Howard University’s WHUR (96.3FM) is leading the way to the next big thing: high definition radio. The adult contemporary station is the first commercial radio station in the Washington, D.C., market to broadcast using this digital signal, which provides superior sound-quality, the same way HD television provides better picture quality.
For now, this improvement allows WHUR listeners to hear a clearer analog signal and will eventually send compact disc quality through the airwaves when HD radios are brought to market in the next two years. “A lot of African Americans spend a lot of money on their sound systems and HD receivers will cost only about $200 for your car. From that standpoint this is not even a gamble, we are just an early adopter,” says Jim Watkins, WHUR general manager.
According to the developers of HD radio technology, iBiquity Digital Corp., only 300 stations throughout the U.S. have converted to digital so far, and the radio conglomerates are slow to adapt. “We thought it would have been more big market stations embracing this, but it’s been all over the map,” says iBiquity COO Jeff Jury, noting that the first to switch to digital was an FM station in Detroit. “It will take close to a decade to convert all the stations, but we expect stations in metros with big populations to convert in the next two to three years.”
Watkins says the timing was right for WHUR to convert because its transmission system was a bit antiquated. “The antenna was the same one I put in when I was chief engineer in 1971,” laughs Watkins. But more seriously, Watkins says the investment, which at minimum cost, $30,000 to $90,000, made fiscal sense. When fully developed, HD radio will allow text messaging to be sent to a listener’s sound system. This will allow stations to send listener’s artist and music title information, in addition to providing another advertisement outlet.
“We are the only stand-alone station in the market,” says Watkins. “We are competing against Clear Channel and Radio One. Anything we can do to get an edge, we have to go for it,” Watkins rationalizes.