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HD Radio: Salvation for U.S. Broadcast Radio?

So is the conventional wisdom correct? Is broadcast radio truly dead, yesterday’s news and all that?

Now this ages me, but when I grew up, FM radio was the luxury you added to a car only if you checked off the appropriate box on the option sheet. FM meant clean sound, relatively free of hiss, although the you couldn’t hear stations from hundreds of miles away. Remember, there was no satellite or online radio in those days. This was before both AM and FM were standard issue on a new auto.

If you wanted long distance, you listened to AM. At night, weather being right and all, you might receive stations from hundreds or thousands of miles away as signals hopped to the stratosphere and back. In some larger cities, such as New York and Chicago, you had 50,000 watt “clear channel” giants — meaning there were few if any stations on the same frequency — that you could hear from thousands of miles away. I remember, for example, listening to rock music on WLS-AM Chicago when I resided in Alabama. These days, most music has migrated to FM, and WLS-AM, as with most AM outlets, is mostly talk.

From a quality standpoint, it made sense. AM is fine for talk, but not so fine for music, and, depending on where you are in relation to the transmitter, you may hear lots of static or a spillover from other stations on the same frequency, particularly at night. Indeed, to avoid interfering with other stations, the FCC mandates that the AM signal be highly directional for many stations, particularly at night. This means you can be in the very same place where you heard a clear daytime signal, but you hear nothing at all at night, or just scattershot signals from faraway stations. Drive a few miles, and the same station comes through loud and clear.

With the growth of satellite and online radio, particularly podcasts, the argument for AM is more difficult to make, which is unfortunate. My radio shows are carried on some AM talk stations, so I’m particularly interested in the future of this classic radio technology. But if you live in a city with lots of local outlets, there’s still plenty to hear, and there may be some solace in something known as HD Radio.

HD Radio?

Well, “HD” is the usual abbreviation for high definition. With HD Radio (and the “HD” is simply a trade name that doesn’t stand for anything), broadcasters embed a digital signal as part of their transmissions on both AM and FM. On AM, you get hiss-free audio that’s is fairly close to FM in quality. FM delivers audio quality that is close to CD, which makes it even better than satellite radio. But in addition to carrying a station’s normal broadcasts, HD Radio supports up to three additional stations on the very same channel. So you get the equivalent of an HD2, HD3, and HD4, depending on the decision of the broadcaster about offering extra content.

Now what’s nice about the technology is that it’s essentially seamless. If you don’t have an HD Radio, you receive your stations the same way as before whether or not they are transmitting a digital signal. If you have an HD Radio, it will switch to the digital signal automatically after a few seconds. If you drive in an area where the digital signal isn’t strong enough, it will be replaced with the analog signal, although that doesn’t help if you’re listening to one of the alternate stations.

The biggest negative, however, is finding a radio that supports HD, and the rollout has been incredibly slow. While the technology seems promising enough, and is sometimes touted as a free alternative to satellite radio, good luck finding a home HD receiver. The HD Radio site lists only one portable, and two affordable home radios from one manufacturer, Insignia. There are tuners and receivers that support the format from a handful of audio companies, such as Denon, Marantz and Yamaha. But they can get quite expensive.

You’ll fare better in your car or truck, where most of the manufacturers are now offering HD either as standard equipment or as an option. I experimented with the technology on recent test drives of the Kia Optima and Mazda6 and found HD Radio is pretty much as advertised. AM reception is crisp and clean, though with a bit more digital haze than you hear on satellite radio. It wasn’t quite FM quality but not far removed. In contrast, FM was pristine and definitely a step above what you normally receive from an analog signal. The rollout, though slow, is similar to what was originally offered with satellite radio, where only a few car makers offered the feature as an option, and most required a dealer installed add-on. And, to this day, there are still very few home receivers that receive satellite signals, but mostly because of the awkward antenna setup, which requires moving the thing around so it has a clear path to the satellite.

But the real issue is actually finding an HD station in your city. In the Phoenix area, I found half a dozen AM stations that offer HD, and many more on the FM band. While the technology seems to work well enough, I wonder about its long-term future, although iBiquity Digital, which created the technology, claims that some 2,144 U.S. radio stations supported HD as of March 2012.

To be sure, traditional broadcast stations are fighting a huge battle for survival and advertising dollars. But they also counted radio dead and buried when TV came along, and it didn’t happen. The huge difference nowadays is that you can get radio in many formats, both programming and technology. It doesn’t matter. People will not stop listening.