When WHUR launched "high definition" digital radio this year, it advertised the move several times an hour on air. It slapped the "HD Radio" logo on its letterhead and employee jackets. It drove around town in a specially outfitted van inviting people to listen to the crisp, no-static sound. And it tutored consumer electronics retailers about the technology.
The marketing blitz at WHUR (96.3 FM), owned by Howard University, is not just about introducing listeners to compact disc-quality sound on FM stations and FM-quality sound on AM -- a feat described by some as radio's most dramatic technological leap since FM broadcasting debuted more than 50 years ago.
WHUR FM Howard University Radio has been promoting its switch to digital radio both on and off the air.
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It's about educating advertisers and consumers. The digital signal can deliver not just music but text, voice and pictures. One day it might be possible to press a button to order a CD as it plays on the radio. Or hear customized traffic reports. Or pause or rewind your favorite song. These uses may become possible in just a couple of years, transforming radio from a passive medium to an interactive one.
But first, radio stations must buy equipment that transmits digital signals, and consumers must spend big bucks on radios built to receive them. After-market FM/AM digital car stereos hit stores this year. At today's prices, about $500 or more, they appeal mostly to technophiles. But if prices tumble as expected, sales should pick up. And if automakers start offering them, as some plan to do next year in higher-end cars, sales could surge to 4 million units in 2007 from 35,000 this year, research firm In-Stat/MDR said.
"If these radios go into a big-ticket item like a car, consumers are more likely to add them," because the cost doesn't seem so high relative to the price of the auto, said Michelle Abraham, a senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR.
But consumers are a quirky bunch, and unless they get excited about digital radio, manufacturers and automakers may shy away from mass-producing those radios.
"The average person on the street doesn't know it exists," said Stephen Jacobs, an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "There's a real consumer education piece that needs to be addressed before people gain an interest in it."
Broadcasters are taking their chances. Twenty-five percent of the nation's 13,000 radio stations have committed to going digital in the next several years. About 150 -- including WETA (90.9 FM) and WAMU (88.5 FM) in this area -- already broadcast digitally. Another 250 are preparing to install the technology within months. This summer, Clear Channel Communications said it would roll out digital equipment at 1,000 of its 1,200 stations, and Cox Radio Inc. said 80 percent of the 78 stations it operates or provides sales services to would make the change in the next four years.
In many ways, the migration is old-fashioned radio's way of staying relevant now that music is beamed digitally via satellite and downloaded from the Internet. Radio broadcasters fear these ways of bringing music to audiences will erode their ability to woo advertisers and the recording studios that supply them with free music. Radio generates about $20 billion in advertising revenue annually.
"Radio has been a well-oiled machine, but the parts are starting to grind no matter how much oil is poured in, " said Laura Behrens, senior media analyst at GartnerG2, a technology research firm. "So the machine really has to change."