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HD Radio: A Stumble Out of the Gate?
By Paul Marszalek

I’ve saved up $500, but I want three toys. I want one of those new video iPods ($399), an international Treo-type phone ($299-$499), and a new HD Radio ($499 at the time of this writing). So I have a problem. I can only really afford one of these competing new technologies right now.

For the past six years or so, I’ve been intently watching the rollout of digital radio throughout the world. I’ve watched the battles between the competing digital technologies and I’ve watched the stumbles of the rollout in England . It was stagnant for eight years, but is now finally kicking in.

I’m a radio junkie and a large portion of my business comes from radio stations that are invested – literally – in the HD Radio rollout. So as the PR machine started winding up, the second channels started hitting the air, and stations started promoting them, I had a thought: “This thing had better work.”

So with that, I started asking my friends and peers in the business if anybody had a radio. I got two universal responses: “No,” and “I think the engineers have one.” I really couldn’t find anyone outside the engineering community who had experienced HD.

In the Malcolm Gladwell Tipping Point scheme of things, when it comes to being the first guy on my block to buy a new product, I’m rarely an “Innovator.” More often, I’m an “Early Adopter” or “Early Majority” kind of guy. In fact the last time I was the first guy on the block to have something, it was with my 2001 Volvo XC 70 – the Cross Country Wagon. I still regret it. I’ve had repeated trips to the service bay, even though it just crossed 50,000 miles. Look it up in Consumer Reports. The model has since improved, but the 2001 is a dog.

So for me to go out and blow $500 on the tabletop Boston Acoustics Receptor Radio HD, without a single peer review, is a big deal. But I did just that, tracking down a dealer in Greenwich , Connecticut where I picked one up for $475, $502 with tax. (Boston Acoustics has since dropped the price of this model to $299 list)

I took it home, plopped it on the dining room table and turned it on. Knowing that the NPR crowd was the first to champion the technology, I started at the left hand side of the dial and tried WFUV/ New York . The analog signal sounded great, but a few seconds later, when the digital signal kicked in, it was nothing short of fantastic. Truly amazing.

WFUV is not broadcasting a second channel, so I headed up the dial to WNYC, only to find no digital signal there. I fiddled with the little wire “pigs tail” antenna, and it finally came in. But there was no second channel, even though the HD2 “pilot” was lit. I moved up the dial looking for more HD channels. Nothing. I managed to get Z100’s HD signal, but again, there was no second channel. I tried the AM dial. Nothing.

My initial burst of enthusiasm had quickly tempered to confusion. Could I be doing something wrong? How could I not pick up these stations? After all, I live about 16 miles as the crow flies from the Empire State Building .

Technical Difficulties

I went to the Ibiquity Web site to find that there were at least 13 stations broadcasting in HD in New York . One by one I tried to tune them in, and one by one I was met with frustration. Constant fiddling with the antenna yielded part-time successes. I managed to get Z100’s second channel for about three seconds, then three seconds of dead air, then on, then off. This gave new meaning to the term picket-fencing. Digital is unforgiving. It’s either on or it’s off.

I took the radio upstairs to the bedroom. This time I had some success. WPLJ, WNEW, WAXQ, and several others sounded beautiful in HD. But mind you, every time I changed the channel, I’d need to go fiddle and reposition the antenna. Sometimes, as the digital signal faded in and out, a phasing sound would occur. On the AM side, continuous play with the antenna yielded a promising digital WNYC AM, but WOR’s digital signal amounted to a great big hum.

The hotly advertised second channels were still mostly nowhere to be found. Intermittent signals were achieved for WNYC, WAXQ, and WLTW. Twice the radio froze up altogether and I had to unplug it to “reboot” it. After considerable tinkering, I was finally able to listen to Z100’s new music channel at length. And the 32 kbps stream had plenty of kick and dynamic range.

But clearly, something was wrong. This whole thing was just not working as advertised.

I called Ibiquity and was referred to Vicki Stearn, who works for the PR agency handling the Ibiquity HD account. Interestingly, she lived nearby and I asked her if she was having similar problems. She told me she doesn’t have an HD radio because “they’re very hard to get.”

Vicki referred me to Frank Barone, the Program Manager For Integrated Products at Boston Acoustics.  I described my situation, and asked him if Boston Acoustics had test-driven the Receptor with real people, actual consumers. He assured me they had.

Frank asked me a few questions: “How high was the antenna?” “Is it near a window?” Frank explained that signals in HD are considerably lower than analog channels, generally down 10 db.

I was quickly coming to the conclusion that what we might have here was a $500 radio with a 12-cent antenna. When pressed, Frank allowed that external antennas definitely help, as does location and height. He also said that building penetration tended to be poor, especially at distances greater than 20 miles from the radio station’s antenna.

Solutions? Apparently Boston Acoustics engineers were attaching Turk antennas ($30 and up). It was also suggested that a trip to Radio Shack to purchase a coaxial converter. Attaching it to a cheap dipole antenna would probably help.

Unfortunately, I no longer live in a dorm room, and the chances of my wife letting me hang a dipole antenna in the bedroom were about as likely as her letting me hang up black light posters and tossing in some bean bag chairs. And are they to expect average consumers to go this extra mile?

De-Bugging HD

Ibiquity and the major broadcasters have done a lot of things right. Learning a major lesson from the English, they rolled out exciting programming as the radios became available. In England , radios sat on shelves until new services launched.

But there have been some stumbles as well. Broadcasters’ promise of a commercial free HD service is questionable. First, the promise will end after 18-24 months, and second, it continues to promote the idea that commercials are bad. Very little good can come from radio continuously bashing its own business model.

Then there’s the occasional second channel programming oddity. For example, Urban AC WKTU, the “Beat of New York” is promoting its Country formatted second channel. Isn’t that likely to fall on deaf ears?

And then there’s the exchange that I heard at September’s European NAB Conference in Athens . Scott Stull, VP/Business Development at Ibiquity, was forecasting an approximate drop of $50 annually in chip prices. Quentin Howard of the UK’s Digital One, operator of the world’s largest DAB network, countered that Ibiquity could have done itself a big favor by licensing Digital One’s chip instead of developing its own. If true, using off-the-shelf technology could have shaved years off the introduction of inexpensive HD radios in the U.S.

Ibiquity COO Jeff Jury told me that at one point, about four or five years ago, there was discussion between European DAB developers and Ibiquity about creating a single platform. It didn't work out. The U.S. design calls for the blending of analog and digital, and the chip requires more processing power to pull it off.

While building penetration has apparently been an issue for some tabletop owners, Ibiquity's Jury reports that the feedback on the automobile products has been very positive and Ibiquity is now shifting people to monitor and advise the manufacturers of the consumer products.

So what does all this mean? If we return to the theories and writings of guys like Malcolm Gladwell and Everett Rogers, it could mean trouble. Terrestrial radio might be hyping a technology that isn’t quite ready for prime time. If broadcasters are attempting an apples-to-apples comparison with satellite radio, right now they’ll lose. The fact is, while HD’s lack of compression does sound a lot better than satellite, it just doesn’t work as well.

There is something Gladwell and company talk about called “The Law of the Few.” It states that the spread of any new product or service is determined by the initial adoption patterns of a small group of socially infectious early-adopters. A combination of word-of-mouth advocacy and the copycat effect kick-starts demand. In short: Mess with the innovators and early adopters at your own peril.

The introduction of HD Radio is only as strong as the weakest link. Ibiquity and its broadcast partners would be well suited to aggressively test the products of their manufacturing counterparts. Applying a little pressure to Boston Acoustics to provide a more powerful antenna would be a great start.

Microsoft, Sirius and even my Volvo show that initial bugs can be overcome. But the time to de-bug HD Radio is now.

Paul Marszalek is a veteran radio and TV programmer having served as VP of Music Programming for VH1, OM of KFOG/San Francisco, and APD of WXRT/Chicago. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Media Mechanics, a radio and television firm with clients that include Radio Free Europe, Colorado Public Radio, WXPK "The Peak"/Westchester, KUSC/Los Angeles, and more. Reach Paul at 917-533-4578, or pmarszalek@media-mechanics.com.
 


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