Written Jan. 28, 2008 by Larry Rosin in HD Radio with 3 Comments
This article recently appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of Radio & Records.
"I Want My MTV." Probably no message could have been more powerful in the adoption of cable television. It got millions of teenagers and others to know that they just had to get cable television.
What can the radio industry do to get people to "want their HD?"
As the radio industry continues to discuss all aspects of HD Radio, from the technical side, the marketing perspective, the hardware, the chips, the signals, and the costs - I want to make sure that the industry focuses primarily on the most important aspect of all: The Programming.
Up until now, the marketing of HD Radio has largely been directed to awareness of the existence of HD as a concept. This has made sense - no one is going to want HD Radio until they know what it is.
But the first wave of HD Radio marketing almost went out of its way to avoid telling consumers what the programming might be. And of course no one is going to want it until they know what programming is available.
The second wave of advertising, with spots that listed myriad format choices, at least began to discuss the programming, but they were deceptive at best. Listing formats that are available somewhere but not necessarily available to the person hearing the commercial runs the risk that someone goes and gets an HD Radio looking for the Alternative Rock channel those spots talk about, or the reggae channel or whatever.
All this speaks to an essential problem - the HD Radio spots are produced nationally, but are run locally. So they haven't pushed the local programming that is available.
Now, many are arguing that the answer is to start doing spots touting the available local programming. And while I don't dispute that, I have a more radical proposal: Instead of marketing the local HD options, we should be nationalizing the HD radio stations.
Think about it. Right now, the overwhelming majority of HD stations are barely-produced, barely-tended jukeboxes. The HD Alliance worked to create a system to put formats on that were additive instead of duplicative, in most places. And that's great. But if there is no Alternative station in your market, what would be more compelling? A no-DJ Alternative jukebox? Or KROQ in Los Angeles? Yes, with the traffic updates, Lakers scores, and everything else. My instincts say: KROQ in a landslide.
I have listened to WKTU-New York's HD-2 Channel, which attempts to provide Country music to the Country-less masses here in Gotham. Of course I like the music, but there is no other reason to listen to this station. There is no production, no spark, no nuthin' at all. Wouldn't I be vastly more entertained if Clear Channel just put on WSIX? Great talent, great production - everything we think radio is all about - even if there were information about Nashville.
After all, since forever people in the UK have listened to 'national' radio that is overly London-centric, and people across Hungary listen to radio that is almost all about Budapest. We've researched it, and at most it is a mild annoyance to listeners from other cities. I could deal with discussions of who is playing at the Bluebird tonight; in fact I might really want to know.
Then again, we could consider as an industry to create nationalized HD-only stations. The only realistic chance that the resources will be applied to create 'great' radio stations of the type that will make us all proud of the kind of radio we are capable of making.
Here are more reasons we should consider nationalizing HD Radio:
* For HD to achieve the goal of bringing 12-24s back to the radio, we need an incredible 12-24 station. Everyone tells me there's tons of national 12-24 business and no local business. So why not create a mechanism to go after that business?
* The day is coming, or essentially here, when every station is available everywhere. We've said in the past that this is a valid reason to soldier on with HD -- to claim the space on the infinite dial, regardless of what the platform is --but it wouldn't be bad to establish the HD car radio as the place to hear KPIG, KCRW, KFOG, WLNG, or any of our greatest radio stations.
* Nationalizing HD would allow us to self-syndicate many of our best programs. What better way to amortize the cost of some of our best local talents than by making them available to people all over the country? What better way to keep our best talent from going to satellite radio?
* I wrote in 2006 about a plan to work with national brands to build instant credibility, e.g. having House of Blues create a blues channel, or Ben & Jerry's create a Triple A. This was a national/Internet strategy, which helps explain why it didn't achieve much currency of course. But wouldn't a national platform of HD stations actually get advertisers excited and perhaps involved?
* We are fooling ourselves if we think that today's HD channels are in 'service to the local community', and it is inconceivable to think that the resources are going to be there to serve in any other way than to string together songs. Freeing ourselves from any belief that we will engage in community service will lead to easier, national models.
* For what it's worth, the digital radio tier in the UK has made inroads in part by taking local stations national, and by building new national brands. Not everything done in the UK has been perfect, but it is something we should be modeling ourselves on more.
* Even the 'niche-iest' ideas would be more successful on a national platform than locally. We have long felt that if someone were to try to serve the Caribbean community in New York City, they would help sell a lot of radios. But it would still be more feasible on a nationwide basis.
I believe in HD Radio and have been trying throughout its history to offer constructive ideas to make it work. While I know that efforts are being undertaken to solve the myriad issues with regard to signals, availability of the hardware, marketing, costs etc., I ask our industry to continue to remember the programming. We need positive plans to create great programming that will get people to demand their HD.