplecast — HD-1, HD-2 & HD-3.
    Three lo-fi streams instead of one good, quiet stream? No thanks. I can get plenty of lo-fi news and music on satellite radio, and it covers the entire country.
    Maybe it’s because I live in a small town, but there is nothing on the radio worth listening to now. Who’s going to spend even $50 on a radio to get the same satellite-fed canned format, voicetracked and devoid of local content? And no, a local forecast and morning ag report isn’t very ‘local’ to me.
    In the end, it’s about content. The sound quality of XM and Sirius are subpar, but the content drives people to them. Where is the content that is driving people to terrestrial radio? It’s on everyone’s iPods (shudder). How do you get those people back to radio?

    Reply
  12. Gary Begin
    Gary Begin says:

    For HD Radio to take off, you must first create the demand for the product. Radio has suffered from that particular problem for years, never mind a new entity in the marketplace.
    If you’re already a jukebox over-the-air, what’s the point in creating another jukebox? We need to understand that it’s about the “programming.”
    If you give people something their not getting elsewhere in an entertaining form, you’ll increase TSL and reduce the demand for satellite and
    Ipod usage. If you have an Ipod with 500 of your favorite songs, you’re already your own programmer. You don’t NEED a radio station!
    Start putting something “between the records” people will embrace, market it like the second coming, and watch the numbers fly upward. We’re not curing cancer here, just entertaining the
    troops.
    Let’s start including “entertainment” into the equation.

    Reply
  13. Lee_Sackett
    Lee_Sackett says:

    +1 on the audiophile comment. “Underprocessed, less loud and punchy” and “audiophile” generally are mutually exclusive terms. But “audiophile” is what we should be striving for on the HD channels.

    Reply
  14. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I should clarify for Kevin, Joel, and Lee that what I’m looking for from HD-2 stations that they’ve been lacking is volume and energy. I don’t define that, by the way, as much of what passes for processing these days–particularly at CHR–everything cranked to the level of distortion particularly with records that are already too loud and busy anyway. But I also don’t think audiophile necessarily equates to unprocessed, either. Listening to some of these stations early on didn’t mean hearing lots of great highs, lows and separation (and that goes for the ’60s titles in true stereo). On some of the stations that were half the volume of their HD-1 counterparts, it was more like hearing music from the other end of a long tunnel.
    Johnny, you’re right about my failure to mention AM HD. Much of my quality time with the Accurian has been at night. But now that nights are an option, despite your caveat, I will take it for a spin some Saturday night to hear your handiwork.

    Reply
  15. Jeff Laurence
    Jeff Laurence says:

    Sean..thanks for the article. HD Radio seems to have been foisted on not only the listening public, but the stations themselves. The listeners didn’t ask for it, and the stations are resentful that it’s “just another damn job for no more money” Can you blame either? C’mon how many more “extra jobs” can you pile on a staff before the quality erodes even more?
    What is some of the history of this medium? The reasoning? Who wanted this?
    Is HD radio (which by the way AFIK does NOT technically stand for High Definition) supposed to “create” a new market for electronics companies who need to sell more “stuff” to us? OR is it supposed to allow broadcasters another method of making money? Can HD streams be “sold” off to outside content providers? I’m betting that there would abe a ton of consortiums and groups who would love to be able to buy days or weeks of time. OR why not (as one poster asked) allow all of those within the stations who are always griping that they can do it bettter…LET THEM!..and pay just a little extra and see who snaps up that chance. OR are the stations afraid that the HD stream might pose too MUCH competitiion to thier main channel?
    The HD stream eats up bandwidth so that all slices of the pie are smaller..NOBODY ends up sounding very good?
    No wonder the iPod(tm) is becoming king. We are creating a non-need for our services

    Reply
  16. narkspud
    narkspud says:

    + another on the audiophile comment. There is no such thing as processed audiophile.
    All our local HD-2 channels (LA) have awful artifacts that make it a moot point to my ears. We’ve been having arguments on AVS about whether it’s the HD or the stations’ source material. I say who cares? Lousy sound is lousy sound. Obviously some of us are more annoyed by it than others.
    Nevertheless, as usual, “it’s the programming, stupid.” Even if HD Radio featured flawless sound, no interference to analog, and never dropped out, it would still crash and burn, just because it’s programmed by the same idiots who are running analog broadcasting into the ground.

    Reply
  17. bill hagy
    bill hagy says:

    What does not seem to have dawned on anyone yet is the fact that any potential audience has long since given away any value or need of quality in their audio life. It’s about portability,accessability and convenience. Can anyone HD that?
    Bill Hagy

    Reply
  18. Dan Updike
    Dan Updike says:

    Sean,
    Nice point on possibly using HD real estate for specialty/ethnic broadcasters. That could be the “killer app” for HD Radio. After all, the general public isn’t yearning for this technology. The brokered time concept could work well here, and radio might actually make a couple of bucks (gasp!) on this white elephant, which is more than it’s doing now.
    Dan Updike
    Buffalo, NY

    Reply
  19. Ralph Hamilton
    Ralph Hamilton says:

    HD IBOC FM digital radio? Remember AM stereo?
    It’s another replay! HDTV… At least they (the FCC and equipment boys got it right with that one..has anyone heard Eureka 167?

    Reply
  20. Doug Smith
    Doug Smith says:

    I work at a dealership store of a major national electronics retailer and own the popularwireless site. The store I manage is located in Maryland near Washington D.C.
    We have played HD radio in the store for a solid year now. It was not until WAMU developed content for HD by moving analog content formerly available on weekends to there WAMU-2 that interest in HD peaked. Just about the same time we started having some difficulty getting the more inexpensive HD radios. My fear is that retailers are going to give up to soon waiting on broadcasters to do something with HD radio.
    HD FM in the store is great. There are quite a few stations but American University’s station is still the most popular with their bluegrass content.
    I ageee that HD will languish until broadcasters create a need. Otherwise FM radio is going to remain something we all listen to only ion our cars and not in our homes.

    Reply
  21. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    A digital radio winner: BBC 6Music

    I’ve gone on at length about how we’d be better off with national HD-2 stations like those available in the U.K. Digital radio brands are sufficiently established over there that there’s even a “best station” trophy in the BT (British…

    Reply
  22. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Our HD Multicast Options Have Doubled!

    One aggrivation with HD Radio has been the paucity of HD-2/HD-3 multicast choices here in at Edison HQ in Somerville, N.J. Somerville is close enough to hear FM stations from New York, Philadelphia, Allentown, Pa., Trenton, N.J., Monmouth/Ocean, N.J., …

    Reply
  23. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Moving Forward With The HD Radio Alliance

    You may have read by now that the HD Radio Alliance has loosened its rules for the next year to allow limited sponsorships on HD-2 multicast channels, as well as making it easier for owners to change format on their…

    Reply
  24. Mark D. Withers
    Mark D. Withers says:

    Went out and bought my first am-fm-hd radio for $99. So far in the Lehigh Valley, PA there is nothing to get excited about. I might as well keep listening to the radio stations on the internet! At least I get the whole world, and in my market all I could find was jokes (WZZO) and oldies (that didn’t sound like oldies) (WAEB) We really have an HD AM (WSAN) but I could not tell any difference. Philadelphia (KYW) turns on the HD light but can’t pick it up very well. Next few weeks maybe I will get an ouside antenna and see if I am still disapointed.

    Reply
  25. Krellan
    Krellan says:

    I have a HD Radio and enjoy listening to it, but the problem is the content: as others have said, the extra subchannels are just a generic jukebox, with no personality or community worth listening to.
    Stations that don’t have enough airstaff to program the subchannels should consider renting them out!
    There’s probably plenty of people that would like the chance to run their own radio channel, or perhaps just a radio show every now and then. As others have said, look to the local community. Pirate radio stations offer a clue as to what the listeners want: more non-mainstream dance music, such as drum and bass, and more ethnic music. Why not put those pirates to work?

    Reply

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