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The dark secret iBiquity doesn’t want you to know

Hot in the news is a new patent application from Apple for what has been portrayed as HD Radio capability in iPods or possibly even iPhones.

What's left out of the news is one important point:  We're talking about an accessory here – not a core functional piece of the iPod hardware.  That's abundantly clear from the title of Apple's application and completely missed by most of the radio industry trades:  "Digital Radio Tagging Using an RF Tuner Accessory."  

An accessory is what you call shoes and a purse.  It's not part of the dress itself.

The significance, of course, is that an accessory is optional.  It doesn't piggyback on the product and thus isn't sold when the product is sold, isn't bought when the product is bought, and isn't used when the product is used.

But let's forgive the overzealous and under-researched reporting.

And let's pretend for a moment that the day will come when HD Radio capability is built right into the iPod. What would that day look like?

From Apple's perspective, this makes increasing sense.  

After all, it will allow you to browse stations and see exactly what's on them without listening to them first – or, as Apple put it, "Enhanced metadata and searching can provide the listener the ability to refine station choices without having to listen at length to any particular station."  Because it's very consumer-centric to recognize that nobody wants to waste time waiting or browsing for a song they like when they can effectively choose from a menu of "what's playing now" – songs rather than stations.  Hello consumer benefit – bye-bye time spent listening.  A radio brand is only as good as the song that's on now, right?

Further, it adds more fuel to Apple's tagging capability, and every time a song is tagged and bought one company – Apple – reaps a huge revenue share and thousands of radio stations reap a tiny one.

In a world where mp3 players are a maturing market and growth will have to come from new areas – in that world where radio is a primary driver of interest and discovery in new songs – more emphasis on tagging will become essential for Apple.

Now let's ignore the fact that it's unlikely that any HD (or any other) radio usage from iPods or iPhones will "count" in the Arbitron ratings.  Remember, PPM works off an audible signal.  And when you block that audible signal with earbuds you need a special clunky attachment that most iPod users would rather die than use.  That means a return to our old friend "phantom listening."

Let's focus instead on the consequence of all this.  And that can be summed up as follows:

It doesn't matter how many – or which – devices contain HD radio.  What matters is how many consumers use HD radio.

Repeat that and make it your new mantra.  Because the makers of HD radio are bent on proving the viability of their product by emphasizing the number of devices that are designed to contain it rather than the number of consumers that care to use it.

A website reaches, by definition, billions of consumers.  And if none of those consumers access the website, it's value is zero.

It's not about how many – or which – devices you're on – it's about who cares that you're on them.

This post is not anti-HD radio, it's anti-phony bluster and empty marketing and pointless PR. 

Is it good for radio to be featured in all its HD glory on an iPod?

Even if it doesn't count in the ratings?

Sure.  I guess.  More exposure doesn't hurt and it might help.

But is it even better for radio to be streaming to that same iPod – where every listener counts, can be counted, and can be targeted with contextually and demographically and geographically relevant advertising – via mobile apps which engage consumers and add value to their lives?  Something which tens of thousands of listeners are doing already every single day?

You bet it is.

It's time for radio to grow up and recognize its true potential.

From radio's perspective, being on iPods isn't about tagging and listing the song that's on right now.  It's about building brands, building fans, adding value to their lives, and transforming an audio-only platform into a multi-media one.

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