I’m about to make noises like a dinosaur. I hope you’ll forgive me, but hindsight is 20/20, so I like to look backward before going forward.

I was a little kid in Fort Wayne when stereophonic sound began gaining momentum. I remember the day my dad brought home a state-of-the-art “stereophonic system,” along with every stereophonic recording that was available: a big box of beautiful music on clunky, reel-to-reel tapes.

Dad was excited as he gestured toward the left and the right speakers when different sounds emerged from each of them. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. A decade later, FM radio stations began broadcasting rock ’n’ roll in stereophonic sound. It was an Indianapolis station — WNAP — which finally gave me Rock in stereo. I’ll never forget those guys. I was excited, the public was excited, and once advertisers saw significant audience shares, they were anxious to hop on board.

Sirius and XM are rapidly gaining subscribers because they’re offering two things that are exciting and new. First, their experimentation with goofy, eclectic formats is repositioning broadcast radio as being “predictable and lacking variety.” Second, like computers and PDAs and MP3 players and cell phones, their signals are digital.

If ever you’ve heard me, hear me now: Every radio station in America must invest in HD radio today, while there’s still some interest among the receiver manufacturers. Remember when AM stereo came out? We delayed so long in adopting it that the receiver manufacturers finally lost interest and drove the last nail into AM stereo’s coffin? We’ll do that again if we’re not careful.

Even though it’s the essential first step, HD broadcasting alone would merely elevate us to the level of our competitors. What can broadcast radio offer as a selling point that would set us apart and energize America? Consider this:
1. Just about everyone has upgraded his or her home stereo system in recent years to include 5.1 Surround Sound.
2. The record labels are dying to find something that will get people to purchase records again.
3. If radio got with the big labels and convinced them to reissue the top songs in 5.1 Surround, and…
4. If leading stations immediately went digital and began a collaborative, nationwide radio campaign to “Surround yourself with 5.1 DVD RADIO,” people would get enthusiastic again.
5. It would be a brand-new experience for them, and we would have taken a giant step above everyone else.
6. There’s no reason we can’t do this. Nothing stands in our way.
7. I believe that if we don’t seize this opportunity, we’re nuts.

“You’re listening to WYOU in High Definition Surround.” Do this, and radio will become RADIO again.

By B. Eric Rhoads. Published in RADIO INK 12/06/04