November 9, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Digital radio still hard to hear

In most major cities in the United States, the future of radio is already on the air. But hardly anyone is listening.

The problem is, hardly anyone can. More than 570 stations around the county are now broadcasting in the new digital radio format, but only a relative handful of actual digital radio receivers have been sold, or are even available to consumers who want to buy them.

With competitive pressures growing from satellite radio and the iPod, radio companies had hoped that this year's shopping season would finally see a significant number of high-definition radios hitting the market. But several major manufacturers have pushed back releases until 2006, likely dooming these hopes.


What's new:
Critical manufacturers say they won't have many new digital radios ready for the 2005 holiday shopping season.

Bottom line:
Broadcasters are rushing into HD Radio to compete with the growth in satellite radio and iPod listening, but the radios themselves have barely hit the market.

More stories on this topic

"We are seeing a month-or-two slippage, which is not uncommon with new technologies," said Robert Struble, chief executive officer of Ibiquity, the company that created the standard HD radio technology. "But we're talking about a fundamental change to radio, not just about one shopping season. It's better to get something out right."

The release of digital radio is widely viewed inside the broadcast radio industry as a critical response to other digital technologies, which are capturing a growing share of radio listeners' attention.

The defection of key radio personalities such as Howard Stern to satellite radio over the past year has focused broadcasters' attention on the competitive threat. The number of stations broadcasting in the new HD radio digital format, about 100 at the beginning of the year, is expected to reach 600 by the end of 2005.

That still leaves a long way to go to reach the 13,000 total stations in the country, but all the big chains have committed to transitioning most of their stations over the next two years. Backers note that 60 percent of the country's citizens already live within range of an HD signal.

HD radios

"HD Radio is vital to the future of radio broadcasting," said Caroline Beasely, chief financial officer for the Beasely Broadcast Group, a company with 41 stations around the country. "It will keep radio relevant, and you can't overstate how important that is to our medium."

The technology essentially does for AM and FM radio what digital, high-definition television does for TV. The quality of the broadcast goes up substantially, eliminating static and providing near-CD quality richness of sound.

The Ibiquity-produced HD Radio technology standard also allows stations to broadcast at least two audio streams over the air, as well as several data feeds such as news headlines or traffic reports, over the same space ordinarily used for one traditional radio broadcast.

About 40 stations around the country are already using this "multicast" facility, often to supplement their existing music station with another stream of up-and-coming artists, or a related genre.

But on the street, that progress is less apparent.

Jack Chew, sales manager at Bay City Stereo in San Francisco, says he isn't selling any HD units yet and few people--"maybe one in 200," he said--are even asking about the technology. His company has been told by manufacturers that products will mostly be pushed back until next year, he said.

Building as fast as they can
The urgency in the broadcast world has drawn response from device manufacturers, but the process has been slower then radio stations would have liked.

CONTINUED: Chicken or the egg…
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Chicken and egg doesn't apply in Britain
Though the article may be true in the US, it isn't in Britain. Digital Radio has been here in earnest for the last couple of years, most people can now receive it in principle, and costs are now down to 50 pounds or so for a receiver (about 90 dollars). Stations are also accessible through digital TV services (and of course the Internet, as in the US).

Nevertheless, take up has been slow because receivers still cost substantially more than FM radio, for minimal quality improvement. The chicken and egg argument doesn't apply here though. Unless the technology is different (sigh), it is hard to see why costs should be so much higher in the US (usually it is the other way round). Britain demonstrates that it is possible to overcome the chicken-and-egg situation.

Incidentally, UHF (analogue) TV is on its way out here too. Transmitters are being phased out over the next 5 years in favour of digital. Cost of additional receivers is also about 50 pounds, though new TVs will no doubt now begin to include them at no additional cost.
Posted by david.earl (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not really Chicken & Egg issus in US
The Chicken & Egg analogy doesn't really apply. Many many broadcasters are indeed broadcasting in HD already (the capital investment isn't huge), they're not waiting for listeners. But they don't hardly promote it at all, and almost no one has an HD receiver. So we got the chicken, it's just not laying any eggs yet.

I'd say it's just as basic issue of the opportunity cost to listeners of upgrading to HD is too high. There's just much better things to spend that money on (Sat radio, wich UK doesn't have for example, or an iPod), and HD Radio delivers too little gain for the buck.
Posted by MikeDson (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
High Definition Radio Ads?
The music may sound better but so will the ads. No thanks, I will hold out for satellite.
Posted by robertgknight (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So what about public radio?
No ads on public radio. Our public classical station just changed to digital radio last week. This has created a market for which there are no vendors, and the Web seems largely populated by incompetent geeks who use JavaVirus on their Web pages, which makes them unusable to anyone who cares about security.
Posted by (3 comments )
Link Flag
Could be too little, too late..
Without marked improvement in listening quality, there's not much incentive to spend the money, for HD radio or even satellite for that matter. I'm holding on to my hard-earned bucks until WiMax Mobile shows up to deliver Live365's thousands (not hundreds, thousands) of quality stations to my car, home, or office, without a PC. I'll be an early adoptor then, but, in the meantime, I'm happy as a clam listening to my MP3 Player with a Belkin Tunecast FM Transmitter. It has great sound quality, is extremely portable, plays on any car radio or home stereo system, plays hours and hours of my own selections, there's no subscription fee, and, best of all, it has a low, low start-up price.
Posted by El Kabong (100 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I will stick with my XM Radio, thank you.
I keep wondering where all the digital radios are, and who would possibly buy them.

I am not going to be shelling out $500 for a digital tabletop AM/FM radio and still listen to 12 minutes of commercials every hour. I have had enough of those erectile disfuction ads.

With my XM subscription, I can listen to 100 different music channels on my regular stereo equipment, and via online at work. I can get the audio feeds of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CNBC, Bloomberg, ESPN, Fox Sports, Sporting News Radio all incuded.
Posted by karldahlquist (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I'm sticking to regular radio. Paying bills is hard enough without XM, Ipods, cell phones, cable.
Posted by paulsecic (298 comments )
Link Flag
It's all about the cost of the unit
Nowadays you'd be lucky if you find a station that is not locked with ball and chain to format. Even the ones that claim to "play anything" still stick to a playlist that is basically the same thing.

Anyhow, in regards to radio stations broadcasting in HD the question is: Is it worth the expense? Why should I bother to pay this exorbitant amount of money for a receiver that:

1- more expensive than satellite radio.
2- I'd still have to deal with stale on-air chatter boxes.
3- Let's not forget the commercials
4- I have an iPod
5- I can stream stations off the internet.
6- I can already get the same content for free on my radio.

Although I still listen to radio just to break the routine, I wouldn't pay for it though. Especially with such steep prices.
Posted by Dead Soulman (245 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What's a radio?
I stopped listening to radio about 5 years ago. It's not the sound that needs improving - it's the content!
Posted by archaeopteryx (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Find out why bubble will burst soon and listeners will get stuck with useless HD Radios.
HD Radio jams analog stations.
The Truth is here:
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<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by worldsupercaster (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Loss of analog signal strength
I pretty much lost my favorite FM station when they switched to digital broadcasting. I'm about 50 miles from the transmitter in hilly terrain. Their analog signal used to be acceptable most of the time. Now their signal rarely gets this far, and when it does, it is scratchy and practically unlistenable. In effect, the station cut its audience in half to give its remaining audience a marginally better sound. Broadcasters should think this through carefully before making the commitment.
Posted by maniac42 (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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