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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.

As a bonus, the side channels are commercial-free and will remain so for a minimum of two years as a lure to folks who've abandoned terrestrial radio for satellite. Not that users will have to choose between the two mediums; it isn't a VHS-vs.-Betamax replay. Radios that receive both satellite and HD are already obtainable through BMW and should become commonplace for less-expensive cars and residences in the near future. ListenUp's Weiner says more after-market car radios and several home components with HD-radio capability are in the pipeline for 2007, and as the variety increases, prices will start sliding into the reasonable range. These products should lift public awareness about HD radio, as should a PR campaign being whipped up by the HD Digital Radio Alliance, another cooperative venture whose members include radio giants Clear Channel, CBS, ABC, Entercom and Citadel.

The name "The Alliance," as Bevilacqua refers to it, has an Orwellian ring -- but he insists there's nothing to fear. "With HD," he says, "you've got all the radio stations you already like to listen to, but in a better-quality form, and a whole bunch of new ones, too. And it's all free. Free."

You're preaching to the choir, pal.

Bye, George: Sports columnist Thomas George, who joined the Denver Post staff approximately eighteen months ago following a long stint at the New York Times, was among the best additions to the paper's staff in recent memory. Unlike most of his peers, he didn't throw out deliberately provocative opinions intended to inflame, rather than inform, readers. Instead, he emphasized reporting and interviewing, which he used as building blocks for pieces that were typically modest yet almost always thoughtful and compelling.

So, of course, he's splitting. George left the Post on August 3 to take the new managing-editor position at the NFL Network. According to George, "My job will be to drive the content, to shape the news coverage, and to work with all the reporters to make sure everything is journalistically sound as well as entertaining."

This last mission could be a challenge. Because the NFL Network is owned by the National Football League, George will be charged with covering the very folks who sign his checks -- and such arrangements can result in the sort of kid-glove treatment he's always disdained. But he's confident he'll be able to enhance the credibility of the operation. "I want to push those boundaries," he notes. "I want to work within the framework of what is responsible when you have 32 owners who own the network, but at the same time to get to the heart and meat of stories."

George emphasizes that he would have stuck around Colorado for the long haul if the Network opportunity hadn't arrived. "I really felt that Denver and the Post became home in a short time," he maintains. "It would have taken a lot for me to leave, because I was very happy there -- but this is a lot."

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