In more than 100 markets in the United States radio station owners are programming dozens of new channels. Maybe one of them could carry programming for and about your nonprofit.
I’m talking about HD Radio or digital radio.
What is HD Radio?
- HD Radio offers a quality of sound similar to what comes out of your MP3 player, meaning less hiss and static than AM or FM.
- HD Radio is a terrestrial signal (as opposed to a satellite signal) broadcast by the same radio stations that are already in your market.
- Unlike satellite radio, HD Radio is subscription free and for about the next year or so it's also commercial free.
- Broadcasters can include data channels that display on your digital radio tuner such things as what song you’re listening to and what’s on related channels.
- HD Radio channels can NOT be heard on standard radios and require a digital radio tuner, which start around $100 in the United States.
Here’s how it works. Existing stations are converting from analog to digital signals. As they do so they are able to compress their signal into a smaller portion of the radio spectrum allotted to them by the FCC. With the leftover spectrum, broadcasters are able to split their bandwidth and add additional ‘channels.’ Assuming they could drop their analog signal entirely and go all-digital, using existing technology broadcasters could put as many as seven channels where one analog channel use to reside. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, however, considering the huge inventory of “legacy radios.”
What kind of channels are broadcasters programming right now? Pardon the pun, but it covers the spectrum.
- Live Music
- Local Jazz
- Old School Album Rock
- All Irish Music in Boston
- Country Music in New York City
- One station even carved out a channel that played the newly-released single from country artist's Gretchen Wilson's latest CD and aired it 24-7!
Here’s where it gets interesting. Clear Channel, which owns about 10 percent of the 12,000 or so radio stations in the United States, is programming a channel in markets like Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Hartford, and elsewhere called “Pride,” targeted to gay and lesbian listeners.
Let’s be clear. This is not a rollback of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine. Clear Channel isn’t doing this because they’re required to do so by rule or by law. They’re doing it because they think they’ve found a market.
So what’s the opportunity for charities?
Right now there are no commercials on HD Radio anywhere. The broadcasters are still trying to figure out what they’ve got and how to commercially exploit it. Audiences are small, and listenership is all but immeasurable. And for broadcasters HD Radio is presently nothing but a cost. So chances are stations would be willing to entertain ideas from outsiders, the Gretchen Wilson stunt proves that.
If you have a cause with a lot of appeal, you could approach stations with some ideas, a radiothon, for instance. I think this is virtual slamdunk for United Ways or other federated entities which could tell the stories of multiple charities. Same with certain advocacy groups.
Let me reiterate, stations are not required to open up their digital spectrum to worthy causes in order to keep their license to broadcast. And, I would expect that almost any charity would have to pay for airtime. But I’d bet there are broadcasters who would hand over airtime on one of their digital channels to the right charity for a song.
Finally, terrestrial digital radio is available in about 20 countries around the globe. If your nonprofit inside or outside the States has an experience capitalizing this burgeoning media channel, please share.