THINK TANK: Welcome to the Wonderful World of HD

The Vancouver airwaves have seen a number of changes over the past few weeks, with Durham Radio Inc. launching the low-powered Wave FM; Rogers replacing Hot AC’er KiSS after a seven year run with Alternative Rock outlet SONiC; and Pattison Media shifting their established Alternative station The Peak over to the HD world while launching NOW!, a new Hot AC using the 102.7 frequency that’d previously been home to The Peak. On the surface, it’s pretty much just the typical stuff that happens in the broadcast biz, with companies jockeying to create new listening options that will – hopefully – translate into stronger ratings and improved opportunities to sell commercial time.

Except the situation with The Peak is a little different from anything we’ve ever seen before as they will be moving to the HD+ portion 102.7 of the frequency.

So, just a little background on the whole HD thing. Seasoned broadcasters might remember the DAB debacle that happened back in the 90s, which was a failed experiment to launch digital radio in Canada using the Eureka 147 technology that had been gaining traction in Europe. During that same timeframe, American broadcasters started to roll out HD radio (using IBOC, or “in-band on-channel” technology). IBOC utilizes the sideband frequencies that exist alongside a station’s analog broadcast signal, allowing for a number of new digital channels to exist, though they can only be heard with radios containing HD decoders.

Implementation of HD has been slow in Canada, with the media companies that have invested in the necessary hardware typically just rebroadcasting their existing properties on the digital channels, an example being Corus Entertainment, which runs 980 CKNW and AM730 on the HD2 & HD3 channels associated with the FM-based Rock 101. In a concrete-heavy urban environment, where AM signals tend to get impaired, it’s a reasonable solution for delivering those stations via a digital signal that’s comparable to that of FM.

But using those HD channels simply as rebroadcasters could be seen as a lost opportunity.

Consider that the way people consume radio in the home has changed over the past decade – with the advent of phone apps and online streaming, fewer and fewer people listen through the traditional stand-alone radio. The recent Infinite Dial Canada 2022 presentation from Edison Research revealed some interesting facts:

88% of Canadian adults have a Smartphone.
Nearly 1/3 of Canadians 18+ own a Smart Speaker.
25% of adults listened to an AM/FM station online in the last month.
75% listened to some form of online audio in the last month.
AM/FM in-car listening continues to decline, while online radio consumption in-car continues to increase, with ownership of vehicle in-dash information & entertainment systems now at an all-time high.

Plus there’s also the fact that virtually every new car sold in the past decade has been able to receive HD signals, whether the owner knows it or how to operate it.

Management at any radio chain would have a detailed trove of data regarding usage of the app, Smart Speaker and the website “Listen Live” streams. Considering that a station like The Peak is vying for the tech-savvy 18-34 demo, you’ve got to wonder just how many are listening through an actual, physical old-style radio. And does that number justify using an analog FM frequency to deliver the station to those ears?

If Pattison had shifted The Peak over to a dedicated HD channel a few years ago, one could assume that the impact to their listeners would have been quite dramatic, but now, with so many ways to access the signal through technology that virtually everybody has at their fingertips, the move to HD is a progressive one.

As far as the CRTC is concerned, they’ve yet to develop an actual policy regarding HD radio, so right now there are no handcuffs preventing broadcasters from experimenting with new ideas and concepts that they would otherwise not be able to consider – much less even try – in the traditional AM/FM world. And let’s also not forget that by filling those HD1 / HD2 / HD3 channels with unique content, you create new sales opportunities, a concept which is at the central core of commercial radio.

Can Pattison, and The Peak, be successful and show that broadcasting has evolved in ways beyond the traditional delivery system, or will this attempt at creating a stand-alone HD property suffer the fate experienced by DAB oh-so-many years ago?

Fingers crossed that it’s the start of a new trend of HD utilization that’ll sweep across the country.