HD You Ain’t No XM, Or FM

07 Sep

The first FM radio that I remember listening to was a Heathkit my Dad built in the mid 60s.

FM was still a novelty then and factory made stereo receivers were very expensive.

The Heathkit was a way to get a good stereo at reasonable cost.

The New York FM stations at that time were an after though to their big AM sisters.

But the programming was interesting.  This was new territory and everyone was experimenting.

The FCC had limits as to how much programming could be simulcast. So FM stations had to offer something different at least part of the day.

While my parents liked the easy listening on WTFM, WRFM and WVNJ, the rock stations caught my ear.

WABC the big top 40 station had a different version of the AM format on FM for a while.  There was even “The Other Dan Ingram Show” which I believe featured jazz.

Ingram was the afternoon drive personality on WABC AM.

WABC FM  later changed to a progressive rock format called “Love’ with Bob Lewis and Brother John.  Lewis   doubled as a weekend jock on WABC AM.  This was the first real attempt at formatting album rock.

WNEW  FM experimented with an ‘all female  talent line-up in the mid 60s with comedian Peggy Cass, Allison Steele and Sally Jesse Raphael  part of it.   WNEW later shifted to a AOR format and certainly was the most popular station in our high school.

Murray the K, Rosko and others did an early progressive rock presentation  on WOR-FM  until it became  the “Big Town Sound” as a Drake formatted Top 40.

WCBS FM tried a few formats including progressive rock with jocks like Bob Lewis, Tom Clay, Bobby “Your Wizard’s Here” Wayne and Gus Gossert until changing to oldies in the early 70s.

Our local FM station WDHA experimented with a mix of jazz, classical and pop.  By the mid 70s they were deep into the quad sound playing several hours of Quadraphonic music each night.

The entire dial was open to experimentation.

There was a time in the early 70s that WLIB FM (now WBLS) signed on at noon and played jazz all day.

WBAI owned by Pacifica was as radical as any station you’ve ever heard.

All of this was so different from the AM band then and today’s FM that it’s hard to even describe now.

FM was the exciting frontier.  AM was establishment.

Many AM operators simply handed their FMs to the kids to program.  The owners didn’t know what to do or didn’t really care.

Looking back, FM had a huge advantage.  It was run by outsiders who didn’t know there were any rules.

This weekend I decided to give HD a fair shot and thorough listening.

I mentioned in this blog Radio Shack is clearing out HD radios for $82 that once sold for $299.  Worst case I’ll finally have a radio for my office at work.  A low risk investment at that price.

There are several $300 radios in my collection, by Sony, Eton and others.  The Boston Acoustics Radio HD Radio is simply not in their league.  No wonder it’s on clearance.

Every radio I own picks up dozens more stations off their whip antennas than this one does with the supplied dipole.  Now I see why they tried to sell me a $30 external antenna.

The AM section is very poor.

WOAI is 50KW and exactly 100 miles from my home.  It fades in and out on this radio.

WOAI puts a  solid signal on the $30 Sony pocket radio I found at Walmart, but not on this $300 marvel.

Please note, the term ‘marvel’ is used with a little sarcasm at this point in the blog.

The poor dear is what DX’ers call, deaf.

Why would someone from the general public buy one especially at full price?

I don’t know.

To make matters worse, there’s nothing for them to listen to here in Austin.

KUT has two HD channels but either they don’t reach my home,  nineteen miles from Austin or the HD is off.

There are a handful of HD-2 music formats on the air.  All sound like little effort has gone into them.

I didn’t need a whole weekend of listening to figure that out.

HD seems to be run by people who know too much about radio or worse, the accounting department.

They are applying a business model and ‘metrics’ before the art has taken hold.

Sadly, the HD channels sound more stale than the main channels.

The HD oldies channel uses the liner “Good Times and Great Oldies” .

Talk about fifteen years behind the curve.

HD needs the same kind of free thinking FM had it the early days.  Give it over to people who aren’t  locked into traditional business models, and outdated research methods.

Here are my suggestions for programming HD.

Ban sweepers, station image voices and all liners that were ever used on FM.

Think talent.

Start fresh.

Hand a channel over to a group of teens or twenty somethings.   Let them figure it out.

No rules.

Just tell them to make something happen.

Wait five years and see what develops.

Give HD the chance to be the creative playground that allowed FM to develop.

What happened to those stations?

  • WCBS FM became a great oldies station partly because of the success Gus Gossert had with his weekend show.
  • WABC FM became a solid progressive rock station, later known as WPLJ.
  • WNEW FM became a legend.   Then a big company killed the golden goose.
  • WOR FM, went from Top 40 format under Drake, to WXLO, 99X, and eventually KISS adult urban contemporary.
  • WLIB became WBLS  with Frankie Crocker’s “Black Experience In Sound” format and a market leader for years.
  • WDHA became more AC then rock in the late 70s and continues today.
  • WBAI.  Radical as ever.

Not bad for a little experimentation.

Remember FM was the 25 year overnight success.

You’ll never get people to want it by giving them a watered down version of the same old stuff.

Think fresh.

And get out of the way.

Oh, and one more thing.

Build some radios that work, at a good price.


Posted by on September 7, 2008 in Radio programming


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

9 responses to “HD You Ain’t No XM, Or FM

  1. Greg S.

    September 7, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    “Is HD Radio Toast?”

    “There are serious issues of coverage. Early adopters who bought HD radios report serious drop-outs, poor coverage, and interference. The engineers of Ibiquity may argue otherwise and defend the system, but the industry has a serious PR problem with the very people we need to get the word out on HD… In other words, everything you can find on the regular FM dial… The word has already gotten out about HD Radio. People who have already bought an HD Radio are telling others of their experience (mostly bad) and no amount of marketing will reverse this.”

    After two to three years, early-adaptors have already rejected HD – it is too late, now.

  2. bobyoung

    September 7, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    You have some good ideas which worked for FM at least 25-35 years ago, in fact it worked in Boston, my city, with WBCN 104.1 in 1969 “The American Revolution” Yes those were the beginning of the great days for FM radio. Fortunately analog FM works great and sounds good which is the main reason these new formats and ideas were able to get and keep an audience and eventually revolutionize radio. Unfortunately Alan you also hit on several of the many problems with HD which make it the big lead balloon it is. The receive range is abysmal on both FM and AM HD, it interferes with adjacent channels, it doesn’t sound much better if at all better than analog, it’s a monopoly, the receivers are terrible, no one stocks them as they just don’t sell, they need outside antennas for 1/4 the range an ordinary analog receiver has, in short, HD or IBOC, iBlock or whatever you want to call it, just plain doesn’t work and it’s time to kill of this terrible wrechnology,

    Bob Young
    Millbury, MA

  3. alanfurst

    September 7, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Stations should be required to turn off the IBOC when the are operating adjacent to stations like WWL providing emergency information. There is lots of talk on the DX sites about how difficult it is to hear WWL when WCBS has the IBOC turned on.

    I love your term wrechnology.


  4. Peter Altschuler

    September 8, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    WOR-FM was the very first FM rock station when it debuted in 1966. Murray “the K” Kaufman was both evening prime time DJ and program director and, in addition to Rosko, Scott Muni was part of the line-up, paving the way for him to join WNEW-FM when that station continued what WOR-FM began.

  5. John Gorman

    September 8, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Wow! So few remember that. WOR-FM predated KMPX/San Francisco and, of course, WNEW-FM. I was fortunate to hear the early WOR-FM, which, if memory recalls, played the British top 10 on Saturday afternoons. It was a true mix of top 40 and what was to become progressive rock. You could hear Tom Jones sing “Green Green Grass of Home” and the Blues Project back-to-back. I have great memories of that station, especially the toned-down Murray the K, who I listened to religiously from Boston. Off the subject slightly. Sometime in the summer of ’63, Murray played “From Me to You” by both the Beatles and Del Shannon and asked listeners to call and vote on their favorite version. Del Shannon’s version won and Murray was livid and scolded his audience for picking the wrong version. Fifth Beatle? Murray deserved the moniker as far as I was concerned.

  6. John Gorman

    September 8, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    I should add that Murray was on WINS when he did his Beatles/Del Shannon rant, which I picked up in Boston on the skip. I heard WOR-FM when I took the train from Boston to New York just to hear this station.

  7. Sonny

    September 9, 2008 at 4:18 am

    FM was not necessarily a “novelty” in the mid-60s so much as it was a “training ground” for the up and coming talent that would get its licks in on-air and then sllip over to AM, which was still King Radio in the day. I started in small-market AM/FM in 1963 and went on to Houston and signed on an FM in ’66. I was the first FM country music jock there and, believe it or not, had a 14-share for a year and then the owners pulled me over to AM where I helped make KIKK the Number 1 country station in the U.S. … If KIKK didn’t play it nobody did. We made the careers of many a top-name artist back then.

    Yes, radio as we knew it is dead. The conglomerate owners, who haven’t a clue as to what truly makes REAL radio, have killed it. Air personalities were fired and replaced by amateurs who never trained in “broadcasting” but in plastic hype and semi-automation programming with inane GM’s and PD’s controlled by the bean counters and suits who treat radio solely as business and not as a creative outlet. It is BOTH.

    These stations that crank out up to an hour of non-stop music without having a live operator mix in and keep the personal touch have totally missed the concept of what radio was, and is supposed to be. If you want just music you can get CDs or ipods and such. It’s the difference between making love to a real, loving, caring soul mate and getting a quickie from a whore. One has substance, the other has crabs and no heart.

    I’m just glad I had all those years of fun and experience in the real world of radio and not today’s phony garbage of airtime wasting that spews out on all frequencies.

    However … I have a theory …. What goes around, comes around. When the bottom line profits begin to wane worse than they have, then the owners will look around and begin courting the old-timers and start seriously training new blood to pick up where real radio was left year ago so America can have its diet of broadcasting restored once again. There are tons of great music unplayed and unheard by too many people who, if given the opportunity, would agree that the music some call “Oldies” is not really for the old. In fact, so much music is coming around again in new forms that today’s generation doesn’t even know it’s simply recycled from a previous era.

    But, God, deliver us from the “Oldies” stations that continue to play the same, tired playlist of just the All-Time Top 100 tunes, as if the lesser songs never existed. Truth be known, many of those so-called lesser tunes were more popular overall than the mega-hits. They should at least sprinkle them in with the standards. Again, the know-nothing GM’s and PD’s haven’t a clue.

    What can you expect when the owners fire all the personnel over the age of 50 … the VERY people who know and understand what REAL radio is all about. In fact, most of the genuine radio talent is now in its 60s and up. We’re STILL out here and as talented as ever … like fine, old wine.

    — Sonny
    Once a Jock, Always Crazy

  8. George

    September 10, 2008 at 5:46 am

    You know, I listened to all those pioneering FM stations in NYC in 1967 and 68, and guess what? I was in a very small minority. WOR-FM, WABC-FM, and even WNEW-FM had terribly small audiences in those pioneer days. Not a lot of listeners, and therefore, not a huge attraction to bring people from AM to FM.

    The real loser during those days was WABC-FM. No real DJs. Bob Lewis did his “other side of” show on FM. Brother John was there. But most of the day, it was just back to back album cuts, Ritchie Havens, Albert Lee and Love, and similar unknown psycholdelia. Certainly fun stuff for a high school kid, but not for a sellable demo. Not a lot of commercials either. But WABC-FM was a lot like HD FM today.

    The ratings didn’t start to come to FM until AM-style formats started to migrate to FM. 99X was one of the first. Unlistenable to the progressive rock fans of WPLJ. But The X did a lot to change FM, and so did 92KTU, first as mellow rock, and then as Disco 92.

    WNEW-FM didn’t become a hit station, with good numbers and demos, until the 80s. By then, they’d become pretty safe. They completely missed the grunge movement. It never got much traction at WNEW. What killed WNEW was the same thing that killed music at MTV: The lack of a single direction in rock music that could attract a sellable number. Diversity killed format radio. Diversity doesn’t attract big numbers.

  9. George

    September 10, 2008 at 5:54 am

    Let me add that the only FM stations that got big ratings in those pioneer days were the three big Beautiful Music stations: WRFM, WPAT, and WVNJ. At one point, all three were in the Top 10 in NYC ratings. Then 99X came along in 1974 and changed everything. By that time, free form rock was gone from both WPLJ and WNEW, and NY radio had gone corporate.


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