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Wave of the Future Will 'pay radio' really snare music lovers in Baltimore?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Weren't you one of those eyebrow-arching skeptics who laughed years ago when somebody first mentioned pay TV?

Didn't you say things like, "Never happen! Not in a million years!"

Well, get ready for another good laugh, because this time the dumb idea that won't happen in a million years is just as funny: pay radio.

But laugh fast. It's already here, and may some even say it will change our radio listening habits forever.

Hogwash? Not to Robert Dalton, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker who right now is listening to an all-reggae channel. Doesn't have the faintest idea what it is, but he likes it. "It's beautiful music," he says.

He can listen to it 24 hours a day if he wants. But he doesn't. He flips to channel 7 and, whoa! It's Jim Morrison singing.

"I don't like that real hot rock," winces Mr. Dalton, quickly flipping a button on his remote control to another channel on his Digital Music Express (DMX) system. It comes into his house through his United Artists Cable television wires, beamed to Baltimore by satellite from a Los Angeles studio. The DMX signal splits off from Mr. Dalton's TV hookup, connecting easily to his stereo. It costs him about $10 a month.

"You got symphony, you got jazz, you got Western-style," says Mr. Dalton. "You got just anything you want. No advertising, no DJ. Sometimes I take a notion to dancing rhythms. It just all depends on your moods."

And if they're not quite ready to dance a celebratory jig these days in the pay-radio world, they're certainly doing a lot of optimistic humming. "This is the wave of the future," beams Eleanor Hall, the DMX project coordinator with United Artist Cable of Baltimore.

In its current form, pay radio is a package of digitally recorded, CD-quality music channels sold to cable TV networks nationwide by one of two programming services -- each backed by big-time money of multimedia giants.

DMX is owned by International Cablecasting Technologies of Los Angeles and backed by Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable operator. It owns, among others, United Artist Cable, which holds the franchise for cable TV in Baltimore.

Then there's Digital Cable Radio, or DCR, of Hatboro, Pa., one of whose key backers is Comcast Cable Communications, servicing Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties.

Whether a cable TV company aligns with DMX or DCR, they typically receive a satellite-transmitted signal containing about 30 specially programmed all-music channels dedicated to specific musical niches. DMX, for instance, offers a symphonic channel, three different types of jazz channels, classic rock, '50s and '60s oldies and two Latin channels, among others. DCR's offering includes a big band channel, two categories of country music, blues and a modern acoustic alternative channel.

DMX is also available in Annapolis, Cumberland, Ocean City and the District of Columbia; subscribers to most other cable TV companies in Maryland will soon have the chance to buy DCR.

"Within two years," predicts Paul Clough, vice president of marketing for DCR, "80 to 90 percent of Americans will have access to either DMX or us."

Going satellite

In fact, both DMX and DCR are on the verge of offering pay-radio services to non-cable TV subscribers by installing tiny satellite dishes on their businesses or homes. And a Washington firm -- CD Radio Inc. -- is seeking federal approval to build satellites that will beam digital radio programming to a silver dollar-size dish mounted in cars.

Promoters are calling it an audio revolution, predicting the demise of radio as we now know it: No more annoying commercials, they say, and no more annoying disc jockeys. Both DMX and DCR provides a hand-held remote, known as a "silent disc jockey," that allows listeners to touch a button and see a digital readout of the song title, singer's name, album title and catalog number, even the position of the tune on this week's pop charts if applicable.

Not surprisingly, the people who employ the non-silent-type disc jockeys and who thrive on commercials -- annoying and otherwise -- remain unconvinced.

"I dont think this will put radio out of business anymore than TV put radio out of business," says Jennifer Grimm, general manager of country music station WPOC. "Our morning personality, Laurie DeYoung, ranks higher in people's minds as a reason to listen to the radio than the music we play."

"It's hype and I don't blame them," adds Jeff Beauchamp, vice president and station manager of WBAL radio. "If I had invested money in digital radio,I'd say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread and hope people would believe it. But I see people getting aggravated having to pay for things traditionally they get for free. I think its appeal is going to be limited."

In fact, the appeal so far has been very limited.

DCR, after offering its services on an experimental basis for several months through Comcast in Salisbury and in Rehoboth Beach, Del., has had only 1,000 takers out of 50,000 TV customers.

"Those are terrible numbers," says David Nevins, a DCR spokesman. "We certainly hoped to be doing better."

Hoping for doubling

Since last August, when United Artist Cable of Baltimore began offering DMX to its 101,000 subscribers, about 1,000 have signed up. With a current DMX sales campaign under way, Ms. Hall says she would be happy to simply double the number to 2,000. "A lot of people think it's something like MTV or VH-1." she says.

"The consumer is not quite sure what it is or why they should buy it," says Paul Clough, DCR's vice president of marketing. "It's one of those services that's a little ahead of its time. I'm convinced it has a future, but the marketing experts have yet to figure out the best way to market it."

Still, at Gampy's Great American Melting Pot restaurant in Baltimore, which recently signed on with DMX, the sale was a no-brainer.

"Music to us is as important as the food and the lighting and everything else," says Don Freeman, owner of Gampy's. "We tailor it to keep our wide range of customers happy. For a mixed group we always put on the '60s or '70s oldies channel. Late at night, when we get a lot of the younger crowd, we put on the alternative rock channel or rap and pump up the volume. For a Sunday brunch, it's classic or light jazz. Who wants to wake up to screaming music?"

Better than Muzak?

Mr. Freeman says he chose DMX over his old music source, Muzak, because he thought the sound quality was noticably better. Muzak, which has been providing packaged music casettes to businesses for 60 years, started beaming some programs by satellite six years ago, offering 12 channels of non-stereo music.

"Naturally, digital radio is a competitor," says Jim Eagen, vice president and general manager of Muzak of Maryland. "But we're still the dominant company in what we do." And even though Muzak now provides channels like country and adult contemporary, Mr. Eagen says Muzak's best seller is still its environmental channel, offering instrumental versions of well-known tunes recorded especially for Muzak.

"It's what they refer to in the industry as elevator music," he says. "We call it 'old reliable' because 50 percent of our customers still prefer it. And over the past six months more and more businesses are requesting us to install music in their

elevators."

But digital radio promoters say they don't see Muzak or even traditional radio as their main competition.

"We are really competing against someone's own programming of their stereo system," says Mr. Nevins. "That's the challenge."

Not quite, says Paul Janson, marketing and programming manager for Northern Arundel Cable, which serves northern Anne Arundel county. His company has no plans to hook up with any cable radio service and he cites his experience on the West Coast.

It flopped in California

"I saw the launch of three separate cable radio channels in California and none of them worked at all," he says. "In terms of RTC listening, it's great. But people are looking at paying $10 for HBO, $20 for basic service and they're saying 'Now I've got to pay $10 for radio which I get now for nothing?' There's just not a great demand for it."

And yet even skeptics like Mr. Beauchamp feel it's an exciting time for radio. "I think all this new technology is going to improve traditional commercial radio," he says. "It will make for stronger signals. By the year 2000, we're gonna be amazed at what we can get on our radio dial."

No disc jockeys and the songs you want to hear

Digital Radio is available in Baltimore through United Artist Cable's Digital Music Express system. Using a "silent disc jockey" remote, a listener can get a digital readout of the song title, the artist and other information. On a recent afternoon, a random cruise through 4 of the 30 channels turned up this playlist:

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