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HD Radio: 8-Track Tapes Of Our Age, Or The Next Big Thing?

This week's Listener column

There is a place where the audience for free, over-the-air radio is growing, not shrinking, where new technology allows listeners to pause and rewind songs as they play or to bookmark their favorite tunes.

In that place, millions of listeners have bought newfangled digital radios to tune in to recorded books, a news station aimed at kids, a classic jazz channel, sports events not available on ordinary AM and FM radio, and extended live coverage of concerts and music festivals.

Digital radio -- marketed in this country as HD Radio -- has been available in the United States for more than two years but has made hardly any impact on the listening public. Yet the same technology is being adopted quickly and happily in Britain. About 6 million digital radios have been sold there, while only a few hundred thousand have moved off the shelves in this country's much larger market.

The main difference: British commercial and public broadcasters are providing extensive new and live content on digital stations, while U.S. media companies use their extra channels mainly to provide canned, automated music programming.

Washington's WAMU (88.5 FM) plans to change that starting tomorrow, when the public station finally drops all of its bluegrass and acoustic Americana music programming from its regular FM schedule and starts up a digital-only channel devoted entirely to that music. The new programming will be available only to those who buy digital radios, which retail for about $200 (some British models are about half that price).

The changes at WAMU will create three separate program streams, each with a solitary focus: National Public Radio news and talk shows on the main FM channel, BBC news and NPR shows that haven't had a Washington outlet on a second news-talk channel, and bluegrass, folk and other acoustic sounds on the third channel.

"We've been searching for a way to do right by bluegrass," says Caryn Mathes, general manager of the station, which has steadily whittled away at its once-dominant musical programming over the past two decades. "We believe in HD Radio, and it allows us to give bluegrass lovers not just one shelf in a very big store that specializes in something else, but their own store."

Most Washington area stations now have second channels of programming available to digital listeners -- '70s rocker WBIG, for example, offers '50s and '60s oldies on its HD channel, and soft rock WASH has easy-listening standards on its second channel.

But Mathes says listeners are right to be less than thrilled by the offerings on most HD stations: "Most of it is automated tape loop stuff and it sounds stale. We're going to be among a handful of stations doing live, fresh programming on HD."

For six years now, WAMU has offered, an all-bluegrass service on the Internet, but "we often repeat programs, and by Wednesday afternoon, listeners realize they heard the same program on Monday morning," Mathes says. The new WAMU bluegrass service will include eight to 10 hours a day of live, hosted programs with longtime DJs Ray Davis, Katy Daley and Lee Michael Demsey offering commentary on the music, as well as news, traffic and weather.

About 50,000 listeners a month tune into the online bluegrass stream, and many of them are from outside the Washington area. The new programming will also be available online, and WAMU expects most of the audience to listen on the Internet rather than on digital radios, at least at first.

But the station is evangelical about HD Radio and plans to give away the new sets to all members who listen primarily for bluegrass. About 1,000 WAMU members joined the station during its bluegrass programs and each of those listeners will get a letter inviting them to accept a free digital radio.

In addition, new members will be offered free radios at a membership price level that barely covers the cost of shipping the set, Mathes says.

Eventually, U.S. makers of digital radios hope to offer some of the doodads that have helped the technology win quick acceptance in Britain, including on-demand song downloads, text news, traffic updates, and the ability to time-shift programming.

WAMU's decision to go all-news-and-talk on its main channel was something that public radio executives had been urging for many years. Across the country, public stations are steadily moving away from classical, jazz and other minority music interests and toward a consistent diet of NPR news programming, which draws larger audiences and more listener donations. The music audience also tends to be older -- a no-no to most media executives. (At WAMU, the average listener is 51, four years younger than the average bluegrass listener.)

After public radio's WETA (90.9 FM) dropped its news-talk format and went all-classical earlier this year, WAMU picked up many of its erstwhile competitors' listeners. In February, WAMU collected a record $1.2 million in gifts and pledges in a fundraising campaign that started with a $700,000 goal. The station's audience grew by 14 percent from spring 2006 to this spring, according to Arbitron ratings.

Creating new, live programming may help spark interest in digital radio, but despite heavy ad campaigns -- touting "the stations between the stations" -- sponsored by the radio industry, HD Radio has lagged far behind pay satellite radio in winning the curiosity of listeners.

"It's been so frustrating," Mathes says. "We're right across from a Best Buy and we'd go in there incognito to ask about HD Radio, and invariably we'd be taken to the satellite section," where clerks would point to the XM radios.

But the last time WAMU staffers visited the store, a clerk finally knew what HD was. "Hurray!" Mathes says.

By Marc Fisher |  September 16, 2007; 10:12 AM ET
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After 40 yeas of being available to all Bluegrass now becomes an elitist music available only to those with money to burn on HD appliances or unavailable broadband and pricey PC's

HD Radio seems a red herring, similar to AM Stereo was when it came out in about 1987 and died shortly thereafter.

I checked, my vehicles don't have HD radio, (I do have AM Stereo), my home entertainment system doesn't have HD radio, no portable music players (Walkman style) have HD radio, my clock radios didn't come with HD radio, not in my home, my friend's homes, their friend's homes, etc.

If you don't live or drive next to WAMU, you can't hear it and the same goes for nationwide. No one uses it.. You wonder why the technology hasn't taken off???

Why can't you hear it? Regular 88.5 has 50,000 watt signal, HD has only a tiny 500 watt signal. Less power really does mean less signal and poor reception.

Yet you ask folks to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on expensive, overpriced, untested, unproven technology that is just as likely to disappear in a couple years as AM Stereo?

So you say listen on the internet... The WAMU internet site has thrown up a door to listen. All must attempt to "register" for the pleasure of listening to Bluegrass. The only possible reason is to spy on you and generate spamming lists for sale to all other spammers.
Most folks don't like being spied on or spammed so they won't "register"

Many are unable to "register" due to faulty or mis-programmed equipment on WAMU's end and are thus denied admission.

Also, There are no registration doors on their other sites... Why pick on music lovers??

Not everyone in even the DC area can get broadband. Ever try to listen to a music stream or a slow dial up or satellite?

Where will the funeral and wake be for the demise of Bluegrass in DC?

Posted by: HD? Not | September 16, 2007 10:52 AM

I agree, HD Radio will simply die out if they don't increase the power of the signal. There is no point in getting it if you can't hear anything. I live near Annapolis and I can only pull in two stations. I can get all the FM stations loud and clear though.

Posted by: Fred | September 16, 2007 11:47 AM

Another factor in the difference in digital radio takeup in the US versus the UK is the existence of satellite radio in the US. XM and Sirius have shown that there is an audience willing to pay a monthly fee for a much more diverse (and, in many cases, commercial-free) selection of programming. It's hard to see HD Radio competing with satellite radio in the sheer quantity of programming; they're going to have to compete in quality (doubtful) or cost (more likely).

By contrast, satellite radio isn't available in the UK: it's either digital radio or conventional broadcasts. There are, though, several ventures planning satellite radio services for Europe (WorldSpace being one of them). Should those systems become reality, it'll be interesting to see how they affect adoption of terrestrial digital radio there.

Posted by: jfoust | September 16, 2007 2:17 PM

It's been said that "content is king." Unfortunately, due to poor signals and cheap, canned programming, it's apparent that those commercial stations offering HD output are jokers.

Posted by: Vincent | September 16, 2007 2:43 PM

Well, I'll certainly miss listening to WAMU blue grass on Sunday mornings. Hmm, but I can get an HD radio or listen on the internet. I already know I'm not going to go out and buy an HD radio. In addition to my AM/FM radio, I have an XM satellite radio. Really, how many radios can one family have? I don't enjoy the XM blue grass station...not as personable and local as the WAMU personalities and performers. About the internet option; I don't want to stay in the same room as my computer to listen to music. So, the way I see it, I just have to say good-bye to WAMU blue grass. Too bad, because it really is sayng good bye to a simpler way of life in that respect. And, I'm sure I'm not the only person who will be saying goodbye. I don't understand why WAMU thinks they need to add MORE talk radio and MORE news. I feel like those things are so ubiquitous, whereas good bluegrass is not.

Posted by: Rachel | September 16, 2007 2:49 PM

Note from west Texas to city folks with HD:

Really, it comes down to content though (living in rural Texas as I do) the ability to just get any signal clearly is crucial. Not long after 9/11 I tossed my sat-TV, keeping the tube in the house only for the sake of a subscription to Netflix. Radio reception is pretty bad where I am, so I hooked up with both Sirius and XM. This has made an enormous difference.

One important side-effect of getting rid of TV had to do with physical benefits -- lower BP, weight loss, and the end of a mild, constant depression. Return of sense of humor. Increased freedom: you can move around, do stuff!

Second, access through sat radio to a wide variety of NPR and PRI programs (not to mention CBC and BBC, CSpan and ol'fashioned radio dramas, new plays from LA, and then some terrific music) is a delight.

Next came a little FM transmitter which sends sound from the (sat-connected)computer to every Bose in the house. Each Bose gives a choice of three very listenable program streams at any one times and each of those streams contains more than 200 program options. Including BBC 1-4, Kjazz, WBGO, and on and on.

No complaints from this listener. Hope HD widens its reach and revives original broadcasting in American radio, giving us quality content. But I think that's a big maybe. Check out the local landfill sometime for signs of short-term gratification, long-term frustration with corporate-designed communications services and content.

Posted by: PW | September 16, 2007 3:08 PM

a large part of the problem with HD Radio in the US is that the FCC has chosen to go with a proprietary format for signal encoding, as opposed to the open source standard in use in Europe. The great democratizing power of the airwaves has been diminshed as a result, i feel, and in addition it has stifled innovation in HD Radio services.

that's just one in a long list of problems with HD Radio here in the US

Posted by: tim | September 16, 2007 4:18 PM

I, apparently along with the others, probably a former WAMU listener. I really don't need more news/commentary than what's already available; WTOP provides decent news coverage, there already is considerable public radio coverage, a lot of talk and opinion radio, Washington has Federal News Radio (if anyone, in fact, even listens to it), and Washington Post Radio didn't make it as a news station becaue there isn't enough market. While I think it would be good for the soon-to-be-former Washington Post Radio to pick up traditional, folk, bluegrass, jazz, etc., including the current WAMU shows, I'll unfortunately sooner miss listening to them than have to buy an additional radio, one with HD capability. As others have said, most of HD radio is canned but with the problem of limited range; satellite radio, however, while offering canned formats (as well as various sports and other shows) at least provides consistent signal across the country. While I have no reason to buy satellite radio (at least not here in the DC metro area, with the multitude of stations we have (and not travelling cross country to justify the cost of buying a satellite radio, let alone paying for the monthly subscription), why should I pay a high price for an HD radio (even with free stations)? Why would I want to? To make my listening consistent (and not wanting to carry my computer with me to listen to HD radio on the internet), I would need to get a new car radio, and then have it installed, and new home radios (at least one being a clock radio). To listen to canned programs? Sorry, WAMU, it was great to listen to you, it was an honor to support you both as a family and as an anonymous donor, but apparently you don't want my support any longer; rather than have unique listeners and supports, you'd rather try to share the news/commentary/talk market.

Posted by: Dungarees | September 16, 2007 5:09 PM

I'm very disappointed with those whose thinking is entirely negative about the new 88.5-2 and also about HD Radio. I agree with comments that stress limited availability for cars. (I'll post a separate comment about that). But on Black Friday 2006, Radio Shack advertised a table-top HD radio. The sale price was $124.95, with a $25 rebate available from the coalition of broadcasters and manufacturers who are promoting HD radio. I for one purchased the radio immediately. It has a miniature headphone output. For $4.95 or less you can buy an adapter with a miniature phone plug on one end and two RCA plugs on the other end that you can plug into unused jacks on your stereo. Or if you don't have unused jacks, swap something out when you want to listen to HD radio through your stereo. As I write this, I'm listening to Dick Spottswood on 88.5-3; after today he moves to 88.5-2. It's playing through my stereo. I have two speakers each in two rooms. It's clear as a bell. I also have an amplified Terk indoor antenna, which guarantees clear reception. Terk's highest end indoor antenna, and those of other manufacturers as well, are very inexpensive at local stereo stores; even cheaper if you look for them on eBay. So for an investment of around $160 tops, I can listen not only to 88.5-2 and 88.5-3, but to C-Span's HD channels, to REAL oldies from WBIG, to REAL country music from WMZQ, and already to many other stations as well, including alternate programming from WTOP. Even WETA is broadcasting in HD, but so far it hasn't launched additional channels. How many of you who are negative about HD protested when CD or DVD players became available? They also required a small investment, and those with very tight budgets postponed buying them for a little while, after which price drops enabled nearly everyone to buy them. Please look at the new schedule at and then tell me that it doesn't offer treats for the ears. While you are all complaining I'll be listening to Lee Michael Demsey every morning between 10 a.m. and Noon, plus two or three hours on Saturdays before Mary Cliff's four hour afternoon show, and these and other on-air hosts will be LIVE; Mary immediately and Lee very soon. In addition: Prairie Home Companion gets a repeat broadcast in case you're doing something else during its Saturday broadcast on the main channel; Rob Bamberger's show has NOT been eliminated from the main channel, Mary Cliff's two hour Saturday night show also continues, as does Ed Walker's Big Broadcast, for those who are fond of it. For more info. about HD Radio, just go to Look for good sales of HD equipment if you're concerned about the price, or get the table-top model as a premium from WAMU if you donate $100. Buy the headphone jack adapter at almost any store for $4.95 and hook it up to your stereo. You won't regret it.

Posted by: Alan Seltzer | September 16, 2007 5:12 PM

Do we, as a nation, really need to call it HD radio while the rest of the world simply calls it digital radio? Seems to me, digital radio is as good a name as anything else they can come up with.

Posted by: Former WAMU fan | September 16, 2007 5:16 PM

Alan Seltzer: I appreciate the well written comments, but you're suggesting a basic radio, on sale, for $125; even with a rebate of $25, why should I have to seek a rebate from a coalition of broadcasters and manufacturers who are promoting a product that no one said they need (it's similar to an auto dealership giving a rebate for a high priced vehicle I don't need). And you're saying, after I buy the radio for a new and unproven system (HD radio), I then should buy an additional adapter to listen to stereo? Or, I should "swap something out to listen to stereo? You're making it extra work to listen to and enjoy our new technology, aren't you? And, you suggest that I can get an amplified Terk indoor antenna, which guarantees clear reception, a high end one which is inexpensive? Not knowing what inexpensive is, why should I have to buy an additional antenna? Why can't I listen to the radio without an extra antenna? Seems to me, as you're suggesting it will only be a $160 investment, I could pay a little more for satellite radio and get a lot more benefits. I think your point about "did we protest CD or DVD" is valid; but, in the case of WAMU, the station is determining that people don't want to listen to long-programmed music, have arbitrarily (and it's the station's right) taken away the programs in favor of what's providing what's already out there; it would be different if this was mainstream, commercial radio, but public radio's purpose was to provide alternatives to teh generic mainstream; WAMU will no longer do that. To me, and I'll suggest I might be in the minority, the way to go, after two years of HD radio limping along in sales, would be for every new car to provide the most basic radio with HD, and let people upgrade to other radio (with HD) models, and the broadcasters and manufacturers (who want their new technology to succeed) provide bottom line, most-basic-possible generic HD radios so that people can get used to listening at home, work, and in the car, and make their profit on selling upgraded models. As an aside, what will happen when the television system changes? That, unlike HD radio, will be a time when the majority cannot watch television without large dollar investments; and we likely won't see protests until the change-over is imminent.
All that said, Alan, thanks for the intelligent input.

Posted by: Dungarees | September 16, 2007 5:39 PM

One of the biggest problems with digital radio (and digital television) is that the FCC decided to use formats and frequencies that were incompatible with even our neighbors to the north and south. Instead of using a digital signal format such as Europe uses (and the cost of televisions are half what they are in the US) the FCC went with a format that was measurably worse than other systems and covers less area. The same is true for HD Radio, only in the US the situation is compounded by the fact that commercial demands drive the marketplace.

In England, you pay a yearly license fee for both radio and television, so there is a commitment by the government to provide a wide range of listening options above and beyond what even commercial stations in England provide. This is also the same situations in France, Germany and other European countries, where yearly fees provide for offerings that wouldn't even be considered by commercial stations.

XM and Sirius have shown that users are willing to pay a fee for variety, but because our government intentionally set up the broadcasting systems as commercial entities (in 1935!) and did not provide a national radio or television network (NPR and PBS don't count per se, neither does Voice of America) the chances of having multiple channels of programming rely solely on the stations themselves, and won't necessarily change anytime soon.

Posted by: TalGreywolf | September 16, 2007 6:24 PM

You can get HD radio in a new car. I'll run right out and pick up a 2007 BMW 7 Series 760Li that starts at about $123,00+ so I can listen to WAMU HD.. NOT!

I'm sure you can find a HD radio for free if you go Dumpster Diving behind Radio Shack, just wash the mustard, rotting food and other human waste - and there ya go HD!

Posted by: HD? Not | September 16, 2007 6:29 PM

It's real nice that the Post lets Mr. Fisher write about one of his hobbies, since nobody else really cares about all of this stuff. Everybody that cares about listening to the radio in their cars gets XM or Sirius, soon to be XM/Sirius. Nobody wants to complicate getting radio in their cars any further.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 16, 2007 9:12 PM

I was a big radio fan in the 70's and 80's. Nothing good anymore. Except ... Little Stevie's garage on 94.7. I am listening to it right now and look forward to it every Sunday night. It is absolutely great. Nothing since the early WHFS days comes close, and I have XM radio! Pretty piss-poor, and says something about ourselves, when we have all these choices and nothing to listen to. Ha

Posted by: johng1 | September 16, 2007 11:14 PM

a large part of the problem with HD Radio in the US is that the FCC has chosen to go with a proprietary format for signal encoding, as opposed to the open source standard in use in Europe. The great democratizing power of the airwaves has been diminshed as a result, i feel, and in addition it has stifled innovation in HD Radio services.

that's just one in a long list of problems with HD Radio here in the US


You could also say it's just one in a long list of problems with the FCC as well.

Btw, excellent comments people, literate, gentle and on topic.

Posted by: Robert | September 17, 2007 7:20 AM

johng1 - get sirius, little steven's underground garage has its own 24x7 station (my favorite along with left of center, more indie stuff).

Posted by: JJ | September 17, 2007 9:37 AM

HD Radio is a give-away of our free airways by the FCC to iBiquity and the HD Radio Alliance - HD Radio is a scam to jam smaller broadcasters off the dial with adjacent-channel interference:

"HD Radio on the Offense"

"But after an investigation of HD Radio units, the stations playing HD, and the company that owns the technology; and some interviews with the wonks in DC, it looks like HD Radio is a high-level corporate scam, a huge carny shill."

Reception of the HD channels require AM-loop and FM-dipole antennas - increasing the HD/IBOC power levels would just increase interference to the analog signals. The HD channels are just bland, repetitive, copies of the analog signals:

"HD Hypocrisy"

"Here's a few more reasons why only iBiquity and a few clueless radio group heads could make a big thing out of HD radio tagging... The very damn radio stations that broadcast in HD offer no programming worth listening to. HD Radio is a virtual sewer of formats owners don't want on their terrestrial frequencies and other assorted garbage that no one sane would listen to -- let alone spend money for new radios -- tagging or not."

There is zero consumer interest in HD Radio and it is up to consumers to determine the fate of HD Radio:

Posted by: PocketRadio | September 17, 2007 10:43 AM

hmm... let's see, by Mr. Seltzer's calculation I have to spend $160 for a stationary source for HD that I have to lug with me in my car (oops, doesn't work there), or anywhere else I want to listen to WAMU, or else invest in another $160 per location?

This, frankly, seems nuts and totally dismissive of the listening audience... I have XM and like it, I'm not going to pay for a so-far stillborn format like HD as well.

Posted by: fendertweed | September 17, 2007 6:04 PM

will do JJ! Thanks

Posted by: johng1 | September 17, 2007 6:38 PM

I think WAMU has a pretty good idea of how many people are willing to pay for an HD radio; just look at their pledge data for their bluegrass programming. My bet is that for every 100 WAMU listeners, only about 10 are bluegrass fans that pledge more than $100.

Let's just say I'm in the 90% of former listeners who will not be listening to bluegrass on WAMU anymore, which is too bad.

Posted by: Josey | September 18, 2007 9:48 AM

Amen to everyone who complained about HD radio's weak signal. I recently bought a new car and the very next day went out to buy an in-dash HD receiver. I still have it in the car, but I'm back to listening to XM.
In Fairfax you can't even get the HD signal from WBIG. And if you try to listening to any of the other stations HD-2 or HD-3, you quickly find that you get a lot of dropouts. The reception is just horrible once you get more than 15 or 20 miles from the transmitters. Until that issue is resolved, HD radio will not takeoff.

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