Radio was in its full. The National Association of Broadcasters pretty much got what it asked for in Washington. Consolidation had created a handful of enormously powerful groups. Their CEOs walked the halls of the NAB convention with a confident swagger. Revenues were growing 12% a year. And radio was about to enter the digital era.
After years of wrangling, Ibiquity’s in-band on channel (IBOC) digital technology would lead radio into the 21st century. The alternative, Eureka 147, was too radical. It meant shutting down AM and FM and moving everyone to new spectrum space.
Eureka would level the playing field, essentially eliminating the differences between AM and FM, and giving a Class A station the same coverage as a Class C.
After paying top dollar to secure the best signals, egalitarianism was not what the powerful groups wanted. They wanted to protect the assets they had bought, even if they had bought them with other people’s money. They wanted digital, but they also wanted the status quo.
So while Europe and most of Asia chose Eureka, the FCC gave it’s blessing to IBiquity and IBOC. The first US HD radio station signed on in January 2003. By the end of 2004 there were 200 digital stations on the air, and today the number is over 1000.
And the majority of Americans couldn’t care less.
After nearly seven years, not a single HD station registers in Arbitron. Not a single HD station can claim any success by any measure.
Radio is struggling to remain relevant in the 21st century, and the decisions of the swaggering CEOs of the last century now haunt today’s survivors. Perhaps by protecting the status quo and choosing IBOC, assets were protected, and performance bonuses were paid, but radio suffered a nearly fatal wound.
Instead of creating something new and bold, shiny and bright, we protected the old and worn. We made sure that all those old dusty boom-boxes worked. We made sure that dad’s old transistor with the analog dial still worked. We told America that same old radio, that throw back to an earlier pre-digital time, was still just fine.
Maybe when we discuss why the wheels fell off radio, we shouldn’t blame the iPod, or the Internet, or Facebook. Maybe we should blame radio’s protection of the status quo.
What would be different about radio today if Eureka had been chosen? A time would have come when analog radios no longer worked. All those accumulated clock radios, portables, and consoles with the fake wood trim gathering dust would become obsolete.
Old radios would be dead, and in their place, listeners would have to buy new radios–radios with new features and capabilities. Radios would look like part of the 21st century. People might even buy this $400 Pure Digital Sensia because they had to.
The imagery would have been priceless. Think about television’s transition to digital. Nothing says 20th century like the hulk of a wood encased CRT TV. Nothing says 21st century like a 30 inch LCD TV hanging on the wall.
The big groups wanted IBOC because it protected the value of their big sticks. But those big sticks have lost their value anyway. Instead of protecting their value, protecting the status quo doomed them. The positive impact of thrusting radio into the 21st century would have more than compensated for the negative impact of a level playing field.
If radio really wants to move into the 21st century, it needs to rethink its decision to protect the status quo.