- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs recently uttered six words destined to make his office look like a Best Buy warehouse: “I wish I had a radio,” Mr. Gibbs reportedly said amid questioning about the Obama administration’s sparring with Rush Limbaugh.

The next day, WTOP-AM pundit Mark Plotkin, the HD Radio Alliance and Clear Channel Radio station WIHT-FM sent Mr. Gibbs a bushel of radios, according to media reports, many of which could get HD Radio signals and then “tag” songs to be linked to an iPod.

While I doubt Mr. Gibbs is spending too much time marking Coldplay ditties for later download, the episode brought some attention to HD Radio, a concept that has taken root at more than 2,000 radio stations and perhaps in your car or the car you might be hoping to buy. Interestingly, the mecca of HD Radio development is in Columbia, Md., where an outfit called iBiquity Digital Corp. has developed and continues to refine HD Radio.

Simply put, HD Radio is digital radio sent over the airwaves to a compatible receiver.

“Duh,” you say, “that’s what AM and FM do now.”

True, I’d reply, but the difference here is that the signal is digital, the quality - supposedly - is better, and you get more channels and more data coming into the radio. Stuff like artists’ names and song titles. Or a digital radio channel with nonstop traffic reports to tell you about the stopped traffic on the Beltway. Or one with bluegrass music if that’s your fancy.

The idea is to let stations pour content into these channels and give more to consumers as a way to keep them tuned to a broadcast station as opposed to tuning in satellite radio or hooking their iPods into the stereo and tooling off down the road.

In practice, HD Radio seems a very good idea that may yet find its sea legs. Everything works as advertised, at least in my at-home testing. Whether it’s compelling enough to make you want to switch or upgrade will depend on your tastes in music and programming.

The folks at iBiquity lent me a tabletop Sony HD Radio that, they said, retails for $149. Although some receivers sell in the $300 and up range, a number cost less than $150; a TEAC supposedly is on sale at some Costco stores for $99. The Sony and similar units incorporate a clock radio with an alarm and a dock for an iPod or iPhone. This latter feature seems crucial: If you “tag,” or select, a broadcast song, the radio will transfer that information to your iPod. When you’re next connected to Apple’s iTunes software, the “tags” will transfer to the computer, and you’ll have the option of buying the songs.

The HD Radio folks say they think there’s a big demand for this sort of thing, and perhaps there is. I found the feature nice, and it worked flawlessly, but I’m not sure it’s a tipping point for me.

More compelling is the expansion of broadcast choices and the better sound quality. A few years back, WAMU-FM (Mr. Plotkin’s one-time stomping ground) had a fair amount of bluegrass programming on Sundays. The shows were popular, but there was more demand for other formats, and the music was pushed aside - until HD Radio, that is. Now WAMU is able to send forth bluegrass 24/7, which apparently is a boon to many listeners.

Ditto for traffic reports and WTOP-FM. Anyone who drives around this town knows the pain we call commuting. Though WTOP airs reports every 10 minutes, that’s not often enough for some, so one of that station’s HD channels is dedicated to continuous replays of traffic reporting.

The sound quality could be the real deal maker, however. In listening to digital radio, I found a better quality of signal and sound than the analog equivalents. This is good in voice programming but critical for music. The HD Radio stations I could get at home were more on the pop-music and country side of the dial as opposed to classical, but the quality was very impressive.

Time will tell how popular HD Radio becomes, and my only question is: How do we combine all this stuff? You have satellite radio, analog radio, HD Radio, Internet radio, music streaming - where will it all end? For that, as they say in radioland, tune in tomorrow.

• What’s your dial set to? E-mail mkellner@washington times.com.

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