Exactly the Same, Yet Completely Different

Comedian Steven Wright has a routine in which he asks listeners to recall the feeling one gets when leaning back in a chair a little too far.
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Comedian Steven Wright has a routine in which he asks listeners to recall the feeling one gets when leaning back in a chair a little too far.

Comedian Steven Wright has a routine in which he asks listeners to recall the feeling one gets when leaning back in a chair a little too far. He describes the sudden uncertainty that ensues over whether you can still recover or if you will fall backwards to the floor. Once his audience recognizes that moment of panic, he adds, “Well, that's the way I feel all the time.”

This is the period in which HD Radio finds itself right now, waiting for pivotal influences to be applied while determination of its future hangs in the balance. Of course, the key to Wright's joke here is that we all know the condition he describes cannot last for long; gravity will soon have its way, and the chair will either quickly settle back upright or topple over.

For HD Radio, market forces will similarly exert their will with some haste, selecting one pole of a binary outcome for the emerging technology, and determining it during a brutally finite period of time.

So what can we learn from broadcast history that can help us better understand the dynamics at work here?

Quantity beats quality

A common refrain of this column has been that — despite many broadcast and audio engineers' wishes to the contrary — media audiences typically prefer quantitative change over purely qualitative change. This was certainly the case in the early days of FM. The format languished in its first two decades as simply a higher-quality alternative simulcast to AM channels.

Although existing AM broadcasters were each offered an FM license (in the 92–108 MHz band, while 88–92 MHz was allocated to new, non-commercial/educational channels), most were disappointed at the slow sales and low audience uptake for the new format, even well after its initial deployment, and thus they did little to help the format succeed. Several broadcasters even gave up their FM channels as charitable contributions to non-profit organizations, which is why there are a few non-commercial FM stations today on channels above 92 MHz. As late as the mid-1960s, the future looked quite bleak for FM.

Its success was stimulated initially by an FCC action that required broadcasters to separately program their FM channels from their AM services. This was a dramatic move, especially considering the cost to broadcasters that this ruling represented at the time. It is testimony to just how dire the FCC considered the fate of FM to be.

Broadcasters who wanted to keep their FM channels were therefore motivated to find cheap new sources of content. Some preferred automation, and many settled upon the format eventually known as easy listening, which soon became popular among some demographics. Others went for live assembly and hired young DJs who were relatively unconstrained by playlists. Thus the progressive rock format was born, and we all know the rest. These formats and a few others propelled FM to a meteoric rise, and over the next decade it challenged, and eventually overtook, the traditional AM format for audience share in most markets.

Whether it was serendipity or prescience that brought these formats forward, the key lesson is that it wasn't just because they were cheap. The content broadcast in these formats resonated strongly among both existing AM listeners and new audiences of the day, causing strong overall growth in radio listening, as well as massive shifts from AM to FM use. Meanwhile, listeners flocked to stores for new FM-capable radios.

It would seem that today, although specific tastes may have shifted, the preference for quantity over quality still generally applies. Thus HD Radio is well positioned, offering broadcasters the ability to provide both qualitative and quantitative improvements almost from its outset.

That was then …

On the other hand, and as we know, a lot has changed along the audio media landscape since the 1970s.

First, the pace of technological progress itself has dramatically increased, thus any window of opportunity for a new format to catch on is necessarily shorter — perhaps almost ephemeral.

Next, consider that listeners already have many more audio-service options to choose from than existed in FM's early days. Some of these are themselves still fighting for a foothold, so the competitive environment is intense, and promotional budgets are necessarily ratcheting ever higher. Ironically, the age of digital audio clarity has engendered this different form of noise in the marketplace, one that is increasingly difficult to rise above in order to capture listeners' attention.

Speaking of noise, the commercial clutter on radio services also is greater than it was in the 1970s, although not as yet on HD Radio multicast services. Nevertheless, this long-term issue may already have established a reputation for radio that is difficult if not impossible to shake off, discouraging listeners from sampling any new offerings from the industry's incumbents.

Similarly, there is a sense among some listeners that radio is too set in its ways to change much, or too “old school” to produce anything compelling in the new-media era. This is a crisis of branding for the industry as a whole; deserved or not, it must be addressed. The emergence of HD Radio is an opportunity to do so, but it should be understood that it is still a tough sell to those who already consider the industry as rust-belt technology.

Finally, there is a complex matrix of expectations that radio and other more recent technologies have established among audiences, which can be summarized under the heading of “cheap, reliable and portable.” While radio was once the only service that could truly offer all of these attributes, it is no longer alone in this respect, and the list of others who can make this claim continues to grow. Meanwhile, terrestrial radio's own new digital service offering has yet to score very highly on these critical parameters.

This is now

In summary, yes, FM indeed clawed its way back from the brink of its demise to be fantastically successful. And yes, HD Radio's similar slow start is to be expected. But can HD Radio survive low growth or a stall like FM experienced, for any similar amount of time? Unlikely. FM didn't begin to turn things around until over 20 years had passed following its introduction. No one believes HD Radio will have until the mid-2020s to do the same.

Analysts are mixed on just how long HD Radio does have to make its mark, however. The fact that its operational costs are so broadly dispersed among otherwise still-profitable enterprises (as discussed in this column in the Oct. 11, 2006 issue) may provide it with a relatively longer runway than most of its competitors. It also has some advantages out of the box that it took years for FM to gain. But whether these will be enough to make HD Radio the new mainstream, only time — and not much of it — will tell.

Comment on this or any article to radioworld@imaspub.com.


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