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HD Radio: If A Tree Falls & No One Hears It....

Chasing an audience that has migrated to iPods, Internet radio, pay satellite services and the burgeoning world of cellphone music, the AM and FM radio industry has spent the past couple of years beckoning listeners to discover the "secret stations" of HD radio.

But what is the secret? If you were to shell out somewhere between $80 and $300 for a new radio capable of receiving the digital signals that have added about 1,600 stations across the country, what would you hear?

I spent the better part of a week listening to the HD offerings on Washington stations, and came away impressed by the commitment two stations have made to the new technology but underwhelmed by the great majority of what's on HD.

First, the good news: WHUR, the ratings powerhouse that serves up R&B, Steve Harvey's comedy and Michael Baisden's talk on its regular signal at 96.3 FM, has created a real second station for HD listeners. WHUR-World is at once something new and a throwback to the station's 1970s roots, featuring a genre-busting blend of fusion jazz, neo-soul and high-end hip-hop, all hosted live by DJs who aren't afraid to share their knowledge of the music. The station also plays world music, speeches from Howard University's Rankin Chapel and news briefs focused on Africa and the Caribbean.

Public WAMU (88.5 FM) is pumping more resources into HD programming than any other station in the region, with two additional streams on top of its regular mix of news and talk. WAMU's second channel offers round-the-clock bluegrass, featuring Lee Michael Demsey and Ray Davis, DJs who spent decades on the mother station. A third channel is a repository for National Public Radio and BBC programs that no longer air on the main FM station, including NPR's "Talk of the Nation" and "Day to Day" and the BBC's "Newshour."

HD radio -- the abbreviation summons the TV term "high-definition" but actually stands for "hybrid digital" -- is a technology designed to offer clearer sound and a way to add extra signals onto existing broadcast frequencies. (On an HD radio, you turn the tuning dial one notch up from the regular FM frequency and the second channel appears.) But while there are nearly two dozen HD-only streams now broadcasting under Washington FM stations, most are automated jukebox services playing just the hits with none of the added value that distinguishes radio from its Internet competition.

While Hot 99.5 plays Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat" and Colbie Caillat's "Bubbly," its HD "New! Music" channel spins Britney Spears's "Piece of Me" and Jordin Sparks's "Tattoo" -- but the HD service is music-only. No DJs, no weather, no traffic reports. No ads, either, which is nice, but just you wait.

While BIG 100.3 offers Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" and Peter Frampton's "Show Me the Way," the station's Oldies on HD plays "It's the Same Old Song" by the Four Tops and "Want Ads" by Honey Cone. It's a small consolation to oldies fans that BIG's discarded format of music from the 1950s and '60s has been restored on HD, but again, it's just the tunes, with none of the personalities, news and other services that radio usually provides.

Along with providing a free alternative to the broader array of music available on the pay XM and Sirius satellite services, HD's promise is to push the pendulum back from the extreme narrowing of choice that swept through radio in the 1990s. And so WASH (97.1 FM) supplements its regular light-rock format with an HD channel of nothing but love songs (The Association's "Cherish," Atlantic Starr's "Always," Chris de Burgh's "The Lady in Red").

DC101's hard rock has a new cousin called DC202, specializing in new rock, such as "Everything in Transit" by Jack's Mannequin and "Steady, as She Goes" by the Raconteurs. And while WMZQ (98.7 FM) plays current country hits, its HD channel is devoted to classic country numbers like Willie Nelson's "Luckenbach, Texas" and Rodney Crowell's "I Couldn't Leave You if I Tried."

All-news WTOP is trying something on HD that sounds more like radio. Its iChannel is a nationally syndicated service featuring unsigned bands that submit tunes via the Web and gain airplay according to how often listeners request or comment on the music. The station has live hosts, and a webcam to prove it, but the station is coy about where it's based and has no local content. WTOP also has a useful third channel that plays the main station's traffic and weather reports on an endless loop.

But for all the hype about HD, are people listening? Even after the biggest ad campaign anywhere on radio -- with more ad spots than Geico, Budweiser or General Motors last year -- the answer is not many, according to the latest estimates.

When Bridge Ratings, a radio consulting company, conducted a survey about HD, it found that 75 percent of respondents have heard of the new technology, thanks to radio's aggressive ad campaign. But only 13 percent of the sample could say what HD radio is, and only 7 percent expressed interest in owning an HD set.

Bridge projects slow, poor growth for HD, especially compared with the galloping interest in Web and cellphone radio. "New cell phone capabilities which will turn the mobile phone into a more dynamic part of daily life will potentially surpass Internet radio as the most significant challenger to traditional radio," Bridge concluded. "Based on what we know now, we do not see HD Radio as a significant contributor to boosting listening to terrestrial radio."

Bob Struble, president of iBiquity, the Columbia-based company that developed the HD technology, disagrees. With Circuit City and Best Buy adding HD radios to their product line, and Ford and Volvo installing HD radios in their cars, he sees a brighter future. "We're still early in the game," Struble says. The company won't say how many HD radios have been sold, but industry observers put the figure at fewer than 500,000.

The slow adoption is the main reason some stations have not added HD-only programming. "It's still an evolving technology," says Dan DeVany, general manager of WETA (90.9 FM), the public classical music station, which has no extra HD channel. "I'd like to see more of those units sold before we'd plan anything."

The chicken-egg question for HD radio is whether stations should invest in new programming now to lure new listeners or after an audience develops. And if stations wait, why would anyone invest in a new radio?

"You're onto something there," Struble says. "The initial push was around the basic concept -- there's a lot more out there. But there's a very important role to be played by individual stations." He hopes more stations will do as Baltimore's 98 Rock does, giving listeners of the indie-rock station a taste of its classic-rock HD station for four hours every Sunday morning.

But far from pushing their HD offerings, most stations seem only halfheartedly invested in the technology. Most Washington stations barely mention their HD channels on their Web sites, let alone on their airwaves. For example, you'd almost have to be clairvoyant to know that WPGC (95.5 FM) offers an all-gospel service on its HD second channel.

HD remains a promising technology, but so far, many more people listen to the new programming via online streaming than on an HD radio. Listeners are voting with their ears, and they're choosing Web-based and mobile audio, in part because most HD radio programming just isn't compelling enough to lure people to a different gadget.

By Marc Fisher |  February 9, 2008; 9:36 AM ET
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Comments

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I've had a Boston Acoustic HD radio for two years and I love it, especially the data readouts with the name of the artist playing. What I don't like is the anemic reception, especially out here halfway between DC and Baltimore. I had to buy an auxiliary antenna to pick up the staions I can. I'm a long-time WAMU member so I listen a lot to their HD3 channel since I love WTMD's programming and can't receive it on the strength of their signal alone. Wish they hadn't cut back so much on their WTMD programming. I also love being able to catch Weekend Edition Saturday at more reasonable, later listening times (who gets up at 8AM on a Saturday?). Bottom line is I hope and pray the HD radio format catches on and thrives so that when I finally buy a new car I can get HD radio in it as well.

Posted by: Burtonsville, MD | February 9, 2008 1:31 PM

I am tempted by HD radio, but hesitant to shell out the cash for it. I would hope at some point the equipment comes standard in a regular car audio system.

Posted by: josh | February 9, 2008 2:08 PM

Mr. Fisher: "Tree falling in the forest..." is an insensitive cliche. Another one bites the dust.

Posted by: David Torney | February 9, 2008 3:18 PM

HD Radio isn't going to solve the problem of "extreme narrowing of choice" that occurred in over the air radio. That was caused by consolidation of radio stations, which led to cost savings, which then led to this simple problem: "What will keep radio listeners tuned in to this station for the longest time?" And the answer was generic, non-challenging, and lame washed-out music.

XM and Sirrus provided the consumer with a way out of that stagnant hole. And now radio is running scared - and wants to "give" us additional radio stations to make it better. But that doesn't solve the problem. The same generic songs on more stations doesn't make me, or anyone else I can find, want to come back.

I would rather pay for good music that get more free junk.

Posted by: Jonathan B | February 9, 2008 4:21 PM

I compare HD radio today with FM radio in the 50s and early 60s. Had Mr. Fisher listened to FM in DC in 1963, he would have heard classical music, show tunes, and other less popular forms of music, done mainly on the cheap. The reason was few people owned FM radios. Then in 1967, the longstanding lawsuit between Edwin Armstrong and RCA was settled, and the electronics companies were free to provide FM in portable radios. The main obsticle today for HD is the high cost of the chip, and the need for consumers to replace their radios. Consumers today don't buy radios the way they did in the old days. So until the HD chip becomes cheaper, and radios become combined in other devices, HD will continue to be a well kept secret. It won't matter what kind of programming they do.

Posted by: George | February 10, 2008 12:08 PM

Marc: You neglected to mention that iBiquity is the HD Radio(tm) monopoly, and even owns the name of the medium. When you talk to iBiquity you are talking to salesmen; don't expect facts.

The digital HD signals on an FM station's sidebands can only be heard in 20 to 30 percent of the area covered by the station's regular signal.

It is generally agreed that the NAB talked the FCC into adopting HD to forestall adoption of full digital radio, which will open more frequencies to new licensees and increase competitive pressures on current station owners. HD gives the illusion of radio diversity without increasing the number of station owners.

Posted by: Mike Licht | February 10, 2008 6:52 PM

Don't forget, most radio companies are in the business to maximize the return on their investment. They are not in the business of being creative or taking risks. Why would anyone expect commercial radio companies to provide interesting alternatives to their overly focused grouped ultra safe programming? All they care about is cheap content that they can attach advertising to. Profit=Success. If you could make lots of money with interesting, creative programming, then they would be in that business. But you can't and that's why 9 out 10 radio stations are horrible.

Posted by: David | February 10, 2008 7:46 PM

Marc Fisher has it right -- the radio industry is doing surprisingly little with all the extra channels that HD provides.

While "canned" or automated programming is inevitable due to economic concerns, it can be done much better than it is. Many shows on regular stations are automated, or "voice tracked", recorded in advance where the announcer does all of the segments for stations in many cities and they are then just electronically spliced together as a show. Why can't we at least have this level of quality on HD2?

The formats are mostly watered-down versions of the primary stations, instead of being diffrerent. Why don't we have real jazz, big band, true oldies, "deep cuts" classic rock, folk/Americana, blues, easy-listening, or 24-hr pops classical? Mostly its the same worn-out songs played on standard radio. If broadcasters try to find unserved niches for HD programming, rather than all playing the same boring stuff, it can compete with satellite radio, even if the signal coverage is quite limited.

Posted by: Steve Baker | February 10, 2008 10:01 PM

For tne record, NPR stations have been the "white rats" for HD Radio(tm) testing since 1993 -- see http://www.npr.org/about/press/2007/032207.fcc.html

in 2005 NPR launched automated music programming -- AAA, folk, classical, electronica and jazz -- for public stations that want to multicast without humans, just like commercial radio. What a giant step forward.

Posted by: Mike Licht | February 11, 2008 8:18 AM

I'll stick with my XM; more mediocrity is not the answer. Actual choice is. And since I'm out WRNR's signal range, I'm pretty much all XM, all the time other than maybe WTOP for traffic.

Posted by: Patrick | February 11, 2008 5:10 PM

The Article mentions that WTOP's iChannel on HD-2 isn't playing anything local but I recently heard them talk about playing three local artists in rotation. They even talked about local show dates from those bands....sounds local to me.

Posted by: Baringer | February 11, 2008 6:04 PM

I thought perhaps I was the only one not rushing out to purchase a HD receiver for a minimum of $100 each. And they are not very attractive.
We would need a combination radio/CD player/tape player in the kitchen, clock/radios in the bedrooms; and several others to replace what we now have in our home.

I miss listening to Stained Glass Bluegrass and the rest of the Sunday bluegrass programs on WAMU 88.5 as was our habit. Sunday mornings used to be such fun.

Posted by: Barbara | February 12, 2008 10:00 AM

Thanks Baringer for the heads up on iChannel's local content. Yes, we actually have about five artists from the Washington DC area. Three of them are gaining some major attention through requests from our listeners from all over the world as well as in DC. The artist AlonA, The band No Second Troy and HotSpur all play a great roll in the rotation of the music on iChannel.

If you go to our station site at www.ichannel.fm you will see the full list of our artists from the region as well as artists from all of our 50 states and from 29 other countries.

iChannel never intentionally tries to be "coy" about our home-base, we simply try to keep our on-air presence geographically global while giving local artists a chance to be heard by listeners globally. By the way, we are based out of St. Louis, Missouri in the United States. If anyone has questions, comments or suggestions for this new Independent Artist Station network then please feel free to contact me directly at my email address below.
Thanks for tuning into our station Baringer, You Rock!!
Ken Williams
Program Director, iChannel.fm
The iChannel HD Radio Network
ken@ichannel.fm

Posted by: Ken Williams | February 12, 2008 11:02 AM

I drive an older car and recently replaced the receiver/tape deck with an HD/CD/IPOD unit. While I thoroughly enjoy the added choices of HD, I don't think I would have paid for a new radio solely for the opportunity to get HD radio. It will be very interesting to see if HD catches on like FM as described by George or if it's simply overrun by satellite radio. I am hoping for the former.

Posted by: Jay | February 14, 2008 1:49 PM

I have the Accurian (rad.shack) unit, Boston
suburb. Improves fidelity? yes! Extra channels are great. Overall thumbs-up.
Regular FM is improved by the HD radio's
tuner (tuners went soft lately). Price could
be better! I cannot stand satellite, esp. on
headphones or good speakers...the compression messes up the imaging for me, makes bubbly,
sizzly noises.
AM HD is hard to get, and spatters above frequency a bit. so-so.

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