Jack Me, HD Me, Make Me Write the Check

On this date in 1994, Aerosmith made a full track available for download on the Internet, the first time such a thing was ever done. (Shorter samples of tracks had been available for a while, but not whole songs.) Subscribers to CompuServe could download a broadcast-quality version of “Head First.” CompuServe waived the usual connection charges to do it, and for good reason: With a 9600-baud modem–still in common use at a time when 28,800 was considered smokin’ fast–it would take up to 90 minutes to get it.

(June 27, 1994, coincidentally, was also the day Anna Nicole Smith married octogenarian oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall. It may also have taken him up to 90 minutes to get it, but I digress.)

Not only did 1994 represent the primordial ooze as far as downloading is concerned, it was still the dark ages of the web, which didn’t really blast into general public consciousness until perhaps 1995 or 1996. We’ve been in hyperdrive ever since, though. In the first half of 2005 alone, there were 180 million legal music downloads, tripling the rate for 2004, and an unknown number of technically illegal downloads–like the ones on the MP3 blogs you read about here.

Not only has downloaded music has captured a significant share of music sales, it actually represents a threat to the radio industry. When almost anything you could want to hear can be brought into your house on the laptop, you need a compelling reason to turn on the radio and listen to what Steely Dan called “somebody else’s favorite songs.” So enter the “jack” format, where anything goes, just like an MP3 player on shuffle–and next, make way for HD radio. HD radio offers stations the opportunity to put multiple program streams on a single existing FM frequency, provided listeners have the receiver to decode them. The technology is just starting to go mainstream–oddly enough, Indianapolis seems to be leading the way–as receivers are already turning up at specialty audio retailers, and will be in Radio Shack and the like within a year.

Terrestrial radio operators are looking to HD as a way of competing with satellite radio, by offering satellite radio’s variety at a fraction of its cost. However, a problem already looms: further fragmentation of the terrestrial radio audience. The expansion of HD in Indianapolis has the potential to add 20 or 30 signals to an already-crowded marketplace, and in larger cities, the proliferation will be exponentially greater. Advertisers already struggle to cut through the clutter, and stations already struggle over ever-shrinking slices of the demographic pie. Also, while some HD stations will likely be commercial-free, many more probably will not be. Thus it seems likely that station owners will face the same problem they do now–how to make programming attractive enough to convince listeners to sit through the commercials–only multiplied.

I’ve been an occasional Internet radio listener for a couple of years now, and I will probably have satellite radio in my next car–although the vast majority of the music I listen to is on MP3s and CDs. Thus, I’m not sure I’d go for HD radio. Like most consumers, I’ll need to be convinced.

8 thoughts on “Jack Me, HD Me, Make Me Write the Check

  1. Your skepticism of HD radio is understandable. It matches my own of satellite radio.

    The nice thing about HD is the abililty to further narrow the scope of a station or do anything you want with it. That would include brokering it.

    A good example is The Peak in Phoenix. Its normal format is 70’s, 80’s & Whatever They Want. The HD channel plays all 80’s. It eliminates all of the 70’s and the other stuff that the jocks slip in.

    In Chicago, WJMK is on Jack. HD plays the old format with legendary jocks like Fred Winston.

    For my money, I would choose HD. Buy the receiver and get the programming for free. It is similar to the choice many of us made between AM and FM over thirty years ago.

  2. One other note. Both XM & Sirius have started to run commercials on their stations. The best incentive they had to subscribe to the product is now gone.

  3. Anonymous

    It’s sad how radio has changed.
    I’m very fortunate to have been able to do radio from the late 70’s till now — but it is quite different from when I started on the air.

  4. Anonymous

    My question about Sirius and XM (and satellite radio in general) is “why would people pay for a product that they can already get for free?”

    The radio industry has screwed itself by focusing on what they think people want rather than what they NEED. They “think” people want MORE music, BIGGER personalities, and LESS information. The result is voice-tracked radio stations playing “Jack” formatted music, talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, and 12 minute long commercial breaks because the station needs to make zillions of dollars in ad revenue to pay for the high-priced voice-tracking equipment and the rights fees for Rush Limbaugh, not to mention the millions of dollars it takes to buy a radio station in the first place!

    THAT is why so many radio stations suck and, because they sound so lame, listeners are willing to pay to listen to something else!

  5. Anonymous

    Well, if you’ve looked at the lineups on XM and/or Sirius you would see that they do indeed have stuff you can’t get for free. Bob Dylan and Tom Petty do music shows, for example. There is an all-blues channel on both of them. YOu can’t get that over the air either in 99% of the United States. So the argument against satellite radio isn’t as simple as that. Implicit in your comment is whether people would refuse to pay if local radio was better, which i think is probably true.

  6. Pingback: Turn Off Your Mind, Relax, and Float Downstream « The Hits Just Keep On Comin’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.