Def Jam

HD radio rocks -- but is anyone listening?

Joe Bevilacqua, the director of FM programming for Clear Channel Denver, is an evangelist for high-definition radio, and his sermons aren't just lip service.

"It's very exciting, because you get to put new stations on the air," says Bevilacqua, who's just launched several new HD channels and has more waiting in the batter's box. "Suddenly, we have this free-form glob where we can be adventurous, produce niche programming, add a lot more variety, do whatever. And the sound is great."

Shockingly enough, he's right. High-definition radio is digital, as opposed to the analog approach still being used by most radio broadcasters, and the difference in quality between them is striking. When a standard FM signal clicks over to HD in the middle of a song, the effect is akin to pushing the "loudness" button on a nice stereo; the acoustics are suddenly richer and more vivid. Yet FM's advances are modest in comparison to the improvement on AM, which instantly goes from tinny and distorted to crisp and full-bodied upon switching to HD. Indeed, high-def AM is at least as sonically pleasing as current FM -- a fact that could open up its portion of the dial to many more options than the talk format that currently dominates it.

Such a transformation isn't looming, however, and it probably won't take place for years. The reason? Most radio stations in the Denver-Boulder area aren't broadcasting in HD, and few listeners have the equipment to experience the offerings of those that do -- yours truly included. I received the high-def treatment thanks to Bevilacqua, who loaned me a Boston Acoustics Receptor Radio, one of just a couple HD-ready tabletop models on the market.

Turns out that ListenUp, a local retailer that's always been on the cutting edge of stereo innovations, actually stocks this radio -- but Steve Weiner, the store's founder and senior vice president, says only a relative handful of what he calls "early adopters" have purchased units to date. Price is one reason: The radio originally went for a whopping $499, although the price tag dropped to $299 earlier this year. But the continuing availability of regular AM and FM and the relative dearth of HD programming are equally significant factors. "It's a chicken-and-egg situation," Weiner feels. "There are virtually no HD-radio products, because HD radio isn't fully established."

The radio business, which has been besieged of late by competition from satellite radio, iPods and plenty more, is so desperate to alter this scenario that longtime rivals are actually combining forces to push high-def. "It's a very interesting example of an industry pulling together and realizing that they had to do something to upgrade their infrastructure and technology," says Bob Struble, and he should know. Struble's the president and CEO of iBiquity Digital Corporation, a firm whose roots stretch back to 1991, when CBS, Gannett and Westinghouse pooled resources to create USA Digital Radio Partners, an operation charged with exploring the pros and cons of going digital. USA Digital eventually came up with In-Band On-Channel (IBOC), the concept at the heart of HD, and after merging with another company to become iBiquity, it won approval from the Federal Communications Commission for radio stations to begin broadcasting in high def circa 2002.

Since HD-radio signals utilize the same broadcast spectrum as analog, the FCC didn't establish a deadline for shifting to high-definition radio, as it did for HD television. Struble portrays this as a good thing: "Instead of relying on a government mandate, we'll have market forces driving the conversion, and we like that," he says. Trouble is, people who aren't audiophiles have little incentive to abandon old-fashioned radio, which still works just fine. As Struble acknowledges, "There's a billion radios in this country. The average family has eight of them, and those aren't all going into the garbage tomorrow."

Hence, Struble guesses that the move to HD radio will take a dozen years to complete -- but much can be done in the meantime. The spectrum is roomy enough for each and every station to add as many as eight so-called side channels. While the sound would suffer a bit under those circumstances, Struble says there'd be no discernible deterioration with two or three -- and once the analog signal goes away, that number will rise.

Bevilacqua isn't waiting. On July 31, Clear Channel Denver launched three new side channels that can be heard on the Boston radio with a simple knob twist and are accessible online, too. The grabbiest of the trio is a new channel affiliated with KBCO that continuously loops "Studio C" sessions -- live, usually acoustic sets by touring musicians who have recorded at the station's studio over the years. As Bevilacqua notes, annual Studio C discs, whose proceeds are earmarked for charity, quickly sell out due to the big names involved; for instance, the 2005 CD sported exclusive tunes by the likes of Robert Plant, Dave Matthews, the late Warren Zevon and the Fray. "Now you don't have to wait to get all this great music," he says. "There's a huge vault of it coming right at you." Also beaming into the ether at this very moment are a KBPI channel devoted entirely to new hard-rock acts and one linked to Mega 95.7 that features Spanish-language oldies -- and channels spotlighting '80s-vintage alternative acts and hair-metal bands will soon be appended to KTCL and the Fox, respectively.

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