Airwaves: May 29, 2009
What to do with HD
HD Radio, the technology that has the capability of saving or dooming radio, depending on whos doing the talking, has an identity crisis.
Many people still dont know what it is, and many more dont necessarily care. Yet I fully believe that HD Radio has the capability of becoming something great ... if only there were programmers willing to take some chances, and owners willing to let them try.
For the uninitiated, HD Radio is the trademark for a digital broadcasting system sent over the traditional AM and FM bands. In its initial development, it was known as in-band, on-channel digital, though that is a slight misnomer because the digital signal actually is found just outside the analog signal, kind of like the bread in a sandwich ... the egg salad being the analog signal.
With an HD radio, when you first tune to a station broadcasting HD you hear the regular analog station you hear on any other radio. But wait a few seconds and the sound changes. The noise floor drops -- HD is totally silent, as far as background noise. If done right, the FM signal opens up a bit, becoming more full and bright. Unlike analog FM stereo, which is limited to a 15 kHz high end, HD can reach 20 kHz. In similar fashion, AM also opens up, removing the background noise and interference, along with increased fidelity you have to hear to believe. Its almost eerie.
But what makes HD radio truly interesting is that it allows for extra channels to be heard on FM. After the HD signal locks in, if a station is broadcasting those extra channels, you can tune into two, three, or more stations all on the same frequency, all broadcasting something different that can appeal to listeners who long ago shunned traditional radio and its overly researched playlists.
At least thats the theory. And theres the rub: in many cases, the secondary HD stations just arent that compelling, especially in areas outside major cities. And even the majors have some issues.
If HD is to succeed, radio programmers need look no further than FM in the 1960s and 70s. Back when AM was still king, playing the hits, keeping it safe. Back then stations such as KPPC (later to become KROQ, 106.7 FM), KMET (now KTWV, 94.7 FM) and KLOS (95.5 FM) brought teens to FM by playing freeform, or underground rock that couldnt be found anywhere on AM. It was cool, and listening to FM made you special. Similarly, adults with money and taste were looking to FM for classical and what was called beautiful music, which took advantage of FMs inherent higher fidelity.
In other words, formats and sounds that could not be found on the mainstream band made people disillusioned with AM flock to FM. And HD could serve the same purpose if only programmers were allowed to go wild, and stations did even a minimum amount of publicity.
Stations need something compelling to convince consumers to buy HD. What would it take? Thats where you come in: what would convince you to spend $50 to $100 on a radio just so you could hear your own secret station? I have some ideas, but I want to hear from you. Ill print the comments over the next few weeks.
Copyright © 2009 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.
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