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Cooke: Is HD Radio Dead on Arrival?

Atop the HD Radio booth at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, great big letters crowed “Fresh Content Free,” an appropriate message for this particular B-to-B audience, since “Free” differentiates HD Radio from Sirius and XM services which are already darlings of the leading-edge CE industry.

Atop the HD Radio booth at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, great big letters crowed “Fresh Content Free,” an appropriate message for this particular B-to-B audience, since “Free” differentiates HD Radio from Sirius and XM services which are already darlings of the leading-edge CE industry.

But for the second consecutive Christmas, Santa wasn’t loading HD Radios onto his sleigh, because, as an industry, we still haven’t convinced Homer and Marge Listener that they should replace their AM/FM receivers with pricey upgrades. No matter how much we push HD-R, the marketplace isn’t pulling it.

And with all those iPods — 70+ million sold before Christmas ’06 — the sleigh was pretty full anyway. Why iPod instead of HD Radio? Control. Listeners want it and they think radio is out-of it.

Run — do not walk — to the bookstore, or hit Amazon, and get a copy of “The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness,” by Newsweek tech columnist Steven Levy (Simon & Schuster). I read my copy on the plane to Vegas for CES; and it framed everything I saw and heard there.

Now, ‘Most Music’ loses

Playing “the most music” has been so axiomatic to music radio stations, for so long, that it was a common jingle lyric in the ’60s on many of what are today’s news/talk stations. AMs dropped music when FM receivers proliferated; and music FM had a pretty good run; until iPod, satellite radio and other new-tech began chip-chip-chipping-away-at radio as a music delivery system.

Walk down any city street, through any mall or Amtrak car or down the aisle in an airplane, and you feel like you’re in an iPod commercial. No matter how few commercials an FM plays, iPod and those thousand-song phones on display at CES play fewer.

And all the songs those phones and iPod play are listeners’ favorites. That’s progress, and radio shouldn’t take it personally. Downloads have obsoleted CDs.

If you’re a music station, that song you’re playing … right now? You own it even less than a Sean Hannity affiliate owns Sean. That song, and Sean, are also on satellite radio anyway.

How about Rush Limbaugh? Like music, Rush is also on iPod … and streaming … and using affiliates’ air to lure listeners away from real-time radio listening, since his DittoCam audio is asynchronous to what’s coming out of the speaker of all those dutiful EIB Network affiliates.

Whether there will still be music radio stations in five or 10 years remains to be seen. Fellow consultants who specialize in music radio tell me of the importance they are attaching to what their client stations do between the songs.

Meanwhile, in the talk arena where I make a living, too many stations are talking about the same thing, day after day after day. Many hosts have fundamentally overestimated listeners’ interest in national politics.

The relentless way many in radio ape the “I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong-and-that-makes-you-bad” Fox News Channel style plays against human nature, let alone Arbitron methodology. And we wonder why folks won’t pony up several hundred bucks per, to replace all their radios, and hear radio business-as-usual in crisper fidelity?

Applause for the clever HD Radio promos I hear in my travels. HD Radio Alliance spots tell of “Hidden Radio Stations” these new receivers can hear. That’s cool. And “More Variety, Better Sound Quality, No Subscription Fees” are the kind of benefit statements more stations’ promo copy should articulate.

But we still haven’t made the sale for HD.

HD Radio: What Is It?

Research already demonstrates that many listeners confuse HD Radio with satellite radio. Several retail sales people in stores I visited during the holiday shopping frenzy didn’t get it straight.

In a thoughtful presentation at the NAB Radio Show in Dallas, Mercury Research President Mark Ramsey observed, “People don’t buy radios. They buy things that contain radios,” like cars and alarm clocks.

So it’s smart for HD Radio Powers That Be to lobby Detroit (and Toyota) accordingly. But business won’t pick up at Radio Shack until:

– We give the HD-R message more of what we preach to our advertisers: reach and frequency. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But even if we make the HD-R message as cool and ubiquitous as the iPod silhouetted dancers …

– HD-R will still need the back-end buzz that made iPod such an icon. Admittedly, we’re early in side channel programming R&D. But to date, HD-R programming initiatives do not yet offer a sure-thing programming benefit bewildered listeners will “get.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love a classical channel. Many markets don’t have a classical FM. I’d love a reggae channel. I don’t know of any market with a reggae FM. Heck, if main-channel FM programming included these two formats, and fewer researched-to-death sound-alike formats, radio’s time spent listening would probably be healthier.

Here’s the business model problem built into HD Radio R&D now underway: It’s a losing numbers game, worse than UHF TV in the early 1950s.

The big headline recently has been “1,000 stations now broadcasting in HD.” The “Saturday Night Live” style sub-headline would’ve read, “Next goal: 1,000 receivers in use.” Now matter how compelling that side channel programming is, it’s a tree falling in the woods.

Unless, possibly, we apply economy of scale. So along comes an alliance, to package niche formats that can feed side channels across the U.S. That’ll help, since:

— On the expense side, individual stations won’t have to produce side channel programming; and

— On the revenue side, national exposure can aggregate enough listeners to create a sales asset.

But stop the tape. Isn’t this how radio got into its present programming predicament? An alliance of the same titans who automated-syndicated-homogenized-delocalized-voice-tracked main channel programming is now going to carve up this new side channel spectrum too? And any national commercial inventory created will undo HD Radio’s response to commercial-free iPod and satellite radio music channels.

This isn’t sexy, but …

I continue to suggest that HD Radio side channels are a delivery system, and I recommend simulcasting established news/talk/sports AMs on sister FMs’ side channels. Heck, there’s a business case to be made for simulcasting on sister FMs’ main channels.

But that’s a separate conversation.

Making the AM’s programming available on the HD side channel would convey a benefit listeners understand. It takes the AM station content and advertiser places they otherwise won’t go, since many FMs footprints are bigger than sister AMs. And to the many listeners who just don’t push the AM button, suddenly the AM station isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile. Now it’s on the hip new gadget.

Haven’t got a news/talk/sports station? If your multi-FM cluster isn’t ready to relinquish a music format, go news/talk/sports on HD2. Rather than suffering the syndication model, take it out for a spin.

In many markets, there is so much available, good, free network long-form talk programming that you can cobble together an on-air roster that offers listeners new options and dilutes and distracts incumbent talk competitors.

A third option? In consultant fashion, I’ll invoke Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz: Attack yourself! Take a page from television’s playbook.

In many markets, TV stations are using their HD side channels, and second cable channels negotiated for retransmission consent, to do all-weather-all-the-time channels. They trump cable’s The Weather Channel, because it’s all-local-all-the-time.

This instant-gratification weather channel doesn’t detract from its main channel; it extends it. On the main channel, Oprah; on the side channel, your Storm Tracker forecast, instantly.

Imagine radio’s version, The Six Minute Format, a loop such as the following, which caters to busy people in-car:

1. Produced 10-second branding, traffic sponsor billboard

2. Traffic report

3. Tease sportscast into spot

4. Traffic sponsor’s spot

5. Produced 10-second branding, weather sponsor billboard

6. Weather forecast

7. Tease traffic into spot

8. Weather sponsor’s spot

9. Produced 10-second branding, sports sponsor billboard

10. Sportscast

11. Tease weather into spot for sports sponsor.

If you’re the garden-variety Rush-and-baseball AM, this will give your listeners two ways to use you during Rush and baseball. If you’re the music FM, this will give the Rush-and-baseball AM fits.

Dress rehearsal

Want to see and hear something really cool? Hit, the site for WSTW(FM)’s HD side channel. It’s a music format for radio’s lost generation, young people, something otherwise unavailable on-air in WSTW’s home market, Wilmington, Del. … or other markets where the company owns stations.

Or you can — as smart stations’ Internet promos say — “Listen online, at work or at home.”

Or you can listen on any of the acres of wireless devices on display at CES. If you’re in any of 300 U.S. cities already lit up or soon to turn on WiMax, it’ll be no less available to mobile users than FCC-licensed stations.

With WiMax, anyone with files on a server is tantamount to a radio or TV station. Before you scoff that listeners prefer professionally produced content, know this: delivers 50 million downloads a month. YouTube will deliver 100 million today.

What is astonishingly clear to a radio person at CES is how opportune, not threatening, new tech is. Let’s harness the potential of HD-R by avoiding radio business-as-usual on HD2.

Years ago, there was a CES booth touting AM stereo. Doing business-unusual on HD2 can beget new content plays for main channels and Internet distribution, should HD-R go the way of AM stereo.

The author’s Web site is This article is © Holland Cooke 2007.

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