Local Car Radios Now Have Text

June 4, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Some listeners of country music station WBCT-FM, popularly known as B-93, have been getting a surprise from their car radios.

Along with the frequency, the faces of RDS-capable radios now display the station's call letters and the title and artist of the song playing, a feature exclusive to B-93.

"I was made aware of the technology, I was told what it could do, and I thought it would be a very interesting thing for listeners to our radio station who listen in their car," explained Skip Essick, vice-president/general manager of B-93 and Clear Channel's five other radio stations in the Grand Rapids area. "It's kind of an added service."

RDS, short for Radio Data System or Radio Display System, is available in a variety of newer vehicles. The system adds digital data to the base radio signal that is decoded by RDS-capable radios in the form of text messages. Marked by the "RDS" logo on the front of the radio, it is standard equipment on all Lexus and BMW models, along with nearly half of the models GM ships to dealers. Ford, Chrysler and Toyota also offer RDS in some models.

B-93's text is limited to station and song information, but the technology exists to provide far more. In other markets, RDS is being used to transmit host and show names along with weather, sports, news headlines, traffic data and AMBER alerts. Los Angeles has an Internet service called RadioGreetings that beams "I love you" and "happy anniversary" onto car radios, and the City of Angels is also the home of RDS' strongest American advertising use.

Warner Brothers, Sony, Adelphia and Wherehouse all have been advertising via radio text since the beginning of the year. Outside of Los Angeles, First Charter Bank in Charlotte, N.C., began a program in January that flashed "CALL NOW," "FREE CHECKING" and "FREE GIFT" across the radio screen.

"We would not do that," Essick said. "That is not our plan. Listeners are bombarded enough with commercial messages. We have advertising, obviously, on the radio stations. As they are driving down the street they are getting advertisements from billboards, they go home and they have advertising in the Grand Rapids Business Journaland The Grand Rapids Press. They have advertising on television. I don't know how responsive they'd be if they were driving down the street and all of a sudden a piece of equipment in their car starts giving them commercial messages.

"I think we should avoid the temptation to use (RDS) for commercial messages. … I think people will find that to be intrusive, and that's not good for advertisers or good for us."

Although the percentage of radio listening and advertising dollars has remained steady against other markets, and according to MediaPost.com, projections through 2007 are expected to remain the same, competition for advertising dollars will only get stiffer. Not only are cable television and the Internet growing threats, satellite radio could remove a significant portion of the traditional radio audience and take ad revenue along with it.

"We're always looking for opportunity," said Phil Catlett, vice president and general manager of Regent Broadcasting, the local company that operates WLHT, WGRD, WFGR, WTRV and WNWZ. "If it appears to us that there is a successful model out there that would drive revenue, we would certainly look at it."

Regent has thoroughly investigated the use of RDS, but has yet to implement any use.

"To date we didn't feel there was enough penetration in the market that it was worth spending the time and money and energy to invest," Catlett said. "But we think the market is going to reach a point soon where we should be doing that because there will be a significant amount of people with vehicles that have that option."

"We thought we'd just give it a try and see what kind of response we'd get," Essick said. "So far it's been good. I wouldn't say we've been inundated with calls, but I have been surprised by the number of calls that we see."

Clear Channel Communications, which is the nation's largest radio company with 1,200 stations, deployed RDS at 192 stations in its top 50 markets. No plans have been made to deploy RDS artist and song titles at B-93's sister stations, WVTI, WBFX, WOOD-FM, WTKG and WOOD-AM, but some are using the technology to display call letters on the radio screens.

"It's expensive, you've got to capitalize the stuff," Essick said. "We made a decision to forego one thing to get this. The reaction we've been getting has been absolutely fantastic and so I imagine that we will probably deploy more of these units as time goes on, at least on our music radio stations."

Essick is looking for additional ways to use RDS.

"I don't believe it has the capacity to run a live ticker from Wall Street," he said. "But I do think there will be some valuable uses beyond just record and title. Imagine if you were driving along trying to find the score to the Super Bowl or something; we could just flash that on there. Or severe weather bulletins, that sort of thing. I see this as something that could be a very, very useful and informative service to our listeners. But we are nowhere near that point yet."

"I don't know how valuable a service this is," Catlett said. "But we do know that people want to know the names of the songs."

RDS has long been used in Europe and has been available in the U.S. since the 1980s, but RDS-capable radios have only recently seen widespread availability stateside.

"I think manufacturers and dealers need to sell it more," Essick said. "I just bought a new car, and it doesn't have it."

The RDS signal is harmonized with the radio signal, so there is no stereo interference.    

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