The Medium Is the Message

Greg Smith at has a great post up, with links to some very interesting blogs. The first link, to a High Fidelity Radio story from last year, contains these nuggets about iBiquity, the monopoly licensor of HD radio technology:

[T]he company’s technology has stalled and is floundering…. Portable devices have been promised for “next year” every year for at least three years, maybe four. This fall, they will finally appear. The number of stations that have added digital broadcasts has stalled at around 15 percent of all U.S. broadcasters. The AM situation is ugly; I don’t know how that will play out, but it’s possible that HD Radio for AM is a dead end, which doesn’t doom the advantage of the FM side, the only way to market receivers today….

None of this interview [from a Wall Street Journal article linked] reeks of desperation, but there’s a lot of plate spinning. I don’t see how iBiquity can continue indefinitely without a dramatic increase in stations choosing the technology and units sold.

I suspect that the decision to release its own portable player comes close to last ditch. If a portable player doesn’t spark more interest, then what kind of growth does HD have? If the AM problems can’t be solved and more stations brought on board, then you have an untenable path for future technology.

I do fear that the sets sold to date — which could be over a million, but no one knows for sure — could actually stop receiving digital broadcasts in the future, if iBiquity can’t ultimately make its technology become dominant. Then the FCC has to get involved, a new standard must be adopted, and new radios released.

And in the comments section of this story, some interesting thoughts were expressed:

Here’s hoping these events come to pass and the US turns to DAB and embraces world standards for digital radio. There is ample supply of inexpensive portable, desktop and high-end equipment available right now, as this equipment is currently manufactured for the European and Asian markets. With a world standard, more digital portable devices will be made with built-in DAB access, and best of all: New competition for broadcast over the new frequencies. Added bonus: When analog TV went off the air last week, the frequencies for DAB came available. Let’s go! Radio communications demand ubiquity, not ibiquity.

And this one from somebody who had already bought one:

I recently bought a Sony XDR-S3HD HD Radio — and cannot receive a single HD station. The nearest station that is broadcasting in FM-HD is only 10 miles away. I am using a C.Crane FM Reflect indoor dipole that picks up FM analog stations nearly 50 miles away, so I can’t blame it on the antenna. If this is what HD Radio is cracked up to be, I’m generally disappointed. I remember how AM Stereo was a flop 25 years ago. HD Radio seems to be heading in the same direction.

And the other link of interest came from, featuring some scathing words about HD from its editor, Perry Michael Simon (and worth quoting extensively):

[T]he worst of it came from my experience playing with one of those Best Buy portable HD Radios. Yeah, yeah, I know. But it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get HD in my car, and since I can’t get L.A. FMs at my house, that’s the only way I can hear what they’re doing on those HD subchannel things. And, despite the limited appeal of an FM-only radio in an age when even your keychain can play MP3s, store photos, and cook dinner, it’s not a bad little device. In fact, I kinda like it. So when the local Best Buy finally started to sell them, I fought through the mobs of excited HD Radio purchasers and . . .

Okay, there were no mobs. In fact, that’s “Nobody Cares,” Chapter 1: If you don’t go searching for them, you will never find an HD Radio in the store. These were hanging on a forlorn pegboard all the way in the back of the store, next to the cassette and CD portables, which, sadly, is appropriate company. There were no signs. There were no other models. There was no attempt to educate consumers about the technology. They were just hanging there in the Ghosts of Technology Past department, without even a price sticker on the peg. I don’t think the staff even knew they were there. All that stuff from the NAB and the Grand Exalted HD Radio Alliance about major marketing to get people to adopt, embrace, LOVE HD Radio? That’s happening in another universe. I think they bought ads on the sides of unicorns. The first portable is out there, in the wild, and there’s no marketing for it at all. Nobody cares.

I hooked the thing up to my car radio, and I tried it out. That leads me to “Nobody Cares,” Chapter 2: You can’t hold an HD signal very long, and that leads to two critical problems. One, you know how the primary HD channel is supposed to cut back to analog when you lose the HD, and cut back to HD when it’s available? On several stations in L.A. and San Diego, the analog and digital are not in sync. You’re listening to a show and it… stutters. The switch from analog (underwater, bassy) to digital (bright, trebly) is hard enough on the ears; if the two streams are a couple of seconds off, it’s impossible. You would think that the people at these stations would notice the problem, but there it was. Nobody cares.

A bigger “Nobody Cares” problem, and one especially acute for talk radio, involves those “multicast” channels. Here’s what the HD Radio marketing doesn’t tell you: Those channels cut out all the time. You can’t listen for very long. And it happens under all conditions. Try this: Clear day, driving along the freeway with line-of-sight to the Los Angeles antenna farm. We had one of the HD-2 channels on, and it would drop out not only while driving under bridges, but every few minutes without any apparent reason. It turns out that HD-2 and HD-3 channels disappear behind any obstruction — hills, buildings, trees, other cars, Andrew Bynum — and become unlistenable. They also disappear when there’s no obstruction. And the next time I get a press release trumpeting how an AM station is now available on an FM HD-2 channel, I’ll know the truth — you’re not adding a thing. The “multicast” channels are unlistenable. Nobody cares.

While we’re at it, a couple more multicast complaints — I heard at least one talk station on an HD3 channel with volume levels that fluctuated so widely that it was impossible to listen for very long (the very lowest, hardest to hear levels were during the actual talk programming; the commercials were louder). Nobody at the station seems to notice. And another HD-2 music channel played the same song every time I checked in, a couple of hours apart; I was unaware of the existence of the All-Ting TIngs channel, and even a fan of “That’s Not My Name” could tell you that you probably should throw in another song or two. Just sayin’. Someone should be spending some time making sure that the rotations work, but, after all, nobody’s making any money on those channels, because nobody’s listening, which is because nobody’s being given a compelling reason to buy into the medium, which doesn’t always work anyway. This could be fixed, but, well, nobody cares.

Oh, and here’s another “Nobody Cares”: Proponents always promote the ability of stations to show title and artist information on the receiver’s screen, a selling point against satellite radio. But when there’s a syndicated show on, I’ve seen the screen display something like “NWN_2009_07_26_SEG1” for 20 minutes. I’ve seen one station stuck on “NEW_LEGAL_ID_OCT2008” with the name of the voice guy. Isn’t someone at the station supposed to be checking that? I guess nobody is. Nobody cares.

Look, maybe HD Radio isn’t fixable, maybe radio has its problems, maybe you’re not being paid what you want or you’re in fear for your job, but that shouldn’t mean the people who run and work in radio shouldn’t take some pride in what they’re producing. I think a lot of you do take pride, and there’s still a lot of excellent information and entertainment being produced and distributed by radio people every moment of every day. But when I hear stations out of sync, dropping signal, changing volume levels, playing the same song over and over, screwing up the song display . . . clearly, somebody in charge is not listening to their own station. Someone should, because someone else cares: the listeners. Listeners care. I listen, and I care. And if you don’t give me what I want, you’re telling me to find another station, or another medium.

Please . . . care.


One Response

  1. “Struble does some excellent tap dancing in this interview, where the reporter doesn’t have the history to cite his previous statements over the last several years, some of which were repeated here.”

    Tap dancing must have been a Harvard MBA elective — LOL! Yup, the same announcements are repeated year after year — it’s always “next year” with Struble. HD Radio — “a high-level corporate scam and huge carney shill.”

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