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The Washington Post on HD Radio

A few things are evident from this article, which is essentially a review of the HD Radio experience. Now, this is one columnist’s opinion – but the Washington Post is a big opinion-shaper and will heavily influence the buzz to come:

The technology is variously referred to as “digital radio” and “HD radio” (the latter “a nod to the popularity of high-definition TV”). In the world of marketing, successful products are rarely commonly referred to with more than one name. That’s because multiple names – especially when they border on the generic – are confusing. And confused folks don’t buy.

The radio industry is portrayed in desperate straits – we are “in something of a panic these days over declining audiences and snowballing competition from the two big satellite radio services, XM and Sirius — [Radio] sees digital as its savior and therefore wants you to get a digital radio yesterday.” Is this really the truth of the radio industry? Is it really wise to portray a mood of “panic”? Do we really deserve to feel “panic”? Committment, yes. Determination, yes. Vision, yes. But “panic”? Who is responsible for this PR, anyway? Answer: We are.

The radios are too expensive – “these sets run you about $300 (down from $500 just a few weeks ago), but hardly anyone is going to shell out that kind of green for what looks like an ordinary radio. (I didn’t — mine is borrowed from a friendly local radio station.)” The writer goes on to acknowledge the costs will decline further, but still. What he’s saying is that, given the benefits of the product as it now stands, the value – in his view – doesn’t add up to $300.

The offerings don’t stack up well to Satellite – “They’ve got a long way to go before they’ll separate me and millions of others from our XM or Sirius.” Why is it, exactly, that we are allowing ourselves to be benchmarked against audio services with a 10 – 15 million listeners when radio listening is ubiquitous and universal?

These channels can’t be “unmanned” – “But with no DJs and no human presence of any kind on the air — most of the new digital channels are, and sound like, computer-generated jukeboxes — the station feels even less like radio than do many satellite channels.” We will not be able to automate our way into listeners’ hearts, minds, and pocketbooks.

There are technical glitches – “Digital radio is an inconsistent offering in its infancy; several stations described here mysteriously go silent for hours or days at a time. Others suffer from dropouts in which the sound vanishes for a disturbing second or two every few minutes.” Are we putting out products that are not market-ready?

The writer closes with these comments:

But if you were thinking about subscribing to satellite radio solely for a broader variety of music, digital radio might offer a cheaper and reasonably satisfying experience. On the other hand, if you’re smitten by satellite’s other offerings, including the unmatched selection of sports, more thinly sliced music niches (blues, classic jazz, old-school soul, chamber music, show tunes) and unusually creative radio — drama, movie soundtracks, live performances, artist profiles — satellite has nothing to fear from broadcast’s new venture. At least not yet.

What’s striking to me about this is that he’s saying, essentially, that the value of the radio experience arises from the quality and creativity of the content, not just its variety, and not simply the fact that it’s commercial-free.

The quality of the content.

Ponder it.

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