Public radio stations in dozens of cities are mutating into multicasters, growing new channels that offer two or even three distinct formats at spots on the dial where, since the advent of FM radio, only one channel of programming could be heard.
The fertility drug behind this digital polyvocalism is HD Radio, the digital transmission system that not only improves stations’ audio quality but also allows them to broadcast several program streams on one frequency.
Few listeners so far have bought the HD receivers needed to hear these channels, but station executives hope multicasting will move people to buy them.
Stations are scaling their efforts to their current budgets but also to their hopes and expectations — of HD Radio’s potential for widespread adoption and of extra income from their new services. The slow adoption of HD receivers hasn’t daunted some programmers, who still see a future in selfsupporting digital services.
Many stations are simulcasting their HD channels online as well, which could shore up the audience for their new programming in case digital radio fails to catch on. To boost HD Radio’s profile, however, stations are giving donors HD receivers and educating audiences about the benefits of going digital.
“In essence, we’re pushing the technology as well as our product,” says Bruce Winter, program manager at WUWM in Milwaukee. In September 2006, the station launched The Deuce, an automated mix of rock, folk, blues, electronica and world music [website].
Some stations report that multicast channels do seem to pique listeners’ interest. When Cincinnati’s WVXU unveiled its digital simulcast of WOXY.com, a freeform Internet radio station with a devoted following, fans posted celebratory comments on the online station’s website.
WOXY staffers told Richard Eiswerth, chief exec of WVXU's operator, Cincinnati Public Radio, that a listener who stopped by their studios said he had bought three HD radios and had another on order. “That’s the kind of response we were hoping for,” Eiswerth says.
HD Radio can surely use the publicity. Though digital receivers have been on the market for three years, only several hundred thousand have sold in the United States, according to iBiquity Digital Corp., developer and owner of the HD technology recognized by the FCC as the industry standard.
In a Bridge Ratings survey released Aug. 8, just 13 percent of 3,179 people surveyed could identify a feature of HD Radio. Only 7 percent of respondents said they were “very” or “somewhat interested” in owning an HD radio, a smaller percentage than in a similar study in January. Less than 1 percent of those polled had checked out an HD receiver at a retail outlet.
Bridge lowered its forecast for sales of HD receivers and predicted that even by 2020, far fewer people will listen to HD receivers than to terrestrial or Internet radio.
Yet Robert Struble, president of iBiquity Digital Corp., points to signs of HD Radio’s advancing rollout. More receivers are on the market now than a year ago, at lower prices and through more retailers.
Several receivers now sell for $200, down $100 from a year ago, and fill shelves at Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, Costco and Wal-Mart. By Christmas, Struble expects receivers to sell for as low as $129.
Car companies offering HD radios as factory-installed options include BMW, Jaguar and Mini Cooper. Struble could not disclose the other carmakers in line to sell the receivers, but says 10 manufacturers have sourced the product for 50 models, to be introduced within the next six to 18 months. [HD Radio receivers are now an optional dealer-installed accessory on nearly all Ford, Mercury and Lincoln 2008 models and some models for the previous three years, Ford Motor Co. announced in September.]
Multicasting is a “huge” selling point for HD Radio, Struble says. “HD Radio brings consumers better audio quality, which is important,” he says. “But that’s a very nichey market.” Research has told iBiquity that consumers put a high value on being able to find diverse content on the air.
According to NPR, 310 public radio stations are broadcasting in digital. Seventy-eight of those are multicasting; 56 offer two channels, and 22 air three. HD Radio’s digital bitstream amounts to 96 kilobits per second—120 kbps in “extended hybrid” mode, which some stations are using—and a stream must use at least 32 kbps to maintain a stereo signal.
Years from now, if digital receivers become the norm, a station could shut off its analog signal, which requires most of the FM channel capacity, and use a 300 kbps bitstream. Unlike their counterparts in TV, radio stations face no federal mandate to switch to digital transmission.
Stations can scale their HD services according to the money and staff time they wish to devote to the programming. Those looking for low-fuss options can buy an around-the-clock programming stream from a national network.
NPR sells streams of classical, jazz, folk, electronica and Triple A, and recently added Ahora, a Spanish-language service produced by Radio Netherlands. Another Spanish-language news stream, BBC Mundo, is available from PRI.
KRPS in Pittsburg, Kan., pays PRI $2,000 for BBC Mundo and combines it with free programming from Radio Bilingüe on its digital channel, KRPS-Dos [website], which it launched Sept. 1. The station’s first multicast channel, KRPS-Dos is largely automated and features a mix of Spanish-language news and music.
With its new channel, KRPS becomes the only station in its area to target Spanish speakers, says Missi Kelly, g.m. Yet the region’s Hispanic population is booming, more than doubling in some counties from 1990 to 2000.
“After you see these numbers, you can tell that the need is definitely there,” says Kelly,“and that’s why we decided to move forward with this.”
KRPS joins other stations in having to teach its listeners about HD Radio. But it faces another task: reaching a population that may not know the station at all because its primary service is entirely in English. Kelly has met with locals involved in the Hispanic community, and the station attends Hispanic festivals in its area. KRPS also plans to donate HD Radios to local factories, where potential listeners might encounter the programming in break rooms.
Some stations looking to fill HD channels with Triple A music subscribe to XPoNential Radio [website], a service programmed by Philadelphia’s WXPN and provided by NPR. But Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM) “wanted to have something that would sound like a local creation” and inspire listeners to buy HD receivers, says Bruce Winter.
Winter thought jazz or classical had little chance of drawing multicast listeners, and the station airs Triple A in the evening on its primary signal. So WUWM built on its ties to that format and filled its HD channel with the sounds of The Deuce, a 24/7 stream of eclectic music hosted by Winter, assistant programmer Amanda Shalhoub and a parttime employee.
The Deuce is powered by AudioVault automation software and MusicMaster, a versatile program for devising playlists. This helps to keep down production costs — WUWM spent only a few thousand dollars on the software and a new server, according to Winter. Unlike NPR’s turnkey services, The Deuce adds to the weekly workloads of Winter and his assistant. But the programmer says the value of a locally produced service redeems the 10 hours a week required to record voice tracks and refresh the music mix.
“It’s such a small investment,” Winter says.“Why not do it?”
Other HD services under development in pubradio carry bigger price tags. In Washington, D.C., WAMU relaunched its digital services Sept. 23, upgrading its all-bluegrass web and HD stream [BluegrassCountry.org] to a full-stereo channel with eight hours a day of live hosting.
Weekday drivetime features hosts Katy Daley and Ray Davis, who as the service grows will deliver news, traffic and weather along with music, features and interviews. At the same time, WAMU removed all bluegrass from its primary channel to focus more tightly on news/talk. “Instead of having bluegrass on a shelf, we wanted to give it its own department and try to put some investment into encouraging the genre to flourish,” says Mark McDonald, senior director of programming.
WAMU will spend an additional $500,000 each year on the enhanced Bluegrass Country web channel. The station expects that by its third year, Bluegrass Country will bring in enough revenue in underwriting and membership dollars to pay for 70 percent of its operating costs. On its third digital channel, WAMU pared simulcasts of WTMD-FM, a Triple A station in Towson, Md., to overnights in favor of additional news and talk shows.
Like other stations, WAMU is investing in jumpstarting a local audience for HD. It paid about $90 each for 1,000 Radiosophy receivers, which it is giving to donors who gave $100 and up during Sunday bluegrass programming in the two most recent drives [radio offer].
Executives at WAMU are “very confident in the short term” about HD Radio catching on, McDonald says. “Anecdotally, they’re going off the shelves, and people are beginning to understand the service.” The stations is staffing a phone bank on Sundays with volunteers and engineers who answer calls from listeners with questions about HD.
New York’s WFUV expects to spend $1.2 million in the next two years on a music stream for HD, web and mobile broadcast.
Slated to launch next fall, the service will be designed for younger audiences, with more indie rock and hip-hop in the mix than the Triple A format on WFUV’s main channel. The station received $500,000 in support of the launch from the New York State Music Fund, created from the settlement between the state and major record companies over payola violations. It’s one of the fund’s largest payouts, according to WFUV.
The new channel will tap into Gotham’s native music scene, including little-known and undiscovered artists, and draw on local deejays, bloggers, music writers and others in the business for inspiration. “Part of our purpose is to develop the next generation of music personalities and deejays here in New York,” says Chuck Singleton, p.d.
WFUV has not yet determined the new service’s ongoing costs, which will hinge on how much live hosting and original programming it features. But Singleton expects the channel will help to grow contributions from younger listeners and bring in underwriting from venues and labels seeking to reach that audience.
Like other stations, WFUV is in part hedging its bets by delivering its HD service on other platforms. The strategy gives pubcasters a shot at bigger audiences if HD fizzles, and Singleton acknowledges his doubts that digital radio will stand up to the Web and mobile services in coming years. “We think there’s certainly a place” for HD, he says. “It’s not going to change the world, certainly. But it’s one of the places you need to be and want to be.”
Shown above are logos for new digital FM services in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and southeast Kansas.
Web page posted Sept. 24, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee