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.