HD-AM needs to be killed right now. Form a single line, and no pushing and shoving, please. The late Bob Townsend, who resuscitated Avis Rent-A-Car with the famous “We Try Harder!” campaign and who wrote the best-selling corporate how-to “Up The Organization,” opined that every successful organization needs a Vice President In Charge Of Killing Bad Ideas. Bob pointed out that such an exec could keep occasionally stupid concepts from burning up a lot of capital and careers.
If the radio industry were still possessed of its once-legendary common sense and cajones, our Veep Of Death’s 9:05am Monday task would be to march upstairs to HD-AM’s office and plant a 9mm round right in the center of the forehead without so much as an “excuse me” or a “good morning.” That’s it: pop that cranial cap. Bang. Dead. No soothing psychobabble. Just the Dirt Nap In The EternaLounger for the indisputably worst iteration of a enormously bad idea, a/k/a the AM version of HD.
We could have HD-AM in the ground before lunch, giving everyone the afternoon off to celebrate, and Tuesday we could all be back at work concentrating on things that matter: like, for starters, quality programming which differentiates terrestrial radio from satellite, internet and new music choices. (These would be actually productive pursuits, to be distinguished from obsessing on hopelessly flawed and self-destructive modulation schemes from an existing transmitter site.)
So why is HD-AM the most hated technical “innovation” in the history of a proud and close-knit industry? Well…..let’s see. It causes noise pollution on originating stations. It’s fragile and craps out with the flip of every nearby light switch or lightning flicker. It’s expensive. The digital coverage sucks. It’s a maintenance hog. HD-AM capable radios are about as commonly available as Kruggerrands in a coin laundry. The Chatty-Cathy Chorusing Codec makes every talk host sound like a vaguely gay Darth Vader. It utterly fails to address AM’s real problems, namely: no night service for daytimers, extreme day-night pattern and power disparities, directional-pattern challenges, noise susceptibility and coverage deficits compared with FM. And that’s for starters.
But worst of all is the Universal HD Lie neatly expressed in its nakedly dishonest generic moniker IBOC, or “In-Band-On-Channel,” a descriptor which still evokes wry laughter from knowing engineers. Of course any broadcast pro who has looked at HD Radio’s system for 15 seconds knows that it’s “In-Band-On-Channel” in precisely the same sense Michael Moore can occupy a coach airline seat (“excuse me, sir – we can’t get the beverage cart past. Please keep your jowls out of the aisle.”) In the Stupid New World of HD, an 80-year old allocation scheme is trashed by the simple reality that stations which have been strictly limited to occupation of one channel (incurring, in many cases, FCC enforcement fines) are suddenly allowed to operate with impunity on three. Sure, the IBOC cabal has contrived an onanistic rubric amounting to “see, the adjacent-channel interference isn’t so bad because…um….well, WHAT interference?” in the form of the cynically vaunted “NRSC mask.” This is the junk-engineering skirt behind which IBOC perpetrators huddle; it was of course cobbled by iBiquity, a hapless NAB and HD developer-broadcasters to be force-fed to a cluelessly political FCC and employed solely as a foil to fend off the obviously inevitable future interference complaints.
Several things about adjacent-channel HD-AM interference and “the (wink, nod, smirk) Mask.” Supposedly adjacent-channel digital noise is to be suppressed –28 dBc. But that’s for ONE digital carrier, and there are twenty-five in the passband of each adjacent channel. The effects are additive at any analog radio’s detector, with the result that the obnoxious hiss is really only down 16 dB below carrier (consumer radios apparently didn’t get the Alliance’s memo about how quiet the adjacent channel is claimed to be. Perhaps HD-pushers would propose to read the NRSC mask study to the 500 million functioning AM radios out there to “fix the problem.”) The proof of the interference pudding is in the listening: spin your receiver dial across the AM band in any populated area of the nation at night and behold the ugly morass of roaring skywave hiss. And: without speaking for other engineers reading this, the disparate noise figures claimed for HD don’t matter – to me at least, any piece of equipment generating steady-state noise either 16 or 28 dB below program is what I call “a malfunctioning piece of equipment.” (Since one of HD’s claims is how key improved audio is to “fixing AM,” explain again to me precisely how it’s helpful to provide a worse signal-to-noise ratio than 1940s 78 rpm shellac records and telephone-bandpass audio quality for the analog listeners comprising 99.995% of AM’s existing listenership.)
In increasingly labored defenses of its engineering Donnybrook, HD’s dwindling band of defenders is reaping a bitter harvest from its manhandled, cynical and arrogant imposition on the radio industry (pressed by a well-known radio website’s owner about the potential for nighttime skywave interference from HD-AM at an NAB convention four years ago, a major-group engineer and IBOC proponent growled, “there isn’t going to be any interference, because we say so.” A major-market CE declared to another radio industry periodical about the 2007 nighttime rollout of HD-AM: “They say Armageddon is coming September 14th. I’m the one who is going to start it.”) Notwithstanding stubborn pronouncements from IBOC’s pushers and the FCC about an alleged dearth of adjacent-channel interference complaints, it’s well-known that there have been many: WYSL vs. WBZ, WHP vs. WFIL (yes, a second-adjacent case), WNTP vs. WMVP, and KFMB vs. KBRT are just a few examples.
The irony of the current situation is that HD was promoted as a potential savior of AM. In practice HD-AM has been an unmitigated disaster, an unfunny joke and scourge for the radio industry. To no good purpose whatsoever, HD has divided AM broadcasters into bitterly-opposed camps of interferors and victim stations deprived of any meaningful recourse by connivance of HD developers with the FCC. HD-AM has totally failed to deliver on its engineering claims to resuscitate the band; if anything, it has made the interference and noise plaguing AM far worse with thundering nighttime adjacent-channel skywave hiss wiping out meaningful local coverage, in some cases obliterating even 50kw native signals.
If Sir Winston Churchill had lived to witness HD Radio on AM, he might have declared: “Never have so few done so much harm to so many – and to themselves – with so little justification.”
Let a Radio Star Chamber of Common Sense issue its sentence and send the Veep of Death for HD-AM to do what we all know needs to be done – before “hybrid digital” further corkscrews AM into deepening oblivion. The execution needs to happen right away. We’ll never win back listeners with all this noise and crud convincing the public daily that AM radio is just an antiquated audio junkyard.
NEXT TIME: The Real-World Nightmare of Nighttime IBOC: A Broadcaster’s Experience
–Bob Savage, President/GM, WYSL-AM Avon/Rochester, NY
[ See his various FCC pleadings by clicking on the pdfs on the right side of this page. ]