Monday, January 23, 2006

My Initial Thoughts on HD-Radio

Just when you thought terrestrial radio was old hat, the traditional radio industry has innovated a new way to revitalize itself. HD-Radio is in many ways like HD-TV. They’re both high definition, and they both require upper-end devices to decode their respective signals. But unlike HD-TV, HD-Radio doesn’t project a crystal clear image onto a flat screen so lifelike you wanna touch. Instead, the latter provides users with CD quality sound in much the same way the satellite radio signals do.

Last week, radio giants Clear Channel and CBS rolled out HD-Radio broadcasts in 43 US markets. An attempt at compensating for programming gaps, these included commercial-free talk and expanded music formats. But was anybody even listening? Digital radio’s perks include the allowance for three times as many stations in bandwidth previously slotted by one and unlike satellite radio services, there is no subscription fee required for access. But with digital radios costing more than $500, the savings in subscription fees seems moot and the likelihood of someone tuning in is remote.

The HD-Radio rollout is an attempt at competing for a new generation of listeners. As iPods become more prominent and advertising-free satellite radio gains appeal, terrestrial stations have realized that their demographic isn’t static. In the past few years satellite companies like XM and Sirius have gained millions of customers. With deeper playlists, fine-tuned programming options and expanded talk radio formats, the exodus from FM to satellite has been pronounced. Likewise, with the introduction of iPods and other similar MP3 players that can hold upwards of 10,000 songs, users have become their own DJs, programming playlists they want to listen to.

In order to have a chance at success, HD-Radio will need to provide lower priced receivers, unconventional advertising and alternative formats. And right now, all three things are projected to happen. By year’s end it is said that digital radios will be available for around $200, niche formats will emerge and “episodic” advertising will be implemented. Episodic advertising consists of commercials that follow each other and tell a story.

For now, whether or not listeners begin to transition to HD-Radio is uncertain. While taking a step in the right direction, terrestrial radio companies like Clear Channel seem to be emulating satellite radio’s novelty rather than providing anything original on their own. For the audiophile who left FM in the first place, that won’t be enough to get them back.

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