I Am ‘Tron II

Austin is reportedly one of the cities to get Arbitron’s “new, improved” PPM (“portable people meter”) this summer, but what is that going to mean, changing from the diary system? For one thing, a completely different set of numbers, as shown in cities that have already made the switch. So which set of bad numbers are the suits (or is the suit at KUT) going to believe? Because in Austin, Arbitron is what the Hawk bases all his conclusions on, justifying it as “giving the people what they want” — which, in this case, he deems it as turning Austin’s public radio into another AAA station and unceremoniously dumping longtime employees and installing playlists.

But look at the demographics of public radio, as shown in this 2009 Jacobs Media study:

The demographic always attached to KUT — 35 to 64 — represents 66% of public-radio listeners, and if you add in older listeners, you’re talking about 90% of all listeners. The younger folks, 18 to 34, are seen as much more tech savvy, attuned to new technologies and delivery methods such as iPods and web streaming and listening less to FM radio. (In iTunes alone —a freebie easily downloaded — you can access hundreds and hundreds of radio stations of all genres.) The average age, then, of the public radio listener is 54, with 90% over age 35. Walrus Research, which tracks this sort of thing, calls public radio listeners “highly educated, affluent, and beyond middle age.”

When citing the vaunted AQHs from Arbitron reports, Hawk uses as KUT’s demographic 25 to 54, adding in the 25 to 34 demographic that shows up in this chart as only 9% of public radio listeners — and skewing the results. This had the effect of dropping some of the shows that KUT “dumped,” as Hawk so daintily said in one of the open-records memos about Paul Ray’s Jazz and Phil Music, from possibly a top-three finish (when the traditional, older demographic is used) down towards the bottom of the Austin ratings — when compared, of course, with commercial stations. This, according to Arbitron. This drastic of an effect only illustrates the small size of the sample from which these numbers are drawn, a major criticism also of Arbitron diary methods. (Conversely, what size of a sampling of KUT donors — the small fraction of listeners who actually donate — who oppose the radical changes made in Austin’s public radio station would be large enough to influence management decisions?) The inclusion of the 25-34 demographic makes sense in Hawk-speak if you consider one key factor: The 25-54 demographic is considered the prime group in the ad-buying segment of the public.

But among the conclusions of the Jacobs study were the following:

  • AAA fans are younger, less “into” Public Radio exclusively & far more tech-active. They are more apt to own iPods, download podcasts, stream audio and video, text, and participate in social networking sites.
  • Classical devotees are older, less enamored by technology. But they are the heaviest radio listeners.
  • Clearly, there’s a division within the Public Radio audience that transcends format. The younger and emerging demographics profile quite differently from the 55+ core (which still makes up more than half this sample).
  • Stop worrying about satellite radio. Interest is waning and of the many different media/gadget options, it is well down the list.
  • HD Radio is challenged. Adoption rates are low & satisfaction trails even satellite radio.

Also, in the past year, Arbitron has been furiously changing its PPM to mollify critics — and survive lawsuits in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and others — who charge, among other things, that minorities are grossly underrepresented in its sampling (which tends to be rather skimpy as it is, witness the 5,000-person sample for a city the size of New York). It also has been adjusting its sample to include the growing number of homes that have only a cell phone or predominantly use cell phone over a land line.

So how will this all affect local public radio stations? Well, the cell-phone-only households tend to be the younger and poorer folks — who don’t really listen to public radio. And how about the increased number of minorities added to the sample? Well, 90% of listeners of public radio are white. So if anything, the new demographic represented in the “new, improved” Arbitron sample presumably will listen less to public radio.

Keep in mind, though, that the Arbitron PPM system itself carries this disclaimer: “PPM ratings are based on audience estimates and are the opinion of Arbitron and should not be relied on for precise accuracy or precise representativeness of a demographic or radio market.” Yet this does not keep station management in places like Austin from basing their entire business strategy on these numbers — which may mean, when the new system kicks out its numbers, that stations like KUT will likely see a further sag in their ratings. And what will become of the business strategy? Well, don’t be surprised if the Hawk, with his typical aplomb, declares that “we tried music” and people didn’t like it (“our hands are tied”) — ushering in a change to all talk.

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Pandora’s Out of the Box

Jerry Del Colliano posted up on his early years in radio faced with the prospect of canned music, comparing it to the challenge today of Pandora. There’s a lesson here for public radio:

Years ago one of the major market radio stations I programmed used syndication tapes from Drake Chenault. Every week at our studios off City Line Avenue near Philadelphia, a master tape arrived from Canoga Park, CA, with the new week’s current music tape that we simply slapped on a Schafer automation machine. But as a young program director I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I knew the owner was cheap — the company would have loved to operate today in the current atmosphere of repeater radio. But I didn’t. The thing that pushed me over the top was when I heard a song included in the “currents” tape called “Walking My Cat Named Dog” by Norma Tenega. This wasn’t even a one hit wonder (#22 on the national Billboard charts probably with lots of payola). It was just a wonder.

How the hell did it arrive for Philadelphia airplay? They had to be kidding!

I called our Drake Chenault contact, a great guy named Lee Bayley and said, “what was this!” No Philly station was playing it. No one even heard of it. A cat in Philly is not necessarily the same thing as a cat in LA if you know what I mean. Is this a Philly sound?

Seems like the syndicator was tracking it from LA and it wound up on the tape. I turned to my trusty associate Mike Anderson and said — get rid of this for me, will you — and he sliced it out — along with the other songs that we knew would lay an egg with local audiences. We were forbidden to do this at that point in time.

I mention this because Pandora has the secret to success in music radio. Pandora’s almost 50 million subscribers love customized radio partially because the formula Tim Westergren’s successful Internet streaming service employs is learning the tastes of listeners and comparing them to a set of genomes — or conditions that help Pandora suggest other songs they might like.

Meanwhile, back at terrestrial radio, it’s bad enough that 50 million people are in love with Pandora but local stations are doing the “Walking My Cat Named Dog” routine — playing the wrong songs for local listeners. That may have worked with satellite radio which was trying to steal terrestrial radio’s listeners — albeit it by asking them to pay for what they could also get for free. But it won’t work with Pandora.

Pandora is a powerful platform and smart radio executives give it the respect it deserves — after all their kids likely listen to it (or they may, also).

So how to compete with something this popular that is growing this fast? One thing, for sure, don’t play the same music over and over again in an era when audiences clearly have become accustomed to larger playlists. I know it is heresy for an ex-PD to say run a large playlist — and I’m not exactly saying radio needs to do that — but I am saying terrestrial radio needs to come up with a genome of its own — a local genome….

Boy, don’t we radio folks get too obsessed with who is buying music instead of what characteristics local music has that makes local listeners listen?

I Am ‘Tron

Stewart Vanderwilt, the GM of Austin’s KUT radio, once waxed poetic to potential donors in a letter: “KUT is . . . a community for music lovers. From adult rock to folk, from blues to world music, KUT seeks out music that isn’t promoted, packaged, or hyped. Music you wouldn’t find without us. . . .” Times have indeed changed, and now his subaltern, Hawk Mendenhall, uses figures from Arbitron to justify morphing the station into AAA, laying off employees and installing playlists. KUT is now all about maximizing market share, turning to what’s hot nationwide and being played everywhere, what’s on the charts, what “advertisers” will pay to support. The station is no longer “listener supported,” after all, but “community supported.”

So what exactly is this company Arbitron? This recent analysis of Arbitron is notably underwhelmed by its prospects:

Arbitron Inc. is a low quality company with a negative outlook. Arbitron Inc. has weak business growth and is run by inefficient management. When compared to its closest peer, COMSCORE, Inc., Arbitron Inc. shows greater overvaluation and is equally likely to underperform the market.

On Wisconsin

The big news out of Wisconsin isn’t that station WGTD is considering switching away from NPR and classical to big band and jazz, though that in itself is remarkable. The biggest news there is that “the station is seeking input from listeners about the proposed change.” Imagine that. This post on the Walworth County Today website details the recruitment of volunteers to spin jazz records. I guess they couldn’t even afford the bargain-basement prices of canned music from upstream public radio . . .

Stop Making Sense: Inside Music Media

In Jerry Del Colliano’s well-respected blog Inside Music Media, he posted these tidbits on what it would take radio to recover in a piece entitled “Armageddon or Radio’s Promised Land”:

I know I am preaching to the converted here, but let’s just preview what radio can and should do to avoid going down with the ship:

Bolster local, terrestrial radio. Not voice-tracking or cheap syndicated schemes. Hire personalities. Do local commercials. Please fans. We know how to do this so let’s do it now. Terrestrial radio can be a large chunk of free cash flow that will fund the necessary transition to digital platforms so this is no time to fire talent, do repeater radio and drive willing listeners prematurely away from the mothership [emphasis added]. . . .

Build local interactive hubs around the cities where you have existing stations. Then, get ready to go into markets where you do not have clusters. All of these interactive hubs should be autonomous and local.

Read the words “autonomous and local” without anything in your mouth this time so you don’t choke on it. . . .

Talk radio is aging – there is a way for radio to lead the next “talk” revolution that isn’t built around politics, three or four hour shows or even listener call in. The next generation gets its talk radio on by interacting in social media. Hell, you do it when you go to a Radio-Info message board. Radio companies should build it and they will come.

Brainstorm for the iPad – that is the entertainment device of at least the next ten years. Everything you do should be optimized for iPad and by that I do not mean offering apps to access existing content. In the future, if you can find 10,000 people who will pay $25 a year to hear a jazz expert do a one-hour jazz show each day, then you have generated $250,000 a year in subscriptions alone. As you know I am working on the pay model with a bright developer and I believe pay is the way.

Why make 31 flavors when you can’t even get vanilla right?

Eric Rhoads, in a blog called Radio Ink Tank, posted a rather favorable, if critical, article on HD radio called “Are You Killing HD Radio?” (And he admits to a conflict of interest, having marketed a brand of HD radio.) But the real action is down below, in the comments. Here, for instance, is a deejay’s perspective:

When I’m done with my morning show, voice tracking the weekend, updating the website, cutting a spot or two, maybe I can keep my job another week. My GM will not notice if I didn’t load a log into the HD-2 automation, because while we all have an HD radio, they aren’t worth the fuss. They don’t work consistently. I will buy batteries for my mp3 player at least. While 128k MP3 sounds fine to most everyone, the obsolete codec on 32-48k HD2 sounds like a poor webcast no matter the source material. The HD reception failure is frequent and abrupt and only the HD1 will fall back to noisy analog just when it’s at its worst, plagued with multipath and iboc hash. Listen to the irritation of alternating digital-analog in HD1 or digital-silence in HD2 and HD3. Tune the dial and hear all the new competition from market drop-ins, city of license moves, FM translators, hispanic music and Jesus pop. FM is now AM and is polluted with trash. To think we can just throw on some alternative programming for the kids and make it work like FM in the ’70s is ridiculous. There was a thing called hi-fi that made FM work with obscure programming and they still had problems selling it. Was it like now where radio does not promote or advertise itself except on sister stations? Back then, when the music listeners all moved to FM, we AMed it. We even made it sound worse than AM with the latest audio processing. We did promote FM on billboards after it became mainstream.

Ibiquity investors, i.e. big broadcasters, get to keep their infrastructure while jamming competition from adjacent markets and community-oriented class A stations. HD2 and HD3 stations (the stations between the stations) have essentially been granted by the FCC, without allowing new competition, for paying Ibiquity. What would two new station construction permits cost in New York? Competing applicants are avoided. All paid politics.

For now and the future we’ll play the few most recognizable songs on all channels for Arbitron. Not diversity. Not quality. Nobody from the station is even listening all weekend. We need at least some time off from doing six jobs all week. So if we don’t listen, why would the listeners? For the six analog stations running here and now the 4 hd channels and less than ten people on the programming staff, this is more like an automated factory than a creative medium. We don’t have promotion budget for our primary signal, much less for an HD2. Why make 31 flavors when you can’t even get vanilla right? Not when listeners have every type of music they can run their own jukebox without commercials. Not when web casting has much better sound and reliability. Not when the web casting is on your phone and in your dash. FM is now AM and it is time for a whole new thing and big broadcast will be out of the picture because of their greed (and huge debt for some rusty towers).

And this from a station owner:

Just read your HD article. I have a different take on what is killing HD, and I think you missed it. You see, for the first time an “industry technical standard” is being LICENSED instead of offered as “open architecture” to broadcasters.

To my knowledge, this has never happened before in the HISTORY of broadcasting. Imagine what would have happened to FM if Armstrong had wanted 25k per station and a percentage of your HD revenue instead of offering it as an open technical standard. What would have happened if David Sarnoff at RCA had tried to make the networks pay for phase modulation and color TV? Never before has this happened and the result is obvious.

No, Ibiquity is killing HD. 125k and a precentage of my revenue for my stations in Montgomery to license HD. Not over my dead body. I’ll use that money to establish a beachhead in the digital space.

I’ve already hired two web designers and a sales force, and tomorrow I will debut BuzzMontgomery.com — a local, digital town square complete with 4 custom designed, listener interactive, commercial free digital music streams (in addition to my 5 broadcast streams). This is where the future lies.

HD radio is already terminal. Ibiquity tried to put their hand in my pocket instead of licensing the receiver manufacturers. I choose not to participate in my own mugging.

HD is not going to survive unless the standard is made “open” and free. Just one broadcaster’s opinion.

RIP Ibiquity. RIP HD.

Something to think about.

The KING’s New Clothes and Other Fairy Tales

Interesting development in the Northwest. Bill Virgin, staff writer for the Tacoma (Washington) News Tribune, posted this about station KING-FM, which is switching to nonprofit:

More ominous, though, are long-term demographic and technological trends. You’re no longer limited to the local radio signals you can pick up in your car or home. With Internet streaming you can tune in radio stations from around the globe.

That is, if you’re bothering with radio at all.

Individual and portable music players as well as the wealth of video diversions delivered via cable and the Internet are carving out huge chunks of time once commanded by radio. Increasingly radio, like newspapers, is seen as an old-person’s medium.

Which makes a recent decision by venerable radio station KING-FM (98.1) fascinating to watch for what it says about the state of all types of media today – at least it’s fascinating to your business columnist, who, for 10 years, wrote a weekly column covering the local radio scene for a now-defunct Seattle newspaper. It’s a harbinger of what might be to come.

KING-FM is a rarity in several respects, a locally owned, stand-alone radio property and a commercial classical-music station when most in that format are either in the nonprofit, public-radio sector or have switched to another format.

KING-FM isn’t abandoning classical music, but it is switching to a nonprofit status, relying on listener support and commercial underwriting in much the same way that Pacific Lutheran University’s KPLU-FM (88.5) does with jazz — another niche-music format. It hopes to complete the transition by July 2011….

[Program Director Bryan] Lowe says conversations with other public-radio classical stations indicate that listener support generates about 70 percent of their revenues.

Another source would be underwriting by corporations; if you’ve listened to the National Public Radio-affiliated stations in this market (KPLU and KUOW-FM) you know that the sponsorship announcements are nearly as elaborate as commercial-media advertisements. Those sponsorships might actually prove to be more valuable if the advertisers – sorry, underwriters – sense they’re free from the clutter of commercial radio and thus getting more audience mindshare.

That KING is more than considering such a radical restructuring is indicative of radio’s challenges and the lack of definitive answers to them. Radio stations have been slashing costs by laying off long-tenured hosts, debating whether hyper-local and personality driven radio is the answer to iPods (or whether people just want announcers to get out of the way of the music) and trying to figure out if there are listeners or revenue to be found in technologies such as HD radio and streaming radio. . . .

But the radio industry should be wary of counting on technology to give audience and revenue just as it has taken away. Despite massive promotion by the radio industry, HD has yet to gain much traction with the listening public. And satellite radio, once feared as another devastating blow to terrestrial radio, proved so successful that the two companies granted national licenses had to be merged in an effort to form one viable company.

And this story from the StlToday.com website in St. Louis, about station KWMU adding a classical station on its HD-3 channel. Says writer Sarah Miller: “The bad news is that they’ll still have to buy special equipment to hear it — and it will still be difficult for local arts groups and other advertisers to reach listeners. . . .” As mentioned in an earlier posting, “HD = SD: Another Sh*tty Deal,” once again the powers-that-be seem to have little grasp of the whole story.

“It’s not unlike (HD television),” said Terrence Dupuis, the chief of broadcast operations at KWMU, “where you had to get a set-top box and an antenna to go with it.”

At present, there are no advertisements — or “underwriting opportunities,” in NPRese — on KWMU-3. That will come “eventually,” said Phil Donato, the communications director at the station. Although the announcers are based at a site of the provider, American Public Media, there will be “local breaks” to give the name of the station, given by KWMU announcers. Area arts groups will presumably be able to get their information read on those breaks.

Once again, you pay big bucks to set up an HD channel, then buy the shows for the channel from the scammers upstream — this time,  American Public Media, which is the nation’s second-largest producer and distributor of public radio programming and the largest owner and operator of public radio stations. “Presumably” local arts groups will get their information read on this channel? “Not unlike HD television”? Underwriting “opportunities” will come “eventually”? These folks are in for a rude awakening. Looks like another case of a station management drinking the NPR Kool-Aid: Siphon off the money on the local scene so you can buy into the flimflam of HD and its new world order — with the promise of dollar signs in a “presumed” future. This is what passes for business acumen in public radio.

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