HD Radio sends strong signal, but audience weak

Radio broadcasters are fine-tuning their pitch for HD Radio, the industry's response to satellite radio.

By now, the audience for the free digital signals that piggyback on standard AM/FM broadcasts was expected to be more than 1 million strong.

The 1,700-plus HD Radio channels on the air cover more than 83% of the USA with programming that goes beyond standard fare. Digital technology allows stations to broadcast one or two new channels in addition to simulcasting the current analog one.

HD Radio sounds better, too: The digital FM signals rival CD quality, while the quality of digital AM signals compares with that of traditional FM.

But the format has gained little traction since HD Radio receivers became available more than two years ago. As few as 500,000 listeners have bought the new radios needed to tune in. "Most listeners have heard of it, but there is a very tough row to hoe here in terms of interest," says Dave Van Dyke of research firm Bridge Ratings. "The economy is now affecting the growth of it. Most people just don't see the need. The industry has to show people why they need it."

New HD Radio moves:

•More variety. Nearly half of all HD channels feature formats rarely found on the dial these days, from gay-programming-oriented Pride Radio at Hartford's KISS 95.7 to "mashups" such as Cincinnati's WOFX 92.5, whose Mother Trucker pairs classic country such as Merle Haggard with rockers such as ZZ Top. "This is unique content you wouldn't get anywhere else," says Jeff Littlejohn of Clear Channel, with 800-plus HD stations broadcasting in its markets.

•Connecting to iPods. A new HD Radio feature called "iTunes tagging" lets listeners hit a "tag" button on their radio when they hear a song they like. iTunes will list the tagged songs after syncing with the iPod for previewing and purchase.

•Less expensive hardware. The first wave of HD Radios were pricey, up to $500. New radios to be announced Wednesday include sub-$100 models from Sony, Coby and iLuv and others for less than $200.

"Once you create compelling content, things start to take off," says Pierre Bouvard of Arbitron, which begins tracking HD Radio this summer. "I think we are at that point."