As first quarter grinds to a tough end, and broadcasters look forward to an HD Radio future, let's take stock of what's happened in the last 100 days.
The HD Radio promos are rolling out, and are getting prime exposure on many major market stations across the country. A few more months of this, and the word will definitely be out about HD Radio. Whether you like the promos or not (and many don't), at least they will make HD Radio top-of-mind.
First, if you promote it before it's ready, it's not going to work. We all believe in this axiom, having witnessed products, promotions, stations, and formats that were marketed before they were truly ready for prime time. As Paul Marszalek pointed out in a recent essay, if consumers rush right out to buy an HD Radio, they are very likely not going to be pleased with what they hear. Perhaps there should be a minimum number of HD Radio stations "on the air" in markets that run these promos to ensure that consumers will be able to hear something after they've made their $300 purchase.
Second, we've all been doing this long enough to know that the quality of a radio station is directly proportional to its cume-ability. Listeners simply won't waste their time on a station that is not well-programmed and/or fully developed. Yet, so many HD2 stations are being programmed on the cheap. Busy PDs don't have time to devise, program, and manage second stations. And most are working with little-to-no budgets. Are consumers really going to buy HD Radios just to hear an '80s station or a live tracks station if they're not well-programmed? Just because they're commercial-free doesn't make them marketable or attractive (XM and Sirius can tell us that).
This is why Clear Channel's initiative to develop digital channels is smart and worthy of copying. Say whatever you will about them, CC has consistently had their eye on the programming ball. Whether it was collective contesting or web content, CC thinks big, broad, and isn't hesitant to dump dollars into developing content.
Whether the future ends up being HD, satellite, or cell phones, having solid, attractive programming content is the key. Radio broadcasters say that a lot, but it's really overdue to start walking that walk.
Playing a strong role in the digital tomorrow is going to depend completely on having great content today. We know that. Decades of working in radio confirm that. We cannot just hope that the auto companies start installing HD Radio and that consumers will somehow find it compelling. It's going to take money, personnel, and hard work. Great radio stations have to be in place, up and running, and sounding great. Then market the radios.