HD Radio: The Perfect Catalyst For Radio’s Digital Boom

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For roughly an hour on Sunday afternoon, truly enjoyable audio was emanating from the car speakers of a 2017 Hyundai Elantra.


Normally, the driver of this automobile will punch up a preset — one of several Sirius XM Satellite Radio choices — or perhaps select some music on a Spotify playlist, if not a selection of songs saved to an iPhone.

On this ride, however, RBR+TVBR’s Editor-in-Chief was behind the wheel, enjoying numerous HD Radio selections. His immediate thought: Am I the only one in town listening to this?

There’s an easy and profitable solution for drawing ears to HD Radio. It could very much make digital-first audio choices much bigger revenue magnets.


By Adam R Jacobson

The following is the first paragraph of a news article that could get owners of rock-formatted stations excited.

Jacobs Media recently conducted an online survey of more
than 25,000 listeners to Rock, Active Rock, Classic Rock
and Alternative stations and found that 37% said they’d be
very or somewhat likely to purchase an HD Radio at a price
point of about $300 after being told about HD’s basic features. 

There’s just one big problem with this article: It was written by the individual who now serves as RBR+TVBR owner Streamline Publishing’s Managing Editor, for the April 14, 2006, edition of Radio & Records.

This same issue of the now-defunct R&R also featured an Urban column in which URBan Radio Broadcasting CEO Kevin Wagner was asked of his thoughts on HD Radio and its value … “and even its potential to hurt small broadcasters.”

Hurt small broadcasters? Wagner replied, “There are pros and cons to HD Radio. It will help us in terms of the clarity issue. We will be able to compete with rivals like satellite radio in that arena. But there are also a lot of questions about its cost and how it could possibly cannibalize our own product. Right now HD Radio for broadcasters costs the same whether you are in market No. 1 or market No. 260. That’s not right. Secondly, they have to do a lot better in terms of reaching the consumers and educating them about HD product.”

Wow. Just wow. Thirteen years later, inaction has practically killed something that could have prevented the February 2007 merger (approved by the government some 17 months later) of Sirius and XM. It could have put a damper on any 2011 IPO ideas from Pandora. It could have kept Spotify from entering the U.S. marketplace and swiftly becoming one of today’s top audio entertainment destinations.

Wagner correctly noted in 2006 that HD Radio could help traditional AM and FM stations compete with satellite radio. Costs for building out HD facilities were a concern. But perhaps the biggest takeaway from his 13-year-old comments is tied to consumer education.

The radio industry still largely fails at this, and may never recover unless it understands how HD Radio can be one of its biggest business drivers. It involves digital media, podcasts, and taking a page from every audio business that launched under the premise that radio no longer serves the interest of the consumers it seeks to attract.

THE NATION’S PIONEER AUDIO MARKET

In late 1971, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale radio market had started to evolve in tremendous ways. It had little to do with the growth of Spanish-language radio. Rather, a technological advance would reshape how local consumers tuned to the music and information they desired.

Under Bartell Broadcasting and PD Al Casey, WMYQ-FM 96.3 in Miami helped usher in a new era for listening, as did “Today’s LIFE” — Sudbrink-owned Beautiful Music WLYF-FM 101.5. By June 1972, Casey was in Detroit, after achieving what Billboard called “excellent ratings” in Miami — even before AOR WSHE-FM 103.5 had been given birth.

With FM Stereo’s arrival and swift acceptance in Miami, WINZ-AM dropped Top 40. WFUN-AM was challenged. At 6am on August 3, 1973, there would be no turning back for the flood of listeners to FM as WHYI-FM “Y-100” signed on the air.

Much like the great migration from AM to FM, which came perhaps five to 10 years before most U.S. markets, South Floridians today largely consume audio programming through sources other than radio. But, it doesn’t have to be like that.

In fact, two local companies present at last week’s Hispanic Radio Conference have the tools to perhaps cause disruption to the disruptors. As RBR+TVBR recently reported, Univision has unified the company’s music and audio properties under its Uforia brand, as part of an effort that also involves increased exposure and consumption to audio streams available exclusively through an Uforia app.

Then, there is LaMusica.com, the digital entity for Spanish Broadcasting System.

With limited choices in both Spanish and English on a crowded FM dial in a largely bilingual metropolitan area, consumers should not have to go away from “radio” to hear more. Alternatively, those who may exclusively consume Sirius XM, Pandora or Spotify could be invited to try something with local appeal, with superior audio quality, that requires no data use or monthly paid subscriber fees.

It’s called HD Radio. But, SBS isn’t using its multicast channels on its three FMs in the market. For Univision, WQBA-AM’s Univision Deportes Radio airs on the HD2 signal of WAMR-FM 107.5. Co-owned WRTO-FM “Mix 98” is not in HD Radio, according to information provided by Xperi.

Both companies could exploit their HD Radio capabilities by building digital-first radio stations and then place them strategically across their FMs. Finally want that rock en español station? This is the way to do it, with Uforia’s app providing the programming for HD-3 of 98.3 MHz, for example.

It’s a strategy Entercom and iHeartRadio already are busy at developing.

On the HD-3 signal of Entercom’s Country WKIS-FM 99.9 is the commercial-free feed of the Radio.com Reggae Nation. While the audio quality wasn’t up to the level of “Kiss Country 99.9,” its presence alone is encouraging because it is exactly how Entercom and Radio.com can grow. It is precisely how the entire industry can grow. It reinforces the fact that HD Radio in 2019 only serves one practical purpose — to grow the digital side of the audio content business.

The average consumer does not own a radio in their home. If they do, it is likely at least 20 years old and is not capable of receiving HD Radio signals. This makes HD Radio an in-car choice — for some, but not all. The 2017 Toyota Camry does not come with HD Radio as a standard option; the Hyundai Elantra does.

But, of Hyundai drivers, who knows of this? As has been documented in previous RBR+TVBR columns, the everyday driver of this particular vehicle had no idea HD Radio was present until shown by a passenger. Today, the concept is still confusing. The sales associate at the dealership never bothered sharing information about the feature. Accessing it is perhaps the most difficult task; Sirius XM is front-and-center while AM and FM are not.

Then, there is the fade out issue. Driving from Aventura Mall northward, we enjoyed the new incarnation of “Today’s LIFE,” the ’70s-focused Soft AC format heard on WLYF-FM 101.5 HD2. About 34 miles north of the station’s tower, just minutes from home, the HD2 signal went dark intermittently due to loss of signal. That’s what HD signals do; there is no default to analog for any multichannel signal.

Of course, we were out of the Nielsen Audio primary service area for this station, so the signal loss is the least of Entercom’s issues or that for the radio industry at large.

The biggest issue remains this: Who knows what HD Radio is and who’s listening?

Evidently, some PPM panelists are, at least in the pioneer market for new technology: Miami-Fort Lauderdale. In the Nielsen Audio ratings reports for market No. 11, the all-80s HD2 signal tied to Cox Media Group‘s WFLC-FM 97.3 has received a 0.1 or 0.2 share 6+ since at least May 2017. It is not online. It is not on a translator. This is listening to an HD Radio signal. Cox does no promotion of its existence. It is organic listening.

Also showing up in the ratings: WLRN-FM 91.3 HD2, which airs the Classical 24 format. Driving on Florida’s Turnpike, the HD2 signal of WLRN sounded superior to the Sirius XM audio stream. There was no signal loss through Broward County. For those lamenting the loss of classical music on a HD1 FM signal, this was the perfect solution.

Until recently, the follow-up question to “But, who’s listening?” would likely be “But, how does one get the station?”

Forget about new HD Radio receivers and expecting people to pay upward of $300 for a device, as some suggested would happen 13 years ago. HD Radio’s sole purpose should be to provide some AM revitalization while helping radio broadcasting companies transform themselves into audio content specialists with the biggest local presence available for advertisers. That “Reggae Nation” channel? Red Stripe or Rip Curl could sponsor an hour, or the whole damn station. What about a local business like F1rst Surf Supply, or one of the many CBD businesses putting ad dollars in free alternative weekly New Times? The opportunities are endless, and it is only more money for David Field & Co., without much effort, while plucking some from a competitor’s coffers.

HD Radio is also a perfect platform for all of those podcasts on iHeartRadio and Cadence13, of which Entercom has a strategic investment.

While some many think it was a “we have nothing else to plug in” move, they could not be farther from the truth. HD Radio is the conduit to broadcast audio’s digital fulfillment, and the radio industry’s future. Let’s foster the growth of HD Radio by using it as an entry point for more Radio.com, Uforia, LaMusica.com and iHeartRadio roll-outs.