Tuesday, January 6, 2009

HD Radio stalls out

HD Radio stalls out
by Scott Fybush

So 2008 wasn't "the year" for HD Radio's long=promised breakthrough into mass success, either. A handful of new stations added HD signals, a few others shut theirs off, either temporarily or permanently, and while receiver penetration in the marketplace increased (thanks in part to a few impressive new radios such as Sony's XDR-F1HD), it was only incrementally, not the exponential gains the system's proponents had hoped for.

Any hope of exciting new format development on FM HD multicast channels in the commercial world was pretty well quashed by the budget realities that made funding tight even for main-channel programming; indeed, if there could be said to have been any real trend in HD programming, it was the repurposing of existing programming - mainly CBS' news and talk AM stations - on HD2 and HD3 channels of their FM sister stations.

And when the FCC opened the gates for public comment on a proposal to increase FM digital power levels tenfold to solve one of the system's frequent complaints - poor coverage compared to analog - many commenters were strongly opposed, citing the potential for increased interference to analog listeners. (It's an open question, too, whether cash-strapped broadcasters could or would spend the money needed for such a power increase if it were to be permitted.)

HD on AM radio? While the corpse hasn't quite stopped twitching yet, the AM system ended the year looking awfully stiff, with only a handful of broadcasters (most notably CBS, Crawford and New York's WOR) still pushing it at the corporate level, even as some of their local staffers quietly admitted that the adjacent-channel nighttime interference issues between closely-spaced stations such as WINS, KDKA and WBZ reduced usable analog coverage and rendered the digital signal all but unusable even within much of their home markets at night. And if there was a single new digital AM installation on the air anywhere in NERW-land this year, we don't know about it. (Nor, was there any action on that pending interference complaint from Bob Savage's WYSL against Boston's WBZ.)

As for the long-pending promise of HD as a standard feature in new cars, the auto industry's near-death experience appears to have put a halt on further progress in that area for a while.

Now here's the part where the handful of anti-IBOC diehards over on the message boards (hey, Bob! how's it going, Greg?) will stop quoting: there were also some interesting signs of life on the FM HD side. Several public stations - WRTI in Philadelphia, WNED in Buffalo, WXXI in Rochester, VPR in Vermont, to name a few - found plenty of demand from listeners for programming that was otherwise unavailable on their analog signals, and the advent of less-expensive radios made it possible for them to offer receivers to listeners as pledge-drive premiums. A few adventurous stations - WFUV at Fordham University, WXPN at Penn, WSOU at Seton Hall among them - used their HD subchannels to develop new programming, some of it with live DJs, even. And Emmis found a new commercial application for one of its HD3s in New York: it announced a partnership with a broadcaster who will lease the channel for a South Asian service promising better sound quality and wider reach than the usual SCA subcarriers.

(The rival FMExtra system, for all its staunch supporters, made HD Radio look lively by comparison in 2008; at year's end, it was still receivable by only a single $300 tabletop radio, and looks to have a future primarily as a means of studio-transmitter distribution at the rate things are going.)