Confirmed: HD Radio signals can now have long text IDs

Prior to 2019, whenever I would tune to local 96.3 WHUR Washington, DC, I would see the station’s callsign, “WHUR-FM” appear on my Sony XDR-F1HD‘s radio’s screen when the station’s HD Radio signal decoded, as seen below.  Stations in the United States can display a four-character identification, which most stations utilize to display their callsign, such as WTOP or KRBE.  Some stations, instead, display their station name, such as “BEAT” or “JACK.”  Regardless, the station could also display the “-FM” suffix at the end of their ID if they so chose.

But in May 2019, I noticed the HD callsign on 96.3 WHUR was no longer visible on my radio’s screen when the HD Radio signal decoded:

This was peculiar, because up until now, I never saw an HD Radio station decode without a text ID.  It was one of the few pluses of DXing with an HD Radio receiver.  At the same time, my Insignia NS-HD01A (left below) and a Toyota car radio (right below) that I checked both displayed a different HD text identification: “WHUR HD.”

Shortly after this revelation, I surmised that newer HD Radio receivers like the two pictured above had the ability to display a custom length HD text ID, while older radios, such as the Sony XDR-F1HD further up in this post, could not, hence the blank space where the HD text ID should appear.

In March, I noticed that nearby 103.7 WURV from Richmond, VA decoded HD Radio on my XDR-F1HD radio with a blank text ID, just like WHUR.  It wasn’t until the early morning hours of June 2 when my NS-HD01A radio decoded HD Radio from WURV that I realized they now have a 10-character HD text ID: “103.7 Play,” which is also the station’s name.

HD Radio debuted in the United States in the mid-2000s.  Until now, all stations had up to a four character HD Radio text ID.  My reception of WURV on June 2 confirms that stations nationwide are now rolling out a longer station ID.  This should be of minimal concern to those listening to HD Radio in their cars, as those radios are, more or less, fairly new.  The late model car radios should easily decode the longer text IDs.  The issue comes with those who may have an early generation HD Radio receiver, as the affected station(s) may no longer show any identification at all on-screen.  This is a downside for FM DXing, since we can now no longer fully rely on the station’s text ID for a positive identification.

Spring radio signal enhancement in Northern Virginia

The trees are slowly getting their leaves.  The weather is getting warmer by the day.  With this becomes increased FM and TV signal enhancement.  In the early morning hours of March 30, I found my usual regional FM signals from nearby markets within 140 miles away (Norfolk, VA, Ocean City, MD, and Richmond, VA) coming in briefly, some signals strong enough to decode HD Radio.  We still have some time before some great DX openings occur, but it is great to see things slowly opening up.

Prior to my reception of common visitor 103.7 WURV Richmond, VA, at 82 miles away from my home on March 30, their HD Radio callsign displayed on my radios as “WURV,” as seen below in my archived HD Radio screenshots.

On March 30, I saw the station changed their ID to “103.” as seen in the screenshot below.

I wonder if WURV upgraded to a seven-character custom HD Radio callsign ID, much like my local 96.3 WHUR Washington, DC recently did.  I only picked up WURV’s HD signal last night on the Sangean HDR-14, which cuts off any HD callsign that’s longer than 4 characters.  I will have to see if my other radios, such as the Insignia NS-HD01, shows a longer HD callsign.  Once I know, I’ll report here.

 

HD Radio returns to Washington’s 91.9 WGTS

While scanning the FM dial the other day, I noticed that HD Radio has returned to 91.9 WGTS Takoma Park, MD, a local radio station of mine.  WGTS, which serves the Washington, DC area, first turned on its HD Radio signal in 2015, but turned it off in 2018.  The station was analog-only in the meantime before IBOC was turned back on this year.

The return of HD Radio on WGTS is a downside toward the hobby of DXing in my area.  While WGTS was analog-only, 92.1 FM was wide open for receiving distant radio signals.  Now that WGTS resumed HD broadcasting, 92.1 FM is now blocked out for regular DXing, since one of WGTS’ two digital sidebands is broadcasted on 92.1 FM.  Only strong DX will come in on 92.1 FM over WGTS’ digital sideband in the future.  The same thing applies to 91.7 FM, the frequency of WGTS’ other digital sideband, but 91.7 FM was desensitized to distant DX signals at my home already, as nearby 91.5 WBJC Baltimore, MD’s 91.7 digital HD sideband often comes in strongly, also blocking DX on that frequency.

Since I have purchased the Sangean HDR-14 radio while WGTS was analog-only, I added the HD Radio screenshot below from WGTS to my HD Radio and RDS Screenshots page.  I also updated my local FM radio stations page to reflect the new developments with WGTS.

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.

KMOD-FM, 5/29/08, HD RadioI 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

WKYS, 2008, HD RadioOccasionally, 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