Still Waiting for the HD Payday

There’s been a slew of news about HD Radio uptake, but as usual, not a lot of meat on the bones. Rather, it’s the continuation of a yearly practice of demonstrating signs of life. These are designed not so much for the radio industry or listening public as much as they are for investors waiting to see a return for subsidizing the system’s development and promotion. 15 years on from the founding of iBiquity Digital Corporation, they’re still waiting.
The most notable announcement is the (re)launch of an advertising camapaign to agitate listener interest in radio-via-smartphones. It’s based primarily around NextRadio, the Emmis-developed FM receiver application available on select Android devices. Until last month, the “Free Radio on My Phone” campaign generally advocated the benefits of having an FM chip enabled on mobile devices, but the new iteration directly promotes NextRadio itself, according to the campaign materials available online.
Most of the NAB-commissioned radio spots emphasize one of three primary themes: the high relative cost of music streaming, the annoyance of stream-buffering, and the usefulness of radio during emergencies. But it’s also got its crazy: listen to the FM chip in some guy’s phone scream out for liberation during a romantic dinner; Erik Estrada attempting to make a mnemonic connection between radio’s future and a TV show nobody under 40 is likely to remember; a pretty shameless invocation of 9/11; and an unvarnished read. It’s a far cry from HD Radio’s “Are You Def Yet” campaign of yore, but seriously, in the world of advertising you really do get what you pay for.

Regardless, the goal is to get every station in the country to run these spots a minimum of 20 times a week in non-graveyard hours. If that sounds familiar, it should, for this was the HD Radio Alliance‘s primary job, at least from its founding in 2005 to the departure of key executives in 2009. It would appear that the primary promotional vehicle for HD Radio now rides on the back of smartphone adoption – a device market in which HD (and AM, for that matter) has zero penetration. But NAB President Gordon Smith calls this campaign an “important effort to secure a bright future for radio,” so who are we to disagree?
That said, the collaboration between NextRadio and HD Radio does have a certain symbiosis. The two companies have joined forces to co-design an automotive interface; essentially this is the car-version of NextRadio, but with the integration of HD features (such as album art and datacasting). For both, it’s a win-win: NextRadio can circumvent years of tedium building relationships with automakers by piggybacking on the foothold HD Radio’s already established, while HD Radio gets a much-needed makover to its public image behind the wheel – not as a sometimes-service of limited utility, but as a key feature in the radio industry’s latest effort to adapt to the realities of mobile and digital media today.
Going forward, it will be interesting to compare the in-vehicle adoptive trends of NextRadio and HD Radio, especially now that they’re linked so closely. It may actually check iBiquity’s penchant for claiming that it’s well-cemented in the dashboard — claims that, after one notable proponent of the technology actually walked the lots of his local car dealerships, “do not make sense to me.”
The news with perhaps the most truthful symbolism isn’t found on four wheels, but rather in a “renforced wood cabinet for great quality sound.” Not a coffin: meet Sparc, iBiquity’s new private-label line of HD Radio receivers. Until now, Best Buy was the only retailer to stock stand-alone HD receivers, and then only in a single portable model. Effectively frozen out of the market, Sparc is iBiquity’s attempt to make another.
It remains to be seen, however, just how many folks will spend anywhere between $69.95 and $169.95 for the privilege of waking up, cooking to, or (as the Sparc site suggests) napping with radio in HD. The market for stand-alone receivers has declined dramatically with the evolution of portable, networked computing. But critically, Sparc does allow iBiquity to claim a presence in another key market for its technology, and that’s all the game calls for these days.
The fact of the matter is that HD Radio on its own is pretty much treading water, has been for years, and announcements like these ultimately do little to inspire creative thinking about radio’s future. Over at Radio Survivor, Paul Riismandel recently surveyed the actual use of HD on the air by broadcasters and came to the conclusion “that any push to expand HD Radio isn’t really about providing better broadcast service to listeners. Rather, it’s a trojan horse to move the broadcast bands away from actual broadcasting.”
It really can’t be stressed enough that iBiquity Digital Corporation could really care less about radio broadcasting itself. It is first and foremost an intellectual property company, designed to monetize the HD Radio system through the leveraging of license agreements. That’s been the public position of its executive and management teams since day one: we don’t actually build stuff. We build software that runs on other stuff, and we get paid when that stuff sells. The endgame for iBiquity has always been an initial public offering on a stock market, and as keeper of the de facto standard for digital radio in the United States, how could HD Radio not be a sure thing?