Digital Developments in Vegas

A couple of weeks ago, Radio World‘s Leslie Stimson contacted me for some thoughts on HD Radio as part of a "status report" the newspaper was working on. That turned out to be a 35-page "e-book" in which the "skeptics" and "critics" got three pages sandwiched between some "sponsored content" from iBiquity and a piece from the company’s director of broadcast sales singing the praises of the "HD Radio-On-Translator play."
While I’m glad that Radio World considers me a "responsible viewpoint" in the ongoing digital radio transition, it’s a bit unnerving to be tossed into the "haters" camp so nonchalantly. So here’s the entirety of what I wrote Stimson when she asked for comments:
“The fundamental detriments of the HD Radio system have not been meaningfully addressed in the years since it first went on the air. The system "works," but only to a certain degree, and not universally. No extended features of the HD system have any meaningful traction (in the HD space), and many of them (especially datacasting) at best replicate what newer, IP-based content delivery systems already offer as native to their design.
“Gear costs have certainly come down, but the system still has software-like licensing fees, which the majority of broadcasters refuse to accept on principle. HD’s proponents have admitted in the past that in hindsight this was a bad business decision, but yet they’ve kept at it—as if they would rather own all of nothing than a part of something big. More broadly, iBiquity’s insistence of protecting its intellectual property to such an extreme degree has hobbled innovation within the system, effectively constraining it to existing licensees. The first major innovator was NPR, ironically, and now that torch seems to have been passed to Emmis.
“Meanwhile, actual, functional improvements to HD, such as DigitalPower Radio’s receiver-improvement technology, are frozen out because HD is so locked down. Look in the comments of the AM Revitalization Initiative and see how many people suggested exploring Digital Radio Mondiale—the vast majority of them cited the open nature of the system more than anything else. Were iBiquity to abandon broadcaster-licensing fees, or cap them to some nominal one-time payment, it would see an immediate positive response within the industry. At this point, what is there to lose?
“The receiver marketplace for HD is mostly chimerical, especially relative to the other, newer technologies which now directly compete in the "radio" space. It is true that most people don’t buy radios anymore, but the fact that you really can’t even if you wanted to is not good. Automotive receiver uptake is a passive metric—people don’t buy cars for the radio, it’s just another piece of bling in the glass dashboard. Consumer Reports just panned HD in their latest automotive issue. The bottom line is, 17.5 million receivers doesn’t mean 17.5 million listeners, especially since that receiver market excludes all listening done outside of the car. Couple that with no HD penetration into mobile devices, and it’s not a pretty picture.
“I honestly think the radio industry should be having the difficult discussion about whether or not the HD system actually represents the natural end-state for digital broadcasting in the United States. If it is, then some fundamental revisions to the ground-rules governing the design and operation of the technology should be considered in order to make improvements and promote its uptake. But if it is not, then the sky’s the limit for radio’s digital future. I actually think such a discussion would be immensely healthy for the industry, as it might help reinvigorate radio’s sense of identity and cohesion, and serve to promote unity around commonly-held goals for its future.”
The first four paragraphs are really just basic information; the last one is where my head is at. Broadcaster support for HD is essential for the viability of radio’s digital transition, and one way to make that happen sooner rather than later is to make some major revisions to the technology’s functionality, both technically and economically, all of which are within the realm of the realistically possible.
More than 90,000 people are in Las Vegas for the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention, and there’s already been some notable digital radio news, such as a summary of all-digital AM test broadcast results to-date and the release of a dashboard-variant of the NextRadio app that integrates HD-related content (HD has yet to penetrate mobile devices). HD proponents may also be setting the groundwork to ask for another power increase to make FM-HD broadcasts more reliable.
While I don’t expect much vigorous debate over HD Radio in public at the NAB Show, what I’d give to be a fly on the wall in the suite-discussions. The real world is much more complicated, there’s a lot of ground between perfection and failure, and the truth about HD Radio lies somewhere in between. Breaking the unproductive us-versus-them dichotomy is the first step to confronting radio’s digital dilemma head-on.