Rant from Riverton: 15 years of HD Radio.. the train has left the station.. but you can still catch it!

Fifteen years ago, an amazing radio technology was first introduced.  Why do so few people know about it and why isn’t its use very widespread?  Yes, I am referring to HD Radio, which just recently celebrated its 15th anniversary.  Still, very few people (outside of the industry) actually know about it or what it does, more or less actually owns a radio to receive it.  So, what happened?

First and foremost, HD Radio attempted to ride on the coattails of HDTV, or digital television.  When you compare the quality of a digital television picture to that of its 525-line NTSC predecessor, the difference was night and day.  At the time, there was a huge public outcry for a better TV picture, and ATSC1, the original digital television protocol, delivered that.  In comparison, there was no public outcry for an improved radio sound.  That outcry happened decades before, which lead to the music centric radio stations migrating from AM to FM. 

Both the consumer electronics and the broadcasting industry tried to market the “digital sound” of HD Radio as some form of improvement, without putting much stress on FM HD Radio’s biggest benefit, the ability to multi-cast up to four programming streams on a single channel.  Again, there was no outcry, so there was no demand.  As a result, there were only a few HD receiver models that came out and those that did come out were geared towards the high-end audiophile market.  Auto manufacturers didn’t offer HD Radio as a standard feature, but instead as a “luxury” option.  Also, due to the fact that there were several competing digital radio standards worldwide (HD Radio, Digital Radio Mondiale, DAB, DAB+, etc.), this made it difficult for manufacturers to support all of these different standards in different models.

Let’s not even discuss that disaster called MA1, AM HD hybrid mode.

When I think about how long it has taken for HD Radio receivers to penetrate the American market, I think about Japan’s roll out of Wide FM.  Wide FM is Japan’s recent expansion of the FM broadcast band from 76~90 MHz to 76~95 MHz made possible by the recovery of their TV channel 1 in the conversion from analog to digital television.  Japan, like most of the rest of the world did the right thing and migrated all VHF television to UHF.  Wide-FM is being used as migration spectrum for commercial AM broadcast stations to move to FM.  In Japan, the commercial broadcasters are actually wanting to shut down their AM transmitters in favor of FM.

On my last visit to Japan in 2019, I walked through the major electronic retailers like Yodobashi and Onoden and in the radio section, you could see huge displays with massive marketing for 「ワイドFM」, or “Wide-FM”.  Recently, in a report by Japan’s telecommunications ministry, Japan’s penetration of Wide-FM receivers is well over 50 percent, and this was years after HD Radio was launched in America.  When you walk into a Best Buy or other major retailer, you may not see a model available or the salespeople will give you a blank stare.  A few years ago, I was fortunately able to purchase an FM only HD Radio off the shelf at the Salisbury, MD Best Buy store.  On my 2019 trip to California, the only store I saw HD radios in was Fry’s Electronics.  It was one of the few items that was still left in the store. 

The influence of SDARS (Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service), also known as SiriusXM has also played a huge role in preventing the exposure of HD Radio to the masses.  Prior to the merger, both Sirius and XM were aggressively marketing their services to auto manufacturers to get presence on the dashboard.  This meant an increase in factory radios being put in vehicles already set up to allow a Sirius/XM subscription to be linked to it.  The car rental companies caught on to that, because they now have an “option” they can market to customers to be able to pay by the day for (commercial free) satellite radio.  Because of this, major car rental companies, like Avis, are not inclined, and are likely in “sweetheart” deals with Sirius/XM to keep HD Radio off the dash. 

Oh, yes. Both Sirius and XM did leave a bad taste in people’s mouths about the concept of “digital radio” because of the poor sound quality on satellite, caused by the bandwidth allocations for each channel.  To some people, “digital radio” just means bad sounding radio.  Why should they invest in a different (digital radio) receiver for an audio service that they perceive as “bad” because of their past Sirius or XM experience?

The FCC is also to blame in this.  In the early days, broadcasters tested the waters by trying to allow analog FM translators to be able to rebroadcast the multicast HD Radio streams and claiming that the FM translator is a “fill in” service for the primary FM station (that the HD subchannel is riding on).  “Fill in” translators are normally used to rebroadcast a full-power FM station’s signal into areas of the full-power service contour that may be blocked by terrain, but in situations where a booster on the same channel would not work well due to self interference.  As a result, a translator can operate with any possible facility they want as long as the service contour of the translator remains inside the contour of the primary FM station, protection is given to other stations and the effective radiated power does not exceed 250 watts (there are translator operators who want more).  In contrast, a non fill-in translator is subject to power and height limitations which effectively gives the translator up to a 7.3 or 13.3 kilometer service contour, depending on where in the country they are located.

As a result, broadcasters have used their HD Radio capacity solely for the purpose of feeding content into an FM translator or they will broker the HD capacity to another entity with intention of being rebroadcast on a translator.  This ability has substantially raised the value of FM translators, especially in urban markets.  Because of the fill-in rule, translators that were originally authorized as traditional coverage (such as those established in the 2003 Great Translator Invasion filing window), have been able to expand their coverage.  The main problem with this is that the fill-in translator is only duplicating programming that is already available over the air to anyone with an HD Radio.  But since the NAB and the consumer electronics industry botched the HD Radio rollout, very few radios are on the market that can receive those HD subchannels.

The FCC’s attitude the whole time is that the HD bandwidth belongs to the broadcaster, and they can do “whatever they want” with it as long as the station provides a primary (HD1) audio stream that simulcasts the analog broadcast stream.  The FCC turning a blind eye helped fester this mess that we have today.  The FCC has the opportunity to improve this by either considering a non-primary HD stream as not qualified for “fill in” service (thus restricting the coverage of translators) or just banning the use of HD multi-cast streams on FM translators outright. 

Can commercial radio recover HD Radio to its original intended glory as a service that can provide “channels between the channels”?  I don’t have a lot of confidence in that considering that they can barely maintain original local content on their existing (HD1) stations due to the consolidation, reductions in staff and lost revenues due to loss in market share because of more accessible technologies, such as streaming services.  HD Radio is too late to the party.  They had their opportunity to insert themselves into the audio infotainment market, but they missed out because the industry, at the time was more concerned about expansion and national sales opportunities and not putting a lot of focus on their ability to add three additional “signals” in the market in a way that does not circumvent the ownership rules. 

There is still hope for noncommercial HD Radio.  In the noncom sector, HD can provide the ability for educational broadcasters to expand on their educational objectives by providing additional programming streams to reach specific diverse audiences and cater to niche appeal. 

Is it too late to start a new outcry for HD Radio?  It would require a ton of marketing by broadcasters and support from the consumer electronics industry, but now with streaming overtaking radio in some respects and big tech’s influence on auto manufacturers, it is going to be an uphill battle.  Only changes in regulation or legislation, such as a follow up to the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 could help more effectively use broadcast radio and television spectrum in a manner that free over the air radio once again becomes a contender.   Xperi can also step up by revamping their licensing/royalty structure to commercial stations including offering discounts to commercial stations that donate their excess (HD3/HD4) capacity to qualified noncommercial educational entities. 

In other parts of the world, transmitters and content providers are separately licensed.  Unfortunately, this kind of method would not work in this country due to the decentralized nature of our broadcast infrastructure. 

For now, commercial radio is not going to do anything about it because they make instant gratification from 1-877-Kars for Kids where they are not willing to gamble on the long term investment of promoting the H-E-double hockey stick out of HD, even if it could result in four 1-877-Kars for Kids impressions instead of one and possibly yanking some listeners from their Bluetooth connections to spend more ear time on terrestrial radio.

Some say the train has left the station.  It has.  But it is traveling slow enough that if you are willing to take the risk, you may still be able to jump on.