HD Radio: By the (Disputed) Numbers

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has released its annual State of the Media report, and it does not have kind words for radio. It laments the decimation of radio journalism and documents how other digital audio platforms are gaining traction at the expense of broadcasters. It also minces no words about the state of HD Radio:

AM/FM’s beleaguered attempt to draw people back to radio through HD did worse than ever. For the first time since 2004, when HD radio receivers became available for retail sale, more radio stations dropped their HD signal [in 2012] than adopted the technology.

The entire mention of HD is just two paragraphs, and includes a graph illustrating the net decline in the number of HD stations on the air.
The technology’s proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation, was quick to pounce on the "error" of Pew’s analysis. iBiquity CEO Bob Struble claims there was a "net gain" of 16 HD stations in 2012.
As if this correction paints the state of HD adoption in a brighter light: with more than 15,000 full-power AM and FM stations currently on the air, HD’s penetration rate leaped forward an astounding .12% last year. That’s progress?
Both Pew and Struble claim that 2,048 stations were broadcasting in HD at the end of 2012. This is at odds with the FCC’s own database, which returns a total of 2,038 HD stations. This includes 1,733 full-power FM stations, 299 AM stations, one LPFM station, two FM translators, and three FM boosters.
Of course, even these numbers don’t accurately reflect the number of HD stations actually on the air. Although the FCC requires stations to notify when they commence HD broadcasts, they don’t have to notify when they shut it off. Barry McLarnon has well-documented nearly 100 AM stations that have abandoned the protocol, and there’s no way to quantify the number of FM stations that have ceased digital broadcasts.
Thus the number of HD stations on the air is actually lower than what the "conventional wisdom" suggests – fewer than 2,000 stations in all.
Struble provides unconfirmable figures about the number of FM-HD multicast streams available. He says that there are 1,446 HD-2, -3, and -4 streams on the air. This works out to about two-thirds of all FM-HD stations actually engaged in multicasting – by far the technology’s most-adopted feature, but in the context of overall uptake not particularly impressive.
Furthermore, Struble suggests the growth in HD receiver sales demonstrates a "50% annual growth rate" in the adoption of HD by listeners. However, it’s easy to claim explosive growth when you’re starting from nothing. And this number doesn’t quite add up, either.
In 2010, Struble told Radio World that just 200,000 HD receivers had been sold through mid-2008 (in the first six years of the technology’s life in the wild). Between that point in time and June of 2010, the number of receivers sold rose to 2.5 million. In the rebuttal to Pew, iBiquity claims that 1.8 million receivers were sold in 2010, 2.2 million in 2011, and 3.9 million in 2012.
Adding these numbers up in the most generous light to iBiquity produces a total of 10.4 million receivers sold through last year – 1.6 million fewer than iBiquity’s claim of 12 million sales in all.
Finally, Radio World‘s Leslie Stimson presumes to catch the Pew report in a contradiction when it claims that HD adoption in vehicles lags behind the adoption of streaming audio apps such as Pandora. Stimson notes that HD is available in some form across 29 automotive makes and models, while Pandora is available on just 20.
I suspect that Pew intended to use Pandora as an example of the inroads streaming audio is making in vehicles. For many other streaming apps (such as iHeartRadio and Spotify) also come pre-installed in automobiles; were one to add those in, how much larger might streaming’s adoption actually be?
HD Radio (launched in 2002) had a three-year head start over Pandora (launched in 2005). Effectively, the two are neck-and-neck as far as adoptive penetration goes, but the rate of growth of streaming apps in vehicles is outpacing the adoptive trajectory of HD Radio.
It’s interesting that a two-paragraph "analysis" in a much larger study was found worthy enough to merit a two-page rebuttal in the radio industry’s leading trade publication. It’s illustrative of the tenuous and sensitive state of radio’s digital transition in the United States.
Sidenote: Radio Ink publisher Eric Rhoads has issued a mea culpa about his recent article warning that radio was about to become extinct in automobiles. "My mistake is that I put something in quotes from my recollections…and my quote was inaccurate," he writes. "My editorial has caused many within the radio industry much grief and therefore, I feel it best to rescind my original quote and issue an official apology….I truly regret any confusion or misinformation that resulted, and I sincerely apologize for the error."