Radio AM to FM: May 24, 2002
Digital radio continues its trek toward acceptance. Or at least the company that designed the proposed US standard for digital commercial broadcasting hopes so.
Ibiquity Digital Corporation considers the 2002 National Association of Broadcasters convention in April the official launch of its in-band on-channel (IBOC) broadcasting system, in which stations place a digital signal right on top of their analog signal giving improved audio to those with digital receivers and standard sound to the rest of us.
Additionally, stations can use part of the digital signal to transmit station information, song titles, or even advertising that would show up on a digital radio's information screen, much the same as is done with satellite radio receivers for XM and Sirius.
But all is not well in the digital radio world. First off, broadcasters are balking on a proposed fee schedule to be paid to Ibiquity, a sliding scale based off of current FCC licensing fees estimated to average roughly $13,000 per station. It doesn't sound like much and in fact it isn't. But the fee can reach as high as $70,000 in large markets and radio owners as a group are cheap. This fee is in addition to the costs associated with upgrading transmitters and other equipment in order to broadcast the new system.
Secondly, the system for digital AM broadcasting has been endorsed for daytime use only, meaning that many stations would have to revert to analog when the sun sets ... as early as 4:30 in many parts of the country, right in the middle of afternoon drive time. Said Clear Channel's Bill Suffa in an NAB panel discussion, daytime-only AM digital "would be the death knell of AM."
Finally, even FM is not immune to problems, as analog performance is apparently degraded in the fringe reception areas among closely-spaced stations when IBOC is employed, with some radios switching to mono or enacting a high-blend system that allows the station to remain listenable ... yet sound bad.
Oh, yeah ... and the FCC has not made a decision yet setting a standard for the broadcasts.
The problems thus far do not seem insurmountable. Most observers feel that the FCC will give approval soon. Ibiquity says that the AM system can be made full time with a bit of technical tweaking. And FM won't have the problem at all when (if) all stations go all-digital and shut off the analog portion.
And the fees? Rumor is that Ibiquity is reconsidering the scale, and even the current proposed fees shouldn't be a problem once the ball gets rolling.
You thought we had it bad here, with Clear Channel controlling eight stations. San Diego has it even worse, due to agreements made with Mexican broadcasters to run their stations for the San Diego audience. So in addition to the seven stations CC own directly, the Evil Empire programs five stations licensed to Mexico. That's 12 -- count 'em, 12 -- stations programmed by the company known only for quantity, not quality. And that doesn't count the two stations CC owns in Temecula that simulcast San Diego programming.
Reader Mike Dangott of Orange County wrote in to tell me about WLUX in Long Island, New York. "They run the syndicated Music of Your Life format, but they do it exceedingly well," he said. "I listen through the internet all the time. It's available at www.wlux.com."
Copyright © 2002 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.
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