NBC News dials in HD Radio


HD RadioAn NBC News “The Bottom Line” story dealt some frank views on the state of HD Radio and where it’s heading. The good news is it highlights automakers’ efforts to get it behind the dash and the FCC-approved power increase on FM. Check it out:

High-definition radio gets a boost from automakers

By Dan Carney, NBC News contributor

You may have noticed that HD radio reception stinks.  That’s if you’ve noticed HD radio at all.  But proponents say they are fixing the problems, so maybe by the time most people buy cars with HD radios in them, the issues will be solved.

In case you don’t remember, HD radio is broadcast by ground-based radio stations, but it’s a bit like Sirius XM satellite radio in a few ways.

Although it comes over the airwaves like regular AM and FM radio, the signal is digital, like that of satellite radio.  That means that FM HD stations have the sound quality of a compact disc, and AM HD stations sound as good as regular analog FM stations instead of sounding like the tin-cans-and-a-string telephone you made in second grade.

Because digital data don’t take up as much of a broadcast signal’s bandwidth as an analog broadcast does, radio stations can pack several channels into their frequency, giving them the chance to offer unusual programming of the sort that you might sometimes find on some Sirius XM stations.

Finally, because it is still a bit of an experiment, many of these stations are commercial-free, at least for the time being.  Which means not having to hear the same screaming ads for car dealers’ “sale-a-ramas.”

Finally, the best part is that HD radio is free!  Satellite radio requires a subscription of at least $174 a year.  Ouch.

So why isn’t HD radio the hottest new technology not sold by Apple?  Because until now, the free system had largely given us what we paid for it: not much.

The Federal Communications Commission, fearful that these new multiple digital stations would interfere with existing analog stations, limited their signal strength to a mere 1 percent of that of the analog station, according to Stephen Baldacci, spokesman for iBiquity Digital Corporation, the company that promotes HD radio.  One percent!

It is a wonder we could pick up the stations at all.  Fortunately, after a few years of experience showing that the HD stations did not knock out the analog ones, the FCC has boldly upped HD power to a whopping 10 percent of the analog signal.

While this still sounds pathetically weak, digital stations don’t require as much power, so at 10 percent the signal could be as strong as an analog broadcast.  “At full strength, you’d be able to hear an HD signal in Moscow,” Baldacci joked.

The receivers are improving too.  The Sony radio in the Ford Focus has a tuner that is optimized for HD reception and it showed solid reception of many HD stations in the Washington, D.C., area.

Many current models’ radios have two annoying problems that make HD radio difficult-to-impossible to listen to.  On the station’s main channel, as the radio picks up the HD signal it switches to that, and then when it loses it, it switches back to analog.  This is good for demonstrating the superiority of HD sound, but bad for listening when the signal switches constantly, because it sounds like someone alternately stuffing socks into the speakers and then removing them.

New radios, Baldacci explained, are designed so that they switch between the two less abruptly, so the change isn’t annoyingly noticeable.

That’s on the main channel where there is an analog backup signal.  The extra HD-only stations just drop out and pop back in.  On most radios, with poorly optimized HD tuners and antennae, these channels are useless.

On the new Focus, and presumably, other new cars with the latest HD radio hardware, these problems are addressed.  In combination with the stronger signal that is now permitted, whenever stations start using the extra power, HD radio is finally beginning to fulfill its promise.

That’s good news for listeners, maybe less good for Sirius XM satellite radio.

See the story here

RBR-TVBR observation: Sometimes it’s good to see a “view from the outside” article about HD Radio. This pretty much nails how the semi-informed public sees HD Radio, the pros and the cons.


  1. The FCC needs to take action regarding digital radio. First, they need to fast-track asymmetric digital broadcasting. Second, they need to create a schedule for requiring stations to add HD service, as well as start thinking about the eventual shutdown of analog, even if it’s twenty years in the future.

    Forward thinking radio stations have embraced HD Radio in a big way, but the hold-outs need to be encouraged to add digital service.

  2. Because “HD Radio” is proprietary the FCC should never require any station to get a license from iBiquity for “HD Radio” broadcasting. If the FCC ever makes “HD Radio” mandatory then the United States should “Nationalize” iBiquity so the license fees would go to the FCC instead of a private company. I am not against digital radio broadcasting, I just do not think that it would be justifiable to require the broadcasters to get a license from a private company before a station can broadcast on publicly owned spectrum.

  3. I know audio quality is subjective, but to me the AM band on HD sounds like cell-phone audio quality. There’s a flanger effect. So while the bass might be present under AM on HD, it’s loose and slightly distorted. For talk, I prefer analog.

  4. “HD” on “AM” quality depends on the station’s engineer. One of the problems with “HD Radio” is that they call it “HD Radio” instead of digital radio. Many people do not know what “HD Radio means and many realize that it is just stupid jargon and do not care to learn what it means. iBiquity needs to stop the stupid jargon.

    On paper DRM has a better bit rate so I expect it to sound better than the proprietary iBiquity digital “HD Radio”.

    The FCC should allow stations to use DRM pure digital or “HD Radio” pure digital and require that the receiver makers allow for both DRM and iBiquity’s “HD Radio”. The FCC should never require the use of a proprietary digital radio system and if that means that we do not have pure digital radio on medium wave then that is OK with me.

  5. “HD Radio” can either be hybrid or pure digital. “HD Radio” is just stupid jargon that is slowing or stopping the adaption of digital radio because people do not know what the stupid jargon means. It would not take much of a change to the “HD) Radio” logo to make it into a “I-D) Radio” logo.

  6. HD radio is terrible. I turn it off. Double audio. Echo audio. This in a brand new automobile. It should never have been trotted out until it worked.

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