Digital revolution

Public Radio Tulsa stations KWGS and KWTU have led the way in developing high-definition radio programming options in Tulsa. Will it catch on?



Many of us have already made the switch to high-definition television. The crisper version enhances our TV experience, making us feel as if the action is happening right in our homes. We can distinguish each bead of sweat on a baseball player’s brow, and we can make out every line on our favorite actor’s face. But what most of us don’t know is that television isn’t the only high-definition medium — radio has made the jump as well.

HD radio hasn’t received the hype of HD TV, leaving many wondering how radio can even offer HD when there’s nothing visual to see.

The new technology allows listeners to hear analog signals in digital format, says Rich Fisher, general manager of Public Radio Tulsa, KWGS and KWTU.

Basically, instead of your eyes getting a crisp view, your ears hear every sound, but without the hiss, the static and the fade out. It’s literally music to your ears — and with a better quality than ever before.

The first station to offer digital radio to Oklahomans was KWTU, The University of Tulsa’s classic music radio station, which signed on to digital in October 2004. NPR Labs was one of the main driving forces behind HD radio, Fisher says. A couple of years later, KWGS followed KWTU’s lead. Today, 20 stations in Tulsa offer HD programming, including KVOO, KMOD and KTBZ.

In addition to better sound, Fisher says HD radio allows for more consistent program formats. That’s because with the AM/FM analog system, there’s a limit to the number of frequencies that can exist. HD radio allows programmers to split digital bandwidths into two or three different programs, which means innumerable program options. The technology also allows radio stations to tailor different HD stations to different audiences. Programming no longer has to be diverse to capture listeners.

“It’s a way to offer more programs than (analog) radio can possibly carry,” Fisher says. “We’re reaching some interesting niche audiences who are appreciating the fact that they have a whole channel doing things they like to hear all the time. We’ve invested a lot of money in it, and I think it’s going to offer public radio listeners a wider variety of choices.”

Currently, KWGS offers seven HD channels: National Public Radio offerings, classical, jazz, BBC world news, talk programming, acoustic music and intelligent pop.

Fisher says he isn’t sure whether this technology will take off the way AM/FM technology has, but if it does, it will have a long lifespan.

“Our response from listeners has been really positive, but the penetration is extraordinarily low, with probably around 1 percent in Tulsa,” he says.

The HD radio adoption is slow-moving because of several factors. Currently, listeners must have a digital converter or a digital radio to listen to HD radio. Also, the digital signal has the capability to extend much farther than analog, but doing so could cause interference with existing analog stations. As a result, the FCC has limited signal strength to 1/100th of a station’s analog power. However, the FCC has submitted rules for public comment that would boost digital output so HD would cover the same area as an analog signal and boost potential HD listenership. Fisher says he’s hopeful the agency will issue a ruling by year’s end.

“One of the great promises HD radio has is to reinvent radio with experimentation,” Fisher says. “When FM first started, it was the same thing.”

KWGS and KWTU recently received a grant from the George Kaiser Family Foundation that’s geared toward a local news initiative.  With the funds — half a million dollars to be spread out over 10 years — they’ve hired a news director, John Durkee.

“He gets a finger on the pulse of what’s happening and what’s important in our area,” Fisher says.

The stories range from the impact of national stories on the community to local and national trends. Fisher says KWGS and KWTU are taking a different approach to news than most radio stations by trying to focus on more “substantive issues within the community,” he says, such as covering different angles of a typical story.

“We’re doing it because it’s our mission to serve the community with quality, informed programming,” he says.

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August 2019

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