Every so often, iBiquity Digital Corporation CEO Robert Struble pens a column on iBiquity’s corporate website. His latest missive actually (and unintentionally) puts a very fine point on the malaise that is the U.S. digital radio transition.
"The one constant for all successful media transitions has been the passage of time, and that patient strategy is working for HD Radio Technology as well," writes Struble. He claims that HD receiver penetration is on a strong upward trend, with a new digital radio sold "every six seconds."
As I’ve written before, such claims are specious: iBiquity will not provide raw data on receiver sales, so there’s no way to fact-check them. According to Struble’s latest column, there are more than 13 million HD receivers in circulation—most of them found in new cars and trucks that include HD compatibility as standard equipment. This passive uptake tells us nothing about actual listener engagement. According to Arbitron’s most recent radio-listening overview, 5.4 million people listen to an HD Radio station weekly. So less than half of all HD receivers sold are actually used: that speaks volumes.
But Struble’s big news is his discovery of the "innovative" use of analog FM translators to relay HD programming. "In effect, it’s like getting another unique analog FM signal for a tiny fraction of the cost of a new station," he writes. "Get that translator’s antenna up high enough, and it’s basically a new [station] for the cost of the HD Radio upgrade."
There are two fatal flaws to this logic. The first is Struble’s apparent misunderstanding of what FM translator stations actually are. Simply put, translators are an extremely finite resource. While there has been an explosion of new translator stations in the last 10 years—part of which has been fueled by HD-adopters seeking some sort of return-on-investment—this boom is now drawing to a close. The FCC only accepts applications for new translators during designated filing windows (the last of which was in 2003) and there is no new window on the horizon.
Thus the vast majority of available translator stations for this scheme are already in play, and it costs a pretty penny to play—a point Struble acknowledges by referencing the "large and small local and national operators who own multiple translators (think religious broadcasters) that have been willing to sell or lease them"—for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. That’s remarkable considering that FM translator stations are a secondary service in the eyes of the FCC: they must accept interference from neighboring full-power FM stations and can even be bumped off the air by them. It doesn’t happen often, but this risk should be factored into any translator investment.
The second flaw is the belief that putting digital-only programming on analog translators entices anyone to migrate over to HD Radio itself. Struble brags that, over the last two years, two-thirds of all new HD station-implementations "have involved an HD Radio-on-Translator initiative." If the prime selling point for adopting FM-HD technology is to feed programming to an analog outlet, that does not say much about the merits of HD itself as radio’s future end-state.
In the end, Struble thinks of the HD-on-translator strategy as "training wheels that allow a seamless transition from analog to digital while bringing listeners along for the ride." He believes it will help solve HD Radio’s perennial chicken/egg problem, in which broadcasters are reticent to go digital because nobody’s listening.
As a broadcast strategy, it’s a clever loophole to acquire additional analog stations in saturated markets or provide a niche format that would be unprofitable on a real, full-power FM station. It’s also a pretty convoluted way to try and turn a dime, and does nothing to advance the inherent utility of HD Radio itself. I understand that Struble’s position requires him to be a glass-half-full kind of guy, and he has invested nearly 20 years of his career in the HD system—but I do have to wonder just what’s in the glass these days.