Anyone who knows me knows that I primarily deal with smaller college radio stations in my off hours, and with public radio for my day job. Last week the FCC made a huge announcement that directly affects both camps.
Namely, it's that they're going to formalize multicasting via HD Radio. This means it's no longer an experimental service, and therefore no longer restricted to non-commercial programming. It's not quite official yet - as in, it's not in the Federal Register. But that'll happen within a few weeks, no doubt.
For what it's worth, they also authorized nighttime operation for HD Radio on AM. That's a topic for another post.
So why is this so important? The non-commercial restriction meant no ads. If they can't sell ads, they can't make money on the multicast...which means nobody wanted to put any money into their multicasting. So many (too many) commercial stations' multicasts were little more than iPods on shuffle. Blech.
The removal of that means that some enterprising commercial outlets are going to eventually start doing more interesting things with their multicasts. Not much at first, but it'll grow over time. That means the monopoly that public radio has had on innovative multicasting is about to evaporate. So far public radio hasn't been all that innovative, either...and with the extra competition they're going to need to start thinking outside the box if they want to see ROI on all that money they've poured into HD Radio installations.
Okay, but how's it important to college radio? The removal of the NCE restriction all but guarantees that we will soon see FM multicast channels being rented full-time to other parties. Again, it'll start small...but I'll bet it'll grow faster than innovative programming will. We're already seeing reciprocal-broadcasting deals like WAMU and WTMD and I'm 100% positive that some small and medium AM stations will start renting FM multicast channels to simulcast the AM. This'll be especially true for daytime-only AM and also clusters where there's a popular AM program draw...like sports. Why? HD Radio has barely started to penetrate the receiver market but that's rapidly starting to change with Radio Shack carrying HD Radio receivers. Multicasting will be a fast and easy way to reach dedicated listeners who don't mind paying $200 to hear their favoriate station...and why not? Satellite radio listeners are paying $150/year for the same concept, and with HD Radio you know that you once need to pay it once and you're done.
(prediction: unless their contract with the Sox prevents it somehow...Entercom will simulcast WRKO 680AM's Red Sox games on WMKK 93.7FM and/or WKAF 97.7FM via multicasting to reach the lucrative Metrowest suburbs & drive HD Radio receiver purchases. And they'll do it before the end of the 2007 season)
This means that if your little college station had any hope of renting an HD multicast channel on another station in town (a quite viable strategy to expand your reach) then you best come up with an offer and soon. It won't be long before stations wake up to the huge potential revenue draw this can be and your station gets priced out of the market.