Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Halcyon Days of HD Radio

Ran across an interesting article from 2004 the other day (it seems like everything remains perpetually available online). Reading it today, you can really see the shortfall between the promises made for HD Radio technology and what was actually delivered.

In the Knight Digital Media Center article titled "HD Radio Offers Tantalizing Hope for Niche, Hyperlocal Radio Content," author Mark Glaser wrote:
Pity the poor folks running local radio stations. On the music side of things, downloadable MP3s, satellite radio and podcasting have eroded their power to create hits and keep people listening to commercials. As millions of people discover the joy of programming their own playlists on iPods that play right onto their car radios, the pain of listening to preprogrammed, repetitive playlists becomes apparent. [Emphasis mine]
And after four years, the problem's only gotten worse. Glaser continues:

But wait, there's a white horse on the horizon for radio broadcasters in the United States: HD Radio.

And what follows is all the wonderful things HD Radio was expected to do:

...digital channel that delivers higher quality sound -- and data... perhaps the most exciting part of HD Radio is that one station on one frequency could serve multiple digital streams -- meaning a public station could have news on one channel, classical music on another and public affairs programming on another. Plus, there's the possibility of rich data services such as local weather and news beamed to portable devices in the future...
Well, it's happening on the public radio side, but how many commercial stations are really doing anything with those other channels? Better question: four years later, how many stations are broadcasting HD Radio content at all (even if it's just duplicating the analog signal)?

Anybody see that streaming news and weather scrolling across their radio dials? Me neither. But you can get those widgets for your smartphone.

So far, HD Radio hasn't consistently delivered on any of its promises -- not that many were interested, anyway. But there's another part to this story that I also find extremely interesting. Glaser goes on to talk about how HD Radio could be used for local content.
What if radio stations gave the extra channels over to community groups to run hyperlocal programs or niche music for ethnic communities?
The one advantage radio broadcasters have over satellite radio is their local focus: local weather, local traffic, local news and local advertisers. If they could really dig down to the hyperlocal level, commercial and public stations could strengthen their ties to local communities.
Richard Redmond, director of broadcast systems for Harris Broadcast Communications, says he hasn't heard any broadcaster say that they'd like to turn over one of their digital channels to the community, [emphasis mine] but he still thinks there's potential.
So here we sit. Most stations aren't interested or don't have the resources to program a separate digital channel (outside of public broadcasting, that is). And yet it's better to keep that subchannel dark than broadcast truly local programming (which has to be cheap to produce -- heck, community groups would probably be willing to pay for airtime).

Even back then, there were voices of reason. The article quotes Richard Warner of What's Up Interactive:
"It's not DVDs taking over from VHS. There is no groundswell of support from consumers for digital radio. [Emphasis mine. Four years later and the ground still ain't swelling] They're more interested in all the hits and whether traffic is bad, and they get that just fine now.[Emphasis mine]."
Four years later, we've learned that the digital sound isn't really that good (it's very compressed), and the signal strength makes reception problematic for many -- especially if you're indoors. HD Radio broadcasts are still the exception rather than the rule for many stations, and of those that do broadcast, only a fraction use a second or third channel of programming. And as far as all that metadata goes, well, it's minimal.
Most radio listeners are still where they were in 2004; contented to hear the hits, weather, and traffic on the gear they already have. To them, there's no perceived advantage to buying an HD Radio to receive programming that was promised years ago and still isn't readily available. And while the radio industry waits for the public to begin buying enough radios to get serious about providing content, the rest of us moved on long ago.

- Ralph

Day 176 of the WJMA Web Watch. (These guys used to have an HD Radio simulcast. I wonder if they still do? I'll just go to the website and - oh, wait. Never mind.)


  1. Anonymous8:50 PM

    "Addressing The Long Tail: HD2s and HD3s for Fun and Profit"

    "Analog radio cannot effectively serve The Long Tail. Broadcasters have had huge success addressing the 80% with widely popular mass market content pushed through our loud speakers. But our economic structure won’t let us take advantage of the few consumers who like reggae or death metal or comedy or mommy talk. You simply cannot program niche formats on analog stations and make the numbers work – listenership and revenue potential are too low to cover capital and operating costs... So go ahead, grab that Long Tail. It will help your station, and help the industry."


    "Harvard Business Review: Should You Invest in the Long Tail?"

    "Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, argues that the sudden availability of niche offerings more closely tailored to their tastes will lure consumers away from homogenized hits. The 'tail' of the sales distribution curve, he says, will become longer, fatter, and more profitable. Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, set out to investigate whether Anderson's long-tail theory is actually playing out in today's markets. She focused on the music and home-video industries -- two markets that Anderson and others frequently hold up as examples of the long tail in action -- reviewing sales data from Nielsen SoundScan, Nielsen VideoScan, the online music service Rhapsody, and the Australian DVD-by-mail service Quickflix. What she found may surprise you: Blockbusters are capturing even more of the market than they used to, and consumers in the tail don't really like niche products much."


    So much for niche programming - Harvard-bred Struble doesn't have a clue.

  2. Anonymous8:51 PM

    "Radio: HD Radio's holiday horror"

    "We already have too many radio stations on terrestrial AM and FM... If every man, woman and child in this great country of ours had complete and total access to HD Radio – it would obliterate the radio industry. You’d have listeners spread out on to too many radio stations for any one station to show effective reach and frequency. Do the math. This blue sky world for HD Radio would put all radio out of business. No one station would have enough listeners to justify advertising."


    And, there are already too many radio "stations".