For WAMU and its listeners, HD Radio means more slices of pie to go around

Commentary by Caryn G. Mathes

“Legacy” isn’t a veiled insult at WAMU, where bluegrass music like the Del McCoury Band’s is presented by live deejays Lee Michael Demsey, Katy Daley and Ray Davis. (Photos: WAMU.)

“Legacy” isn’t a veiled insult at WAMU, where bluegrass music like the Del McCoury Band’s is presented by live deejays Lee Michael Demsey, Katy Daley and Ray Davis. (Photos: WAMU.)

As a self-proclaimed evangelist for HD Radio, I am often asked why I have inculcated it so deeply in the workings of WAMU in Washington. We devote several full-time employees to produce more than 50 hours a week of live original programming for our multicast channels — bluegrass and Americana music on Channel 2, and news and information on Channel 3.

We further demonstrate our commitment to multicasting on our main channel. For the first year after we started multicasting three HD Radio channels, we spent at least 15 seconds of every hour on our flagship signal cross-promoting Channels 2 and 3, and our hosts still give them at least four spots a day.

Reminding listeners of the other offerings in our “radio community” requires a sizable investment in airtime, as well as the traffic department’s writing and logging.

I’ve given considerable thought to this question: Why is HD Radio important for public radio?

HD Radio is cost-effective

Let’s examine what it costs to offer a new radio channel in our community. The last noncommercial station that changed hands in Washington, D.C., sold for $13 million — and that was in 1997. In the Twin Cities area, Minnesota Public Radio reportedly purchased WCAL for $10.5 million in 2004. The next year, Xavier University in Cincinnati sold WVXU and affiliated stations for $15 million. Buying a commercial station in a market the size of Washington can cost $50 million or more.

In contrast, when WAMU moved our bluegrass shows to their own Bluegrass Country multicast channel in October 2007 — continuing our four-decade history with this music — we spent far less: $110,000 for a new transmitter.

That expenditure also gave us a broadcast outlet for a second news/talk channel on 88.5-3, with international news and emerging shows such as The Takeaway, to sate the bottomless D.C. appetite for news and information.

Why would we not? I believe it would be criminal to let fail a technology that makes it possible to start new radio stations for such a relatively low capital expense.

HD Radio allows you to focus on content

Caryn MathesThere are now 1,925 stations across the country broadcasting 2,995 HD Radio channels. Here in Washington, D.C., 22 stations are broadcasting 39 channels.

These multicast channels have nothing in common save their technology. Formats in D.C. range from South Asian to gospel, from bluegrass to the Mormon Channel. The sheer variety is, to my mind, the most important benefit of HD Radio. It gives public radio the opportunity to provide new content, different content, niche content — to focus on content, period.

Without significant addition to our off-air staff and costs, we have more capacity to create and distribute content—and therefore more freedom to try new offerings and serve smaller audiences. HD Radio allows us to combat the well-founded sense that radio has become too format-driven. The possibilities inherent in that capacity remind me of the golden days of FM, when our deejays played what they wanted, based on their own deep understanding of their music.

Some may suspect that focusing on niches distracts from producing our main news/talk channel and raising the revenue needed to support it. However, as public broadcasting fundraisers have learned, there is an altruistic element in our supporters’ motivation. While our main news/talk listeners may not be tuning to our bluegrass channel in large numbers, they have voiced appreciation that we didn’t leave that audience behind.

By serving the niches of our market with our bluegrass and international news HD Radio channels, we are free to focus on growing our flagship frequency into a powerhouse. I believe it is no coincidence that since we launched WAMU’s Bluegrass Country and WAMU-3 for international news, both our individual giving and our corporate support have grown by double-digit percentages. Public radio fans of any stripe will appreciate your efforts to focus on the content, and they’ll support them.

HD Radio’s growth prospects are improving

HD Radio technology has taken a lot of hits, many justified, but I believe the prospects for the technology are continually improving. Our research showed that for more than 30 percent of our audience, the price tipping point for HD Radio was $50. A portable HD Radio from Insignia recently began selling for $50. Now we will see if the people we surveyed really meant what they said.

Automobile manufacturers are also helping grow the audience by including HD Radio technology as standard or optional equipment in more models. Ford, Volvo, Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Hyundai all include HD options on some or all of their models. To appreciate the resulting growth potential, remember the boost given to software that’s bundled with new PCs. Once the application was made part of the purchase, any roadblocks to usage simply melted away. Becoming “standard equipment” should have the same effect for HD Radio and multicast channels.

Another stumbling block for HD Radio has been its limited coverage area — which is not surprising, given that its power has been limited to 1 percent of analog power. Now, the FCC is considering approving a tenfold power increase to enable multicast channels to penetrate into buildings more readily while expanding coverage, and NPR Labs is working with many local broadcasters to determine the optimal power increase. I hope the outcome enables our listeners to hear all three channels of robust content that we air. Though WAMU isn’t part of a formal study, we plan to take a leadership position in testing higher HD power levels by installing a new transmitter in September.

HD Radio as a programming strategy is working

Are people listening to HD Radio? The latest answers are encouraging.

One sure sign that people are engaged with our multicast channels is that we get calls and e-mails when we make changes that listeners don’t like. There’s yet another undeniable sign that HD Radio is gaining traction: on commercial multicast stations, you’re starting to hear commercials.

As for audience numbers, this spring’s Arbitron National Topline Report showed our Bluegrass Country multicast channel had a weekly cume of 5,500 in the Washington and Baltimore markets. That’s not in the same league with our main channel, which had a cume of some 730,000. But that HD Radio audience will grow over time and already includes a lot of satisfied listeners and potential members.

Moreover, it’s not the only audience we’re looking to. When we invest in content, we give it more than one chance to win an audience. We also provide Bluegrass Country on a low-power translator in Northern Virginia, and we stream the service on the Web, with online extras such as video of in-studio performances. Stats show the site, bluegrasscountry.org, attracts more than 50,000 unique visitors a month. Bluegrass Country is also active on Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook.

To truly “get” the importance of HD Radio, I think we must abandon our old view of metrics. The days when a radio station could expect a double-digit share are gone. Shares of 1 or 2 percent may count as good performance in the brave new world. The landscape has changed irreversibly, with podcasts and Internet radio tempting the listener. The pieces of the audience pie simply get smaller, and you need to make your content accessible on every possible platform to serve a similarly significant slice of the population.

My career in public radio has been based on careful fiscal oversight and ceaseless attention to return on investment. I submit to you that above all, HD Radio returns a high yield in rich content, program development, cost-effectiveness and listener goodwill for a relatively modest investment.

Caryn G. Mathes is g.m. of  American University’s WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C. Under her leadership, private sector revenue supporting its operating budget grew by more than $7 million between fiscal years 2005 and 2009.

RELATED STORIES

More power for HD Radio means more buzz on analog FM, NPR finds, September 2008.

NPR and iBiquity agree: raise HD Radio power four-fold, November 2009.

RELATED LINKS

With news occupying more of its airtime, WAMU has moved its secondary format of bluegrass music to an HD Radio digital multicast channel, to the Web and to a new low-power station covering part of its listening area.

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