Share this article

print logo

After 13 years, inventor waits for HD radio to break out

In 1999, when West Seneca native Robert Struble helped to launch IBiquity Digital, the nation's first digital radio corporation, he knew that selling the public on HD radio would take time.

After all, it took 40 years for AM radio listeners to tune into the FM dial. And a quarter-century passed before viewers of black-and-white television took to the NBC peacock.

Hybrid Digital radio, with its superior sound and reception -- and the ability to squeeze more channels into one frequency -- should be an obvious part of this digital media age. Yet after 13 years, HD radio has failed to match its expectations -- for many reasons.

"I don't think the industry has done a good job promoting it," said Joseph Puma, vice president, engineering and technology, for WNED broadcasting. "And I don't think IBiquity is getting manufacturers to make receivers for it. Table radios have not gone below $100, and most people don't want to pay that for a clock radio. If you were a classical music aficionado, you may be more apt to buy it."

WNED-FM (94.5) Buffalo-Toronto hopes its listeners will jump on the HD wagon by offering one-year free memberships (valued at $35) to those who buy a table-top HD radio after March 1, 2012, according to Megan M. Wagner, director of corporate communications.

WNED's offer comes shortly after its acquisition of WBFO 88.7 FM from the University at Buffalo. Two HD bands on the 88.7 FM frequency are HD1, broadcasting National Public Radio, and HD-2, broadcasting JazzWorks.

"That's a cool promotion," said Struble, IBiquity's chief executive officer, from his Maryland home.

IBiquity is a developer of digital HD radio technology that was approved by the Federal Communications Commission in October 2002. The corporation was formed in 1999 after investors from the major broadcasting companies, including Clear Channel, Viacom and ABC, agreed to help bankroll and promote the technology.

Struble, a West Seneca West High School grad, moved to Boston in the early '80s to study engineering at MIT and earned an MBA from Harvard University.

"I always laugh that a couple of years ago I got an invitation to celebrate 25 years of digital television," said Struble. "These things take time. There's a massive install base of existing analog radios. There's a massive infrastructure of existing analog radio stations. [But] we have tremendous momentum and we're picking up steam."

More than 2,100 digital stations are on the air today, according to Wireless News. Each of the top 250 markets has at least one HD radio station, according to Struble. Buffalo has at least 12 HD radio stations.

Unlike satellite radio, which requires listeners to pay subscription fees, HD radio is free, but people must first get a radio with an HD receiver.

Tom Donahue, a veteran radio broadcaster who teaches at Buffalo State College, said, "HD has had its struggles, for the most part because people are not willing to buy another radio to pick it up," he said. "Television was a different animal. Once cable became a way of life, people were willing to pay a couple of extra bucks a month for television programs they couldn't get anywhere else."

Radio reaches more than 236 million people ages 12 and older in an average week, according to News Generation, a radio public relations firm in Bethesda, Md. Most adults -- 73.1 percent -- listen in the car.

"Cars appear to be IBiquity's push over the past two years," noted Puma of WNED. "Up until recently, [HD car radios] were considered optional, but in the past couple of years they have found their way to standard."

At the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in April, it was announced that HD radio will be standard equipment on the 2013 Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave. According to Struble, that brings the number of automotive brands offering HD radio to 28.

"Long gone are the days where it was just BMW, Mercedes and Land Rover," said Struble. "Chevy, Ford, Hyundai, Toyota and Volkswagen are mass market products."

HD broadcasts, meanwhile, are breaking out in more formats. In Boston, WBOS-FM 92.9 is broadcasting "RadioYou Boston," featuring content programmed by college-age residents. Niche-oriented broadcasters also are leasing HD frequency space for comedy and ethnic programming.

"Those programs may not be supportable on a standalone analog station," said Struble. "There's not enough money to be made from people listening to Caribbean music, but those things make sense on HD."

Some heritage rock stations -- including Buffalo's WLKK-FM 107.7 TheLake -- have found a second life on HD.

"Give it a try," said WNED's Puma. "The extra channels are worth the effort ... You'll have four or five stations you didn't know existed."