Thursday, August 02, 2012

Pubcasting and the HD Radio pretense

Jacobs Media just released their fourth annual study of core public radio listeners. There are lots of posts about the marked increase of tech and social media among listeners, which is something the study clearly shows.

But buried in the data is another story, I think. Consider -- according to the report:
  1. HD Radio is only used 6% - a 3% decline from last year.
  2. The average age for listeners who have been a contributor for more than 11 years is 63.
  3. The average age for listeners who have been a contributor for less than 5 years is 50, with 19% being in the 25-34 age group (a demographic that doesn't even appear in the 11+ category).
In the olden days, most public radio stations were primarily classical music and news. Then Morning Edition and All Things Considered became the "tent poles." Both listenership (and giving) spiked dramatically when those two shows were on. So it wasn't long before stations were looking for ways to keep the magic going, by programming more news/talk.

But what to do about classical music? Everyone knows that only old people listen to classical music. They also represented the long-time (and sometimes big money) supporters of the station. But the real money -- and the younger audiences -- were in news/talk. So changes had to come.

No public radio station wants to be characterized as a culture-killer. Witness the firestorm when WETA dropped classical to go news/talk a few years ago. So rather than get rid of classical, some stations simply moved it to their HD Radio digital channel.  "No, classical isn't gone. We still broadcast it, and you can listen just as before -- if you have a special HD Radio, that is."

HD Radio has enjoyed greater usage in the public radio market than the commercial broadcasting field -- but its penetration is still dismal. And (see fact 1), it's shrinking. So for a station to claim that everybody wins when classical gets shoved onto a frequency that no one can receive seems a little disingenuous.  "No, we're not getting rid of it -- we're just putting it in the back of the attic where no one can easily get to it."

Fortunately, there's an upside to all this. Most stations that shift their music programming to HD2 also move it to the Internet. And online listening is an option that's growing among public radio listeners (just like the rest of the public).

The Jacobs Media survey shows the Internet to be the second-most used media for their study group (mobile phones were tops at 96%, Internet second at 91%). And over half regularly listen to content from their smartphone or MP3 player in the car. Sure, it could be podcasts (44% usage for this savvy group), or stored songs, or Pandora (only 18% usage). But there's a good chance that a significant part of it is content from the station -- and not necessarily their broadcast signal.

I have to admit that as much as I hate the programming of over-the-air WQXR (which I think is bland and boring), I love Q2 Music, which is their online-only alternative classical music service. It's innovative, it's fresh, it features living composers and unusual repertoire -- it's great! And it's online.

And I don't think they ever pretended it was available on an HD Radio channel.


  1. With the dismal sales of HD radios, I don't even believe the 6% figure. BTW, Jacobs consults to iBiquity. The HD side-channels are nothing more than a dumping ground for unloved formats. The whole system doesn't work reliably, and never will approach that of analog.

  2. You're right. Although classical's usually the format that gets shoved onto HD2, it's also happened with jazz (WDUQ), bluegrass (WAMU) and -- as you aptly called them -- other unloved music formats. I think at some point the money's that propping HD Radio up will run out, and the whole thing will disappear overnight (not that it's every really appeared in the public's view).

    1. Hi Ralph,

      I've seen comments in ba.broadcast from a reliable source, that investors are no longer pumping money into iBiquity, and that with stations slowly turning it off, it will be many years before this interference generator will be removed from our formerly pristine analog airwaves. iBiquity laid off their retail marketing director in a round of company cutbacks in 2009. Kelly Jarvis just quit, as she was the broadcast marketing manager for iBiquity:

      The only source of income for iBiquity must be coming from the automakers. According to a reliable source in AVS HD Radio forum, iBiquity cut deals with the automakers as far back as 2007, when the automakers had no clue that the system would never work. Ford is also an investor in iBiquity, and resisted installing it until this year. Ford still does not have an option for a stand-alone HD radio. Volvo and BMW have it standard, but also have outstanding TSBs against HD Radio. The law firms of Keefe Bartels and Wolf have been collecting consumer complaints for almost two years for possible class-actions.

    2. Sorry, forgot to mention also in 2009, Hal Kneller was laid off from iBiquity as the international business development director: