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HD RADIO GOES THE WAY OF THE LASERDISC PLAYER

A couple of weeks ago in his Inside Tucson Business media column, David Hatfield included a note related to KWMT FM 92.9's dissolution of its high-definition alternate station—which had a soft-jazz format—and mentioned that the only alternate HD station still operating in this market is KRQQ FM 93.7's rebroadcast of Spanish-language signal KTZR FM 97.1. (Inside Tucson Business is a sister publication of the Tucson Weekly.)

The original idea for HD was for it to serve two purposes: to digitize radio signals and improve the sound; and for stations to use the extra bandwidth to add formats—in essence, creating more radio stations. It's a technology similar to what television stations are able to do with their HD signals.

Regarding the improved signal, that still holds true, and can be especially beneficial for AM radio, which has struggled for some time with signal degradation.

However, programmers in Tucson appear to have given up on the second concept—not that they ever embraced it in the first place.

Clear Channel was the most-aggressive local player. It envisioned HD radio, and its accompanying alternate formats, as a counterprogramming measure to satellite radio. At one point, Clear Channel added a country format, perhaps envisioning a time when the alternate HD signal could take a slice of listenership away from country-music monolith KIIM FM 99.5, which is owned by Cumulus.

Another potential use for HD was attempting to fill a format void in the market. Up until a month ago, Clear Channel utilized this approach with the alternate HD signal that piggybacked on KWMT, aka The Mountain. Smooth jazz is not otherwise available through terrestrial radio in this market. It was smart in theory: The smooth-jazz station in Phoenix occasionally shows up in Tucson ratings books, suggesting there's an audience, but perhaps not a large-enough audience to dedicate a more-traditional signal.

Even though Clear Channel's website claims many of its alternate HD signals remain operational, only KRQ's was functional as of Monday, Oct. 3, and the jazz signal has been down for at least a month.

Clear Channel managers have not responded to requests for clarification.

For a brief window—when the fear of satellite radio's possible market penetration was a hot topic of concern on the terrestrial-radio front—the effort to move with HD carried a greater priority, but locally, the push was half-assed, at best. Clear Channel promoted it, and even put some programming thought behind the decisions, but really did nothing more than flip a switch and let a computer run music. It briefly promoted the prospect of Alan Michaels broadcasting the "COOL oldies" format on an HD alternate signal after flipping 1450 from oldies to comedy, but that never materialized.

Elsewhere, Lotus and Citadel dabbled in HD, but abandoned their efforts rather quickly. What little upkeep there was apparently wasn't worth it.

In larger markets, some HD alternate signals have local contributors who operate programs catering to a specific musical taste—sort of like what community radio station KXCI FM 91.3 does locally on terrestrial radio—but the concept never gained traction in Tucson.

Truth is, HD radio was pretty much obsolete by the time it launched. Is the signal improvement a good thing? Of course, but it remains limited to the terrestrial reach of the radio station.

The phone/tablet application may be the future of the industry. With Internet streaming, radio stations no longer face the restrictions of signal strength. Again, Clear Channel has been an aggressor with this technology. Its iHeartRadio app opens the door for a multitude of terrestrial-radio listening, and the sound quality favorably rivals that on the terrestrial signal.

But there are a couple of problems with apps as well. One is a safety concern: When iHeartRadio app is on your phone, how easy is it to channel-surf while driving?

More importantly, the iPod and other MP3 players have damaged commercial radio's attractiveness. Many in the younger demographic consider terrestrial radio to be archaic, like the daily newspaper. They barely know it exists. After all, they can listen to music on their terms, not on the station's.

Thus, radio's future on the app front may rest on the exclusivity provided by local content. In larger markets, a number of stations are flipping formats to place a greater focus on local talk, specifically in the political and sports realm. Music does not usually involve a connection to community—but talk can. Under this theory, conservative talk-show host Garret Lewis at KNST AM 790 might be more important than Johnjay and Rich, who are sorta/kinda/not-really-anymore local on KRQ. He certainly carries more validity than Ryan Seacrest's syndicated offering. Conservative talk host Jon Justice has more stroke through his political morning show on KQTH FM 104.1 than Bobby Rich and Mrs. Grant at KMXZ FM 94.9, Journal's local lynchpin station. Music-based FM morning shows can keep their numbers as far as the traditional signal reaches, but will have no impact beyond those boundaries. Meanwhile, radio in an app world could benefit a smaller station with a local focus like KVOI AM 1030.

The most significant benefit to apps, however, may be in sports, because of alumni bases that remain interested in reactions to the performance of their favorite team. Not to toot my own horn—because this can certainly be viewed as something that's personally beneficial—but if a University of Arizona sports fan in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago or Panama City, Fla., wants to know what the mood of the fan base is, that fan can't turn on Sirius XM or an iPod to get that information. Message boards and local websites are excellent text-based sources, but the vocal interaction is really only available through a radio feed that would have been impossible to retrieve just a few years ago. So to understand what's going on back home, thay can listen to Jody Oehler on KFFN AM 1490, Glenn Parker, Kevin Woodman and Rob Lantz on KCUB AM 1290, or Lantz, Brad Allis and me, John Schuster, on KCUB's UA pregame and postgame broadcasts.

That local-content component is probably radio's last chance in terms of unique impact and viability, and it might open the door for advertising opportunities centered not as much on the local customer, but more on tourism-based options for out-of-town visitors.

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