The Death of HD Radio

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 thing 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 the better part of 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.

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.

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, and, sure, that’s great for both iBiquity and maybe even for the radio industry as a whole. But if you listen to the contrarians, you’ll hear a completely different story. 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, obviously means that the end is nigh for the format as a whole.

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. 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.

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 there are 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.

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, there’s still a pretty good chance that your next car is going to have one. 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, which is the direction GM is going with its HD Radioless cars anyway.