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News of the Moment

9/8/14 - Getting Beyond the HD Love/Hate Relationship [link to this story]

[Earlier this summer, Radio World invited me to write a guest commentary on HD Radio, in the run-up to this week's NAB Radio Show in Indianapolis. It will appear in the September 10 issue.]

After spending several years assembling the definitive history of HD Radio's development and proliferation, I've learned some uncomfortable truths.

It is indeed true that the system was developed primarily as a gambit to preserve the radio industry's perceived control over its own destiny. It is also true that industry organizations and the FCC had to perform some substantial convolutions, like actively redefining what "channel" and "interference" mean, to accommodate HD Radio on the public airwaves.

The FCC itself, wholly focused on the economics of policymaking above all else, erroneously interpreted the coalition of HD proponents—a group that controlled the majority of industry revenue in critical alliance with public broadcasters—as industry consensus. And iBiquity's business model, ripped straight from Microsoft's playbook, killed any natural enthusiasm most broadcasters might have otherwise had for HD Radio.

Here in the pages of Radio World, there has been a relatively vibrant discussion of digital radio over the last two decades. You can watch the tenor of stories and commentaries evolve over time, from dreamy optimism to anxious skepticism. Now the discourse is horribly polarized: those who speak highly of HD are all-in and consider its triumph inevitable. Critics of the technology seem to think it's the End of the World As We Know It—a conspiracy of sorts designed to assimilate all broadcasters under one corporate mothership. Supporters call critics "haters" and "naysayers," while critics think supporters are "shills" or worse.

Meanwhile, in the quarter-century since Project Acorn first took root, the very definition of what radio itself is has been fundamentally transformed, and there's a lot of collective hand wringing about what that means. One thing is clear: HD Radio is not the primary avenue by which broadcasting will make its digital transition.

By this point, you've probably labeled me an HD hater or naysayer. But you're wrong: I love radio and have been involved in broadcasting since I was 15. That love transcends your industry. When it comes to HD Radio, what I am most concerned about is the malaise that surrounds it, and how that malaise actively interferes with radio’s digital transition more broadly.

Whether you are a lover or hater, you can’'t ignore the malaise, and nobody's happy with the status quo. In my book, I highlight three possible avenues for change:

Commit to making HD Radio "work." The IBOC transmission system is built on a series of compromises that dramatically limits its attractiveness and utility. The fact that it works at all is a significant accomplishment in and of itself. Some of these compromises might be rectified in HD's all-digital mode—but even then, nobody expects a quantum leap. Other compromises can be wholly reversed today: for example, iBiquity's business model is not a force of nature, and has strangled innovation.

Making HD Radio "work" could mean many different things. It might mean committing to an all-digital transition, because marketplace forces alone are not working. It might mean reconfiguring the primary motive of HD to prioritize meaningful functionality over chimerical profitability. It might also mean considering technological tweaks to the system that exist outside of iBiquity's black box.

Regardless, any efforts in this direction must be built on open and transparent collaboration—the past practice of closed-door testing and deliberation among select industry and regulatory players has produced bad science and bad blood. If the hottest fire makes for the strongest steel, then HD proponents should embrace creative thinking and a wider discourse. What is there to lose?

Consider alternative digital broadcast technologies. In the FCC’s ongoing AM Revitalization initiative, a surprising number of commenters suggested the agency consider Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) as a digital broadcast system alternative. DRM faces many implementation challenges of its own, and does not offer a hybrid mode. But it does provide a qualitative improvement to analog broadcasting that HD struggles with, and comes with no silly licensing-baggage attached.

The stated position of the FCC is to deny that HD alternatives even exist, and HD proponents would perceive any sharing of spectrum with another system as dangerous balkanization that diminishes their investments. But this is not the 1980s and AM Stereo all over again: interoperable digital radio transmitters and receiver chips exist. Countries in Europe that began their digital radio transition with DAB but are now moving to DAB+ have figured out the retrofit process. Such a consideration need not be the death knell of HD Radio—it could be just the sort of competitive jolt the system needs.

Prepare to cede the public airwaves. There’s no guarantee that AM and FM radio will exist indefinitely. Just ask television broadcasters: today, the value of DTV spectrum as a medium for something other than broadcasting supersedes its legacy use, which is why the FCC seeks to reclaim wide swaths of it. This is not some radical notion from the ivory tower: in 2011, NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith told Radio World that while there was no immediate similar threat to radio, "if they can do it to your neighbor, they can do it to you eventually."

New technologies and networks simply cannot replicate the intimacy, immediacy and reach of broadcasting, yet its potential diminution has implications that most futurologists, enamored with the new, haven’t fully grasped. Better to control that evolution than to suffer it because of bad strategic decisions made a long time ago.

I'll be attending the NAB Radio Show in Indianapolis in hopes of having some interesting conversations on the future of radio and its digital transition. I'm not interested in perpetuating the love/hate dichotomy. I come in peace. And I'm as curious and concerned about the future of radio as you are. Let's brainstorm.

9/2/14 - GM Backs Away from HD: Industry Yawns? [link to this story]

After breaking the story about General Motors abandoning HD Radio in several makes and models, I watched with interest to see what the industry reaction would be.

First the damage control. Radio World gave iBiquity Senior Vice President Joe D'Angelo the chance to try and put some positive spin on this development. He calls it a "slowdown in adoption," but says it's only temporary, and claimed that 40% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S.come with HD Radio.

Of course, there's no way to confirm that number, but with iBiquity's history of fudging on this front it's safe to assume it's puffery. The whole notion of a temporary hiatus is also absurd—auto manufacturers lock down a vehicle's features more than a year before they actually start building it. Thus it is also safe to assume that GM had been planning this for a while.

I also wonder if this has anything to do with iBiquity's ongoing legal wrangling with OEM parts mega-supplier Continental Automotive over HD Radio license fees. For those just tuning in, Continental disputes the expense of iBiquity's license fees on HD receiver componentry, and stopped paying them last year. Now iBiquity is suing Continental for that money and the company's compliance with its licensing terms. This could be a case of Continental upping the ante in that beef...but without any evidence, it's pure speculation.

Automotive industry analyst Roger Lanctot remains bullish on HD Radio. He says that "just as many GM 'platforms' are adding HD radio as are dropping," though he provides no evidence for this claim. He also thinks that HD will make a return as part of GM's efforts to provide real-time traffic information to drivers. The provision of such data via HD signals is relatively well-established in many major urban areas, but competition from satellite and IP-based providers is fierce.

Contrast that with Tampa Bay Lightning director of broadcasting Matt Sammon, who blogs that HD Radio faces an existential threat. His perspective sounds a lot like my book: underwhelming technology, lack of new content, lack of broadcaster and receiver manufacturer support. Reality is not pretty: "if HD Radio doesn't see what’s going on, doesn’t re-brand and reinvent, and doesn’t aggressively try to put out better content, then it will go the way of other period technology."

Mark Ramsey weighs in as chief critic, calling HD Radio "A digital solution grafted onto an analog expectation with a jumble of unpredictably random Frankenstein products indifferent to consumer tastes built by and for the broadcasters which finance it." He encourages the industry to take the GM development as an opportunity to think beyond AM and FM: "From the consumer’s perspective, there is no such thing as 'over-the-air radio' per se....Over-the-air radio is a slice of a channel of distribution in a sea of distribution channels battling for the nexus of content and attention."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the industry reaction to the GM news is the relative lack of it. Hopefully this will be a topic at the upcoming NAB Radio Show in Indianapolis next week. By then, the technology's apologists may have their spin under better control.

8/26/14 - AM and HD Fading from Some Vehicles [link to this story]

When Radio Ink publisher Eric Rhoads breathlessly reported in March 2013 that auto manufacturers were considering doing away with AM/FM radios in their glass dashboards, the reaction was disbelief. But new developments are undeniable: BMW announced the specs of two of its new electric vehicles earlier this month, and neither include AM radio (or a CD player).

BMW says the cars' electric motor interferes with AM reception. Could this become a trend among other electric-powered vehicles? Broadcasters obviously hope not, and the NAB has reached out to BMW asking it to reconsider. Coupled with Disney's recent decision to get out of AM broadcasting, one wonders if the oldest broadcast band is inexorably shuffling toward obsolescence.

It would also seem that something similar may be happening with HD Radio. General Motors has removed HD functionality from a wide array of 2015 vehicles, including the Chevy Traverse, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra, Chevy Impala, Buick Enclave, and Buick Regal. Many (but not all) of these makes and models will have wireless broadband connectivity added to their infotainment stacks.

Earlier this spring, Consumer Reports highlighted HD Radio as a feature to avoid when buying a new car. Presumably GM is reacting to market demands—and if so, it does not portend well for the malaise that is HD adoption. There's been no reaction yet from iBiquity or the NAB on these developments.

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