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With channels like these, HD does not stand for “Highly Desirable”

Here’s just a sampling of the 260-some-odd channels set to debut in HD radio over the coming months in a number of markets: Opera, Classic Alternative, Traditional Jazz & Blues, Coffee House, Female Talk, Future Country, Extreme Hip Hop, In-Depth News, Deep Cuts Classic Rock, Live Rock, New Alternative, Fusion Hispanic-Anglo Rock, Chick Rock and Indie Rock, among many more.

What all these formats have in common (except for Female Talk and In-Depth News – which I’ll believe when I hear) is this:

– They are slivers of existing music genres defined according to their corner of a genre, not the interest of an audience. That is, they are because they can be, not because you – the listener – want them to be.

– In cable, the lesson of such “sliver” channels is that their apppeal is forever relegated to a sliver of the audience. And the idea that many slivers add up to popular appeal is a modern myth. Time after time in cable we see channels broadening their proposition and likewise growing their audience. “American Movie Classics” becomes “TV for Movie People.” “The Nashville Network” becomes “Spike.” MTV becomes dramatically more popular in prime-time when it plays LESS “music television,” not more.

– Certain channels are being labeled so as to squelch their potential appeal. “Chick Rock”? This is a label that patronizes women even as it tells men to stay away. And “Female Talk” is much the same. Anyone who thinks Oprah is “female talk” doesn’t understand the appeal of Oprah. How would you like a “Male Cooking” cable channel? I certainly know these are industry labels and not marketing ones – they are not likely to be station names. But how you conceptualize a format has everything to do with what’s on that format. The label yields the format. And with labels like these, that will be a problem.

– The presence of a format on the HD band suggests that format is, by definition, a niche, since any format likely to capture a big audience would presumably be placed on the radios in 100% of homes before it’s relegated to the ones in 0% of homes. This premise is unfair to some of these formats which deserve better. “In-depth news,” for example, has verified appeal – and in some markets towers over every commercial station (in the form of Public Radio). “Female Talk” – besides the clunky title – is an acknowledgement not that women don’t like talk radio but that men haven’t figured out how to provide it to them in a way that interests them. Moving it into the HD ghetto is hardly going to solve that problem.

– I have said this before and I’ll say it again: You can throw a new technology into the marketplace if you want. But a tiny company with a few angel investors is one thing, an entire industry massively investing in what it perceives as its future is another. In both cases, the rules of marketing good-sense will apply. And in the latter case particularly, ignoring the wishes of the folks in the driver’s seat – the audience – will undercut all our efforts and poison HD radio in the long run.

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