The Public Radio

Few posts stir as much interest as those taking NPR itself to task for what public radio is becoming and what changes NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have wrought in the public’s name. Criticism generally falls within — but is not limited to — several general categories.

  • The homogenization of programming content — specifically, the headlong rush to find the music most appealing to the least common denominator in radio listener. Following the dictates of god Arbitron, a shaky system by its own estimation, stations in major markets such as Boston and Austin have abandoned any pretense of exploring the reaches of music to embrace the latest fancy, Triple A radio. This in concert with commercial radio’s similar frantic struggle to reverse heavy losses (and flat growth in public radio), as chronicled herein and elsewhere
  • The profligate squandering of $50 million in public funds dispensed to aid in the proliferation of the junk science HD radio (advanced by its monopoly overlord, iBiquity) — a cause in which NPR Labs played a complicit, and questionable, part (along with industry giants and investors) in gaining government imprimatur. The attendant weight on local budgets in licensing, programming, maintenance, and the like (aside from what had to be discarded to afford the change), with little or no discernible return on investment, redounded only to the ostensible benefit of NPR and its ilk in programs sold to populate the dead air. At the same time, many of our public stations refuse to divulge how they spend public moneys, whether taxpayer dollars or those hustled in semiannual pledge drives.
  • A perceived drift rightward in politics, accompanied by reliance on wisdom gleaned from corporate hegemony and the militarist bent in government — Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex.

Matthew Murrey’s blog NPR Check, here, and his many outside links are a good source for this final point. But also particularly trenchant is his recent post on education, where he states, “In its education coverage, NPR consistently ignores the negative effects of poverty on student outcomes — and instead opts for the corporatist focus on ‘effective teachers,'” as well as his attacks on the “new” methodologies reported as in vogue that similarly discount the socioeconomic effects on education (and that, he says, were in use in 1987 when he was working on a masters in education at the University of Iowa).

As one correspondent points out, these criticisms of public radio are not new, citing this 1992 article, “Why public radio isn’t — and what you can do,” written for Whole Earth Review by Rachel Anne Goodman, which begins with this prescient observation:

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you felt like you were the “public” in public radio? Seldom, you say? Now there’s a new trend that may remove you for good. Once seen as immune to market speculation and rapid swings in format, public radio has gone commercial in its thinking. The programming will soon follow, and the biggest losers in this battle for dollars will be us, the listening audience.

Rachel’s observations 18 years ago have an all too familiar ring to them. How many of them apply to your station today?

It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to find signs of public radio’s current direction. Just take a look at the audience descriptions in this year’s Broadcasting Yearbook. For every one that says “ethnic/cultural” or “diverse,” there are three that read, “target audience: |upwardly mobile, educated youth,’ |upscale, affluent, societally conscious,’ |25-50 urban professionals,’ |educated adults.'”…

There is a new move toward single-format public radio stations. WHYY in Philadelphia used to have news, classical, folk, blues, jazz, and local public-affairs programming. One day the program director called in the on-air volunteers and told them their services would no longer be needed. The station went to an all-news format, relying heavily on satellite feeds from NPR and augmenting it with local news and talk. The trend caught on at KPBS in San Diego, which went all news/talk in winter 1990….

Most public radio stations will defend their narrow programming in terms of the current economy. True, budget crunches on the state level are affecting the university funding that is the life-blood of these public stations. While the economic arguments are real, they are also self-created. Stations have become increasingly autocratic in their staffing, and have enlarged their staffs to accommodate the increased paperwork. They have replaced volunteers with paid announcers, citing the need for “oversight” of air sound. The most popular programs tend to come from NPR or APR (American Public Radio), and are the most expensive….

A critical document came out of NPR in 1986 — the Audience-building Task Force Report. With the goal of doubling public radio’s audience by the year 1990, it advised “professionalizing” the sound by eliminating programs where “each person selects program material on the basis of personal taste.” Commercial audience research from Hagen Media Research in Washington is also being circulated around NPR stations. It reveals that “talent” (read: local-human-being announcer) just isn’t important to listeners….

One public station I worked for told me I couldn’t read a lost-dog announcement that was called in because it made us sound too “provincial.” Soon after, they dropped the bluegrass programming because the rural audience it attracted “wasn’t educated and upscale enough” and didn’t “fit our mission statement.” This station serves a largely rural audience. Public-radio program directors have misread their core audience in much the same way presidential candidates have alienated voters. As with election speeches, during fundraisers they claim to give listeners a voice in programming decisions which does not actually exist. As in our two-party system, listeners must choose from a tiny menu of programs when they vote with their pledge dollars. More “audience research” is being done these days to determine the needs of listeners. However, the Arbitron rating service used by many stations measures the average number of people who listen to existing programs, not audience needs.

All in all, a good read and ominous in its implications for what still lies ahead. There’s also information about how some citizen groups then organized to fight the trend.

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Name That Tune

In Tom Taylor’s blog on Radio-info.com, he posted recently on the flyin’ Purple People Meter of Arbitron, saying:

There are “myths” about PPM, and Jon Coleman is the de-bunker.
The Coleman Insights principal prowled the stage in Baltimore to share some hard-earned lessons. Myth #1 – “Our numbers will be much more stable and reliable with PPM than they were with the diary.” They actually are more stable, in many cases – but there are still more wobbles, drops and unexplained surges than many folks expected. Myth #2 – “We’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work, immediately.” Well – sometimes. Coleman says “sample issues make this difficult, because the meter count in any individual minute is not very high.” And sometimes, the panel just changes. Case in point – Coleman client “Power 106” KPWR in L.A., where a Coleman-recommended set of tweaks in late 2008 seemingly produced a gratifying pop in AQH audience. Jon says programmer Jimmy Steal was offering “high fives on the phone.” But a bit later, it seemed the gains might’ve come from turnover on the PPM panel, and had little to do with the tweaks. Myth #3 – “Brands don’t matter.” That leads Coleman to a set of his beloved x/y axis graphs, about “the brand” versus the “in-the-moment decision.” Let’s skip to Myth #5 – “Since PPM measures actual behavior instead of recall, we don’t’ need to market as much.” Coleman says 75% of listening comes from “intentional listening” – and to generate that, you should “be well-known, own a position, and build a brand.”

Leave aside the question of whether public radio stations should be sifting the tea leaves of Arbitron to determine what music they should play — the flavor du jour seems to be Triple A. Isn’t that somewhere in their mission statement? Play what everybody wants to hear? That’s what they’d have you believe. (The same Tom Taylor newsletter says that Clear Channel represents 19 percent of Arbitron’s business.)

And let’s not consider that the Media Rating Council just withdrew accreditation for all but three of the 43 markets boasting the PPMs (here). Not even Arbitron itself claims that the data are particularly accurate. Its website carries this disclaimer: “PPM ratings are based on audience estimates and are the opinion of Arbitron and should not be relied on for precise accuracy or precise representativeness of a demographic or radio market.” Other than the fact that the ad flacks for the major conglomerates would sell their soul to be smiled on by Arbitron; that translates directly into ad dollars. For “public” stations, that means underwriting dollars — which, of course, are ads worded very carefully.

No, it’s all about gaming the numbers, figuring what makes the numbers sing your tune, as noted here in a Radio World article. In it, author Randy Stine notes that the beefs remain the same, even with the higher-tech PPM:

Early PPM beefs of programmers ranged from small sample panels to under-representation in samples of minority populations. Arbitron has said sample sizes are on track to increase approximately 10 percent in 2011; and the company has made changes to its recruitment methodology to address concerns expressed by groups including the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters and the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.

Some programmers also have complained about PPM “wobbles,” seemingly random rating swings, according to Harker Research. It found that “flipping a coin is directionally more predictive than looking at monthly PPM trends.”

Randy writes later in the article that Arbitron is just beginning to address the lack of minorities in the samples — in three cities (Miami, Dallas, and the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx). It’ll get around to your city . . . eventually. But meanwhile, radio programmers have had to learn to tweak their schedules to dance to Arbitron’s tune:

[A]s PPM reveals that people listen to more stations per week than previously thought, it also shows that people spend less time with each station, which is why two other statistics, time spent listening and average quarter hour, tend to be lower using PPM. As a result, programmers now work to get their listeners to come back for more visits, rather than emphasize longer visits for each occasion….

“In a world that has speeded up from sound bites and tweets, attention spans are short and PPM picks up on that. Programmers and talent are confronted with the challenge to get to the point as quickly as possible,” said Alex Demers, president of Demers Programming Media Consultants….

“The most successful music stations continue to be those who distinguish themselves by bonding with listeners with what is between the songs,” said Holland Cooke, president of Holland Cooke Media. “And (talk) stations and hosts who quickly recognize what is relevant, quickly set the topics and avoid windy monologues, will do well with PPM.”

So if your “public” station is sounding a little “snappy” lately — with perhaps a soupçon of “smarmy” tossed in — just remember they’re in a dance contest now. And they’re competing against the big boys, the commercial model they so wish to emulate, the same bunch that saw a 19 percent decrease in ad revenues last year. And they’re all dancing as hard as they can.

A New Day?

Is the FCC showing signs of intelligent life now? Don’t bet on it, though this post on the site Broadcast Law blog — entitled “FCC Commissioner Copps Calls For Stricter Broadcast Station License Renewal Standards — Could It Happen?” — is rife with possibilities:

In his address . . . given to the Columbia University School of Journalism, [FCC Commissioner] Copps specifically suggested a “Public Value Test” for broadcasters when they file their license renewals. If the broadcaster passes the test, the broadcaster would get a renewal. If the broadcaster did not pass — if it does not show that it has “earned” the right to “use the people’s airways” — then the licensee would get a one year probation period to prove that it should keep its license. If it does not improve, then the license would be taken and given to “someone who will use it to serve the public interest.”

Of course, that depends on the definition of “serving the public interest.” Perhaps this is a question best addressed to the solons of public radio. Commercial radio, with its conglomerated monotony, may already be too far gone. But does the “public interest” in public radio include a simpering sycophancy to Arbitron numbers, with an eye to presenting the most popular music possible to listeners? Is that their mission?

Some of the thoughts from the commish on what should be checked:

  • Enhanced Disclosure — requiring broadcasters to provide more information about their programming performance, on the Internet, as the Commissioner believes that information in the public file is “laughable,” and also requiring that the FCC review that information at renewal time
  • Reflecting Diversity — looking to increase the gender, ethnic and racial ownership of broadcast stations
  • Community Discovery — requiring that broadcasters be required to, in some formal way, communicate with their communities to determine local programming needs and the interests of various groups within a station’s community
  • Local and independent programming — requiring that broadcasters provide more local and independent programming instead of “homogenized music and entertainment from huge conglomerates — the Commissioner suggesting 25% of local programming being dedicated to local and independent programs.

Whoa. Dude. That’s communism, isn’t it? “Homogenized music” is public-radio bean-counter Valhalla, the altar at which they worship. And “disclosure”? How about some financial disclosure? As the “What Can I Do?” link on the left notes, public radio stations receiving taxpayer money should be required by law to completely disclose their finances — no more hiding mismanagement behind parochial statute.

And as long as we’re talking about taxpayer money, what about the $50 million that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has poured into local stations as a down payment on HD radio — a sham pseudo-science controlled by iBiquity, a monopoly interest, and boosted by major consolidators in radio. At no other time in history have the public airwaves been offered up for sole proprietorship. NPR itself is complicit in gaining its acceptance, as noted here, for the intended result of marketing its canned programs.

HD radio’s effect on low-power stations and analogue radio in general has been well chronicled in these pages. And as Mr. Copps himself admitted, “Everybody involved pretty much admitted from the outset that the digital radio initiative is all about giving the broadcast industry more avenues to make money rather than actually improving radio from the perspective of the listener.”

So has the commish turned into the great crusader all of a sudden? Or has he, in face of a greater power in the hallowed halls of the Columbia University School of Journalism, undergone some sort of death-bed conversion? If we’re going down that road, there’s much more to the question than just the pop pap purveyed by radio — public or otherwise. And as the post’s author, David Oxenford, takes great pains to note, chances of any of this happening (in an FCC that’s served loyally as an industry lapdog) are slim and none. And Slim just rode outa town.

On the Mark

A post on the Mark Ramsey Media website headlines this dire threat: “New Survey warns: Radio must be Irreplaceable.” Mark undertook a survey of 1,000 radio listeners along with VIP Research, asking the following question:

If your local radio stations went off the air tomorrow and you had to get your news, information, and music from other sources, how would you feel about this?

A)   I would be very unhappy and miss my radio stations a lot

B)   It would be too bad, but I would find other ways to inform and entertain myself

C)   It wouldn’t matter much to me; I can get what radio provides elsewhere

The results should give pause to PDs of all stripes, as answer “B” nosed out “A,” as shown below:

In other words, those who said they’d get by or wouldn’t care make up 63% of the study. Answers varied with sex of the respondents (men cared less) and format (News/Talk would be most missed). Mark’s conclusion:

So the lesson for us all is that while attracting usage may be relatively easy, evoking passion is a lot more difficult.  And the key in this process is investing in unique and quality content that listeners care about [emphasis added].

In the long run, the best way to avoid obsolescence is to be worth missing.

The best way to avoid substitution is to be irreplaceable.

I think radio will matter to one degree or another for a good long time, even if we do nothing.  But it sure won’t matter as much as it used to — unless we do something.

In the case of public radio, it seems that the logical choice would be to first ask the local listeners what they want to hear — rather than blindly follow what ratings say most people like and precipitously careen off on the next good idea that some bean counter comes up with. Or conform heedlessly to the dictates of the mass collective driving the machine.

Buzzards Circling at Rice

The following are from the 155 pages Jim Radio of Austin Airwaves copied from the U of H several weeks ago as part of an Open Records request — as he says, twenty of the best, funniest, pissiest, most paranoid, and money grubbing-est. Jim is off on his next radio venture, so we’ll annotate as we can and post over the next few days. We’ve opened a new category on the left to store these. This first shows the involvement of American Public Media with UH (mouse over the figure for Jim’s tag, click to enlarge):

This next shows the involvement of Public Radio Capital, a source of money for public stations with expansionist plans, as detailed in an earlier post, here.

Rice U. officials covering themselves in glory, hiring an agent to peddle the station behind students’ backs:

Another familiar name in the pantheon — Radio Research Consortium — on possible bargain rates on Arbitron ratings:

The last of today’s entries is an enigma — as it’s totally redacted. Makes you wonder…

More tomorrow, Owl fans. Stay tuned.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman . . .

In Milwaukee, Arbitron has run into resistance from some locals, according to the Journal Sentinel website post of Duane Dudek (“2 big radio chains still resisting new people-meter ratings”). He notes that “two . . . heavy hitters in the Milwaukee broadcast market — Milwaukee Radio Group, which owns five stations, including WKLH-FM (96.5) and WHQG-FM (102.9); and the Journal Broadcast Group, which owns WTMJ-AM (620) and WLWK-FM (94.5) — do not subscribe to the service.” Duane says that in a metropolitan area of better than 1.4 million people, the sample size for the Purple People Meter is around 950 (which seems high, as Austin, Texas, is about the same size and has a sample size of 780). And as we’ve seen in numerous previous posts, numbers can be skewed by just a handful of those samplers. Then there’s the cost:

“It’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to subscribe,” said Bill Hurwitz [vice president and general manager of the Milwaukee Radio Alliance].

Stations can pay as much as 65% more for PPM than they paid under the diary method, said Tom Taylor, of RadioInfo.com, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow in this economic climate. The Milwaukee Radio Group’s contract with Arbitron expired in the spring of 2009, “and we chose not to renew in light of the pending transition” from diary to PPM, said Annmarie Topel, vice president and general manager of the group, which is owned by Saga Communications.

She said the stations “haven’t had a lot of challenges” not having the ratings because “the product is still the product, and the result is still the result.”

Steve Wexler, executive vice president of radio and television operations for Journal Broadcast Group, believes a blind adherence to numbers can hurt more than help:

[W]exler rose through the ranks of the Journal Broadcast Group as a programmer, and feels an over-reliance on ratings data comes at the expense of “understanding the market and the sensibilities of the audience.”

“If you just go by the data, you’d be making changes all the time,” said Wexler. . . . “Are the ratings potentially valuable? Sure. But when I hear people say, ‘I have to have them,’ and ‘What do I do without them?’ I wonder, is that all we’re making decisions on? A spreadsheet? If Arbitron went out of business tomorrow, we’d still make sure our stations are appealing and had good programming. Ultimately, the market tells you. Advertisers would let us know in the most direct way possible, if they don’t spend money with you.

“That has not happened. So we must be doing a good job of attracting audiences and meeting their needs.”

Moving Target

Mark Ramsey scores some points about Arbitron’s Purple People Meter in this blog post. As always, the question remains, if the ratings vary wildly — whether between the diary system and PPM or just from quarter to quarter — which are accurate and which are bogus? Or are they all bogus? Mark’s comment is response to Arbitron’s attempt to smooth out the changes, and wildly varying results, when one group of panelists leaves and another arrives:

Put another way, smoothness creates the impression of validity while volatility creates the impression of non-validity. None of this has anything to do with validity, of course, but it has everything to do with impression.

When the ratings “bounce” and create “wide ratings swings” because the sample changes does that mean the new sample is wrong, the old one was wrong, or the system was wrong?  Or all of the above?

Or does it just mean that ratings – like all statistical estimates – are built to “bounce,” no matter how much we pretend they wouldn’t?

This issue throws light on a system where accuracy is ultimately less important than stubborn consistency masquerading as accuracy.

This is so because the samples are only panel-sized.

When we worship predictable numbers rather than true ones, what favors are we doing our clients and ourselves? Like the ocean itself, sometimes a shiny and smooth surface can hide a tumult below.

Maybe Arbitron – and radio itself – should focus less on the surface and more on the depths.

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