Sunday, May 27, 2007

New wave of radio choices

Satellite or HD? It's an uncertain time for those who want to upgrade to digital. Here we try to cut through the static.
By David Colker
Times Staff Writer

May 27, 2007

Think choosing a TV is tough in the digital era?

Try radio.

For more than half a century, there were only two major broadcast bands to be concerned about in judging a radio — AM and FM — unless you were caught up in the 1970s CB craze and enjoyed saying "Breaker, Breaker" while wearing a trucker hat.

Now, there's digital satellite radio, which debuted only six years ago but soon could go through an upheaval that might affect program offerings, subscription fees and even the radio sets themselves.

And the new digital kid on the dial is HD Radio, which unlocks an expanding alternative universe of stations hidden among the regular broadcast channels.

It's a time of uncertainty for the radio buyer who wants to take advantage of the new technologies.

But at least it won't cost you as much as a TV.


From space came XM Satellite Radio beginning in 2001, and then competitor Sirius Satellite Radio debuted in 2002. The services were attractive for the wide spectrum of programming and because the channels could be heard almost anywhere in the county. And lo, people signed up and paid to hear them.

But not enough.

At this point the two services have a combined subscriber total of about 14.5 million. That pales in comparison with the estimated 65 million who listen to Internet radio, not to mention the more than 230 million who tune in to free AM/FM.

More important for stockholders in the satellite radio companies, neither has come close to showing a profit.

So they decided to simply eliminate the competition — at least between the two of them — by merging. In February, XM and Sirius announced that they were joining forces to form one company.

That posed a number of unknowables for consumers considering an investment in a satellite receiver, which can cost $100 and up.

Chief among them:

• Which channels of the more than 100 in each service will be retained?

• Which company's technology will be used?

• Will the subscription price — now about $13 a month for each service — go up when it's just one company?

There are no clear answers. And there might not be a merger after all.

Governmental approvals needed for the two companies to become one are anything but a slam-dunk, indicated by the rough ride the companies got during congressional hearings this year.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), just one of the naysayers, said the merger would "eliminate the competition that exists between the two separate companies, and it will injure consumers."

In the meantime, if you want to take a leap into satellite radio, all you can do is buy according to content.

The two services offer similar music, news, sports and talk lineups. But there are key differences.

"If you like Howard Stern and NFL coverage, then you go with Sirius," said media analyst William Kidd, who covers the radio market for Wedbush Morgan Securities. "If you want Oprah and Major League Baseball, then it's XM."

But for many potential buyers, the choice of XM versus Sirius won't be made in an electronics shop or online. It won't even be based on which service might be preferable.

"More and more, when people buy a car it will come with satellite radio," Kidd said.

Within two years, according to announcements made by car manufacturers, 30% to 50% of new autos on lots will have the radios installed.

The major automakers all have deals with the satellite services. Honda Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., for example, have exclusives with XM. Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. install only Sirius.

"The decision will be simple," Kidd said. "People will take what comes with the car."

HD Radio

First of all, what does the "HD" stand for?


Although it's conveniently reminiscent of "high definition," as in HDTV, the trademark held by IBiquity Digital Corp. is just a pair of letters.

But the signal is digital, which distinguishes it from the vast majority of AM/FM broadcasts that are delivered via old-fashioned, still highly serviceable analog signals.

HD Radio officially launched in 2004, and currently there are more than 1,300 radio stations nationwide broadcasting simultaneously in analog and digital.

From downtown Los Angeles, 17 of those HD stations can be picked up.

The advantage of HD is that the audio quality is noticeably better. And the HD signal can be split, so a broadcaster can add channels without going through the enormous expense of acquiring additional broadcast licenses.

The audience that can receive HD, which requires a special home or car radio available for about $100, is relatively small but growing. The HD Digital Radio Alliance broadcasters group said it expected about 1.5 million HD sets to be sold this year.

Receiving HD is free after the set is bought — there are no subscription fees. But unlike with satellite radio, the earthbound HD stations can be heard only locally.

This multicasting is still experimental. Mostly, the add-on stations are automated, continuous music channels sans announcers, or they're simulcasts of another station owned by the same company.

For this type of digital radio to truly take off, those HD-only channels will have to be so alluring that they drive sales of the sets.

Some interesting split channels have arisen. In Los Angeles, a few stations that normally broadcast in English have taken advantage of multicasting to do Spanish-language programming.

For example, the pop station KIIS-FM presents mostly Spanish-language hits on a split channel. And public station KPCC-FM uses multicasting to offer BBC Mundo news and public affairs programming from Britain.

Another bit of alternative programming not available on analog is coming this year to KBIG-FM, owned by radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. The company plans to offer Pride Radio, a gay-oriented service mostly offering music popular in gay clubs on a split channel. The service is already in several other cities in HD.

And because of HD, a classical music station that disappeared from analog FM can still be heard in all its stereo glory, and with better sound quality than ever.

In February, the commercial classical station KMZT, or K-Mozart — much loved by a small but devoted audience — got booted from FM to low-fidelity AM. Taking its place on the FM dial was country station KKGO, owned by the same company.

But because KKGO broadcasts in HD, it could multichannel. The split channel was given over to KMZT.

That was incentive enough for some local listeners to buy an HD receiver.

Ken Holland of Newport Beach got one of the higher-end sets, a Boston Acoustics tabletop model that cost about $300.

Holland, 81, wanted it for the bedroom, where he often listened to the station while falling asleep. But it couldn't pick up KMZT there (unlike in analog, a digital station comes in or it doesn't — there is no staticky in-between).

He finally was able to get the station in his computer room, where he spends time almost daily.

"We turned to the station and it popped right in," said Holland, who is a retired engineer. "My wife in particular likes it because they play a lot of Mozart — something by him in every two- or three-hour period.

"It's only in one room, but it's worth it."

HD stations

The stations broadcasting in digital in L.A. cover a wide range of programming formats. Some have taken advantage of the ability to split the signal, adding channels that can be heard only on HD sets. For a nationwide list of HD stations, see .

89.3KPCCNews/information - public radio
89.3-2KPCCSpanish - BBC Mundo (HD only)
89.3-3KPCCAlternative (HD only)
89.9KCRWNews/music - public radio
91.5KUSCClassical - public radio
92.3-2KHHTOldies (HD only)
93.1KCBSAdult hits
93.9KMVNRhythmic alternative
93.9-2KMVNAdult alternative (HD only)
95.5KLOSClassic rock
95.5-2KLOSHispanic/Anglo rock (HD only)
95.5-3KLOSTalk (HD only)
97.1-2KLSXTalk (HD only)
98.7KYSRAdult alternative
98.7-2KYSR'80s oldies (HD only)
100.3KRVBUrban adult contemporary (HD only)
101.9KSCASpanish - Mexican regional
101.9-2KSCASpanish - oldies (HD only)
102.7KIISTop 40
102.7-2KIISSpanish - Top 40 (HD only)
103.5KOSTSoft adult contemporary
103.5-2KOSTSoft oldies (HD only)
104.3KBIGDance adult contemporary
105.1-2KKGOClassical (HD only)
105.1-3KKGOContemporary (HD only)
106.7-2KROQ'80s rock (HD only)
107.5KLVESpanish - soft alternative
107.5-2KLVESpanish - talk (HD only)