Not a Playlist

A story on the Austin American-Statesman website about KDRP in Dripping Springs, the low-power FM station that picked up longtime DJ stalwart (and national award-winner) Larry Monroe — unceremoniously dumped from shows on “public” station KUT — drew some kudos from his fan base. The story, “Nonprofit KDRP radio in Dripping Springs gains following,” by Patrick George, traces the history of the nonprofit venture. But it also featured some insight by Larry into the KUT “playlist” that’s not a playlist, if you listen to station management — who’ve gone gaga over AAA music to the extent that the songs played there are often indistinguishable from those on five or six other local (commercial) stations. As Larry explained:

I am very happy to be at KDRP where I have complete artistic freedom. KUT is now a AAA format station. Before I retired KUT required music hosts to play four rotation tracks each hour. Rotation tracks were strictly enforced from a group of new cds selected by the music department and only the recommended tracks from those cds could be played. In addition three “core artists” had to be played each hour and I had to play two tracks from cds from the “new” rack. Nine of the 12 or so tracks I played each hour had station fingerprints on them. There was no way to do artistic radio with that format, the best I could do was make little puzzles. Add to that an incredible amount of scheduled “clutter” and station self aggrandizing promotion. No matter what they tell you KUT program hosts do not have the freedom to choose what they play. At KDRP I do have that freedom and I intend to make the best radio programs I can for our ever-growing listening audience. Thank you KDRP.

On KDRP (link on right). Larry has revived the free-form shows “Blue Monday” and the “Phil Music Program” eviscerated on Austin’s “public” radio station, moves that, along with others, triggered the saveKUTaustin protest movement. Larry is now free of the moneyed suits — the best and the brightest — whose hot pursuit of Arbitron numbers, corporate support, and, not inconsquentially, their own fame and fortune pace the consolidators’ rush to the mundane, belying the clarion call of the movement espoused on the website 170millionamericans.org — “to ensure universal access to high-quality non-commercial programming that educates, informs, enlightens, and enriches the public, with a particular focus on the needs of underserved audiences, including children and minorities” (see “Having It Both Ways,” here).

“Austin Slim” added one interesting comment to the Statesman article:

“Our main purpose is to serve the community” says it all. Three cheers for KDRP! The community thanks KDRP for hiring Larry Monroe. And don’t think it went unnoticed that KUT, while getting “best station” in the Chronicle poll, only had two DJs in the top five: Paul Ray and John Aielli. KUT management is still playing to a youth market that isn’t even listening to the radio.

What’s interesting about it is that the two DJs from KUT who made the top five? They were the other two free-form stalwarts whose hours were slashed under the current regime.

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Valley Borg

The Radio-Inf0.com discussion board is alive with talk that public radio station KCSN in LA has joined the AAA family, competing against The Sound (100.3-FM), having dumped classical music. Not everybody on the site is thrilled:

justpassingthrough: Yes! Another station to play Kings Of Leon “Use Somebody”….I haven’t heard that song on the radio in….minutes…

ChannelFlipper: As a non-commercial station, what will be most interesting, particularly to them, isn’t how they impact the other stations, but will AAA listeners step up to the plate and contribute more dollars than classical audience did come pledge drive time.

As far as the Sound goes, it is a classic example of proving David right and everyone else who argues with him wrong. By tightening the playlist like a blood-stopping turnicate and playing only the most tedious tracks of the classic rock library, they have been able to steadily increase the ratings. See, it is a simple relationship really. Station gets steadily worse, ratings go steadily up. They don’t even pretend to play Kings of Leon anymore.

Buckdthead: This is a huge threat to stations that are trying to divvy up the Joni Mitchell fans that live in the valley.

Management did respond on the site, saying improvements would come along with some paid personalities — following a pledge drive in May.

Noncom Borg, Part II

Watch out, San Francisco. There’s already blood in the water and a hungry LA “public” radio station is looking north. According to this post on rbr.com, another LA noncom is looking to expand, hedging its bets against a future fed defunding of public radio. Looking to join the ranks of the consolidators is Southern California Public Radio:

Size is being seen as a hedge against a drought of government funding by strong public broadcasting companies, and one of those looking to grow is Southern California Public Radio. The group is hoping to create a mini-network of O&O stations that will provide a huge audience and contribution base.

According to a Bloomberg report, the group is on the hunt for noncom stations to buy. It is flagshipped by KPCC-FM Pasadena, in the Los Angeles market, and already has two other stations. Its goal is to get enough more signals to stretch its coverage zone from San Diego to the south all the way up to Santa Barbara to the north.

SCPR benefits already from well-to-do benefactors who have recently kicked in minor fortunes to build new studios for KPCC. Further, while much of the journalism industry is reeling from job losses, SCPR is looking at more than doubling its reporting staff.

It also can pull in significant cash for “noncommercial commercials,” the 15-second underwriting announcements that get a company’s name out there will helping to fund the station. According to Bloomberg, SCPR is already able to pull in $650 for a quarter of a minute, and a larger listener base will only take that number higher.

The strong philanthropic support could help SCPR acquire signals – and the fact that the stations are in the less-expensive noncommercial band, may be licensed to shoestring non-profit entities that may be sweating out an uncertain future, all against the backdrop of a general station trading market in which pricing has come down to earth, make the SCPR plan look very attainable.

RBR-TVBR observation: Will defunding public broadcasting bring the consolidation of the noncommercial sector and new unwanted competition for commercial broadcasters for corporate promotional money? As we noted earlier, almost half of those responding to an RBR-TVBR survey see this as a possible unintended consequence of defunding. There is no telling how this will play out, no matter what happens in Congress.

Jack Hannold passed along this post on Tom Taylor’s newsletter item on SCPR:

Southern California Public Radio gets really aggressive.

Aggressive with content and local news, planning to expand from 42 reporters to 100. And with station acquisitions. Bloomberg BusinessWeek has the story about the Pasadena-based operation that aspires to build a regional “megastation” from San Diego all the way up to Santa Barbara. The current three-station network based at KPCC (89.3) reaches up to 14 million people. The goal is 25 million. Ambitious Board Chairman Gordon Crawford says “If we can buy a station, we will. Where we can’t, we’ll build translators to boost our signal.” He calls it “a new business model for public radio” — though Alan Chartock at Albany’s Northeast Public Radio and some other pubcasters have also created regional empires. Bloomberg BusinessWeek says KPCC’s :15 [15-second] underwriting announcements are going for $650 a pop, and those plus the announcements on the various online properties supply 42% of the $15.8 million annual budget for Southern California Public Radio, run by President Bill Davis. Remember that ultimately, SCPR has ancestral roots that stretch back to Minnesota.

Steel Town Runaround

The Facebook site for the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, Action United for Jazz, featured the following open letter addressing the lack of transparency on the part of the new ownership “group” at WDUQ — which includes, of course, a new wing of Public Radio Capital (founded for the express purpose of acquisition):

From the desk of Action United for Jazz:

When WDUQ was put up for sale, employees and community supporters formed Pittsburgh Public Media to purchase the station and preserve the programming. The future of jazz seemed assured. WDUQ is the best run, most supported and most listened to public station in Pittsburgh and the Tri-State Area. Who better to run the station than the people who built it into a great community asset?

Why then did Duquesne University turn its back on loyal employees and their own community and choose a group led by Public Radio Capital to buy the station? PRC is in the business of enriching PRC. They have NO INTEREST IN PITTSBURGH OR ITS PEOPLE! Carpetbaggers is the applicable term for them.

WYEP is the local “face” on this deal and was called a “successful operator of an independent public radio station.” The truth is now clear that they are not.

By simply looking at the data produced annually by the respected non-profit evaluator “Charity Navigator,” anyone can plainly see that WYEP not only does not have a good track record, it has an abysmal track record of managing the finances entrusted to it by its members, its underwriters, and the federal government. Among 88 public media organizations ranked this year by Charity Navigator, WYEP ranked 83rd in an overall financial evaluation of its efficiency. In fact, their management ranked in the bottom 10 percent in all but one category. WYEP sounds great on the air, but they are just barely hanging on to their station. This deal may actually kill two stations!

We are faced with the prospect that the Jazz and local news that has made WDUQ unique will be discarded to serve the purposes of a group looking to profit from our loss. Why did Duquesne take a bid of a half million dollars less than what was offered by the people who actually built the station’s success? It’s clear they were misled. Why, and by whom?

We are the public and we demand transparency from those involved here.

Low Power FM: The Power for the Future?

On July 2nd, 2009, the faithful fans of KUT-FM’s long-time DJ Larry Monroe tuned in to hear his world-renowned free-form music program The Phil Music Show (Phil Music being a fictitious DJ who never showed up, leaving Larry to “stand in”). But instead of Larry there was a new DJ and a new program, filled with faceless middle of the road AOR programming. KUT management issued a lot of excuses for the change, and the fans went thru a lot of protests trying to get Larry’s shows back on the air (he also had an award-winning blues show, Blue Monday, axed at the same time), and a Facebook support group was started to those ends. The shows were never reinstated and the Facebook support page eventually gave birth to this site and our accompanying Facebook group, both dedicated to shining a light on these same types of issues nationwide.

But now, hallelujah, Larry and both his shows are back on the air! Did KUT’s managers come to their collective senses? Did the loyal fans storm the communications building with pitchforks & torches? Actually, nothing quite so drastic nor as archaic. Instead it looks more & more like it might be the future dawning for the well-thought-out local programming once solidly in the domain of public radio.

At the end of February 2011 Larry made the announcement that he would be returning to the airwaves on KDRP (http://www.kdrplive.org/ ) a nonprofit low power FM community station out of Dripping Springs, TX, a suburb of Austin.  He has his old time slots back on Monday & Thursdays and complete artistic control of his programming, something that was missing the last few years at KUT. But the question does hang in the air: Is such a move a step down for such a legendary figure as Larry Monroe? To really come to grips with that I think a closer look at low power FM (LPFM) as well as community radio is in order.

According to the FCC, LPFM is defined as stations authorized for non-commercial educational broadcasting only (no commercial operations) operating with an effective radiated power of 100 watts or less, with maximum facilities of 100 watts ERP at 30 meters antennae height (http://www.fcc.gov/mb/audio/lpfm/index.html). For those of us technologically challenged, that translates as “you can’t hear it from here.” KDRP lists several small Texas Hill Country communities as being in their signal area as well as “South Austin,” but I would say that individual results will definitely vary. I live in what is considered central Austin and I can’t hear a peep thru my better-than-average home system, have the same results in my car. But I haven’t missed a moment of Larry’s return to the airwaves. The reason for that, of course, is live streaming on the internet. Or, for the ever-growing number of people attached at the waist to their smartphones, there is, as they say, an app for that. So while Larry may be sitting in the control booth down in Dripping Springs, you can listen to his shows here in Central Austin, down in Central America, over in Central France, anywhere that the internet streams lively. Basically, everywhere with a spark of electricity. But since internet radio has been around for a while, a person could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing new to look at here, so let’s take a side step for a moment to look at the community radio aspect of things.

Community radio is generally defined as stations that are owned, operated, and driven by the communities they serve. They are also nonprofit and, perhaps most importantly, they do not accept taxpayer funding from the government. They depend totally on donations from the public and are almost always small low-powered stations such as KDRP. I say “most importantly” due mainly to the current tempest blowing through the country concerning taxpayer funding of NPR, the provider of an ever-increasing amount of programming to the once “public” stations such as KUT, WGBH, or any number of other stations across the country. And to some, one of the biggest destroyers of local programming in existence. But that existence may be on life support right now. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party seems to have made the funding of public broadcasting their cause célèbre lately — just last week the U.S. House voted to defund NPR even tho the Senate had already indicated they would not even take up the issue. But with conservatives feeling the wind at their backs, you can bet this is just the opening salvo. The results of the 2012 elections may well determine the survival of NPR, and any station beholden to them may well find themselves in big trouble. But the little guys, the community-supported LPFM stations, won’t even notice it. Or, in fact, it may well boost their donations as people decide to leave the drab remnants of their old public stations.

So what we have now is a widely renowned DJ, with a worldwide following, broadcasting on a locally funded station with a broadcast range of only a few miles. Except of course for that internet connection, which takes his work to the four corners of the globe. How is  a life-long radio fan to digest such a strange blend of little & big? I can only speak for myself, of course, and I have to admit that at first I had my doubts about such arrangements. Part of that goes back to my original issues with the public stations: I felt that I had been investing in public radio for years only to have the new breed of station managers slam the door in my face. To let up on them for even a second seems too much like admitting defeat. And part of it is my personal belief that only over-the-air broadcasting is true radio; satellite and internet radio seem like odd mutations. But after much thought I’ve decided that maybe this is the future of radio, the perfect alloy of the new and the old. Though KDRP’s actual signal strength is small, Larry Monroe is now capable of reaching a larger audience than Wolfman Jack could only dream of on the old “border radio” mega-stations. And at the same time, anyone spinning the dial down in that Hill Country sweet spot can find him coming out of the speakers with no special equipment and no monthly service charges.

And for me that is the true magic of radio, the idea of new worlds suddenly coming thru that little box. I grew up on the plains of West Texas and remember vividly sitting up late at night twisting the dial of an old radio my mother had given me and hearing things I had never heard before. It made me aware of the larger world around me and nurtured my love of music in all its many forms. Hopefully some night, 10-year-olds in Dripping Springs may be doing the same and hear Larry going from Howlin’ Wolf to Robert Cray to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and those same doors will open for them.

But I am an old man now, and a radio purist at heart. Which if nothing else means I could well be totally wrong. So I am posting this, hoping for some input from our readers. Is community-funded LPFM the dawning of a new future? Or is it a low-rent compromise that we are embracing rather than holding our ground on public radio? All of us here at this site are long-term supporters of public radio; it’s in our name. . . . And I am sure we will want to continue to take the fight to the powers-that-be in the public radio forum. After all, when the dust settles on the current government funding flap, the money grubbers may well hightail it out of town and we’ll get our public stations back to restore to their former glory. But personally I like more and more the idea of starting over — smaller, yet larger.

So let us hear from you. Are there similar stories out there? Is community-supported LPFM a red herring for the fans of public radio? You can be certain that this site will continue our pursuit of those who would twist the true mission of public radio stations to their own desires, but it is my belief that LPFM is going to be filling the gap for quality niche programming more and more going into the future.

Before closing I feel that I should also give a shout out to the good folks over at the Prometheus Radio Project (website: http://www.prometheusradio.org/, Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Prometheus-Radio-Project/12921391882). They have really been carrying the water on LPFM as well as bringing affordable radio technology to communities all over the world. They are well worth checking out and supporting, a true grassroots organization. It was their hard work and dedication that brought about the passing of the Local Community Radio Act that President Obama signed in January of this year. Many kudos and our hats off to them!

Hope to be hearing from you soon!

— Rev Jim

Little Numbers

The goal at KBCS in Seattle back when we started this blog a year ago read, “The stated intent of these changes is to create a more consistent sound so that listeners will stay tuned longer throughout the day.” So is it working out well for them? Not so much. The latest Arbitron ratings for the station limped along at a 0.1 AGH, trailing several Christian, Regional Mexican, and all-talk stations — and whumped by jazz station KPLU (which scored a 3.1), a music dumped by KBCS in its remake. (Listings are last three, in this order — Holiday 2010, January 2011, February 2011 — with AQH% and Cume for each.):

0.1    31,600    0.1    35,500    0.1    23,400

In Detroit, WDET has also struggled in the ratings.

0.7   173,400    0.7    167,500   0.7   138,100

In Boston, ‘GBH still lags behind WBUR, which also is talk-talk NPR. WUMB? Way down there:

1.2   258,800   1.7   269,200    1.6    256,200

WBUR’s numbers: 3.1    416,800    4.0    485,900    3.7    458,800

WUMB’s numbers:  0.3    55,200    0.4    56,200    0.5    47,200

The Tipping Point

Jack Hannold sent along some links with some linkage to boot — signs that HD radio teeters on extinction, despite fervid attempts through the use of translators to monetize. Somehow.

Based on Google Analytics, the folks at Harker Research, a radio consulting company, think that “HD” radio’s best days – such as they were! — are behind it. Here are two quotes from “Has HD Radio Reached a Tipping Point?” — the March 24 post on Harker’s “Radio InSights” blog:

  1. . . . HD Radio has already reached a tipping point, a tip not toward success, but instead toward oblivion.
  2. As an aside, HD channels are showing some signs of life in Arbitron, apparently fueled by 250-watt FM translator simulcasts. [Emphasis added.]

I think that management at every station needs to read this piece — not only before deciding whether to waste any more money by investing in a new transmitter in order to increase digital power, but even before deciding whether to keep wasting electricity by operating “HD” at all, when multi-casting could be continued with FM Extra. (The finals of an “HD” transmitter can be re-biased to more energy-efficient “Class C” operation so that the investment in the transmitter wouldn’t be a total loss, but the transmitter would then be incapable of “HD” operation.)

Personally, I was gratified to see a consulting firm like Harker picking up on what I’ve been saying for the past 2½  years about the use of analog translators being the only way for an HD-2 or -3 to get over-the-air listeners (as opposed to internet listeners).

There’s a history of this kind of translator abuse going back to at least 2008.  See this, bottom of page 2:

Neat trick: Cumulus is using an HD-2 channel to feed an FM translator.

The FCC rules say you must supply a translator from “a station” — so does an HD-2 signal (say, of Cumulus-owned WNNK, Harrisburg) qualify as a station? The FCC staff batted that one around like a beach ball at Ocean City, MD, but decided to let it pass, informally. Here’s the history: Cumulus previously got permission, via STA, to supply its urban AC “Touch” format based at WTCY (1400) to an in-city translator at 95.3. It’s been marketing the station as “Touch 95.3” and the signal (60 watts at 656 feet) does a decent job of hitting the city itself. Cumulus has also been offering the WTCY service (“Today’s R&B and old school,” with Tom Joyner) on the HD-2 signal of its WNNK (104.1). No problem so far, nothing unusual. The question then becomes — can you pull the 1400 signal out of the three-way mix, so the thing that’s supplying the FM translator is an HD-2 multicast channel? That’s new ground, I think. So far, it appears the FCC’s going to allow it, though there’s no rulemaking and its attitude could change. If Cumulus can push the envelope, bet on others to follow. And now Cumulus is free to flip formats on 1400, where it’s already changed call letters from WTCY to WHGB. One last question: if this thing gets ratings in Arbitron, who would get the credit? Answer: the HD-2 channel. Not the translator.

And Harker may have been reading this item from Tom Taylor’s Taylor on Radio-Info newsletter that same day (see attached PDF — Taylor newsletter):

Comedy’s catching on in Kansas City – on an FM translator fed by an HD-2 channel.

Yesterday’s February-book Arbitron PPMs for Kansas City list two HD-2 signals as “making the book.” One is Cumulus Media’s hard-rockin’ “103.7 The Dam,” which debuted a year ago. It’s showing (as “KCFX-HD2”) with a 1.2 share, age 6+ AQH — not bad at all for a 250-watt translator. But at least this month, it’s topped by “KCMO-FM HD2,” and that, you may remember from the February 15 TRI Newsletter, is “Funny 102.5.” It’s the HD-2 signal of Cumulus oldies KCMO-FM (94.9) feeding translator K273BZ. “Funny” is using Bill Bungeroth’s 24/7 Comedy service and that debut, along with some early numbers for comedy in Joplin, may get comedy radio something Rodney Dangerfield would’ve appreciated — a little more respect. This isn’t the first time all-comedy’s shown up in a PPM market — Ratings scholar Chris Huff observes that Riverside’s KFNY (1440) has been averaging a 0.3 to 0.7 since last Fall. Check the latest PPMs from Kansas City on the Ratings Page of Radio-Info.com, here.

Cogent Reasoning in Nashville

VSC mouthpieces say students have lost interest in WRVU, the school radio station, so they want to sell it. This post (courtesy of Sharon Vegas Selby), an opinion piece on InsideVandy.com by freshman Matt Scarano called “WRVU: Searching for a dialogue,” would seem to indicate otherwise. And Matt has a word or two to say about the practiced obfuscation of the VSC suits:

In the months since Vanderbilt Student Communications announced that it was considering the sale of radio station WRVU 91.1, the organization has faced fierce criticism and significant backlash from both Vanderbilt students and the Nashville community. It seems unlikely that VSC would subject itself to all this for so long if it were not committed to selling the station, and just a few weeks ago a letter to the editor printed in The Hustler from student board members of VSC expressed its resolve to go ahead with the sale.

However, neither the recent letter nor any of VSC’s other feeble releases on the subject have come close to justifying the sale of WRVU. WRVU has been an important part of Vanderbilt campus life and a musical fixture in the greater Nashville area since 1953; it has been important to my and many others’ experiences here, and voluntarily giving it up for the reasons VSC has thus far provided frankly makes no sense.

Since VSC’s September announcement that it was considering the sale of WRVU’s radio license, its representatives have reiterated the same justification for their willingness to do so: money. If VSC sells WRVU, then, they say, it will use the proceeds to create an endowment, which will fund student communication endeavors for years to come. VTV will be able to broadcast in HD and print publications like The Hustler, The Torch and ORBIS will remain well funded.

As if suggesting that HD-VTV should be a priority isn’t ridiculous enough, VSC has had the gall to claim that selling WRVU’s radio license will actually benefit the station in the long term. So, yes, our radio station will cease to be a radio station, but (not to worry) VSC will help set up a really good podcast in its place.

The problem is, although radio streams such as WRVU’s are available online, very few people listen to the radio on the Internet. That is because, quite simply, most people listen to the radio in their cars, where they do not have access to the Internet. On the Internet, options are endless; on the radio they are limited, and in Nashville, WRVU is the best radio option — that’s why over 20,000 people per month tune in to listen to it.

In the modern world, increasing numbers of people are getting their news, and watching their television shows, on the Internet. Vanderbilt’s printed publications could feasibly shift to online formats, as could VTV, without being fatally damaged. The same is not true of WRVU; yet WRVU is the only VSC entity that might soon be relegated exclusively to cyberspace.

Supporters of WRVU have implored VSC to open a dialogue about the future of the station. They have asked how much money they would have to raise in order for VSC to halt the sale. They have pushed for transparency about offers made for WRVU’s license and the status of the potential sale. But VSC has continued to operate behind closed doors and to be remarkably uncooperative, almost malicious towards its own radio branch. There is no reason for this sort of situation to occur at a university, especially one as great as Vanderbilt; it is unacceptable, and it ought to change immediately.

Whatever do you mean, Matt? They’ve made quite clear their reasons: Because we said so.

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