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Innovate In-House for HD Radio

Underuse of those channels represents an opportunity to flex creative muscle

The promise of HD Radio has been more stations, more diversity and more programming choices than ever before, for a much grander listening experience by way of the same stations we have enjoyed since forever.

In spite of the Kassof study referenced in Leslie Stimson’s excellent article “HD Awareness Remains Low” in the Feb. 15 issue of RW, I am not convinced that consumer confusion is entirely to blame.

Creative offerings on many HD channels are limited, uninspired, in many instances simply rebroadcasts of existing stations elsewhere in the chain; sometimes nothing more than duplicating a sister AM station or a co-owned out-of-market signal.

Al Peterson

Don’t get me wrong; there are some innovative things happening on those “secret” channels — here in D.C. there are bluegrass, Vietnamese talk and opera — but a lot of HD channels are going unused or underutilized, and frankly if I wanted to hear an AM station that badly, I’d turn on my AM radio.

It does not help that receiver prices are still irrationally high for the typical consumer. In late January I could obtain a portable HD receiver online from Best Buy for $49.95, while a rudimentary RCA MP3 player from Target sold for half that.

It is also hard to ignore Internet broadcast forums, with engineers and radio gadflies warming up the orchestra to play the swan song for HD Radio, calling it a technology that has failed for one reason or another.

I don’t agree; at least not yet. I have given all the other “wonder” technologies a fair chance along the way, including AM stereo, Quad FM and goodness knows what else. Some worked, some fizzled, some just died a natural death (carts, 45 rpm vinyl, et al).

Rather than blame the technology or the marketing, consider the severe dearth of creative and innovative programming that deserves a shot and should be airing.

Fellow broadcasters, let me share a strategy for your HD allocations that probably won’t cost you more than the equivalent of a couple of spots on your main channel, if that.

Get ‘Grumpy’ into my office

At any station that still has a live and local airstaff, there is one grumpy pain in the butt — male or female — who is unhappy about everything: the music, the lack of creativity, the rigid formatics, you name it.

They won’t quit their job, but will angrily mutter to anyone in earshot, “Man, if I ran this place, I’d …”

That’s the person you want programming your HD channel!

Why? Because they are hungry. Because they want the challenge. Because they know something is missing in the market. Because maybe they really are on to something. And because all that is airing on HD2 is just a rebroadcast of the satellite news/talker. There truly is nothing to lose.

They won’t come to you to make the proposal, so you bring it to them. Take them aside one day for this conference:

“Marty, I know you have your own opinions about the way we run the FM, and that you have your own ideas on how things should be. Well, we have an HD channel we’re not doing anything with. It’s all yours. Come up with the music, the formatics, the elements, everything. As long as it doesn’t compete directly with our main channel or eat too much into your own station duties and show, I’ll support it completely.

“I’ll put aside space on the music server for your material, you can use Ed’s old office to work out of, and you are free to ask anyone on the floor if they’d cut some occasional voicework for you. There’s nothing in the budget right now for this, so for the time being it will have to be a labor of love. More importantly, it’s a chance for you to do things your way, just as you’ve wanted. I want to launch in 45 days, so get moving. And good luck.”

You might need to look at that BMI music agreement again, and perhaps add another automation terminal at some expense (or go the standalone system route on a spare computer). You may also need to sell it to the corporate office, which had other ideas about that HD channel.

Too weird? Remember, different off-center thinking is what gave us New York’s legendary Z-100, the Music of Your Life, the “Howard Stern Show,” all-sports talk, the “Froggy” format … need I continue?

Decades ago when FM radio was the loss leader, it was innovative programming in that band that dethroned AM as king. Radio needs innovation, and has always turned to the folks inside those foam-lined walls for inspiration.

It’ll never work

No doubt this will be met by many objections, ranging from existing workloads to the fear of undisciplined talents being turned loose on the air, to “it’s too simple to work,” led by critics crying why it cannot be done and why we shouldn’t even try. The people I would rather hear from are those who come up with workarounds and share their efforts.

Each FM station has, essentially, triple the audio-carrying capacity it previously had. The underuse of HD is radio’s opportunity to “go with its gut” and utilize its creative — if not cranky — people once again.

Alan Peterson, KJ4IVDCBT CEA, has been “at it” for 33 years in a number of positions at a lot of stations. He is production director and assistant CE for the Radio America Network in Arlington, Va., and a contributing writer and former technical editor for RW. An earlier version of his strategy was posted on the broadcast site in January.

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