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Radio AM to FM: July 30, 1999

DataFM hopes to save RDS

In 1995, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association gave away Radio Data System (RDS) encoders to radio stations in the top 50 markets as a way to encourage stations to use RDS so that consumers would want (and more importantly buy) RDS-capable receivers.

RDS is a system that allows broadcasters to use their FM signal 57 kHz subcarrier (it doesn't work with AM) to send text and other data to an RDS receiver. The receiver could show, for example, what song is playing, relay weather information, or even retune a radio to another station with a stronger signal if the station simulcasts on more than one frequency.

The plan didn't work. Most stations didn't do anything more than transmit their call letters, and the availability and consumer demand for capable receivers is far below expectations. Now a company called DataFM wants to try a new version of RDS that would allow for semi-personal messages to be sent through the system. In this version, 100 codes can be programmed into a receiver; if an RDS message is sent from a station that contains one of these programmed codes, the message will be displayed on the radio's screen. Otherwise the screen will remain blank. Or show a station's call letters, I presume.

If an organization wants to send a mass message to its members, it could use a computer to compose the message and upload it to a participating radio station. That station would then send out the code and trigger messages on radios belonging to the organization's members. Receiving messages would be free, uploading and sending would be where the money is, allowing a station to earn a few extra bucks providing a public service.

It's kind of like an expensive version of a paging service, and that will most likely be the reason it won't fly. For one thing, it relies on everyone involved buying a capable receiver (doubtful) and then making sure they are near that receiver so they can see the message (doubtful still). In the end it is a technology that is ahead of its time and still not very useful. I doubt you will see this technology in the years to come.

Problems Up North

Canada is having a problem with its highly-touted digital radio system, which is on a special band and is/was expected to eventually replace traditional AM and FM broadcasting (leaving those bands empty).

It seems that stations are reluctant to commit to and promote the new technology until more receivers are in the hands of consumers, while consumers don't know about the new receivers and thus are not buying them. About 20 stations currently simulcast their signals on the new "L-Band." None are promoting it, and consumers are left wondering why they should shell out approximately $600 for a receiver that can't pick up anything their regular radios already do.

Problems Down South

Legendary San Diego station KCBQ (1170 AM), the home of KRTH's (101.1 FM) "Shotgun" Tom Kelly during much of the 1970s and one helluva great top-40 station until they went country in 1980, may be leaving the air for good. Soon.

It seems the station has sold its transmitter site to Lowe's company, which plans to build a home-improvement warehouse store on the lot. With no transmitter site, a money-losing format (currently talk), and no one ready to step in and buy the license, it appears there is little incentive to go on, and the owners may just simply turn the whole thing off within six months.

With digital radio just around the corner, I have a hard time believing that a station in that size market would be allowed to go dark. Anyone want to join me in making a bid? Preferably someone with money ...


Copyright © 1999 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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