State of HD Radio: a conversation with Bob Struble

582.gifIs HD Radio evolutionary, revolutionary, or neither? That depends on who you ask. The digital transmission technology is expanding its footprint — again, either slowly or quickly depending on who is answering.

HD Radio is an option for terrestrial broadcasters. It allows them to offer a clean digital simulcast of the analog signal, and also create additional stations (HD1, HD2, etc.) without building new towers. On the consumer side, the audio sounds better and digital-only features such as track information, album art, and traffic mapping are possible.

We spoke to Bob Struble, President and CEO of iBiquity, the developer and owner of HD Radio technology. Obviously his view was uplifting as he discussed the adoption of HD Radio, its presence in cars, the value to broadcasters, and how consumers perceive it.

RAIN: Will digital radio eliminate analog radio?

BOB STRUBLE: Yes, but it’s a question of time. You can draw an analogy to the way television was upgraded to digital in this country. The broadcasters were given a bunch of spectrum; they put the digital there; there was a very important reason for the government to want to reclaim the analog spectrum. So after a certain period of time during which they were simulcasting the analog went away and the digital is all that was left.

In the case of radio, we’re operating now in a hybrid mode. In every receiver now sold, the all-digital mode is built in. That allows for a smooth transition if that day ever comes. I’m not sure that happens in my lifetime. There are millions of analog radios out there and plenty of stations that are broadcasting analog. Until you get to a point where the majority of the audience is listening on digital, it’s hard to envision the turn-off occurring.

RAIN: You mentioned “not in my lifetime.” When television switched over, it was a shock and inconvenience to a lot of people. Had TV reached some kind of consumer adoption tipping point that radio has not reached?

BOB STRUBLE: It’s a different situation. There was a cut-off date set by the government. Everyone knew that analog TV wouldn’t work anymore. That drove the market response to build a lot of receivers and convert. In radio, the same motivations to reclaim spectrum don’t exist.

The way HD works, it uses the exact same frequencies that are already allocated. Nothing extra was given to broadcasters for the roll-out of digital. There’s nothing to reclaim.

We don’t think in terms of an analog sunset date. We think of it in terms of a digital sunrise. Maybe the FCC says, “All right, stations, there are enough digital receivers out there. If you want to turn off the analog, because you think that would be good for your listener base, you are allowed to do that.” But not saying that it’s a requirement.

RAIN: There have been gains in HD adoption, and in the HD footprint, particularly in cars. Despite those gains, what has held back HD radio adoption in the U.S.?

vintage televisionBOB STRUBLE: I take issue with that premise. We’re about 10 years into it. One of the things we’ve learned in observing these major transitions of mass-media technology, is that they take a very long time. If you go back to FM being approved by the FCC — it was approved in the late 1940s, but didn’t take over the majority of listening until 1980, a 35-year transition. Color TV from B&W was a 25-year transition. Even digital television, which had a government mandate, took 25 years.

Based on those other examples, HD radio is ahead of the curve. Ten to twelve years in, and it’s in one-third of all cars, 90-95% of the country covered by HD radio broadcast. In a market like New York and Boston, every one of the top-10 rated stations is converted.

The reason it takes so much time is that you’ve got a billion radios out there. People aren’t going to throw them in the garbage because there’s a new technology. Also, there are 13,000 radio stations that have to invest money to upgrade to digital.

RAIN: You mentioned two things: whether consumers will upgrade their receivers, and whether broadcasters will upgrade their facilities to make the transition. Consumers are willing to spend money on gadgets — new phones and tablets, for example. What will drive consumers to buy into HD receivers?

BOB STRUBLE: One answer is: Nothing. If you look at AM/FM, it is no longer a product category. You don’t go into Best Buy and say, “Show me the radio department.” The radio department doesn’t exist. There are still plenty of devices sold with AM/FM tuners, but how do you get them? You buy a car; you buy a clock radio; you buy a home audio system. The reason that AM/FM is less a category than a feature, is that consumers take it for granted as a background service.

With HD, you’re upgrading something that people aren’t asking for to begin with. Should we try to stimulate consumer demand, or should we treat it the same way as AM/FM, by saying that it’s “along for the ride”? I absolutely agree with the assertion that format and programming help sell the technology. But there’s a big debate that says that if we run a national ad campaign about new radio stations in markets, and you have to buy a new radio — most of our research says that would probably not move the needle. It’s in the home stereo, or it’s in the car, or it’s in the iPod dock, and that’s how the consumer gets exposed to HD radio.

RAIN: You used the expression, “along for the ride.” Is the connected car your leading market?

BOB STRUBLE: The OEM automotive is our leading market. The largest number of sales and deepest penetration is in new cars. The perspective of most automakers is to put a full suite of services in the car and let the consumer decide. HD is a free mass-market service. It’s going to be in cars.

As of the 2013 model year, HD Radio is built into cars by 34 car makers, in 195 vehicle lines.

RAIN: How are people using modern dashboards? Is that possible to track?

BOB STRUBLE: No, not for us. There’s not good monitoring. Beyond surveys, there’s no hard data.

RAIN: Are satellite and Internet challenging competition?

BOB STRUBLE: We honestly don’t look satellite and Internet as competition. All we do is upgrade AM/FM. That’s all we do. That’s our product. If someone believes that Sirius or iHeart is going to kill AM/FM, then we wouldn’t have a business. We just don’t see that. There were true believers at the start of satellite saying that AM/FM would go away — that hasn’t happened. There was the same sort of thing when Internet radio first came around. But, for good technical and economic reasons, a free over-the-air service is going to stay around. We don’t worry about that on the OEM side.

On the consumer side we worry a lot. We think about how to go about educating exciting, entertaining, coming up with new services, that are not only going to help sell new receivers, but also keep broadcast radio competitive with all the other service in the dashboard, and in other products.

RAIN: How do the broadcasters feel? Is the investment worth it? For the stations which have upgraded, are the owners happy with how it’s playing out?

BOB STRUBLE: Yes, I think so. But you’ve got to realize that larger broadcasters and NPR put out HD stations in the 2004-2006 time frame, after the FCC approval. They did that for long-term strategic reasons. There were no HD radios at the time. Without radios, you can’t get a return on the investment. They did it because they recognized that there’s a chicken-and-egg thing happening, and unless you put some signals out there, nobody’s going to build radios, or buy them. The strategic investment had to be made before it was possible to see a return.

We are getting to a point now, with over 15-million radios in the market, where they can get a return, in some straightforward ways. Somebody’s got an HD2, they get an audience, they sell the good old-fashioned advertising model is employed.

We also see stations leasing HD2’s and HD3’s to smaller broadcasters, so there’s a variety of foreign-language broadcasters that have built national networks leasing HD2’s and HD3’s. Russian, Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean.

RAIN: What about HD in the home? What are the products there?

BOB STRUBLE: The main product is hifi audio systems. You’ve got Yamaha, Marantz, and others, are all licensees. Typically, you’ll see better penetration rates of the higher-end devices than lower-end devices. There are also clock radios, boomboxes, bluetooth speakers, and docks rolling out with HD. There is a slight cost increase when building in HD, and it’s easier to build in that cost to a $30,000 car, or a $1,000 home audio system, than in a $49 clock radio.

Penetration in the home mirrors what we see with radio generally. The greatest amount of listening takes place in the automobile, and we’ve put our effort where the listening is. We don’t neglect the home, but we focus more on auto.

RAIN: Any new technology, features, or functions coming down the pike?

BOB STRUBLE: One new function is called Emergency Alert. It is a supplement to the age-old radio function of alerting the populace during times of natural disaster. This technology gives a lot more information and wakes up the radio if it’s sleeping. You’ll see that roll out in the next several months. You can expect more announcements of features we’re working on now. The general direction is going to be hybrid radio features. Building new applications that take advantage of the broadcast infrastructure but also using connectivity to enhance that experience.

Brad Hill


  1. I have been one of the first to purchase an HD radio in fact I have a few. I do not see it taking off if they continue to broadcast wih very little power. I live in Center City Philadelphia and many signals drop a few miles from the transmitters, also the formats on the HD-2’s and 3’s and 4’s are horrible, at least here in Philly. I know other markets Pittsburgh for example have fantastic sides. Here its moslty R&B, we need a Standards, Real Classic Oldies, Classic Country and other format Holes including Hard Alternative. So in a nutshell if the power is not increased and the formats are not more varied I do not see HD taking off. But if they increase the power and add hole nitche formats I think peoplel will go out and buy HD sets to listen to formats they miss for free…plain and simple..now its up to the owners…

    • One thing that Struble should have mentioned regarding an analog sunset is that there’s no way to significantly increase HD power levels without an analog FM sunset. Without an increase in power levels HD-FM reception is often marginal. That said, HD-FM is all I’ll listen to anymore for OTA radio; the audio quality is excellent and the HD sub-channels have better content and fewer, if any, commercials (as HD continues to gain listeners I fear that the advertising load will be as bad as analog FM).

  2. I grew up with radio and probably listen more than the average. I purchased two HD radios. One was a portable and the other was a car radio. I returned the portable because it was a poor introduction to the improved fidelity of HD. I did enjoy the radio, mostly because it would play mp3’s on a USB stick, SD card or CD. The HD radio function had lower sensitivity than the stock radio and it was very annoying when the station would cut out constantly. I would have liked a feature which allowed me to turn off HD.

    The installation of HD radios in new cars is driven, not by consumer demand, but by automaker marketing departments. The extra fidelity in an automotive environment is silly and the fact that the HD signal has the property of cutting out when the signal is too weak to be captured is a problem in the automotive department.

    I am curious what the additional cost breakdown is for HD. It would be fun to build my own, but I don’t seem to be able to get components to do this.

  3. Randy, thanks for the comment. I think you’re right that consumer demand drives the train, and if the programming doesn’t match that demand, the train is stalled. 🙂

  4. Sorry Bob, no matter how you spin it, HD radio is a failure. The Interactive Digital Dash featuring the Internet and access to more than 100,000 channels with thousands free of commercial clutter, along with precision targeted advertising and accurate analytics is the end of the AM/FM/HD business model… It’s time is quickly running out.

  5. I was very excited about HD. But find myself listening to most HD formats via the WEB because I can’t find reasonably priced HD table radios. I have searched on-line many times. If you have a source please pass it along.

  6. I’ll believe in the possible success of IBOC radio the first time I see a digital subchannel show up in a ratings report – even with a 0.1 share – without the assistance of an analog translator. I’m not holding my breath.

  7. I’ve just finished a book on radio’s troubled digital transition in the United States. Mr. Struble sounds much more reserved here than he does in the pure-broadcast trade press. And much of it is due to the reasons voiced, ironically, by previous commenters. The technology’s got its problems, not the least of which is its business model, which alienated a majority of radio industry. And 15 years is an eternity in the 21st century—quite unlike the promulgation of FM radio.

  8. In the past several years, my market saw the number of HD stations decline by 4 (all of which were AM). Only 1 non-public radio broadcaster using HD remains and probably only because they use it to feed 2 FM translators.

  9. The automakers are getting plenty of complaints about HD Radio (some have issued TSBs), and the complexity of their digital dashboards (Ford is facing a lawsuit of this issue). It’s only a matter of time until iBiquity implodes. HD Radio has got to be one of the biggest scams of the century:


  10. I noticed there was no mention of HD AM in the interview. AM IBOC has been a disaster with all the adjacent-channel hiss and noise that interferes with other
    lawful broadcasters plus very short limited range. Plus there are practically zero AM HD radios for sale these days in any store. AM HD needs to be outlawed for the good of the AM band’s future.

  11. HD Radio technology on the United States AM broadcast band was stillborn, and never had any chance for even marginal success. A local Radio Disney AM station attempted to transmit HD Radio. I never received any long-term lock on the HD Radio carrier. This was from a 50,000-watt AM station located 14 miles from my reception location! I have several HD Radios, and the AM HD Radio reception was mediocre on all of them. I recommend that you visit http://meduci.com for a REAL AM STEREO HD experience!

  12. It’s going to be end of mine day, except before end I am reading
    this wonderful post to increase my know-how.

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