Digital Radio Opens New Doors

Radio personality Greg "Greg T" Tyndorf poses behind a sound board at WKTU radio studios in Jersey City, N.J., Monday, July 24, 2006. WKTU, which has a dance music format, will use the technology of digital radio to roll out a new sideband station featuring country western music. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)
From his 16th floor office at WKTU-FM, program director Jeff Zuchowski has a breathtaking view across the Hudson River of Manhattan. Just the setting for programming the only country music station in New York, with favorites such as "Beer for My Horses" and "Life Ain't Always Beautiful."

And if that seems like an odd combination, just think of what regular listeners might say, considering that KTU is known for playing dance music.

"You don't see a lot of cowboy boots and country hats walking around Manhattan," allows Zuchowski, who goes by Jeff Z. But he insists that country has a "cult following" in the Big Apple.

Few people may be listening for now, but the "side" channel that makes KTU's country music broadcast possible is just the kind of new offering that radio broadcasters are hoping will help revive their industry as they adopt next-generation digital broadcasting technology, or HD Radio.

Thanks to the compression of data that's possible with digital technology, a station that uses HD Radio can send up to four different signals while still using the same frequency it already broadcasts on.

HD Radio also claims to have CD-quality sound on FM and FM-quality sound on AM stations, as well as better reception and the possibility of broadcasting data such as song titles and artists names, like satellite radio does. Think of the better picture quality and extra features you get from a movie on DVD instead of on videotape. Plus, it is possible to offer many other services such as news, sports and weather updates or even buying songs.

However, with only a tiny number of the units sold so far - executives say just tens of thousands are in use today - the listenership is far too tiny to be measured. Zuchowski acknowledges that HD Radio is an "infant stage."

But that hasn't stopped many stations from starting up HD side channels, which the stations have promised to keep commercial-free for the next year in hopes of luring in listeners. In New York, WCBS-FM 101.1 - which caused an uproar when it switched from oldies to the eclectic "Jack" format - airs oldies on its side channel; WQHT-FM, an urban station, broadcasts classic hip-hop on its side channel.

The changes come as radio is facing brutal competition for listeners' time from iPods, the Internet and satellite radio. Also, advertising revenues have been sluggish, and were flat in the year to date through June compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau.