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Taking radio to the next level

AM radio has never been taken seriously by audiophiles, and with good reason: The scratchy, staticky, narrowband mono signal is only good for talk these days. Or is it?

AM radio has never been taken seriously by audiophiles, and with good reason: The scratchy, staticky, narrowband mono signal is only good for talk these days. Or is it? iBiquity Digital, which has offices in Pontiac (along with Columbia, Md., and Warren, N.J.) doesn’t think so. iBiquity’s HD Radio technology aims to transform today’s analog AM/FM radio to digital, radically upgrading the signals offered on both bands. The company wants to make AM sound like current FM, and for FM to have CD-level quality. President and CEO Bob Struble talks about how iBiquity intends to accomplish that.

How and why did iBiquity get started?

iBiquity Digital’s predecessor company, USA Digital Radio was formed by three forward-looking radio broadcasters–CBS, Gannett, and Westinghouse–in the early 1990s. iBiquity itself was formed in August 2000 by the merger of USA Digital Radio and Lucent Digital Radio, the two leading developers of AM and FM digital broadcasting technology.

Since its inception, the company’s sole purpose was to create and implement a technology (now known as HD Radio) to allow AM and FM radio to move beyond the limitations of analog and begin digital broadcasting.

HD Radio was also viewed as a critical tool in helping AM and FM stations level the playing field with encroaching digital competitors such as satellite radio, the internet and MP3s.

Can you tell us what HD Radio is and how it works?

Unlike HDTV, which requires an entirely new spectrum, HD Radio uses the current AM and FM spectrum. It works by transmitting digital audio and data alongside existing AM and FM analog signals, allowing listeners to enjoy CD-quality sound and virtually eliminating the static and hiss associated with today’s analog broadcasts.

The technology also provides a platform for advanced data services that, combined with display screens on HD Radio-enabled receivers, deliver listeners a variety of additional information such as song titles, artist names, traffic updates, weather forecasts, sports scores, and more.

How would the average listener know the difference between an HD Radio signal and a regular radio signal?

The first thing listeners with HD Radio receivers experience is the dramatically improved sound quality. AM has been upgraded to the level of today’s FM broadcasts; FM is CD quality. Listeners will also quickly notice the background hiss and pops that are common with analog virtually disappear with HD Radio.

When these sound improvements are combined with data services ranging from song information to on-demand traffic and weather reports, there will be no doubt that this is not your father’s radio.

Some of your investors include communications giants like ABC and Clear Channel. Are they all adopting HD Radio technology for their stations?

Yes. Each of our investors is in the process of implementing HD Radio with their stations. We also have individual stations owners in cities like Birmingham, Alabama and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who have adopted the technology, so the range of stations and formats is really quite diverse.

Are their other applications for this technology besides radio?

Our core technology is designed specifically for radio, but as I mentioned earlier, HD Radio provides the platform for a number of new services and capabilities (including those that have yet to be imagined) to be delivered through the radio.

Does the consumer require special hardware to hear HD Radio signals?

Not special, but new. The consumer will need to purchase an HD Radio-enabled receiver. Currently, Kenwood, Panasonic, and JVC offer HD Radio receivers with several other manufacturers expected to debut products in the coming months. All of these radios also receive the existing analog broadcasts, so listeners have forward and backward compatibility, and there are no subscription fees associated with HD Radio.

What are some of iBiquity’s other more notable initiatives?

iBiquity (along with Kenwood and Harris Corp.) is currently working with National Public Radio on a project called “Tomorrow Radio.” Leveraging the capabilities of the HD Radio system, select NPR test stations are experimenting with splitting the HD Radio signal to produce two distinct programs over the same frequency. If successful–initial test results have been very positive–this initiative would double the programming choices for listeners of NPR stations. Imagine classical music being played on 97.1-A while Morning Edition is replayed on 97.1-B for the benefit of anyone who may have missed it earlier. It’s a project filled with limitless programming possibilities, and it may be a reality as soon as 2005.

What are your thoughts on the future of digital sound, either in the radio business or out of it?

The past thirty years of consumer electronic product evolution proves conclusively that digital is the only viable future for audio. Ten years from now, we won’t talk about digital radio, just like we don’t talk about color TV now. It will just be radio.

What are some of iBiquity’s future plans?

While our focus to date has been on the U.S., anywhere in the world that uses analog for AM and FM radio is a potential market for HD Radio. Once we receive deeper penetration in the U.S., we plan to more closely pursue opportunities in South America, Europe and Asia.

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