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In St. Louis, Emmis Pushes HD Radio

Gordon Atkins is a believer in the potential power of the platform

The HD multicast channels of two Emmis stations in St. Louis were an important part of a successful promotional campaign in 2011.

Gordon Atkins

KIHT-HD3 is the home of Emmis St. Louis’ “Smooth” jazz channel, while KFTK-HD2 plays “My Red Lounge,” a format described by Senior Account Manager/HD Sales Manager Gordon Atkins as martini music. (The main channels of those stations air classic rock and news/talk, respectively.)

When it comes to ad sales, Atkins is a believer in the potential of HD Radio, a belief drawn from having watched FM move to the forefront of radio broadcasting decades ago. That background helps explain why Atkins is willing to promote HD Radio’s potential aggressively.

When Grammy-winning vocalist Steve Tyrell was booked into the city’s Sheldon Concert Hall for a May 2011 concert, Atkins spearheaded a promotional campaign running on KFTK-HD2 and KIHT-HD3.

“We had Steve Tyrell do a series of voice spots promoting the concert and our stations,” he says. “We also produced a one-hour special that was aired on The Red Lounge and Smooth.”

The combined one-two punch to promote the Tyrell concert paid off. “The event was sold out, which impressed the organizers,” Atkins says. “For us, it proved the selling power of HD Radio, a power that is vastly underestimated.”

Digital radio, he said, “allows you to target a specific audience at a cost that is in a better relation to the event.” The Tyrell campaign ran only on the HD channels; it was combined with digital Web elements that were accessed from the home station page. The ad campaign was for $1,000, supporting an event held in a 600-seat venue. “A terrestrial radio campaign for the two weeks would have been significantly more expensive, especially with the digital elements.”

HD3 channel ‘Smooth’ is programmed by jazz enthusiast Jason Church.

IBiquity Digital, seeking to highlight such successes, awarded $5,000 to Atkins, Jason Church and Tony Colombo, who also worked on the campaign. They took first prize in an iBiquity contest that asked sales managers to submit examples of selling HD Radio advertising.

A $1,000 second prize was given to Delmarva Broadcasting’s Graffiti Radio, WSTW-HD2 in Wilmington, Del., for its Mojo Restaurant campaign. Third prize, an HD Radio in-car and home tech makeover, went to CBS Radio Hartford for its New Britain Rock Cats minor league baseball campaign on WTIC-HD2’s channel. They were recognized at the fall Radio Show.

Making it pay

Emmis St. Louis uses automation to run My Red Lounge and Smooth.

“Our music director records the voice spots, and puts them into our automation system,” Atkins says. “Given the depth of our music library, the song rotation takes nine days. Even with recorded voice tracks, it sounds fresh.”

Also to keep costs under control, Emmis St. Louis encourages sponsors to underwrite shows rather than buy specific commercial spots. “We will sell spots if this is truly what they want,” Atkins says. “But the underwriting approach is more low-key and fits with the style of our HD-only broadcasts.”

Atkins is aware that HD Radio receivers remain scarce in his city.

“We do a lot of promotional events to generate interest in HD Radio, which is helping matters,” he said. “But until HD Radios become standard in car — and this day is coming — this technology will not be mass-market.

Tony Colombo is promotions director of KFTK(FM).

“The same was true for FM: It wasn’t until FM converters started turning up in cars, followed by AM/FM radios, that the public embraced this technology on the road and subsequently at home … The future of HD lies ahead.”

Faced with the “chicken-and egg” situation, Emmis St. Louis’ strategy is to wait for the egg of mass-market receiver penetration to hatch. But they are not sitting on their hands.

“We are not going full-force on HD Radio, because we want some room to maneuver once HD Radios are common in cars,” Atkins says. “But we are doing what we can to raise HD Radio awareness, to give people reasons to buy HD Radios based on content, and to make some money from it through underwriting and channel leasing.”In December, the cluster celebrated the fifth anniversary of the HD2 channel on KSHE(FM) with an event called Art Feast, featuring a drawing for HD Radio receivers and information on where consumers could buy one, along with CDs of the music on each station.

Asked what lesson radio managers might learn from this experience, Atkins said they should be ready for the increase in digital receivers in the market.

“We currently have five stations that are fully functional and ready for the arrival of receivers in the market. We are also working on other potential formats and possible collaborations with third-party groups. It is also important to activate social media to grow awareness.”