A Positive Plan for HD Radio: A Branded Audio Entertainment Strategy

by Larry Rosin, President, Edison Media Research

Any quick look at the surfeit of blogs commenting on radio reveals endless carping about HD Radio. There seems to be no end of critics who are saying it will never work for any number of reasons.
While I certainly believe that HD Radio will have to work as easily and as well as AM and FM to gain acceptance, I am distressed by the lack of positive ideas for creating content that will compel consumers to want to put an HD Radio in their car, home, or office. As multicast stations start to roll out at a rapid clip, some stations have done a more than creditable job of telling listeners about their HD2 stations and providing a reason to listen. There are three problems, however, with most of these stations:

  • Most of the stations are mostly entirely un-produced – differing only by a handful of recorded drops from the wall-to-wall music available from “Music Choice” on many cable systems (although, unlike Music Choice, they do have recorded IDs for the channel running periodically between the songs).
  • They lack the ability to compel listening for anyone but the most ardent fans of the sub-genres of music they represent. Perhaps a Blues Music obsessive will be attracted to a Blues station on HD, but wouldn’t that person just as likely plunk down the $13 per month for Satellite? And even if we put the various sub-genres’ audiences together, is there enough mass there to build an HD fan base? Yes, tiny slices of music available commercial-free on HD might change the value proposition of Satellite for some consumers, but is that enough to build an HD business?
  • They are often trying to do something that is hard enough to do with AM and FM – build entirely new brands. Everyone who works in radio knows how hard it is to get consumers to remember your primary station’s name and dial position. How can we get yet more brands to cut through?

The lack of produced product, of course, relates to the limited budget that most radio operators are willing to throw at a medium that has no users. Fair enough.
So what Radio needs is a plan to get compelling, produced content on HD that will build the medium with little, if any cost. Here’s one scenario:


The Radio industry, working through the HD Digital Radio Alliance or other ventures, needs to reformulate the plan for HD from being format-oriented to being brand-oriented.
We should be working with already-established brands that people know and like, and bringing them to the radio.
Here is an example. Several flavors of AAA–notably, the “Jam Band” format–are being considered as HD channels. In some ways, this seems logical – Triple A has always been a format that sits right on the cut-line of format options for FM in many cities. But Triple A has also had a very tough time cracking through into the general consciousness in many markets.
global_logo_300_white.gifSo instead of putting a Triple A station on HD, why don’t we put on Ben & Jerry’s Radio? Can’t you already hear it? Grateful Dead, Phish, O.A.R, etc. Imagine the possibilities. Radio works with Ben & Jerry’s to create Ben & Jerry’s Radio. The station is available at all Ben & Jerry’s retail locations, as an Internet stream, and, of course, on HD Radio stations all over the country.
Ben & Jerry’s promotes the HD Channels in their stores. If they are ambitious, of course, they can even try to turn these efforts into some kind of new-revenue stream on the order of Starbucks’ “Hear Music” efforts.
The point is that Ben & Jerry’s Radio is something that people would understand immediately. It would create multiple sources of promotion and link HD Radio to a well-liked, positive brand.
One can even solve one of the biggest challenges of HD Radio with this approach: how do we pay for it – and keep it commercial free? This problem solves itself when the whole station is a commercial for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. They provide commercial-free music to the consumer, the cash to pay for the programming, and receive a fantastic new marketing vehicle.
There is no end to the brands with which Radio should be discussing this branded radio concept.
Here are some that come to mind:


Any of the above quickly lend themselves to radio concepts. These stations can be promoted in the magazines, and the stations, of course, promote the magazines.

Other Media:

How cool would a Trump Channel be? Who even knows what it would be, but people would check it out. Tell my seven-year-old that there is a Nickelodeon Channel on HD and she will start noodging me to get an HD Radio. MySpace Radio is clearly the ultimate place for unsigned bands and artists.

Strongly Branded Retailers:

Either Barnes & Noble or Borders would make for an ideal radio channel, between their music and their books. GAP, L.L.Bean, Abercrombie or any other fashion brands also make immediate sense. Curves and Bally’s are already music venues at their locations and could quickly make the transference to radio.

Celebrity Brands:

Why have a Classic Country channel when you can have the Dolly Parton channel? Why have a blues or Classic Rock channel when you can have the Eric Clapton channel? If Joel Osteen has an HD2 Channel, millions of his followers will clamor for HD2. Similarly, someone like Rachael Ray would instantly create demand among her enormous fan base. There are, of course, hundreds of other celebrities whose names are brands and with whom HD could partner on content.

Image Brands:

nike_logo-400-400.jpglogo_hooters.gifvirgin_lg.gif Pepsi_Logo.gifred_bull_logo.gifVWLogo.jpg
All of the above brands are imbued with attitude and strong feelings. All of them are youthful and vibrant. All of them should be attached to HD2 Radio stations – if we want young people to continue to use our medium.


You can have a hard rock HD2 station, or you can have the “Hard Rock Café” station. Or, the blues HD2 Station vs. the “House of Blues” HD2 station. Which is more potent?

And, what about:

Imagine every Tuesday night, after he reviews the performance, Ryan Seacrest says: “For full-time news and music from your favorite American Idol singers, tune to the American Idol radio station on HD2 across the country.”
Frankly, the powers that be in Radio should run to Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell and beg them to create their radio station. American Idol radio would definitely pull people to HD2.


The road to acceptance for HD Radio is long, and the challenges are significant. But the key to success will be creating content that gets people walking into retailers and car dealers asking for HD Radio.
Everyone who works in radio knows how hard it is to build a brand that is meaningful and remembered on AM or FM. We cannot hope to do this with music-only channels on HD. We need to partner with established brands that already move people.
For now, HD Radio is restricted by agreement not to monetize the channels. But the day when HD Radio must stand on its own is barely over the horizon. We must be prepared with programming that will compel people to go out of their way to demand HD Radio. The Satellite Radio companies have already made some inroads into branded entertainment by signing personalities like Oprah and Martha to content deals. HD has an opportunity to think even beyond celebrities or personalities and co-opt existing brands to build real value for both listeners and our customers. An example like the Ben & Jerry’s branded channel will instantly have associated brand values and images that a faceless HD channel may never be able to attain, and it might even build a little more love for both ice cream AND radio. If HD merely replicates Satellite’s commercial-free and personality-free music channels, it will have missed a prime opportunity to leap over the consumer adoption chasm and make a direct play for Middle America.
Comments or suggestions? Please post them in the space below. I look forward to hearing them!

26 replies
  1. Mike Ferris
    Mike Ferris says:

    Very well said. Some unique ideas to consider as we move forward together through the wilderness of HD2. Thanks.


    While I applaud the ideas, vision and enough examples to build on, the problem with commercial radio today will still dog HD radio – content and what makes it compelling to continue listening after initial sampling. After you “get” the connection, Ben & Jerry Jam Bands or whatever magazine tie-in…there has to be something to fill the spaces to intrigue you or you’re a meaningless background musicbox, largely unmemorable. While you can’t monetize, how much time will you devote to finding tons of artists to interview to splice in lifestyle segments/sound bites or celebrities to share something about the music…and then, how often can you REPEAT those drop ins? Will you use a tired, boring unmotivated VOICE or perhaps a commentator like political talking heads? Where would you find enough of them to populate those stations in each market – and again, how often can you recycle them? If so many clusters are programmed by overworked PD’s who are stretched too thin and already don’t have full staffs for their regular big bucks operations, who’s going to spend a new budget on this “experiment”? With so many corporate culture restrictions, who can attempt to return to the early FM Free Form days to amaze the skeptical public who are distracted and fragmented as never before? This is ambitious but requires alot of time, thought and bodies to execute at a juncture that is not sympathetic to a new renaissance. If not brilliantly produced, this becomes another great “promise” like “quad” was. Oh, and start making $39.00 transistor radios again to pick up these channels – no one will pay hundreds of dollars for this “innovation”.

  3. Bill Cloutier
    Bill Cloutier says:

    You know, Larry, I have always known that you are one of the best and brightest; the thoughts you express in this column only serve to reinforce my opinion. Thank you for, as always, seeing “the big picture.” I hope the powers that be out there in radioland are listening.

  4. Dave Rahn
    Dave Rahn says:

    Larry, you are dead on with this one. Even if only a handful of HD2 channels in every market are built around established and compelling national brands (with the remainder being built around the strongest local brands and tied to STRONG local stations (e.g. KBCO Studio C)), it will immediately give HD more critical mass on a national level. What non-radio brand wouldn’t want to have their ‘own’ radio station that’s actually broadcast in markets across the country. We get requests for this kind of thing all of the time for internet-only “stations”, but a cohesive plan tied to trusted terrestrial stations makes for an exceptionally compelling idea (for which there would no doubt be money to be made for all as well). Great thoughts.

  5. Jeff Green
    Jeff Green says:

    Great point, Larry, and I hope HD stations embrace this quickly, especially with the most obvious brands. Certain entities such as NASCAR, Bass Pro and others claim huge long-standing lifegroups that transcend fads, embrace multiple brands within themselves and could spawn cohesive and very pro-active audience communities.

  6. Tom Killorin
    Tom Killorin says:

    The notion of brand-association to feed HD radio is interesting. There would be some complicated intellectual property issues to sort out – direct-to-business music licensing vs. the open-broadcast music source of radio and or internet performance. I have been involved in the commercial music business arena (music, messaging, video and promotional services) for more than a decade now and feel it is reasonable to conclude; “Shopping music” (particularly in the boutique coffee, retail and restaurant world) generally slants more towards the A3/Non-Com side of the dial than the right.

    ART VUOLO says:

    Hey Larry…Bravo!!! I said almost the same thing in my radio column a few weeks ago in the Oakland Press here in the Detroit area. The technology is great…but the programming is lame and if it doesn’t get better HD Radio will be another AM Stereo. My column had the headline: “UNDERWHELMED BY HD, MICHIGAN STILL HOMELESS” which refered to U of M sports still not having a station after WJR dumped them for Michigan State. My column can be seen on the site: http://www.michiguide.com and you really nailed it. Since stations don’t want to invest money in the HD programming, then why should listeners invest THEIR money in the hardware? Unreal. I truely feel there should be HD stations offering any number of formats which “regular” radio has abandoned like: pre-beatles oldies, classical, beautiful music, traditional country and adult standards. C’mon people lets give folks a real reason for plopping down the cash for an HD radio or we’re ALL gonna be a Sirius (or XM) trouble.

  8. John Higdon
    John Higdon says:

    Your premise is that HD is here and we MUST do something with it. Why? The decline of radio today is purely because of lack of compelling content.(on most stations, not all). HD does not correct this situation. If station operators cannot figure out how to program their existing main channels to attract an audience, what good will a bunch of extra channels do them?
    I guess it is a lot easier for broadcasters to hope that HD will save them than it is to actually serve their audiences.

  9. Calvin Williamson
    Calvin Williamson says:

    Major kudos to Mr. Rosin for this common sense approach. HD Radio could be the way to re-capture some resources lost from other new media.
    The viability is there.
    The money is there.
    Let it swing back to the terrestrial side.

  10. Chris Elliott
    Chris Elliott says:

    Great ideas . . . you’re right on the money with the idea that creating demand will be very difficult with a potpourri of niche music formats which are available elsewhere. Big brands break through. While Ben and Jerry’s could certainly create their own audio stream to run in stores, the appeal of an entire HD channel just may get that company or another to plunk down the cost of admission before there are many sets in use. Moreover, a big national brand may be able to start in communities where they are based and have a big local presence. Seattle gets Microsoft Radio, Denver has Qwest Radio, Chicago gets United Airlines Radio, Atlanta has Coca-Cola Radio. In each case the station is programmed for their workforce and families. Taking this idea of family a step further how about church driven HD channels for locally large sects. Lutheran Radio, Mormon Radio, Muslim Radio, etc.. One more and then I’m done. Geo-niche formats. Super serve the smaller geo-graphic areas of the major metros, target programming to the profile of people there, sell to local merchants, and become the local voice by distilling existing programming/ info. In each of these three ideas the branding is built on existing powerful brands that presently have no broadcast voice. Furthermore it works on a local level to strengthen the connection HD radio has with each community.

  11. Marshall Such
    Marshall Such says:

    I would ask the same question I asked the fellow who sent me this essay. Who is going to pitch Ben & Jerry’s? When they ask how many warm bodies my HD channel is/or will be delivering, what do you tell them? Suppose they ask what the penetration of HD Radios currently is? Or what terrestrial radio is doing to promote the HD channels?
    The thinking is sound and your idea makes lots of sense. It’s the implementation and the follow-through that I don’t see happening.

  12. Holland Cooke, News/Talk Specialist, McVay Media
    Holland Cooke, News/Talk Specialist, McVay Media says:

    With all the interest in podcasting, Larry’s ideas are timely. Smart stations are using archives/downloads/podcasts/streaming to go beyond the format/regulatory/signal/time constraints of on-air programming…and HD side channels offer an opportunity for stations to one-up podcasts, since HD side channels are LIVE. As with the podcasts that leading-edge stations are MAKING MONEY WITH, what-Larry-is-suggesting could be termed “advertisers who think like content providers, and content providers who think like advertisers.” That said, I continue to recommend to cluster owners that their first-priority format for an FM side channel would be simulcast of the heritage sister News/Talk/Sports AM, to extend its coverage geographically, and to bring all its Sales-friendly programming assets to the many people who just don’t use AM radio.

  13. Lou Pickney
    Lou Pickney says:

    The high cost of HD Radio receivers is a problem that will need to be overcome. Moreover, as you mentioned, niche music fans already have choices with satellite radio, which makes the challenge all the more daunting for HD Radio.

  14. Chris Squires
    Chris Squires says:

    I believe the most imperative issue is not the technology for delivering the product(s), but that we have taught a whole generation of people how to NOT use the radio. Shame on us for our short term thinking; chasing money and programming only to 25-54’s for a decade or more. We are now seeing the fruits of our labor – no new listeners (whether delivered via HD radio or not)!

  15. Dwight Douglas
    Dwight Douglas says:

    HD Radio can be successful. It just has to be great.
    The tuning thing is weird. Why doesn’t someone come up with a better way to do it? The Boston Acoustic table radios we have here are not very user friendly. Why don’t they just have an HD band, then have a mode to get the regular FM and AM channels off the HD frequencies. Why is it the other way around? Would FM have become as big if you had to tune into the AM station first, then click to find its FM? And with all the strange formats on HD2, what relationship will there be between the original station and the new HDs.
    Why not just make an HD ONLY radio? I got my XM receiver, I got my Sirius receiver, I have my cable box and the five remotes I use for enjoying my visual entertainment. Why not have an HD Radio? And in the face, would be channel numbers, cable has already trained Americans how to do that. Why try to reinvent the wheel? And then once you have the channels established, then you can promote the place a user can come back to. Choice is not bad, so long as choice doesn’t create decision stress.
    Bad design.

  16. Buzz Brindle
    Buzz Brindle says:

    For the first time, I actually felt myself becoming enthusiastic about the possibilities for HD Radio while reading your ideas.
    Nicely done !

  17. Frank Bell
    Frank Bell says:

    Hi Larry, I’m not much of a blogger, but your HD article brought a smile to my face. It hearkens back to Radio’s early days when businesses like Sears named their Chicago station after the World’s Largest Store (WLS) and the Buffalo Evening News started WBEN.
    While working for Sinclair in 1999, I suggested a similar approach for Internet radio stations we hoped to create. Ultimately, of course, they chose to exit Radio and focus their business on Judge Judy.
    All the best,
    Frank Bell

  18. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    The only way to invite innovative programming on HD is to take the programming rights away from today’s traditional broadcasters and give them to those who can demonstrate a will to offer unique and profitable programming.
    Have the new rights owners pay a rental for the frequemcy to the broadcaster who owns the FM license.

  19. Jeff Schmidt
    Jeff Schmidt says:

    Overall – I like the conversation this article starts Larry. That conversation is “what can we do BESIDES 40 minutes of non-stop _________ – hour after hour.
    This is necessary in my view because unfortunately – even before HD2 – radio already has more medium than it has ideas to fill it.
    Co-branded channels is what the Sat-Casters are doing. I’m not sure we can assume brands powerful in 1 sphere – can simply graft their goodwill & success on to another medium.
    For example – I find a “Men’s Health” magazine radio channel/station interesting conceptually – but who can produce even 5 hours of content – 5 days a week around a brand that only puts out 40 pages of 1 paragraph blurbs and photos a month – and most of that is the SAME info month after month.
    If we think Music is the solution – what music represents the “Mens Health” brand? Ask 10 men – you’ll get 10 different answers. Turning strong brands into strong radio stations isn’t going to be easy – or cheap.
    What would Red Bull radio sound like anyway? hard rock, rave? Both? Something else? What about Pepsi?
    Sirius has the Maxim channel. On paper that should a really fun radio station. Anyone heard it? I have no idea how good it is. They also have the Eminem Hip Hop channel. Any good?
    Starbucks is an exception – with the “Hear Music” channel on XM. It’s a present moment living example of your Ben & Jerry’s idea. It’s a good idea.
    On the other hand MTV and VH1 sat radio channels (which you might expect to be great) are mediocre – mostly repurposed TV content.
    Virgin is a no-brainer cuz there’s already a Virgin Radio. But then again – you can hear that on the internet. And that’s my main point.
    If any of the companies you mentioned really wanted to build an audio entertainment feature into their brand – why wouldn’t they use their already high traffic websites?
    It’s a safe guess that the websites of ANY of the brands mentioned have far more traffic than HD radio will have – even 5 years from now – when portable internet will expand the audio entertainment options almost beyond measure.

  20. Jimmy Risk
    Jimmy Risk says:

    BRAVO! This is the most interesting commentary on content for HD that I have seen. SOMEONE is actually thinking about how we have to leapfrog satelite radio. Rosin is ‘right on’ about alt music channels being a ‘poor man’s’ sat radio. Here’s the rub; WHO is going to put this package together? When I look at the vision that Lee Abrams had for XM radio, I can’t find his equal in terrestrial’s landscape.
    Here’s the dirty little secret about HD radio. By the time it reaches critical mass ie; radio’s under $100, stellar content,OEM installs, etc, WIFI will be on your dashboard and just may render HD Radio………….DOD! (DEAD ON DELIVERY)
    If you think your idea has legs Larry, you best be the legs because this is an industry that is populated with archaic idea’s about what HD should/can/will be.
    jimmy risk

  21. Mark Warlaumont
    Mark Warlaumont says:

    Enjoyed your article, Larry. Let’s hope the Satellite radio folks don’t read it and begin making a play in this direction before we do.

  22. Hi Def Radio.com
    Hi Def Radio.com says:

    I like your thinking, Larry. Now if only the radio stations will act. So far, they are doing an uncreative job of implementation and awful job of letting the public know that HD Radio exists. They must get the radios in the hands of the listeners. The current price points are an issue, but there are also no options. Currently, only one receiver exists for the home market and only one automotive unit with a built-in tuner exists that receives HD2 channels. What we really need is an I-pod with a built-in HD Radio tuner. Now, that would light the candles and get this party started. It’s just a matter of time.
    Grant Kelley

  23. Mike S.
    Mike S. says:

    Very good points you make and I also agree with other replies about getting the HD radios into hands of consumers! All these radio stations popping up with HD technology and no way to listen to them. There is only a small handful of radios to choose from and until the price gets to under 100. for a “clock radio” hardly anyone is going to plop more down than that. Especially when NONE of the Biggies like “Circuit City”, “Best Buy” and others are just promoting car radios with XM or Cirrus capability. True HD radio won’t have any effect on anything for years to come, IF they can even last that long.


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