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Clear Channel Embraces IBOC

Clear Channel Radio's plans to convert 1,000 stations to digital sends a strong message about its confidence in the technology, IBOC experts say.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas Clear Channel Radio’s plans to convert 1,000 stations to digital sends a strong message about its confidence in the technology, IBOC experts say.

Digital proponents believe this is a major step in radio’s efforts to improve its audio quality and add new services. The decision also is expected to provide a boost in business for companies involved in producing digital radio transmission and receiver equipment.

Clear Channel plans to spend more than approximately $100 million over the next decade to implement HD Radio.
Lockhart: Clear Channel’s New Digital Data GuruOGALLALA, Neb. Clear Channel is covering all its bases on the digital front. It has hired Kevin Lockhart, former president of its Prophet Systems business, as a digital data guru. Officially, his title is senior vice president of technology development; Lockhart reports to Clear Channel Radio CEO John Hogan.

Lockhart said his job is “to identify new technologies or ways to enhance current technologies to increase listenership.” Clear Channel will look at ways to take advantage of the potential data services digital radio offers, plus multiple channels and surround sound as possible ways to broaden its listener base, he said.

The company eventually may apply these suggestions about software enhancements to hardware to make new consumer products; it could use the data capabilities of HD Radio to send its signals to personal devices other than traditional radios, he said.

He’s also looking at what the company’s doing to enhance its analog signals, such as its use of RDS.

Lockhart’s job is a new position. Dick Wooden, formerly in charge of business development for Prophet Systems, is working with him at Clear Channel, he said. He expects his department to eventually expand with more employees.

Prophet has split the president’s job between Chip Jellison and Tim Gieschen, Lockhart said. Jellison is co-president of technology and Gieschen is co-president for operations, sales and finance.

Lockhart will remain in Nebraska, rather than move to Clear Channel’s San Antonio headquarters. He said he will be working with Prophet employees frequently. “Prophet Systems will still provide the backbone of the technology.”

Lockhart and his father Ray founded Prophet in 1989 to develop automation equipment and service to run their radio stations. The company was purchased in 1997 and is now an independent business division of Clear Channel Communications.

— Leslie Stimson
Most IBOC experts interviewed by Radio World predicted that other radio groups would follow Clear Channel’s lead and begin to transition a substantial number of stations. (Subsequent to the print deadline for this article, the Entercom and Cox groups announced similar plans.)

“The fact that the nation’s largest broadcast group is going to be delivering HD Radio in every major market in the country will certainly stimulate deployment across the board,” said Mike Bergman, vice president of new digital technologies for Kenwood USA.

Transmission equipment makers are ecstatic about Clear Channel Radio’s plans to convert 1,000 stations to digital. Harris and Broadcast Electronics representatives say they have been receiving requests for equipment price quotes from engineers at Clear Channel stations.

“They will begin to buy equipment quickly and we will get a portion of that business,” said Tim Bealor, vice president of RF systems. He said BE had shipped a total of 100 HD Radio transmission systems to radio groups including Clear Channel before the announcement.

Ibiquity has licensed 300 stations for its HD Radio technology. Roughly 126 were on-air in July.

Harris’ new Radio Transmission Business Unit is showing a “significant increase in FY ’05 numbers” in anticipation of selling more digital radio equipment this year, said Tom Jones, director of radio transmission products. “It’s a huge boost to us and we’re excited.”

Clear Channel is also considering HD Radio equipment from Nautel.

Jeff Littlejohn, vice president of engineering for Clear Channel Radio, said the company hopes to convert 50 stations by the end of this year. It’s focusing on the top 100 markets, and hopes to have 95 percent of those conversions completed within three years.

The company is not dedicating a special roving team to conversions; rather, its 10 regional vice presidents of engineering likely would each be responsible for 10 station conversions.

“They’ll be in charge of making sure the right products are ordered. In most cases, they’ll do the work” of the install, Littlejohn said.

The company is still deciding which stations to convert. It has nine stations on the air with a digital signal now: KIOI(FM), San Francisco; KIIS(FM), Los Angeles; KKSF(FM), San Francisco; KOST(FM), Los Angeles; WDTW(FM), Detroit; WNUA(FM), Chicago; WIZE(AM), Dayton, Ohio; WSAI(AM), Cincinnati; WPOC(FM), Baltimore; WVAZ(FM), Oak Park, Ill.

Clear Channel is considering converting stations in markets where it already has digital stations, as well as markets in which it does not. Minneapolis, Portland, Austin, Seattle and San Diego are among the possibilities, Littlejohn said. He expected the company would publicize specifics at a later date.

Now is the time

The timing of Clear Channel’s digital conversion plan was interesting, coinciding with its announcement that it plans to cut spot breaks and ad clutter, as well as its continuing indecency-related programming decisions.

Clear Channel is an investor in Ibiquity Digital Corp., the HD Radio developer; but until now, sources close to the big broadcast group had maintained in comments to Radio World that Clear Channel had concerns about digital’s AM nighttime performance.

Now those concerns appear to have been eased although, as of late July, the FCC had yet to give final approval to the use of HD Radio on AM at night.

Littlejohn stressed that both AM and FM stations are part of the conversion plans.

“It’s the right thing to do to increase the audio quality, reduce the multipath and add in the digital data that comes along with it. This is the right way to make the move and we’ll do it in a big way.

“We’re ready to move forward with it. Any interference that happens, we’ll deal with it,” said Littlejohn. “Bottom line, we think the enhancement for the quality of the audio for the majority of our listeners is a reasonable tradeoff for the loss of some fringe skywave coverage.”

He and Ibiquity agree that AM skywave coverage may be affected in certain situations but that in no way will skywave become unusable or disappear as a result of AMs going digital at night.

Littlejohn agrees with NAB’s suggested AM nighttime interference mitigation procedures, but he would like the commission to go further into detail and make them part of the IBOC authorization rules. He would like the FCC to spell out what constitutes unacceptable interference.

The company will focus on the top 100 markets and hope to have 1,000 conversions completed within three years. Littlejohn hopes the conversions will go faster once employees gain experience with the installs. Equipment-makers say they’re prepared to meet the demand for production of equipment.

In addition to IBOC exciters and transmitters, he and other engineers in the company are studying what other equipment they will need, including STL gear for conversions in which studios and transmitters are not collocated.

So far, conversion prices per station have ranged from $50,000 to about $110,000. The average conversion price has been about $100,000, Littlejohn said.

‘It’s a big deal.’

Ibiquity Digital Corp. has been nudging stations groups for a while to jump-start the industry’s conversion. At press time roughly 100 stations were transmitting analog and digital signals.

President/CEO Robert Struble said of the Clear Channel digital conversion plan, “It’s a big deal. It’s a clear statement about the importance of the technology and why they are doing it. It’s a major milestone to get infrastructure in place to get deep (station) coverage.

“This gets radio back on a growth curve and Clear Channel is in a great position to do it,” said Struble. He expects more radio groups will follow Clear Channel’s lead and transition substantially more stations.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Clear Channel had to license the technology from Ibiquity for the stations. Struble said Ibiquity provided the broadcasters with “incentives” to move the rollout along. He said the company also is talking to other radio groups along similar lines.