Does Terrestrial Radio Need National Brands?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

It was a little hard not to come away from the fall National Association of Broadcasters Radio Show in Philadelphia last month without feeling like one had been exposed to a three-day pep rally for HDRadio. There are smart people on both sides of the HD debate, but from the panels and hallway conversations I experienced, one could have come away thinking that the industry had already reached consensus on HD as the best way to compete with satellite radio, and that everybody should be enthusiastically launching into the business of promoting their multicast channels now.

The industry had already reached consensus on HD as the best way to compete with satellite radio.

HD’s critics aren’t wrong about its formidable obstacles. Satellite and Internet radio have a head start. Satellite has the cooperation of the automakers. There’s not yet enough programming to compel somebody to spend at least $300 on a radio, even if they were more aware that the opportunity to buy one existed. And by the time HD can reach critical mass, the battle may not be with satellite, but for a place on the cell phone or on a wireless broadband car radio that offers every station in the universe. Then there’s that less discussed fight for public place listening–I’m starting to hear satellite radio more often in stores and restaurants, and not just those that once used music services.
The magnitude of the job ahead became most apparent at the Sept. 23 “HDRadio for Programmers” presentation in which Ibiquity president/CEO Bob Struble ran down a checklist of ways for broadcasters to promote both side channels and the improved sound quality of their own stations. Throughout, you couldn’t help thinking that any broadcaster who had that much energy, creativity and promotional inventory to devote to HD could be doing a better job of promoting the actual radio station than many stations do these days. Then there are those reduced spot loads that broadcasters need to explain to their audiences–that takes time out of a programmer’s hour as well.
And yet, it seems fair to say that radio’s battle to continue as a leading content provider is going to involve some sort of expanded offerings, not just to compete with satellite, but with MusicChoice, Internet-only music channels, and the availability of so many terrestrial stations on Internet radio. Regardless of whether the ultimate venue for this battle is on FM 97.5-2 or somewhere else, it’s not wrong to think about how radio could best gear up for it.
It would be nice to think that many of the new channels offered by terrestrial radio would resemble WJMK-2 Chicago, Infinity’s attempt to continue its former Oldies format with much of the same staff. Realistically, however, the decision to use live jocks likely has something to do with existing contracts. It’s more likely that any attempt to get multicast stations up and running quickly will involve a lot of jockless, automated-sounding content–something that it’s hard enough for programmers at terrestrial stations to avoid. In other words, it’s not likely to be a great showcase for the best of what radio does.
All of which has made me think that radio might be better off pursuing an expanded suite of offerings two ways:
1) Use multicasting to offer great radio stations that already exist–specifically stations in other markets. I’ve listened to WJMK-2 out of professional curiosity, but when I want to hear an Oldies station during the workday, I’m more likely to gravitate to WMJI (Majic 105.7) Cleveland. When I want Country Oldies, it’s more likely to be KKNG Oklahoma City on the Web than the jockless Internet stations that play them. That is perhaps the bias of somebody that grew up in radio–a lot of 17-year-olds are just fine with unobtrusive Internet-only stations–but consider the national buzz that KDLE (Indie 103.1) Los Angeles has been able to generate through a combination of streaming and the sort of glowing national press that has usually been reserved for satellite radio. What would the combination of greater availability on home tuners and even a little marketing do for that brand?
2) Use multicasting to build new national brands. Anybody who grew up listening to WLS Chicago or CKLW Detroit from other markets saw how sharing the experience with other listeners halfway across the country gave those stations an extra cachet. In most cases, that cachet now belongs to Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, not to individual stations. Satellite radio has started to try and tap into the excitement of being national, but it’s still relatively inchoate and hampered by the amount of voice-tracking that satellite has to do. It seems likely that some sharing of multicast channel content will take place anyway–WPOW (Power 96) Miami and sister WRDW (Wired 96.5) Philadelphia are offering a shared dance channel.
Some will read this and ask how offering the best of what radio does wouldn’t necessarily involve being local. Well, if one had any confidence that broadcasters were going to double the numbers of available channels and add great local services that would be a preferred option. But a lot of those broadcasters aren’t currently offering enough locality on their existing stations. There is also, of course, the issue of explaining why Indie 103.1 is heard in your market on 95.7-2, but broadcasters are going to have a hard time explaining how to use multicast channels, regardless of how they approach them.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or

Read other articles by Sean Ross

4 replies
  1. Tom Calococci
    Tom Calococci says:

    One question that I can’t seem to get away from is what will happen to our audiences once we begin offering alternative programming on side channels? Won’t this just fragment our already fragmented audiences even more? Will we end up just spreading our own audience even thinner or will we actually attract new listeners to these side channels – away from Satellite subscribers and other forms of electronic/personal media?

  2. Dave Robbins
    Dave Robbins says:

    You write: “Realistically, however, the decision to use live jocks likely has something to do with existing contracts”. Not true. WJMK Jocks can all be terminated. We feel that it creates a great product and will be just the uniqueness it takes to promote the new technology.
    Dave Robbins
    Vice President, General Manager
    Infinity Radio Chicago
    WJMK 104.3 HD1 JACK-FM
    WJMK 104.3 HD2 Greatest Hits of the 60’s and 70’s

  3. Dwight Douglas
    Dwight Douglas says:

    Anytime you ask someone to buy something to participate in new technology, the offering has to be so much better than that which is there in order to drive the demand hard enough.
    There are many examples of ideas which demanded payment for a service or product. Is HD radio programming going to be better than what
    is available for free now? At least with HD TV the screen is bigger.
    Dwight Douglas


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