The Problem with Digital Radio

The problem with digital radio is FM radio. FM radio is loved by the consumer. They don’t find anything wrong with FM radio (other than too many commercials). With no perceived need to change, the FM radio listener doesn’t. That’s not just a problem for radio station owners in America, but all around the world.

I often like to compare the start of HD Radio with the introduction of the iPod by Apple. Both happened about the same time. One has sold hundreds of millions of units and now is no longer made, and the other is HD Radio.

Interestingly enough, the introduction of digital audio broadcasting was born around the same time as the World Wide Web. It was born before MP3s and iPods. Born long before the advent of Smartphones and Tablets and yet, digital in the world of over-the-air radio transmission is still waiting to get traction with the consumer.

FM radio commanded 75% of all radio listening in America back in the 1980s when the number of AM and FM radio stations in America numbered about the same. So it’s no surprise that over three decades later that FM dominates when the number of FM radio stations, translators (FM stations) and LPFM (FM stations) far outnumber AM radio stations that are on-the-air today in the USA.

Across the pond, the British government was planning to switch that country’s radio listening from FM analog to digital when the penetration of digital radio listening reached 50%. They thought that would happen by 2015. Currently digital radio listening in England stands at only 36% and the government has now wisely put off setting a new date for this transition.

The problem in England goes beyond just radio sets in homes and cars. British folks also can listen to FM radio on their Smartphones. Unlike here in America, the FM chip that comes inside Smartphones has been turned on. These chips remain in the off position in America with no way for a Smartphone owner to turn it on without “jailbreaking” their phone which is illegal. The members of parliament aren’t about to turn off a system that serves around 25 million listeners, if they want to get re-elected.

I own one HD Radio. My local NPR FM radio station broadcasts with 100,000 watts on their analog FM signal. It’s crystal clear and comes in everywhere I go. They simulcast their NPR and other talk programming on their HD Radio signal too. That is plagued with dropout and a short range in terms of where I can pick it up. The same HD Radio that picks up the digital broadcast of my local NPR radio station also has an FM tuner (but no AM tuner). I can switch between the analog FM and digital FM, and to my ears they sound about the same. And therein lies the problem. No perceived difference other than one goes great distances with no drop out and the other is HD Radio.

At this point in time, what seems clear is that is FM radio isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. AM radio station operators would benefit by having a similar FM signal that delivers the same coverage area as their AM license provides sans the sky wave effect. Giving them a low power translator is an insult in my opinion. All Smartphones should have their FM chips turned on. NextRadio should be embraced by FM broadcasters. All broadcasters need to focus on their content and make sure that whether it’s over-the-air or over-the-Internet, it’s of the same high quality and offers all of the same content on both.

I’ve never heard an FM radio listener complain about the quality of their signal and what they do complain about, isn’t being focused on by broadcasters. We have no time to lose.

FM radio has the delivery system in place. Take advantage of it to serve, entertain and inform.


Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio

7 responses to “The Problem with Digital Radio

  1. Rick Starr

    A nit to pick: It’s not quite accurate to say iPods aren’t made any more (although technically, I guess, the *original* iPod has been taken out of production. Apple sold 6 million of them in the holiday quarter last year (although that’s a steep drop from the previous year.) And since the iPhone is an iPod with “extra capabilities” I wouldn’t say that they aren’t sold, I’d say they’ve “been upgraded.”

    (Side note: what would it be worth for Clear Channel and CBS to pay Apple to turn on the FM chip? More than the carriers would pay to keep it turned off? There’s an opportunity here for somebody, that’s for sure.)


  2. Rick, I agree that all the features of the iPod (a singular device) are now available on both my iPhone and iPad and I use them. But the iPod Classic is no longer being made.

    We’re now living in a world where any singular use device is being abandoned for “Swiss Army Knife” type devices that can do it all.

    My iPhone is a phone, a TV, a radio, an Internet connection, a book, a newspaper, a magazine, a camera, a way to broadcast over radio & TV or write a book or make a movie etc. The people formerly known as “the audience” are now the content creators.

    The smartphone device is the ultimate disruption.

    Not turning on the FM chip is UNAmerican. Come on Apple. I’m not about to leave you, but I’d love you even more if you would activate my FM chip in my devices. You put it in there. Please turn it on.

    As far as Clear Channel paying to have it turned on, NOT gonna happen. They have too many other bills to pay. CBS could afford it, but Les is spending it on his TV network. But I like the sentiment Rick. I really do.

    Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts.


  3. Hi Dick – The problem of digital radio is that it continues the model of “broadcasting” with a single juried presentation is sent on a “one to many” channel to anonymous listeners. When I was a teenager, the buttons on the car radio were my crude “pandora” selector. When I didn’t hear what I wanted NOW, the button gave me something else. WABC, WMCA, WINS, then later WNEW-FM, WOR-FM and WPLJ. This was very crude because when you wanted to switch away from “Raindrops” you got commercials on the other stations.
    Now there are a plethora of signals. Until radio can provide a form of interaction – Like integrating the HD-2, HD-3 and HD-4 channels with complementary instant switch content on the HD-1, making kids able to control their experience. The old model of making a single stream of audio content cannot stand up to the inroads of interactive media and thousands of channels.


  4. spotmagicsolis

    HD radio is a misnomer. It was picked for marketing and not an actual description of what it is. Which is a low power stream running on the FM spectrum where pagers used to live. There is no way to fix it. We are all jumping to WiFi next.


  5. spotmagicsolis

    Gad, I should clarify that the name was picked for marketing purposes and not….


  6. Actually the unfortunate part of the name is that TV had already adopted those letters “HD” and everyone came to think of them as meaning “High Definition” which in the world of TV was the case. In radio, the “HD” stands for “Hybrid Digital” and so the name is actually a pretty good descriptor of the compromised signal it truly is. Unfortunately, the letters “HD” have been so ingrained in the mind of the consumer to mean the other that when they experience HD Radio, they come away with a less than expected or anticipated listening experience. Perception IS reality. And the perception of HD Radio is something less than FM.

    Now when it comes to WiFi, the state of streaming, fidelity and stability has so improved so quickly that it really leaves HD Radio in the dust.

    I would say the majority of my “radio listening” today is via WiFi and streaming audio.

    In my home my “tuner” is a Google Nexus connected to a BOSE Home Theater System. At my office, it’s my iPad connected to a AM/FM stereo radio with an AUX input.

    The reason for this is simply better reception and fidelity AND choice of programs to listen to.


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