Thursday, August 25, 2005

If we are going to bring on the digital revolution through "HD Radio", why not actually make High Definition Radios?

A recent discussion thread on, involving AM IBOC HD Radio, got me to thinking about the lowest common denominator problem (LCD) and how it might actually suggest a solid solution we all can live with, going forward with HD Radio IBOC technology on both AM and FM.

Most AM radios today are built to mask off all but the most basic audio in an attempt to trade complexity for reliability. If the audio is narrow, noise and crosstalk issues are kept to a minimum.

While this idea has increased reliability, the resulting loss in overall audio quality leaves much to be desired and an AM band not working to potential. Broadcasters deliver everything from the best quality audio to marginal audio. The listener experience varies considerably as well. Some receivers sound better than others do, and it is often difficult to know what to expect from a given receiver / broadcast combination.

We are not setting and managing expectations, and we should be.

HD Radio does provide a unique chance to really address the LCD problem this time around and encourage the best overall radio experience instead of the least acceptable one, on AM.

The new HD radios are not going to be as simple as ordinary analog radios were capable of being. This is a good thing in that we get the chance to set some expectations that will benefit everyone involved. HD Radio is the one chance we have to reintroduce radio to people and actually get it right this time.

Some level of listener education is going to be required if HD radio is to see the level of success required to remain viable over the longer term. If this is not done, listeners are likely to simply ignore HD and continue using analog radios. If this occurs in high enough numbers, receiver manufacturers are going to simply do to HD Radio what they have done to AM radio in general; namely, build the least capable units and sell them for the highest cost they can get.

This benefits none of us.

Where AM radio is concerned, the idea seems to be to ignore the analog compatability and quality issues, hoping the digital will just be accepted. This approach might be somewhat cheaper and easier, than what I propose is, however it does carry with it a lot of unnecessary risk and waste as well. The risk lies in a spoiled first impression and the waste being lots of existing radios rendered increasingly useless for reasons already well known.

Interestingly, the LCD issue means we are going to be dealing with analog radio for a very long time yet, because it will take time for the technology to work through it's own issues and for listeners to understand the changes and how to take best advantage of them.

The same line of reasoning that says we have to deal with narrowband radios also brings with it the reality that not everyone is going to be happy about HD radio. If we accept lowest common denominator problem as being the cause for poor quality AM analog radio today, then we must also accept the tradeoffs inherent in HD radio will cause listeners to fall back to analog, if their experience with HD does not match their expectations. Given the number of known tradeoffs, we can expect a set of listeners to continue to prefer analog radio into the forseeable future.

Digital artifiacts, more complex radio interfaces and potential coverage issues all will harm HD radio the same way that cross talk and noise harmed AM radio. The resulting divided listenership will benefit nobody, if allowed to fester beyond the current crop of early adopters and radio professionals.

Rather than simply power through and deliver a less than perfect digital solution today, I suggest we redefine what HD radio really means. The primary advantage being that we do not have to paint analog into a legacy corner until the time has truly come to do so. That time is not today.

Ibiquity has stated HD does not stand for "high definition". Despite this claim, the average person is going to associate the HD moniker with high definition because the television industry already set that expecation. In addition, the word "Digital" has already set similar expectations as well. The industry itself has justified the implementation of HD Radio, using quality as a primary benefit, despite the overall quality being simply different than analog radio, not necesssarly better.

Instead of spinning the tradeoffs surrounding IBOC digital radio, into a war of sorts against digital and analog, we should just spend a little more today actually making very good quality, high definition, digital radios a reality.

So, what does that mean exactly. Glad you asked.

I propose a real "High Definition Digital Radio" do the following things:

Support AM Stereo, narrow and wide, mono, and IBOC. Because the radios are really computers, smart defaults, combined with some focus group studies and user interface interaction studies, will yield a better radio experience, no matter the modulation technique.

DSP technology can address a *lot* of existing analog AM issues. Since it comes for free, with IBOC, we are all fools for failing to make the best use of it right now.

Apply the DSP technology to the FM side of things as well, improving the quality of analog broadcasts where it is possible to do so.

Do the above programatically in order to keep the user experience as simple as possible while keeping overall quality as high as is possible, regardless of modulation technique used at the broadcast station.

Remember, one only gets to make first impressions once. No matter your position on IBOC, the success of HD radio is as much about managing that first impression and the expectations that come with it, as it is dealing with the technical issues. Take a moment and go read some of the customer reviews on the current HD radios being sold by Crutchfield and others. You will find them mixed, with some listeners happy and others unhappy.

This, more than all the technical discussions and politics, suggests the basic need for simple, quality radios will not be met with existing HD Radios any more than it currently is with ordinary analog radios. This begs the following rather obvious questions:

Why are we making new, expensive radios that still fail to satisfy the needs of a majority of the listeners?

If these needs are not met, in a very high percentage of listeners minds, why buy them? Does it make sense to ask people to re-purchase new and expensive radios, when the content received has a fair chance of not being substantially different, quality wise, than it was before?

The key here happens to be the word "Digital". A radio, using digital technology to enhance analog audio broadcasts is just as digital as a radio decoding highly compressed digital audio broadcasts. In essence, we are making what would otherwise be a minor technical distinction in the eyes of the average radio listener, a major cause for conflict and confusion that benefits none of us.

Put simply, I propose radios that bear the HD Radio moniker, reproduce all broadcasts, analog or not, with the highest fidelity possible. Doing this makes it very easy to explain to people just what an HD Radio is and why they would want to purchase one. It also helps clarify the growing confusion surrounding the multicasts, all bearing obscure identifiers, such as: KCXX-2, Jammin' HD2, WNKO1, etc... being prime examples.

This benefits listeners because HD radios will make *any* radio station sound far better than it does today. That's a simple, easily stated and understood value proposition that will do more to help HD Radio succeed than any amount of technical and poltical wrangling will.

Broadcasters are covered on AM because the new radios would all support the various choices. Everybody involved knows there is no fix all for AM. Why not enable the various choices in the new radios so that broadcasters have every chance to succeed?

Ibiquity benefits because doing these things not only quiets the critics, but adds a *lot* of value to their IP. Their investors are looking for that payback, and this only sweetens the pot for them.

The FCC also benefits because the improved array of choices on AM will provide solid solutions to the many problems that are going to arise from the use of HD radio on the band.

This, in turn, gives the smaller broadcasters a clear benefit as well. With a growing base of quality radios, they can leverage their existing gear for better sound, in order to keep cost / risk to a minimum. Maybe the returns from that will encourage them to purchase HD gear with money earned, rather than money borrowed.

Receiver manufacturers benefit in a coupla ways too. Instead of all their eggs being in the HD basket, which is risky, (And might explain the efforts to marginalize analog broadcasts) they can simply promote a new generation of radios, capable of making any broadcast sound better and be more reliable than older radios were.

Also, economies of scale will negate any cost issues that will arise from the initial development.

By tying all of this to a combination of an FCC ruling and Ibiquity licensing, equipment manufacturers can be (finally) assured their development will go toward radios people will actually continue to use, instead of radios that *might* see use. (AM Stereo syndrome.)

All it takes is some honest acceptance about the realities of the AM band, and the willingness to follow through toward a greater shared goal, instead of the "knife the old baby" syndrome we are currently seeing today.


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