Bill Virgin's Radio Beat February 21, 2008

Includes archive of Bill Virgin's columns fromJ une 2006 - March 2009

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat February 21, 2008

Postby radiofan » Wed Feb 20, 2008 10:43 pm

On Radio: Listeners wary of yet another HD
Audience lacking despite all the buzz

By BILL VIRGIN
P-I REPORTER


There's been a lot of news out recently about HD radio. KNDD- FM/107.7 has started a second HD channel to concentrate on Northwest artists.

KNHC-FM/89.5 is already offering a digital signal; KBCS- FM/91.3 will follow later this year. KING-FM/98.1 devoted one of its alternate channels to classical Christmas music over the holidays.

But does a lot of activity translate into a lot of listeners?

That's been the continuing question about HD radio, a digital technology that allows broadcasters to offer improved audio quality in their signals and, in the case of FM, offer more than one channel of programming on their frequencies.

(An industry Web site says the acronym stands for "hybrid digital," although increasingly radio broadcasters are borrowing the television usage of HD as "high definition.")

However, the technology requires a special type of radio to hear it, leading to a classic chicken-and-egg, which-came-first challenge: Programmers aren't willing to commit a lot of resources to HD radio until they're convinced there are enough listeners with awareness of and interest in the technology, and listeners have to be convinced there's enough different about HD radio to justify the purchase of such units.

Scott Sutherland, Seattle market manager for Bonneville International (whose KBSG-FM/ 97.3 operates a second HD channel with an urban adult-contemporary format), defines the problem as one of "cars and content."

With so much radio listening done in the car, having HD-capable radios in vehicles is crucial for building an audience for the service.

Sutherland sees some progress in that area, with the announcement by Ford last year that it will offer HD radio across its product lines.

"The challenge for broadcasters is to create innovative content to provide stickiness" that keeps listeners tuned in, he says.

Another example of content that may help draw listeners to HD comes from KNDD-FM/ 107.7, which has announced the launch Saturday of "The Sound of the Northwest," featuring new and recent releases from bands from across the region.

KUOW-FM/94.9 was one of the earliest and most ambitious in deploying HD radio; it offers three separate channels of programming through HD. On a recent morning, listeners could at the same moment tune in to "To the Point," "Talk of the Nation" or the BBC World Service on those channels.

Given that variety of offerings, "listeners are bound to find something that interests them," program director Jeff Hansen says.

"People who have figured it out love it," he adds. KUOW has begun emphasizing its HD service and alternate channels in its on-air announcements.

Hansen says the development of HD roughly parallels that of FM. It, too, was a new channel for which listeners needed specially equipped radios. And it wasn't until FM became common on car radios, and progressive-rock stations began drawing listeners to it, that FM truly took off, he says. "I bring it up every time people say 'Oh, HD is dead.' "

One of the HD skeptics is Kent Phillips, program director for KPLZ-FM/101.5, which has not made the move to HD. "Is it still around?" he asks, only partly in jest.

Considering the lack of units, especially in cars, the lack of content and the marketing, the continued emphasis on HD radio "just baffles me," Phillips says.

It's even more baffling, he adds, given the next big technology.

"Realistically, we're WiMax in three years," referring to units that use wireless Internet connections to link to stations. "WiMax radios are great. You can get anything you want on it."

In other radio notes:

KTTH-AM/770 adds two weekend shows formerly on KVI- AM/570. The home-improvement show "Tami Michaels Inside Out" airs at 11 a.m. starting Saturday, while "What's Cooking with Chef Dan," hosted by Dan Thiessen, follows at 1 p.m.

KOMO-AM/1000 has started its two-hour "Hot Stove League" programs on the Seattle Mariners at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through spring training.

Bonneville International has started a combined Web site for its three Seattle radio stations, KIRO-AM/710, KKTH- AM/770 and KBSG-FM/97.3, at mynorthwest.com. The site includes blogs from show hosts and podcasts.

The Metropolitan Opera performs Bizet's "Carmen" at 10:30 a.m. Saturday on KING- FM.

The group Corespondents performs on "Sonarchy" at midnight Saturday on KEXP-FM/ 90.3.

Jim Wilke's "Jazz Northwest" at 1 p.m. Sunday on KPLU- FM/88.5 features a recent performance by singers Beth Winter, Katy Bourne and Gail Pettis.

The Sunday edition of Jim French's "Imagination Theatre," heard at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on KIXI-AM/880, includes a new Sherlock Holmes adventure.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or billvirgin@seattlepi.com.

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat, every Thursday in the Seattle P-I
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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