Blind Ambition

When you look at what’s happening in Boston and Austin and New York City and Philadelphia, you’ll see a repetition of what’s gone before and what goes on today. This past June, for instance, at Minnesota Public Radio (part of a big consolidation, American Public Media Group), one Dale Connelly was thrown under the bus. The move was described in the blog “Baseball91′s Weblog,” in a piece entitled “Dale Connelly Composted, in High Definition,” a lamentation of interesting prose:

It ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings. She sang yesterday. About Dale Connelly.

After 34 years, with Minnesota Public Radio. Dale Connelly will be leaving KNOW, 91.1 FM. The last day was June 4th. Friday. On Radio Heartland. On digital radio. Where ever that is. And re-broadcasted on “Radio Heartland” on Saturday evening. On KNOW, 91.1 FM. And so it goes, MPR announced Wednesday. With the ax. In the conservatory.

It was on December 12, 2008. When “The Morning Show” on Minnesota Public Radio was first chopped up. The end had come to an institutions that I had loved, as part of the routine. Even then there there had been rioting in Greece. There seemed to be a question about how moral every day life would become. Without “The Morning Show.”

“The Morning Show” was not exactly canceled by MPR, upon Tom Keith’s retirement. Tom Keith was the sound-effects guy for “A Prairie Home Companion.” Connelly was to continue with an online version. To try to still affect the morning sound. With his soft quiet style. Or so the plan. Not quite put out to pasture. To the quiet pasture.

“The Morning Show” started 41 years and 6 months ago. This was where Garrison Keillor got his start, and moved on. That was the end, unless you had high definition radio. “Radio Heartland” was the morphing of “The Morning Show.” High definition radio. Some kind of recycling proposal. On the internet. Where the Prairie Home met the euphemistic pasture. Wherever that could be found. High definition radio had never had been picked up by sports bars.

The morning kindness. Dale Connelly and Tom Keith (with a stage name of Jim Ed Poole) had blended music and personality, before new fangled coffee companies ever thought of blending. When a good share of Minesotans only knew Mrs. Olson’s Folger’s coffee.

Dealing with change. Dale Connelly, “part of the fabric of what built MPR,” had not quite been put out to pasture. He was composted, with all the other coffee grounds. Minnesota Public Radio’s own private stash. Digitally removed, in less than 18 months. In the view of MPR, with the “cash for clunkers” program, it now was really over for Connelly’s 1976 gig. It was hard finding the old parts, on the internet highway.

It was now the end. The announcement touched on the aim for a sustainability which was not achieved. Though high definition radio would play on. With “Radio Heartland” producer, Mike Pengra, picking the music. Valerie Arganbright, senior director for MPR membership, wrote the announcement. “While we’ll be able to continue providing the wonderful music that you expect from Radio Heartland, we have cancelled Dale Connelly’s weekday morning show.”

So as the music heard on MPR’s Radio Heartland plays on, this would be the end Dale’s involvement with Radio Heartland. His own sustainability had not been achieved.

And so it goes. MPR announced Wednesday the end. The green movement in the new paradigm of public radio. The Current. With the ax. In the conservatory. After their most recently completed fund-drive. Perhaps a part of their own version of going green. While promoting composting and sustainability, in Minnesota. After acquiring that radio station in Northfield, but not being able to sustain the familiar on-air voices. More rioting was expected in Greece.

On the MPR website itself, the comments section ran a bit more unforgiving:

cb: Just one more shameful act on the part of a clueless management. There are so many substandard announcers/music hosts and broadcasters who should be let go and they choose to eliminate the best? Probably because his salary was too high. Why not fire Garrison who is old and doddering? We don’t plan on supporting a station that treats the best of the best in this way. And we hope Dale finds another venue to share his wonderful skills and wit. When he does we’ll be there.

Henny: MPR has indeed become mainstream. MPR, as in: Mainstream, Predictable, Routine. MPR, as in: Mundane, Pedestrian, Regressive.

First In the Loop. Now Dale Connelly. By sending rare, inventive and quirky programming to Siberia (aka: the web), and demanding Orwellian audience standards that cannot be met, MPR reveals its true self, that of an impersonal media conglomerate. This is not your mother’s MPR but an emerging Clear Channel of public broadcasting, a hydra headquartered in Minnesota. Doesn’t that make us all just proud? How ironic that critics claim MPR content skews liberal when the company itself becomes increasingly corporate, its public face at odds with its internal practice. “In the public interest.” Yes indeed. How long is the public going to keep buying this b.s.?

This is the new reality at our “public” radio stations, as they cast about for answers to flagging fortunes, making every wrong move — witness the boneheaded massive investment in HD radio (43% of those in service are at public radio stations, thanks to your largesse through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) — and only serving to alienate the prime listeners with their callous, cavalier attitude towards what has gone before. Remember, the average age of listeners of public radio is 54, with 90% over the age of 35. As station after station lusts after the elusive numbers generated by Arbitron’s Purple People Meter, wise old hands in the business chide them for their miscalculations. A few choice words from Jerry Del Colliano in his Inside Music Media are in order, speaking of the bean counters chasing after the formula that seems to be succeeding in commercial radio:

[S]hort playlists have been a staple of radio program directors to get ratings. When you sell out the listener for the audience research company’s methodology to win ratings, you wind up with unhappy listeners.

Don’t look now but the radio industry is doing it again – pandering to People Meter drive-by ratings knowing full well that listeners can find plenty of music on their own online and at the iTunes store.

In his own inimitable style, Jerry D. goes beyond ratings, taking the consolidators to task for all their grandiose schemes at empire building:

A solid FM brand does not need to be streaming on the Internet. Period. The very successful WBEB-FM, Philadelphia owner Jerry Lee stopped streaming because it was a poor return on investment (i.e., royalties). And, he was only picking up a very small amount of listening to add to his number one ratings. Over a year since Lee pulled the plug and WBEB is still number one in the Philly PPM. No stream.

Study a guy like Lee and I do because he was my first employer in radio. Lee in essence has become a mega millionaire many times over with essentially one radio station — 101.1 — not even a great signal. In fact, a lousy one. Lee flirted with owning WFIL-AM after its heyday and then dumped it. He returned to one FM station — over-the-air — and a license to print money even today. Even in a recession. Even while everyone scrambles around to dabble in new media. How could that be?

As he notes about radio listeners today: “In the real world, they are casual listeners at best just as station owners have in fact become casual programmers cutting live and local programming for financial savings,” so enamored of the “the high cume/high rotation/PPM hit radio format.”

This is what passes for “tradition” today at your public radio station as they seek to regain the glamor of a bygone era. At KUT in Austin, for one, an ambitious management team wanted badly to wear the big-boy pants, fawning over the corporate dictates for HD radio, an expansive local news agenda, professional fundraising and public relations, and, of course, PPM nirvana. Lee Cooke, one of three former mayors on the original saveKUTaustin committee, opined that Messrs. Vanderwilt and Mendenhall were just playing to the band leaders, set only on staying long enough to carve a reputation for calculated efficiency and then moving on to a higher-paying position elsewhere.

As with their fellow public radio czars elsewhere, their reach has far exceeded their grasp — of reality. In the end, pandering to the least common denominator in music is simply mining for fool’s gold.

Viva College Radio

Joe Cavanagh, a deejay with UConn’s WHUS with an interest in Celtic music, sent Jeff Boudreau the following email in support of independent college radio:

A funny thing happened on my way home this evening. I tuned to perhaps the most widely heard public radio presence in lower New England, WFCR. There I heard a promo for the locally-produced Classical Music offerings of the station. My immediate thought was: Isn’t the WFCR broadcasting formula (daytime classical, evenings jazz, overnight classical, and the standard ‘national’ newsy offerings somewhere in between) followed, by and large, in almost every ‘public’ radio station? Then I thought: Why do they even bother with local programming? They might as well match the universal newsy hours (Morning Edition and ATC) with an airing of centrally produced Classical Music and  Jazz Music offerings.

In my view many stations transformed from the college kind to the public kind are beginning to look, in terms of programming behaviour, like commercial stations. I’m serious on this. Just two days ago I had a conversation decrying the obvious pressures public TV stations are under to expand the sponsor creep from mere logos to full-blown commercials! It doesn’t stop there. Sponsorship of public broadcasting seems to be in decline and the inevitable response of the stations has to be more, and more frequent, fund raising interruptions. Like many radio listeners I choose to listen to internet streams rather than over-the-air broadcasts. It is the content that is valued, not the delivery means! Unique content is the reason why many outside of the college environment choose their nearby student-run station over many if not most commercial stations.

I believe it is very short-sighted to drop college stations into the maw of  ‘public’ radio. Most successful college stations offer something of unique value and interest to their listeners. That local or regional identity will disappear as the station becomes just another host for the uniformity of NPR/CPB-sourced programming. Witness WFCR, which used to have a very diverse schedule, and the many other former college stations which have similarly restricted their programme content. If the NPR/CPB footprprint descends everywhere won’t it be both more convenient and more economical, eventually, for HQ to simply stream one signal to the internet and shut down operations everywhere else?

Don’t give up the struggle for local radio..

joe

A good read on the subject is this 2005 post on Slate.com, detailing the importance of this form of individual expression — the non-commercial station. In it, author Douglas Wolk notes:

But the great thing about college radio is that it doesn’t need to care about being “important” or popular — which is why its fans are still drawn to it. Kingmaking power or no, it’s pretty much the only kind of terrestrial radio that still operates according to its music directors and even its DJs’ personal aesthetics. College radio is local and individual, and the digital audio revolution has barely slowed it down. You can download songs from a dorm-mate or someone halfway across the world (or, all right, an actual online music store), but that only works if you already know what you want to hear. The point of college radio is that you get to hear things you didn’t already know about. And that means it’s one of the last few parts of American media that still has the power to surprise.

Engineer Humor

The engineering wags on radio-info.com discussion board are having a field day with the latest blurb on Inside Radio:

Carmine5: This blurb from Inside Radio:

“HD Radio receivers will take a step toward the iPod and smartphone over the next few months as the first units go on sale offering a visual element tied to the on-air product. It should open doors for programmers and sales teams. It comes as the number of receivers in the market now tops three million.”

Yup, I can just see the thundering herd of eager consumers, credit cards in hand, busting down the doors of their local Best Buys eager to purchase these new display equipped HD Radios.

Savage: A “visual element??”  Huh Well, I guess….why not?  The “audio element” isn’t working, at least not for many if not most.  (From posts on this board, it appears even the vaunted Insignia low-bucks portable has quality and performance issues.)

The number of receivers “now tops three million?”  Uh-huh. And the number of receivers in daily use is probably about three hundred.

Chuck: I think they’ve been beaten to the punch by streaming radio stations.  A lot of stations, including mine, offer free iphone apps right now.  I’m sure others will follow.  You don’t have to be in HD to do that. I can’t imagine why anyone would buy a new radio to see graphics along with your radio ads . . . Oh, wait. Isn’t that called TV?  You can do that on your smart phone too . . .

Carmine5: Here again it’s HD Radio as an also-ran technology.

If Ibiquity is envisioning this feature as something to simulate an iPod experience, they’re about 9 years too late.  If they see this as a way to show display ads that stations can monetize, well Apple has something similar with iAd and, so far, it’s been a flop. And if they’re thinking of doing mobile TV, well I don’t see how FM stations would have sufficient bandwidth to do that while retaining the core services of an analog signal and digital main signal (oh, that’s right I forgot.  HD Radio can miraculously turn 200 kHz of bandwidth into 400 kHz).

Savage: Yep: it’s like the old standup line:

Q: How can you quickly make a million bucks in HD Radio? A: Invest 3 million (fire “RIMSHOT” on rattling old grey Fidelipac).  Cheesy

Bill DeFelice: I think it can all be summed up quite simply ….

Q: The Next Killer App for HD Radio?

A: The OFF SWITCH

From all the people I speak with on a weekly basis, from students to hobbyists to radio enthusiasts, HD Radio isn’t on their radar. Those looking for a variety of content look toward the internet. Those looking for news and information look to AM, usually on an existing and non-HD radio (do you really need HD for voice?). DX chasing hobbyists on either AM or FM have nothing nice to say about HD Radio. Many of these people will not miss HD Radio when it fails and some will actually look forward to the end result of less interference to other existing analog stations.

Carmine5: Ouch, Bill and Mr. Savage!  Cheesy

And I don’t mean to come down on HD Radio for this idea, it’s harmless enough.  It’s just so . . . “me too” and not very innovative.  But who knows how it will be used in future receivers.

Bill has the right idea. More and more owners of HD Radios and engineers are asking for a defeat switch right on the front bezel of the radio so that digital decoding can be cancelled when reception becomes a problem. The next killer app for HD Radio? A kill switch.

A Little DAB’ll Do You

Grant Goddard is fighting the digital-radio battle in England, and in a highly literate manner (link on right). Sometimes, though the subject might not be terribly germane to the struggle here, his blog is worth the read just for his style. He’s a good read even if you don’t totally understand the subject. In a recent entry, “Having DAB cake and eating it: temper tantrums in the Global Radio playpen,” here, there are some definite parallels, as he takes on the monied interests pushing DAB in England:

Most of us mere mortals spend our lives trying to persuade people to give us what we want. We have to persuade our parents to buy us a new toy, persuade a potential employer to offer us a job, persuade the bank manager to give us a business loan. To make these things happen, we are taught to always be careful what we say – “Mind your P’s and Q’s”, our parents told us.

For the wealthy, there is little need for self-control over what comes out of their mouths. Whereas our only power derives from what is in our head, the power of the wealthy derives from what is in their offshore bank accounts. “P’s and Q’s” are barely a necessity when a platinum credit card can be flashed. Money obviates the need for persuasion. So the wealthy can pretty much say what they like, knowing that ‘money talks’ on their behalf, and it certainly seems to talk more loudly than any persuasion that the rest of us can muster.

This week we saw an outburst in The Guardian that would have done any rich, spoilt brat proud. But no, this was the founder and CEO of Global Group, Ashley Tabor, which owns Global Radio, the UK’s largest commercial radio group, demanding that the BBC “put their money where their mouth is” and invest more in DAB radio.

You see, the Brit version of iBiquity is demanding that the government mandate DAB acceptance so it can reap the profits.

Was I the only one baffled by Ashley’s line of argument? Although commercial interests own the lion’s share of DAB in the UK, the largest commercial radio group is insisting here that the cost of fixing DAB to make it work properly is the “sole responsibility” of the publicly funded BBC. Furthermore, Global Radio will only launch new commercial digital radio stations, from which it must expect to make a profit, once the BBC has underwritten the huge cost of making the DAB system fit for purpose using public funds. I remain baffled.

This was by no means the first time, and will probably not be last, that Global Radio has talked rubbish publicly about DAB radio. In its PR, Global paints itself as a driving force behind digital radio and is constantly demanding that DAB switchover be implemented as quickly as possibly. However, in practice, Global has shown no interest in developing DAB as a replacement for FM, having sold off the majority of its DAB licences. This hypocrisy has been documented on previous occasions in this blog, during which time Global’s attitude towards the BBC has shifted from ‘carrot’ to ‘stick’. History speaks volumes.

Grant then proceeds to slice and dice the blather that passes for discourse from the “haves” in Brit DAB, all in an entirely engaging way. Well worth the read even if you don’t fully understand the particulars.

Just Like FM?

On the blog Engineering Radio, Paul Thurst debunks the prevalent iBiquity swag that HD radio’s slow acceptance mirrors that of FM radio in its advent years ago. As Struble’s Flying Circus is wont to say, “Currently, HD Radio is experiencing ‘growing pains’ and the occasional ‘bump in the road.’” Paul goes to great lengths, in a table, to compare the inception of the two. His conclusion:

The FM roll out in the late forties and early fifties is vastly different from the HD Radio rollout in the zero zeros. Due to fear of competition and patent disputes, RCA in conjunction with the FCC did all they could to squash the new technology. That is why FM radio took so long to be accepted by the general public.  For those not versed with the history of FM development and FM broadcasting in the US, see Empire of the Air, by Tom Lewis. See also: Edwin H. Armstrong.  It is a good read for those radio obsessed.

HD Radio is failing because the consumer is not buying it, I see little to change their mind.

An interesting read also is the comments section, where one HD apologist attempts to refute Paul’s points (saying “My goodness, you know so little and you are so easily misled. Every one of those 10 items is either partially or totally false”), but Paul turns around the argument, refuting the refutations and leading of by saying, “My goodness, you sound like Bob Struble. Actually, I’ll address your points as you presented them.” And Greg Smith adds the following:

[Commenter] George Morrison is probably the same HD Radio troll (SMS) that posts like crazy in ba.broadcast, alt.radio.digital, and rec.radio.shoirtwave – just ignore him, as he has the same “signature” on other posts. John Higdon has called his bluff many times, but SMS refuses to post his “credentials.” I’ve tracked him down to Baltimore, MD, whuch is close to Columbia, MD, iBiquity Headquarters. He may be a laid-off iBiquity employee. Just like Bob Stuble, repeating the same lies over and over, eventually people start believing the lies.

And as J. Aegerter added:

Jamming things down people’s throats never seems to work, except in the record business. And when the FCC brought in an Economist as a Commissioner, along with the phaseout of engineering assistants to the Commissioners, radio engineering at the agency took another nosedive. From that point on, the FCC was all about money and the economy. Any new “widget” to make people spend money and keep the economy humming was the brainchild. And what happened to the FCC as “Spectrum Guardians”? Money and the economy was now paramount! Electromagnetic interference? What is that?

Unvarnished Vandy

Sharon Vegas Selby has sent along this site as a repository of information on the threatened sale of Vanderbilts’s WRVU in Nashville, the Music City. The Facebook pages have fallen prey to the Facebook Funk of the past couple of days, so they’re hard to access, but this website contains the latest in bean counter spin and disinformation, as well as the unvarnished facts of the matter.

A Farewell to Arbs

This post, entitled “So Long, Arbitron,” on a blog written by D.C. lawyer Chris Reed hasn’t got much good to say about Arbitron, the rating service that now even non-comms use in their frenzy to find a winning formula in radio’s declining years:

This morning’s Inside Radio features several stories about small market broadcasters dropping Arbitron’s ratings services. Citing rising costs, falling revenues, lousy sample sizes, the perrennial errors and restatements, and inadequate coverage of minority populations, a handful of broadcasters — namely those in smaller markets — are beginning to sell inventory based on results alone. And according to several of the quoted broadcast executives, it’s working.

It begs the question: did anyone ever really care about local ratings? National advertisers that buy local time probably used the numbers to allocate their spend across markets, but generally speaking, have always been of relatively little value to local account executives. Aside from the most basic ratings figures, like cume, which can be explained relatively easily using plain language, small, local advertisers — even the sophisticated multi-unit businesses — don’t have time to understand the ins and outs of the ratings. And frankly, they don’t care. If they can’t buy a flight and see some results, then the numbers are irrelevant.

Chris’ conclusion?

As Arbitron fades from relevance in the smaller markets, one wonders how long it will be before they disappear completely.  Even with the new PPM technology, Arbitron appears ill-equipped to measure Internet radio, and really, does anyone really need it? Internet-based radio is measured by virtue of its transmission through monitored networks, and it’s a fairly simple matter to link that up with basic demographic information through the use of cookies.  Sure, cookie monitoring is controversial and may have accuracy problems of its own, but compared with the sample-size issues that Arbitron faces (which were only exacerbated in major markets as a result of the PPM launch), I bet the numbers are still far more reflective of actual listening patterns.

So, farewell Arbitron. It’s been fun, but it seems as though you’ve overstayed your welcome.

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