How to make HD Radio succeed: do nothing

December 1, 2006

Unless you have been in exile, you know that this month marks the 100th anniversary of Reginald Fessenden's Christmas Eve broadcast, which many consider to be the first audio broadcast. In the 100 years that have passed since then, radio broadcasting has changed and evolved, and the latest evolution is taking place right now: the conversion to digital transmission. This issue features a list of 100 technologies that have helped shaped radio broadcasting. These technologies cover a wide range of ideas and concepts, including the digital conversion to HD Radio.

The end of a calendar year is a common time to reflect on the past, so our list fit well with that tradition. In addition, the gift-giving holidays that occur this month give a reason to provide other types of lists. One list that caught my eye was in the November issue of Popular Science. This list covers the 100 best innovations of the year, which includes a wide range of devices and interests including various types of personal electronics.

As I watch the progress of the HD Radio roll-out, I thought that the Popsci list might provide some insight to the consumer side of HD Radio awareness. What I found is not exactly what I was hoping to see; there was no mention of HD Radio.

I found two references to satellite radio devices and one for a media player with Wi-fi connectivity so the user can download songs on the go (which is a derivative of a streaming media appliance anyway). HD Radio is still not making much of a blip on the radar.

I'm not complaining about the absence or claiming that HD Radio is doomed. You should know by now that I'm interested in seeing the successful deployment and acceptance of a wireless digital delivery system for terrestrial radio. HD Radio is the current front-runner in this endeavor.

The HD Radio opponents are quick to highlight the missed opportunity of another holiday season with HD Radio receivers being the top item in every advertising circular or in the prominent position on the shelves of the electronics retailers. The common argument is that other technologies — satellite radio and media players — have wonderfully marketed their products and services, but broadcasters, Ibiquity and the receiver manufacturers have not marketed IBOC so well. The comparison is not the same.

Satellite radio and the leading media player, Apple's Ipod, are single-source outlets. They not only developed their technology, but also fully control almost every aspect of the marketing and sales. This is not the case with HD Radio (or even HDTV if you want to draw parallels). Unifying the HD Radio players has an element of cat herding to it. It's not a simple process.

I know what it will take to make HD Radio a success. It's actually a simple solution.

While the satellite radio and Ipod buzz relates to a new technology, HD Radio is an enhancement to an existing technology. Don't expect consumers to seek a new radio when the old one works just fine or encourage them to buy a model that costs $100 more for features they don't yet understand. Consumers will eventually buy a new radio anyway, and that's when HD Radio will take off.

The current effort to raise awareness is good and needed, but that's only one step. For HD Radio to succeed, broadcasters should not have to do anything. No marketing, no rebates, no hype. A listener should buy a radio, turn it on, and then realize that it is an HD Radio receiver. No special effort. No convincing him to shell out $200 for a radio. In other words, do nothing. Every radio receiver needs to be an HD Radio receiver.

That's how HD Radio will succeed.

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