April 3rd, 2017 by Inside Radio

HD Radio side channels have long been the industry’s hidden treasure. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a good thing. However, a decade after additional frequencies across the FM dial were first embraced, remarkable HD innovations are helping promote a bounty of new voices, and in some cases, new profits.

Outlaw Country and Pride Radio. Mother Trucker Radio and ESPN Deportes. HD side channels—which first came courtesy of the likes of iHeartMedia, Cox, CBS Radio and Saga—have historically been curiously hit and miss among radio groups small and large, and in markets great and small.

But companies have now come to recognize the across-the-dial potential of the channels. Among the currently welcome options: testing niche formats, cross-promoting established brands with complementary genres, flanking competitors, foreign-language formats that reach an underserved demo, reaching out to the 55+ demo, bringing back beloved formats such as smooth jazz, and/or reviving stamped-out heritage brands. Impressive? Yes. And there are craftier applications to come.

They’ll join a growing field—2,400 U.S. radio stations have upgraded to HD Radio Technology, according to statistics provided to Inside Radio by Xperi (which now owns the HD technology developed by iBiquity). Out of those 2,400 stations broadcasting in HD, there are 1,700+ multicast HD channels, including 1,300 HD-2, 400 HD-3 and 60 HD-4 frequencies.

Juan Galdamez, Xperi’s product marketing director for Automotive and HD Radio Technology, offers a fundamental point: “If you add a unique format to a market, there are additional listeners and dollars that come into a marketplace from those not currently involved with radio, both on the listener and the advertiser side. You don’t rob Peter to pay Paul by adding a new way to serve underserved listeners.”

Adds Becky Brenner, a partner with consultancy Albright & O’Malley & Brenner, “The possibilities are limitless; it is just a matter of resources. There is so much going on, with classic versions of the mainstream signal, all live cuts, all local music, long-form talk that’s an extension of the primary signal, comedy, block programming for religious/cultural programming….” And this: Jacobs Media founder and CEO Fred Jacobs suggests that radio groups can add value from side channels as an on-air training tool to audition and groom future talent.

Another potential application is to keep younger listeners interested in the radio dial. Mike McVay, senior VP Content & Programming for Cumulus/Westwood One, says, “For our spoken word news/talk and sports formats on AM, we have an opportunity to simulcast on the FM/HD band. It is clear to us that if AM talk stations want to attract younger listeners they need to be on the FM band. Alexa, Google Home and the connected car do not discriminate, but most other receivers do. We are always exploring other formatic opportunities as well as a more youthful Millennial-targeted news/talk product.”

Among the majors, iHeartMedia, CBS Radio and ESPN continue to take the HD bull by the horns. For instance, ESPN Deportes airs on seven HD side channels via simulcasts with FM and AM primary stations.“We have been an ardent supporter of HD Radio since its inception,” says Jeff Sottolano, VP of Programming for CBS Radio, which has 130 side channels on the air currently. “As the technology has evolved and the distribution platform has increased, we have an opportunity to reach more listeners.”

As examples, CBS Radio extended the brand of its heritage Chicago triple-A WXRT with a side channel offering a complementary indie-based new music format. Likewise, modern rock KROQ-FM Los Angeles provides side channel “rock of the 80s throwback” that harkens back to the music the seminal station played in its formative years. And in Washington/Baltimore, the once iconic modern rock WHFS—whose 99.1 frequency now airs the antithesis as a Bloomberg Business affiliate—was brought back to life by CBS on WWMX-HD2 at 106.5 and via translator at 104.9.

Galaxy Communications, which owns eight stations in Syracuse, NY and six in Utica, NY, is taking advantage of the FCC’s ruling to allow FM translators to rebroadcast AM stations and HD Radio side channels “to deliver more programming content for listeners and advertisers,” says Steve Vasick, market manager and director of Sales in Syracuse. In Utica, it uses an HD side channel of “K-Rock” WKLL to feed “99.1 Tony FM” on Utica-licensed translator W256AJ.

The side channel is allowing the radio group to test new strategies. “Tony FM has limited commercial interruptions, with just one break per hour, which benefits listeners and advertisers,” Vasick says. “To maximize the impact for advertisers, we are selling the station to a limited number of local advertisers—similar to an underwriting sponsorship—and their spots rotate through the break. This affords the advertiser a level of exclusivity, and allows their message to break the ‘clutter’ of traditional commercial radio stations.”

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