Writing about HD Radio in a media blog is like opening up the phones to chat about abortion on a Talk Radio station. You generate tons of calls, lots of extreme opinions and vitriol on both sides, while pissing off at least half your audience – or in this case, readership.
For those of you who have been following our exploits at the Consumer Electronics Show, you are already well aware of our belief that radio needs to participate and engage with this event and the world of consumer electronics in general.
When iBiquity/HD Radio is about the only visual vestige of representation for broadcast radio, there is truly something wrongwith this picture. My takeaway from CES is that broadcast radio could and should have a presence at this mega-trade show. (To give credit where it is due, iheartradio also was on the scene, and a topic of conversation, too.)
Many of the values on display at CES seemingly run counter to what we often see in radio. Companies are taking risks, they are innovating, and they are listening to their customers who are driving much of the change.
So, who’s out of step? A traditional industry like radio that often rests on its historical laurels or the rest of the vast consumer electronics world that includes global brands, telephone companies, the new spirit of the automakers, and so many other categories that are setting the tone for how consumers entertain and inform themselves?
Don't think for a minute that this is one of those "radio is screwed" blogs. That's not the way we think here. No, radio isn’t going away. Its audience may be splintered by new media, hot gadgets, and multiplying entertainment options, but consumers will always listen to the radio. And there are assets that are unique to radio – simplicity of use, ubiquity, familiarity, and cost (free). Yet as we learned during the last couple of recession years, radio’s vise-grip on its slice of the revenue pie has loosened up considerably.
So, what should radio take away from CES?
First and foremost, you had to be there. I am dismayed by some of the reports about this show from people who didn’t bother to show up, but instead read blogs, tweets, and reviews and then drew their own conclusions. It’s like reviewing a movie you haven’t actually seen. This is a convention with a vibe that you can’t possibly hope to convey to people if you didn’t make the trip.
Second, there is indeed a battle for “share of dashboard,” just as there’s been competition for share of in-home and at-work listening over the past decade – fights where radio finds itself diminished by competitors from the online world, the gaming industry, video streaming and DVRs, and other entertainment and information diversions, distractions, and choices.
As we saw in “The Bedroom Project,” radio is in danger of losing some of its long-held listening locations. And as we witnessed in last year’s “Goin’ Mobile” that we conducted with Arbitron, the smartphone represents more competition, featuring compelling options for consumers, thus necessitating mobile strategies for radio.
And it doesn’t take a weatherman to know that the dashboard wind is blowing away from radio – and in favor of smartphone functionality, streaming options, and other attractions that can diminish radio’s share of in-car audience. It has been gradually happening during the past couple years, and is accelerated by systems like SYNC (now in 3 million vehicles) and Toyota’s new Entune. Some of the dashboard features we see on these systems are more reminiscent of the desktop of an iPhone. They feature lots of icons rather than the traditional pushbutton radios we all grew up with.
You had to look hard – too hard – to see any sign of life from broadcast radio at CES. So when HD Radio kept appearing – in Ford CEO’s Alan Mulally’s compelling keynote, in sessions where Toyota had presence, and on the floor itself – you couldn’t help but take notice.
HD Radio’s cameo appearance in Mulally’s keynote was telling. He was in the process of extolling the virtues of MyFord Touch – the newest version of the SYNC system. While he showed off all of the great content Ford drivers now have to choose from, the massive video screen behind him showed logos that were in-step with his speech – Pandora, Sirius, Internet Radio, and . . . HD Radio. There it was, up there with the big boys during a prominent keynote from a man some feel may be the best CEO in America.
HD Radio has hit many speed bumps over the years, and has had to overcome many flaws along the way. The technology continues to struggle in many dimensions – from reception, to in-store presence, to acceptance by the auto industry and aftermarket manufacturers.
But its biggest hurdle may be the broadcast radio industry itself. Because while the formation of the Alliance was a step in a direction (right or wrong), precious little investment has been made since in content and commitment.
While hundreds of radio stations air Alliance commercials, many are still on the fence about HD Radio itself. That’s because radio continues to play a “chicken and egg game” with HD Radio.
Broadcasters are waiting for iBiquity to convince the autos to make HD Radio standard in vehicles before committing programming resources to side channels and other content investments. And consumers are waiting until there is enough compelling content to warrant purchasing an HD Radio – or a product that has HD Radio in it.
And while we wait, the consumer electronics world is moving at breakneck speed, featuring innovation after innovation.
I spoke extensively to Bob Struble while at CES, and his group is plowing ahead, amassing as many “eggs” – believers on the automotive side – as they can to incorporate HD Radios in cars and trucks, believing that a tipping point will eventually occur.
In the meantime, kudos to Clear Channel for its investment in information services and iheartradio, CBS for its commitment to HD2 innovation, and a handful of smaller broadcasters for the steps they’ve taken. But beyond those, you’re hard-pressed to find many bona fide signs of broadcast radio truly supporting this technology or this initiative.
And yet at CES, it sure looked to us like HD Radio could be the path in. The avenue into SYNC, Entune, and other systems. When consumer electronics folks think about radio, they think digital. And HD Radio is often the first thing that comes to mind. Some panelists and attendees at CES appeared to be supportive. Others were concerned about a lack of consumer demand and/or broadcaster support.
Instead of thinking about HD Radio as a bunch of side channels, maybe radio needs to think about HD Radio as a potential brand portal – a simple, branded way to bundle together all that broadcast radio has to offer and place it on the dashboard to compete with Pandora and Sirius. Maybe HD Radio is the way to obtain this incredibly valuable shelf space, because I have to tell you, the car of the future (and of today) is going to have fewer pushbuttons and more icons. And “radio” must be one of those icons if it is going to maintain a viable presence in cars.
Next year at CES, I would love to see a bigger, more expansive presence for HD Radio– and I would love to see radio’s biggest and best personalities broadcasting from the show. Radio could make an impact with the likes of Ryan Seacrest, Bob & Tom, Dr. Drew, Michael Baisden, Boomer & Carton, Tom Joyner – showing up, broadcasting from CES, and adding their unique brand of personality to the show. (Sadly, that isn't even happening anymore at "The Radio Show.")
While many tech companies may underestimate aspects of radio or write the industry off as hopelessly “old school,” we heard attendees and panelists acknowledge radio’s ubiquity, ease of use, local presence, and other unique assets. Add that personality piece, and radio could definitely make a splash on a big stage at an event like CES.
Radio can play this game. But first, it needs to show up at the arena.
Full disclosure: We have done work for both iBiquity and the HD Radio Alliance during the past few years.