More than 600 new radio stations have come to America's airwaves in the past three years - and you probably haven't noticed.
Fewer than a half-million Americans use a new technology called HD radio, which was invented by a Maryland company. It gives listeners a host of new options. But that may soon change, as HD radio sets are getting cheaper and broadcasters are launching an all-out campaign to draw listeners.
"We're in the early stages of a major technological transition," said Robert J. Struble, president and chief executive of Ibiquity Digital Corp., the Columbia company that invented HD radio. HD radio listening has been limited to affluent early adopters.
HD radio is a digital format that lets radio stations deliver better-sounding audio on both AM and FM bands. With HD, AM sound quality matches that of standard FM audio, while FM signals approach the quality of store-bought CDs. HD radio also lets stations squeeze more broadcasting streams into their current frequency. AM stations can offer two audio signals instead of one, while FM stations can deliver three or four sound streams.
That's good news for an industry that's often criticized for dull, predictable offerings.
"Have we put out the most creative, different form of programming that's possible?" said Buzz Knight, vice president of program development at Greater Media Inc., which runs five stations in Boston. "A lot of cases, we look at our programming and our industry, and say, 'No we haven't.'"
Greater Media is using its HD channels for fresher, more diverse programs. Boston's WTKK, an FM talk station, now offers an HD radio channel that plays nothing but music from Ireland. Classic soft rock station WROR has an HD station that exclusively plays music from the 1970s.
Many HD radio streams can be heard over the Internet, by visiting the individual stations' Web sites, or going to radiosherpa.com, a site that provides links to hundreds of online radio streams.
But don't try tuning in with a standard radio. You'll need an HD-compatible set, which until recently cost $500 or more. That's finally starting to change. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, launched this month a promotion to sell HD-compatible car radios for about $190 in nearly 2,000 of its stores. The sales campaign features radio ads subsidized by the HD Digital Radio Alliance, an industry coalition created to promote the new technology. Member stations are donating advertising airtime worth millions of dollars to retailers who promote HD radios.
"Once we deliver a sub-$200 price tag radio, that is a significant tipping point in consumer adoption," said alliance president Peter Ferrara.
Besides Wal-Mart, specialty retailer Sharper Image and automaker BMW are running radio ads for their latest HD offerings.
HD radio's diverse programming, all of it free of charge, could give earthbound broadcasters a boost as they compete with the dozens of channels offered by subscription satellite broadcasters Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc.
Ironically, that might be good news for Sirius and XM. The two companies disclosed plans last month for a $13 billion merger.
Critics say antitrust regulators should reject a deal that would create a satellite radio monopoly. But officials of the two companies say they would still face competition against a variety of powerful rivals, including HD radio stations.
"Over a decade ago, when the first satellite licenses first came out, there were no iPods, there was no HD radio, there were no streaming music on cell phones," XM Chairman Gary M. Parsons said in an interview with Reuters.
Ibiquity's Struble plays down the idea of competition between HD and satellite radio.
"My view is that the technologies are complementary," he said. HD radio is free and tailored to local markets, while satellite delivers a much larger selection of channels, each available nationwide.
"It's sort of like HBO and basic cable," Struble said. "One's a niche service; one's a mass-market service."