John Proffitt of KAKM/KSKA in Anchorage (not the John Proffitt of KUHF in Houston) and I attended a briefing on HD Radio developments at the recent Western States Public Radio conference. John is skeptical about some of the applications being developed for these radios and recently sent me an email about it which he's consented to let me post as a "guest column:"
... [S]ome of the blue-sky propositions [being] offered ... [sound] to me like a replay of the Digital TV blue-sky proposals of recent years -- even though the discussion was preceded by a disclaimer that HD Radio proponents wouldn't make the same mistakes.
You mentioned IP-based audio (radio) services, which apparently was a surprise to some portion of the audience. But I think that makes far more sense for several reasons:
1. HD Radio's vaunted data-oriented possibilities are largely solutions in search of problems, at least to me. Audio programming is, to some degree, a passive medium much like television in that you tune in and listen, but don't interact. Adding all kinds of buttons and functions to a radio in the car would likely seem alien to the general public (isn't that what the navigation system is for?). Additional audio channels make loads of sense, but other features (beyond perhaps simple text add-ons) seem out of character for the medium in general. Isn't this why Steve Jobs is so careful about adding new features to the iPod? Keep it simple and elegant, right?
2. Interactive services (traffic info, directions, news tickers, data downloads, etc.) will be better provided via other devices and services -- services that will be paid for, not free. Other companies with profit motives will provide these services and the devices required for interactive systems (cell phone service providers, WiMax ISPs). The notion that public broadcasters could afford to hire staff or buy third party information services to activate this HD Radio-based data platform seems financially impossible, given all the other platforms we will be asked to serve. Others with money and resources will beat us to this punch. After all, why would General Motors make a deal with literally hundreds of independent public broadcasters with limited when they could make a deal with one company (ClearChannel) with greater reach or one WiMax provider (Sprint) with even greater reach?
3. IP-based audio streams can be as good as if not better than HD Radio services, and will be made available as WiMax (and variants) are widely deployed. Traditional terrestrial radio will by no means vanish from the earth, but HD Radio's value proposition will be blunted by the availability of other platforms -- especially platforms that were designed for two-way interactivity and multiplicity of functions. Not to mention that HD Radio will be available only as far as your FCC license permits while IP radio will travel as far as your handheld multifunction communications device.
4. Finally, HD Radio's proposed "possibilities" seem out of touch to me because of the sheer proliferation of communication platforms in general. When FM was introduced, it was basically just another way to do one-way radio. It took decades to take over, but it did it in a world of three mass media platforms (print, TV, AM radio). FM had time to make its mark, and the public didn't have to learn anything new (though they did have to buy new receivers). HD Radio's propositions seem bound in this FM radio world view -- the idea that it will reach near-ubiquity because FM radio did. But HD Radio is entering a market that has not three major mass media platforms, but perhaps 10 or more (depending on how you count). Not to mention that one of the mass platforms out there today -- the Internet -- is not a medium but a transport system that can carry ANY medium. Why should I, as a consumer, adapt my listening habits and spend more money on a media format that's basically an update of the 20th century's greatest hit when I could simply shift over to a multimedia device that can get me audio, video, text and still photos and has a wider reach than any one radio station?
All this said, I do think an HD Radio rollout is called for, if for no other reason than multicasting. I'm just deeply concerned that the "neat" stuff HD Radio "could" do is oversold and cannot possibly deliver -- not technologically, but in terms of market acceptance.
Thanks, John. For my earlier comments on HD vs. IP radio, suggesting the two could be combined, see "HD Radio" is both less and more than you think. --Dennis