Last week, public radio's audience ratings broke new ground when WAMU's HD Multicast Bluegrass Country made Arbitron's May 2010 broadcast ratings. An HD station appearing in the Arbitron numbers is a rarity; it's a first for public radio and only the second station to achieve this feat.
Not surprisingly, the PPM-measured audience was small for the WAMU HD signal. From a research point of view, it's too early to tell the significance of this breakthrough for HD radio. Ratings geeks will want to see many more HD signals regularly make the market monthly ratings before we mark this moment as a notable shift in how people use radio. After all, in the recent Fall 2009 survey period, HD listening barely accounted for 1/10 of a percentage point of all PPM-measured radio listening (which includes FM, AM, Streaming, and HD multicast signals).
While HD Radio is still in its infancy in terms of mass audience appeal, one has to remember that it's competing against more than 13,000 FM and AM stations, compared to 1,200 HD multicast signals, of which 300 are from public radio. Nevertheless, reports of a recent Apple patent application could signal the start of a new chapter for HD Radio.
For full disclosure: NPR has been working with iBiquity, who created HD Radio Technology, to increase HD Radio Power.
Ben Robins is the Research Manager for NPR Programming