Getting Real About HD Radio

It's time to take our medicine. HD Radio as a concept, as a savior, as the enabler of more channels is never going to happen. I am sorry to say this because so many of my radio friends are betting their futures on it. Its time to deal with the failure of HD and move on rather than to continue to fool ourselves. HD will not make any difference whatsoever to the future of radio.

If not HD, then what?

I'm not opposed to installing HD capability on radio signals if that is going to improve the sound quality. It should always be our goal to improve the quality of the radio signal. But at the same time it would be helpful to keep in mind that the next generation listens to music on their computers (and I'm not talking about add-on speakers for everyone). They listen on low-quality iPod buds. Fidelity was never a big attraction for broadcasting. Mobility, yes. Fidelity, no. That's why AM stereo didn't help. AM stations garner big ratings when they offer programming FM stations will not -- like news, sports, and talk. It has nothing to do with stereo.

So, improve the audio, but don't tell anyone. Does that make sense? Of course not, but it's true. HD Radio has turned out not to be a public relations lure. Just because station owners invest their money in it is no reason to publicize it, because frankly, the public is showing it doesn't care. And I can tell you the next generation really doesn't care. HD is a stupid name. It means something for television -- it's a high definition screen. Clearer view. Better picture. It means nothing to the radio listener. What does it mean? A little clearer sound. More sub-channels from stations you're not wild about now. So, I would say install HD to make your signal better (if you think it does) and don't tell anyone. They don't care.

Stop with the selling of more expensive HD radios. You're not going to get HD
radios into the general population ever unless HD becomes standard on new replacement radios at the same analog price. It's time to deal with the facts which are that listeners will not spend money to upgrade their radios to HD. We often can't be objective about this. They can. Many listeners have a lot of complaints about terrestrial radio and even the ones who don't can't find a compelling need to upgrade their sets. HD is in less than 20% of the TV households and in television HD is something special. If you want to help radio at a time of great change, know this and give up the marketing campaign to get listeners into HD.

So, what's left?

Reinvent radio. Yes, cut the commercial loads -- cut them in half. And raise the standards for radio commercials. You can't have a Smooth Jazz station and create mood from the beginning of a music sweep to the end and then have an advertiser screaming you'll like their mattresses or the mattress is FREE! Radio pioneer Jim Schulke who developed the beautiful music format knew this. He limited commercials to four an hour (most hours) on his many successful syndicated stations and they had to pass the mood test to make it on the air. He told me one time when we sat together on a beautiful New Jersey beach that eventually the radio powers (and this was before consolidation) will not be able to resist the urge to run more than four spots because of all the success they were having. He was right. They did. And look what you've got now. Too many commercials. Same old formats. Irritating DJs. No wonder listening on a computer sounds so alluring to the next generation.

Radio in the future will need help selling -- selling fewer avails, better commercials, installing standards to make commercials fit the format. Even my students, Gen Y'ers, wonder why radio commercials have to be so awful. They know that the radio commercials too often don't fit the station.

And throw away the hot clock. It no longer matters. Life does not begin for most of us at the top and bottom of the hour as it once did. In an on-demand generation, the clock starts when we listen and ends when we stop whenever that is. And with the People Meter coming on line, stations won't even have to identify themselves ad nauseum. The People Meter will know who is listening.

Send your djs to smart school. Teach them how to talk normally -- they can entertain but do they all have to do a poor imitation of "Cousin Brucie"? Lee Abrams has always been an outstanding programmer who understands how to feed and nurture radio talent. Go to him. And there are others. Go to them.

The point is that HD radio is not going to happen. It's not going to save radio. Listeners are not ever going to care.

Oh, and one more thing.

The lure of several side channels, I know, is so strong with radio people that they can't think straight. And they must. Adding more channels waters down the franchises you already own unless they are something special. HD side channels, if they are anything, are nothing special. This may be the hardest thing to give up. Just because HD allows radio operators to split the channels, doesn't mean that you have to do it. Smart broadcasters will run one radio station per signal unless or until they can get those stations to be a growth industry again. The addition of multiple side channels will do nothing to help.

High Definition is a misnomer. High Expectation would be more suitable. HD will not get radio out of the doldrums. Will not be the magic wand that gets the next generation to come back. It's a lot less digital than that. Taking stock of the realities of HD and using some of the abundant talent that radio stations still possess, the answer will likely be more analog -- like creating a new generation of radio programming.