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Is It the Best We Can Do?

RW Editorial: CBS rebroadcast strategy invites scrutiny

A new idea put forth by CBS Radio attracted our attention recently. It involved the programming of a few of the group’s HD Radio multicast channels with retransmission of signals from some of the group’s other, out-of-market stations.

CBS’s popular New York all-sports station WFAN(AM) now appears on HD-3 channels in Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach, Fla.; and the similarly sports-formatted WBZ(FM) in Boston now turns up on WTIC-HD3 in Hartford, Conn.

On the West Coast, CBS set up a bilateral arrangement wherein alternative-formatted KROQ(FM) in Los Angeles also airs on a multicast of KSCF(FM) in San Diego, while KSCF’s hot AC content appears on KAMP-HD2, Los Angeles.

We reacted positively to these moves for their innovation. Any new ideas regarding multicast programming, and HD Radio applications in general, certainly are worth a try right now.

But after reflection, we also wonder if this may present an instance of the industry’s inability to grasp the value of new technology and its unfamiliarity with how it can be applied to serve today’s audiences.

The strategy is not without merit. Many Florida listeners have current or traditional ties to New York and its sports teams (spring training and the Grapefruit League included). And regional expansions in New England and Southern California might make sense in a different way.

Further, we are not surprised when we see a radio company look to its existing content resources, trying to populate various new channels in unusual ways. If CBS has strong brands in certain markets, why not extend those brands?

But we wonder if such “repurposing” is really a good use of multicast spectrum.

In a world where the Internet makes access to distant radio stations literally child’s play — increasingly, even for mobile listeners — this move could make broadcasters appear out of touch, reinforcing the Rust Belt image that much of the younger audience harbors about our medium.

That feels like a quibble. But we also wonder whether this move ultimately will run afoul of regulation, since one could argue that it violates the spirit of localism (a sensitive topic in regulatory circles these days) and the prohibition of broadcast signal retransmission (although a “superstation” designation might be invoked to allow it). One SoCal competitor to CBS has filed a request for declarative ruling with the FCC on the matter and further argues that importing the San Diego signal puts CBS over its limit of allowed signals in the L.A. market under current ownership rules.

Most important, we feel that while this programming idea may be new, the broadcast content is anything but. This isn’t even “repurposing” — it’s simply retransmitting. We couldn’t fault a casual observer for concluding that radio, handed a raft of new channels through its HD Radio multicasts, is nevertheless tapped out of fresh ideas so it is recycling its greatest hits — or reinventing itself as a national broadcast service.

If CBS’s idea catches on, we could see a fast-food syndrome blossom in U.S. radio — not just running the same formats in many markets, but actually airing the same content, and localism be darned. (“Hey, it’s still a local service, it’s just not your market’s …”)

Not using new local channels for new local programming ideas feels like a lost opportunity and might invite further criticism that radio is not putting its spectrum to best use for local service. The strategy at least invites such questions.

— Radio World