January 30, 2021 at 8:17 am #49590
Below is a very long article in the Current about HD radio’s less-than-stellar acceptance. The article mentions OPB and even the possibility of a Bend translator to relay an HD-Alt-Channel service.
As some stations end HD Radio signals, others hold out hope for audience adoption
By Tyler Falk Tyler Falk, Reporter
Changes spurred by the pandemic have prompted two public broadcasters to scale back their use of HD Radio, the heavily promoted technology that never quite caught on despite its promises of better sound quality and new programming streams.
Last fall, Wisconsin Public Radio ended more than half of its HD Radio services after its state licensee urged it to cut costs. Meanwhile, Oregon Public Broadcasting stopped producing an HD music stream in part because the pandemic has stifled volunteer participation.
HD Radio rolled out more than a decade ago, with CPB providing grants to help convert hundreds of stations’ transmitters to the technology. But listeners need digital radios to enjoy the higher-fidelity broadcasts and tune into the digital subchannels that some stations use for additional news and music services. With that hurdle in place, adoption has been slow.
According to last year’s Public Radio Techsurvey, conducted by Jacobs Media in partnership with Public Radio Program Directors Association, 14% of respondents — most of whom were selected from public radio stations’ databases — said they use HD Radio. That’s up from 6% in the 2012 version of the survey but still puts HD Radio near the bottom of all technology used by the respondents. By comparison, the 2020 survey showed that 67% of respondents use streaming audio or connect phones in their cars, neither of which Jacobs measured in 2012.
“We really did have high hopes,” said WPR Director Mike Crane, “but obviously we’re not in an environment where such [CPB] grants are going to be coming out again. And so continuing to maintain a service that wasn’t providing real service just wasn’t sustainable.”
In hindsight, HD Radio “just has not turned out to be a boon that people may have hoped that it would become,” said OPB CEO Steve Bass.
Yet some station leaders still see promise for HD Radio through educating consumers about the technology and as more cars come to market with digital radio built in. Xperi, which now owns the technology, reported in an investor deck last year that 52% of U.S. automobiles have HD radio.
* Significant HD cuts in Wisconsin
In 2007, WPR added 13 HD Radio transmitters throughout its state network to broadcast its news and entertainment programming, along with an all-classical channel that had been previously available only as an online stream.
“Just like many public broadcasters, we were excited by the possibilities of multicasting,” said WPR’s Crane.
“We’ve certainly seen some value in that on the television side with HDTV, but … it’s been less so with radio,” he said. One reason is that digital TV “was a complete turnover of technology,” Crane said, whereas HD Radio “has always been a hybrid technology that continues to analog broadcast.”
In October, the station decided to end HD Radio broadcasts on seven stations. The Wisconsin Educational Communications Board, a state agency that holds licenses for some WPR stations, asked the broadcaster to reduce costs. WPR will save about $60,000 annually and reduce long-term capital expenses.
Crane said that engineers have told him for “a long time” that adding HD to a transmitter “has been more costly financially, but also damaging over time to the systems in a way that would require more maintenance, more replacement over time.”
So when deciding which services to cut back, Crane considered those concerns and the low audience for WPR’s HD channels.
“I do not like the idea of taking off anything, because if you go back to the very beginning — not only of public radio 50 years ago but to our station more than 100 years ago — we’ve always been about providing maximum service,” Crane said. “But if the evidence is that no service is actually provided, then it becomes necessary, particularly in a tighter budget, to just say, ‘Let’s not keep doing it. It’s not going anywhere.’”
Crane estimates that the combined weekly cume for the stations that were turned off was fewer than 500. The decision caused minimal outcry, aside from a volunteer at one station whom Crane described as an “audiophile” and who said he was disappointed because he “loved how it sounded.” Otherwise, the response was “pretty muted, and that probably was telling,” Crane said.
WPR stations that will continue to broadcast in HD include those serving Madison and Milwaukee, where weekly cumes for the subchannels are higher but still only “in the thousands, not the tens of thousands,” Crane said.
WPR sees benefits to HD service beyond audience numbers, Crane said. The FCC permits using HD signals to feed analog transmitters, or they can be used essentially as studio-to-transmitter links, he said. “So that’s been a real advantage for us in a couple of places around the state where it’s a really nice, reliable method of delivery,” he said.
WPR’s WHA-AM in Madison also broadcasts in part using HD and produces a “really nice-sounding signal” when functioning, “which has been an issue, too,” Crane said.
Crane said he does see promise for adoption of HD Radio in more cars, “but even there, because it’s getting easier and easier to stream directly to your car using Apple CarPlay and the like, it seems like streaming is going to be the way to go.”
* OPB’s search for an FM translator
OPB also pared back HD service in December when it stopped producing a 24/7 Triple A music stream. The stream was part of opbmusic, which also includes music content for radio and OPB’s website.
The music stream relied on volunteers for the programming, which became a challenge as OPB was looking to limit people in its building, said CEO Steve Bass. “So it was kind of a good time to kind of look at the whole landscape and figure out what’s best going forward,” he said. Additionally, David Christensen, who leads opbmusic, will retire in the spring.
Opbmusic’s HD stream had a “pretty minimal” audience, even smaller than its internet stream, Bass said. If it had drawn a large audience, “we probably wouldn’t have reevaluated this,” he said.
A challenge HD Radio has faced is the lack of a federal mandate to convert, as was in place for digital television, Bass said. Additionally, there was “so much consolidation in FM radio that there wasn’t much interest in having a range of new services within local markets,” he said. “And I think the consumer adoption just never was there in great numbers.”
OPB still uses HD for its KMHD jazz service because “it costs nothing. We’re already doing the programming,” Bass said. “It may be a little bit more reach.” Bass is also looking for an FM translator in Bend, Ore., that could take a feed of the HD broadcast.
“When we first started with opbmusic here, our thought was, ‘Well, we can put it on HD and maybe a translator will become available.’ And one did, but I couldn’t get a deal for it that would work,” he said.
“Unless there’s some other great purpose [for HD] aside from linear delivery of terrestrial radio, I don’t know that it has any significant advantage beyond regular FM,” Bass said.
* A home for classical
But for some stations, HD Radio subchannels still provide a way to offer a broadcast service that may not have justified a presence on a primary FM signal. Nashville Public Radio recently moved its classical service to an HD subchannel to make way for a Triple A music format.
The classical service was averaging a weekly cume of 30,000–60,000, which wasn’t “financially feasible,” said Steve Swenson, CEO of Nashville Public Radio.
But Swenson said he wanted to continue to provide the classical service “because no one else is doing it, and no commercial broadcaster will do it because it never would make financial sense.”
The radio industry has done a poor job of educating the public about HD Radio, Swenson said. The name has caused consumers to associate it with HDTV and its “amazing video,” but Swenson said he sees subchannels as its biggest benefit.
“We as an industry really never did a great job of coming together and explaining that and marketing that in a good way,” he said.
Nashville Public Radio has been working to educate its audience about the classical HD service since making the switch, buying HD radios for “older” listeners whom “we knew did not have HD radios,” Swenson said. The station has given away 100 radios.
“It’s one of those things where we need to continue to market,” Swenson said. “We need to continue to talk about it on WPLN … so that people know it’s there. We need to make sure that we are doing interesting things on it.”
The classical HD channel currently broadcasts Classical 24. But Swenson would like to return to broadcasting the Nashville Symphony’s concerts when they resume, as the station did before the pandemic.
The station does not have an audience goal for the classical HD channel. Swenson points out that the classical HD broadcast covers a larger area than the FM signal that it previously aired on.
“There’s an opportunity for people who are driving and want the classical music to be able to hear it at farther distances than they would be able to hear it before,” Swenson said.
* ‘Just catching up now’
Christina Kuzmych, GM of Wyoming Public Media, told Current in an email that she believes that HD technology had “great hopes, but didn’t quite take off.”
Still, nearly two decades after the FCC endorsed HD Radio, and despite the technology’s slow start, Kuzmych says the consumer side may be “just catching up now” as more new cars become equipped with HD Radio.
People in Wyoming drive a lot — the state leads the country in residents’ vehicle miles traveled per capita — so Kuzmych believes stations could still reach listeners with HD broadcasts.
“The biggest obstacle now is educating them on the fact that they have HD radios,” she said.
Wyoming Public Media broadcasts in HD in 11 markets throughout the state, with news programming on an HD1 channel, classical on HD2 and Wyoming Sounds, a Triple A music service, on HD3. It also feeds translators with HD Radio.
The technology allows the network to broadcast more channels in parts of the state where it otherwise couldn’t, and the cost to maintain them is “very low or nonexistent,” Kuzmych said. “Should costs increase we would need to re-evaluate HD radio,” she said.
The station doesn’t have an “accurate grasp” on how many people are using the stations in their cars, but, anecdotally, “we know that people are listening,” Kuzmych said. “They complain when the service goes down.”January 30, 2021 at 12:39 pm #49591
On the commercial side, when PPM was adopted, some formats were found to not have as large an audience, as previously indicated, by the diary. Primary listening was exaggerated and some secondary listening didn’t show up at all. That leaves little to no room for additional formats, with few listeners. Add that to the onslaught of streaming and you can see the problem.January 30, 2021 at 4:01 pm #49594
<<The radio industry has done a poor job of educating the public about HD Radio, Swenson said. The name has caused consumers to associate it with HDTV and its “amazing video,” but Swenson said he sees subchannels as its biggest benefit.>>
WRONG! The radio industry has been hamstrung from adopting HD. Instead of using DRM, an open-source, US Broadcasters are forced to use IBOC, a proprietary system that charges licensing fees which prevent the majority of broadcasters from being able to purchase the equipment. If it didn’t a station $60,000-$100,000 just to have the infrastructure to broadcast in HD, maybe more would adopt it. That’s is not even touching on the ridiculous fees/percentage of sales you have to pay if you want HD 2. TV doesn’t have to deal with any of that. They can have as many channels as they can fit into their allocated bandwidth. Why the hell would a radio station promote a delivery system that most of them can’t afford to implement and too few can receive?
Stations are not going to convert unless it makes financial sense. Shelling out a percentage of revenue without any return is just stupid. That is like me buying an 18 wheeler to deliver parts for a parts order that fits in the trunk of my truck.
If the FCC really cared about radio, and it sounds like they don’t from what I read on here, they would adopt DRM for HD and repack every FM and AM Station onto digital broadcast onto one band and allow for stations to have as many subchannels they can fit into their alloted bandwith without paying extra licensing fees, etc. Turn off AM & FM like they did in Europe and move all the non-com and religious broadcasters and their translators into a new, digital, non-com band and repack the commercial broadcasters onto FM digital. Give all the manufacturers 5 years to get the technology in all the cars for DRM in the US and sunset analog like they did for TV.January 30, 2021 at 5:18 pm #49595
As I understand, DRM is not compatible with analog and if you shut off FM, it will probably never recover, digital or otherwise!January 30, 2021 at 5:19 pm #49596
A Canadian DAB promoter told me why DAB/Eureka-147 would never fly in the US . The NAB (and big broadcasters) did not want the broadcast “pods” (MUX sites) to give equal footing for small and large broadcaster alike. I heard demos of Eureka-147 – CHUM-AM sounded amazing off the CN Tower running 256 kbps audio. Too bad the Canadian L-band version died.
I always carry a DAB radio on my Europe travels. Where DAB really shines is in the big cities that suffer from analog FM intermod and leaky cable TV/SMATV systems in the big apartment buildings. (Yes, plain DAB had a marginal codec but DAB+ solved the issue.)
Yes, I ALWAYS will enjoy finely-engineered analog FM coming from a classic McIntosh MR78.January 30, 2021 at 5:58 pm #49597
<<As I understand, DRM is not compatible with analog and if you shut off FM, it will probably never recover, digital or otherwise!>>
There are transmitters like Harris which I am told can broadcast DRM and analog. If there was a digital transition like they did for TV, it would be like CheesyDuck says, equal footing for small and large broadcasters. On the TV side, you can still discriminate against Low Power TV, even though many LPTV’s now have an equal broadcast radius to Full Power Stations. The regs keep most LPTV’s from gaining carriage on Cable and Satellite systems. On the radio side, if everyone were repacked onto digital FM, the only difference between the mom & pop broadcasters and the big corporate ones would be quality of programming … and I have my guesses as to who would win that battle right now.January 30, 2021 at 9:26 pm #49599
The FCC would not allow L-Band because it’s being used by the military. They offered X-Band, which being in a higher frequency, would require too many repeaters. This was the reason for an in-band solution. The X-Band eventually went to Sirius and XM which later merged.January 30, 2021 at 9:33 pm #49600boisebillParticipant
DRM may be “open source” but manufactures of exciters and receivers still have to license (and pay for) the patented components such as codecs.January 30, 2021 at 11:43 pm #49601nosignalallnoiseParticipant
The X-Band eventually went to Sirius and XM which later merged.
S-band (specifically 2.310-2.360 GHz), not X-band (7-11 GHz).
S band is between L and C bands, and is also where things like Clearwire (used to be ITFS) and 802-11 networks operate. X is below Ku, on the other side of C.January 31, 2021 at 12:21 am #49602
I beg your pardon. It’s been about 30 years!February 1, 2021 at 3:17 pm #49611Alfredo_TParticipant
DRM offers some hybrid analog/digital modes (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Radio_Mondiale#Bandwidth ). I did not know about them until reading that article.
A variety of broadcasters experimented with DRM between 2000 and 2010. I even recall that the now-defunct Radio Canada International was using it at one point. However, the linked Wikipedia article suggests that this system has not achieved official adoption anywhere.February 1, 2021 at 5:58 pm #49613
It is my understanding (and others can please correct me if I am wrong) that the DRM standard is what is used in Europe. I did find this on Wikipedia tonight:
It does not say it is the “standard” in Europe, however, it does appear to be used by some rather large broadcasters in Europe.February 1, 2021 at 7:09 pm #49615
DAB+ is the digital “FM” replacement in Europe. Stations are multiplexed together; see worlddab.org for a list of countries. Car radios in Europe now must have DAB+ capability..DRM is only seeing some headway in India for the national broadcaster AIR on medium wave.February 2, 2021 at 12:43 am #49617
DRM was originally touted for use in 30MHz and under. I believe that it’s only somewhat recently that FM has been considered.February 2, 2021 at 8:12 am #49620W7PATParticipant
What if the stations started promoting their HD signals more? 1080 KFXX occasionally promotes 99.5 HD2 but could do better. They could add that to their logo as well.
I don’t think most people don’t know what HD is and how to use it on their car radio. CKNW in Vancouver, BC promotes their HD signal on 101.1 HD2 and on their website tells listeners how to set up their radios to listen to them on HD2. Radio itself needs to promote their HD signals much better than they are.
Using an HD signal on a station to feed an FM translator is a waste of bandwidth. That practice should not be allowed.
Off my soapbox.
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