Start The Revolution Without Me

While seemingly inevitable, the move to digital hasn’t been swift. Despite the hype, large segments of the media landscape remain outside of the next-gen matrix. Digital workflow may have transformed the way that printed material is made, and the Web continues to reshape our media consumption all around, but not all media have digitized comfortably.

This particular revolution may be televised, but it won’t be on the radio any time soon. While not mandating a TV-like switch from analog for the radio platform, the FCC is promoting “HD Radio” as “The Sound of the Future,” even though few consumers are even aware of it.

Easily confused with satellite offerings and requiring a new tuner to receive the hi-def and data-enhanced signals, digital radio is many years from general use, most analysts agree. Industry figures suggest that over 1,500 U.S. stations already parallel broadcast their analog signals in digital, but there is little evidence of consumers flocking to stores for receivers. In early 2007, Microsoft and Clear Channel agreed to bring more personalized and localized data streams, dubbed MSN Direct HD, to 340 digitally broadcast stations. Digital radio allows for scrolling text complements to music, higher quality audio and interactive features like song bookmarking and downloading.

But good luck adding interactivity to drive time. “In the short term it hasn’t been integrated well with the main environment, which is the car,” says Brian Wieser, vice president and director of industry analysis at MAGNA Global. Some of the major benefits of digital come from its interactivity, and they are lost on the platform. “Radio is fundamentally a passive medium,” he says. “There is not much you would want to do with it.”

Surprisingly, the print world has also been little affected by the winds of change. The Magazine Publishers of America says that combined Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for 2006 show an overall increase in magazine circulation from 362.2 million issues to 369.6 million. Companies like Zinio and Olive Software have pushed unsuccessfully for years to move publishers and readers toward downloadable and online digitized versions of the print experience, but the “digital magazine” concept has yet to take off. Some business and consumer publishers like Ziff Davis and Reed have gotten up to 15 percent of readers of select titles to accept electronic versions of their print subscription, but even cheerleaders for the platform admit that the digital magazine remains decidedly niche. David Renard, magazine industry consultant with mediaIDEAS, believes digital magazines could represent 30 percent of the market in 15 years and 75 percent over the next 25. But the transition to digital will be protracted for print periodicals. “It’s not that important and won’t be for a while,” he admits.

Even more checkered is the history of the e-book and the electronic book reader. A decade after the first predictions of print’s demise, 200,000 book titles were still published in 2007, with few direct challenges to ink on paper technology. It took a decade of false starts for digital, portable book readers before Amazon generated some traction with its wireless reading device, Kindle, which the company claims was among its top technology sellers for the holiday. The much-hyped $400 device might have given Jeff Bezos his 15 minutes of Steve Jobs-like status on magazine covers, but it remains unclear whether the technology or the audience is really ready for the digitized book. 

While romance novel publisher Harlequin issues 120 to 140 titles a month in print and electronic forms, revenues from e-books account for less than 1 percent of sales, the company recently told AP. The International Digital Publishing Forum pegs U.S. electronic book revenues at a mere $8 million for Q3 of 2007. Scholastic probably made multiples of that figure in the first few minutes of selling J.K. Rowling’s latest blockbuster last year.

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