Radio Finally Starts to Go Def

As it does seasonally every year, the river of announcements that pours daily through Radio World's e-mail box rose to high levels in the weeks leading up to last month's NAB convention.
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As it does seasonally every year, the river of announcements that pours daily through Radio World's e-mail box rose to high levels in the weeks leading up to last month's NAB convention.

Newsworthy announcements are covered in our online NewsBytes and in our pre- and post-show issues. But some of the releases floating by caught my eye in particular as indicators of how the digital rollout is progressing.

For instance, Clear Channel Radio announced it had assigned its Creative Services Group to come up with radio ads promoting HD Radio. The company also made those spots available to competitors that are fellow members of the HD Digital Radio Alliance, which promotes the adoption of the technology.

Clear Channel honcho John Hogan called the creation of the spots a "particularly important collaboration," given his company's commitment to the advancement of HD Digital Radio. It's certainly a good use of its new Creative Services Group, which focuses on "improving the radio listening experience and increasing value to advertisers through improved radio ads."

The HD Radio spot campaign is called "Are You Def Yet?" It plays around with the word "def" - as in "high definition" as well as in the hip-hop slang for "very good." Programmers hope to be contemporary and edgy with this imaging, going after younger demos and more urban listeners.

This strategy may make sense in some formats, although I can't imagine my dad responding favorably to a technology promoted with a radio ad that seems to ask "Are you deaf yet?" Nor do I think this message will resonate immediately with close friends of mine who listen to country radio.

Unfortunately I can't tell whether the spots for those demographics will be more suitable; as of this writing, the campaign's Web site, promising spots in a half-dozen formats, had only posted content for two, rock/CHR and news/talk.

And not all of those spots succeed. Nevertheless the spots already up make me eager to hear more.

Some play up the "newness" factor and the lack of a subscription fee. For rock/CHR stations, one 15-second promo - in the breathy, "we're-cooler-than-you are" voice style that CHR programmers seem to love but I personally detest - asks: "Did you know (pause) that there are secret radio stations (pause) that you can only hear (pause) with a high-def HD Radio? These stations (pause) are all free. Go to hdradio.com for details."

Some seek to portray HD Radio as a way to hear programming not available elsewhere. To the rhythm of slapping skin, a male hillbilly voice performs a new kind of music called "rural rump slap," including the lyric "I'm white trash and I slap you in the ass, I just slapped your momma in my GED class." Says the announcer, "Rural rump slap rap: You can't hear that on regular radio. But you can on HD."

Others try to make you laugh while playing on your sense of cool: "You still drink the milk right from the container, cuz your mom always told you not to. (SFX: belch). If you're such a bad ass, why aren't you listening to this on an HD Radio?"

In another, a twerpy teacher asks the class to define "high definition." We hear a jock stand up and say, "Duuhh, teach, that's like multiple channels, all kinds of cool music, anytime you want it." A Latino male student imagines himself listening while out driving: "It's Friday night, we're cruisin' down the boulevard and we're gettin' high ... definitely."

To which the teacher can only say, "Uh, thank you."

Among the spots for news/talk stations, several emphasize the benefits of digital on AM. They include funny clips of talk-show callers and hosts followed by the line, "America, we know you want to hear it all, so we've made sure you can! HD High-Definition AM Radio." One features Sean Hannity "stickin' it to the libs." Another spot portrays an aide struggling to help George Bush pronounce "high definition" properly.

(Listening, I recalled the pains Ibiquity took in the early days to emphasize that the letters in "HD Radio" specifically did not refer to "high definition." Those cautionary words seem long forgotten.)

I hope other radio groups will join with Clear Channel in putting their creative experts to work soon on the HD Radio marketing challenge. This is exactly the kind of effort radio broadcasters need to pot out if consumers are to understand and get behind digital.

***

Also welcome to me is the attention given at NAB2006 to new media possibilities by some big radio exhibitors.

Broadcast Electronics calls these "emergent, personalized radio services." The company used the NAB show to talk up its "Pavilion of New Technologies" in partnership with several organizations including NPR Labs, Traffic.com, Mozes and FM411.

The manufacturer's Allen Hartle cites an "explosion of interactive radio opportunities for broadcasters."

BE featured radio text services for the hearing impaired using RDS/HD Radio data channels and audio services for the visually impaired using HD2 multicasting channels. It showed personalized radio applications for mobile phone and Web users including a music alert system from FM411 and Mozes' application for bookmarking songs played over the air.

BE also promoted the business opportunities of RDS/HD Radio electronic signs; promotional outdoor billboards or small indoor LED signs displaying station Now Playing information; and traffic data "tunneled" to in-car systems over HD Radio channels.

It's exciting to see these specialized interactive applications that use existing or newly available data channels.

Emphasizing services for the hearing and visually impaired was Harris Corp. Its Broadcast Communications Division and NPR Labs set up a display demonstrating how HD Radio can offer radio service to such listeners via the Advanced Audio Services data stream.

The display showed captioned radio text for the hearing impaired and extended hybrid mode operation of radio reading services for the visually impaired sent via the HD Radio air chain.

Harris called this a "proof-of-concept design" that used its transmission equipment for insertion of the program material in the multicasting stream, and Kenwood and Boston Acoustics radios to receive the radio reading service channel and a radio captioning display of an NPR program.

I'm very pleased to see this kind of attention to the needs of the visually impaired.

I'm a former volunteer reader for the Delaware Association for the Blind and a former public director on the board of the International Association of Audio Information Services. Harris manager Hal Kneller currently sits on that board. As the manufacturer pointed out in its announcement, many NPR member stations broadcast reading services to approximately 1 million weekly listeners.

"The addition of this service to the HD Radio multiplex of audio and text-based services will provide far easier access for listeners and increase reading service audience size," Harris stated. "Similarly, the HD Radio multiplex can carry the new captioned radio text service to deliver news, weather and other important information to the hearing impaired."

And as Mike Starling of NPR Labs noted in the announcement, some 32 million Americans qualify as visually or hearing impaired, "with that number growing significantly as baby boomers reach retirement age."

Discussion of their needs in a high-profile way at the NAB convention is a welcome addition to the talk about possible commercial benefits to broadcasters of digital radio services.

***

And the HD Digital Radio Alliance announced in April that three retailers - Tweeter, Crutchfield and ABC Warehouse/Detroit - are "joining the radio industry in supporting consumer demand for HD digital radio."

The retailers will be offering HD digital radios in their stores and they have announced marketing and education campaigns to support customers.

It's welcome news. But as the first-person account by Joe Milliken on page 1 of this issue suggests, we need a lot more such announcements. When XM and Sirius were launching, not that long ago, the river of press releases and partnership announcements that streamed through my e-mail box reached flood stage.

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