Radio faces new digital challenges

While the NAB show has grown into a showcase far beyond mere terrestrial broadcasting in recent years, the oldest electronic medium of all remains an important draw to the annual multi-industry gathering.

Radio, for its part, continues to pursue its own specific goals and agenda, especially as the age of digital convergence is quickly descending upon thousands of AM and FM broadcasters. On several fronts—technical, economic and regulatory—the radio industry and its newfound mammoth-group owners head into NAB 2001 with much to consider.

For one, the widespread downturn in dotcom enterprises, coupled with a music copyright challenge relating to music streaming now in the courts, could signal at least a temporary setback for radio on the Web. And low-power FM stations once again are perceived as a threat to traditional FM broadcasters with Congress renewing the controversy in recent months.

The radio hall will offer 90,000 square feet of wares from about 125 exhibitors. Yet with Internet and wireless applications for radio services showing tremendous diversity these days, NAB officials caution that other radio/audio exhibitors, including radio Web streamers, will be found this week within the Sands Convention Center main exhibits (and in the Sands' eTopia area).

Digitally speaking, terrestrial digital audio broadcast (DAB) is fast approaching and currently is on track to become a practical consumer reality before digital television, whose transition began several years ago. What's more, pay-subscription satellite radio could be only months away from launching a revolutionary new service and providing fresh competition for traditional, local radio broadcasters.

Local digital broadcasting using existing analog-radio frequencies still is in the field-test stage, but key proponent iBiquity Digital contends the new technology is very close to becoming a reality. iBiquity, formed last year with the merger of Lucent Digital Radio and USA Digital, will offer live on-air broadcasts via Las Vegas stations KSFN(AM) and KWNR(FM) from transmitters located on the radio/audio exhibits floor at the booths of Broadcast Electronics (R2505) and Nautel (2725). (The session "DAB: How Soon is Now?" is today at 1 p.m.)

Both the proposed FM and AM digital transmission standards are in-band/on-channel (IBOC), which means today's broadcasters will not have to change frequencies as the TV industry must do for its digital transition. And Robert Struble, iBiquity's president and CEO, says the near-FM quality that the new AM service will provide could dramatically help revive music formats for AM outlets.

Gary Fries, who heads the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), says DAB is "most definitely a very, very major plus for radio. It will help AM stations significantly. It will be difficult to tell whether you're listening to AM or FM digital, in many cases." Once the formal NRSC testing is completed this summer or fall, the FCC will be asked for its formal approval of the new FM-AM transmission standards. Then, says Struble, "We should see new IBOC transmission equipment very soon."

Yet what about the looming competition of national satellite-radio service provided by two companies, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius? Although they've had a few recent technical setups and the companies' stocks have fallen sharply in recent months, the service is on a faster track than terrestrial DAB, with a few satellites already launched and orbiting above North America.

Each company will offer a hundred national digital channels, and, for about $10 monthly, subscribers could begin receiving digital service via special receivers by late summer or fall. Some major automakers have tentative plans to install the $500 digital radio receivers in a couple of their 2002 higher-end models. Neither company is exhibiting at the NAB, but they will be the subject of a panel tomorrow at 9 a.m.: "Satellite Radio: The Rest of the Story."

"Satellite radio is something we're watching," says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "Most people listen to radio for local news, school closings, traffic reports. We think they'll find a niche audience for this, but the vast majority will continue to tune into their hometown stations." Fries agrees, adding, "This will be very much a niche service. Local radio is a security blanket for a lot of listeners because of its local content. Satellite radio will have a long way to go to be a quality service."

Some NAB exhibitors are taking Struble's advice to heart this week. For DAB, Harris Radio will feature its AM IBOC-capable, DX Destiny series, second-generation DX transmitter 3DX50. This 50 kW AM transmitter continues the IBOC tradition started by the DX-10 transmitter, which was used to conduct the first terrestrial digital tests nearly a decade ago. For FM broadcasters, Harris Radio also will display its ZD20CD, 20 kW Platinum Z transmitter in Las Vegas. The transmitter will be FM-only, but Harris says the Z series is capable of being IBOC-convertible. Most digital transmitters on the air today are Z-IBOC transmitters, which are those used by iBiquity Digital for field-testing.

"Since the merger of USADR and Lucent into iBiquity, the competition between IBOC proponents has ended," says Harris Senior Manager Daryl Buechting. "Therefore, I think the IBOC displays and hoopla that we had seen at previous NABs may be low key this year. This should not be interpreted as less interest in IBOC, but more as the lull before the storm. By NAB 2002, a [new] standard will be in place and there will be IBOC excitement like you've never seen at NAB."