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Lifestyle

Hybrid Digital Radio: Digital frequency offers more stations, but whether customers

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By JOHN BENSON

Special to The Gazette

HD radio has arrived. However, is anyone listening?

Considering we live in a digital world where 6-foot wide televisions broadcast flawless picture-perfect quality and entire catalogs of music can be downloaded or traded at a moment’s notice, the radio industry has finally begun promoting its medium’s upgrade to 21st century technology.

But before you run out to get an HD radio unit, which costs anywhere from $150 to $300, you should know what you’re getting.

The methodology of HD radio involves hybrid digital, which is part of the bandwidth stations use to get their signal out.

With 20th century analog technology, each station had three signals, which ensured its signal wouldn’t bleed into another similarly located radio signal on the dial.

With digital radio, there is no such concern. Therefore the extra two bandwidths, which were buffers in the past, are now open for broadcast and are free to listeners who own HD receivers.

“Here’s the easiest way to explain it,” said Bill Louis, WNCX-FM 98.5 program director. “If the FM dial is a football field, you used to have to have three yards to get your signal out. Now in a digital day, you only need a yard to get your regular signal out and you still have those other two yards to play with.

“That gives you the opportunity to fill that with completely other radio stations that you can program and are your stations to deal with. If you have an HD receiver, it takes a look at 98.5-HD1, 98.5-HD2 and 98.5-HD3.”

HD radio in the region

Since June 2006, CBS Radio’s WNCX started broadcasting HD channel WNCX-HD2, which airs contemporary Spanish music. Around the same time, Clear Channel Communications started broadcasting its Northeast Ohio stations in HD.

“I think it’s an opportunity to develop numerous, more narrowly targeted programming lines that will narrowcast, if you will, to a number of smaller audiences than we’ve historically programmed to,” said Kevin Metheny, Clear Channel Communications’ vice president of programming. “Sort of a media mosaic. There is no subscriber fee. The fidelity is pretty awesome.”

Louis said the idea behind WNCX-HD2’s contemporary Spanish music is to offer programming to a segment of the Northeast Ohio radio audience that isn’t currently available.

Still, you kind of know there are some classic rock-loving folks who received quite a shock when listening to WNCX-HD2 for the first time.

“There should be no expectations,” Louis said. “There is no reason in my mind to put just a clone of NCX on there because that’s the not the reason this HD was invented in the first place. It’s the opportunity to be just more diverse, and as broadcasters, we need to embrace that and bring people some choices that don’t exist on the radio dial.

“There is no full-service Hispanic radio station on the dial. There are entire groups of people that we’re not serving, and those people deserve a voice too.”

The current HD radio landscape in Northeast Ohio is somewhere between the Middle Ages and the Wild West.

Locally, both CBS Radio (WNCX-FM 98.5, WKRK-FM 92.3, WDOK-FM 102.1 and WQAL-FM 104.1) and Clear Channel Communications (WMMS-FM 100.7, WMJI-FM 105.7, WMVX-FM 106.5, WGAR-FM 99.5, WAKS-FM 96.5) have somewhat quietly started up additional HD programming over the past few years. Several AM stations (WTAM-AM 1100 and “Disney Radio” WWMK-AM 1260) are broadcasting in HD, but the programming is simulcast from its analog signal.

While WNCX-HD2 airs commercial free, other stations are beginning to run advertising. Metheny said some Clear Channel Communications HD channels offer live announcers, while others are programmed. Something new for 2008 will be the introduction of on-air advertising.

“We’re adopting a public radio-like approach to marketing our supporters,” Metheny said. “So, an hour might be a service of Progressive Insurance, or an entire channel might be a service of Harley Davidson. But these are more like marquis sponsors, rather than sponsors running tons of short form commercials.”

Aside from a brief mention on the air, the HD side of their operations remains obscure, with some programmers offering similar programming to that of its anchor station.

For example, CBS stations WKRK-HD2 plays rap ’n’ rock, while WQAL-HD2 broadcasts a AAA (adult album alternative) format and WDOK-HD2 employs the sunny format, which is older pop material from the ’70s.

On the Clear Channel Communications side of HD, WAKS-FM HD2 airs the tweener-oriented KiWi format, while WGAR-HD2 plays classic country, WMMS-FM HD2 offers active rock, WMJI-HD2 broadcasts ’50s and ’60s oldies and WMVX-HD2 runs all-kids music format.

So how pervasive does Metheny see HD radio becoming over the next decade?

“That will depend on whether we can improve the rate at which the public understands, appreciates and adopts the finely targeted free programming available on HD radio,” Metheny said. “My guess is over time it works.”

A different opinion

A Jacobs Media technology Web poll, which was conducted last winter, indicated the biggest hurdle to consumers purchasing HD radio systems is a general lack of knowledge about the technology.

Invariably, the HD Radio product pales in comparison to the hundreds of stations offered by Satellite Radio broadcasters Sirius and XM.

In the mind of radio consultant and former WMMS-FM 100.7 and WMJI-FM 105.7 Program Director John Gorman, this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding deficiencies in HD radio. In fact, he feels the use of HD is a misnomer.

“Unlike TV, where HD means high definition, the HD channels are of lesser fidelity than an analog FM signal, which means you can lose HD signals near tall buildings and hills,” Gorman said. “Plus, the radios come with this pigtail antenna you have to jiggle around in order to pick up a signal.”

The future will answer whether HD radio succeeds. For now, those radio listeners interested in HD radio are best to do their own homework and know what they’re buying.

Benson may be reached at ididhear@aol.com.

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