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HD Radio country

Movin93_1 Talk about a split personality. Emmis Communications de-twanged one of its two FM stations in Los Angeles County, KZLA-FM, without warning last week, switching to "rhythmic pop" (read: Black Eyed Peas, Madonna, Gnarls Barkley). The move added to the profusion of hits- and dance-oriented stations in the market, but left LA with no country radio stations at all -- in analog. (OK, OK, there are a few in surrounding counties that might be within tuning range, but still.)

Digital is a different story. Emmis continues to stream commercial-free country music at KZLA's Web site, which, as if trapped in a time bubble, looks pretty much the way it did before the format change. It also broadcasts country music on its digital over-the-air channel, for those few fans who happen to own an HD radio. Los Angeles is a big town, so I'm guessing there are 10 or 12 listeners in that category. Of course, none of them have HD radios in their trucks.

KZLA's schizophrenia is one of the more extreme examples of commercial radio's strategy for HD radio. Typically, stations don't use their digital transmissions to replicate their analog broadcasts . Instead, they offer a variation that tries to expand on their core demo. (Ooops -- that's wrong. They offer a simulcast and, in many cases, a second or third channel with different programming. Thanks to iBiquity's Vicki Stearn for the correction.) Look at Clear Channel: KBIG-FM is an adult contemporary station that spins disco on weekends. The HD version is all disco, all the time. Top-40 station KIIS-FM and oldies R&B station KHHT-FM's HD versions are retooled for Latino audiences. And at CBS Radio, rock dinosaur KROQ's HD station offers "extreme active rock," and talk station KLSX-FM provides ... female talk.

These experiments have little consequence, given how few people listen to HD Radio. That market won't take off until car manufacturers get behind it in a big way. So KZLA's digital offerings are cold comfort for country fans. Given how popular country-music CDs are in Los Angeles -- more sell in LA than any other market -- you'd think that another station would leap at the chance to fill the void, especially one owned by a group with multiple stations in the market. After all, advocates of local radio consolidation say the more stations a company owns in a market, the more formats it will play.

That's certainly been true for CBS' So Cal stations, which offer talk, adult contemporary, rock, oldies and Jack, a melange of well-known songs from multiple genres and decades. CBS even does (gasp) country at a trio of stations simulcasting in and around the Inland Empire. But for other groups, the strategy has been much like the variations-on-a-theme approach to HD radio. Clear Channel's FM stations in the region are all adult-contemporary or urban formats (plus KIIS, with a hits playlist that overlaps those two formats). Emmis' move with KZLA brings its format closer to that of its other station, KPWR-FM, one of the market's top urban stations. According to Jenny Toomey of the Future of Music Coalition, the goal is to make sure that when listeners tire of one of your stations, they move to another one of your stations. And someone who tired of KPWR's hip-hop wasn't likely to switch to a country station.

Ranked 20th in the most recent Arbitron survey, KZLA's country station drew about a third of the audience as the two market-leading outlets, Spanish contemporary stations KLVE-FM and news/talker KFI-AM. Emmis blamed the format; perhaps one of the lower-drawing urban, adult contemporary or talk stations will find the high lonesome ground more inviting. That category includes stations owned by big groups as well as local independents. Any bets on who's more likely to move first?


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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