Sinclair wants to deliver radio streams via ATSC 3.0 signals

(Image: Sinclair Broadcasting Group/Handout, Graphic: The Desk)

The Sinclair Broadcast Group is readying the launch of three radio stations via its next-generation ATSC 3.0 signal in Seattle.

The radio stations would be simulcasts of its four owned-and-operated AM and FM stations that already broadcast traditional analog radio signals.

The three stations — KOMO (1000 AM, 97.7 FM), KPLZ (101.5 FM) and KVI (570 AM) — would live alongside a dozen Stingray-produced channels branded “STIRR XT” that already exist on Sinclair’s next-generation signal in the market. STIRR is the brand name of Sinclair’s free streaming television service.

“One of the reasons we are doing this is because the automotive guys always ask, Is there an alternative to digital radio [and] SiriusXM that can be delivered by via the ATSC 3.0 standard?” Mark Aitken, an executive in charge of Advanced Technology, the Sinclair-backed consortium developing the ATSC 3.0 standard, said in a recent interview with TV Tech.

Aitken didn’t say which “automotive guys” had inquired about the new technology being used for radio delivery, but Aitken said there’s “a real compelling reason to consider the inclusion of ATSC 3.0 receivers in cars.”

Maybe. But history is littered with examples of new audio standards attempting to challenge the traditional delivery of analog radio, with mixed — but mostly no — success. In the early 1980s, some American automakers briefly experimented with offering stereo AM receivers in their cars, only to eventually secede the war to FM radio, which started going mainstream around the same time. The Ibquity-backed HD Radio never really gained much traction thanks in large part to Ibquity’s insistence on a royalty every time a manufacturer included their exclusive technology in stereos.

SiriusXM, a satellite-delivered radio, has experienced a mild form of success thanks in part to its attraction of top-tier entertainment and sports talent, including New York radio personalities Howard Stern, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia. It also made deals early on with car makers to pre-install SiriusXM hardware in new vehicles on pure faith that customers will like the service and eventually subscribe to it (most do not).

SiriusXM was also not without its struggles: Early on, the service operated as two independent companies — Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio — and both argued they would reach the brink of insolvency if federal regulators didn’t approve a merger. (They did in 2008.) The merger kept both companies afloat just long enough for their recent pivot in strategy toward streaming media — SiriusXM now owns Pandora and Stitcher, and its companion streaming app offers hundreds of commercial-free music channels compared to more than 70 on the satellite service.

Radio is no longer a medium people actively listen to — it’s something people put on in their cars to drown out what would otherwise be a mundane commute. Most drivers flip through presets with reckless abandon — there might be some loyalty to a morning show, but there’s little loyalty to a radio brand anymore. This is true even for a subscription service like SiriusXM.

Still, Sinclair might be able to pull off ATSC 3 radio where HD radio and SiriusXM have struggled, as long as it doesn’t insist on demanding a royalty payment for each ATSC 3-compatible receiver like Ibiquity did with HD Radio. Instead, Sinclair could find success in three ways:

  1. Offer high-quality audio streams: SiriusXM fans are loyal to the service, but a common complaint is the compression of the signal results in subpar audio quality. ATSC 3 radio could solve this through better compression mechanisms that deliver cleaner audio to users.
  2. Offer diversity in music formats: What used to be a small market problem is quickly becoming a large market problem, too — all the stations sound the same, and there’s very little music diversity. Blame commercialization, pop music and a lack of space on the dial. SiriusXM suffers from many of the same problems. ATSC 3 could solve them by offering listeners something different, especially in markets that are underserved by specific formats like classical, jazz, alternative rock and R&B.
  3. Simulcasting their signal: Localization is important, but commuters are increasingly moving between two or more radio markets during their daily drive. Simulcasting signals, and offering technology that allows radios to seamlessly switch frequencies between markets, would generate a significant amount of interest. Digital radio in Europe has done this for years, and it’s one of the reasons why radio still thrives there.

It would be naïve to assume Sinclair’s plans for ATSC 3 radio don’t include a subscription component — ATSC 3.0 technology allows for this (and at least one company, Evoca, is actively taking advantage of the feature for pay television in a limited number of test markets). If that happens, Sinclair would have to ensure it didn’t price-out consumers the way SiriusXM has over the years.

For now, Sinclair’s radio simulcasts appear to be more of an experiment — a proof of performance to see if anyone is interested. Car makers are, apparently. Time will tell if consumers are.