HD Radio, like HD television, represents the conversion of analog radio to digital radio. For the moment, radio has the choice to either broadcast in a digital format or not, because the current HD format allows for simulcasting the existing analog program digitally, so an "HD" radio can receive the broadcast on the same frequency. HD radio also has the capacity to add a "side channel" or two, so if, for example, radio station WAAA is on 92.7, an HD radio will get WAAA digitally on 92.7. WAAA can also have additional programming on 92.7-1 and 92.7-2 if they desire. Neat, huh?
Too bad there aren’t more HD radios out there. How many people even know HD radios exist…or care? I don’t know. Several issues exist. First the cost of conversion to HD for a radio station. It costs a bunch, plus there are annual "rights" fees that have to be paid to Ibiquity, the licensee of the technology. Big companies and large markets can afford to do this, but most smaller companies in smaller markets find the cost prohibitive. Particularly when the "ROI" would me nada for several years.
The technology works OK on FM, if you are within about 10-20 miles from the transmitter. But HD signals go only about half as far as exisiting analog signals. There is a current proposal before the FCC to allow HD stations to raise their power.
HD was touted to be the saviour of AM radio, since HD radio on AM can sound as good as FM. However AM HD creates a great deal of "noise" on either side of the station’s frequency, making nighttime AM listening to distant stations even more difficult. Plus AM HD really only works on the most powerful AM stations. Small 1000 watt, 500 watt, even 250 watt AM stations-and there are thousands of them in service-would not benefit from HD radio technology.
Is there a better alternative? I think so. Broadcasting over the internet is relatively inexpensive for radio stations, despite the fees that have to be paid at this time. (More on that in a future blog). With proper equipment, streaming can sound extremely good and can be heard around the world. Nothing you don’t already know. How long will it be before internet reception is available universally in cars and trucks? I’m not sure, but people are working on this as I type. I would think 10 years is a reasonable time frame for this to be in place.
As a 40 + year veteran radio professional, I salivate at the prospect of univerally available audio-streams for my stations. You bet we can compete for ears-and eyes-and relationships with our "family" of content users. Radio stations are quickly becoming more than just outlets for music or talk shows. I believe internet broadcasting will leapfrog HD radio within 10 years. What do you think?
–Radiomike66 in Indiana