Cherry-Picking Posts on HD

There are innumerable exchanges on the discussion boards, including a few containing surprising give-and-take, and not just on the heated debates that get moved to the “Take It Outside” board. On this one — entitled “Will public radio be hurt by HD the way public TV was hurt by basic cable?” — opinions range far and wide, some to suit any taste. A random cherry-picking of these posts yields interesting viewpoints, a few from those whose ideas you might not generally share:

TheBigA: In fact, most public radio members will tell you that the latest moves of converting classical stations to news have moved them to satellite, not HD. The satellite model is similar to public radio. Memberships in a public station have gone to $125 a year, and that’s about what it costs to subscribe to satellite. You get all the diverse musical offerings formerly available at public radio, plus an added benefit of Bob Edwards interviews and a few other familiar shows. Years ago, public radio stations promoted themselves by saying “radio worth paying for,” and that’s what satellite says. HD’s biggest problem is it requires people to buy new radios. Thus, even in markets where great programming options are available, HD hasn’t taken off. Why? Because diverse fringe formats aren’t going to move the sales meters in ways that we can see. Look at satellite. Over a hundred channels of commercial free music, and less than 10% of the country subscribe. Of course, HD has about 1% of the public. But there you go. Diverse fringe programming may be a motivation for some people, but it’s a small percentage of the overall population, who seem content with whatever they can get for free.

Don C: I don’t know a single person that listens to HD Radio. I think public radio will be fine.

In response to an opinion that HD hasn’t been marketed enough to gain acceptance and doesn’t have sufficiently good programming:

TheBigA: I disagree with both assertions. The HD Radio Alliance has been the #1 advertiser on commercial radio stations for the past two years. And the primary thrust of the Alliance has been to offer wider programming choices. This has been especially true for NPR stations, where stations have focused on creating programming exclusive to HD. Money is being spent, advertising is being done, manufacturers are building radios, and it hasn’t mattered. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. That is the lesson of HD Radio.

Comparing this to FM isn’t going to work, because radio has far more competition from other platforms today. People know that, so great programming isn’t the motivation it may have been 40 years ago. They can get the same content on internet or satellite radio. Plus the difference between AM and FM is far more obvious than the difference between FM and FM HD. People aren’t buying radios, and the ones they get for free don’t include HD. I just rented a brand new car for the holidays. The radio had AM/FM/XM. And the XM was paid for.

DG: Commercial HD Radio doesn’t appear to be much of a competitive threat to itself, let alone Public Radio. Case in point, the PubRadio station here is the ONLY HD station in our small market. And there’s plenty of places across the fruited plain where PubRadio is the ONLY radio, operating in places commercial groups consider too small for their margins.

amfmxm: As Big A mentioned, the HD Radio Alliance announced last week its 2011 radio campaign valued at $110 million on 650+ stations in Top 100 markets reflecting the commitment by the “C Companies” and friends to continue to beat the dead horse that is HD Radio. Yawn. I’ll also second his comment that whatever difference there may be between an FM signal and an HD signal appears lost on us within the industry as well as those in the general public expected to buy the radios.

Why? More radio stations? They already have more choices than they can track. Ask your non-radio friends and relatives to name as many stations as they can. See if any of them get past five.

Unrelated, but same thread. Those of you who think there is no underwriting money in public radio are either math-impaired or have been exposed only to lousy sales staffs. The only thing keeping commercial operators from swooping in on NPR-style programming is that the right company hasn’t thought of it, yet.

But it’s only a matter of time.

And here’s one that may be the crux of the biscuit:

Matt Parker: From all the figures I’ve seen, public radio does not survive primarily on listener donations, as you claim (nor on CPM funds as many here seem to think). The biggest chunk of revenue comes from corporate sponsors (i.e., ad revenue). No, public radio stations don’t have pay off investors. Yet many station governing boards seem to evaluate managers on their ability to generate revenue. Surplus money goes to perks, bonuses, more-better facilities and equipment and even start up costs of for-profit subsidiaries. These stations are awash in black ink and still preempt programming and hold listeners hostage for begathons. Buying stock in a broadcasting company, even with that stock price in free fall, is a much better deal. At least you get to vote for the board of directors and complain at stock holders’ meetings. If you really don’t like what management is doing, you can sue. Public radio “members” get no say at all and no rights at all (beyond not contributing again).

And yes, public radio stations do lay off workers. Never suits. I’m still not seeing a difference here, except public radio has greater snob appeal.

Overall quality? What’s that? How do you define “quality?” How do you even define “overall?”

And later, Matt adds:

Which is the tail and which is the dog in public radio? Most of public radio’s audience is in major and large markets. They provide most of NPR’s revenue — and a fair amount of national programming. They are the rule — not the exception. I’d grant that smaller public radio stations may be more “pure” and truly “listener supported.” I’ve seen the charity reports of CEOs getting incomes in the upper six figures. Brand new, fancy buildings in prime real estate. The best equipment — way beyond actual need. And enough left over to start sideline businesses: Catalog sales, commercial news networks, facility rental, restaurants, nightclubs and concert venues….

No, I wouldn’t sue. But a lot of public radio listeners are the type that would.

And my experience is public radio managements are callously and arrogantly indifferent to listeners’ wants, needs and viewpoints — in a way typical of those in the public sector who assume they know best and are doing good works, so how could any reasonable person not appreciate them?

aaronread: Well I can’t claim to have seen the financials on EVERY public radio station, but there’s about a half-dozen where I’ve seen serious numbers that aren’t generally available to the public, and maybe two dozen more where I’ve seen more generalized numbers at public meetings. I can’t recall a single one where corporate sponsorship accounted for more of the overall budget than listener donations does.

Admittedly, sometimes it depends a little on how you define it. WBUR, for example, gets about 40% of its revenue from listeners, 20% from challenge grants, and 30% from corporate underwriting (the remainder is a mishmosh that includes CPB and other federal money, revenue from NPR for their national shows, etc).  The catch is the challenge grants; sometimes those are corporations that put the money up for the challenge grant during a fundraiser. Sometimes it’s wealthy donors. Sometimes it’s foundations. But even when it’s a corporation/business, it’s not considered underwriting because the company doesn’t get the usual underwriting message on air. Granted, their name is often (not always) mentioned a lot during the fundraising pitching, but that’s all; no special message that an underwriter usually gets.

This continues for a while, making for a good read. Nothing about the effect on station budgets that HD channels have on other programming, nor on the lack of transparency in regards to management decisions in our public stations, but some interesting ideas.


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