- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

There are 30 HD Radio channels in the Washington area, but it’s not clear if D.C. radio listeners know they exist.

In fact, according to at least one local station’s technology director, many listeners don’t even know what HD Radio is.

“Not enough people have heard the good word” when it comes to the growing digital service, said Richard Cassidy, director of information technology and new media at public radio outlet WAMU-FM (88.5).

In a nutshell: A station broadcasting in HD sends out a digital signal (along with its traditional AM/FM analog signal), which is then decoded by an HD Radio receiver. It enables broadcasters to offer multiple channels using the same amount of radio spectrum by compressing the signals digitally and improves sound quality because HD receivers can filter out typical distortions that occur when the signal encounters a tall building or a large hill.

The service is free. Listeners don’t pay a subscription, but they must buy a special HD Radio receiver to hear HD channels. Receivers vary in cost from $190 at Wal-Mart to $1,500 from a high-end retailer.

In the D.C. area, 20 over-the-air stations have HD channels, according to HD Radio Alliance, a group of major broadcasters and independent station owners. Usually, the first channel is a digital version of the traditional analog signal, while a second or third channel features a new offering or genre. WAMU is currently the only local station with three HD channels.

“We wanted to better serve our audience and one channel wasn’t enough,” Mr. Cassidy explained. “We took a look at some of the formats we felt were under-served in the market.”

The American University station started broadcasting a digital version of its analog signal a couple of years ago. Last fall, it rolled out its second and third HD channels: a D.C. broadcast of Towson University’s Adult Album Alternative station, WTMD-FM; and an all-bluegrass channel.

For those still mourning the passing of oldies in the D.C. area former oldies station WBIG-FM (100.3) flipped to classic rock nearly one year ago there’s a 50s and 60s hits HD channel. There’s a channel devoted to ballads and love songs and, according to the HD Radio Alliance, channels devoted to female talk and unsigned bands are in the works.

But there’s still the challenge of getting the word out about HD, Mr. Cassidy said. Although WAMU runs consistent on-air reminders about its HD channels, he estimates its HD listeners to be somewhere “in the hundreds.”

“So we’re just hoping through good programming and getting the word out, people may be tempted to give it a try,” he said, citing as a significant step the recent decision by BMW to be the first automaker to offer factory-installed HD Radio as an option throughout its entire product line.

Nationwide figures on HD Radio listeners are hard to come by because there is no subscription and radio ratings firm Arbitron does not yet measure HD listening. However, an HD Radio Alliance spokesman said the group expects to sell more than 1 million receivers this year.

As of last month, 1,204 out of about 15,000 AM and FM stations were broadcasting in HD, covering 176 markets, according to the Alliance.

When it comes to the inevitable comparison of HD Radio with satellite services, longtime radio engineer Mr. Cassidy said the sound quality depends on how many channels are squeezed into the same band of spectrum.

Channel Surfing runs Wednesdays. Call 202/636-3139 or e-mail krowlandwashingtontimes.com.

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