Digital Broken Record
September 14, 2012
It's not like I want to beat a dead horse. Lord knows, I'm tired of the same topics coming up over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. But I've been writing this thing for over a decade, and the same topics keep coming up, It' can't be avoided, unless I start writing about things other than radio here. I might have to do that at some point, but until then, poor old Secretariat is going to take a few for the team.
First, an email from our friends who make Radio's Favorite Technology:
"HD Radio™ Broadcasting: Digital Done Right"
I can't get past the headline. It's one of the funniest I've ever... what? They're serious?
Well, then, let me tell you a little story. This was at one of the Las Vegas trade shows about two years ago -- I don't recall whether it was at CES or the NAB Show, but HD Radio had a booth behind a pillar, so I think it was CES -- and I walked into the booth and was roundly ignored by the clusters of people who were supposed to be greeting visitors and showing them the wares. After looking at the drab radios on display, I finally cornered one of the folks working there and told him that despite being one of HD Radio's harshest critics, I was open to hearing the other side. I asked him about the new radios on display. He shook his head. "You don't want those," he said of the portable kind with the "Artist Experience" displays. "They're not... they're not very good. But the next radios coming out will have those problems fixed." Okay, then, I said, when are those coming out? He didn't know.
And then I extended an olive branch. I gave him my card and said, look, I don't want to be all negative. I'm willing to hear what iBiquity, or anyone else, has to say about HD Radio, how it plans to overcome consumer indifference, how it plans to overcome horrific reception problems, how it plans to become more than a laughing stock in the digital realm. I was sincere. He said that someone would definitely get back to me right away and arrange a talk.
That was at least two years ago. I'm still waiting.
So "Digital Done Right" clearly means to them something other than what "done right" means to everyone else. I still can't consistently lock onto HD signals even when I have line of sight to the towers. I still hear AM HD cut in and out, even on 50,000-watt nondirectional stations no more than 20 miles away. (The one 10 miles away locks on with no problem, and also obliterates every station on either side up to four channels away with a high-pitched whine) The FM HDs don't always sync up with the analog, making the constant back-and-forth unlistenable. The HD-2 and HD-3 channels sound awful and drop signal on a frequent basis. You know all this. It hasn't been fixed. We're a long way into this technology. I don't care HOW many car radios have HD now, or what surveys they offer. Nobody wants it. Unless you can find an HD-2 or HD-3 channel with any ratings at all that aren't all the result of feeding an analog FM translator.
The HD folks will have, according to the email, the whole back wall of the NAB/RAB Radio Show exhibit hall to show HD Radio off, but go to Best Buy and see whether they're doing anything there. Or at car dealers. Maybe they need to take this sales job to the public, not the industry.
But the public is speaking, and the industry never seems to listen. Take the announcement of the new iPhone this week. Once again, there's no radio in it. No FM, no HD. It will still sell in massive quantities.
I know it's going to come up at the Radio Show next week, so let's reiterate: the public doesn't care about putting a radio in a cell phone. When they get it, they don't use it. And the emergency argument, that people will need radios in their cell phones for emergencies, falls flat when you realize how few radio stations will really rise to the challenge. (Unless you consider a remotely–operated station with no news department as capable of handling an emergency.) It's actually a little shameful that the industry is using scare tactics about emergency use to further their commercial goals, but it's pretty transparent when they cut back local news staffs or outsource the responsibility to another market. Or maybe I was just not paying attention closely enough when earthquakes and fires happened on a Saturday and most of my local stations ignored them because there was nobody around in the newsroom to care. Maybe they had coverage on their HD-2 channels. I wouldn't know that, because I can't hold those signals long enough to know.
There's a disconnect between what people in the radio industry THINK others think about their product, and what people really DO think. We think radio's a necessity for all, and beloved, too. After all, we've commissioned studies that say pretty much that. But that isn't even how WE think of radio. Radio's a utility. It plays music, it talks about events, it does news, it's entertainment. But, with few exceptions (mostly involving strong personalities, mostly news, talk, and sports formats), it's not thought of as a necessity anymore. In fact, people don't think about it. It's just there, always there. That's a good thing, but when radio believes the rah-rah stuff at conventions about people's passion for radio, that's a relic of a day when there weren't alternatives. There ARE alternatives now.
So, at the convention, I hope that some reality creeps in. I hope it's not just more of the same "How to use social media" stuff (really, if you don't know by now...) and "How to do mobile" (really, if you don't know by now...) and "How to sell digital" (really... well, that one, people are still trying to master, come to think of it) and, Lord help us, more of the HD Radio and Radio-In-Cell-Phones talk and more about content and how to make it compelling enough to stand out and how to find and develop talent that can create that content for any medium. After almost 30 years in this business, I'd like to see it start moving forward with better content instead of rebottling the same stuff and hoping for a miracle.
We'll see how it goes next week in Dallas. The fact that I'll be there yet again might tell you that I haven't given up.
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If you're in Dallas, say hi. You know where I'll be: Near one of the few available power outlets. You'd think that by now, convention venues would have power strips all over the place. It's 2012, guys.