HD Radio for $35 – Who Cares?

MightyHD Pocket Radio

MightyHD Pocket Radio

I’ve avoided buying any gear with an HD Radio receiver for some years. Sometimes it’s even getting to be a chore to avoid HD Radio, as with the many new internet radios that seem to have it by default. On the one hand, I objected to what appeared to be an attempt to make me pay a second time for a service – radio – that I was already mostly happy with. On the other hand, HD Radio failed to address the growing problems I’d seen in radio for years: homogeneity, loss of a local focus, too much advertising, BORINGNESS.

It was easy to reject HD Radio in part because it was expensive but today Eric Rhoads, a fantastic radio journalist, posted a link to a $35 HD Radio at www.mightyredhd.com. What can I say… I was opposed to HD Radio without ever listening for any extended period of time, but for 35 bucks why not? So I ordered one and we’ll see how much it sucks, or not.

Actually, I hope I like it!

The thing is, I love radio. From the time I was a kid and listened to late night talker Jean Shepherd (web and podcast) on WOR NY on a little AM transistor under my pillow after “lights out,” through short stints as a DJ during high school and college, on to today DX-ing on shortwave and internet-attached scanners, I am a big radio nerd. I did and still do love radio.

HD Radio – A solution to the wrong problem

I will always enjoy radio for the personalities and music and local information, but as far as I can tell HD Radio was a solution to radio-station owners’ problems. Not listeners’ problems, and that’s a Bad Thing.

The radio business sought to upgrade itself to digital starting back in the ’80s, in large part to fend off the threat posed by satellite radio. This coalesced in 2002 into a technology system called HD Radio (wikipedia). HD Radio claims higher quality sound, song names on the radio’s display like an iPod, and more choice / stations. Other than the song names (which I already had with RDS-enabled receivers), the other benefits are at least debatable. Critics have credible and serious problems with HD Radio, and overall neither stations nor radios have had much if any success (Pushing the Rock Up the Hill, WSJ).

While the radio business was right about being threatened, it wasn’t by satellite radio but by the internet and more specifically iTunes and iPods. Radio’s response was to double down on their radio-as-commodity business model with ever-larger holding companies and fewer and fewer independently owned stations (for example). I never listened much to most profitable and widely heard morning shows like drive-time funny guys / shock jocks like Howard Stern or Bill Webster (KFOG here in San Francisco), so it came as surprise to learn that more and more of these shows are syndicated from out of state.

How amazingly tone deaf – radio trying to save itself by reducing its costs rather than increasing its value. By focusing on cost and “reusing content” radio managed to make itself largely indistinguishable from what I can get on Pandora or an iTunes genius play list. The few over-the-air stations I still listen to are opposite of that! KQED, KFOG, KDFC, KCSM and at last KPIG. The formats vary (NPR, adult album alternative, classical, jazz, americana / folk) but all offer music-related news about my area. New music from artists I like, or might like. News and information about my area. Visibility and interaction with my community.

Radio to care about

I listen to these stations because I need to in order to hear music I’ll like, learn stuff I need to know, to be a participant in the community at large. The community I care about after I turn the radio off.

With any luck the MightyHD radio will be a cool gadget: it’ll work, some stations will sound good, and the batteries will last. And with a lot of hard work and luck radio industry people like Eric Rhoades and Mark Ramsey (who wrote a great overview The Premature Death of HD Radio), radio in a form that works can survive. And I do care about that.

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