How to Save HD Radio (If Someone Wants to Try)

Matt Sammon considers the high-definition dilemma
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Matt Sammon, shown here with the Stanley cup. Several months ago, I heard two sides of a story at virtually the same time. One side, General Motors, announced it would not include HD Radio in the 2015 Chevy Silverado and Impala, nor the Buick Enclave and Regal, opting for 4G LTE and Wi-Fi capability. This implies, at least temporarily, that GM feels it was time to phase out HD Radio. The other side, mostly from iBiquity (the driving force behind HD Radio), stated that despite the challenges of GM scaling back on factory HD Radio installation things were pretty good and the platform would be fine.

So which side is right?

The debate got me thinking, and writing. I pontificated about the subject on a Tumblr blog post. As the story went viral, the responses were interesting and — much like the initial argument—split right down the middle.

Some people said “good riddance” to HD Radio, citing it as a wasted money grab by both terrestrial broadcasters and iBiquity. Others praised the idea of retooling HD Radio, seeing it as a valued part of the broadcast spectrum, even if it is maligned right now.

We all knew HD Radio’s promise when it launched earlier this century, as well as its shortcomings. In summary, five things have held HD Radio from advancing to a platform like iTunes, streaming, and even satellite radio:

1. Confusion About What HD Radio Is As opposed to HDTV, HD Radio isn’t really “HD.” True, an AM signal on an HD frequency will sound crisper, but HD Radio totally lacks the “wow” factor of the actual technical superiority of HDTV to SDTV. In fact, the “HD Radio” name is misleading. Truth is, it’s simply additional content wedged in between current FM signals, and while us radio types love that stuff, clearly the general public doesn’t.

2. A Lack of Serious Promotion to Raise Awareness It’s hard to get people to follow along if you don’t aggressively sell what you have. While iTunes, mobile devices and even financially hemorrhaging satellite radio went crazy on promotions and advertising about 10 years ago, HD Radio pretty much waited on the sidelines. Whatever ads were created were vague and often stuck in the middle of six-minute spot breaks on FM radio.

3. The Emergence of Apple as the Leader of Innovative TechnologyWhile HD Radio was idly sitting by, waiting for customers to roll in, Apple was everywhere when promoting iTunes, the iPod and later the iPhone and iPad. Complain if you will about how Apple products are made, work or how pricey they are; but the fact is they left the rest of the competition in the dust. Those who adjusted are still in the race; those who didn’t have been left for dead (e.g. BlackBerry).

4. The Economy and Its Timing With Apple Taking the LeadHD Radio wasn’t attracting attention when the economy was good, so when the bottom dropped out in 2008, it was nearly impossible for people to part with their dollars for something that didn’t move the needle. The economy has since improved, the consumer is looking for value, and they perceive it in products and services other than HD Radio, even if it means spending a little more for something they know and like.

5. The Entertainment Tastes of the Consumer Call it the eye of the perfect storm of the economy and Apple. What was cool 10 or 15 years ago is not now. If it’s not streaming, on-demand and at your fingertips, it’s a dinosaur. HD Radio is still part of the “old school” dashboard. As long as it’s not part of the connected car or on mobile devices, HD Radio will continue to be phased out.

These are the well-known problems that have plagued HD Radio since its existence, but for most people, that’s all they know. We radio people do like to complain and to talk about the “good old days” without offering solutions, don’t we?

Instead, here are five things that can be done to get HD Radio headed in the right —or at the least, a better — direction:

1. Rebrand the Whole Concept, From Top to Bottom In my blog I used the example of ValuJet airlines, which is doing just fine now, 18 years after the airline was nearly wiped off the map following a crash in the Florida Everglades. By merging with tiny Airtran Airways and rebranding its entire operations, Airtran was actually bought by its former competition, Southwest Airlines, so that SWA could get valuable gates and connections in Atlanta. If that’s too hard to understand, just look at what Clear Channel did with its iHeartMedia rebrand. Clear Channel was “old” and “corporate,” while iHeartMedia speaks to the consumer and their needs (even if little within iHeartMedia has changed).

2. Get Mobile and Get StreamingAs stated, technology and consumer tastes have moved beyond what HD Radio initially was, and amazingly, still is: a car stereo tuner with a few more options than traditional AM/FM radio. If HD Radio itself cannot create an easy-to-use mobile streaming service, negotiations need to be made with current content providers to carry their stream on an HD Radio streaming platform. Yes, it’s duplication in many instances, but some consumers may not know what they’re listening to on HD Radio’s platform is available elsewhere.

3. Challenge the Current Content Providers to Be More Innovative and HelpfulSpeaking of current content providers, what have they done to help HD Radio’s plight? From my view, not a whole lot, as budget cuts have killed HD broadcasts and promotion. The bigger issue at hand is broadcasters investing in their own platforms that are in direct competition to what HD Radio should be doing. The bottom line is, broadcasters are not following HD Radio’s own best practices. That’s not a partnership, that’s a sham.

4. Find Common Ground — Although I admit it’s a stretch, I suggest HD Radio reach out to competitors such as Pandora and see if there’s common ground to team up on. Pandora is looking to get into car dashboards, while HD Radio (for now) is already there. While it’s not the perfect connected car scenario for either side, it helps both in the short term — Pandora provides established content through the HD Radio delivery method. Again, it’s a stretch, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.

5. Don’t Pretend the Window Isn't Closing And speaking of doing nothing at all, doing that leads to nowhere. IBiquity can (and should) publicly say that everything’s going to be fine, at least to ease and perhaps court more investors. But if things are not aggressively happening behind the scenes to change what HD Radio is and will be, it will join every other form of obsolete electronic entertainment by the end of this decade.

While my suggestions may not be the best out there, it’s good to throw some ideas out in the open because HD Radio still has some value. Unlike a start-up platform, HD Radio is here and it is operational; but in its current state, it won’t be for long. If HD Radio is to be saved while serving the consumer, it is up to the brand’s higher echelon all the way down to the consumer to demand changes be made — sooner than later.

Matt Sammon is director of broadcasting and programming for the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning and has 19 years of radio broadcasting experience. Read his original Tumblr post at http://tinyurl.com/of4k2xp.

Comment on this or any story to radioworld@nbmedia.com.

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