Spoutin' Off: Local internet radio show is quality

By Michael Rau

March 3, 2009

In this week's column, I will engage in shameless hucksterism.

Here's how:

I have this old friend named Hunter Hughes. Now as it happens, Hunter is perhaps the most talented programmer of music in the Hampton Roads area. So much so that for many years, he had his own special little radio show on Sunday mornings that acquired something of a cult following.

His show was cancelled late last year by the same type of people who are responsible for almost ruining the American music industry.

But as reported by Sam McDonald several days ago, Hunter launched a new show called “Hunter at Sunrise” on March 1st.

Now by way of disclosure, I have to tell you that I built his Website (hunteratsunrise.com). But since neither of us is generating income from this gig, I feel no shame in telling you about it here.

However, this column isn't about Hunter's show (which airs live Sunday mornings from 7 a.m. until 12 noon), but rather about the technology that made it possible.

While you can listen to a very high-quality live stream on his Website, Hunter's show is actually airing on WHRV-FM HD3.

For the majority of us, we probably don't have a clue what that means, so although I confess to being ignorant beyond my research, I'm going to pass on what I've learned.

HD Radio is simply a digital audio broadcast format. Contrary to what you might think, HD in this case stands for “Hybrid Digital”, not “high-definition”. It's been around for a few years now, but is still virtually unknown in the consumer marketplace.

The reason is this: Commercial radio stations have little need to use them for their primary broadcasts, and little motive for offering listeners an alternate channel (they want you to listen to their primary channel, after all). Thus there simply hasn't been enough alternate programming available on HD Radio to pique consumer interest. Thankfully, I think that's slowly changing.

Using vartv.com's excellent database of broadcasters in the greater Hampton Roads area (http://hamptonroads.vartv.com), I sussed out that there are 55 FM and 24 AM radio stations in our market. Some of these are low power, or are used for utility purposes such as by VDOT for traffic reports.

No AM stations here are using HD Radio, although my understanding is that the technology is applicable in a limited fashion to the AM spectrum, too.

As with digital TV, a broadcaster can send out more than one FM stream. There are 12 stations in Hampton Roads broadcasting a total of 26 HD Radio streams.

Most of these are just digital simulcasts of the station's analog programming. It's the other streams that are really intriguing.

For example, WHRV-FM HD3 is a station labeled “RadioNtenna”. It's 24/7 of fantastic Alternative Music programming with almost no interruptions. It's produced right at WHRO/WHRV, and streamed out via HD Radio, as well as through Internet Radio applications. Hunter at Sunrise is their first live program exclusive to RadioNtenna.

Other local streams that I haven't yet heard, but which grabbed my interest, are one for comedy, one that says it's “Traditional Jazz”, and most interesting to me, one for Blues, seductively called “The Delta”.

These four formats cover almost everything that interests me on radio, with little commercial interruption and none of the juvenile inane DJ chatter that often makes me want to drive into a jersey wall just to stop the pain.

RadioNtenna alone is so good, I think I'm gonna save to buy an HD Radio for my vehicle just so I can listen to it while I drive.

This brings us to a problem. Because there's been no push by the industry to publicize HD Radio, few people are familiar with it, so few ask retailers about it, so few terrestrial retailers carry the receivers.

In a quick check of the likely suppliers (Best Buy, Radio Shack, Sears), I found few examples available – most pretty pricey. For example, Best Buy Online says they have many car stereos that are “HD-Ready”, but these still need another component (of course, these things change so quickly, this could be the week one of them decides to improve their stock).

Fortunately, if you go online, it's a different matter. In fact, I found several vehicle systems with integrated HD receivers, as well as the other expected bells and whistles like iPod jacks and satellite capability, some under $150.

There are also stand-alone home models and component receivers, just like with good ol' analog radios.

I guess local stores will beef up their stock if there's more public interest. In the meantime, just enter “HD Radio” in your favorite online shopping search engine. You'll do fine.

I've often raved in this column about Internet Radio and that hasn't changed. I'm still looking forward to being able to access Internet Radio as easily as broadcast stations. But now I'm also hooked on HD Radio.

It's all about you being able to listen to what you choose instead of what some stupid computer program picks.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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