November 29, 2015

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04/25/05 Time Is Of The Essence For HD Radio

My 30-year old employee and I were discussing radio. When I mentioned that in 1974 - the year she was born - there were no FM car radios, she was shocked. She assumed that FM has always existed - as CDs have always existed in her lifetime.

In 1969, when I got into the radio business on an FM station, it was a vast wasteland. FM was as cutting edge and cool as I-Pods were in their first year. No one had FM in their cars, and very few had FM at home. If you wanted FM in your car, you purchased a $15 Audiovox converter that mounted under the dashboard. By setting your AM radio to a certain frequency, you could hear the FM stations through your AM radio. FM radio stations, trying to get noticed, gave these converters out to advertisers and listeners.

At the time, FM stations played nothing but “elevator music.” Many companies gave their FM licenses back to the FCC. They could not afford to pay the power bills, because there were no advertisers or listeners.

The first Rock station I ever heard was WNAP out of Indianapolis. It was 1972, and I lived in Northern Indiana. It was so hot that all the kids put giant antennas on the roofs of their homes and listened through their parents' “stereophonic” receiver. We never imagined that our favorite rock songs could be broadcast in stereo.

At the time, the FCC had to approve all format changes, and I remember battles in market after market with consumer groups trying to prevent rock from going on FM stations. One battle at Chicago's WEFM went on for about two years, as locals tried to preserve classical radio service.

Auto manufacturers began offering FM radio in cars in 1972. In order for all the cars in America to have FM, those new cars had to be held for a few years, then sold into the used car market. At the time, the complete car turnover cycle was 15 years, which meant FM would be in all cars by 1987. Guess what year FM radio listening first exceeded AM listening? You guessed it - 1987.

Leased vehicles have shortened the car turnover cycle from 15 to 7 years. A car enters the used market after three or four years; therefore, all radios can be converted in seven years. XM and Sirius radios became available in cars in 2003. Project forward seven years, and 2010 is the year they obtain critical mass with new and used cars - five years from now.

Why am I telling you this? The clock does not start ticking for HD Radio until we start seeing HD in cars. Right now, the satellite people have a two-year jump. If we're to ensure that HD radios are in cars with all XM and Sirius radios, unless we get this moving fast, the lead of three, four or five years in the car market could determine the fate of HD. Some major manufacturers are still not committed, and are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Wait and see if radio starts broadcasting in HD. Of course, many radio stations are waiting until there are in-car receivers on the market. Chicken or egg?

HD is radio's bright and shining future for dozens of reasons. Time is of the essence; stations need to covert today. Do the math. Are you listening?

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