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Trying to Compete, Radio Broadcasters Cue Up Digital Signals

Industry Report: Radio StationsCompeting for audience against satellite radio, downloadable music and an onslaught of independent Internet-based stations, more terrestrial radio stations are broadcasting digitally to offer additional channels and a clearer signal to keep listeners tuned in, says Phil Roberts, president of the New Jersey Broadcasters Association, a Monroe-based trade group for radio and television broadcasters in the state.

“Digital sound on an FM station sounds like a CD,” Roberts says. “There is no hiss, no popping and no fading.

Radio manufacturers, such as JVC and Alpine Electronics Inc., and carmakers are already selling digital receivers, also known as HD Radio, to the public. Radio manufacturers such as Sony and Kenwood are encouraging listeners to make the switch by selling add-on digital receivers for car radios. The add-ons start at about $100. Portable digital radios are not currently on the market as they drain too much power from batteries.

Digital radio receivers range in price from $50 and up for an add-on outdoor antenna for home use, $100 and up for tuners installed in cars, and $150 and up for tabletop radios already equipped to receive the signal.

In November, Volvo Cars of North America said it would install digital radio in nearly its entire 2008 line. That move follows Ford Motor Co.’s September announcement that it would install digital radio receivers in almost all its cars for 2008.

Terrestrial radio is no longer an island unto itself. It now competes for audience with XM Satellite Radio Holdings and Sirius Satellite Radio. MP3 listeners can download hundreds of songs from the Web, and many independent Internet radio channels cater to niche listeners. Traditional stations also stream programs over the Web.

Roberts says the new digital broadcasting format uses less bandwidth and lets FM stations run up to three channels simultaneously, allowing for more programs. That means each station can broadcast its main lineup on the first channel while airing more music and shows on a second and a third channel.

Each channel uses the same station call letters and frequency but is differentiated in the radio tuner by an additional number such as Favorite Station-FM, Favorite Station-FM 2 and Favorite Station-FM 3. Roberts says dividing the signal beyond three channels would reduce sound quality.

Roberts says AM stations can also broadcast digitally, but technical limitations currently prevent subdivision of their channels.

Many digital stations, according to Roberts, operate their secondary channels commercial-free for now. “That may change as we go forward,” he says.

Roberts believes widespread adoption of digital radio is the inevitable next step for all local radio stations and the nation as a whole. “They full well understand their future is with digital broadcasting,” he says.

E-mail to jpruth@njbiz.com

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