The programming format for HD Radio: Almost anything goes, including redneck women and obscure rock 'n' rollers.
Beyond-the-mainstream country and rock music are just two genres getting more airtime as the nation's stations roll out new, free digital HD Radio channels.
More than 1,700 broadcasters have added higher-quality HD Radio signals to their current traditional AM/FM ones. And programmers are using the extra broadcast channels that digital technology provides to woo audiences accustomed to niche-targeted Internet and satellite radio stations.
One caveat: The broadcasts are free, but listeners need a new HD Radio to get the stations.
"What we come up with on HD has to be different than what we offer on terrestrial," says Thomas "Chase" Rupe of Emmis Broadcasting in Austin. "We are looking for that next level of audience satisfaction. The average listener may not be pleased with just the choices available in a market."
In Austin, the broadcaster has launched three additional channels to accompany the HD simulcast of current FM channels: one devoted to old-school hip-hop artists such as Ice Cube and 2Pac (93.3 FM), one for smooth jazz artists such as Luther Vandross and Boney James (103.5 FM) and one for local music (107.1 FM), including national stars Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Spoon.
"The biggest response is coming from the Local 107.1 channel, because it is local and this is a very live-music-centric town," Rupe says. "But I cannot say there's tons of feedback, because there are not tons of units out there."
Also playing on HD Radio across the USA:
•Bluegrass. After being part of the programming for nearly 40 years on WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C., bluegrass got its own HD Radio station in October 2006. The FM station had already been streaming an online radio station since 2001 at bluegrasscountry.org. "There's a legacy of bluegrass here that helped build WAMU," says station manager Caryn Mathes. "We thought the way to really do right by this music is to give them their own" over-the-air channel.
•Classical music. After years of losses on traditional radio, HD channels in cities including Boston (89.7), Indianapolis (88.7), Grand Rapids, Mich. (105.7), Las Vegas (88.9), Philadelphia (90.1) and San Francisco (102.1) let listeners hear all classical, all the time.
•Country music. Gretchen 99.9 from Miami's KISS country station is named after singer Gretchen Wilson, who provides voice-overs and other personal touches. The channel's playlist includes the late Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynryd. "The music is a hybrid of rock and country — the kind of songs you might want to hear out on the town at the honky-tonks," says the station's Ken Boesen. Atlanta's 101.5 FM station also added a Southern rock/country hybrid.
•Alternative rock. Beck and Franz Ferdinand are part of the playlist for the indie rock channel at rock station KKRZ 104.9 in Seattle. Similarly, CBS Radio station WBCN-FM in Boston plays commercial-free indie and ultra-new rock to complement its mainstream 104.1 station. Regional Northwest bands such as Fleet Foxes make up the playlist at Portland, Ore.'s KNRK 94.7 channel.
•Classic rock stations reborn. In New York, CBS Radio resurrected WNEW, a legendary FM rock station from 1967 to 1999, on its 102.7 channel, where modern bands such as Vampire Weekend mix with archival interviews (John Lennon, David Bowie). In L.A., the network added "ROQ of the '80s," which focuses on new wave bands (Devo, Blondie) as a throwback alternative to its KROQ 106.7 FM station.
Rock music is just a portion of the playlist on Clear Channel's experimental station eRockster, which began broadcasting online (at erockster.com) in April and as an HD channel in three cities (L.A., Philadelphia and Washington). "You'll hear a song from the Beatles, followed by Hot Chip, and that's followed by Charles Mingus," says Eric Szmanda, producer and one of the station's hosts. "All the songs from the soundtrack of our lives."
Szmanda, who plays Greg Sanders on CBS' CSI, came up with the online station's concept along with Evan Harrison, head of Clear Channel's online music and radio unit. They met more than a decade ago at record label BMG.
"Eric had a really fresh idea about how (to) approach a radio station that really doesn't stick to a format but is rather focused on good music," Harrison says. Szmanda says eRockster is basically "the first nationally branded HD station, as far as I know. … I find it exciting to be part of this new technology."