If terrestrial radio is to survive in the long term, it must differentiate itself in a positive way from the satcasters, podcasters and Internet broadcasters.
The typical station now faces a lot more competition than just the similarly formatted outlet across town; and that competition is growing. If we intend to maintain market share to remain relevant and viable, we have to be different and better. That means the terrestrial radio listener experience must be better in some way than the listener experience for competing media.
As we often note, much of a listener’s experience comes from the content. But a good bit of it is technical in nature — the overall aural, sensory and visual experience. Engineers and other tech-savvy managers do have a role to play in the success of this digital transition.
Individual stations and group owners as well as the industry at large should consider several factors.
Atop our list is the FM HD Radio experience. At the insistence of Ibiquity Digital, many station engineers have worked hard to make the analog/digital transition “seamless.” Mission accomplished — but if you can’t tell the difference between the analog and digital, why bother with the digital at all?
Recent newspaper reviews of HD Radio have concluded just that. The reviewers couldn’t tell the difference and thus couldn’t see the benefit. It’s hard to argue with that. AM HD Radio has a definite “wow factor.” FM HD Radio lacks it. Somehow we’ve got to create such a “wow factor” for FM.
We suggest the use of lighter, peak-limit-only processing on FM digital audio to preserve the dynamic range of the source material. Another possibility is to use the feature in the Ibiquity software to push the demodulated level of the digital audio by a dB or so, creating the perception of greater loudness. This will, of course, be a tradeoff in the fringe, but judiciously used it could be a component of what is needed to make the digital audio “pop” and stand out from the analog.
PAD and RDS are areas where we can generate “wow factor” for the listener. We need something different and better here, something other than what we see on many stations now: song title/artist followed by “unknown” in the empty album/genre fields. Why not populate those fields with useful and interesting data? During commercials, display the business name and phone number. Be creative and use RDS and PAD scrolls for contests and promotions.
Undoubtedly there is more that we can do to improve our product; it’s up to us to find it. The HD Radio rollout needs a greater sense of urgency. Compelling content is critical, yes. But radio engineers also must put ourselves in the listener’s footwear, frankly critiquing our signals, sounds and scrolls — the listener experience — to determine what we can do to make terrestrial radio different and better.