The Listener

The Grass Is Bluer on the Other Side

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

There is a place where the audience for free, over-the-air radio is growing, not shrinking, where new technology allows listeners to pause and rewind songs as they play or to bookmark their favorite tunes.

In that place, millions of listeners have bought newfangled digital radios to tune in to recorded books, a news station aimed at kids, a classic jazz channel, sports events not available on ordinary AM and FM radio, and extended live coverage of concerts and music festivals.

Digital radio -- marketed in this country as HD Radio -- has been available in the United States for more than two years but has made hardly any impact on the listening public. Yet the same technology is being adopted quickly and happily in Britain. About 6 million digital radios have been sold there, while only a few hundred thousand have moved off the shelves in this country's much larger market.

The main difference: British commercial and public broadcasters are providing extensive new and live content on digital stations, while U.S. media companies use their extra channels mainly to provide canned, automated music programming.

Washington's WAMU (88.5 FM) plans to change that starting tomorrow, when the public station finally drops all of its bluegrass and acoustic Americana music programming from its regular FM schedule and starts up a digital-only channel devoted entirely to that music. The new programming will be available only to those who buy digital radios, which retail for about $200 (some British models are about half that price).

The changes at WAMU will create three separate program streams, each with a solitary focus: National Public Radio news and talk shows on the main FM channel, BBC news and NPR shows that haven't had a Washington outlet on a second news-talk channel, and bluegrass, folk and other acoustic sounds on the third channel.

"We've been searching for a way to do right by bluegrass," says Caryn Mathes, general manager of the station, which has steadily whittled away at its once-dominant musical programming over the past two decades. "We believe in HD Radio, and it allows us to give bluegrass lovers not just one shelf in a very big store that specializes in something else, but their own store."

Most Washington area stations now have second channels of programming available to digital listeners -- '70s rocker WBIG, for example, offers '50s and '60s oldies on its HD channel, and soft rock WASH has easy-listening standards on its second channel.

But Mathes says listeners are right to be less than thrilled by the offerings on most HD stations: "Most of it is automated tape loop stuff and it sounds stale. We're going to be among a handful of stations doing live, fresh programming on HD."

For six years now, WAMU has offered, an all-bluegrass service on the Internet, but "we often repeat programs, and by Wednesday afternoon, listeners realize they heard the same program on Monday morning," Mathes says. The new WAMU bluegrass service will include eight to 10 hours a day of live, hosted programs with longtime DJs Ray Davis, Katy Daley and Lee Michael Demsey offering commentary on the music, as well as news, traffic and weather.

About 50,000 listeners a month tune into the online bluegrass stream, and many of them are from outside the Washington area. The new programming will also be available online, and WAMU expects most of the audience to listen on the Internet rather than on digital radios, at least at first.

But the station is evangelical about HD Radio and plans to give away the new sets to all members who listen primarily for bluegrass. About 1,000 WAMU members joined the station during its bluegrass programs and each of those listeners will get a letter inviting them to accept a free digital radio.

In addition, new members will be offered free radios at a membership price level that barely covers the cost of shipping the set, Mathes says.

Eventually, U.S. makers of digital radios hope to offer some of the doodads that have helped the technology win quick acceptance in Britain, including on-demand song downloads, text news, traffic updates, and the ability to time-shift programming.

WAMU's decision to go all-news-and-talk on its main channel was something that public radio executives had been urging for many years. Across the country, public stations are steadily moving away from classical, jazz and other minority music interests and toward a consistent diet of NPR news programming, which draws larger audiences and more listener donations. The music audience also tends to be older -- a no-no to most media executives. (At WAMU, the average listener is 51, four years younger than the average bluegrass listener.)

After public radio's WETA (90.9 FM) dropped its news-talk format and went all-classical earlier this year, WAMU picked up many of its erstwhile competitors' listeners. In February, WAMU collected a record $1.2 million in gifts and pledges in a fundraising campaign that started with a $700,000 goal. The station's audience grew by 14 percent from spring 2006 to this spring, according to Arbitron ratings.

Creating new, live programming may help spark interest in digital radio, but despite heavy ad campaigns -- touting "the stations between the stations" -- sponsored by the radio industry, HD Radio has lagged far behind pay satellite radio in winning the curiosity of listeners.

"It's been so frustrating," Mathes says. "We're right across from a Best Buy and we'd go in there incognito to ask about HD Radio, and invariably we'd be taken to the satellite section," where clerks would point to the XM radios.

But the last time WAMU staffers visited the store, a clerk finally knew what HD was. "Hurray!" Mathes says.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company