My friends laugh at me a bit for being the only person they know who thinks FM radio is a killer smartphone feature. The number of radios in my house is solidly in double digits. You could say I’m a bit of a radio geek (I could even point you to a list of some of my favorite stations).
So, when the tuner on my surround sound receiver died a few years ago, I naturally thought “cool, I get to buy a new radio!” and snapped up one of the last Sony HD Radio receivers I could find. At the time, Sony had just discontinued most of their HD Radio receivers.
In hindsight, it’s not exactly an encouraging sign you’re at the cutting edge of technology when Sony — who still sells boomboxes with cassette decks — decides to drop a technology. (And that was four years ago!)
But I ignored the red flags and looked forward to checking out some HD Radio stations with my spiffy new radio. In cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, these HD Radio stations carry specialty formats you can’t find elsewhere on the dial, like 80s music, dance, comedy, oldies, and so on.
Unfortunately, HD Radio never really took off here in Madison. Sure, there are a still a few HD stations on the air: a 24-hour classical music station from Wisconsin Public Radio and a Blues station on Triple M‘s HD2 channel, to name a couple. I would include links to their web sites, but in another sign of how obscure HD radio is: they don’t have one!
iHeart Media (formerly “Clear Channel”) owns the largest cluster of Madison radio stations. When I fired up my then-new HD radio a few years ago, Clear Channel was making a half-hearted effort with classic country on 96.3 HD2 and modern rock on WIBA-FM (101.5)’s HD2 station. I’m not a classic country fan, but I can tell you the “Mad Radio” modern rock format would go off the air for weeks at a time and sounded like an afterthought. Now, those formats are long gone. iHeart still runs HD2 stations on each of their Madison FM stations (92.1, 96.3, 101.5 and 104.1 FM), but they’re now running even more obscure formats. Two of the stations, I’m not sure I could even describe what they play. Hodgepop?
Of the other ten commercial FM stations in Madison not owned by iHeart, only one (Triple M) is running HD radio. That’s not exactly the satellite radio-like cornucopia of stations the HD Radio marketing folks would like you to believe are out there. Speaking of which, take the directory of HD stations at hdradio.com with a grain of salt — in Madison, more than half the HD2/HD3 stations listed at hdradio.com are incorrect or missing.
Even if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a nice selection of HD stations, you may have a hard time picking them up. To prevent interference to other stations, HD radio signals are limited to just 4% of the power used by the parent station’s analog signal. This limits HD Radio’s range and ability to penetrate buildings.
Also disappointing: HD Radio’s sound quality. With “HD” in the name, most people would assume that HD Radio would offer better sound quality than analog radio; in my experience, they’d be wrong. Music on some of these HD2 channels often sounds like low-quality MP3s. Analog radio sounds much better than “HD” radio, as do many streaming services (e.g., Pandora, Spotify) and online stations.
So, why pay for HD radio? Good question. Maybe the radio industry can yet come up with an answer. At the moment, unfortunately, it seems they’re a few years late to the party, with a crummy product that will do little if anything to stem the defection of erstwhile radio listeners to alternatives like Pandora and Spotify.
Recently, I realized it had been weeks or months since I had used my HD Radio. I took a look on Amazon, and found that Sony HD radio receiver I bought for $90 a few years ago is now somehow a collector’s item or something and worth $400. Sold! Now I have the money to go buy some gadgets I can actually get some use out of, like a Bluetooth speaker to stream music from my phone.
So, goodbye for now, HD radio. Maybe we’ll meet again down the road if my next car has HD radio. I hope so, but even with the radio industry’s recent success getting car manufacturers to include HD radios as standard equipment, HD Radio remains an elusive feature on many car models — available on only the more expensive trim levels, or as part of an expensive add-on package, if it’s available at all.
My favorite “radio” stations
Alternative / modern rock / whatever you want to call it, it was the soundtrack to my college years and still my favorite radio format. There’s no ‘alternative’ station here in Madison, so I listen to a lot of online radio. Besides the station that introduced me to the format 20 years ago (WPGU!), some other favorites are:
- RadioBDC (Boston) — the Boston Globe has its own (web-only) modern rock radio station, featuring some brilliant DJs from the now gone but similarly awesome WFNX, You can even listen to RadioBDC in iTunes’ “Internet Radio” window (if you can find it!).
- Channel 93.3 (Denver) – great retro show at noon (1pm here in Madison), DJs that still talk about the music (without annoying the bejeezus out of you) and Nerf’s LOL at 5:05 make putting up with the sometimes long-ish commercial breaks worth it.
- WNRN (Charlottesville) – no commercials, just great music. It’s more of an ‘adult alternative’ and/or folk station, especially in the morning.
- Live 105 (San Francisco) – good example of the west coast’s spin on the alternative format, and also available in iTunes Internet Radio. Lots of commercials, though.