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 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.


One Response

  1. Much of the HD channel programming is considered “niche formats,” as Bob Struble pointed out in one of his “monthly” columns, and claimed that these formats are showing up in PPM ratings. Harvard Business Review pointed out that niche programing is largely a failure: What is happening is that some of the HD channels are being rebroadcast on FM translators and online streaming, showing up in PPM ratings. Ratings are NOT based on over-the-air listening to the HD channels via HD radios. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some “fudged” numbers coming out of Arbitron concerning HD Radio. I was surprised to see this post from Paragon Media Strategies, a huge backer of HD Radio, concerning NPR and niche formats:

    “PPM Realities Could Threaten Niche/Passion Formats”

    “There’s a shockwave resonating among Public Radio stations as the Portable People Meter (PPM) ratings roll in. The dynamics of this shockwave may reverberate to any station that traditionally has relied on a loyal, passionate audience that registers long Time Spent Listening (TSL) to overcome a relatively smaller Cume base . . . Many Public as well as commercial niche/passion formatted radio station’s ratings have seen their Rankers drop precipitously.”

    Because the IBOC HD channels block adjacent-channels, the HD Radio stations may be able to pick up fringe listeners from these blocked stations. There will never be enough HD radios in circulation to register PPM ratings. I have summarized all of this in a post, here:

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