HDTVs have quickly become a must-have gadget.
We scour ads to find the largest model at the smallest price, obsessively compare technical specifications and invite friends over to watch the hottest shows, awards ceremonies and sporting events.
HD radios? Not so much. Not yet, at least.
Broadcasters and manufacturers are working feverishly to change that, adding new, HD-only formats to the radio dial and persuading carmakers to include HD radios as standard equipment in just about every price range.
Simply put, "people have to buy new radios to enjoy all the good stuff out there," says Bob Struble, president and CEO of iBiquity Digital Corp., the developer of AM and FM HD radio technology.
IBiquity estimates there are around 3 million HD radio devices – including car stereos, home tuners and Microsoft Zune MP3 players – in use, and purchases are on the rise, according to Struble.
"We've seen receiver sales more than double each of the past two or three years," he says. "How many products can make that kind of claim?"
In Austin, 14 radio stations – primarily owned by corporate giants such as Clear Channel, Emmis and Entercom – broadcast HD signals, according to iBiquity. Don't have an HD radio? You can still hear these stations. But what you're not able to hear are 14 additional, HD-only subchannels, offering up specialized formats such as classic jazz and dance music.
The specialized subchannels are, for many, HD radio's big draw.
"HD gives the public more options," says Pete Pyeatt, an HD radio owner and soon-to-graduate mass communications major at Texas State University. "It gives you formats that play nothing but your kind of music."
Though satellite services such as XM typically charge for a receiver plus a recurring monthly fee, HD only requires folks to pry open their wallet a single time. Buy an HD stereo for your home or car, and you're set.
Among the city's newest all-digital offerings is KGSR's 93.3 FM Music Lounge. Fans of the old, more Austin-centric KGSR can flip to the station's HD2 channel to hear songs from the annual "Broadcasts" albums, plus recordings of in-studio performances by artists such as Ryan Bingham and others. New goodies are added often.
"The main station has made a lot of changes in the last six months," says KGSR program director Chris Edge. "The Music Lounge is definitely a different sound. It's a lot of older stuff. A lot of acoustic stuff. Very chill. Like the old KGSR."
Response has been largely positive, Edge says, and he expects to gain listeners this fall when Music Lounge starts streaming online.
Over at sister Emmis station BOB-FM, program director Krash Kelly chose to pluck a format from Austin's radio graveyard and revive it on the 103.5 FM HD2 signal. There, listeners will find Mega, which briefly occupied the city's airwaves earlier this decade.
"We wanted to do something that's not available on terrestrial radio, and might get people to buy an HD radio," Kelly says.
Plus, he — and several BOB-FM co-workers — were huge Mega fans.
Tune in and you'll hear dance tracks, electronica, instrumentals and some pop remixes from familiar artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and more. A good chunk — around 70 percent of Mega's playlist — isn't played elsewhere in the market, Kelly says.
"I'm a native Austinite," he says. "I know Austin is different. We want Mega to be different."
HD offers a playground of sorts for radio programmers, allowing them to multicast several formats on a single signal. Sure, it's a fun diversion. But the bottom-line goal is to add listeners and make some money.
So far, that's easier said than done. Ratings data used to price ads is pretty much nonexistent for HD subchannels, meaning most run commercial-free.
"There's really nothing to measure it," says KGSR's Edge.
"We're on a shoestring budget," adds Mega's Kelly.
Other broadcasters, such as Clear Channel, are relying on national feeds in many places, including Austin, to program HD2 subchannels in an effort to keep costs low.
The lack of listener data also makes it hard for program distributors to monetize their offerings. NPR affiliate KUT 90.5 FM pays heavily discounted fees for shows that air on its two HD subchannels.
News and information programs on KUT2 would cost $750,000 a year — or more — if they aired on the main signal, according to Hawk Mendenhall, KUT's associate general manager. Instead, the station pays around $6,500 annually to suppliers that include the BBC and NPR. Classic jazz that airs on KUT3 costs even less.
"It's extremely inexpensive to offer these programs," Mendenhall says, "but I don't know how long that will last."
The arrival of Arbitron's portable people meters in the Austin market could soon offer evidence of listenership that's more concrete than the occasional positive e-mail or phone call, Mendenhall says, but it will take several months of testing and tweaking before Arbitron – and broadcasters who use the company's data — will rely on the figures.
HDTV got a big bump thanks to the government-mandated shutoff of analog signals. That prompted many folks — even technophobes — to buy shiny, new TV sets. IBiquity's Struble doesn't see that happening in radio anytime soon. So, car stereos will continue to be the primary way listeners are introduced to HD offerings. More new cars on the road each year equals more folks listening to HD subchannels.
"Getting into cars was important from the start," Struble says.
Several automakers, including Volvo, have committed to making HD radios standard equipment in some models. In other makes, HD is a popular add-on.
After-market HD radios are another story. They account for just 1 percent to 2 percent of sales at Austin's H&H Radio Specialist. Sales are so slow the store typically stocks just six models.
"If someone's heard of it, we can sell it," says H&H's Mike Janisch. "If not, it's a really hard sell."
As more people buy HD radios, Struble says more broadcasters will take the plunge, upgrading to HD signals and adding HD subchannels. There are currently 2,100 HD stations nationwide, and an additional 1,200 HD2, HD3 and HD4 subchannels.
"Already, 90 percent of all radio listeners are within reach of at least one HD station," he says.
Pyeatt, our Texas State HD radio fan, is excited about the present programming — and future possibilities.
"Our local stations are doing a good job for the most part," he says. "I'd give them a B-plus, and I'm sure things will only get better."
Have an HD radio? Here are some of the ‘extra' offerings available in the Austin area:90.5 FM HD2: News and information 90.5 FM HD3: Classic jazz 93.3 FM HD2: Selections from KGSR's in-studio concerts and ‘Broadcasts' CDs 95.5 FM HD2: Oldies 98.1 FM HD2: Southern rock/country 100.7 FM HD2: New country 103.5 FM HD2: Dance
Sources: iBiquity Digital Corp. and local broadcasters
HD radio facts
Advantages: CD-quality sound, HD-only subchannels, iTunes tagging, more
HD radio devices sold to date: 3 million
Radio stations broadcasting in HD: 2,100
HD2/HD3/HD4 subchannels: 1,200
Price: Products start at $50
Where to buy: H&H Radio Specialist and Mother's Window Tint in Austin, as well as Best Buy, Fry's and RadioShack locations nationwide
For more information:HDradio.com
Source: iBiquity Digital Corp.
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Austin's radio scene is growing and changing. Static attempts to keep up with industry trends and introduce you to some of the faces behind the mike. Look for Static every other Sunday in Life & Arts. Have a question or story idea? E-mail Austin360.com editor Gary Dinges at firstname.lastname@example.org.