Tuesday, July 04, 2006

HD Radio: Digital Boondoggle? (Part 2)

Here we are another few months into the HD Digital radio saga. Time enough to check in and evaluate where we are with HD Radio and complete my earlier thoughts on the subject as well. Regular OpenGeek readers know I'm no fan of Digital Radio. On AM, it's a mess. We need to knife the baby right now and reconsider how we want to move the AM band forward.

Hint: Am Stereo support in every receiver made from today forward --this plus the modern DSP technology found in the new HD Radios would make for a potent AM solution. We are gonna invest in the design of the new radios, why not cover out bets huh?

On FM, to be perfectly fair, the technology has some merits and brings with it a unique chance for the radio industry to do itself some real good. Things like this just don't come along every day. That makes this discussion worth it on those grounds alone.

Frankly, if FM HD Radio manages to make it, we might actually get to a place where solid improvements to the AM band become viable. That place includes IBOC, BTW for those who might be thinking I'm just another bring back the AM Stereo geek. Well, I am, but I'm also fair too in that I simply want better radio. That means embracing IBOC where it makes sense to do so. 'nuff said, onward and forward!

Here we are some precious months later and the only new buzz I'm hearing about HD Radio still comes from the industry itself. The spots tell me more about Crutchfield than they do about the value proposition HD Radio brings to the table. That's gotta be fixed ASAP.

New radios are not on the shelves for all practical purposes, expectations about the technology are still being managed downward, and fundemental decisions about how to best apply the technology are off the map at this point. Most importantly, the early adopters are not buzzing about this new tech like they normally would a viable tech. What does this mean? It means they don't see the value proposition. Given all of the above, who can blame them?

So, how to sell HD Radio?

In a nutshell, put content on there that is not otherwise easily obtained elsewhere. Secondly, set the right expectations for the new venue (I refuse to buy into the ideal that radio is just another stream delivery system!). And finally, leverage the Internet for both listener interaction and feedback and content cultivation and aggragation.

Let's go through these one at a time.

Content not otherwise easily obtained elsewhere

Right off this means content outside the usual channels. With all the new content delivery choices these days, it's pretty hard to call most of the established content new by any measure. Your average hit single appears in a video game, on iTunes, all over the P2P filesharing services, on a movie sound track, internet radio stations, streamed from the artist web site, through a CD music delivery service, on a ring tone, as part of a TV broadcast, your friends iPod, and it goes on and on and on...

What's worse, for this model, is the reality that we are living today where the overall impact of the mega hit single is dropping. Greater overall availablity of music on demand has allowed people to focus on niches they find interesting. This, in turn, highlights pop music for what it is.

All of these things, and others I'm sure, have sharply diminished the value that 'new' (as in just released by the majors) content has where radio is concerned.

I propose the following: Given the primary strength of terrestrial radio is it's ability to deliver live and local content to it's potential audience, an ideal testing ground for this is the new FM HD subchannels. Things like this do not come along every day. Every FM station, broadcasting a secondary HD stream has a largely risk free venue to promote new ideas and content, without seriously impacting the bread and butter mainstream programming!

The lack of person to person marketing surrounding HD radio is disturbing. The early adopters and talkers should be promoting this technology to their friends, if it's to be a successful tech at all, we need people at this stage in the game to be talking it up to their peers. One such group, ripe for the picking, are local people into the local music scene.

So put some of the more talented ones on the air! (With a mentor of course.) They are going to jump at the chance to do some radio and are also going to be very interested in others hearing their efforts for obvious reasons. Tie these things in with an HD radio availiabity program and you have the makings for some local buzz.

Some of these efforts are going to be great. Run those as promos on the mainstream channel, thus letting ordinary people know not only that there is HD radio and that it has extra channels, but that those extra channels carry something relevant to them. Stream the new content as well, thus giving it a larger potential audience than just those people willing to buy HD radios for local content temptations. Overall, that's a more solid value proposition that resonates on many levels.

Set the right expectations for the new venue

First and foremost, radio is a venue. Position it as such, so that people can easily differentiate it from the other delivery technologies. Of course, radio can be a simple delivery system too, but that's not going to pack the punch required for longer term growth and mindshare being a venue will. There is room for both honestly. This advocacy essay is aimed at building new (and ideally better) radio experiences, so please take it as such.

Another expectation to set properly is content, not quality. The way HD radio exists today means either one digital stream that sounds pretty good, or two that don't sound so good, with one that has no analog backup. Pushing the whole digital means quality thing is just bunk. The bitrates and codec technology we have today just are not enough to meet this expectation, so why even bother setting it. Welcome to entertainment quality audio people.

Digital means choice and in particular it means more of it, period.

Leverage the Internet

Today radio can easily be a whole lot more of a two way medium than it has been in the past. This means we can more easily bond with the people (assuming there are people) on the radio. Technologies, such as e-mail, instant messaging, hypertext (web pages), online streaming, etc... all allow for a much greater interaction with a potential audience than was possible just 10 years ago.

The Internet also represents a potential content source as well. The local content, I mentioned above, may well have sharp limits depending on a lot of factors. However, there will be content online that appeals to the locals, whoever they may be. This content can be aggragated and presented in the form of shows just like the ones that currently pound home the same 40 or so hits every fricking week. This is beginning to show up on television, with shows detailing Viral Videos and other goofy internet culture / content offerings.

That's it on this topic for a while. Again, I've put these ideas here in the hopes of getting better radio --take it or leave it.


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