Sunday, September 5, 2010

Recognizing the Value in HD Radio

To date, the consumer market's embrace of HD Radio has been underwhelming.  My anecdotal research suggests it's mostly the radio geeks who are following the technology presently, and their reviews for the most part haven't been positive.  The objections are technological in context.  In order for digital In-Band-On-Channel ('IBOC') broadcasting to work properly, digital channels are transmitted at a fraction of the power of their analog counterparts.  Transmitting at reduced power partially explains why HD Radio signals are more difficult to receive than analog signals -- all other factors remaining constant.

Paul Riismandel, in an op-ed at Radio Survivor, discusses whether HD Radio is worth the consumer's time, effort, and $.  Using the newest-latest in home HD Radio receivers, Riismandel conducted a series of (admittedly) unscientific, but nonetheless reasonable tests to assess HD Radio's value proposition for consumers.  What's interesting is Riismandel acknowledges HD Radio signals do sound clearer, if not better... when they're actually received.  His complaints are twofold: the 'cleaner' sound doesn't equate to superior sound quality vis-a-vis dynamic range, etc., and inconsistent reception  of HD Radio channels across the dial.

Riismandel makes some valid points, especially considering HD Radio as viewed through the eyes of an audiophile, broadcast engineer, or otherwise geek.  The thing is... geeks don't drive market tastes.  Joe and Judy Averageradiolistener have accepted spotty reception across their radio dial as a fact of life since the medium's inception.  Effectively, the reception issues with IBOC HD Radio are similar to those with FM stereo, but receivers can be set so that they'll pick up a station's less sensitive signal when its more sensitive signal isn't detected.  (This feature, however, means the receiver only plays the FM station's analog channel.)  Still, I don't believe this problem represents that great of a disincentive for consumers.

Regarding sound quality, it's quite apparent from the widespread market acceptance of streaming media, .mp3 and other digital audio formats, and mobile audio devices like the iPod, that consumers aren't really preoccupied with absolute sonic fidelity.  Satellite and Internet radio don't match the aural experience possible with a CD Audio recording, high-powered amplifier, and a good set of speakers.  Neither does mp3 audio.  To this point stations broadcasting in HD Radio need only demostrate the quality of their channels relative to their non-HD channels. 

I also believe Riismandel's observations don't consider how people listen to radio for attempting to answer why anyone would buy a HD radio receiver.  People don't listen to the radio for sound fidelity.  Rich, clear signals are important, but secondary to a station's content and brand image.  Unfortunately, radio broadcasters have been slow to identify the value HD Radio represents for their listeners.  I think once the resourceful broadcasters discover what listeners value about 'free' radio, they'll adjust their marketing plans accordingly.  Perhaps then will be the time when we'll see consumer demand for HD Radio receivers take off.


Anonymous said...

There are also significant problems with FM-HD that listeners may not notice, except that their favorite community radio reception has been destroyed due to IBLOCK. Also, AM-HD is worse than stalled, as stations have been shutting it off, along with some FM-HD stations, too. Few stations have had the headroom for any FD-HD power increase, as last count after six months, has only amounted to 80+ stations, and of those only three have gone full -10db. My suspicions are that the Keffe Bartel investigation is going to completely take any wind out of HD Radio, as their investigation escalates. I didn't realize who this law firm was, but they have been visiting my blog since last May.

William L. Tucker, Jr. said...

IMO, Keffe Bartel's
"investigation" is a dog hunting for a bone.

Points taken on HD radio's reception problems, although I believe your characterizations to be a bit exaggerated, HDRF. For example, there are community radio stations broadcasting in HD. Two, there's an emerging market for commercial stations leasing their secondary and tertiary HD channels to LPFM, AM, and other community broadcasters.

I suspect broadcasters' adoption rates for AM HD radio are being affected by 1) the economy, and 2) costs involved with adding HD radio equipment. As many (small and medium) AM stations feature talk formats, they may not judge HD Radio as being worth the investment, just as many choose not to invest in AM stereo. I do not believe, however, those reasons prove there's no value -- for broadcasters or listeners -- in HD Radio.

poodles mcgee of the fcc said...

The only reason community radio stations are broadcasting in HD is because they received CPB digital conversion funds. Case in point: WORT-FM, Madison, WI. They were an early adopter...and hate it, because the digital component of the signal doesn't provide the same quality/robustness of their analog. They're actually pissing off listeners who bought HD Radios, and now they're apologizing for it.

The FM-HD power hike was done, in large part, to try to stimulate the uptake of HD by broadcasters. At the time of the FM-HD power boost ruling, the number of stations asking for HD authorizations was in decline.

There is no conspiracy here, nor is there stupidity: consolidated radio conglomerates used their fiscal might to make HD the de facto digital radio technology for the U.S., and its technological and marketplace failings (i.e., listeners don't care, and there are superior audio delivery mediums to HD) are killing it. Give it ten the meantime, don't invest in HD capability: your return on investment will be abysmal.

William L. Tucker, Jr. said...

What you're claiming about HD Radio's sonic fidelity isn't consistent with Riismandel's findings or consumer surveys, Poodles. Even he acknowledged when the receiver picked up a station's HD channel, it sounded better than the analog channel. You're also looking past the evidence which indicates sound quality isn't exactly a consumer priority, judging by the consumption of streaming media, mobile devices, etc.. However, point taken (again) on the relative weakness of HD Radio signals.

I agree the U.S. might have been better off mandating a wholesale switchover to DAB rather than endorse the IBOC standard (as with DTV), but HD Radio has its own merits -- many of which are just now being explored. It took nearly 20 years for FM to be widely accepted by consumers; satrad (Sirius XM) took nearly as long as FM with a considerable amount of public subsidy. My point being that should broadcasters utilize their HD channels to deliver increased levels of (dynamic) content, consumers will deem the technology a viable alternative to satrad, webcasts, and other premium audio media.