HD Radio Beams New Content To Tampa Bay's Ears

By now, most of us have heard about HD radio. But do you know what it is?

Often confused with HD (high definition) television, HD radio is similar only in the fact that it began as a way to increase the quality of the signal. But the HD in HD radio doesn't stand for high definition, it stands for hybrid digital.

Conventional AM and FM radio stations send out analog signals. Listeners pick up audio waves with their radios that are turned into music. HD radio allows AM and FM stations to broadcast digital signals and send out data, instead of audio waves, which is processed by an HD radio and turned into sound.

"It's kind of the big thing in radio right now, but it's competing with everything else for people's ears," says Dustin Hapli, radio operations manager at WUSF Public Broadcasting, speaking from the station's studios at the University of South Florida campus in Tampa. "If you ask the end user, most of them will say, what's HD radio?"

According to hdradio.com, 210 HD channels can be found on 126 radio stations in Florida. In the nation, 1,800 stations broadcast more than 900 alternative HD channels. WUSF was the first in public broadcasting to do so.

Back in 2003, Hapli and the crew at WUSF -- which began in 1963 as a student-run station but now operates as a professional enterprise -- secured the technology to become the premier public HD radio station in the nation.

Originally, the HD radio technology was going to be used much like the HD television technology -- to increase the quality of the product,
Hapli says. But engineers soon realized that this wasn't the real value of the technology, because people couldn't hear the "super duper quality of the signal."

Instead, HD radio engineers figured out a way to subdivide the signal into a number of different channels on one frequency. Hapli says this is the most popular usage of HD radio to date, especially in large media markets.

"Ideally, you would buy a second station and put alternative programming on it, but in the Tampa market, pretty much all the frequencies are bought up. It would cost several million dollars to try to buy another one," Hapli says.

Expanding HD Radio's Reach

The alternative channels that have come from the HD radio technology are a way to diversify such markets, he says.

"We use the second channel as a way of trying to give people more choice," Hapli says. "A lot of stations are doing a lot of formats on their second channels that would not technically be viable as a mainstream. It gives other music formats that might not be as popular a chance
to expand."

WUSF launched its second channel in 2006. A variety of commercial stations in Tampa and nationwide also have at least one HD channel in addition to their regular programming.

Orlando's classic rock station, 96.5 WHTQ, has devoted its HD2 station entirely to news and talk, and Miami's hip hop station WMIB 103.5 broadcasts "hallelujah" gospel music on its second HD station.   

In the Tampa Bay region, a unique partnership was born out of this technology. The USF student-run WBUL content is now broadcast on public radio station WMNF's second HD channel. Official in September 2009, the partnership between a student-run station and a community station is the first of its kind in the country.

WMNF station manager Jim Bennett says allowing WBUL to air on WMNF's second HD channel has made the small, campus radio station accessible to a much larger audience.

"When this was first talked about, it seemed like a great idea because it was really about empowering that station to be the best it could be," Bennett says.

He adds that WBUL brings to WMNF what many stations that try to implement alternative channels often lack: the personnel or resources to put together original programming. WMNF has plenty of staff and resources at WBUL to have a second channel.

Listening To HD Radio

Aside from not knowing what HD radio actually is, many people don't know how to access it. The actual broadcast of HD radio is free and doesn't cost anything to use -- if you have an HD radio.

Some of the least expensive radios sell for about $50, but they can range up to $1,000. Bennett says he is skeptical that people will buy another piece of technology in addition to the myriad of devices out there today -- iPhones, mp3 players, laptops, etc.

"If there's no compelling reason for them to switch to HD, why should they? For WMNF, we think the main compelling reason is to have a unique program service that they can't get anywhere else, which is why the Bulls radio idea is so good," he says.

Bennett also says that making HD radio more accessible and convenient through things like multi-use technology and the Internet will help spread its popularity. Multi-use technology includes the iPhone, which now has an application that allows users to put an HD receiver into their phones, and the Microsoft Zune, the first mp3 player to have a built-in HD radio receiver.

Both Bennett and Hapli say that HD radio's appeal lies in alternative programming that allows listeners to gain access to artists, news and music genres that might not be popular or easily tapped.

"By making HD radio available in existing technologies, making it more accessible and providing original and unique content with something people can actually interact with, that's what really going to attract people," Bennett says. 

Michelle Stark, a journalism student at the University of South Florida, is a freelance writer who is a newspaper/magazine junkie and a caffeine fiend. Between learning an abundance of journalism skills in preparation for the "real world" after graduation in May, she frequents Tampa's indie clubs/concerts and does Pilates. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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