Grace Under Pressure - Radio World

Grace Under Pressure

New satellite services are driving FM broadcasters to improve a format that hasn't seen significant change in decades.
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New satellite services are driving FM broadcasters to improve a format that hasn't seen significant change in decades.

It is well known that threats can be effective motivators to change.

Every parent knows this; and to some extent so does every government and law enforcement agency. But the concept also applies to technologies. When a new entrant emerges, the threatened incumbent often works hard to optimize and refine its traditions, hoping to stave off the upstart and retain its market position.

In many cases these efforts simply are exercises in deck-chair rearrangement, only slightly postponing the inevitable demise of the legacy. Yet sometimes such developments can revitalize a stagnating yet still animate format, allowing it to realize a potential that may not otherwise have been achieved.

For example, when digital audio recording first entered the studio environment, the established analog recording industry reacted with things like the 1/2-inch, 30-ips Ampex ATR-100 and Dolby SR. Years later even these are artifacts of a bygone era, yet they flourished for a number of years, and now retrospectively represent the pinnacle of analog recording technology. Without the threat imposed by oncoming digital recording, however, they may not ever have been developed.

A push from the sky

Today we see the same effect taking place on terrestrial radio. New satellite radio services from XM and Sirius are driving FM radio broadcasters to make improvements on a format that hasn't seen significant, practical change in decades.

First, much of the movement toward terrestrial digital radio broadcasting in the 1990s was the result of broadcasters' early fears that satellite radio was coming, with possible detrimental effects to traditional radio's audience. It was felt that unless terrestrial broadcasters were also digital that satellite radio would have an unfair advantage.

By now, however, it's become obvious that this argument was at least partially flawed: most satellite radio customers don't choose the format because it is digital, but because it offers content that appeals to them and is unavailable elsewhere. Terrestrial broadcasters' choice of a format that could provide only a digital version of their existing analog signal (at least initially) would likely be no more successful than early FM was, when it provided only a higher fidelity version of existing AM signals. This approach alone would therefore certainly not provide the desired defense against the new technology of satellite radio.

Recently a more refined understanding of the appeal of satellite radio has begun to emerge. It features a higher granularity of insight to the satellite radio user, based on recent research of current customers.

For example, one of the most desirable elements of the XM and Sirius services turns out to be the text display of "now playing" artist and title information. While HD Radio will include this capacity, some broadcasters have used this learning to adapt the PS display on RBDS receivers to add similar functionality to FM radios in the meantime.

Although the perils of PS scrolling have been discussed in this column and elsewhere in Radio World, the service seems to be largely welcomed by users. The NRSC has even dusted off its moribund RBDS Subcommittee to address and perhaps codify this new functionality. Yet none of this would have taken place had it not been for satellite radio raising the bar.

Another case in point is the reaction of terrestrial broadcasters to the full-time major-market traffic and weather services recently added in by the satellite radio providers. Suddenly the idea of a supplemental audio channel in HD Radio doesn't sound like such a bad idea, and commercial broadcasters have begun to embrace the Tomorrow Radio project, initially something that only appealed to public radio stations.

Between this and the idea of offering synchronized spot breaks in a second language, commercial stations may find something to love in an area they originally wanted to avoid with digital radio: more audio services.

Again it is the hard lesson being taught by satellite radio that the advantage of digital transmission is mostly about quantity, not just quality.

Competitive advantage

The waning days of any legacy format generally imply a maturity that means any further improvement will be difficult to achieve. The old saying of the last 1 percent takes as much effort as the first 99 percent usually applies. Yet in this case, some underutilized features of FM - and unappreciated capabilities of IBOC - are allowing substantial improvements with minimal investment.

This process may not be over. As satellite radio continues to progress, additional new features may come online, such as recording/time-shifting capability, 5.1 channel audio or electronic program guides, and terrestrial radio may respond in kind, either with enhancements to analog AM and FM services, or expansions to HD Radio plans.

So both current and future terrestrial radio systems will offer services that have come about only because new competition forced their hand. But this only is the American way. Competition breeds stronger products, and the consumer ultimately benefits.

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