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HD2 Stations: What’s in Your Radio?

Early AM and FM programmers had to make up the rules as they went along. The same phenomenon can be observed in the new world of HD2 today.

Early AM and FM programmers had to make up the rules as they went along. The same phenomenon can be observed in the new world of HD2 today.

Even though the potential pool of listeners is miniscule by terrestrial standards, owners are forging ahead with niche formats and channels for kids, gays and lesbians and specific ethnic audiences. There is a NASCAR channel, and there are music channels for women. We can hear mild talk, wild talk and, yes, Beasley Broadcasting even has “The Beach,” a channel for those of us whose favorite scents are suntan oil and coconut.

But what is the goal of an HD2 channel?

“To offer something that is not on the regular dial,” said Larry Rosin, co-founder and president of Edison Media Research. “Another goal should be to create enough interest to check out its stream on the Web and potentially, to get someone to buy a radio. However, most stations have no mention of their associated HD2 offerings on their sites.”

Some program consultants who are critical of how HD2s are being promoted argue that while many stations have created separate Web sites for their multicast channels, talent is not talking up those channels on the air often enough, leaving listeners mystified about the “new” programming on those stations, and therefore, less willing to buy an HD Radio.

Of the nexus between HD-R and the Internet, Paragon Media Strategies SVP Bob Harper said, “You must find people who can provide great programming if HD Radio is to survive and get enough of a head start before everything is on the Web. That whistle and light up ahead rushing towards you is the Internet. The biggest question of all is ‘Will HD still be irrelevant when all programming runs full-speed to the Web?’”

Mark Ramsey, president, Mercury Radio Research said the primary goal should be to leverage the audience of terrestrial stations and expand on their ability to deliver content to listeners, and then deliver those listeners to advertisers.

Nichey or no?

“What are we trying to do with these things?” he asked. “Do we want to just build a well-executed niche format? Do we want to create stations that will also work on the Web? Do we want to turn over HD2 channels to our advertisers? What is the priority of HD Radio today under the aegis of an industry organization, supported by an outside engineering company that has its own agenda? What matters to Ibiquity and the HD Digital Radio Alliance is one thing. What matters to our audience may be something else entirely.”

Paragon’s Harper thinks that one goal of HD2 programming should be to have a logical relevance to the main AM or FM station.

“Do you think that Animal Channel would have cuddly cubs and ferocious ferrets on cable channel 39, but opt for 24-hour weather on the Animal Planet HD channel 803?”

In a 2006 blog entry entitled “A Positive Plan for HD Radio: A Branded Audio Entertainment Strategy,” Rosin made the case for turning HD2 channels over to selected advertisers.

“So instead of putting an adult album alternative (Triple A) station on HD, why don’t we put on Ben & Jerry’s Radio?” he asked. “In some ways this seems logical. Triple A has always been a format that sits right on the cut-line of format options for FM in many cities. But it has also had a very tough time cracking into the general consciousness in many markets. So instead of putting a Triple A station on HD, why don’t we put on Ben & Jerry’s Radio?”

Rosin said that this national chain could promote HD Radio in its stores, and that a well-known brand is something an audience could readily understand.

Mark Ramsey disagreed. “The flaw in that plan is that an advertiser-branded channel won’t save HD Radio and it won’t dazzle an audience. If I’m Nike, I can create my own channel with my own distribution and I can do it tomorrow.”

Rosin is disappointed in those HD2 channels that are just “streams between the stations.”

“Virtually none of them rise to the level of ‘Oh, wow I have to go out and get a radio to hear that!’

Having said that, Rosin went on to single out RIFF2 as an example of “a real station that happens to be on HD2.” This channel is associated with WRIF(FM), a Greater Media station in Detroit.

Riffin’ on RIFF2

RIFF2 Program Director Mark Pennington doesn’t see his channel as a music format, even though music takes up much of the airtime.

“We program for the whole male 18–24 lifestyle,” he said. “I did a lot of talking to people to see how they live and what they do. If we’re just playing music, we’ll never get anywhere. Kids can get stations online and hear music on their iPods. But if we want them to embrace RIFF2 we have to talk to them on a level they understand and are comfortable with.”

Pennington cited one small example of the language RIFF2 talent use on-air.

“When a new CD comes out, we don’t say, ‘It’s in the stores,’ we say, ‘It’s available for download.’ We want to connect with the audience in their world of text messaging, MySpace, video games and concerts. A lot of alternative stations use a model that is 25 years old and doesn’t apply to today’s audience.”

RIFF2 came about two years ago when WRIF General Manager Tom Bender approached Pennington with three guidelines for the new channel: break the rules, target young guys and play 25-percent local music.

“We took a look at how our demo listened to music and discovered the format could be loosened up. We play indie music, hip-hop, punk and metal. We use voice-tracking, but keep it very current. I voice-track throughout the afternoon and if something is happening, I go in and change it.”

In keeping with Alliance guidelines, RIFF2 is commercial-free.

“Greater Media is committed to HD Radio and is taking a short-term loss for the long-term gain,” he said. “I work with [consultant] Fred Jacobs and we are both excited about re-inventing radio without the pressure of revenue or ratings. Our goal is to create a radio station, have fun and don’t worry about it.”

Regarding programming an HD2 station for teens, Rosin said: “Your target market will be 40 years old by the time everyone has HD2 Radios.”

The multicast station for WPOW(FM) Miami has a different way of programming “Dash-2.”

“We do not use live talent, however that’s done intentionally as we feel it enhances the station’s overall sound,” said Ira Wolf, program director of Beasley Broadcast Group station. “Dash-2 is a dance channel and the goal is to offer a product that entices dance music fans to escape from the stresses of everyday life and lose themselves in the music. To our listeners, Dash-2 is an adventure in music, not just a radio station.”

Also beaming from Miami is another unusual multicast format from Beasley, “Gretchen,” which claims to be the first country radio station inspired by, named after and voiced by a country star, Gretchen Wilson.

Beasley offers the above-mentioned “The Beach” format as an HD2 in Fort Myers, Florida; the channel plays classic reggae, tropical sounds and beach music.

According to the HD Digital Radio Alliance, there were about 700 HD2 stations on the dial as of late August.

“Many of the formats are unique,” said Alliance President/CEO Peter Ferrara. “WTOP’s HD2 channel in Washington is playing global unsigned bands. Denver’s KBCO has ‘The Studio C Channel’ which plays all live music. WKQX, Chicago offers Q2, a young punk/next generation alternative.”

In five years, Wolf said he expects to see HD Radios included as original equipment in American and foreign autos, which he says will force the entire country to catch up to the technology.

“After listeners hear what’s going on in between their favorite radio stations, they are going to love it and wonder why they hadn’t discovered it until then,” he said. “I also see a resurgence and excitement with new niche formats in ‘free’ radio that I believe have been missing over the past few years.”

A caveat from Bob Harper: “Don’t let the HD Digital Radio Alliance or any other group dictate to you what should be on your HD channels,” he cautioned. “Your HD2 should line up with your main channel when possible and your HD2 programming should be something the listener cannot hear anywhere else in town.”

Investigate to see the Alliance list of HD2 channels.