There’ve been some interesting developments in the digital radio realm over the last couple of months. The one that’s gotten the most press is Norway’s decision to begin shutting down its FM radio stations in favor of its DAB/DAB+ digital radio network. This has been a long time in coming, first proposed in 2015 by the Norwegian government and with buy-in from the country’s national broadcasters. That’s an important point, because the FM-shutdown, as reported in various press outlets, insinuates that all FM broadcasting in Norway is being silenced immediately.
Not true: the shutdown of stations that began this month, and continues incrementally throughout this year, only affects the country’s national broadcasters; local FM stations have at least another five years on the air before they, too, may be asked to cede the analog airwaves. A lot can happen in those years…at present, the popular sentiment in Norway about the FM shutdown is running 2-to-1 against it, especially as the analog stations disappear, their coverage areas are not served by DAB/DAB+ to the same extent as they were with plain ol’ FM, and Norwegians find themselves forced to buy digital receivers to stay engaged with radio.
It comes as no surprise that American journalists, seeing themselves at the center of the universe, would pose the question: could such an analog/digital shutdown happen here? If they were more knowledgeable about the digital radio technologies that exist they’d know the answer is no, as the U.S. has elected to use its own homegrown and proprietary digital radio technology, whose adoption is entirely voluntary. There’s also the fact that Norway only has a population of five million people — equivalent to the state of Wisconsin – and navigating a shutdown in a nation with 64 times the residents means an entirely different transition-mechanmism, which hasn’t even been seriously consered by any constituency here.
If you’d rather not take my word for it, how about Christopher Ornelas, the chief operating officer of the National Association of Broadcasters? In a blog post published earlier this month, his answer to the analog-shutoff idea in the United States is “No. No. A thousand times – no. . . .It’s just not going to happen, in my lifetime or yours.” Ornelas notes all the same metrics, but ends with the assertion that our HD Radio system is qualitatively better than what the rest of the world is pursuing, and that its foothold here is strong.
Those last two assertions are whopping lies wrapped in a passel of truth. At present, just 15% of all radio stations in the United States broadcast in HD; its deployment is concentrated in larger markets, while early-adopters in smaller markets are in some respects abandoning the technology (by not replacing transmitters with HD capability when they reach the end of their lifespans). Listenership to HD signals is barely quantifiable, and then boosted by the fact that many broadcasters simulcast their digital programming on an analog outlet such as an FM translator, marketing these as “new” stations when reality it’s just a convoluted form of spectrum-recycling.
And for that, you need look no further than Radio World’s latest “special edition” on the state of HD Radio. In past years, these publications have featured a variety of commentary (both positive and critical) about the technology and its prospects. Now, Radio World’s gone the unfortunate route of attempting to pimp as opposed to explore or explain.
That said, it didn’t turn out as expected: “HD Radio and the Case for ROI [Return on Investment]” is a farly damning indicement of the state of the technology. The entire issue is basically a litany of Q-and-As with industry “notables” that susprisingly all sing the same refrain: the U.S. digital radio transition is pretty much stuck in neutral, and the real money’s in repurposing digital content for use on analog spectrum, primarily through the use of FM translators. Consider these words from:
Bud Walters, president of the Cromwell Group: “Right now the translator is the end game. . .Most things we’re doing in our broadcast world today, you know, are really opportunistic. If we as licensees don’t try to think ahead, we’re never in a position to take advantage of those opportunities that the FCC offers.”
Chuck Kelly, director of sales for transmitter-manufacturer Nautel: “HD Radio is and always has been a transitional technology, a path for gradual transition from the analog past, through the hybrid analog and digital on the same frequency, to the fully digital future.”
Scott Alexander, president/CEO of Scott Communications and Alexander Broadcasting (clever): “There is still a problem with HD Radio being recognized, as far as the general public is concerned. For us to have made an investment into HD, we had to have translators to make it beneficial to us in the small-and medium-sized markets. When it comes to HD Radio and the general public, some are aware, but most still are not. Even to this day. A couple of weeks ago I was at a couple of car dealers, and they still don’t understand what they have in their products.”
Cris Alexander, director of engineering for Crawford Broadcasting: “I’m not sure that [the economics of HD radio work] in a traditional sense, unless it’s as a means of providing an entry point for an FM translator. In small, medium and even large markets, the impetus for making the HD Radio investment will often be to provide listeners with options and stay current with the available technologies. . . .
“HD Radio is an expensive upgrade by any measure, and opportunities for multicast leasing are few and far between in smaller markets as a function of low demand. There is also the very real issue of new program streams in a market making the pie pieces all smaller. Stations can end up hurting themselves by bringing on new signals, particularly third-party translators using multicast channels as their gateways. . . .Listeners are either unaware of HD Radio or they could take or leave it.”
Paul Brenner, president of the Broadcasters Traffic Consortium: “The ROI may not pay for their [digital] transmitter, as you might say; but it definitely puts some money in their pocket — enough to cover expenses for operating HD Radio and some extra money on top of that. . . .I think the growth curve on the auto side is yet to happen. That’s coming probably in the next one, two, three years, just by the nature of how long it takes. But I think the use of it is yet to really blossom. We’re early adopters.”
John Beck, senior vice president and market manager for Emmis St. Louis: “The best use of the [HD] space, I think, is to rent the frequencies, rent the space to people who can’t afford to buy a radio station. It could be religious groups, it could be ethnic groups, colleges, universities or any organization looking for access to an interest group in your area. . . .
“I think [HD Radio ROI] would exponentially go down as you go down in market size, just guessing, because you have fewer people and fewer varied interests. When you’re in a city the size of St. Louis, you’ve got pretty much every ethnic group looking for a way to get to their people, and other organizations that are looking for something they want to do to communicate to their people. But as you get into smaller market, [it’s] probably be [sic] harder to do. . . .
“For regular everyday radio advertisers I just don’t think there is that big of a desire in the marketplace for formats that we’re not providing already. You need to have enough critical mass, enough of an audience to be able to have an impact for advertisers or it’s not worth it.”
Anna Perkman, founder and owner of RUSA Radio, a russian-language commercial network that leases out HD subchannels for carriage: “Well I would not suggest for anyone to buy a HD Radio receiver for home — I think that’s a device that’s going to become obsolete. What we recommend for our listeners is just to buy a very inexpensive speaker that you can get now on Amazon between $7 and $10 which connects to your smartphone and everybody owns a smartphone these days … even though maybe not everybody has HD Radio in their cars, which is a little bit upsetting. It should be there already.
But I think a smartphone is definitely the radio of today, and the same thing even in the car. . . . [One problem: HD is not integrated into smartphones in any fashion, nor will it be anytime soon.]
“The only thing I think would be very important is that — HD changed hands, they [iBiquity Digital] were bought out, there is new ownership there. Since then it’s not as active in getting into more and more new vehicles. That [seemed like] the mission before and was pretty successful; I feel like there’s a little bit of a stop here. I think the most important thing is for HD to be accessible in cars, for as long radios are not going to become obsolete in cars. I am following the industry, and it’s very possible that eventually we’re not going to have the FM/AM dial in there; but at this point it’s not a definite; and we still believe in the radio.”
Greg Borgen, president of WDGY-AM, Hudson, Wisconsin: “In our particular world, I’m sitting here with a sunrise-to-sunset daytimer. How’s an all-HD, all-digital setup going to help us? Probably not. What’s going to help us the best is if we can have some kind of a nighttime issue addressed; and I don’t know if I’ll be around long enough to [see] a solution for that.”
Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media Strategies, on the “Artist Experience” feature of HD [i.e., radio-with-pictures]: “Interestingly, many radio execs and managers aren’t even aware this technology exists, signaling an opportunity for the HD Radio team to maximize value by focusing its efforts toward this Artist Experience technology.”
All in all, not the most emphatic endorsement of the HD system, even though I’m sure Radio World tried – and when positives are offered, they focus primarily on the analog backdoor that HD provides, or on some of its features that have nothing to do with the primary mission of a radio station to provide meaningful audio content. That’s a mission that many in the U.S. radio industry have abandoned for more than two decades now, so it’s not a surprise that this is where we are.
In sum, the U.S. may be generations away from a full-on analog-to-digital radio transition. But by that time, will broadcasting as we’ve known it even be popular or relevant enough to maintain a semblance of financial viaibility? In many respects, the seeds for the industry’s declining fortunes were planted long before HD came on the scene, and under current conditions its use is more akin to fracking: squeeze every drop out of your precious resource to maintain the illusion of growth, regardless of the cost to your media environment.