In most major cities in the United States, the future of radio is already on the air. But hardly anyone is listening.

The problem is, hardly anyone can. More than 570 stations around the county are now broadcasting in the new digital radio format, but only a relative handful of actual digital radio receivers have been sold, or are even available to consumers who want to buy them.

With competitive pressures growing from satellite radio and the iPod, radio companies had hoped that this year’s shopping season would finally see a significant number of high-definition radios hitting the market. But several major manufacturers have pushed back releases until 2006, likely dooming these hopes.

“We are seeing a month-or-two slippage, which is not uncommon with new technologies,” said Robert Struble, chief executive officer of Ibiquity, the company that created the standard HD radio technology. “But we’re talking about a fundamental change to radio, not just about one shopping season. It’s better to get something out right.”

The release of digital radio is widely viewed inside the broadcast radio industry as a critical response to other digital technologies, which are capturing a growing share of radio listeners’ attention.

The defection of key radio personalities such as Howard Stern to satellite radio over the past year has focused broadcasters’ attention on the competitive threat. The number of stations broadcasting in the new HD radio digital format, about 100 at the beginning of the year, is expected to reach 600 by the end of 2005.

That still leaves a long way to go to reach the 13,000 total stations in the country, but all the big chains have committed to transitioning most of their stations over the next two years. Backers note that 60 percent of the country’s citizens already live within range of an HD signal.

More here.