HD Radio – The Answer to the Question No One Was Asking

I was reading about how HD Radio was celebrating its 15th birthday recently and that had me scratching my head as HD Radio is older than that. In checking the records, I saw that the Federal Communications Commission selected HD Radio as America’s digital standard in 2002. By comparison, Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPod in October 2001, XM Satellite Radio began service in 2001 and Sirius Satellite Radio in 2002.

Radios Go High-Definition

This was the headline that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on January 7, 2004. Unfortunately, unlike HDTV (High Definition Television) HD Radio never stood for “High Definition.” And possibly that was the first mistake. HD Radio was simply a name they chose for the digital radio technology, but even today, many people still think it means “High Definition” or “Hybrid Digital.”

Sadly, by 2004, America’s digital radio was late to the party and if the industry is now marking the date of 2006 as its moment of birth, it was really late!

Remembering 2006

In 2006, Facebook opened up its social network to everyone in the world. The original requirement that you be a college student enrolled at a specific university was eliminated and the only requirement now was that you were over the age of 13 and had a valid email address.

In just 15-years, Facebook has grown to over 2.85 billion active monthly users.

Let’s look at what else was born in 2006 that competes for our attention:

  • Twitter was launched in 2006 and today enjoys 199 million monetizable daily active users.
  • Wii game system was introduced with its handheld motion controller that got families off the couch and in motion doing all kinds of sports in front of the TV.
  • PlayStation 3 came online to provide strong competition to XBOX 360. (Video gamers spent about eight hours and 27 minutes each week playing games, which is an increase of 14% over 2020. The video gaming industry predicts revenues of $100.56 billion by 2024)
  • Google bought YouTube in 2006 and now has over 2 billion users, the channel grosses over $19.7 billion in revenue and users are uploading videos at the rate of 500 videos per minute with over a billion hours/day spent watching videos on the platform.
  • The one billionth song was purchased from Apple’s iTunes, the dominate source for music lovers in 2006. (Two years later Spotify would arrive and not only disrupt how music was sold but how it was listened to in general.)

When we look at 2006, it becomes easier to understand why HD Radio wasn’t such a big deal to the average media consumer.

Solving a Problem That Didn’t Exist

What HD Radio did for FM radio stations was solve a problem that listeners to FM didn’t feel existed. No one who listened to FM radio was complaining about the quality of the sound, they were complaining about other things, like too many commercials. And for AM radio stations, it meant people buying radios for a service that didn’t offer anything they really wanted to hear or couldn’t get elsewhere. AM radio was now the service of senior citizens who already owned AM radios, who grew up with AM radio’s characteristics and whose hearing was not the best now anyway. So, HD Radio for AM wasn’t anything they were asking for and worse, AM radio stations that put on the new digital signal found it lacked the benefits of skywave and often interfered with other company AM radio stations as the industry quickly consolidated radio ownership.

Industries Most Disrupted By Digital

In March 2016, an article published by Rhys Grossman in the Harvard Business Review listed “Media” as the most disrupted by the growing digital economy. Turns out, if you’re a business-to-consumer business, you’re first being most disrupted by digital. The barriers to be a media company used to be huge, but in a digital world they are not, meaning that the business model that media companies depend on has not adapted well to the digital economy.

Elephant in the Room

But the elephant in the room remains the broken media business model. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television – any media that is ad supported – will be challenged to find a way to capture revenue to continue operating.

Walt Disney famously said “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make movies.”

Broadcasters of my generation had that same attitude about creating great radio.

Do the people owning and operating today’s radio stations still embrace that concept?

* In 2021, it’s estimated there are 3.78 billion social media users worldwide.


Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

8 responses to “HD Radio – The Answer to the Question No One Was Asking

  1. Rant from Riverton: 15 years of HD Radio.. the train has left the station.. but you can still catch it!
    by Michi Bradley

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken you really summed things up when you wrote: “The radio industry may be talking up good stories about its intent to compete online, and how HD Radio is being embraced by the audience. But, so far, there’s little evidence that the radio industry is taking anything seriously.” (Written in 2017 & just as valid, if not more so, today.)

      Other than feed an analog FM translator, HD Radio has been a big disappointment.


  2. Walter Luffman

    HD Radio may have been unnecessary when it was birthed, and may be mostly unnecessary today, but it does have potential today … if only as a revenue source for its “main signal”. A station operator could offer mass-appeal programming over its analog signal (and HD1) with more niche programming (usually automated or syndicated) on HD2 and HD3. Or it could lease HD2 or HD3 to someone who would otherwise consider establishing an LPFM station. The second and third streams might not bring in a lot of money, but I’d consider them a bonus if they bring in more than they cost to operate.

    Of course, HD on FM is also a benefit when the broadcaster also operates an AM sister with limited power or a directional pattern. I’ll take crystal-clear reception and higher fidelity over static, fading and RFI any day — even in mono — as long I enjoy the programming.


    • Thanks for weighing in on this topic Walter.

      Today, HD Radio seems to have been primarily embraced by broadcasters who use it to feed FM translators, which they then turn into additional FM radio stations to flood a market.

      It sort of reminds me of how Armstrong’s original FM signals were used, to transmit programming from station-to-station to avoid paying AT&T for landlines to send programming over.


  3. Radio operators, most of whom don’t understand or believe in radio to begin with, have no idea what the audience wants. You’re correct that HD answered a question that no one was asking!! Broadcasters thought people were using Pandora and Spotify because there was more variety, so they thought: let’s create a huge number of new broadcast stations!! They totally missed the fact that digital and broadcast are two completely different mediums, and never the twain shall meet. A better solution might have been to make their broadcast stations so huge and compelling that they would make streaming seem like a secondary option. But no.. they drained resources and marketed against their own stations. This proves my theory that radio is run by people who don’t believe in radio.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gary, thanks for all you wrote. You won’t get any pushback from me on your theory that “radio is run by people who don’t believe in radio.”

      You, in my opinion, have clearly pointed out that when radio owners/operators came to a fork in the road, they chose the wrong path and proceeded to eliminate the very reasons people loved and listened to radio in the first place. I would add that they managed by spreadsheets and saw instant savings by eliminating people, but a spreadsheet never was designed to analyze the reason that people listened to radio and are so loyal to the medium.

      Radio is a people to people medium. When you eliminate the people, what do you have left?


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