Although iPod remains a four-letter word to many in the radio business, the top podcast on the iTunes chart, week after week, is a radio show: "This American Life," the weekly syndicated public radio show hosted by Ira Glass. It's a sign that radio, instead of fighting the competition from online and satellite radio, is adopting the same tools to serve -- and keep -- its listeners.Post-Gazette illustration
Waves of change see radio wading into new streams to compete.
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It wasn't so long ago that terrestrial radio was just called radio, a business ruled by revenues, formula and conventional wisdom. But now it's exploring new ways to reach listeners. That strategy includes inventing new or hybrid formats, running multiple formats via HD Radio and stepping away from a nuts-and-bolts radio altogether -- by offering programming on-demand through online podcasts and even featuring video content on stations' Web sites.
High Definition Radio's digital broadcasts may be terrestrial radio's most effective weapon as it rallies to maintain its relevance in the face of downloads, file-sharing and satellite radio. These receivers give FM signals CD-quality sound and convert AM signals to a clearer, FM-like signal. The technology also enables broadcasters to air more than one channel on the same frequency, opening the door to new formats and more choices for listeners.
That's not to say that listeners aren't tuning in now.
"Terrestrial radio remains a medium of choice for millions of Americans," says Jeff Pollack, chairman and CEO of Pollack Media Group, a Pacific Palisades, Calif.-based music and programming media advisory firm that works with TV and new media companies as well as radio stations.
Pollack notes that a large majority of Americans -- 93 percent -- listen to radio at least once a week. "That is not going to change in the near future. During 2007, we expect that more and more U.S. stations will be streaming their signals, as well as offering their broadcasts in digital form. Some will also create new sub-channels of specialty formats, which will be available to those with HD radio receivers and also on the Web."
New ways of looking at conventional talk and music formats are the next wave in programming strategy. Locally, CBS Radio Pittsburgh has been busy revamping two of its four stations over the past year -- news/talk KDKA-AM (1020) and rock station WRKZ-FM (93.7).
In the coming months, Pittsburgh radio listeners can look forward to more local talk on FM. Scott Paulsen will host a new talk show on WRKZ, starting in April. And John McIntire, whose nightly talk show on KDKA has been dropped, is in talks to move to the FM sister station.
Whoever is on the new FM talk lineup, McIntire says, "The handcuffs will be off. The restrictions one might feel on KDKA will be lifted. And that's a really exciting prospect."
"I think it's exciting that broadcasters are starting to look for expanded formats, instead of just another oldies station or something we already have," says Keith Clark, CBS Radio Pittsburgh vice president of programming. "CBS Radio has made a real commitment to developing spoken-word formats." These formats, he adds, will be "a complement to [AM station] KDKA, and not necessarily a competitor.
"There's a way to develop talk programming for audiences other than conservative political listeners. There's more to talk about than politics. We need to talk about pop culture, lifestyle -- things that people are interested in. We don't need another radio station playing the Allman Brothers. Our goal is to create an alternative for the 'DVE listener. They may listen to 'DVE for music and sports and other things, but if you're a guy between the age of 25 and 50, your choices for terrestrial radio programming are pretty slim."
Music or talk?
John McIntire -- "The handcuffs will be off."
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Keith Clark -- Webcasts will be important.
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When WRKZ launched in 2004, it was a rock station built around the popular Howard Stern show. When Stern moved to Sirius Satellite Radio last year, WRKZ was orphaned in a market with several other rock choices -- longtime leader WDVE-FM (102.5), modern rock WXDX-FM (105.9) and, to an extent, WRRK-FM's (96.9) Bob format of variety hits.
WRRK is another former rock station that has been expanding its audience by experimenting. "Bob" has built a listener base by drawing audiences from several different formats and was No. 4 in the overall summer Arbitron ratings.
Although CBS hasn't unveiled the details of the new WRKZ lineup, one thing is sure: In a market dominated by conservative talkers, unique talents like Paulsen and McIntire will represent a shift in attitude for local talk radio.
The moves by CBS Radio in Pittsburgh point to a shift from music to talk on the FM dial, which some in the industry see as the wave of the far future, predicting the migration of music to online, satellite and HD digital channels, with fragmented talk formats aimed at different audiences taking over the FM dial.
For example, conservative talk station WPGB-FM (104.7) has had success here with its political talk format on an FM station: It was tied for sixth place in the summer Arbitron ratings.
If FM is being positioned to accommodate talk shows, powerhouse AM stations like KDKA, which slipped to second place among total listeners in the Arbitron ratings in the past year, are re-tuning to remain competitive.
News/talk KDKA is going back to its roots as a full-service mainstream news station, expanding its daily news programming with a two-hour evening block of news reminiscent of its old "90-to-6" afternoon-drive news show. It also added an hour of news during the noon lunch hour.
Clark says the focus will be on covering breaking news and then sparking discussion about it on local and syndicated talk shows.
By dropping its evening sports-talk show and expanding sports news within the new long-form news shows, KDKA is positioning itself away from a glut of evening sports talk on two full-time AM sports formats -- ESPN's WEAE-AM (1250) and Fox Sports WBGG-AM (970) -- and an evening sports talk show on WPGB.
How are we listening?
Programming is in flux and, along with it, perhaps the biggest wave to hit radio: the new methods of delivering that programming.
A number of local stations launched podcast versions of their talk shows in the past year. Lynn Cullen or Doug Hoerth fans who miss their WPTT-AM (1360) talk shows while working can download and listen when it's convenient. The WPTT site has about a week's worth of programs archived, with guests and topics listed, making it easy to pinpoint segments of interest.
"All radio stations should take advantage of the opportunity to distribute their content through new media," Pollack says. "Surprisingly, there are still not that many commercial stations in the U.S. offering regular podcasts. However, the number is growing daily."
Apart from developing online content, many local music stations are turning to HD Radio, with its multiple channels of commercial-free music. Local public radio stations classical WQED-FM (89.3) and jazz/NPR WDUQ-FM (90.5) have HD channels. In the commercial arena, CBS and Clear Channel have added new formats that complement their main broadcast channels.
"Terrestrial radio is facing the same situation with music programming that terrestrial television -- meaning VHF and UHF -- has faced with movie programming," says Michael Harrison, publisher of the trade publication Talkers magazine. "Now that they've experienced something better, audiences do not want this kind of programming broken up by commercial interruptions or promotional clutter. Add to that the desire for on-demand variety specifically geared to individual tastes, and you can never go home again."
That's where HD Radio comes in. By offering niche formats that attract a smaller but loyal audience -- and in digital sound -- HD promises to deliver the best of all worlds: terrestrial, satellite and cyberspace without having to pay a monthly subscription fee.
For now, the secondary HD channels can be heard online, allowing listeners to try them before buying a receiver -- which can cost from $100 to $300.
Clear Channel's HD strategy is about giving consumers more choices, along with a one-stop music destination. "These are formats that are viable and have an audience [but] wouldn't be able to be supported financially," says Clear Channel regional vice president John Rohm. "But we want to provide the listening option."
Reaching Gen Next
For younger audiences, daily entertainment options now include visits to online sites like YouTube, and video has become part of radio's outreach strategy. WKST's Web site, for example, features on-demand music videos in addition to podcasts of some of its "Morning Freak Show" bits.
Younger listeners are using cell phones as the new request line connection, text-messaging song requests to their favorite radio stations instead of phoning them in. Some cell phone companies now offer the capability to see a radio station's recent playlist, download audio or take part in contests.
A terrestrial station's cyberspace presence has become an important programming tool.
"We're really tuned into the audiences that utilize our sites" says Clear Channel's Rohm. "We know who they are. They tell us what they want. We've begun to develop a tremendous amount of proprietary content. In a variety of platforms, we're trying to make the best entertainment value to consumers. No matter how much on the go they are, we're accessible to them."
"What comes out of the speakers over your radio is the most important thing," adds CBS Radio Pittsburgh's Clark. "But there is content that comes out of those speakers that people might want to hear again, at a more convenient time. Making a lot of our content available in short Webcast form is going to be an important part of the future."
As competition heats up and the radio landscape changes and expands, the real winner could be the listener, who will have more and more choices up and down the dial.
Adrian McCoy can be reached at email@example.com .