LPFM + HD Radio = 💰🔥

Another LPFM station has taken the plunge into the HD Radio space: introducing KVCB-LP, run by the Vacaville (CA) Christian Schools. KVCB is the second LPFM station to be authorized by the FCC to broadcast in HD – the first was WGVV-LP in Rock Island, Illinois, which received FCC authorization for digital broadcasting last decade, though it’s unclear if the station ever deployed it.
KVCB-LP was the brainchild of music teacher and genuine prodigy Ralph Martin, who’s long had the radio-bug: in 1997 he built a network of Part 15 AM transmitters for the students to use, and when the LPFM service was initially authorized in 2000, Martin made all the necessary plans to apply for a license.
Congressional meddling into LPFM – namely, tightening the interference-protection standards on these small stations – meant that Vacaville went from having potential channels available to having none. But Martin bided his time, and when Congress undid many of the restrictions on LPFM earlier this decade and the FCC opened another application-filing window, he was ready. Construction permit in hand, the station went on the air, initially analog-only, in 2014.
However, Martin is a big believer in the notion that HD Radio represents the future of broadcasting in the United States, so he dove in head-first to an HD “upgrade” for his new LPFM station; it’s been broadcasting in both analog and digital since March. In early June, the Radio Survivor podcast did an extended interview with Martin, where he gave many details about the station and its operation, including the fact that KVCB-LP runs two HD subchannels – the main and HD-2 channels are programmed by students, in support of the school’s Radio Conservatory, while the HD-3 channel provides “news of the school aimed at parents.”
Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel later wrote a follow-up article in which he breaks down the pluses and minuses of HD Radio for LPFM stations. Mostly, they’re minuses: there are very few HD Radio receivers in circulation outside of automobiles; the multicasting capability of FM-HD is limited (no analog fallback) and not the easiest to tune in; and the return-on-investment (which multiplies the startup-costs of an analog-only LPFM station) isn’t there.
“As it is, I can’t advocate for your average LPFM to adopt HD Radio technology,” writes Paul. “For most stations, I simply can’t see how it would enhance their local service enough to justify the additional cost and complication. That said, if you’ve got the money and the time to mess around with it, I can’t make a strong argument that it’s an utter waste.”
Okay, I’ll take a stab at that: LPFM stations would be better off burning the extra money they might spend on HD. There are three primary reasons why.
The technology’s barely there. As explained in the podcast, there are no off-the-shelf LPFM-certified transmitters that have HD Radio capability. Martin and the school bought an analog-only LPFM transmitter and then performed surgery on its guts to add the digital encoder/exciter. Doing so also disables the transmitter’s onboard audio-processing capability, so that adds another link to the station’s air chain.
In the podcast, Martin remarked that making the station HD-capable cost “10-15 grand,” presumably for the transmitter, HD componentry, and the license fee HD’s proprietor, iBiquity DTS Tessera Xperi Corporation, charges each station for the right to broadcast in digital. According to Martin, that license fee alone cost $5,000 (Martin self-subsidized this project to the tune of $5k).
You can kit out at least one, possibly even two, complete (studio-to-antenna) analog-only LPFM stations for the cost of this “tinkering.” Another new LPFM that is considering adding HD capability estimates that doing so will “easily double our cost.”
LPFM was never part of the HD plan. When the broadcast industry, FCC, and various public-interest advocates (including LPFM advocates) were debating the rules governing the launch of HD Radio, LPFM was considered a non-factor in this context. This is due to the fact that LPFM stations are capped at 100 watts of analog power, and the HD sidebands are broadcast at only a fraction of that – in KVCB-LP’s case, just four watts.
Most LPFM advocates that chimed in on the HD Radio rulemaking were more concerned about the potential for interference to LPFM stations from the FM-HD sidebands of full-power stations – a concern that has manifested itself just down the road in Modesto, California, where an LPFM station has documented FM-HD-related interference to its analog signal, and from which there is no recourse.
Martin claims that KVCB-LP’s digital signal can be heard in spots as far as, or beyond in some cases, the analog signal’s range. Vacaville, the station’s city of license, lies between the San Francisco and Sacramento radio markets, where the FM dial’s admittedly crowded, but the area’s terrain sounds like both a help and hindrance to KVCB. No mention of just how well any signals actually penetrate buildings.
Sad fact is, LPFM’s are the lowest-class of FCC broadcast licensee, with secondary status to all other FM station classes. Not only must they accept many elements of interference that full-power stations do not, but if a full-power station wishes to modify its operations or change channels LPFM stations can be forced off the air; this can include full-power stations adding HD capability that damages the reception of LPFM stations. How might these interference problems be amplified if LPFM stations adopt HD, where their micro-power digital sidebands would be at increased risk of interference? HD’s proprietor and the FCC will never know or care, because when HD Radio was designed and implemented LPFM was making a decade-long transition from good idea to point of policy.
The lack of a meaningful market. In the end, in the USian radio context, this is the determinant factor. Martin says he brought HD to LPFM in part to show that it’s possible, which is laudable. The fact that the station’s main and subsidiary channels provide outlets for student creativity is doubly so. But the ultimate goal of demonstrating a new market for HD Radio is not.
The primary metrics are pretty straightforward. First is the overall adoption rate of HD Radio, which stands at about 3% among AM stations and 16% among FM stations. According to the FCC’s own account, there are a total of 1,924 licensed LPFM stations, who comprise about 15% of the total number of licensed FM stations that originate their own programming. At present, given WGVV-LP and KVCB-LP’s foray into HD, the technology has a .001% penetration rate among LPFMs. If the HD-adoption trend among LPFM were to follow that of their full-power bretheren, 15 years from now perhaps 300 LPFM stations might broadcast in HD. But there’s no sign of any adoptive trend at all, for the prior two reasons.
More than half of these LPFM stations are newly-licensed, granted permission to go on the air just earlier this decade. Among the first-wave LPFM stations licensed last decade, some one-third of those that received construction permits were never built while the struggles of keeping a volunteer-driven, non-profit community radio station afloat has further whittled their ranks to the point where just about half of those who won the privilege of running an LPFM station still do.
Martin hopes that equipment-manufacturers will be inspired by his adoption to build plug-and-play HD transmission equipment specifically for LPFM stations. When the number of potential customers for such gear is measured most optimistically in the few hundreds, there’s not much return-on-investment for the manufacturers to oblige. Martin also mentions the fact that radio now exists in smartphones and believes LPFMs should be in this space, too. Agreed, except that only analog FM is available in a phone, and only in non-Apple devices.
Given that HD Radio also charges per-chip licensing fees on electronics manufacturers, there is absolutely zero interest in the mobile device market about adding HD functionality, now or in the future. Xperi is first and foremost a holding company for intellectual property, so it’s about as far removed from pursuing this extremely niche market for one of its peripheral technologies as can be.
I can’t help but admire Ralph Martin’s spectral experimentations, but under no circumstances would I recommend any other LPFM station attempt to replicate them. Unless, of course, you have a radio conservatory and mounds of disposable capital lying around. But what you’ll get out of the endeavor is primarily some bling for your signal, which the majority of radio listeners can’t hear and don’t care about. Is that worth the investment for a class of station that literally runs on a shoestring in money, time, and a policy context? LPFM operators would be better-advised to promote the signal that can be heard on mobile devices, and make their online presence their sole digital priority. That’s true future-proofing.