HD Radio – Too Much, Too Little, Too Late?

HD Radio HDRadio DTS XperiIt’s been well over a decade since the first HD Radio receivers went on sale to consumers in the United States, and we have come a long way with the variety and availability of receivers – especially on the dashboard front as part of modern infotainment systems in new cars. This solves the “chicken or egg” problem of nobody having any receivers, but nobody actually knows what HD is, unless they take their new car back to the dealer to complain when their favorite station sounds odd when the time alignment is off and it sounds like a skipping CD while blending back and forth.

Being a radio geek, and not having any shame in admitting I paid $600 for the Boston Acoustics Recepter HD when new in 2006, I forget that there are others out there who just turn the radio on maybe change a preset or two. The other evening I was out with a friend who has a 2017 Mitsubishi Outlander – it comes with HD but no Artist Experience, and I started to show off the various HD subchannels here in the Pittsburgh market. When I came across “B94 Throwbacks” on WBZZ-HD2, my friend was ecstatic! She was instantly transported back to high school and set a preset for it, as well as some other HD-2’s and 3’s in the market.

Now my friend has no satellite radio subscription, nor does she use Pandora or Spotify in the car – so as a constant consumer of radio, why did it take me to show her where to find the “stations between the stations”? Especially when the killer application for HD is the sub channels, even moreso in markets where it fills a niche, and there aren’t many viable signals. In the last monthly Pittsburgh PPM survey, WBZZ-HD2 managed to get a .1 share and 20,000 cume without a translator or any promotion whatsoever on the main channel (the #1 station overall in the market). Ten years ago we had all these industry spots touting “the stations between the stations”, and the timing was wrong – there weren’t enough radios on the market, and not enough stations had launched HD or any subchannels.

A quick search of press releases shows numerous HD-2 formats that would have complimented the main station, but for some reason were never launched – as well as some stations that never went HD. Now that we are at the critical mass of radios available and digital signals launched? Nothing.  A quick listen to Classic Hits “94.5 3WS” WWSW will tell me how to use a smart speaker to listen to the station, but nothing about HD Radio or the Real Oldies subchannel. Nothing on the website either – and for that matter the legal ID is devoid of any mention of HD or digital radio.

While my experience is not universal, I do think that my friends “AH HA!” moment in the car with HD speaks to an issue that we can solve. We need to work with automakers and other electronics outfits to make the UI for HD as easy as possible – not bury the HD logo or make it oblivious that there are multicast channels available. I understand we are now fighting on more fronts than ever for people’s attention, across more and more platforms – but if we are going to do this as industry, let’s not do it halfheartedly. Especially when the upside is people staying with our brands and not abandoning us for Spotify, Pandora, etc. Or winning people back that may have strayed to get their fix of smooth jazz, traditional oldies, or the many other formats that have fallen out of favor.

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18 Comments
  1. Theater of My Mind says


    Big radio has moved on to phone apps and smart speakers where there’s more growth and revenue potential. They can’t make money with HD Radio subchannels other than leasing them out, mostly for translator feeds and to some ethnic broadcasters.

    I personally like hearing the AM radio simulcasts on FM subchannels which I think is one of the best uses for it. But interest in HD Radio has always been confined to people who work in radio. There aren’t enough listeners to support an ad-based business model. Streaming is where it’s at. Everyone has a smartphone and smart speaker sales are hot.

  2. maytableinc says


    Some great side channels don’t even stream online. I was in Cincinnati and listened to a great alternative station on 94.9 WREW HD2. They can be found at http://949thesound.com but no link to stream. Playlist does repeat after a few listens but everything is commercial free. Another neato side channel I found that also doesn’t stream is in Rochester, NY; WPXY-HD2 has some great throwback punk rock tunes without commercials but again, no streaming presence. I even emailed the PD of 98PXY to inquire but they didn’t get back to me.

    Look at the UK. They’ve got a ton of great exclusive channels on DAB and conversation is over 50%. Norway even took the extraordinary steps to kill FM in 2017 but with a bit of backlash. If these European countries are able to go digital, why can’t the US do the same with HD? Probably bureaucracy in the FCC and the fact that HD Radio is owned by a private company that takes fees from stations using their services. I’m not aware of any of these issues with DAB. Not saying DAB is better than HD Radio, but the intricacies of the technologies are the biggest downfalls and why radio stations in the US fail to do more promotion with it. Internet streaming has been around since the late 90’s, but aside from the royalties that station pay to play music online, it’s quite ubiquitous for the average Joe to listen to the station.

    I was at NAB a year ago and spoke to the folks developing the technology of digital radio. At the end of it, radio hasn’t changed from its early days, it really is just how it is presented. And in the 21st century, radio stations are just trying to adapt to the times with its presentation.

  3. Eric Jon Magnuson says


    I think that Australia’s use of DAB+ provides a good example: First, ratings for the digital channels are now released alongside (but not combined with) those for the primary/traditional channels in the largest markets (see, e.g., https://radiotoday.com.au/dab-digital-ratings-coles-radio-double-j-over-200k-listeners-each). Plus, there are plenty of cases of third-party channels that happen to also be carried on DAB+; indeed, one of the most-successful digital channels is Coles Radio, which is operated by a supermarket chain (and, yes, reflects what it does in-store).

    For the U.S., such advertiser-specific branding of digital channels might still be a good idea. Also, perhaps a focus on nationally or regionally branded channels (instead of locally branded ones, even if they still reflect national programming) would work better.

  4. Nathan Obral says


    The other big failure with the NAB’s infamous promotional blitz with HD Radio was that it happened as the economy was quickly sinking into a recession that took years to totally dig out of, and by that point, the emerging prevalence of smartphones made HD a non-starter. Didn’t matter that an iPhone would/will ring you up way more than an HD Radio set ever would (as is the MO of Apple), the demand for HD Radio just … never existed. And it never will.

    The only reason why HD Radio hasn’t fully gone the way of C-QUAM AM Stereo is because of the FCC loophole that allows a subchannel to count as a programming source for a translator… and for iHeart to pay less in music royalties with their different music streams.

    1. Theater of My Mind says


      Are the royalties really still less for streams of an OTA broadcast? I thought that discrepancy went away with the last update of the copyright rules.

  5. dankelley says


    Its a chicken or the egg. Lack of an FCC mandated receiver standards forced the HD folks to do their own deals with radio manufacturers. Why should stations invest in programming with few radios? Why should I buy a radio with no programming.

    That said, it’s really incumbent on the broadcasters to make this work. Invest in the programming to make HD appealing. Make the public feel they are missing something.

    I have HD in my car. Love the choices when I travel to Detroit or Chicago.

    Kind of reminds me of the early days of FM. Many said it would fail.

    1. fredstiening says


      It took the FCC mandate 60 years ago to force all AM radio receivers to include FM before FM got critical mass. The problem with HDRadio was it was a patented technology, with demands for royalty payments not just from Harris for the transmitters, but also from the stations. The calculation for that royalty would have required stations to provide revenue data. Given that two of the largest radio groups (CBS and Clear Channel (now iHeart)) were investors in ibiquity, that was not likely to happen. Not surprisingly, CBS and CC were the main licensees of HD Radio technology, with a smattering of non-profits.

      I tried for years to promote HD subchannels on StreamingRadioGuide, but it was a fool’s errand. Only when the translator fed HDx original programming showed up did it seem like a useful idea. I used a scraping technique to gather the list of channels from HDradio.com. Eventually, someone broke their web site, making it impossible to maintain a list. I was unable to find any useful contact person. Normally, people appreciate free promotion.

      With the expiration of the original patents and the sale to DTS, then people got interested in using the technology. But even so, what is the value of further fragmentation in your market? Well, now with 12,000+ FCC licensed stations streaming, and SiriusXM, Spotify, Apple Music, etc… The notion that your FCC contour is a geofence around your listeners is gone.

      1. elcartero says


        You sure about that FM mandate? That was true of UHF on TV receivers. But AM-only radios were being made into the ’70s and beyond. My dad drove a 1980s-model car that had only an AM receiver. One thing the FCC DID mandate, in 1967, was that FM stations in larger cities have separate programming from their AM partners, which if you’re aware of the history of FM rock radio, you understand how well-played that was in enabling the viability and eventual dominance of FM.

        1. fredstiening says


          One of the more challenging things is researching pre-internet history on the spur of the moment. 1962 was the watershed year when the FCC revamped a lot of the technical and licensing issues for FM. My 1962 car did not have an FM radio – in fact it had no radio at all until I bought one at a junkyard in the 70s. It may have had exceptions, phase in for existing stock… It is possible I remember what I read incorrectly. Someone else might have more direct first hand knowledge. Ultimately, it was the transistor that made FM practical for the masses.

        2. Nathan Obral says


          Even with that 1967 mandate, it took at least a decade for many FMs to find their footing. FM rock radio was more a hobby than anything viable. When John Gorman was recruited to program WMMS in 1973, an long-tenured engineer for them and WHK derisively said that FM stood for Find Me. That length of time needed is something that HD Radio doesn’t (didn’t?) have.

      2. OldNewsGuy says


        **It took the FCC mandate 60 years ago to force all AM radio receivers to include FM before FM got critical mass.**

        What mandate? There was never a mandate to include FM.

        (There WAS a mandate for televisions to include UHF, but not radio/AM/FM, etc.)

  6. Les Talk says


    In Pittsburgh, you get a clear signal of WAMO on HD Radio.

    Also, WLTJ and BOB both have some really good music on their HD sides too.

    In Cleveland, the HD isn’t really even worth it. OK stations are the IHR premium choice side channels: ’50s oldies, alternative, The Breeze, and an urban format. The Radio One and Entercom HD choices are fairly bland.

  7. Les Talk says


    …. and forgot to mention. The format on WBZZ-HD2 is not really the true sound of what most Pittsburghers know as B94. B94 never leaned that urban. The throwbacks format is almost entirely rhythmic based.

    I suppose you could count one of the brief reincarnations or reimaging of B94 as 93.7 BZZ or whatever that was… it leaned very rhythmic then. But most of us have fond memories of a very broad based CHR similar to WAVA/Q107 in DC or WVAQ in Morgantown.

  8. multiplex says


    Most people aren’t willing to spend money on radios these days, and it certainly doesn’t make sense with the HD offerings by most stations.
    It might have been different years ago if the larger owners had established national HD services with personalities and in-depth programming–oldies, progressive rock, new music channels where music discovery was at the forefront.
    But no, radio botched it by creating automated jukeboxes that were inferior to most iPod playlists.
    Plus, HD blocks adjacent channels, limiting their range.
    Two major plusses of HD: better-sounding feeds of AM stations on FM, and extended public radio offerings.
    But those can be done online.
    HD’s demise can’t come soon enough.

  9. semoochie says


    I know that this is bound to get lost in the shuffle but a 0.1 rating shows up anytime that one person’s listening is recorded. This is fairly recent. I believe that it started this year.

  10. airplane777 says


    Maybe the developers of HD radio can develop an HD audio codec that will allow the radio to receive a feed under poor signal conditions.

    On a slightly topic though, broadcasters can improve the range of their FM translators if they strip out the RDS and shut down their Stereo pilot.

  11. multiplex says


    Range doesn’t matter. Content does. And content has been a problem from the start. The adoption of HD Radio has been like building a pizza parlor without buying dough and pepperoni.
    The chicken-and-egg problem referred to earlier. Without producing a chicken, there’s no purpose for the egg.
    If I remember my 80’s reading correctly, the FM mandate was in 1965 and covered radios exceeding a certain price range. Even so, not an apt comparison with HD radio because in the case of FM, you had facilities being built which had a distinct disadvantage. Instead, HD is an expensive add-on.
    The loophole allowing HD channels to have translators should be closed.
    That makes an HD station with extra content take up four frequencies. In the case of a 94.1, the HD takes up 93.9 and 94.3, plus putting in a translator on yet another frequency to rebroadcast a channel that few people are listening to in the first place?
    What an absurd waste of resources!
    I’m grateful that there’s only one HD station where I live now, versus 21 in my prior location. And even that one HD station here is undoubtedly using it as a way to shoo in three translators, none of which are technically being fed by the HD signals.
    We should just stop the HD madness. Declare a sunset date on HD for five years from now, granting no new HD permits in the meantime.

  12. Mark W. says


    The whole concept of HD Radio is moronic.

    Analog FM processed correctly sounds terrific.

    HD Radio technology for AM in its hybrid implementation (i.e. analog on main channel with digital audio running on the sidebands) is a technological disaster.

    Also, those who aren’t satisfied with mainstream AM & FM radio programming offerings aren’t going to look to an offshoot of AM & FM radio for a solution. They are instead going to look to Spotify, Sirius XM, YouTube, podcasting, etc.

    Radio owners aren’t going to spend any appreciable money developing content for HD2 or HD3 channels. Why would they?!?! So a finite revenue pie can be split 60 or 70 different ways instead of 20 different ways? Investing heavily in HD2 & HD3 channels would be nothing more than a cannibalization exercise. Revenue dollars are not going to be magically siphoned from other media platforms if such investment were to occur (and actually be successful in attracting a critical mass of listenership); the siphoning will come from “regular” FM & AM radio stations with common ownership!

    BTW, the manner in which the FM tuning algorithm functions on HD Radio receivers is indeed stupid! HD2 & HD3 stations should pop up in sequence in “seek” mode or “tune” mode seamlessly. It’s no wonder owners of HD Radio-equipped vehicles are unable to discover these stations – even by accident!

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