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HD Radio

By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
HD Radio

HD radio, which has struggled to establish itself among emerging audio technologies, had another lackluster year.

To deliver its improved sound quality, HD radio depends on terrestrial stations adding HD transmission capabilities in order to grow.  The number of stations that converted in 2009 was almost identical to the number from 2008 — 184 and 185 respectively. But that is a massive fall from those that converted from 2005 to 2007.  And it doesn’t bring the industry even close to having the majority of stations providing HD.

The 2009 conversions put the total number of stations that broadcast digitally with HD at 2,012,  a fraction of the nation’s 14,417 radio stations.1

Changes in the Number of Stations Converting to HD
Design Your Own Chart
BIA Financial Network and PEJ Research

This data suggests that HD conversion is in real trouble, having peaked in 2006 and declining since. The pattern is reminiscent of the experience half a century ago of FM radio, which declined before finally growing again. And a key reason for the similarity is they share the same cause – a lack of unique programming to encourage potential listeners to invest in the still-expensive receivers needed to enjoy the new service.

News/talk, the No. 1 format in HD (as it is for analog outlets), continued to feature in most of the conversions. Of the 184 stations that converted, 102 were news/talk outlets, which put the total of news/talk stations at 478 in 2009, up from 376 in 2008.2

Changes in Number of HD Stations
BIA Financial Network and PEJ Research

HD radio has failed to attract much consumer interest, despite a large marketing campaign.  Only 32% of people said they were very or somewhat interested in HD radio in 2008, up from 30% in 2007.3 Some of this could be tied to hard economic times. A typical HD radio costs about $100 (several times the cost of an analog receiver), and twice that for one installed in a car, although there is no monthly fee as there is with satellite radio. Or it could be that people are choosing other options for their listening.

In one notable sign of hope for the industry, five car manufacturers made HD radio available as an extra-cost option in 2009 models. Audi announced it would make the technology standard in all its models by 2010, but this had not happened in the 2010 models that came out in the end of 2009.  This brings to 13 the number of car companies offering the option.4

Supporters of the HD industry see the auto market as a key to its future, both to build consumer awareness and because so much radio listening is done while traveling.


1. BIA Financial Network and PEJ Research

2. BIA Financial Network and PEJ Research

3. “The Infinite Dial 2009”, Arbitron, April, 2009

4. David Pogue,  “HD Radio Crying Out to Be Heard,” New York Times, April 8, 2009.