What would it take to get you to shell out $300 to $500 dollars for a next-generation digital radio? Free 24-hour access to disco hits in crisp high-definition sound? Jamming oldies with a Hispanic skew? Or perhaps all the Frank Sinatra classics you can sing along to during the morning commute?
Tightly focused formats and better quality sound are what Clear Channel Communications Inc. and other traditional radio broadcasters are counting on to slow the migration of audiences to satellite, cable and Internet radio, as well as MP3 players. Toward that end, the San Antonio-based broadcaster began multicasting a second channel in digital high definition (HD) via its five Los Angeles FM stations last week as part of an industrywide initiative to promote the new platform.
HD radio technology adds a digital signal to an existing AM/FM analog signal, with the digital signal able to be split for additional broadcasts and wireless data services. The technology enables FM-quality sound on AM channels and CD-quality on FM channels for those listening on a digital receiver.
"The appeal is commercial-free, no subscription," said John Ivey, vice president of programming for Clear Channel's Los Angeles and Riverside county operations, which operates three of Arbitron's five top-rated radio stations in the L.A. market. "No (disc) jocks either, at least starting out. Some people just want to listen to the music."
Local Clear Channel stations offering the new channels include KBIG-FM (104.3), KHHT-FM (92.3), KIIS-FM (102.7), KOST-FM (103.5) and KYSR-FM (98.7). For now, each existing station will gain just one HD sibling. KIIS, for example, will offer a more Hispanic targeted version of its Top 40 format on its digital channel, including Spanish and Latino crossover artists.
Clear Channel may eventually sell advertising, add announcers, and offer AM multicast channels as digital's popularity grows. "There's still a limited number of receivers out there," Ivey said. "The idea is to just get the word out, get enough channels out there to entice people to purchase the receivers."
An estimated 85,000 home and automobile digital radio receivers were sold in 2005 according to Stephanie Guza, an analyst with the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based technology market research firm In-Stat. That number is expected to climb to a half-million this year, and to 4 million by 2009.
Guza said the history of HD radio's penetration is comparable to the chicken-and-egg face-off between television broadcasters and set manufacturers each leery about making a significant capital investment before the other.
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