As the IBOC rollout continues, individual features and enhancements of the system — not to mention the system itself — are the subject of ongoing debate. Last month I discussed the current state of HD Radio and noted that while it is not a standard, it has a great deal of work and effort behind its technology. In addition, it has a huge head start over the other systems that are being proposed. In short, unless something dramatic happens, HD Radio is the winning horse.
While the HD Radio transmission technology is comparatively mature, the receiver technology is not. We are still using the first generation of HD Radio receivers. Advances on the consumer side will progress as more stations implement their systems. This presents a chicken-and-egg scenario, however, because consumer demand for receivers is still quite low.
To increase the demand of HD Radio receivers we must be aware of the other media that are attracting consumer demand. Open any advertising flyer for a retail outlet that sells electronics and you'll see that satellite radio, feature-packed cell phones and portable media players are everywhere. Except for the Crutchfield catalog, I never see any advertising for anything with HD Radio capability.
While we wait for receivers that have HD Radio capability, personal electronics devices are bypassing terrestrial radio completely. Satellite radio now has walkman-style receivers. Cell phones have media players (and Web browsers and cameras). Portable games have media players and other functions. Digital cameras even have Wi-fi. Several years ago I noted that this media convergence would happen. Now it's here, but radio is missing the boat.
Consumers want music to take with them. While rolling your own and loading playlists of downloaded material is still popular, it's obvious that consumers also want the convenience of letting someone else pick the music. There are more podcasts available than ever, and several cell phone service providers have options to provide streaming music services.
Cell phone providers offer portable audio entertainment? Gee, that sounds like radio.
During November, I was invited to observe a series of focus groups that Cox Radio arranged to determine consumer preference in labeling multicast program streams. The analysis of these sessions is expected to be announced any day, but I believe that that the results will show that the current generation of HD Radio receivers is doing it wrong.
The focus group panelists were given two methods of tuning multicast stations. Method A follows the current style of vertically stacking the streams on a frequency: 99.7 HD1, 99.7 HD2, etc. Method B places the stream horizontally by using an expanded-band appearance. All the HD1 streams are on the traditional 88.1 to 107.9 spots. The HD2 streams start at 108.1, that is 88.1 HD2 shows up as 108.1 on the Method B display. If a station on 99.7MHz has three multicast streams, they would appear on the display at 99.7, 119.7 and 139.7.
I admit that I thought that the vertical method was not that difficult, but after observing the second of the 12 groups, I realized that the horizontal method is much easier for a listener to understand, mainly because listeners tie a frequency to a program stream.
The horizontal method also allows stations to create completely different program offerings on the multicast streams without causing confusion to the root frequency (HD1) stream. I also believe that an expanded band offering will stir consumer demand for HD Radio and HD Radio multicast receivers.
I applaud Cox on its effort to better understand how consumers will accept HD Radio technology.
The rules governing consumer media are changing, and radio is losing the game. Let's change the rules so we can continue to compete — and win.