Radio stations vow to speed digital moves

Big broadcast giants say they plan to move faster toward Net-like airwaves, as popularity of satellite radio surges.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
Major radio companies announced Wednesday that they are accelerating their move to digitize their broadcasts, using new technology that could make broadcast radio more like the Internet.

The agreement, which dramatically increases the number of stations that companies plan to upgrade over the next few years, includes most of the biggest radio conglomerates, such as Clear Channel, Infinity Broadcasting, Cox Radio and others. Some of those had announced their expansion plans separately.

Today, about 500 stations are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to offer digital radio services, also known as HD radio, with about half of those already on air. The commitments from the radio companies, many of which are not yet licensed, would bring that total to about 2,500 stations around the United States.

"HD radio will especially benefit those in middle- and small-sized markets," Terry Jacobs, chief executive officer of Regent Communications, said in a statement. "This new technology will enable us to bring more local programming broadcast at a higher quality than ever before."

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All of the companies will use products created by Ibiquity, whose technology was selected in 2002 by the FCC to be the standard for digital radio in the United States. That will allow them to improve sound quality, to split their current FM broadcasts into several channels and even to deliver on-demand information such as weather, sports scores and artist details.

In theory, that could also allow radios with hard drives that archive near-perfect copies of songs with artist information attached. That has worried record labels, which are seeking federal rules preventing songs from being automatically saved by listeners.

Consumer electronics companies are expected to announce new HD radio receivers at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Prices in HD radio receivers have dropped about 50 percent compared with last year, which will spur consumer sales, according to Robert Struble, chief of iBiquity Digital, adding that broadcasters have responded in turn.

"Broadcasters have invested over $200 million, making that the largest collective investment in radio," he said.

Alpine, JVC and Kenwood will be coming out with HD Radios, with 15 to 20 more from other manufacturers by the end of the year, according to Struble.

CNET News.com's Richard Shim contributed to this report.