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Music

Listen closely: HD is the new FM

If you buy it, radio is in for its biggest makeover in decades, with more channels and choices.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published May 17, 2006


photo


[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Charlie Ochs holds an HD radio receiver in one of the radio booths that is under construction at CBS Radio in St. Petersburg.

They may be the best radio stations you've never heard: CD-quality, commercial-free broadcasts of grunge rock tunes, '80s-era hits and National Public Radio talk shows such as Fresh Air and Car Talk.

These are the wares Tampa Bay area stations offer on HD radio, a new digital broadcast format that brings a sound quality sharper than current analog signals, with the ability to provide secondary channels on the same frequency.

Every major radio programmer in the Tampa Bay area is spending millions to bring these new channels to the market, despite the fact that most consumers don't even know what HD radio is yet.

The goal is to implement a format change as sweeping as the days when FM took over the radio dial, bringing the industry into the 21st century while addressing some of its biggest drawbacks.

"We're putting the horse before the cart ... because this is the future,'' said Charlie Ochs, senior vice president and Tampa Bay market manager for CBS Radio. "It's a movement in technology and we have to be there."

On Aug. 1, Clear Channel Radio will begin simulcasting five existing stations in HD with five secondary channels, with formats ranging from all new hits to urban adult contemporary. (Talk station WFLA-970 AM already simulcasts its analog signal in HD).

CBS Radio already has three existing stations simulcasting in HD; two more existing stations and five secondary channels are planned for HD by the year's end.

Listeners may not realize it, but some area stations already simulcast in HD, from public radio station WUSF-89.7 FM, which offers a secondary channel filled with NPR shows, to Cox Radio, which has three stations broadcasting in HD with secondary channels.

Digital radios pick up HD signals through an antenna, the same way traditional analog radios receive AM and FM signals. Many radios offer access to AM, FM and HD channels in the same unit; users just select the appropriate frequency and dial in the station they want to hear.

And though a spot check of Radio Shack stores in St. Petersburg revealed some salespeople had never even heard of HD radio, the company on Monday announced a deal to stock digital radio units priced at $299 in seven cities (not including the Tampa Bay area) prior to a national roll out later this year.

Since listeners will need a new radio to hear these frequencies, Job One is simple: put on channels the public wants to hear.

"The art of this is to put a product out there to create demand,'' said Dan DiLoreto, regional vice president for Clear Channel Radio in Tampa. "It's broadcasters' responsibility to create the material which gives people a reason to buy these radios.''

Clear Channel and CBS Radio belong to an alliance of radio broadcasters providing $200-million in advertising space to spread word about this new format, pledging to avoid duplicating formats and keep auxiliary channels commercial-free for 18 months. (Ochs said area CBS Radio stations would likely air ads once the commercial-free period ends.)

Just don't suggest that all this activity is a response to satellite radio, which garnered loads of press after the January move of shock jock Howard Stern and former Tampa Clear Channel personality Bubba the Love Sponge's to Sirius Radio.

"(Satellite radio) has nothing to do with what we're doing,'' said Peter Ferrara, a former Clear Channel executive who serves as president and CEO of the HD Radio Alliance from Orlando.

"They have less than 10-million subscribers, while terrestrial radio has 240-million listeners," he said. "Our consumer is expecting better things of us, sure. ... And I genuinely believe there is a renaissance of programming under way here.''

To help the renaissance along, Ferrara's alliance has cut deals with electronics retailers and manufacturers to feature their businesses in member station advertising if they support the HD radio roll out. Tampa Bay area listeners will hear a coordinated campaign of ads beginning in August.

Eight car manufacturers are expected to offer HD radios in 30 automobile models by fall 2007. Ferrara hopes the cost of HD radios will drop to $199 by Christmas.

"That's the magic price point ... (where) you go from selling thousands to selling millions of radios,'' he said.

But will consumers, already inundated with new technology such as iPods, BlackBerrys, third generation PlayStations, and satellite radio systems be willing to spend even more money to buy yet another gadget?

Radio consultant Fred Jacobs recently released a poll of 25,000 rock radio listeners showing just 20 percent of respondents had heard of HD radio, but one-third were interested in the format after hearing about its features. He believes radio fans will pay for HD radios as long as broadcasters hype a core concept: Unlike satellite radio, once you buy the receiver, the content is free.

"A lot of the new technology has sort of snuck up on radio,'' added Jacobs, noting stations are also more receptive to offering podcasts and streaming on the Internet. "They have just begun to accept that. ... If they are going to participate in the future, they can't keep doing things the same old way.''

For instance, BusinessWeek magazine noted some Clear Channel stations are asking local residents who love music to choose programming for their secondary music channels.

But some note the array of new formats currently planned for secondary channels in the Tampa Bay area -- contemporary Christian music, grunge rock, adult contemporary -- don't seem particularly adventurous.

"Those sound like formats that might have been new to FM 20 or 30 years ago,'' said JoAnn Urofsky, general manager of WUSF, which became the first public radio station in the United States to broadcast in HD three years ago. Its secondary channel debuted in December and executives are now planning a third.

"This is still a pretty quick ramp up time for an industry which hasn't changed significantly since FM first rolled out,'' she said.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/.

[Last modified May 17, 2006, 08:40:45]


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