Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Radio Waves Podcast #74

It was over a decade ago -- 2002, to be exact -- that the FCC selected Ibiquity Digital Corporation’s HD Radio as the only digital broadcasting system allowed in the United States. In those 13 years a lot has changed in the world. But one thing has remained relatively constant: most people still don’t know what HD Radio is, and even fewer know if they want an HD Radio receiver.

For the uninitiated, HD Radio is the brand name for a system that sends one or more digital streams right next to the analog signal received by traditional radios. Because it is sent in the assigned channel of a particular AM or FM station, it is considered “in band, on channel” ... though the system’s detractors will point to interference caused by the digital signal’s “splatter” as proof that it isn’t quite as on-channel as fans suggest.

I own an HD radio. In fact I own a few, both in the house and my truck. Home radios are all but impossible to find now -- at least without spending big bucks, but the availability of car radios is exploding due to the system’s inclusion on many factory stereos as well as aftermarket units from companies like Alpine, Sony, Kenwood, JVC and Pioneer.

Most people actually discover HD Radio by accident when their factory stereo suddenly makes their favorite AM station sound better than they are used to hearing ... at least if their favorite AM station broadcasts in HD.

The original intent of HD was to make AM sound better and FM sound phenomenal. Along the way, National Public Radio had another idea: multiple stations on the same frequency (FM only; AM is limited to the primary signal due to small channel spacing). So most FM stations take route two ... multicasting. It lowers the potential sound quality but can still sound good to most people. And the extra stations can add more choices to your daily drive.
It works like this: tune to an FM station; wait for the digital signal to lock, and then tune up a channel ... formerly “hidden” stations will appear. Such as:

K-Beach, the student-run radio station broadcasting out of Cal State University Long Beach and carried digitally via KJAZ (88.1 FM). Officially the K-Beach signal is found on KJAZ 88.1 HD3, the third digital stream on the frequency. This station plays student and local volunteer shows with a variety of interests including music, talk and sports; it’s morning program “Mornings on the Beach” (9-10 weekday mornings) features Golden Mike winning “Hi-Definition News;” my favorite musical program is Even Richard Steven’s “Classic Hits at the Beach” Mondays from 3-4 PM.

Speaking of classic hits, while KRTH (101.1 FM) plays primarily music from the 1980s, K-Earth Classics on 101.1 HD2 still plays those songs you love from the 1960s. A few from the ‘50s and ‘70s as well. And nary a commercial to be found.

Remember when KROQ (106.7 FM) was on the cutting edge of music? Relive those days -- including some of the original DJs -- via “Roq of the ‘80s” on 106.7 HD2. Programmed locally by Freddie Snakeskin, this is one of the few corporate HD stations run like a real station ... DJs, ads (though few) and great music. Thus it is also one of the most successful HD stations in America.

Love classical music? Want an alternative to KUSC (91.5 FM)? Then KKGO 105.1 HD2 is your “go to” station. It is a simulcast of K-Mozart (1260 AM) in very full fidelity.

Can’t figure out what KTWV (94.7 FM) is playing this week? Tune into 94.7 HD2 and hear what The Wave once was: smooth jazz. Very relaxing. Very hip. For ten years ago at least.

And that’s just a sample -- stations up and down the FM dial broadcast multiple HD streams. The problem is that no station properly promotes itself to begin with, and they don’t promote their HD streams at all. No wonder more than a decade has passed since approval and most people still don’t know what HD Radio is.

Which is too bad. Radio has the potential to reinvent itself, and feature formats that are not necessarily mass appeal but could still attract a dedicated audience. Formats like those above along with big bands and adult standards (Chuck Southcott and Brad Chambers: we need you on an HD signal in town) would sell HD radios AND whatever product advertisers wanted to sell. 

I wonder why radio station owners are so afraid to promote this correctly? Or at all?

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