Believe it or not, there are still some U.S. broadcasters tinkering with the HD Radio protocol. One of the latest is Rick Sewell, the manager of engineering for Crawford Broadcasting’s stations in Chicago.
His latest project involved implementing HD’s “Artist Experience” feature – this is a fancy name for what is basically radio with pictures. AE allows HD-compatible stations to send album artwork and advertiser-images to digital radio receivers along with the audio programming; these are things that digital-native audio streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify mastered years ago.
There’s no coordinated drive from the broadcast industry to implement Artist Experience, and HD’s proprietor, Xperi Corporation, isn’t actively marketing the technology to broadcasters much anymore. Apparently, one of Sewell’s colleagues was down in Atlanta and got a rental-car with an HD-compatible receiver. This guy stumbled across a station that had implemented AE and thought, “we should do this too.”
Thus began Sewell’s saga. He’d initially hoped that he would have time to explore the HD system in more detail, but station management had already started pitching the Artist Experience opportunity to advertisters. The first step was to make sure that the HD airchain of the station on which AE would be deployed was totally up to date. That got figured out after Sewell got over his own “ignorance as well as some misinformation along the way.”
Next came implementing the additional software necessary to generate and feed Artist Experience images and text into the HD system. After spending “a day or so” trying to figure out how to configure it to feed the AE information reliably and adding a “DOS-type program” into the mix in order to make sure audio program and image-streams were properly in sync, the master HD system software settings had to be modified in order to accommodate the new data.
Interestingly, Xperi was not a useful resource for figuring this out: Sewell notes that the company referred him to other broadcast engineers who’ve navigated this process. The equipment manufacturers who sold him the HD transmission gear, and the makers of the third-party software necessary to implement Artist Experience, were also helpful. Xperi’s documentation “had a lot of in-depth terminology for various aspects. . .but it didn’t really have any step-by-step instructions” for putting all the AE pieces together in a functional manner.”
Even once he got all the info he thought he needed, Sewell was stymied by errors logging into the HD system in order to configure it for AE data. “[B]eyond just the username and password, there was also a service token, which had to be right for the service to even be created,” he wrote. “I didn’t see service tokens even addressed anywhere in the material I was supplied.
“During this timeframe, I found myself going in circles trying to get various support departments to help. When I called the equipment manufacturer with some of these questions, they pointed me to Xperi to get help. When I called Xperi, they responded by saying that they didn’t work directly with individual radio stations; that I would have to talk to the equipment manufacturer. This was a circle of frustration and lack of information.”
Finally, after many more convolutions, Sewell got AE data to display on his station. But it wasn’t syncing properly with the audio that played, and seemed to cut off the display-time of the advertiser-data that inspired this whole saga. Fortunately, one of the software-developers in this mix “went to work right away and wrote a beta version” of the program he needed to make things work properly.
After monitoring the system “for weeks” and still noticing bugs that interrupted the display-time of advertisements, more troubleshooting took place and finally the Artist Experience experience began working as advertised. Two stations in Crawford’s Chicago cluster now have Artist Experience enabled, while the other two will get it “eventually.”
HD Radio technology was introduced to U.S. broadcasters nearly two decades ago. The capability to display still images along with audio has been consistently touted by its developers and backers as a key functionality that would help analog radio make the digital transition.
But we’ve seen several problems with the implementation of the basic HD transmission system over the years, including difficulties getting the analog and digital program signals to sync up in time. With regard to Artist Experience, Sewell found himself having to work with three different software developers/service providers in addition to Xperi and the manufacturer of his HD transmitter in order to get the information he needed in order to make the thing work. This included one of the developers writing a custom, untested piece of software to take care of some of the problems that were encountered!
The HD system was compromised by design; issues in its installation and configuration have plagued the technology since its inception. While it does seem that most FM-adopters have gotten the basics down when it comes to concurrently transmitting an analog and digital signal, it’s surprising to know that the application which has been touted as one of HD’s defining features is still an absolute kluge to implement. Not only is that a warning-sign for other potential adopters of HD, but it’s not a scaleable system for those conglomerates who have invested the most in this technology.
According to the FCC’s broadcast-license database, there are 1,923 FM stations that have notified the agency that they have or plan to broadcast in HD. The FCC’s latest station-count reports that 12,871 full- and low-power FM stations are on the air. Even though there’s no way to confirm that all the stations which have reported running an HD signal are actually doing it, the most generous interepretation of this data puts FM-HD’s station-penetration at just under 15% – functionally unchanged over the course of at least the last 10 years.
And how many of those stations have implemented Artist Experience? Again, being generous, just a small fraction of this fraction. Hopefully, Rick Sewell documented his saga so future engineers have a somewhat easier time with it…but of course the information won’t be universally useful as there’s no standardized hardware/software combination across stations that have implemented the HD system (save for Xperi’s core HD software itself).
Just how much can a major-market station make for displaying advertiser images in connection with digital audio? Given the investment of Sewell’s (and many others’) time in order to just get Artist Experience to function properly, here’s hoping that return is large. But that’s highly unlikely: rather, this experience is yet another cautionary tale about just how far modern U.S. (commercial) broadcasters are willing to go to capture every penny they can as other, more future-friendly audio distribution platforms eat their lunch.