If you buy a new car this year, chances are good that it will come with a new kind of radio - one that picks up digital broadcasts along with traditional analog signals.
The new technology, known as HD Radio, will be available in 185 vehicle models from 35 auto manufacturers. HD Radio will be standard in 90 of those models, and as an option in the remainder.
The digital broadcasts are the radio industry's way of competing in "the new dashboard," where services like satellite radio, and apps like Pandora and Spotify can be connected via a driver’s cellphone.
Digital broadcasting allows an FM station to send out multiple signals on one frequency. A station features its usual format on HD channel 1, and uses HD-2 and HD-3 channels to broadcast other content.
For instance, a station in the Twin Cities runs classic rock on HD-1 and classic country on HD-2. Most stations in larger markets like Minneapolis and St. Paul have converted to digital broadcasting, but stations in smaller markets have not yet implemented the technology.
Unlike satellite radio and services used through cellphones, HD Radio is available free over the air and does not require an internet connection or data plan.
Northland Community & Technical College station Pioneer 90.1 began digital broadcasting four years ago. At the time, HD Radio receivers were difficult to find. Now that’s changing.
Station manager Mark Johnson said he’s getting feedback from listeners tuning in to Pioneer 90.1’s two additional channels, Northern Air on HD-2 and Pioneer 90.1 Classic on HD-3.
Northern Air features programs from Ampers, an association of independent public radio stations across Minnesota. In between those shows, listeners hear a wide variety of music submitted by Minnesota- based performers.
Pioneer 90.1 Classic is billed as “a fresh approach to oldies.” It carries a commercial-free blend of music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. All of Northland’s stations are also available on a phone app and online.
Johnson hopes to recruit volunteers to host radio programs on the HD channels. “We’re finally getting calls and Facebook posts about the digital channels. The receivers are out there now. It’s been exciting. Now that more people are hearing these new stations, we want to start building them out with volunteer shows like we have on the main station,” Johnson said.
Volunteer hosts on Pioneer 90.1 now include musician Cathy Erickson, “Saturday Morning Barn Dance” hosts Ron and Elsie Shereck, classical music host Philip McKenzie, “Jazz and Stuff” host Pat Ledin-Dunning, weekday host Lisa Dixon, singer-songwriter Carl Unbehaun, and David 'Burns' Chrzanowski, who hosts two weekly programs on the station.
Other station staff heard on-air are Johnson, Ron West, Glen Braget, and Chris Cuppett.
“I think having a show on the oldies channel would be a lot of fun for somebody who might be retired and looking for something creative to do. We have a music library of thousands of songs, or they could bring in their own collection. And now that the school year is ending, that might be a great opportunity for a student to try out radio for the summer months,” Johnson said.
Volunteers don’t need to have any previous experience in broadcasting. Station staff will train volunteers to run the equipment.
The digital stations currently don’t travel as far as the analog signal (see coverage map). Johnson said that in order to match the 60-70 mile coverage area of Pioneer 90.1’s main signal, the station would have to make changes to its broadcast antenna. Fundraising for that project and others is ongoing.
Since Pioneer 90.1 is mandated by the FCC to be a non-commercial station, it relies on listener donations, grants, and business underwriters to operate. About 6 percent of its operating budget comes from Northland. Station staff is not paid by the Northland general fund.
Johnson said that the station is building ties with the communities it serves. “We hope that businesses in the area will see value in the exposure we give to area organizations like the libraries, the arts council, the chamber of commerce, and the school arts programs and help us keep the station growing by becoming underwriting partners,” he said.
Unlike commercial stations, business underwriting on Pioneer 90.1 cannot list price information, “calls to action,” and language that compares one company’s products and services with another business.
“Essentially, when a business supports us, they are giving a donation. But we are able to acknowledge that gift on the air with announcements that list a company’s name and location, the services they offer, their location, and contact information,” Johnson said.
Underwriting on the HD stations will help Pioneer 90.1 pay for the upgrade to its antenna, allowing the digital channels to be heard as far away as Greenbush to the north and Ada to the south.
"We used to be strictly a lab for students,” Johnson said. “Today, we’re still doing that, but we're also opening up access to the airwaves to anybody that wants to be on the air. That has made the station something that a lot of people really care about. It's really unlike anything else out there, and we have our volunteers and supporters to thank for that," Johnson said.
For information on supporting Pioneer 90.1 as a business underwriter, to make a personal contribution, or to become a volunteer, Johnson can be reached at 218-683-8587 or at email@example.com.
Northland Community and Technical College is a comprehensive college with campuses in Thief River Falls, MN and East Grand Forks, MN. NCTC also has an aerospace site in Thief River Falls, MN and a satellite site in Roseau, MN. NCTC offers certificates, diplomas, transfer courses, two-year AAS degrees in more than 60 areas of study, workforce training and education programs. NCTC is a member of Minnesota State, and is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association. NCTC is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer & educator. Visit NCTC online at www.northlandcollege.edu.