Le osservazioni sulla qualità dell'audio generato da una stazione FM digitale ibrida ("riesco a sentire il rumore dei fogli di carta dell'annunciatore", dice l'entusiasta) lasciano un poco perplessi, senza voler toglere nulla ad IBOC e alle sue codifiche. Ma l'autore merita un plauso per aver messo ben in evidenza la questione dell'AM digitale ibrido e i problemi di interferenza sulle stazioni non digitali. In definitiva è un altro sintomo di una discussione che come un'onda di marea ancora lontana sta salendo lentamente. Meglio così, perché farebbe davvero paura una tecnologia imposta dall'alto, nel sostanziale silenzio dei suoi fruitori.
Clearly Different: As broadcasters go HD they're hoping radio listeners will jump on the trend
By Tim Clodfelter
Monday, December 3, 2007
(Journal graphic by Richard Boyd II)
When Mike Walker heard about the new digital HD Radio format several years ago, he was intrigued. But living in Wilkes County, in a valley where radio reception from the Triad and Charlotte is spotty, he didn’t know if it would work for him.
“I like to have the newest toy when it comes out,” he said. “And a year ago, I was really anxious to get an HD Radio, but I wasn’t sure.”
Then, in the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” sale ads last year, he saw a big discount on an HD Radio and decided to take the plunge. He’s happy that he did.
“The thing that surprised me is, I thought FM radio was the gold standard for what radio could sound like,” he said. “But there was a layer of noise on FM I never had noticed before it was missing. (On HD Radio) you can hear the rustling of the paper when the news anchor changes paper, or hear it when he takes a sip of coffee. On a classical station, you can hear the individual instruments. It’s like a layer of gauze has been removed.”
He has become such a fan that he now writes a blog about HD Radio(hearitseeit.blogspot.com).
With all the attention being paid to high-definition television, many people are still unaware of HD Radio. But that is changing, as a growing number of radio stations around the country - including 10 in the Triad - make the move to HD Radio.
And no, the HD doesn’t stand for “High Definition,” as it does in HDTV; instead, the name stands for “Hybrid Digital,” named because it broadcasts CD-quality digital audio simultaneously with the traditional analog audio. The digital signal goes out on the same frequency as the station’s traditional radio signal. Like HDTV, the signal doesn’t have any static or audio distortion.
The digital signal can also carry text data, such as traffic reports, stock information and information on song titles that come up on the radio. An HD receiver is required to pick up the signal.
Using HD Radio, FM radio stations can simultaneously broadcast one, two or three digital radio stations on a single frequency. In most cases - including the 10 stations currently broadcasting HD Radio in the Triad - the first channel is a clone of the traditional over-the-air radio station. Other channels, if they are used at all, usually carry more eclectic programming. AM stations can broadcast in HD, but they do not have sufficient bandwidth for multiple stations. FM broadcasts on HD Radio have CD-quality sound, and AM broadcasts have FM-quality sound.
The first HD broadcasts started in 2003, and the number of stations has been growing steadily. There are now more than 1,500 AM and FM stations broadcasting in HD around the country, and more than 700 FM stations offer multiple channels. It is not clear how many listeners HD Radio is drawing, but as prices of HD receivers drop the numbers are expected to grow.
Unlike satellite radio, HD Radio is free once you purchase the radio. Prices for the radios average $150 to $200. A recent search at local stores turned up a few HD Radios at large stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City. Radio Shack did not have any in stock, but they can be special ordered.
According to iBiquity Digital Corporation, the company that developed HD Radio, about 500,000 receivers will have been sold nationwide by the end of 2007.
HD Radio may one day take over the airwaves, the way digital TV will take over analog TV in 2009. But there are no firm plans for a government-mandated transition; currently, this is simply another way for radio stations to reach their audiences.
“This is something that a group of major broadcast companies have all banded together and backed,” said Brian Douglas, the operations manager at Entercom Communication’s Greensboro division, which owns radio stations WPAW, WJMH, WQMG and WSMW. “It’s been building a head of steam for years now.”
In the Triad, Entercom, Clear Channel Radio (which owns radio stations WGBT, WMAG, WMKS, WVBZ and WTQR), and Wake Forest University (which runs NPR affiliate WFDD) have started HD radio channels.
Bruce Wheeler, the vice president and general manager of WKZL and Rock 92, said his stations have not made the transition yet. “We’re excited about HD, and we’re budgeting for the transmitters,” he said. But he’s not sure when his stations will make the move. “I think it depends largely on how inexpensive the receivers become, and whether people will be willing to pay a price to have a clearer signal.”
No AM stations in the Triad have made the jump to HD, but Brian Freeman, the program director at WSJS - the largest AM station in the market - said that his company is keeping an eye on the developing format.
“There is a curve between when a broadcast technology is available to the public and when it’s readily receivable,” he said. “Just in the last few years, satellite radio has become an option in cars.
“There may be a five- to 10-year curve before we see HD receivers (as standard options) in cars and home-stereo units.”
It costs about $100,000 for each station to upgrade to HD. Right now, to increase awareness and support, stations are encouraged by the HD Digital Radio Alliance - a consortium of companies that own radio stations in about 80 percent of U.S. markets - to run commercial-free programming on their secondary HD channels.
“In any new media, there’s going to be a rollout time,” Douglas said. “Right now, it’s not going to get a cash return, but we’re making an investment in something that is taking FM stations in the market to another level.”
The amount of money required to start broadcasting in HD - and the havoc that the signals can cause to stations without HD - worries some radio enthusiasts.
Greg Smith, a radio buff from Maryland, started a blog called “HD Radio Farce” (hdradiofarce.blogspot.com) because he feels that large radio broadcast groups such as Clear Channel and CBS are pushing the HD format. But smaller stations - especially AM stations - can’t afford the upgrade, especially with no return on the investment in the near future.
Plus, he said in an e-mail, HD Radio AM signals from large stations can cause distortion in non-HD AM signals from stations that are close together. In his blog, he is also skeptical about the public’s interest in the format.
“I’d gladly support HD Radio, but for the fact (that it) jams other stations,” wrote Paul V. Zecchino, another blogger from Florida, in an e-mail interview. HD promoters, he said, “heatedly deny their system interferes, while at other times they plainly state HD’s jamming will ‘thin the herd’ of useless radio stations - in their opinion.”
The jamming problem arises when an AM station with HD Radio is very close to another AM station on the radio dial. In Boston, for instance, WYSL 1040-AM has complained about signal distortion caused by HD-AM broadcasts from WBZ 1030-AM.
In the Triad, there are 10 FM stations broadcasting 20 channels. The second channel is generally a variation on the channel’s dominant format. For instance, WJMH, an urban station, has old school hip-hop on its second digital channel; WMAG, an easy-listening station, has smooth jazz on its second channel; and WFDD has classical music for its second channel.
That move may appease fans of WFDD’s old format, which had a mix of classical and NPR news programming. Denise Franklin, the station manager at WFDD, said that response has been very positive. “Some listeners have said ‘I’ve been waiting for this,’” she said. “Others have said ‘I didn’t know about this technology, but it sounds very cool. I need to learn more.’ We have had still other listeners thanking us for programming WFDD-2 with classical music and have said they were headed out to buy an HD Radio.”
In January, WFDD will add a third HD channel, which will feature what the station refers to as “an eclectic blend of world music, roots and traditional music, and music from local artists.” The third channel will also offer highlights from local college radio stations. “We’re working with area colleges on putting their best programming onto WFDD-3,” Franklin said.
WFDD got matching grants, one from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the other from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to help its transition to digital technology.
“This is on our part an investment, both from the technological standpoint and the public-service standpoint,” Franklin said. “It basically turns us from one radio station into three starting in January.”
WFDD has no plans for separate fundraisers for the HD channels, but will carry its standard fundraisers on the HD Radio channel WFDD-1 at the same time it carries them on the analog radio broadcasts. The shows on WFDD-2 and WFDD-3 will have sponsors from time to time, much like shows on WFDD-1 have.
“The fact is that we live in a digital world today,” said a spokesperson for the HD Digital Radio Alliance. “Radio is the last medium to not go digital. It’s what consumers expect; they expect their audio to be digital…. It’s something the industry believes will pan out in the future.”