TV went digital in 2009. Why is radio still analog?

Hey, remember back when you saw your first high-definition TV? Compared to the average tube TV, it was amazing. Blindingly bright, sharp, and realistic. Of course we take that for granted now, so much so that you can get a TV that would have blown $20,000 sets out of the water for about $200 now.

Think, too, about when you got your first smartphone with HD-Voice. Someone called and it was like the sound was going through a high-end speaker. Someone without the capability called and you remembered how raspy and thin most phone service has sounded for 100 years.

Now think about the last time you listened to the radio in your car. Even with a masterful sound system, FM radio still sounds kind of awful, right? It makes you wonder why you can’t have a jump in quality like you got from your TV or phone.

Good news and bad news

The good news is that digital radio is already here. SiriusXM is a satellite and terrestrial delivered digital radio system that’s been around for 15 years. It’s built into many cars. While it’s subscription based, it’s not that expensive and the company is known for making sweetheart deals if you call and threaten to cancel.

A bit more good news, free digital radio is also out there. It’s called HD Radio and you might already be using it in your car. It’s built into a lot of cars, just like SiriusXM. HD Radio uses tiny bits of frequency in the FM band to offer a digital mirror of AM stations, with much better quality. Most infotainment systems with HD Radio built in will automatically switch to it when you tune an AM frequency.

And I’ll hit you with a bit more good news. In late 2020, the FCC released guidance that would allow AM stations to move completely to digital. I wrote about it at the time. If implemented, this would allow quality that rivals Spotify using the AM broadcast band.

Oh yeah, the bad news

SiriusXM has never really managed to change the world. They didn’t compete well against free AM/FM radio, and they aren’t competing terribly well against Spotify and other streaming rivals. HD Radio is great, but uptake has been pretty weak in the consumer space. If it weren’t included in new cars, it probably wouldn’t have any listeners at all.

And that digital AM radio plan? Well, it seems we all had our minds on something else in late 2020, and it’s only been lately that we have begun to think of other things. That 2020 problem kept us out of our cars for a while, too, meaning that all forms of digital radio got to be less popular.

Might be time to revise expectations

The truth is, there’s already a dominant form of digital broadcasting. It’s just not what you’d call “radio.” You can stream virtually anything with a cell data plan, and that includes high quality feeds of local stations using apps like iHeartRadio. Streaming is displacing traditional radio for many folks. Traditional radio isn’t going anywhere, though. It’s not only required for public safety, it’s actually pretty good business. Although radio broadcasting is expensive, it uses a well-defined model to bring in advertising dollars. It’s free to the user, and radios are available everywhere for very reasonable prices.

I’m not sure I would risk rocking the apple cart just to add quality to broadcast radio. I’d rather keep things the way they are rather than risk people losing access to radio broadcasts.

On the other hand, the world of streaming just keeps getting better. And whether you want a recommendation on a great sounding radio or advice on upgrading your cell plan, there’s one place to go. Get the information you need from technicians you can trust. Shop at Solid Signal, or call us during East Coast business hours. We don’t run an overseas call center. We run a team of smart, honest folks in our corporate offices outside Detroit. We’re here for you at 888-233-7563.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.