More Messages: Other Definitions

This week's Message column concerns high-definition radio, and notes that a trio of stations owned by Clear Channel just introduced HD sister signals. But these aren't the only offerings of their type in the market. Another three so-called high-def side channels were made available by CBS-owned properties a few weeks prior to the launch of the Clear Channel products, and demonstrate how the technology can help outlets broaden their reach, better compete with rivals, and perhaps even placate disgruntled listeners.

First up is Willie, at 92.5 FM. The main station features a deeper mix of country music than is offered by ratings leader KYGO, which specializes in "hot country," aka the latest hits. But Willie's side channel loops country's top twenty smashes -- meaning that it essentially mimics KYGO's playlist in a setting that's currently commercial free.

Over at the Mix/100.3 FM, the side channel duplicates the format of Jammin' Oldies, a mix of vintage R&B and disco that had occupied 92.5 FM before Willie hopped into the saddle. When Jammin' was dumped, fans of the style protested -- so putting it on HD is a good way to make nice with a demonstrably loyal audience.

Finally, KOOL 105.1, the region's most popular rock-oldies purveyor, is spinning tunes from the 1950s and 1960s on its side channel. This move may seem redundant, but as pointed out in a 2004 profile of KOOL personality Da Boogieman, the station has been quietly retiring selections from the first generation of rockers in an attempt to keep its demographic within the 25-54 age range most prized by advertisers. As a result, KOOL has been playing more Eagles and less Elvis -- a decision that may have alienated older radio buffs. KOOL's HD channel gives such folks a place to go that's still in the family.

According to Randy Jay, KOOL's music director, assistant program director and midday jock, who's pictured above, the station's side channel is "a nice way for us to fill out all the eras of the genre of rock and roll. It lets us get the earlier eras back on the radio." As for Gregg Cassidy, the Mix's program director, he avoids mention of the Jammin' controversy, choosing instead to focus on the benefits of the technology in general. "What HD-2 does is double the choices of music formats or genres for the average listener," he notes. "And it does it for free."

Of course, radio lovers must make an investment in a high-def radio, and only a few models are in stores at present. "There are probably about a dozen people who have them right now," Jay estimates, and while he intends the comment as a joke, he might not be far off. Even so, Cassidy feels that the transition from analog broadcasting to the digital type will happen more quickly than the dozen years estimated by some experts.

"The way technology changes and moves these days, I think you'll see this roll out really fast in the larger markets -- maybe in just a couple of years," Cassidy predicts. "People will figure it out, embrace it, and appreciate the extra variety on the dial."

In the meantime, only people with HD-radios can check out the new CBS channels. Unlike the Clear Channel signals, the new Willie, Mix and KOOL efforts aren't online yet, although Cassidy thinks they'll wind up on station sites in the near future. There's a new world of radio out there, but thus far, only a handful of people can hear it. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts