Static be gone: Radio goes digital

In August, the oldest US broadcast medium breaks new ground - better sound and new features

This summer's biggest radio hit may not be a pop single, but a new service.

When new digital radio - or HD Radio, named after its cousin HDTV (high definition television) - comes to US stores in August, it could change the whole soundscape of the nation. Formerly lower-quality AM radio will sound like stereo FM. FM will sound more like a compact disc.

As local radio stations put the new service on the air, listeners with HD-equipped radio receivers can expect to hear an immediate improvement.

"On AM, the improvement will be startling. On FM even listeners with 'educated ears' will have a hard time detecting the difference between HD Radio and their favorite CD," says Andy Laird of the Journal Broadcast Group.

But while many stations are installing and testing the new system for between $100,000 and $500,000 apiece, some broadcasters aren't sold on the idea. "We took a good look at [HD Radio] and decided that we could not justify the cost of conversion at the present time for any of our 22 stations," says Dennis Orcutt of Renda Broadcasting in Pittsburgh. "[We're going] to hold off and see how the industry and consumers take to this new technology."

As the nation's oldest wireless medium, radio has been woven into the fabric of everyday life since its advent in 1903. Today, with HD Radio's expanded capacities, new uses are only beginning to be envisioned.

HD Radio works like this: To listen to the service, consumers need new - and relatively inexpensive - radio equipment adaptable to both the HD system and old analog radio. Then, when they tune in to a station providing the signal, at first they'll hear the old analog signal. Then, after about seven seconds, the signal switches over to HD and "the sound suddenly expands out in all directions," Mr. Laird says.

Because the HD Radio signal is concealed within the AM and FM radio programming already being broadcast over local radio stations, if listeners opt not to buy the new HD radios their old ones will continue to work just fine. Only at some future point, if HD Radio stations decide to go completely digital, could analog radios become obsolete.

Unlike satellite radio, which charges listeners a subscription fee, the only cost to HD Radio listeners will be for new radio gear. Broadcasters will pick up the rest of the tab, in the form of new broadcasting equipment and licensing fees. A Columbia, Md., company called iBiquity will be the sole provider of the technology, which was approved by the Federal Communications Commission last October.

"Terrestrial radio is really the only remaining medium not to be all digital," says Dave Salemi, iBiquity's vice president of marketing. "HD Radio now propels radio into the digital age" both in terms of sound quality and possible communications with other new technologies. New radios coming out this summer, for example, will include an informational display showing song title and artist, or other text messages such as emergency alerts.

Second-generation FM radios will have even more features, including on-demand local traffic and weather updates automatically sent to car receivers. Additional data channels could even tie car radios to a Global Positioning System receiver that would supply information about restaurants, hotels, and other attractions within blocks of the car's location at any given moment.

"The future on-demand audio function will also allow listeners to repeat songs they just heard, or even play the end of a program they missed when they had to leave their car for work," says Mr. Salemi.

Still, broadcasters say, there are definite drawbacks. The high cost of installation may put the service out of reach for smaller stations. And as with all new technologies, there are kinks to work out: Since January, some broadcasters have said the sound quality of the AM system is not up to snuff, and have put their plans to install HD Radio on hold until the issue is resolved.

What's more, initially AM stations will be allowed to broadcast HD Radio only during the day, due to potential interference with other stations at night. Though this hurdle is likely to be overcome as the AM system is refined, and though higher audio quality across the board may level the playing field between AM and competing FM stations, many small-station owners are still holding, with Sam Stemm of tiny WBGZ-AM in Alton, Ill. "My attitude right now is wait and see," he says.

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