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Now the Hard Part: Programming HD2

Deep Tracks, Eclectic Chill-Out, Christian Contemporary, Café Jazz & Blues, and New/Future Country are some of the formats, brand extensions and repurposed content stations have rolled out for their supplemental digital channels.

Deep Tracks, Eclectic Chill-Out, Christian Contemporary, Café Jazz & Blues, and New/Future Country are some of the formats, brand extensions and repurposed content stations have rolled out for their supplemental digital channels.

While supporters say the programming is innovative and sufficiently different to attract new and younger listeners, other industry experts say the formats are too safe, not much different than what’s available on satellite radio and not fresh enough to appeal to hip youth.

Stations are trying to develop compelling content for the multicast channels at a time when HD Radio awareness among consumers is low and while there’s no competition for audience on the new channels among radio groups.

Younger people who love music can be great HD2 programmers, but it can be hard to overcome current format habits, according to panelists at an NAB Radio Show session about programming the supplemental digital channels.

Participants on the stage and programmers in the audience picked apart current HD2 offerings and had a frank discussion about what’s working.

The high bar

Clear Channel Radio’s Eric Siebert, vice president for content/research/development, explained how his company has developed formats for 75 HD2 channels.

“As you develop HD programming, you need to set the bar higher,” said Siebert. His department created a “Format Lab” with the goal of creating new and compelling content, material that is better than what’s on traditional radio or on satellite radio.

Clear Channel has 200 people — some full-time and many part-time, “non-radio” employees — working on the project. The company hoped to release new HD2 formats in 18 more markets by the end of October.

Approximately 207 stations were using the product for their HD2 channels in early September. Clear Channel Radio also develops content for cellular radio; the company has a deal with Motorola to include some Clear Channel programming on iRadio phones.

The Format Lab is also developing content for the Internet, and programming deals for more cellular systems and in-vehicle systems are in the works, he said.

While most of its HD2 channel programming is music, Siebert says the company wants to begin spoken-word programming for the HD2 channels and is trying to determine how that should sound.

He urged programmers to devote the time, resources and funding needed to program the HD2 channels right, “or don’t do it at all. Focus on measuring and compensating your best people so that they do a good job.”

The company regularly grades its programmers with a scorecard on certain criteria to ensure they keep doing a good job, he said.

[To hear its streams, visit Clear Channel Music.]

As Siebert played the good cop, Larry Rosin countered with blunt words.

Rosin, president and co-founder of Edison Media Research, said there’s a “huge lack of awareness” that HD Radio exists and he characterized much of the side channel programming that’s available as similar to music on cable TV, with “under-funded and under-programmed stations.”

The 25-54 rut

“We are so trained to program 25–54 that many early HD2 formats are hitting this range because we’re so used to it,” said Rosin, who added that commercial radio seems to have decided mainly on a classic country format for many multicast channels.

He is eager for the commercial-free nature of the HD Digital Radio Alliance formats end, which he thinks would happen by the end of 2007; HD2 channels then can really compete with their formats. Supplemental channels currently operate under experimental authorizations from the FCC; commercials are not permitted to air and would require commission action (see related story in HD Radio News section).

Formats settled on by alliance members aren’t necessarily what are best for each market, but rather what would avoid angering all of the alliance members in a market.

“I think the alliance was necessary to get started, but in many ways it’s a fiasco,” Rosin said. “Competition is a good thing,” and hopefully, after the supplemental channels air commercials, “HD becomes the Wild, Wild West.”

One non-commercial programmer said privately to Radio World that the marketing aspects of the alliance should be separated from the programming angle, in order to foster more creative HD2 programming. Current formats “may not have enough zip to get the job done” and entice listeners, particularly younger ones, to buy digital radios.

Rosin’s solution to better formats? Co-brand radio stations with a well-known brand like Ben& Jerry’s ice cream. What would mean more to listeners, he asked attendees: a format named “Vineyard Soft Triple A” or “Ben & Jerry’s”? The programming wouldn’t constitute a 24/7 advertisement, but rather a branded station with programming that listeners could identify with, Rosin said.

Programmers for the new channels should be young, he said. Radio has aged and has failed to cultivate new listeners.

“If I was emperor of HD, I would not trust any programmers over the age of 30. If you made me king of HD I would find kids who are into music and set them loose.”

Meanwhile, Greater Media’s Mark Pennington focused on the mechanics of young talent dreaming up new formats. He is the program director for RIFF2, Greater Media Detroit’s multicast channel to WRIF(FM).

‘On shuffle’

His station is trying to appeal to 18-24 year old males.

“We decided to strip away the elements of the old model of programming,” said Pennington, whose station is playing a mixture of indie rock, hip hop, punk, metal and local music. The audience is used to listening to their music on shuffle on personal music players, “so this format doesn’t sound weird to them,” he said.

Greater Media tries to incorporate the lifestyle of its listeners as it picks the content, which focuses on video games, iPod, the Internet and DVDs. It doesn’t try to sell listeners concert tickets, for example, but rather staffers go into clubs and hand out flyers because that’s where listeners are, he said.

He sees the HD2 channels as music and talent incubators. “It’s hard to find good DJs anymore. Without the pressure, I think we can do that,” Pennington said, referring to the temporarily commercial-free aspect of HD2. Songs “that might be scary on the main channel” can be tried out first on RIFF2, he said.

He also recommends streaming HD2 channels so listeners can hear the music before they’re asked to buy a radio.

Questions from programmers in the audience ranged from how scratchy and raw the new music should sound, to whether a station should choose a format for its HD2 channel that’s very different from the main channel, assuming the new format is missing in the market. The panelists said yes.

Pennington acknowledged that finding time to develop an HD2 format can be difficult if one is programming two or three stations already; but he warned attendees not to take the easy path and let the HD2 responsibilities slide to the back burner.

Rosin added that programmers need to realize that teens are listening to radio on several devices, and should program for that. “If we only think we’ll reach them on the car radio or on the radio in their room, we’re sorely mistaken.”

While radio doesn’t do much audience research now on the 18–24 market, he said, the Arbitron Portable Personal Meter will measure younger ages.