Promo Power Column: A Prayer for the Future of HD Radio

I was listening to an AM station in HD when a friend came into my office.
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I was listening to an AM station in HD when a friend came into my office. We spoke for a few minutes and he turned to walk out. Before reaching the door, he said: "Wow! That station really sounds so better much online than over the air."

I explained that I was listening on-air through an HD receiver. He was stunned. This is someone who works in the radio industry and has heard the on-air promotion and commercials for HD. He had no knowledge that AM broadcasts in HD.

Ah, the smell of opportunity!

The sound

I gotta weigh in with a few thoughts about HD marketing, promotion and content.

For starters, AM radio stations should not be airing the same promotional announcements or commercials for HD Radio as FMs. The main selling proposition for AM radio is incredibly better sound. For somebody hooked on AM radio talk, sports, news or some niche music format, this is a huge benefit.

Perhaps the industry is waiting until AM HD broadcasting is permitted at night, I don't know; but most listening is occurring during daylight hours, so even that objection is weak. Focus on promoting better AM sound: no fading, no static, no noise during thunderstorms!

Also, when AM stations are doing live broadcasts, they should make sure the live crowd is hearing that specific broadcast in HD sound. On-site signage is needed and a literature on a nearby table would be helpful to sell the product. Can the HD consortium afford listener kiosks in malls, amusement parks and stadiums? Sampling has to start somewhere.

As for FM, promoting better sound on HD is a non-starter for most people. The way many are processing HD Radio now, they almost sound like FM stations anyway. While I might buy an HD receiver to improve my AM listening experience, I'm not forking out hundreds of dollars just to hear better FM.

Content is the only thing that's going to bring buyers to the after-market store or Web site to buy the product and then go through the hassle of installation, or at the least the setting up and learning how to use a table radio.

Most broadcasters I speak with are hoping that the big broadcast companies have a fast timetable for investing in and improving the formats of HD Radio stations.

HD formats left up to program directors who are concerned about ratings for their AM and FM stations are at best an afterthought. Many HD Radio stations are brand extensions for their FM sisters and it's easy to understand why. The PD will likely know the music for a brand extension product. The PD may also reason that by using their FM branding in some fashion there's at least a chance a listener may write down that station in a diary for ratings credit.

Unique

Each time I read an HD Radio review in a mainstream publication, I anticipate the writer is going to slam the industry for repeating the same content daily or even every few hours (because many HD channels don't run daily music logs, they're just hard clocks).

When they don't discover the repetition, I figure that they just really haven't listened very much. However, real listeners will catch on quickly as they hear the same song at the same time every day.

Program directors today are also amazing risk-adverse. They've been trained not to take chances, or build radically niche formats.

Where will unique HD programming come from? For most HD stations, it will come from their corporations - either directly, with the company developing unique formats and then sending them to multiple cities for HD transmission, or with the firm funding more local programmers, who treat their HD stations as real radio stations with daily needs. Either scenario could provide the niche products that HD will need to attract listeners.

Local automation for HD station with nobody paying attention is the worst, but most common, solution.

Station engineers need clear direction about how important it is that HD stations stay on the air. Let the technical staff know that the HD Radio station can't go off the air for hours or days - that you value that channel. I also know of some engineers who have HD stations on the air but don't have an HD Radio in their office. I'm not putting the entire blame on engineers; consolidation has cut the labor pool to an all-time low and there are often just not enough bodies around to do the work.

What's the rush for better and more varied formats on HD? The industry can't afford to alienate those brave consumers who are forking out substantial money for receivers. We also need positive press for HD Radio. What's the point in advertising HD Radio to the masses on AM and FM stations, only to have those who make the leap become adversaries instead of missionaries?

Comment on this or any article to radioworld@imaspub.com.

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