HD Radio on the Offense 

HD Radio promises clarity and diversity. What it delivers is a whole different story.

Driving across the Bay Area every day, you can't help but hear the great news: HD Radio has arrived! There are now secret stations hiding between the stations you can hear. All you have to do is go out and buy a new HD Radio and you'll hear your old stations in crystal-clear digital, plus secret ones that you've never even heard before. All with no subscription!

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. Do not tune in until your unit comes standard on that used Honda Civic you buy in 2015.

Between the high prices, poor listening options, homogenized content, and a decade and a half of FCC dealings that went into this monopoly, critics are calling the move to digital radio a "catastrophe" and a "complete giveaway" to behemoths such as CBS. Moreover, HD is pretty much a done deal.

Let's start at Emeryville's Circuit City, where sales rep Joel shows the one HD Radio model in stock. This $200 beauty should net you 22 Bay Area stations broadcasting their regular feeds with a clearer digital signal hitchhiking on it. It also promises to decode fifteen of their all-digital cousins.

Problem is, when you hit "seek" on the JVC unit, the HD tuner cycles and cycles as if we're in the wilds of Idaho. Very impressive.

Joel will assure you that Circuit City merely needs a new antenna on its roof to pick up this digital signal, but somehow your regular car antenna will manage to pick up all 37 stations just fine. You're not so sure anymore.

KFOG program director Dave Benson says the digital footprint, or signal coverage, is indeed smaller than the analogue one, but because digital radio is so new, nobody knows by how much. Still, Benson can receive HD in his office, and he reports that 104.5 FM not only sounds cleaner, the new technology lets KFOG share its bandwidth with an all-digital HD2 signal that carries a second KFOG. What's on it? How about Dave Morey's 10@10 — 24/7.

This digital sidekick and eleven other Bay Area HD2 stations duplicate the existing airwave dross with formats like "Wild Hispanic," "'50s/'60s Oldies," and "KCBS News." They seem to be underfunded, unoriginal dumps of existing content from their analogue brethren, or consist of some playlist cut together by a decent DJ like Aaron Axelsen. Big whoop. That's not the real scam.

These local stations multicast using a technique known as In-Band On-Channel broadcasting, whose patents are held by a fifteen-year-old private corporation called iBiquity. CEO Bob Struble says iBiquity arose from next-gen radio research at corporations such as Lucent. These big boys figured out how to squeeze four channels into each existing one, and have poured more than $200 million into controlling them all with help from the FCC. The esteemed commissioners responded by granting iBiquity exclusive rights to digital radio.

Struble says nobody owns the rights to analogue radio, but everyone who wants to broadcast in digital or make a receiver has to pay iBiquity. Fees start at $10,000 per new digital channel. "It's a new phenomenon in consumer electronics," he says. "There's aspects of HDTV that are proprietary; the MP3 format is owned by one company. The DVD technology is owned by a consortium." Struble thinks it's a fair system: "We have to license to anybody on a fair, nondiscriminatory basis. You, David, are going to get the same terms Sony did."

Great. But here's the catch: All the major radio players, such as Clear Channel Communications, are iBiquity investors. Which means Clear Channel is paying itself for the right to broadcast, and every mom-and-pop station that wants to go digital also has pay the big boys. Nice setup!

IBiquity's monopoly on this closed-source system is a catastrophe, says Michael Bracy, a lobbyist for the Future of Music Coalition, whose goal is diversity on the airwaves and higher pay for artists. "It potentially is a great thing, but it feels like the government really botched this," he says.

The new technology, he says, has opened up more real estate on the spectrum, but the same land barons are homesteading it all. "The first question is, 'Who gets to control these streams?'" he asks. "Is this an antidote to consolidation or is it a complete giveaway to radio chains? It looks like it's a complete giveaway."

Radio spectrum analyst JH Snider is research director for the Wireless Future Program of the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan DC think tank. He affirms that a public broadcasting license is virtually a license to print money, and the FCC's fourfold expansion of Big Radio's mints offers no public payback. "There's nothing special about the technology except that the broadcasters control it and basically they took technology that others invented," Snider says. "They should've opened it up to competition."

FCC sources claim the path to digital audio broadcasting has been open and inclusive. The public can access records going back to 1999, and read voluminous comments. "This was the most thoroughly tested system in broadcast history," Struble says.

Snider, however, says the whole way the United States doles out the spectrum favors broadcasters over common sense. "Just look at free satellite radio," he says. "North America is the only continent on Earth besides Antarctica that doesn't have free satellite radio stations. That's the power of the provincial US broadcaster."

The deal isn't closed yet. The five-member, Republican-led FCC still has the power to write some local obligations into Big Radio's digital expansion. The commission has yet to authorize blanket approval that would let any station deploy high-definition radio at will. The public, Bracy suggests, might ask the FCC to ensure one community channel for every three the bigwigs get. But somehow the public-interest groups are totally asleep at the wheel. "Nobody understands spectrum," Snider notes.

Furthermore, FCC sources say the commission could vote on blanket authorization at any time without informing the public.

Welcome to New Radio, boys and girls. It stinks just like Old Radio, except the smell comes in clearer and there's more of it. Stay tuned.

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