Struble timeline: What's old is new


RBR found a fascinating Q&A with Bob Struble, the CEO of Ibiquity. In case you don’t know, Ibiquity is the company responsible for HD Radio.

I say “fascinating” because the interview is almost two years old and, yet, it reads like it could have happened yesterday.

This Q&A from the Broadcast Newsroom site started me building a HD Radio timeline where the key dates are these:

2002 – FCC gives a thumbs up to Ibiquity’s HD Radio technology
2005 – I conducted the national HD Radio dial/display research study*
2006 – Mr. Struble talks to Frank Moldstad of**
2008 – HD Radio today

Quality. (2005) The two biggest potential attractions for HD Radio revolve around its promise for improved technical quality – "FM will sound like CDs" and "Reception will improve," making hisses, clicks, fading, and dropouts a thing of the past.

(2006) Struble: But what we sort of push is that stations have got to make sure that the base signal and audio quality is good, because we’ve got new listeners coming in, and we want them to have a good initial experience. You’ve got to ensure the proper time delay so the analog and digital signals are synced up. If they’re not, it sounds like a bad experience.

(2008) And, yes it usually does sound like a bad experience. By most accounts, AM stations in HD do meet the challenge. But, improved FM quality and cleaner reception is dubious so far for FM and HD has been pulled from many AM stations because of concerns their everyday, analog, signals are being degraded and interference is increasing at night.***

Check the blogs web-wide where HD Radio listeners have weighed in and quality disappointment far outnumbers the fans:

“…Sadly, HD doesn’t mean “High Definition”, rather it’s “Hybrid digital” which really means “Horribly depressing” or “High Dollars…”   
“…I will choose analog any day of the week over this.”    
“…My station made the change (to HD) on a Friday, on Saturday I couldn’t stand to listen…”

Not good, folks. Research 101 teaches us: We need to do better in the things most important to the listeners. If HD Radio can not live up to the Quality claims, for heaven’s sake, stop making them!

Traffic. (2005) Not only do Weather, News, and Traffic generally rank lower as display options in general, the listeners are concerned that those features will distract drivers in their cars.  “…it’s bad enough drivers  are on their cell phones. It’s going to be dangerous if they’re staring at their Radio instead of looking at the road.”
They like the idea of getting a quick Traffic or Weather update without having to flip to another radio station and back again. The important points were: make it fast and easy to read at a glance. Don’t overdo it. The shorter and clearer, the better.

(2006) Struble: Traffic is an extremely valuable franchise, and something we’ve been showing for years is the ability to display real-time traffic to navigation screens. A station downloads data, it gets plotted onto the nav screen, and you can see not only where you need to go, but where the traffic tie-ups are. The car guys are very interested in that, and broadcasters are as well because traffic is important to their businesses. So that one I think is likely to be coming up pretty soon.

(2008) Listeners tag HD Radio a loser as Garmin, Tom-Tom, and the i-Phone are the GPS/Traffic instruments of choice.

Fresh, new, and compelling Programming. (2005) There was a lot of curiosity about what programming might be on these new stations and who would own them, established Radio companies or newbies. Interest in the idea of More Free Radio Stations increased considerably when listeners thought the new stations might provide programming not now available on their Radio dial … and if the new stations could be commercial-free, all the better.  Conversely, if the new channels were to provide ‘more of the same old same old,’ interest was reduced.

(2006) Struble: …(as a programmer) if you think about the constraints you have if you’re running a major station, the ratings are everything and you just can’t really go too far afield. So this really represents a blank canvas, and we think a lot of people are going to be able to try some of their crazy ideas. Several of those will certainly not be successful, but we think some of that stuff is going to stick. And for guys who have been constrained up to this point, it’s really a breath of fresh air.”

“Then there’s the emergence of the HD Digital Radio Alliance, which is an alliance of major broadcasters that have come together to promote the technology. If you’re in any major market, hopefully you’re hearing a lot on the radio about HD. That is having an effect in terms of awareness, intent and demand.”

(2008) Turns out, the exact opposite has been true. The Alliance dictated programming restraints instead of fertilizing new ideas. It is the third party people at places like ESPN and Disney, for example, who are firing up the HD Radio Idea Machine.

Even though the Alliance has consistently been the #1 or #2 radio ‘advertiser’ for years, Bob, there has been no bump in “…awareness, intent or demand.” Either radio advertising stinks or you’re pushing a non-starter. Which is it?

As far as I can see, The Alliance has systematically ignored valid Listener feedback and excellent research from companies like Edison, Paragon, Coleman, Fred Jacobs, Mercury, and yours truly in favor of trotting out their own version of good news in bubbly press release after press release.

I wonder – Can you name a single successful consumer technology in the past decade that has taken more than six years to catch on?  Just one.  One?

We all get the Tortoise and Hare metaphor, but this is downright silly! Silly and sad. Sad, because Listeners have been telling us for years HD Radio has no interest for them in its 2002-2008 configuration.

Perhaps Mr. Struble will have some good news in his 2010 interview.

Bob Harper

* HD Radio Study, 2005   

** Bob Struble interview, 2006

*** RBR report on AM nighttime problems with HD Radio, Oct. 2, 2007