In an effort to counter the programming availability of satellite radio, and to limit the effects of MP3 technology, the terrestrial--traditional AM and FM--radio industry is trying to figure out the best way to implement recently available HD options.
The Tucson market is wrestling with some different philosophical approaches.
While the HD in radio doesn't stand for high definition, in ways that matter to the consumer, the similarities between it and its better-known television counterpart are significant. The visual aspects of HD TV are much-improved picture quality; it also provides TV stations with the ability to offer more programming on piggyback frequencies. For instance, PBS affiliate KUAT Channel 6 offers more PBS programming--but you need to have special equipment to view it. KOLD Channel 13 piggybacks The Tube, a music-video signal, as an HD alternative to the regular CBS lineup.
Radio is the same way. The HD format can greatly improve the signal quality, even on the AM signal, although that possibility has yet to be tapped in the Old Pueblo. Furthermore, stations can provide more programming options on secondary stations.
There can be three or more stations on one frequency. Here's how it works: the first is the analog signal, which is available on any radio. Then there's the accompanying HD signal (HD1), which broadcasts the same programming as the analog signal, but in a digital format. Then there's HD2--that's where stations can tinker with alternate formats.
Clear Channel, Citadel and Lotus have entered the HD arena; at this stage, Clear Channel is the most aggressive.
"For (Top 40) KRQ (FM 93.7), it's country. For (KWMT 92.9 FM) The Mountain, it's jazz," said Clear Channel Tucson Operations Manager Tim Richards. "For KOHT (98.3 FM), it's rhythmic oldies; for La Preciosa (KTZR 97.1 FM), it's Tejana. We have Tejana on an FM frequency for the first time. We had a menu of stations to pick through, and while we're not married to this long-term, we'll be in these formats for probably the next year. The good news also: Until August 2008, we'll be commercial-free on all our HD stations."
Ways for radio-station owners to use HD as a counter-programming tool are developing as quickly as the technology, but the new HD country station is probably the most telling in terms of Clear Channel's possible long-term HD philosophy. It hopes to use its tent-pole station, KRQ, and its piggyback country signal to take some of the audience away from Citadel country powerhouse KIIM FM 99.5.
"Who's (the KRQ) core listener's second favorite? For us, the majority of our core, the second-favorite station is KIIM," Richards said. "Why not keep them on the frequency? We're giving them new country on KRQ.
"From a qualitative standpoint on The Mountain, smooth jazz just fits perfectly. There was a hole in the marketplace; there was an outcry; there's a well-established Tucson Jazz Society. We want to give it a shot. We think people might go out and buy HD receivers because of their passion for the jazz format. We also want to put formats on the air that will drive people to go out and buy the technology, because they want to hear the stations."
Making the technology readily available is the sticking point at the moment, and the main reason the medium hasn't become a significant player as of yet.
"HD won't really start to take off for regular listeners until they can buy a car stereo that does HD at Best Buy or Wal-Mart," said KIIM program director Buzz Jackson. "The good news is, after the initial investment of buying the radio, there are no subscription fees, and the programming is done locally, for local Tucson listeners. These two aspects are what will make digital AM and FM a better choice than satellite radio in the future."
However, that future is a way down the road. HD-capable receivers are available at some electronics stores and can be reasonably priced, but the new technology has yet to become standard equipment in the automobile. Until that happens, its ability to become a real player will be marginal.
Citadel's HD fare is limited. KSZR FM 97.5 (Bob FM) and Rock 107.5 FM (KHYT)--which has yet to go HD--are considering adding children's and comedy programming on their HD2 signals, but more equipment is required to make that happen.
Meanwhile, Lotus seems skeptical about HD's future.
"We really don't know where we're going with it," said KLPX FM 96.1 program director Jonas Hunter. "Right now, we have two frequencies in addition to 96.1: 96.1 Channel 2 is an older demo classic-rock format--older Billy Joel, Elton John, more '60s and '70s. Channel 3 is just simulcasting KFMA (92.1 FM).
"Will things change down the line? I don't know. As more HD radios come into play, we might address it with a better attitude. From what I can gather, there are only about 100 receivers out there in all of Tucson. ... It's in the early development. It's jockless right now. We basically hit a button, let the music run and walk away from it. Do we massage it as much as KLPX? No, but once more people can get it, it might become a greater priority."
Hunter has also been irritated with some of the technical issues of HD, which requires an additional eight-second delay to sync with the analog signal. He says that has made live-remote broadcasts troublesome. Citadel and Clear Channel say they have worked out those bugs.
Time will tell as to HD's impact on an industry facing seemingly greater competition every day.
"I think the future of terrestrial radio is dependent on giving the listeners what they're asking for," Richards said. "For us to be a viable medium 10 years from now, for us to not create what the listeners are asking for, we're going to be in a whole world of hurt. To program our stations today the same way we did one year ago, two years ago, five years ago, is doing ourselves a disservice.
"We have to do more things to bring the listeners into the lifestyle of the radio station. Otherwise, we're in a lot of trouble."