Monday, July 21, 2008

HD Radio's unrealised potential

I always enjoy the HD Radio session at the Public Radio Development and Marketing conference. On the whole, public radio's understood the potential of the medium far more than commercial radio.

Commercial radio (read: the HD Radio Alliance) has been trying to sell the sizzle without worrying overly much about having any steak on hand. HD Radio lets you tune into other channels -- but most commercial stations don't have them. You can get song and artist info displayed -- but most commercial stations haven't activated that feature. You can get time, weather and traffic reports -- but most commercial stations don't offer the service.

On the other hand, public radio's been building solid, valuable services and only after they're up and running do they put the word out to their listeners. In other words, the steaks are cooking, come hear them sizzle.

In the presentation on Saturday, the panel talked about some real-world solutions. WAMU had a strong audience for their bluegrass programming. But as they grew more into a news/talk station, that smaller (but loyal) group was holding them back. Now the commercial radio solution would be to flip the format and blow off that audience. But WAMU developed an Internet bluegrass service, (, and put it on their HD2 channel.

They then launched a concerted effort to help those listeners get HD Radio tuners (through fund-raising premiums and giveaways) so that they could still hear their beloved format. Instead of just a few hours of bluegrass programming, the HD2 channel gives listeners 24/7 coverage.

Remember the message in the Jacob Media presentation? You don't have to choose which audience to serve. Develop different content for different media and serve both. And that's what WAMU is now doing.

And public radio, especially the NPR Labs, are working on further services that can happen through the HD Radio digital data stream. Like closed caption displays for the hearing impaired. So now a station's news/talk programming can reach a previously unreachable market.

And there's other data services, such as navigation info, traffic reports and more that are available and public radio stations are using right now. And they're leading the initiative to improve range by making digital signal repeaters to strengthen the signal throughout the station's normal coverage area.

For most radio stations, "HD"could stand for "half-dead" radio. And no wonder. Only 17% of commercial radio stations are using any form of HD Radio.

Meanwhile, in the public radio sector, where 75% of pubcasters are using the technology, things are different. They're not dying, they're adapting.

- Ralph

Day 37 of the WJMA Web Watch.


  1. WVTF has been broadcasting HD in Charlottesville for a while now, but no one knows it. Of course, to my knowledge all they are doing is broadcasting Radio IQ on the second channel, and NPR's AAA stream on the third.

    I do like the idea of WAMU making sure their target audience gets the radio. One thing WVTF could do would be to broadcast BBC Mundo or something, and then work with some local retailer to sell them radios at $100 a pop. Until the units are cheap and plentiful, HD is going nowhere.

  2. That's exactly what WAMU did. They actually gave away HD Radios to their top contributors. And since part of their goal was to keep their bluegrass audience, when they moved bluegrass to HD2, they contacted all of their known bluegrass listeners (and ran many spots on-air) to offer them HD Radio at cost.

    They also have had an HD Radio "petting zoo" at several of their events, where people could actually see (and hear) what the fuss was about.

    And in the last fund drive, they went back to offering the radios at the $250 pledge level.

    Bottom line: WAMU's placed over 3,000 radios in the hands of their listeners. So what's WVTF (or most any other station) done by comparison?

  3. As far as I know, nothing. I've been angling for them to give me one, but nothing doing!

    WVTF does have the mobile on-demand thing. They're also podcasting a segment a day, but they've done no publicity on it. Frankly, I believe they're so scared of losing their analog audience that they don't really push the other platforms.

    Wasn't HD supported by the CPB with extra funds?

  4. I'd love to have one of the streams to put out a streaming version of the Charlottesville Podcasting Network, complete with Charlottesville Tomorrow's audio. Now that would be a public service, even if few people would tune in.

  5. As I said in a previous post, the takeaway from the conference was that different media served different audiences -- but you do have to let people know they're available.

    I've been thinking about creating an audio stream for DCD Records. Who says it has to be through a radio station? Maybe we can create a CPN stream in the process.

    That's what I really like about the Internet. You don't have to wait for some large organization to move on something -- just DIY.

  6. I've been experimenting with a stream for a few months. I announced it to the world over the weekend, though I really need to pretty up this interface. All I'm doing is rotating 20 podcasts or so. Want to submit content for this little experiment?

  7. I'd love to participate. I've got 49 half-hour episodes of the "DCD Classical 'Cast" I'd be glad to add to the mix.

    Send me the particulars at digitalchips[at]aol[dot]com. I'll also do a post about it, and we'll see if we can get some traffic going!