RDS returns to 99.1 WDCH-FM Bowie, MD after three-year hiatus

One of the few full-power radio stations in the Washington, DC area that did not run RDS now does.  I first noticed RDS running on 99.1 WDCH-FM Bowie, MD, a local station of mine, in 2006 when I bought my first RDS-capable radio.  I’m not sure how long the station ran RDS before that.  However, in 2016 when the signal flipped from news to business news, the RDS disappeared.  While scanning the FM dial on December 29, 2019, I found the station was once again broadcasting RDS.  I have added the RDS screenshots below to my Woodbridge, VA RDS/HD Radio Screenshots page.

 

Apparent new HD Radio callsign IDs appear; incompatible with Sony XDR-F1HD

One benefit of owning an HD Radio in the United States is that all HD signals display a digital ID. Most stations broadcast their callsign assigned to them by the FCC, i.e. “WKYS,” while others broadcast their name, such as “STAR-FM.” Regardless of if a station chooses to show their callsign or name, they are limited to four characters and an optional suffix of “-FM” at the end (the latter having no bearing on if the actual station’s callsign legally has “-FM” in it, or not).  Now it seems there is a new type of digital callsign appearing on stations that cannot be displayed on older HD radios, such as the Sony XDR-F1HD.

The Sony XDR-F1HD and its sister radios (the XDR-S10HDiP and XDR-S3HD) are among the first generation of HD Radios that debuted in 2008.  The radios would always quickly identify all HD Radio callsigns once an IBOC signal was found, regardless of if it was “WKYS” or “STAR-FM.”

Local 96.3 WHUR Washington, DC’s HD Radio signal was on and off-air sporadically in the first few months of 2019.  Their analog signal was also off-air at times, too.  Because of this, I assumed the station was upgrading their equipment. Before 2019, the station had a digital callsign of “WHUR-FM” on all HD Radios, as seen in the screenshot to the left below. For a brief period in April 2019, the broadcasted callsign was simply “HD,” as seen to the right below. Both callsigns were easily read and displayed by the Sony XDR radios.

Much to my surprise, during a dial scan on the Sony XDR-S10HDiP on May 18, I found the station was not broadcasting any digital callsign at all. The XDR-S3HD and XDR-F1HD radios also didn’t show any callsign on WHUR.

In my 20 years of DXing (11 of them having HD Radio capabilities), I have never seen a station simply not have a callsign displayed when their digital signal was tuned in.  Puzzled, I got out my other HD Radios (the Insignia NS-HD01 and Insignia NS-HDRAD2) and found that they were, indeed, displaying a digital callsign from WHUR, albeit with a new suffix at the end I had never seen before: “WHUR HD.”

The next day, I tuned in WHUR on my parent’s 2016-model car that has HD Radio, and found it could also “see” the updated “WHUR HD” callsign.

Another HD-capable radio I own, the Sangean HDR-14, can only display four characters in its digital callsign area and it doesn’t display the “-FM” suffix on participating stations.  This is a limitation of the radio itself, and the “HD1+!” seen on the screen below is not part of the callsign and is instead a function of the radio–it appears on all HD Radio signals, regardless if they have the “-FM” in their displayed callsign or not.  Even with the built-in limitations, the radio still displays the first four characters of WHUR’s updated “WHUR HD” callsign, as seen below. It doesn’t show a blank callsign like the Sony XDR radios do.

I think one of two scenarios are likely, given the developments with WHUR’s new callsign:

  1. HD Radio technology now allows a third “HD” suffix at the end of callsigns. A station can pick “WKYS,” “WKYS-FM,” or “WKYS HD.”
  2. Instead of being limited to four characters with an optional suffix at the end, HD Radio stations can now utilize the full seven characters to display any text of their liking.  This means a station could theoretically display “Hot1025” or “Country” as their HD callsign. In this scenario, WHUR simply chose “HD” at the end of a fully-customized seven character string.

As for why the Sony XDR-series radios cannot see the new WHUR callsign, I am leaning toward option #2 being what is in play at the moment. Since there are differences in suffixes already between HD Radio signals and all radios simply display whatever the station chose, I would assume that any HD radio would be able to show “HD” as a suffix if that was the case.  The technology is already there to account for differences in suffixes. In that instance, the Sony XDR radios should display “WHUR HD” without a problem.

Option #2, which affords changing the HD Radio data standard to allow for seven character callsigns, however, may cause a problem with older first-generation HD radios like the Sony XDRs.  My other HD Radios were manufactured 2012-2018, so they likely have newer technology under the hood that would be compatible with future upgrades in the HD Radio standard, such as allowing for longer digital callsigns.  Under this theory, since the Sony XDR radios are too old, they don’t “understand” the longer callsign being broadcast and, therefore, can’t display them, resulting in a blank on-screen display.

If my suspicions regarding option #2 are correct, then this would be a blow to the DXing community, since it means that if a station upgrades to the latest HD Radio technology, then there’s a chance that those with older HD Radios won’t be able to see any callsign upon a successful decode.  The potential of any digital radio simply not displaying a callsign due to an incompatibility in technology when other equipment could is a disappointment and it may mean a DXer could miss an otherwise slam dunk ID.

Hopefully, this is just an isolated issue with WHUR’s HD Radio signal, and not a sign of things to come nationwide.

Three first-time RDS decodes from regional FM stations

During minimal tropo enhancement on April 8, I received first-time RDS decodes from three previously-logged signals.  My RDS/HD Radio Screenshots page has been updated with these new screenshots.

The first signal, 89.1 WCNV Heathesville, VA, is 67 miles away from my home and was first received on 5/5/07.  Although my radio detected a strong RDS carrier from WCNV, the station did not broadcast any radiotext, PT, or PTY data.

4/8/19, RDS (no text)

89.7 WXMD California, MD, at 40 miles away, was first logged on 6/15/16 and has been received over local 89.7 W209BY multiple times without any trace of RDS.  That changed on April 4.

4/8/19, RDS

Being first logged on 5/10/99, 105.5 WRAR-FM Tappahannock, VA was among the first signals I had ever received.  They seemed to have turned on RDS sometime in late 2018 or early 2019, because I did not get RDS from them before.

4/8/19, RDS

The HD Radio callsign: How it has evolved over the years

HD Radio, also known as IBOC (In Band-On Channel), is the United States’ choice for digital radio broadcasting.  It debuted locally in my area in 2006.  One of the (few) benefits of HD Radio for listeners is the ability for capable stations to display their callsign on the screen of any HD Radio.  For DXers, this is a major plus, because during an intense tropo or Sporadic E event, one could theoretically identify any received IBOC signal immediately without the need to listen to the station for several minutes for an audio ID, potentially during a time when the signal would fade out, never to be heard (or identified) again.

The Sony XDR-F1HD radio displaying an HD Radio decode from 95.5 WPGC Morningside, MD, in 2008.
5/29/08, HD Radio

I purchased my first HD Radio, the Sony XDR-F1HD, in 2008.  The first HD Radio signal I received via Sporadic E was in May of that year, 97.5 KMOD Tulsa, OK, at 1045 miles away.  The distance didn’t matter–I knew it was KMOD the moment I tuned to 97.5 FM, since the station’s callsign flashed on my screen, as seen in the picture to the right.

Oops! Errors in the display

2008, HD Radio

Occasionally, I would come across a station broadcasting an incorrect callsign in the early days of HD Radio, such as my local 93.9 WKYS identifying as “KHRS-FM” for the better part of one day in 2008.

Ironically, a friend of mine in the Houston, TX area found the same incorrect KHRS callsign on his local 97.5 FM, whose real callsign was KFNC, in 2011.  Other stations occasionally displayed some variant of “HD-FM” or “HDHD-FM” at some point, too.  Just like the appearance of the KHRS calls on multiple stations, the error was often quickly fixed to the correct callsign.  Even still, it posed an issue for listeners wondering the true identity of what station they had tuned in.

The move to name-based callsign displays

For a few years it was a given–if your radio decoded an IBOC signal, you could positively identify it with minimal effort.  Although the aforementioned errors were rare, things started to change in the first half of the 2010s.  During a Sporadic E opening in 2010, I received a callsign from an HD Radio signal that said “RRR.”  Knowing that “RRR” was not a valid United States callsign, I had to listen to the signal to see what it was and where it was coming from.  I quickly learned that “RRR” stood for “Red River Radio,” a public radio network in Texas and Louisiana.  The station itself was 88.9 KLDN Lufkin, TX.  A year later, I picked up a station identifying on my radio screen as “TROY-FM,” which was later found to be 88.7 WRWA Dothan, AL, a signal broadcasting from Troy University.

By 2015, the sheer majority of HD Radio signals I encountered both via DX and while traveling in other cities largely still had their actual callsign displayed when tuned in.   This slowly began to change.  I noticed more and more stations showing their station name instead of their callsigns when tuned to HD Radio, most notably stations named “Kiss FM.”  Instead of callsigns, the HD Radio displayed “KISS-FM” on many of these stations.

In the following years, many radio groups switched their entire portfolio of HD signals in certain markets from callsign displays to name displays.  It isn’t happening in every city in America, but it is common enough that most major cities have at least two or three stations now with name displays.

The phenomenon was most obvious in Pittsburgh, PA.  I first visited Pittsburgh in 2016 and established an extensive DX log during my stay.  At the time, 10 of the city’s HD Radio signals had callsign displays, while two (96.1 WKST & 104.7 WPGH) had name displays, “KISS-FM” and “BIG -FM,” respectively.

When I returned to the market in 2019, four more of the same stations that previously had callsign displays switched to name displays, bringing the total of stations utilizing name displays in the market to six.

Washington: A rarity in HD Radio markets

My local market of Washington, DC is unique in that all 21 HD Radio signals currently broadcasting still display their callsigns in their HD displays as of 2019.  None have name displays.  Even so, there have been many changes in exactly what callsign appears on each signal.

Over the years, most of the signals in Washington flip-flopped between displaying their callsign with the “-FM” prefix at the end, to simply displaying the four-letter callsign itself.  This had no bearing on if the station’s actual callsign legally had “-FM” as a part of it or not.

In 2018, three Washington signals had “-FM” at the end of their callsign display: 88.5 WAMU, 93.9 WKYS, and 102.3 WMMJ.

Less than a year later, these stations removed the “-FM.”

Interestingly enough, I also noticed local 96.3 WHUR’s usual HD Radio display was replaced with an errornous “HD” callsign on April 4, as seen on the right screenshot below.  I predict this will be fixed in the coming days.

My take

Personally, I prefer the actual station callsign to be always visible on HD Radio signals.  Although it is always amusing to see how creative station owners can get with fitting a station name into a four-digit “spot” on stations that do have name displays, I think that it takes away from the intended purpose of HD Radio in terms of being able to identify which signal is being received.  It also makes DXing much harder because there is the chance of a distant signal coming in and disappearing before it is identified–even if its IBOC signal is fully decoded.

My prediction: within the next few years, at least one Washington HD Radio signal will switch to a name-based digital screen ID.  We will see how right I am in the coming years.

Travel DX Logs from Norfolk, VA and Richmond, VA updated

I visited the Norfolk, VA area during the President’s Day weekend and updated my existing logs.  While on my way to Norfolk, I stopped for lunch in Richmond, VA and updated my logs from that city.  I added a handful of new logs, plus dozens of new HD Radio and RDS screenshots from each city, too.  Click on the links below, or view all of my travel DX logs from dozens of U.S. cities.

First-time HD Radio decode from 820 WWFD Frederick, MD

Last summer, I wrote about how nearby 820 WWFD in Frederick, MD, ended its analog transmissions and went all-IBOC, the first traditional FM or AM station in the United States to do that.  WWFD, at 53 miles away from my Northern Virginia home, was an occasional visitor during the day prior to its HD transition, but it did not fully decode until January 14.  That decode lasted a few seconds, just long enough for me to get the picture below from my Sangean HDR-14.  This screenshot has been added to my AM HD Radio Screenshots page.

1/14/19, HD Radio

Review of the Sangean HDR-14 Portable HD Radio

The Sangean HDR-14 portable HD Radio with box.

Having been an HD Radio-capable DXer for over a decade now, I’ve seen many radios come and go, including the legendary Sony XDR-F1HD, as well as others, like the ultra-portable Insignia NS-HD01 and its cousin, the tabletop Insignia NS-HDRAD2.  I’ve heard about Sangean’s lineup of radios, but none seemed that interesting to me until I came across the Sangean HDR-14.

The HDR-14, a new release for 2018, is a portable radio that can handle both FM and AM HD Radio with ease.  The HDR-14, which is $77.58 at time of publication on Amazon, is tiny, at 5″ x 3.02″ x 1.28″, smaller overall than a typical iPhone but a little thicker.  It fits easily in the palm of one’s hand and is powered with the included AC adapter or three AA batteries.

Analog FM radio performance

The Sangean radio was quick to tune in all of the typical analog FM signals within 70 miles that usually come in during deadband December conditions.  Reception seemed on par with other portable radios I own, including both Insignias.  I’m sure when DX conditions are present that this radio will excel in getting stations further away.  RDS was decoded on almost all of my regional signals that utilize it.  Most surprisingly, the HDR-14 decoded RDS from two very weak Washington, DC FM translators, something that even the Airspy has difficulty doing at my home.  Although the radio only affords one line for RDS, you can cycle through the screen to see the PT, PTY, and other RDS fields.

The Sangean HDR-14 decoding RDS from 101.5 WBQB Fredericksburg, VA at 24 miles away on 12/22/18.

Perhaps the best feature with RDS on this radio is the ability for it to show radio station callsigns derived from its RDS PI code.  In the screenshot above, the “WBQB” calls were derived from the station’s broadcasted PI code, 58ED.  For reasons unknown to me, I’ve noticed this feature doesn’t work on all stations broadcasting RDS, and unlike the Airspy, this is not the first RDS data point decoded.

As with any radio that displays PI codes or callsigns derived from PIs, if the radio station itself broadcasts the wrong PI code (i.e. most iHeart stations), the wrong callsign will appear on-screen.  This is a problem rooted with the broadcaster and not the radio itself, but it is important to point out.

FM HD Radio performance

The Sangean HDR-14 radio decoding HD Radio from 100.3 WBIG Washington, DC at 24 miles away on 12/22/18.

This radio is very sensitive detecting HD signals.  My local FMs, at 15-20 miles, decode fully in HD even with the antenna all the way down, which is not possible with the Sony or Insignia radios.  The radio displays HD callsigns in the top left corner at all times but it does not show the “-FM” extension that some stations broadcast.  The frequency disappears on-screen when HD is decoded, but you can toggle it back on through the menu, like I did in the picture above.  You can also view HD radiotext on the second line of the screen if you cycle through the menu.  The radio allows you to tune to HD2 and HD3 signals, where available.

AM analog and AM HD Radio performance

The Sangean HDR-14 decoding 880 WCBS New York, NY at 238 miles away on 12/23/18.

Although I’m sure there are better AM radios out there, I was blown away with how good the AM section is on the HDR-14.  It sounds just as good as the XDR-F1HD’s AM radio.  It picked up the usual regional AM powerhouses from Boston, Chicago, and New York at night, and at the same time I heard some of the more rarer signals that even the XDR-F1HD can’t get, such as a tiny 10-watt AM station at a community college 5 miles away from me.  Simply put, the HDR-14 is a respectable AM radio and it is probably going to be my primary AM radio now, given how easy it is to move room to room with it in my home.

AM HD Radio on the Sangean radio was comparable to the Sony XDR-F1HD, with the same stations decoding their HD signals.  Much like on FM, you can toggle between HD radiotext and the frequency on the screen’s second line when an HD Radio signal is decoded.

Traveling abroad

Although I haven’t had a chance to take this radio outside of the United States, it appears to be the best-suited radio out of the many that I have in my shack to handle international radio conditions.  Beyond being small enough to throw in a bag, it can be programmed to tune in 50, 100, and 200 KHz steps for FM as well as different tuning steps for AM in foreign countries.  The radio also can be reprogrammed to tune down to 76.1 FM, the beginning of the FM dial in Japan.  These features are very rare to find in radios sold in the USA.  I know that regardless of wherever I go, this radio will work.  Of course, HD Radio will only be available in the USA and some areas in Mexico and Canada, but RDS should work just fine abroad.

The HDR-14 has this handy little kickstand on the back that swivels out to keep it upright on a table.

Downsides

Even though I love this little radio, it is not perfect.  The HDR-14 is not a clone of the Sony or Airspy radios and it should not be considered to be a primary DXing radio.  The radio’s selectivity leaves a little to be desired, as I noticed some bleedthrough on frequencies adjacent to local FM stations as if the radio’s IF filters were set a little too wide.  With that said, however, the radio is very sensitive and it will tune in a very weak signal on an adjacent-to-local frequency right over the minor bleedthrough, so I don’t think this is a dealbreaker for me with this being a secondary radio.

The backlight of the Sangean HDR-14 only stays on for a few seconds at a time.

As seen in the above picture, the backlight of the HDR-14 only stays on for a few seconds after a button is pressed, which is a disappointment.  The reflective screen sometimes makes it difficult to read without the backlight on.  The radio itself is also fairly shiny, which shows fingerprints.  For its price, the plastic on the radio could’ve been a little more robust and/or texturized.  The radio also only has one speaker and isn’t the best of quality, but it is loud and suffices for its intended use.  The included headphone jack is an improvement over the speaker’s sound but it does not have good stereo separation, even when an HD Radio station is tuned in.

The Sangean HDR-14’s long and fragile extendable whip antenna.

The radio has a generously long antenna, but the thinner “sections” close to the tip are fragile and seem prone to bending if one isn’t careful while using it.

The radio will actively decode HD Radio whenever available and you can’t disable this, which is a downside if any given station’s HD broadcast sounds worse than its analog counterpart.  This seems to be a limitation in most HD Radios on the market, so although I don’t fault Sangean for not including this feature with the HDR-14, it would’ve been nice if they did.

Final verdict

If one buys this radio understanding that it won’t be a powerhouse DXing radio, then they will love it.  It’s a perfect travel radio to throw in a bag and take to the beach or the park.  It can quickly pick up HD signals and it performs well in the AM band, too.

Screenshots from the Sangean HDR-14 are clear and easily readable, such as this one from 101.1 WWDC Washington, DC.

For DXers who like to screenshot RDS and HD Radio decodes, this radio provides a perfect screen with robust information, even if you have to scroll through to see it all.  Even with its several downsides, this radio has replaced the Insignia NS-HDRAD2 as my secondary travel radio and I do recommend it to all.  I will still travel with my Airspy R2 as a primary radio, however, due to its reputation as one of the best FM radios out there, but the Sangean HDR-14 has earned its place in my ever-growing collection of radios.

My RDS and HD Radio Screenshots pages have been updated with new RDS and HD Radio screenshots from the Sangean HDR-14.