Digitized and confused

Publish date:

Digitized and confused

Apr 1, 2005 12:00 PM, Chriss Scherer, editor

A few weeks ago I passed the magazine rack at the grocery store and noticed a consumer magazine with a picture of a radio being shattered by a bullet. The graphic did its job; it made me stop to look at it. Once I picked it up I could read the full headline: The End of Radio (as We Know It).

Below this headline was a smaller line that read The Coming Digital Boom. Needless to say, I had to read more, so I purchased the magazine, which was the March issue of Wired.

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I had to search for the article about the coming digital radio boom, which was in an article that started with an interview with Steve Jones, guitarist for the Sex Pistols and on-air personality at Indie 103 in Los Angeles. While the six-page article meanders through several top-of-the-surface elements, it actually touches on some practical consumer information about HD Radio. Unfortunately, it never calls the Ibiquity technology by the proper, trademarked name. So while this article, like many written for the listening public, provides some insight into IBOC, it fails to convey the message with a unique name.

Within the article and a ?-page sidebar that tries to explain how HD Radio works, the technology is called HD radio, high-definition radio, HD, digital radio and IBOC. With this kind of treatment it's no wonder that consumers don't know much � if anything � about the terrestrial digital radio technology that is expected to be installed at 2,500 radio stations over the coming months.

I wrote about the widespread misuse of the HD Radio trademark about a year ago. While the consumer media can be forgiven the lingo error and educated about it, broadcasters need to take the lead and use a consistent name to publicize the technology.

Unfortunately, broadcasters are still part of the problem. A group of stations in Kansas City recently activated its IBOC transmission systems and began airing station identifiers that say �now broadcasting in high-definition.� How is a listener supposed to ask for the proper equipment to hear these signals?

I'm not fond of the HD Radio brand name in itself because the technology transmits a low bit-rate signal with audio encoded with a perceptual audio encoder. However, HD Radio is more marketable than IBOC or the previous Ibiquity name for the technology, iDAB. It also ties into the consumer acceptance of the term HDTV, which also conveys the �digital is better� idea that consumers have been taught. But unlike the TV counterpart, the radio technology does not provide a signal with higher definition, hence my reservation.

Wired isn't the only one to blame. Similar misnomers have appeared in Popular Mechanics, USA Today, the Motley Fool and others.

Regardless of what the technology is called, unless broadcasters and manufacturers use the same name, the listeners will only be confused.

I conducted some field research and visited a few local electronics dealers in Kansas City. Doing my best to act like a barely informed consumer, I asked about digital radios. Of course satellite radio was the first option presented. (It seems that terrestrial radio has already lost fight.) I steered the sales people to terrestrial, digital receivers without using the terms IBOC, HD Radio or the dreaded high-definition radio. I was told the that the receivers did not exist, that stores had head units but not the receiver unit or that the store had no plans to carry these units.

There are at least six stations in Kansas City transmitting HD Radio signals, yet the stores can't help me. The radio industry has its work cut out for itself.

To make digital radio a consumer success, the marketing efforts need to come from the broadcasters, the consumer equipment manufacturers and the consumer electronics dealers. These efforts need a unified message, which starts with a single, consistent name.