Last Friday, the rules on over-the-air digital radio for AM and FM stations – the IBOC system or, as it is commonly known, HD Radio – became effective. The most immediate effect of the new rules, which we summarized here, is the ability of AM stations to operate using the IBOC system at night. The Commission determined that such operation offered more benefits than any interference it might create. The final rules also allowed stations to begin digital operations – and multicast operations – on a permanent basis without prior FCC approval. As these rules take effect, some stations are beginning to look to the multicast channels to provide new programming opportunities.
NPR has, in many ways, led the efforts to utilize digital radio for multicast operations. In today’s Washington Post, there is an article about the city’s NPR affiliate, WAMU, which has recently announced plans to take its multicast operations to a new level. WAMU had in the past programmed a substantial amount of bluegrass music, a local DC favorite. Over time, that programming had been reduced as the station broadcast more and more talk programming. The station had moved bluegrass to a full time Internet radio stream, and has now announced plans to move all of the remaining bluegrass and roots music programming (which had been limited to Sundays) to one of its IBOC digital multicast streams – and to include live announcers during at least some of this digital programming. The Post article quotes the station manager as saying that the local Best Buy now knows that HD Radio is different from the service that XM or Sirius provide.
The lack of consumer awareness of HD Radio has been something that many critics of the service have written about repeatedly. Mark Ramsey’s Hear 2.0 blog has repeatedly lamented the tepid consumer response to HD Radio, most recently pointing to satellite radio’s push to get new subscribers through having their radios as original equipment in new cars, and suggesting that HD Radio should be looking to market in similar fashion. Many critics have contended that the service needs a value proposition – something that gives consumers a reason to seek it out. Perhaps unique programming efforts like that of WAMU can provide that value. The NAB is itself taking steps toward promoting such efforts, announcing that it is awarding two stations HD Multicast Awards at the Keynote address of the upcoming NAB Radio Show in Charlotte. Perhaps with the effective date of the new rules and efforts like that of WAMU and the stations to which the NAB is giving awards, this new service will realize its potential and provide a return on the investment now being made by hundreds of stations throughout the country as they initiate their own digital transition.