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Is HD Radio the Answer to Radio’s Dashboard Challenge?

That’s what Ford is arguing.

Then again, I am not so sure Ford knows why folks listen to the radio or why they keep listening.

After all, it’s not Ford who decided to put radios in cars.  You and I – the consumers – drove that decision for them.

And it’s not you and I – the consumers – who are telling Ford “we want HD radio.”  That clarion call is coming from somewhere else – probably from a company which stands to gain lots if HD becomes an industry standard and has everything to lose if it doesn’t.

But is this really what Ford thinks?  Or are they thinking that consumers are indifferent to HD – it’s not an attraction to buy a car, the radio industry is indifferent to HD – it’s not an attraction to add value to industry coffers, so why are we – Ford – anything but indifferent to HD?  Is this a sign of HD’s dying gasp at Ford?

In his somewhat patronizing “open letter” (an odd term in this digital age) to the radio industry, Ford’s Jim Buczkowski argues that more stuff than ever is making its way to the car dashboard and all that stuff has a plethora of digital enhancements which will invariably distract listeners from radio unless radio matches these alternatives – not feature for feature – but only for those features which coincidentally are most closely associated with HD radio, namely “digital sound quality, the added display of track and artist names, iTunes Song Tagging, the potential for album art or other graphics plus the promise of creating additional channels.”

In other words, offer HD radio functionality or watch your audience slip away to alternatives.

My response:

First, audience is going to slip away to alternatives no matter what.

That’s the nature of having “alternatives” present in a location that was once virtually held captive by the exclusive powers of radio.  The mobile device in your pocket can power a significantly compelling mobile entertainment experience if the automaker builds in the link to enable this experience, as virtually all of them are doing.  Chalk this up as inevitable.

Of course, some of those digital alternatives can and will be your own.  What is iheartradio, after all, but one big digital alternative, powered by radio? Ditto for Tunein and your own station’s app.

Second, matching competitor offerings feature for feature is meaningless unless the most important features are what we match.

Does anyone out there really believe that “digital sound quality” is what makes listeners tune in to Sirius XM?  Or that song-tagging is what appeals about Pandora?  Or that album art is why Spotify would be a go-to choice?  Or that the consumer is lacking “additional channels” when you add in the infinite number of channels online radio already provides?

Come on now.

Third, HD radio doesn’t make radio better at the main reasons why people listen.

HD radio doesn’t make radio more timely or more helpful in an emergency or funnier in the morning or more a companion during the day.  It doesn’t make the songs better or the commercial breaks shorter.  It doesn’t reflect your life or your community.  It doesn’t make you laugh or cry.  It doesn’t tell you the best route to work or what to wear in the morning.  It doesn’t nourish your spirit or salvage your nest-egg.

HD radio doesn’t do any of these things because these things are about what we create with radio, not just about the technology which surrounds it.

People listen to the radio not just because they haven’t yet awakened to radio alternatives.  They listen because they actually enjoy what radio is and what radio does.  They listen because it’s worth it.

We can absolutely make radio better with technology.  Ultimately, technology and content will merge into one value continuum.  But sacrificing the latter to favor the former will make radio weaker, not stronger.

Especially if we focus on the wrong technological answers.

No matter what Ford says.

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