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Radio AM to FM: December 10, 2004

Bad Audio?

HD Radios are still all but impossible to find -- and the jury is still out on whether the digital AM and FM broadcasts will catch on -- yet there is already talk of changing the standard so that a radio station can broadcast multiple audio channels rather than trying to improve the overall sound.

This is actually nothing new, as separate audio channels were part of the original design, and National Public Radio has been pushing for permission to broadcast as such. Heck, even current FM stations can already broadcast multiple audio channels using the sides of each frequency on which they broadcast (SCA broadcasts often leased for commercial or nonprofit use). Yet in the past, outside of NPR, there has been rarely a mention of the capability.

For its part and to its credit, Ibiquity, the company that designed HD Radio, has stayed the course by marketing the system as a way to potentially improve the sound of AM and FM broadcasts. AM can sound as good as FM; FM can sound as good as CDs.

Purists balk at the idea. CDs are hardly audiophile, they say, and good analog will always beat good digital. However, HD does offer relief from interference, and some engineers who I respect highly are fans of the technology.

But the recent increased talk of multiple channels is disturbing. The bit rate of the digital signal is actually quite low. Split it up for multiple channels and it goes even lower per audio channel. In other words, for all the expense of buying new radios -- and HD radios are currently quite expensive -- audio quality could actually decrease, benefitting only the station owners who now get three signals for the price of one.

Sound Surround

That being said, there is some really neat news from the HD camp: it may be possible to encode surround sound into the system, so that AM or FM broadcasts could truly give an improved audio experience.

At least four systems are being tried out with the HD system. If HD Radio does eventually catch on, it could be quite a listening experience.

Satellite Update

XM claims to hold 80% of the market for satellite radio, but they're still losing money. As the old joke goes, they lose money on everything they sell, but they're making it up on volume.

Seriously, Both XM and Sirius are running in the red due in part to a talent spending spree they both have been on. Sirius nabbed Howard Stern, XM just signed with Major League Baseball. And while many observers feel that only one will ultimately survive, I now think both will do well as long as they differentiate themselves from each other and from traditional broadcast radio.

Both companies expect to at least break even by 2006 or 2007.


Copyright © 2004 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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