Howard University FM Is ‘Washington, D.C.’s First Digital Radio Station’
WASHINGTONAmong early adopters of HD Radio, some stations are beginning to promote digital radio; others prefer to wait until more receivers are in the market.
Howard University’s WHUR(FM), which went digital a year ago, has chosen the high-profile approach, incorporating the fact into its branding. The station, under General Manager Jim Watkins, created an audio logo that proclaims itself as “Washington, D.C.’s first digital radio station.”
WHUR, at 96.3 MHz and the equivalent of 50 kW, is known for an “Adult Mix” of urban AC music. It also has added Ibiquity Digital’s HD Radio logo on all of its station signage and giveaways, from apparel to CDs. The digital theme is carried over to special remotes; the logo shows up on a mouse pad from Disney World, for example.
The station gives out “HD Radio Club Cards,” WHUR’s version of loyal listener cards, which incorporate its digital radio branding and are tied to promotions. Listeners may obtain applications for the card at in-store appearances, nightclubs, client promotions and other places its HD Radio Demonstration van appears. The applications will soon be available on the station Web site.
Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson spoke with Watkins about his experiences promoting the station and HD Radio.
RW: Tell us about the HD Radio Club Card; how does it work?
Watkins: If the listener gives (the merchant) this card, they get discounts. Regency Furniture just signed with us. If you show them this card they’ll give you 10 percent off of your furniture purchase.
We’ll be doing other events, for instance, special movie premieres. The only way to get in is to get your card because we don’t want it to be looked upon as an inexpensive commodity.
This is the second edition of the card. This card’s even better than the first one. … The clearness of the card refers to the crystal-clear sound of HD Radio. It’s all thought out. … This card represents our ownership… The words “Howard University” are right there, with the station name, the fact that you can hear streaming and the fact that we’re HD Radio; it’s all on the card.
RW: What kind of stores are you choosing to honor this card?
Watkins: We’re looking at the clients that, one, do a lot of business with us, and two, that offer a more upscale clientele. …
One of the things that we’re going to be doing, in the very near future, is since each card has its own serial number and its own bar code, we will start just giving out a number on the air. And you’ll have so much time to call back in, and you’ve won a prize.
My plans are to give away an HD Radio every day for a year. That’s my strategy with that. I’ve inked a deal with Boston Acoustics (for) their new Receptor radio.
The (model) for HD has the HD logo and another speaker on the side. … We bought them. We’ll give away 365 radios. And the only way to get the radio is to have the card.
We’re kind of getting over the problem that we’ve had this technology but no one can really listen to it because it’s too expensive. We’ll seed the market with 365 radios within a year. I’m sure some other stations will be doing the same thing. We’ve got to do that if we’re going to make people reach for that.
RW: Ibiquity is encouraging group buys. Did they arrange a deal for you?
Watkins: They arranged a deal for us with Panasonic. We’ll be giving away several Panasonic in-dash radios as well. They should be arriving in the next few weeks. They’ll be the first ones we give away.
These (Boston Acoustic HD Radios) are in the manufacturing cycle now, so it might be a couple of months. With the Panasonics I’ll give away, say, one a week, and then, when we get these (pointing towards a Boston Acoustic radio) it will be one a day.
RW: When will they deliver the radios to you?
Watkins: They’ll let me know. It’s a manufacturing-process-type thing. Some things you’ve got to do a little bit on faith. At the time that I talked to them they really didn’t have a real concrete cost on the radio. They’ve been selling to broadcasters on what their projected cost was, which was $300 a radio.
A number of us put in purchase orders for them, so we’ll be in the first run. We just got that consummated.
RW: So you’ll start giving those away one a day.
Watkins: We will put our logo on the radio. When you get it, you will also see a color WHUR logo somewhere prominently on the radio. We will open each (box) and put our logo on it and seal it back up – because they’re giveaways. You may as well.
The whole thing about this business is top-of-mind awareness. If you’re top-of-mind, you can win.
RW: How is HD Radio going to help you compete?
Watkins: HD Radio from one side has reinforced our positioning as a technological leader. Doing new things. Trying new things. Being on the cutting edge. That’s great positioning.
Because we are in the infancy of this thing, we get the chance to do all the experimentation. To try things. To fail. We can try something, fail, and nobody even knew we even tried it. Which is good.
RW: To give you time to incubate it…
Watkins: Sure. The basics are here. They are bought and paid for. So we can move on and say, “How do we integrate this?”
My promotions people are always looking at other ways that they can get more people to get the HD Radio cards. Because here at this radio station we look at HD as just another routine part of the station.
Think about it. In the early days, it was just, “Howard University Radio-WHUR.” Then streaming came along so now we have “WHUR.com.” Now we have HD Radio, so we have all types of different ways to extend that brand. It’s all about brand extension.
And being a stand-alone radio station in this market, we need to do things that make us stand out, that people will remember we’re involved with.
RW: Ibiquity had a traffic demo on the display of a Boston Acoustic radio at CES.
Watkins: Ibiquity has been very, very good in supporting the radio stations. All you have to do is ask for the help. I’m lucky because they’re in Columbia (Md.), and it’s easy to pick up the phone …
I guess I’ve kind of worried them to death; but we really saw this as an opportunity that would really take off. And as you can see, now all the big boys are doing it.
I’m glad as a radio station we got into the fray early, because we don’t have to stand in line to get equipment. We’re getting the experience that we need to have with HD Radio; and the little nuances kind of go along with that. As you can see, it’s a part of the fabric of what we do here, on the air… No less than three times an hour we announce that it’s HD Radio, usually with promos.
RW: Yes, I’m still hearing that audio logo.
Watkins: It’s not going anywhere. Even in a couple of Arbitron ratings people have mentioned HD Radio, even though they can’t hear it, which tells me that the marketing we’ve been doing is working.
The mobile units, demonstrations, go on locations for what we call “van hits” at any promotion, and the driver is well-versed in what HD Radio can do, he can demonstrate the radio … can do the comparisons.
People say, “Where can I get it?” They hear the difference. We’re just opting out the HD Radio that we have in there now, which was an early Kenwood unit, for a new Kenwood unit, a DVD unit, that has better displays for HD Radio.
Now we have clients who say, “Are you going to bring the van with you?” Which is great because then you can go ahead and say, “I can bring it.” In the packages that go out to clients, it’s one of the things that’s there.
RW: The van sheet says it’s a two-hour demonstration. Are you going to give away radios with these, too?
Watkins: What we’ll do is a prize wheel-type thing or a drawing to make it exciting. When we take it out there, we’re being paid to be out there. I’m actually making some money on this. It puts the station out there. It shows the technology.
RW: Are the people who request the van also the ones who support your station card?
Watkins: The people who request the van are current advertisers and vendors. We still take the unit out to any advertiser that shows any kind of interest at all in HD Radio. If they say, “What is HD Radio,” the account executive says, “We’ll bring it to you.”
We’ll send it out so they can listen to it and get the demonstration, because most of them see the real value of having the extra data streams there. For instance, if you’re trying to sell a record … you could put on the PAD (program-associated data) “Get it now at a special price at Best Buy.” And you can charge the advertiser for that.
Or, you can program it to say, “Give this coupon number and get an extra 15 percent off.” … Because what happens is, once you have the HD Radio, and you have enough people who are doing it, you can start to measure what kind of response you get by putting on all those extra messages.
RW: You charge the advertiser extra?
Watkins: Yes. We plan, probably in the summer, to initiate radio greetings. We can put a message on your RDS radio or your HD Radio that you can purchase. So, I can say ‘Happy birthday, Leslie’ on your RDS radio at a certain time during the day, and charge you for it. …
Anyone who invests in this now, it may be a two-year, three-year ramp-up. For me, by that time I’ll have complete digital studios, probably new studios is what I’m looking for. We’ll be able to do all kinds of stuff. We’ll have the kind of capacity that we can really exploit this technology. But you can’t start out that way. …
RW: You were mentioning you’re starting to get Arbitron mentions. What kinds of things are people writing about you in the diaries?
Watkins: It’s interesting, they write, “HD Radio sure sounds great.” That’s when I’m going, “I hope you have a receiver.”
RW: Are they listening on analog?
Watkins: Probably. The thing that happened to this station, as we made the transition to HD, we did a lot of cleaning up of our audio chain, so when we made that hit, you did hear a difference in the analog.
We also … went to a new AudioVault system, and everything, all of our music, and commercials are all uncompressed. It’s all linear. So we had to have more storage capacity.
What we have left to do, we have a new Harris console to go into master control. It’s sitting on the bench now in test. So when we put that on, it will complete that part of the whole digital chain. I’ve looked it as an incremental-type thing. …
RW: Are you doing the new second-generation importer/exporter improvement where Ibiquity and vendors such as Harris and BE have moved the data capabilities back to the studio rather than sending it all through the STL?
Watkins: Not yet. For the first year, we have a deal with dMarc system because dMarc was doing a lot of things with RDS and had certain solutions at the time that were not available when we went HD. Now these things are happening, so there will be a transition period where we will be able to take on a lot of things ourselves.
RW: What about PAD data?
Watkins: Right now on HD we’re doing the title and artist. When we start the radio greetings we’ll be able to do radio greetings. There’s other ideas that we have. We’re going to be introducing a new afternoon drive show, syndicated from ABC … that opens up some experimental avenues, for instance, you could watch your HD Radio and see what the subject is. Once we get our terminal up, we can manipulate what goes in. It’s looking for the next, the second- and third-generation of HD Radio.
RW: On the Arbitron mentions, when people are saying it sounds great, you’re attributing a lot of that to the fact that you cleaned up your air chain.
Watkins: Sometimes people hear things and it sounds better to them. It’s all psychological. Now, if someone says they have an HD Radio, that’s different.
RW: Do you have people who say, “Yes, I’ve bought one?”
Watkins: I know of two personally. They were early adopters and they bit the bullet, because now (Washington) has got WETA, WAMU, WHUR and WTOP(AM) (on the air with digital signals).
RW: Will you have a way of tracking sales of HD Radios?
Watkins: I really haven’t gotten into that. It won’t help me until maybe a couple of years down the road.
RW: When there are enough sales to track?
Watkins: Yes. We’re kind of out there like we’re introducing a part of a new religion, and the first miracle hasn’t happened yet.
RW: How do you think this whole surround question is going to shake out?
Watkins: I think surround is an inevitable idea, but from the broadcaster standpoint, the first thing you need to remember is that, if you’re going to do surround properly, you’ve got to have your production room set up properly. You’ve got to have somebody who knows how to manipulate surround.
RW: You mean back and forth between stereo and surround…
Watkins: Yes and so it doesn’t sound like a real gimmick. We got into a gimmick with Quad. We had the old-style home theaters where they would do the music in multi-channel and you had voices that were all over places that really didn’t sound natural.
And surround is a more natural-type of sound. If you go to a good theater that’s set up properly, the surround is there, but you’re enveloped in it. Now, for a special production, you’ve got the swirling sounds and that kind of stuff, but when it comes to your regular programming, unless you’re doing something very special it’s got to be subtle and encompassing. We tend to go more gimmicky in our business, and that could kill it.
But that’s awhile off. We have enough time for the manufacturers to battle around as to what’s going to be the best system for that. And then we broadcasters will have to augment our systems, so we can probably monitor it and do it good artistic justice. …
We’re going to have to use a little good judgment so we don’t burn people out with all the gimmicks. That’s the kind of option you’ll put in your luxury car, in your van, that kind of thing. Will you listen to it at home? I’m not so sure.
RW: What do you think about the concept of multichannel, dividing up your FM?
Watkins: To me, that’s really interesting. The only problem that I have with that is that if you’re doing any particular format, and for whatever reason, you lose that signal, it’s a drop-off. It’s a cliff effect. You get nothing. (Stations lose the blend-to-analog feature when they split their digital FM stream into several channels.)
RW: Because it’s there or it’s not there.
Watkins: It’s there or it’s not there. For some narrow niching, that might be fine. But I still think some more work needs to be done. I think that’s really in its infancy. I was reading where a gentleman was talking about getting all the HD Radio stations together and doing multichanel programming, sort of like a multichannel network.
RW: At the Ibiquity press conference at CES, some of the radio group executives were talking about getting together to promote HD Radio, but also talking about multichannel. They said it doesn’t make sense for all the groups to go in separate directions on all of this, but rather combine efforts. NPR was there; they’re putting a lot of money into multichannel.
Watkins: Let’s face it, NPR will be the pioneers in that. For what they do, they have some specific targets and reasons for doing that, which makes sense to me. Us commercial people, we know it’s only about making the money. Getting those commercials out there, so even though they’re similar, there’s some other stuff there.
I think we need to concentrate initially on getting this technology set, rolled out, get it supported. Because there are enough things that go on with the technology that need to be exploited. What I’m talking about is use of PAD, Amber-alert type of stuff.
Does your station promote its digital service? What do listeners think? Tell us about it. Write to [email protected].