The Death of HD Radio

Rumors of its death may have been exaggerated, but does it matter?

A driver tunes in an HD radio station.

 gaspr13 / E+ / Getty

Most conversations that involve HD Radio in any substantial way tend to include statements like, “HD Radio is dying,” or “HD Radio is dead,” or “what the heck is HD Radio, anyway?

The issue is that, depending on who you ask, HD Radio has been “dying” for almost as long as it has been alive, which would mean that the format has essentially been on hospice for more than a decade.

Whether or not that’s actually true is debatable, and whether or not HD Radio is actually dying, in any real, substantial sense, is a hugely complicated issue tied up in consumer demand, powerful business interests, and government regulations. Much more importantly, perhaps, from a consumer’s point of view, is whether or not it actually matters if HD Radio lives or dies.

The Birth of a Format Nobody Asked For

When the FCC instituted the switch from analog to digital television broadcasts in the United States, two purposes were served: OTA bandwidth was freed up for other uses, and local broadcast stations were able to offer digital high definition programming.

It may have been a rough transition for some people, with some definite winners and losers in the equation, but there’s no denying the stark difference between a standard definition analog broadcast and a high definition digital broadcast when viewed on a high-definition television.

What does that have to do with HD Radio, though? Well, it has a lot to do with it, and it also has absolutely nothing to do with it, and therein lies the problem.

HD Radio's Name Is Misleading

The federal government selected iBiquity’s in-band on channel (IBOC) technology as the sole format for digital radio broadcasts in the United States in 2002, and while the very first radio station went digital the following year, most markets didn’t see much action until the tail end of the decade.

By that time, the general public was very familiar with the digital switch in television broadcasting, and the high definition television, but the mindshare just wasn’t quite there with HD Radio.

In fact, there’s still a huge amount of confusion today about what, exactly, HD Radio is, and the name doesn’t really help. Unlike HD television, where the HD stands for high definition, iBiquity is on record as stating that the HD in HD Radio doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just a branding term, and while it’s true that HD Radio can offer higher audio quality than analog radio, that isn’t always the case.

HD Radio Competes With Satellite Radio

To this day, consumers often confuse HD Radio and satellite radio, and a lot of people who own HD Radio tuners don’t even realize it—because HD Radios often come bundled together with satellite radios and other features in OEM head units. A huge part of the problem is that nobody, at least nobody in the general listening public, really asked for digital radio.

So who did ask for it? Well, iBiquity certainly did, but their technology wasn’t developed in a vacuum. The real driving force behind digital radio was the radio industry itself, from the top down, rather than due to any real consumer demand. It was created primarily as a means to compete with satellite radio, without taking the actual needs of the consumer base into account, and it has been struggling—or dying, if you prefer—ever since.

Is HD Radio Really Dying?

If you listen to HD Radio’s proponents, the format is going strong, and the install base only grows each and every year. And there’s some truth to that. According to iBiquity’s Bob Struble, one in three cars built in 2013 included an HD Radio tuner. According to some sources, that figure rose to nearly fifty percent by 2018.

That's great for the company that eventually bought iBiquity, and maybe even for the radio industry as a whole, as cars really stand as the last bastion for the medium. But if you listen to the contrarians, you’ll hear a completely different story.

Satellite Radio and Wi-Fi Functionality Prevail

For instance, the fact that GM pulled HD radios from a number of vehicles in its 2015 lineup, in favor of forward-looking 4G-LTE and Wi-Fi functionality, means that the end is nigh for the format as a whole, according to the contrarians. Most vehicles that include built-in satellite radio also forgo an HD Radio tuner.

The real story is a lot more complicated than the rosy picture painted by iBiquity, or the doom and gloom espoused elsewhere, and it all ties right back into where HD Radio came from—and where it’s going.

Although virtually every automaker out there has at least one model with an HD Radio, it isn’t really due to consumer demand, and chances are that whether or not a new car has one isn’t going to be a sticking point for anyone.

Consumer Reports Disses HD Radio

In fact, Consumer Reports has even gone so far as to recommend that you avoid the feature, and public awareness has waxed and waned over the years, instead of showing continuous growth. Many drivers aren't even aware that their car has HD Radio, let alone what it is, or how to use it.

For all that, though, HD Radio isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The fact that GM elected to nix the feature in a number of models may be a bad sign, since consumer adoption of the format is so intrinsically linked to new car purchases, but the overall install base continued to tick up after that decision.

There are also a lot of HD Radios out in the wild already, and GM is just one automaker in a vast sea that, at this point in time, is still digital. And despite the challenges that the format has faced, and the challenges that it will continue to face, it may still come out on top.

The Road Ahead for HD Radio

If HD Radio has some hard sledding ahead, at least part of that is due to the fact that broadcast radio itself may be in danger of disappearing from the dashboards of new cars and trucks.

The death of the car radio has been proclaimed loudly and repeatedly over the last several years, some OEMs have committed to removing AM/FM radios altogether, and others have buried the radio tuner functionality of their head units in obscure sub menus in favor of other, trendier audio sources.

HD Radio Death Exaggerated

However, rumors of the death of car radio, and the death of HD Radio with it may have been exaggerated. Automakers may continue to move towards more connected cars, with features like 4G-LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity, but the radio industry has a vested interest in maintaining ear share by keeping AM/FM tuners in head units, and iBiquity has shown a willingness over the years to lobby the OEMs to make sure those tuners are digital.

So whether or not you like HD Radio, or even know or care what it is, the odds are even that your next car is going to have one. If it does, check out the official list of stations, and maybe you'll find something in your area that you like. And if it doesn’t, well, you’ll probably still be able to listen to your favorite HD Radio station via internet radio, or even in your car with the right radio app.

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