HD Radio's Latest "Killer App" Isn't Radio

Radio World has awarded Paul Brenner its 2012 Excellence in Engineering award. Brenner, the senior VP and chief technology officer for Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, has been the industry’s latest point-person regarding innovations involving HD Radio. He’s led the development of a prototype smartphone with FM-HD reception capability as well as an application that melds radio reception with “value-added” content delivered over the cellular network.
Brenner’s also president of the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium – an alliance of some two dozen radio companies who, along with NPR, are exploring ways to use digital radio signals to deliver real-time traffic information. Brenner estimates that there are about 12 million navigation devices in use that utilize radio to receive traffic data, and that figure’s growing by about 1-2 million per year.
According to Brenner, the “founding members” of the BTC “didn’t do this for money. They did it to make HD Radio something that would complete more successfully with satellite.” He also says that if HD-delivered traffic data can take this business away from satellite radio, it will be a “ginormous strategic win for radio”; Radio World thinks the development represents “another win for HD Radio as a data delivery platform.”
Traffic-datacasting is the third “killer app” proponents of HD have floated in the last decade. The first breakout feature was supposed to be multicasting – the ability to offer multiple program streams over a single digital FM signal. However, unlike primary HD signals, which can revert to a station’s analog transmission when the digital reception gets sketchy, these subchannels have no fallback mechanism. The relatively low power level of FM-HD signals makes such dropouts problematic.
Coupled with the fact that broadcasters have largely failed to program these additional program streams compellingly, multicasting has not caught fire. Those who do continue to multicast are promoting the programming via analog rebroadcasts on FM translators or streaming online – conduits that have nothing to do with HD Radio.
The second killer app was to be “Artist Experience,” otherwise known as radio with pictures. FM-HD stations can transmit album artwork and some additional supplementary data about the artist currently on the air. The problem is that relatively few stations have implemented AE, and hardly any receivers exist that have the displays necessary for such content. Broadcasters are pushing AE as an added feature for in-vehicle “infotainment” displays, but automakers have not been quick to embrace the feature.
This brings us to traffic-datacasting. Note that this killer app has nothing to do with the primary content provided by a radio station – the programming. If broadcasters see the future of radio in something other than radio, what does that say about the medium’s potential?
Notably missing from all of this innovation in the HD space is the technology’s proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation. Multicasting was initially developed by National Public Radio; Artist Experience has primarily been a project of Emmis and CBS; and Emmis is leading the charge with smartphones and other datacast initiatives.
Perhaps the third killer app will be the charm. Or maybe the panoply of HD’s features will reach a tipping point. But it’s clear that broadcasters plan to exhaust all possible avenues before seriously considering alternate digital radio technologies or platforms as integral to the medium’s future. This is a discussion that should be taking place regardless of the adoptive health of HD Radio.

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