HD Radio Makes Progress

We've been hearing about it for years, but high-definition radio may finally be on its way. Feeling competitive pressure from satellite operations XM Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, US broadcasters are making what appear to be sincere efforts to upgrade their service by moving from analog to digital.

On August 12, Atlanta-based Cox Radio announced a plan to upgrade most of its 78 AM and FM stations to "HD Radio" over the next four years. The company currently delivers HD only in Atlanta and Miami. Targeted for upgrade next are Cox stations in Houston, San Antonio, Orlando, and Tampa. €œWith the technology now ready for broad-based deployment, we are stepping up our efforts to provide digital radio to our listeners,€� said Cox president Robert F. Neil. "Digital radio not only brings CD quality sound to our listeners free of charge, but also enables us to deliver other valuable services such as traffic updates, sports scores, artist information, and song titles, to name a few." Many audio products—tuners and receivers—now come equipped for RDS (Radio Data Systems), a technology that provides text information about the station, the music playing, and the artist performing it.

The third largest US radio broadcaster in terms of revenue, Cox was preceded by industry leader Clear Channel and fourth-largest radio broadcaster Entercom Communications, which made their HD announcements in July. Clear Channel plans to convert as many as 1000 of its more than 1200 stations to HD; Entercom will do the same with up to 80% of its more than 100 stations. All three broadcasters stated that the HD upgrade would take place within the next four years.

Neil's emphasis on "free of charge" was a reference to the pressure being felt by traditional broadcasters from satellite radio services XM and Sirius, which charge users monthly subscription fees for access to dozens of channels of commercial-free music in a wide variety of genres. XM and Sirius also offer dozens of other channels featuring news, sports, and comedy. The satellite services win new subscribers through exposure in rental cars; customers who discover what they've been missing with terrestrial radio are quick to sign up. To date, XM has signed more than two million subscribers, while Sirius has acquired approximately half a million.

The two satellite services are great examples of the benefits of competition to consumers. The two rivals are constantly pushing each other to improve with new features or new hardware. In early August, XM announced the hiring of Greg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony Cumia, a pair of radio "shock jocks" fired by Infinity Broadcasting, Inc. two years ago. The Wall Street Journal described the hiring of the two as "the first instance of satellite radio providing a safe harbor for broadcasters deemed too raunchy for the public airwaves." Beginning October 4, XM subscribers will be able to hear their show on a "premium channel" for an additional $1.99 a month on top of the $9.99 basic monthly fee. In July, XM announced the hiring of popular National Public Radio announcer Bob Edwards, former host of "Morning Edition."

Sirius now has a channel devoted to coverage of National Football League games. Vista, CA–based Directed Electronics, Inc., parent company of the a/d/s brand of audio products, recently announced the Sirius Sportster, a satellite radio "plug-and-play" receiver for sports fans, featuring a "game alert" feature to notify users when a favorite team's game is on. The company will also soon deliver a Sirius "ECHO" wireless signal distribution system to provide Sirius programming within a home or small office.

Sirius has been making headway with other equipment manufacturers to create more Sirius-enabled products. Most recent among them is a satellite radio receiver from XACT Communications that resembles a cell phone. The Sirius XACT XTR1 Stream Jockey is said to be "the first plug-and-play satellite radio receiver that can function as a home radio without the need for a special kit." Using a next-generation Sirius processor, the Stream Jockey has a six-line display and internal wireless FM transmitter for easy connection to any automotive FM receiver. Its cost is $99 plus $59 for the universal docking station.