As HD Radio braces for a sliver of success -- adding advertisers and a new wave of portable receivers -- critics say tight control by big radio companies at the top is smothering the fledgling industry's chances.
"Radio's most popular formats were created by radio rebels, outlaws, misfits and ne'er-do-wells -- not by corporate marketing executives," says Robert Hughes, co-owner of San Diego rock station KPRI, which has no immediate plans to broadcast in HD.
Over the last two years, about 1,500 U.S. radio stations have made the leap to digital broadcasting, terrestrial radio's response to the overwhelming success of the iPod and the threat posed by satellite radio. The technology -- known as HD Radio, although the letters don't stand for "high definition" or anything else -- allows stations to broadcast in higher fidelity and offer secondary channels to listeners with special digital radios.
Stations spend an estimated $100,000 each to upgrade their transmitters to carry digital signals, according to the HD Digital Radio Alliance trade group, which is dominated by huge radio companies.
But so far, digital radio has generated nearly no buzz. HD Radio technology company iBiquity Digital estimates about 200,000 HD radios were sold last year, and predicts between 1 million and 1.5 million will be sold this year.