When I did the morning show at WCXR/Washington in the 1980s, we had an AM sister station, WCPT, that had a terrible signal, got no ratings, and thus made no money for anyone. It merited little attention from management or staff.
It ran automated programming around the clock off a behemoth machine in a back room (this was long before a single personal computer could do the job). WCPT aired a syndicated old school R&B format called Heart and Soul (the midday disc jockey had a great name: Alvin John Waples), which sounded like someone had put a K-Tel Best Of Motown album on shuffle and repeat. After dumping that, WCPT ran the audio of CNN Headline News, when that network ran live, half-hour blocks of news around the clock. I actually thought it sounded pretty cool, because all those on-the-scene reporters had ambient sound that wasn’t present in most radio newscasts. A couple of years later, WCPT switched to a brokered business format, at which point I stopped paying attention. I think today it runs Spanish music.
In my years in the building, those of us on the FM station had nothing to do with the AM station other than, every four hours, changing out the tape cartridges in the automation system so that the locally inserted imaging (call letters, station identification, etc.) fit for the daypart in which it aired. To call it an afterthought would be to overstate its importance to us. The only other effort put into WCPT was by our chief engineer, who — after cursing about wasting his time — occasionally had to tweak its transmitter or its automation system simply to ensure it was still on the air. Although I doubt anyone would have noticed if it suddenly stopped broadcasting altogether.
What made me think, 30+ years later, of such a blip in the history of radio? I saw a piece radio hall of famer Fred Jacobs wrote last week marking the 15th anniversary of the debut of HD Radio.
When it was first introduced, HD Radio was sold as a way to give the owners of FM stations two more sub-channels to program and develop with new and exciting formats for audiences not being served by traditional outlets. The truth, however, is that while some of those outlets have programmed jazz or classical or alternative formats, they’re been given scant resources by management. The main reason for that is the only place anyone has access to those channels is in their cars. And they only come across the HD outlets by accidentally hitting the scan button.
With such a trivial addressable market, radio companies would rather use those frequencies to serve as translators for their AM talk stations or as the homes of more bland adult contemporary outlets. The blame goes back to the very beginning of HD Radio, a decade and a half ago, when the owners of traditional stations worried the new technology would create competitive problems for them. So, as Fred writes:
The powers-that-be, not excited about self-inflicted wounds, came up with a novel solution: a “draft” in most markets where companies would be able to declare each of their station’s HD-2 formats, with the group having veto power over any option that appeared to be threatening.
I was able to surreptitiously sit in one of these HD Radio market drafts, and I was able to witness the process. I don’t remember all the particulars and rules, but I do recall that draft order was dictated by the most recent rating books descending 12+ shares. So, the #1 station in town got to make their pick first, with discussions from the group following each choice over a very crowded conference call.
The draft worked – sort of. It effectively protected the most successful stations in the market. If you were the top-rated Soft AC, you’d be able to pre-empt someone else choosing a similarly programed HD-2 newcomer.
Of course, the unintended consequence of the draft was programming blandness. Because anything that might have had a hint of being innovative, clever, and disruptive ended up getting quashed, most of the new HD entrants were either variations on the tried-and-true themes or were predictably unimpactful.
The industry tried to get listeners interested, even giving away thousands of HD radios, but it was all for naught. In the end, somewhere around six people not affiliated with the business bought standalone HD receivers to listen to at home.
The only useful aspect I ever found about HD broadcasting was when I did the afternoon drive show at KMOX. Because I took so many listener phone calls and management didn’t want any hassles from the FCC in the event someone said a banned word, the show was aired on delay. That presented a problem when I broke every ten minutes for traffic updates from our airborne traffic reporters. Each time, we had to stop the proceedings and come off delay, so the traffic guys could hear themselves in real time. Then, during the adjoining commercial break, we’d build the delay back up so things returned to normal by the time I spoke again. But when the station added a digital carrier to its regular AM signal, the guys in the helicopter and plane could listen to that, and the jumping-in-and-out-of-delay issue was solved, making life easier for both me and my control board operator.
Like me, Perry Simon — longtime writer for the influential radio trade site All Access — has never been an HD Radio believer. He wrote a few days ago:
I regularly ripped HD Radio for several sins, from the deficient technology to weak programming, but one of the central themes was “who asked for this?” More precisely, I asked what need HD Radio was filling for the consumer, not the radio industry. The radio industry’s need, I could understand: Faced with an onslaught of digital competition, radio wanted something digital of its own to tout. But the public wasn’t asking for digital radio, and 15 years later, it still isn’t asking for that. It also wasn’t thinking, “you know what I’d like? Radio, just more of it.”
Perry goes on to rightly explain that listeners care more about content than technology. That was true when I was young and we’d listen through static to pick up distant AM signals in order to hear outstanding radio personalities. In all the years I was on the air, over the course of hundreds of interviews, I never had anyone complain that the guests were on phone lines, not satellite feeds.
Thus, the HD Radio propaganda about making stations sound better fell, ironically, on deaf ears. It’s even less relevant today, when music consumers happily settle for highly compressed mp3 files from their phones or Spotify feeds, because it’s the songs they care about, not the highest-quality audio.
I’m sure I’ll hear from a few people who are rabid fans of some HD-2 or HD-3 sub-channel, but they are an even smaller minority than the number of people who use Bing as their default search engine. But there’s no denying that — like “quadrophonic” broadcasting before it and AM Stereo after it — HD Radio remains a technology hyped far beyond its usefulness.
I’d go as far as saying that, in a decade and a half of existence, it has had as much impact on the business as WCPT did.