The eminently quotable Yogi Berra is often cited for his seemingly useless advisory, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
Like many things Yogi said, however, the quote actually made sense in its original context. He explains that it came from the directions he would give people driving to his home. At the time, Yogi lived on a road that terminated in a loop, and his house was about halfway around the loop. So as you approached the loop section of the road, you could indeed go either way at the fork and get to Yogi's house just as quickly.
Unfortunately, most of us aren't so lucky. Our binary choices usually have discrete and highly differentiated results. Such is the question we consider here regarding radio's digital future: Is an "all of the above" approach regarding new platforms really the wisest strategy? Or should broadcasters pick one and devote maximum resources to developing it to its fullest potential ASAP?
For radio, this choice primarily revolves around HD Radio vs. Internet radio. To date, most stations have chosen to offer their audio services online; many have launched HD Radio transmissions, as well. Although these are both "digital" services, they differ in many ways, and maintaining both (along with legacy analog service) over the long term may not be sustainable, or at least not the wisest use of resources at every station.
We wondered if this issue had crossed the minds of industry leaders and other informed observers, and were not too surprised to find that it had. The range of responses we received was intriguing, however. What follows is a guided tour through some highlights of our discussions with 10 experts in the field (not counting Yogi).
About the closest thing to consensus (although it was far from unanimous) was that radio needed to be wherever consumers would use it.
Jeff Littlejohn. 'The listener is in the driver's seat.' Jeff Littlejohn, executive vp for distribution development at Clear Channel Radio, commented, "I feel strongly that we must create the highest quality content and then follow the listener. If the listener wants to hear our content on analog radio, then we should provide it that way. If the listener wants to be able to stream our content onto their desktop, then we need to provide streaming. If the listener wants to hear our content with HD quality and variety, then we need to be there to supply it."
To date, Clear Channel seems to be practicing what Littlejohn preaches, making significant investments in both HD Radio and Internet streaming deployments — with the latter already producing strong results. Littlejohn stresses the need for broadcasters to continually be responsive to audience behavior. "The listener is in the driver's seat," Littlejohn concludes.
Milford Smith, vice president, radio engineering at Greater Media, largely agrees, citing the growing contention that radio broadcasters essentially are content providers. He concurs with Littlejohn's view, adding, "Our job is to be available on any platform on which our listeners, current and potential, may find convenient to listen to us."
Greater Media's actions prove that it is another strong proponent of the "dual" approach. Smitty confirms this with his report that, "Greater Media has been streaming its stations (and HD2 channels) for quite some time, and simply sees this as another virtual 'transmitter.' With the availability of wireless broadband growing daily, along with the proliferation of hand-held and now emerging in-car devices for accessing same, each of these devices can be the modern equivalent of a 1960s transistor or Delco car radio in terms of delivering our content accessible to listeners. It's not so much how they get it — it's just making sure they can get it."
On the non-com side, Mike Starling, VP/CTO of NPR and executive director of NPR Labs, concurs: "Of course we should continue down both paths," Starling said. This comes at least in part from his contention that neither is a perfect answer. "Each distribution path, whether IP-based, or digital broadcast, has distinguishing strengths and notable drawbacks."
He also warns against hasty action, reminding us, "History is replete with examples of lengthy timelines for successful introduction of new broadcast technologies — witness a quarter of a century for both FM and DTV to achieve 'mainstream' status. Likewise, the promise of a ubiquitous Internet radio service looks equally bright, and so far, still in the wings."
Starling concurs that the dual path makes sense now and in the future. "I'll go out on a limb and predict the next decade has similar surprises in store for digital and IP-based radio broadcasters — and that both forms will survive."
It's no surprise that broadcast engineers are most concerned with proactively building the infrastructure to get to listeners. But others in the industry are less interested in just being there than they are in monetizing that presence. Radio is a business, after all, not an entitlement program or utility — not in the U.S., at least.
This is the perspective of Dave Wilson, who has a unique vantage point that includes two perspectives, by virtue of his day job as senior director of technology and standards at the Consumer Electronics Association, and his ownership of FM stations WHDX and WHDZ on Hatteras Island, N.C. On one hand, Wilson agrees that "the two-pronged approach is absolutely necessary," adding, "There's no way anyone in the media industry can ignore the Internet."
Yet he feels that broadcasters' point-to-multipoint, one-way wireless link is what sets them apart from Internet-only services, so it's a critical part of broadcasters' service offerings going forward. But he questions whether the legacy business model should continue.
"The big question is should broadcasters be taking their existing business model to the Internet, or should they bring the most successful business model on the Internet to their wireless links? I think the answer is clearly the latter."
Others are concerned that radio's content strategies are inadequate to compel listeners to stick around. One respected music programming consultant remains optimistic that radio can fix this problem, but that it has work to do, and quickly. He's Mike Henry, CEO of Paragon Media Strategies, who advises, "Radio should employ a multi-pronged digital path, regardless of the distribution device," but quickly adds, "Stations should produce sub-genre format streams of their primary format."
He explains with some examples: "A classic rock station should produce streams for progressive rock, classic rock oldies and classic rock currents. Radio stations should also produce digital streams that are topical and that can come and go with topical events, such as concert tours and holiday seasons, which is the approach used by some satellite channels."
Henry believes that radio is well-positioned to move into the more socially networked environment preferred by younger audiences. "Radio stations must put themselves in the middle of the lifegroup they serve, and super-serve them around the inner wheel of their tastes."
He feels that the issue of which platform is less important than the content question right now, and cites fellow radio consultant Dan Mason, who is fond of saying, "As broadcasters, we should just make the donuts. It doesn't matter where the donuts are sold." Henry agrees with that philosophy, "Because it requires a commitment to creating compelling content first and foremost. Until a radio station can make that commitment, it doesn't really matter where the content is distributed. Right now, most radio stations are not even close to fulfilling the content commitment."
Bridge to nowhere
Another well-positioned industry veteran, who asked not to be named, took it a step further. "Is radio really even pursuing a digital path?" he asks, elaborating that, "Given that most of the current adopters of HD Radio are shareholders in iBiquity Digital, or received free equipment via CPB grants, how many broadcasters are actually in it for the pursuit of an expansive new radio platform?"
He believes that broadcasters have not stepped up adequately, providing only lip service to their digital transition. "Even the multicasting on secondary channels is treated minimally by the radio station owners, most of whom spend next to nothing in support of these new 'exciting' opportunities. They'll use cheap or free Internet radio software running in a simple loop, playing music with an occasional generic promo. How is that ever going to compel listeners to run out and spend their hard earned money on HD Radio when the same dollars will get them a cell phone with an internal MP3 player?"
This observer did find one development to be positive about: "The big opportunity is a 'connected' analog FM radio — RDS delivering content identifiers, and Wi-Fi or docked connectivity delivering the power of the Internet to the consumer." He feels that this legacy add-on could make it even harder to justify HD Radio, though, concluding that this feature is "eclipsing HD Radio right now. HD Radio is obsolete, DOA."
Jerry Del Colliano. 'Without the almost 80 million Gen Y'ers coming of age, there is no future for radio.' Such dire pronouncements are shared by others who hold influential positions in the industry, but who are not broadcasters per se. One such is Jerry Del Colliano, who serves as a frequent advisor to the new media and broadcasting industries and is publisher of InsideMusicMedia.com. He is also a professor at the University of Southern California. Del Colliano bluntly states, "The fact that anyone in radio is even thinking about HD Radio at a time when the industry is in great peril illustrates why it is."
He sides with those who believe that the future of radio is in content creation and marketing. He also agrees that a multi-platform approach is key, but feels that the important new delivery mechanisms are Internet-based. Broadcasters' investment should be focused "not solely on terrestrial signals but online, mobile and podcasting."
He recommends that broadcasters follow the example of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, whom Del Colliano believes "understands the next generation better than they understand themselves." Ultimately, Del Colliano warns that "without the almost 80 million Gen Y'ers coming of age, there is no future for radio."
Meanwhile, Mark Ramsey, a frequently quoted commentator who is president of the consulting firm Radio Intelligence US, agrees with many here that the consumer will ultimately decide on the preferred platform. But, Ramsey believes, "That marketplace has (already) spoken."
Ramsey cites relative sales figures to support his contention. "Compare the mere smattering of HD Radios in the marketplace — and no momentum for more," he points out, "with the estimated 64 million 3G mobile smartphones in the hands of American consumers in 2008 — up 80% from 2007."
He chastises the radio industry for what he feels is a blatant disregard of market forces. Ramsey contends that when comparing online services with HD Radio, "One solution is Internet-based and all about what's in it for the consumer, the other solution is radio industry-based and all about what's in it for the broadcaster."
He concludes that, "Except insofar as HD stations are also Internet stations, there is no such thing as HD Radio."
"Stop the insanity," Ramsey advises.
John Gorman. 'I do not see any logic for the radio industry to pursue a two-pronged digital path.' A notorious critic of HD Radio is Cleveland radio veteran John Gorman. Yet rather than piling on with the anti-HD rhetoric for which he is known on his blog, the consultant and author provided some subdued and thoughtful comments for this report.
Gorman clearly believes that broadcasting is all about the audience. "If you're in a business such as ours," he says, "where you have to directly connect with your customers, it's all about location, location, location." Thus he feels that his station "has to be smack-dab in the middle of where the action is, where the traffic is, where the people go. I need visibility and tonnage." That prime location today is, in his view, "the Great Convergence — the Internet."
He adds that he needs "a viable environment to maximize my efforts. I don't want to be in some rarely traveled, difficult-to-access, out-of-the-way side road that only a few know exists." He reasons, "HD Radio is too challenging to be a real player in this brave new media world. Its proponents go over old ground like a dog on a short tether."
Gorman lists the problems he finds with HD Radio technology as follows: "You have to buy a special receiver, which is too pricey for the slapdash formats it delivers, and its stations are beset with incessant technical problems. Those few I know that own an HD Radio complain that they can't always receive the HD Radio side channels."
Thus he feels the Internet is the only worthwhile path to follow. "I do not see any logic for the radio industry to pursue a two-pronged digital path. At best, it's a dollar chasing a dime. If I have a radio station and I want to increase my reach and frequency — the Internet is the only external investment I will make."
He also believes that the current financial crisis has some bearing on this issue. "Every statistic I've read lists the Internet as one of the last mediums a family would strike from the budget," Gorman cites. "Satellite radio, print, cable television are all expendable. The Internet is not."
Ultimately, Gorman takes the long view, and counsels, "Mistakes take twice as long to fix as to make. That's why some never look back and bother to correct them. That's the only rationale I can come up with on why some in this industry still back HD Radio. It's time to move on."
Are we there yet?
The straight press also weighed in on this issue for us. Rob Pegoraro is consumer technology columnist at The Washington Post, and he believes, "HD Radio has been stuck in irrelevancy so far." He blames both broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers, claiming, "The hardware has been hard to find and often expensive — have you tried shopping for an A/V home-theater receiver with HD Radio built in lately? — and on the other hand, the on-air programming can be a little scarce, too."
There are some bright spots, Pegoraro notes: "Some stations take the time to program different, creative content on their HD2 channels and then make sure their regular listeners know about it. Other stations don't seem to want to make that effort." And he feels that's the compelling opportunity, since he's not much impressed by the audio quality. "HD FM just doesn't sound that much better to my ears, at least in the cars I've tested it in, and HD AM is difficult to impossible to find on the dial here" in the Washington market.
Clearly there are folks heeding Yogi's advice and taking either path at the fork in the road — with some going down both ways at once. No one we spoke with is betting against the Internet, but some are clearly less sanguine about HD Radio technology. While a few advise broadcasters to cut their losses now with HD Radio, others say give it time and see what happens.
And that's why they play the game.