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“Fidelity” and the future of radio

One of the key factors influencing the direction of technology in the future, says the article, is the element of “fidelity”:

Techies describe fidelity as the total experience of something. Seeing a movie in a packed theater, with its wide screen and the social aspect of a crowd, is a higher-fidelity experience than watching a movie on a home system. Seeing a movie at home is, in turn, a greater-fidelity experience than viewing a movie on a cellphone. In music, a concert is higher fidelity than a CD playing on a home stereo, which is higher fidelity than an MP3 player.

But it’s not just about fidelity, it’s also about the interest of consumers to swap fidelity for what’s convenient:

“Consumers began to vote in favor of increased control over and customization of media, and have consistently proven they’re willing to sacrifice fidelity to get it,” says Trip Hawkins, who founded mobile-game maker Digital Chocolate based on that premise.

What is it that determines whether consumers will trade fidelity for convenience? It depends on the product and the need at that point in time. And it depends on how “good enough” the experience is.

This is, of course, a key issue for radio’s future.

Much attention is directed at satellite radio and HD radio. But as long as radio is “good enough” why “upgrade” the fidelity of your experience?

Satellite has long since abandoned the notion that satellite radio “sounds better” than the terrestrial variety. True or not (and it’s not), it doesn’t matter. Instead, satellite is packing in the kind of unique and exclusive programming (sports, Stern, Oprah, etc.) that is designed to change the nature of the experience, not simply increase its fidelity or richness.

But HD radio is different. It’s stripped down to a low cost, narrow music lane essence. Even the very name “HD radio” positions the product as a fidelity upgrade only. But if consumers vote for control and customization over fidelity, where does that leave HD?

Choice, after all, is definitely not the same thing as customization. And woe unto the technologists who assume otherwise.

If you want to understand the difference between choice and customization, check out the difference between your supermarket and your cupboard. HD radio (theoretically) is your supermarket. An iPod is your cupboard with earbuds.

Using the former as the latter is not the same experience. And it’s certainly not a better experience than the one listeners have right now, especially if you believe that for the vast majority of listeners radio is “good enough.”

The degree to which the radio industry fails to understand the dynamics of the listener experience and the motivations of the audience in a world of alternatives is appalling. If the powers-that-be are truly interested in the success of HD radio – rather than a hoped-for Wall Street buzz – then heed this advice: Remember the listener.

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