More Than Just A Repository For Failed Formats, Side Channels May Be A Viable Source for Inspired Programming, Big Bucks
You can be forgiven if you haven't heard much about HD Radio, or if you've heard about it, you still don't have the foggiest notion of what it's all about.
At its most basic, as radio stations begin sending out their signals digitally as well as analog. By splitting the signal, a station can send out its regular programming, and use the digital side channel for something else.
That something else can be a niche format that is perceived to not have enough legs to generate a commercially viable audience -- like country music in New York -- or to preserve a format that flamed out -- like when the Jack format flamed out on WCBS-FM, which returned to its signature oldies sound.
Oh, and when it works right there's CD-quality sound, few, if any commercials, and no subscription fees (take that XM and Sirius).
Only problem is, HD Radio is one of those things broadcasters like to tout, but nobody can figure out how to exploit, especially since consumers have not exactly rushed to spend $200-$300 on an HD receiver.
Washington public-radio powerhouse WAMU is aiming to change that. It's been running its popular bluegrass programming on one of its HD channels (yes, it has two), and it will now include that rarity of HD rarities, live hosts.
That puts HD Radio into the realm of serious, well-thought-out programming rather than an afterthought. Hard to say whether this can be a harbinger of things to come. WAMU has long cultivated an audience, not to mention eager donors, with its bluegrass shows, and it's not hard to get those dedicated listeners to follow wherever the music takes them.
By contrast, a run-of-the-mill rock station that puts, say, heavy metal on a side channel, might not want to shell out salaries for live DJs who would be heard by an initially puny audience, to put it charitably. That's why virtually all HD jocks are voice-tracked. And even those are small in number.
Building an HD Radio audience will take time and money. But so far, not even broadcasters are convinced it's worth the investment. Until they are, audiences will likely feel much the same.