HD Radio, it stands for Huge Debacle

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With all of the news coming out about HD Radio still not getting traction (especially due to online/mobile streaming taking the stage), Russo reached out to RBR-TVBR this week and noted that a viewpoint he wrote for us back in 2008 re: The HD Digital Radio Alliance still rings true. You be the judge: Russo, revisited:


Radio was on a roll until HD radio came along. HD radio, for those who are unaware, is the radio industry’s answer to going digital. It’s supposed to mean high-definition radio: better sound, more channels (called HD 2 or sidechannels), less interference.
But HD radio as it has been introduced by the industry should really stand for Huge Debacle or Highly Debatable. In its current state, HD radio is like HDTV launching in black and white or the iPod launching and playing tunes in mono.

Before HD radio, the radio industry was moving aggressively towards addressing several critical issues. We all complained about clutter and it has slowly been cut back. New advertisers are coming to the medium. For years I have grumbled about Wall Street and its “jackasses in suits” screwing up the medium, and now some broadcasters are buying back stock and contemplating going private. We’re about to have a changing of the guard at the Radio Advertising Bureau, and that represents an opportunity to change that organization from a kiss-ass, glad-handing quasi-organization, to a full force sales arm to champion radio and highlight the progress made in order to increase radio’s share of ad dollars.

And then, like a twist in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, comes HD radio. How in the world could the HD Radio Alliance, representing all the major broadcasters, let it launch like this? I am all for more radio formats and better fidelity that will strengthen the medium, but at this time—in its current incarnation—HD radio is so flawed that any effort put into it will only turn off listeners and advertisers. Please, HD Radio Alliance, stop the madness now! Regroup and relaunch this correctly.

As I see it, here are the problems with HD radio and some of the corrections I believe could make HD radio more viable.

Let’s start with the primary receiver currently being marketed to the consumer: The Boston Acoustics radio. The unit itself is awkward, it’s difficult to use and it looks like a clumsy clock radio from the ’80s. You actually need to buy an additional 75-ohm antenna—what normal consumer knows what that is?—to receive the stations that broadcast in HD because the one that comes with the unit doesn’t work. (Memo to the Wall Street jackasses: If Boston Acoustics is a public company, short the stock.)

For another, the HD 2 sidechannels (if you are able to tune them in) are commercial free. Why would advertisers ever want anything commercial free? Doesn’t that dilute the other commercial vehicles out there?

Plus, the HD Alliance is running $200 million in free advertising to promote this inferior product. Once people try it and see it doesn’t work, they will not come back.

Let’s be realistic. People can’t tell the difference in fidelity. The iPod has less fidelity than a CD, which has less than a vinyl record. So who cares what HD radio sounds like. For the time being, just give the consumer an easy-to-use adapter that can attach to any radio to receive the sidechannels at no worse quality than current FM receivers. The only exception, of course, would be my friend Stevie Van Zandt, who can hear instrumentation on a song that no human ear should be able to. (Note to the HD Alliance: Give Stevie a channel to program, but don’t send him a radio yet.)

Programming is always key, so let’s highlight radio’s best on the HD 2 channels, simulcast legendary morning shows or stations from other markets. This should be a no-brainer. Also, run commercials on the sidechannels using the same stopsets and loads as the main channel.

We also need all types of radio—terrestrial, HD, satellite radio and Internet—to be evaluated on the same playing field. All audio and radio should be measured at the same time. We need to work quickly towards that goal.

HD Radio is supposed to be the industry’s answer to satellite radio. But anyone who has a satellite radio service sees how easy the units are to use and how easy it is to identify the programming via the channel guides. HD radio is not easy to use—and it really needs to be in order to compete.

The fledgling field is also supposed to be the next evolution of radio and reinvigorate the medium for advertisers and marketers. But HD radio isn’t delivering anything for advertisers and marketers.

With this kind of start, HD radio is dragging down radio in general. HD radio’s first impression with the consumer is like an uncomfortable blind date. No matter what anyone may say to comfort you, first impressions always count the most. Very rarely does one get a second chance. The radio industry needs to pull out of its current course with HD Radio right now and come back when these basic issues are addressed, or else it will never recover from this bad first impression.

— Rich Russo, JL Media’s SVP/Director of Broadcast Services  [email protected]


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Carl has been with RBR-TVBR since 1997 and is currently Managing Director/Senior Editor. Residing in Northern Virginia, he covers the business of broadcasting, advertising, programming, new media and engineering. He’s also done a great deal of interviews for the company and handles our ever-growing stable of bylined columnists.