And Then There Were Three?

At the rate of consolidation of the big three — corporate radio, NPR, and religious radio — independent radio may go the way of the eight-track tape. Of what concern is that of ours? Well, do you want to listen to only what music the bean counters deem fit or that “counts” well? News filtered through an organization running scared from right-wing boogie men? Only radio content that’s divined to be “appropriate”? That’s where we’re headed, aided and abetted by our guardians in the FCC (who seem to be willing to go along with whatever the big guys want) and, shudder, what appears more and more to be some sort of agenda of the puppet masters.

The following is a letter posted on Facebook by the hard-working folks in the Save KUSF movement, touching on the loss oa college radio in San Francisco:

My name is Bobby Lee, I’m a graduate of USF, class of 2007. Although my major was Finance, I spent four years volunteering in the Production Department because the idea of radio, audio production and voice-over work absolutely fascinated me. KUSF is important to me not only because of the great experience and training I received, but also because of how it is indicative of the university’s continued effort to terminate programs on-campus that are not in line with Father Privett’s agenda.

KUSF has been one of Fr. Privett’s largest victims thus far and we’re just one organization in a long line of victims that have suffered at the hands of a tone-deaf and insensitive university administration.

Not in a million years could I have imagined that my own Alma Matter could bring upon itself an immense amount of negative publicity by selling KUSF and lead the local prime-time television newscast on three separate days within a one week period. As an alumnus, my role is to take an active interest in helping to develop the university into a world-class educational institution, and more importantly, to ensure that the decisions that are being made on a day-to-day basis by administrators positively influence and shape USF for years to come. I would have expected USF to perform proper due diligence for this sale. Someone in this administration said “there’s a need to sell KUSF, the deal on the table is fair, and it’s in the best interest of the university.”

Whoever that may have been, lied through their teeth. There was absolutely no reason to sell this radio station, contrary to what the administration has said. On top of that, they did not make the best deal financially either. Over the past 10 years, only a handful of radio stations have changed hands in the Bay Area. Every one of those stations fetched $10 million to $40 million. USF accepted a low-ball offer from the University of Southern California for a paltry $3.75 million. But Fr. Privett had the gall to stand up and say to the community that his hand was forced and that it was the best offer. Not only was this not the best offer, it was the only offer. USF wanted to slice-off KUSF from the university’s budget so fast, it didn’t even have time to clean up the blood. And frankly, as we’ve been shouting from the mountain tops for the past month or so, this sale was not in the best interest of USF.

Bottom line, we need to save KUSF not only because it serves as an essential link for the USF and local communities, but also because we need to send Fr. Privett a message that the buck stops here. Not one more organization, not one more group will be ousted because of his failed agenda. Because if we don’t, every single student organization and educational program on campus that’s not in favor with Fr. Privett, is at risk of being shut down.

Bobby Lee

Also posted on the Facebook page is a link to a New York discussion group’s view of the Moment of Silence protest in college radio:

Bill Scheffler: It didn’t get much attention elsewhere, but many college and other non-commercial community radio stations observed a minute of silence at 1-PM EDT today with the hope of increasing public awareness of the value of college radio stations to their local communities.

The demonstration was the result of the recent sale of Rice University’s KTRU, the pending sale of the University of San Francisco’s KUSF-FM and the potential sale of Vanderbilt University’s WRVU.

I just happened to catch the moment of silence on WFMU in East Orange, NJ, which used to belong to Upsala College and was purchased and rescued by its mostly volunteer staff when the well respected liberal arts college closed in the 1990s.

WFMU has continued as a community supported non-commercial station with a free form format since.

In leading into today’s intentional minute of dead air, both the program host and station GM mentioned how free form and traditional student run college format stations are being bought by wealthy religious broadcasters, or being added to NPR affiliate networks essentially as relay stations.

In the New York City area, college and other independent non-commercial stations provide lots of variety on the FM dial that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

WBGO with Jazz, WFUV with AAA, WSOU with Heavy Metal, WFDU, WKCR, WFMU with a variety of musical program types including Jazz, Country, New Age, Asian music and more.

Unfortunately, as you travel around the US you will find areas where the entire non-commercial end of the FM dial has the same one or two programs, either NPR or a local religious network on every available frequency. There is nothing live and local even run by volunteers or college students.

The “Crawdaddy Magazine” link below provides more details on what some college broadcasters are calling a crisis.

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.

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

Arbitron: Gaming the System

Apparently the incentives for using Arbitron’s Purple People Meter have led some folks to augment their incomes with some choice chicanery, according to this post from Radio InSights blog called “Arbitron’s Perverse PPM Panelist Incentives”:

In a story that first broke last December, Broadcast Architecture’s Allen Kepler told of PPM panelists attaching meters to ceiling fans to earn extra cash:

One woman said she knows it is technically “cheating” but she was motivated by earning points for cash. “I know we shouldn’t do it, but we wanted to make sure our numbers were still there.”

The numbers are the points that participants earn to increase the cash they make. Some families can make a $1000 a month. The shocking discovery that PPM panelists game Arbitron for financial gain shouldn’t be all that shocking.

British broadcasters reached the same conclusion six years ago in 2005. It is a key reason they unplugged the meters:

Ultimately, we had to concede that the methodology was measuring people’s interaction with the methodology itself, and not with the media we were supposed to be measuring.

PPM panelists can make good money. But they make good money only if they do what Arbitron tells them to do, that they are compliant. How do you stay compliant? Keep that meter moving.

Hence the ceiling fan.

If a meter sits still for a day, the family is likely to get a call. “We see your children’s meters didn’t move yesterday. Better get them moving.”

No need to explain the implied threat. Panelists know the drill. They are told that repeated non-compliance and the meters will be pulled along with all that money. We know all this because Harker Research staffers also talk to PPM panelists. The panelists we talk to tell us they too game the system.

Panelists explain that Arbitron even has weekend contests to make sure panelists carry the meter on their days off. If compliance falls off, the in-tabs fall off. On any given day Arbitron might have a quarter or more of the meters just sitting at home, and that hurts the already small in-tabs.

The conclusion?

As British broadcasters concluded six years ago, Arbitron is now in the business of measuring people’s behavior, their willingness (and creativity) to keep a pager in motion through the day.

If it picks up a radio station or two, it’s just a bonus.

Radio by the Numbers

This post on the Radio Ink website highlights one of the big problems associated with the use of Arbitron by non-commercial as well as commercial radio stations — particularly among the consolidators (Clear Channel, Emmis, NPR):

Here’s one quote from a GM “I could go on for days about how radio is getting screwed by Arbitron’s PPM. We’ve become a reach  medium who programs to the meter measurement and not to listeners or to help clients with marketing issues. The most repulsive aspect is the mediocrity it has caused, meaning all formats sound the same. Very sad. I loved this industry but now we are more of a commodity than a good, tight place that listeners want to go to — to feel good and for our clients to reach those targets.” Another told us “PPM says  you are a ‘listener’ if you are exposed to the radio in a cab while on your cell phone for 5 minutes in a week  even if you didn’t hear the  station and you don’t even like it”

As usual, the comments produced some interesting viewpoints:

Mark Ramsey posted some video this week discussing PPM use. It shows how some PPM families . . . in order to keep the hefty remuneration they receive . . . carried the PPM of younger family members who weren’t wearing them. It told of 2 families who tied their PPMs to a ceiling fan to keep them moving! It told of heavy radio listeners who never even considered putting on their PPM until they left the house, missing all of their early morning at home listening. The PPM is great in theory, but. . . .
Barryob

When you sell for a station that has no “numbers” because it’s too new (as I have), you develop some great arguments as to why Arbitron ratings might not be the best way to gauge a station’s value. Of course, any intelligent person can argue both sides, but these were mine, and I owned them:

  1. “It seems like the only people who have time to participate in Arbitron surveys are the unemployed and retired people; everyone else is too busy. Are these your primary demographics?”
  2. “How many people do you know who would actually carry a PPM around with them everywhere they went? Would you? I think it takes a special kind of quirky person to do that—I always wondered—do they really represent the general population?”
  3. “I remember I got a dollar in the mail and a laundry list of stuff to do when I was a busy professional in another industry. Since throwing money in the trash is counterproductive (and maybe even illegal), I remember I kept the dollar, but threw the rest of the stuff away.”
  4. “Do the busy people you know have time to participate in stuff like this? (shut up and wait for a response) “Hmm . . . I know what you mean. Are most of your customers like that?”
  5. “Seems like the fox is guarding the hen house on THOSE numbers. How many of your customers listen to classic rock? You know, our play list is 1500 songs deep. You’ve heard our morning show, right?”
  6. “You know, stations that use Arbitron have to pay a very, very hefty fee to use their system. I always wonder—do those numbers follow the money?”
  7. “Arbitron is first and foremost a business. They’re a publicly traded firm on the New York Stock Exchange; their symbol is ARB. They’re definitely in business to make money—and they cater to large corporate entities willing to pay through the nose for ammo to give to their sales reps. We refuse to give them money, or participate in their process. Have you listened to our morning show?”

—Will Baumann

Anyone who has ever been to Arbitron and looked at the diaries with their own eyes, and then crunched for themselves how survey results are calculated, knows that Arbitron is an unregulated scam. How can a private company which has monopolized BILLIONS of dollars continue the shellgame? PPM.
— Bryan

The Road Goes On Forever

In Tampa Bay, the chickens are coming home to roost at station WUSF, according to this post on tampabay.com. It seems that classical-music lovers are outa luck after a bait-and-switch changed their station to all-talk and promised them the world at the new all-classical station WSMR, says the article, “Classical music fans sing blues over reception of WSMR.” As followed in this post earlier, the plan by USF to move the station acquired from Northwestern College to classical ran into a series of engineering snafus initially, but now seems to have left listeners out in the cold:

For five months, opera and classical music fan Nancy Preis looked forward to the moment organizers would work out their problems and get 24-hour Sarasota classical music station WSMR-FM 89.1 on the air at full power.

Her wait ended last week when owner WUSF Public Media resolved WSMR’s interference problems with the Coast Guard and cranked the station up to full strength.

“All the publicity on this (told fans) to ‘Just wait until we’re up to full power,’ ” said Preis, 61. “I consider this to be a major screwup. You don’t announce that you’re going to do something and not follow through.”

Preis’ sentiments mirror those of other classical music fans in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties who complain that WSMR’s full power signal still doesn’t reach them from the station’s antenna near Venice. Plans to install a “translator” to extend WSMR’s broadcast to North Tampa may not help parts south, leaving an area that once was the core listenership of classical music broadcasts on WUSF-FM 89.7 without the means to hear WSMR’s broadcasts through regular, terrestrial radio.

There was one problem. Living in Seminole and working in the Tyrone Square Mall area, Preis — who sits on the board of the Florida Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Opera — couldn’t hear the station without fighting unappealing bursts of static. Now she has given up on ever hearing WSMR conventionally, convinced that WUSF has bungled the transition beyond salvation.

Tampa-based WUSF bought WSMR for $1.2 million last year to shift its classical music to the Sarasota station and offer daytime programming filled with NPR shows. Technical delays, interference issues and the decision to build a new antenna delayed the station’s full power debut from Sept. 15 to Feb. 22, forcing fans outside the Sarasota area to listen online or on HD radio.

My bad, says WUSF, so sad…

JoAnn Urofsky, general manager for WUSF public media, resisted some of the criticism, saying the station can’t know for sure how the reception issues will play out until federal officials approve the use of the translator antenna. She denied assuming large parts of Tampa and St. Petersburg wouldn’t receive the station, blaming delays on WSMR’s original owners, Northwestern Media.

Urofsky said the initial delays in September emerged when information provided by the station’s original owners turned out to be incorrect. As it became clear WUSF would have to build a new antenna for WSMR and handle interference issues with the Coast Guard, the time needed to complete the project swelled beyond expectations, she said.

So why didn’t she tell the public who was causing the delays? “Had we said anything, we would have jeopardized the business deal,” said Urofsky, noting WUSF didn’t finalize the sale until Oct. 22. “We had to redesign a station almost from scratch because of the condition we found it.”

Errr, not my bad. It was the last guy’s fault. Comments ran decidedly to the negative:

anon anon: It is unfortunate that the station chose to string listeners along by continually giving them the impression that it was a minor glitch and that the station would be on the air shortly. They could have been upfront and said they weren’t sure how long the delay in transmitting would be. In addition, the smarter thing to have done would have been to wait until after they had purchased the new station and done some test runs to make sure they could broadcast before switching the format. In any case, I’m getting sick of talk radio all the time & even though I can get the signal now I don’t like the music they are broadcasting that well. I will probably buy speakers for my computer & go back to listening to WNYC again.

LBear: It is clear now that the overpromise of the new signal was designed to tranquilize classical listeners so they wouldn’t raise a stink about losing 89.7. Public radio is switching to news-talk all over the country, at the behest of “consultants” looking for “ratings,” which they’re not getting in Tampa. Face it classical fans, you were snookered. Of course, once your donations drop off, they’ll have all the excuse they need to drop the charade and kill classical entirely.

slipe: When I first moved here in 1980 WUSF had programming broken into hour and half-hour programs with people lined up to tell us how clever they were explaining the snippets of classical music they played. They would occasionally import concerts, but more often syndicated programs with more smart people playing snippets. When everyone was hoarse they played jazz all evening and night.

We got a commercial classical station that played classical music 24 hours a day. WUSF realized people actually listened to that stuff and started just spinning classical records without the clever people explaining snippets. They drove the classical station out.

The only way they will realize we want classical programming that can be heard throughout the area is if people stop contributing.

Sayonara in Seattle

Smooth jazz is gone in Seattle, according to this online post of the Seattle Times, courtesy of a switch in the Arbitron system used in the ratings to the flying Purple People Meter.

Seattle fans of smooth jazz were confused last week when they dialed their favorite radio station, KWJZ 98.9 FM, and heard Dave Matthews and the Kings of Leon. At 3 p.m. Dec. 27, the station changed its format to modern adult contemporary….

Smooth jazz has experienced a dramatic ratings decline since a new system for tracking listenership was introduced by Arbitron. In Seattle, the Portable People Meter (PPM) replaced the old personal “diary” method in 2009.

According to Carol Handley, program director at the now-defunct KWJZ, when PPM came in, the station plunged from a No. 3 ranking to No. 22 among adult listeners.

“The change in Arbitron measures has not been favorable to certain lifestyle-driven formats, including smooth jazz,” said Handley.

As the story notes, Arbitron ratings are used to determine ad rates for commercial radio, but see increasing use in public radio stations as they hunger after “community” support. As mentioned, KWJZ plummeted in the ratings when Arbitron switched from the diary system to PPM. So which system is bogus? If PPM gives the “good” numbers (though their own website prominently features a disclaimer as to its accuracy, here), then what kind of numbers are leading radio-station PDs around by the nose in the vast majority of cities (PPM juju is only featured in about 50 cities)?

Comments on the website overflowed with plaints from the disenfranchised “underserved“:

Moving on doesn’t always mean improvement, but the truth here is that the future of free radio is pretty bleak. Fewer and fewer stations are locally owned and most are the property of huge national corporations like Clearchannel. In recent years the bottom line has meant less formats featuring live on air personalities and more pre-programming. The listener will find more and more commercial advertising being thrown at them and fewer format choices. Those that enjoy jazz, blues, classical, or anything besides “modern music” will be forced to go somewhere else and free radio will probably go the same way as the newspaper business.

Is it lost on folks that this format change is an object lesson in why the radio exists? Still believe it has something to do with providing something of substance to an audience? Come on. It’s about delivering an audience to corporate advertisers — nothing more, nothing less.

Maximizing market share = lowest common denominator = blah, blah, blah. Conform or be cast out.

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