HD = SD: Another Sh*tty Deal

There’s an amazing post on the Engineering Radio blog about CEO Dr. Alan Chartock of Northeast Public Radio (based in Albany, serving parts of seven states), entitled “Chief Executive Officer of Northeast Public Radio gets it wrong,” and it speaks to the heart of this site’s raison d’être. As the author notes, the CEO doesn’t have a clue about the HD radio technology he so firmly embraced. He comments:

He began by saying that most broadcasters were rushing to install IBOC (HD radio®) equipment. According to the FCC.gov web site, there are currently 1,542 FM stations out of 9,630 total FM stations broadcasting in IBOC. That represents approximately sixteen percent, which is a rather low number. Further, many of those stations are National Public Radio member stations which received very generous grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (e.g., your tax dollars) to purchase and install the said digital radio equipment from the sole manufacture and licensor of IBOC radio in the US, Ibiquity. Incidentally, there are 292 out of 4,790 AM stations currently broadcasting in IBOC, or roughly six percent. Those numbers have been relatively static over the last several years. It could hardly be called a rush to install.

He then quoted from the first bullet point on our home page, agreeing that there’s something inherently wrong with tax dollars subsidizing a monopoly like iBiquity through CPB grants — not to mention the additional community dollars that are sucked up by HD channels. And, as he points out, this is indeed a substandard system we’re bankrolling (noted too on Radio Survivor, posted here):

Secondly, Alan stated that there is no analog radio anymore, “It’s all digital.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I suspect that Dr. Chartock is simply ignorant of the technology in spite of his title as CEO. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with IBOC technology. No one in a position of authority seems to understand what it is all about. While the technical spec looks better for main channel IBOC vs. analog FM if one is considering total frequency response only. Unfortunately, to attain that 20 kHz spec, some very aggressive bit reduction is required to make the digital signal conform with the allotted bandwidth. A well designed and maintained analog FM station will sound as good as any IBOC signal out there. Add to that, the difficulty receiving the IBOC signal in mobile environments or lack of building penetration of the IBOC signal, and the digital carrier is far inferior to the analog stereo system that has been in use since 1961.

Then, reverting to a bit of engineer speak, he continues:

If the main channels use aggressive bit reduction schemes, the second and third channel use bit reduction butchery. If the audio quality of Sirius Satellite radio sounded bad, this sounds worse. The quality of such secondary data streams is so low, . . . I would think that organizations such as NPR and CPB, both of which pride them selves on the quality of their product, would not want to degrade it thus.

But NPR and the CPB have bought into it, hook, line, and sinker — with your money — and dragged along a bunch of equipment manufacturers and carmakers as well. And they’re all acting like this is the second coming, parroting the iBiquity company line: “NOW’S THE TIME TO UPGRADE!” Only on the techie sites will you find the naysayers, with posts like this from the Zune forum:

Is it possible to disable the HD radio on the Zune? I can’t tell you how may times I am listening to a radio station in HD that keeps fading in and out, stopping and etc. And this exact same station plays fine in regular FM mode. How can I disable HD Radio?

So you’ve got a substandard system foisted off on the public, paid for by the public, at the bid of CEOs that don’t have any idea what they’re doing . . . Compound that with the information noted in a Radio World article, posted here, detailing how NPR adroitly fudged the data when initially testing the IBOC technology so it passed muster, lending its imprimatur to the scam and very conveniently helping its new partner — iBiquity. Small world, isn’t it? NPR needed to shore up its sagging bottom line by selling its canned product to fill the new HD channels that would soon blossom, manured by taxpayer dollars.

Techies in the blogosphere have long argued that this is a fraud being pawned off on taxpayers. David Downs, writing on the East Bay Express website back in 2007, put it this way:

But after an investigation of HD Radio units, the stations playing HD, and the company that owns the technology; and some interviews with the wonks in DC, it looks like HD Radio is a high-level corporate scam, a huge carny shill. Do not tune in until your unit comes standard on that used Honda Civic you buy in 2015.

Between the high prices, poor listening options, homogenized content, and a decade and a half of FCC dealings that went into this monopoly, critics are calling the move to digital radio a “catastrophe” and a “complete giveaway” to behemoths such as CBS. Moreover, HD is pretty much a done deal.

Not quite a done deal, as now they’re coming back for more money to fund the power increase for HD radio (those with any money left, that is). But it is, to taxpayers and local supporting communities, Another Sh*tty Deal.

The point can be made that Dr. Chartock is not an engineer. So why should he be bothered by all the little details? That, in fact, is precisely the point. When these CEOs make game-changing decisions — blithely sacrificing local station employees, local shows, and local sentiments — they’d better have the whole story, rather than relying upon the assurances of an unholy alliance with vested interests in the outcome.

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4 Responses

  1. […] mentioned in an earlier post, here, NPR’s integral role in the ramrodding of IBOC through the FCC may be the most distressing […]

  2. […] local arts groups and other advertisers to reach listeners. . . .” As mentioned in an earlier posting, “HD = SD: Another Sh*tty Deal,” once again the powers-that-be seem to have little […]

  3. “Buy an HD Radio?”

    “And I just spent the afternoon with yet another engineer from a large radio company who, without prompting, unloaded on me the litany of complaints about it from the broadcasters’ side. The equipment is unreliable and buggy, there is no real support, it compromises the sound of the analog which even so sounds better than the digital, etc. At this point, I’m thinking that about the time there are any radios available to buy, stations will be turning off like they did in Fresno. Of course, that assumes there ever are any radios to buy (good radios at a decent price), and that broadcasters who do ‘HD Radio’ discovered what it really is to be broadcasters.”

    — John Higdon

    http://tinyurl.com/3436zr3

    I believe that John is a small-market station engineer in the Bay Area. It’s rare, but rewarding, to find an engineer willing to speak out against HD Radio, in fear of losing their jobs.

  4. Great post! It is my understanding that Bob Struble marketed his snake-oil directly to management, bypassing radio engineers, for good reason. In the case of Clear Channel, Struble and the NRSC pressured CC’s William Suffa, the senior vice president of capital management into IBOC, or went over his head:

    “Clear Channel is very interested in return to our shareholders. And it’s very, very difficult to justify purchase of this kind of equipment where we don’t see the clear return.”

    http://tvtechnology.com/article/2184

    This slideshow shows how CC was looking at digital radio alternatives, with many negative points about IBOC:

    http://tinyurl.com/23rzsyh

    Also, it appears that Sprint/Nextel has fallen for the bait, too, or is looking into HD Radio. So, the big question remains on how Struble is pulling off this scam. Is he offering equity positions for a potential IPO to fellow CEOs, in exchange for installing IBOC?

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