Passing Tributes

One year ago today we started this site with the hope of shining a light on what we saw happening to public radio stations across the country. Whether it was the sudden canceling of popular shows, the fallacy of HD radio, or the creeping influence of national groups such as NPR, we wanted to point out the disservice being done to the supporters of their respective public radio stations. And, for myself anyway, one of the worst aspects of it all was the homogenization of the programming at local stations. Since many stations were dumping local programming for the cheaper national feed, some of the first casualties were the local DJs who added so much local flavor and personal knowledge to their stations. The difference can be remarkable, and there have been two such examples of this in the past few weeks alone. Though both are tinged with sadness. . . .

On Monday, March 21st, it was announced that legendary pianist Pinetop Perkins had died at his home in Austin at age 97. Pinetop was one of the last of the old Delta blues artists, a veteran of Muddy Waters’ band and several others. That night Larry Monroe did a tribute to Pinetop on his recently revived Blue Monday show on community-funded KDRP in Dripping Springs, TX (see the set list and a downloadable recording of it here). A look at that set list will quickly show that not only did Larry play extensively from Pinetop’s personal catalogue; there are also songs from his many peers and collaborators. This type of in-depth tribute requires vast personal knowledge of the subject, as doing Google searches or playing cuts from “Greatest Hits” CDs just won’t cut it.

As remarkable as that tribute was, though, one could possibly say that such tributes are commonplace — they take place all over the country whenever a legendary figure dies. Some tributes may be noticeably better than others, but a blues show doing a tribute to a blues legend is hardly noteworthy. With that in mind I’d like to point to the latest tribute, this time on Larry’s Phil Music Program for April 7th, and this time the subject was Calvin Russell, who died on April 3rd.

Calvin WHO did you say? That is probably the most common response anywhere outside of the Austin music scene or in Europe, where Calvin was extremely popular . I really can’t do justice to describing Calvin or his music; best bet is to go to his website and get treated to something totally unique. But in short, Calvin was a grizzled old guy in a trademark battered hat with a voice that sounded like years of hard living, but also tinged with what could pass for hope. He had some great videos in the ’90s and he had a national hit in France for his song “Crack in Time.” But one thing Calvin definitely was not was any kind of a legend here in the States. He was widely respected by his fellow Austin musicians, both for his songwriting skills and his performances. But even here he only played small clubs. But another peek at that set list and downloadable archive for April 7th ( http://www.larrymonroe.com/archive/ ) will show how Larry dedicated the same effort to showcasing a lesser-known artist such as Calvin as he did to the national treasure Pinetop Perkins. The same cuts from the personal catalogue mixed in with tracks from other artists to highlight the passing of someone great. The greatness of an artist isn’t measured in how well they are known, or in how many records they might have sold. It’s more in their ability to affect the people that they touch, both with other artists and with the fans lucky enough to discover them.

Once upon a time, one of the main tenets of public broadcasting was that they were to serve the under-served. And to make the listeners in their local communities aware of the treasures around them. When those same stations turned their backs on their local scenes in favor of cheap national feed and the Almighty Dollar, this was one of the predictable results. I imagine that somewhere out there in NPR land there was mention of Pinetop Perkin’s passing, maybe even a sample played from his last CD. But if there was a national tribute to Calvin Russell’s passing then I’ll eat my leather hat. As for the local level, during Larry’s tribute I checked the set list over at his former station, KUT-FM — not a single song by Calvin. Instead there was the usual AAA rotation that the station managers imposed some years ago  (see “Not a Playlist,” here).

Sometimes it’s the little things that really point out the big problems. And for me this is certainly one of those moments. Every day, all around us, in communities across the country we are losing artists such as these. And who is going to mark their passing in any kind of meaningful way? Does your public station devote time to the lesser-known artists in your area, both while still performing and after their passing? If not, then there is a total breakdown of their duties to the community. While I enjoy such programs as All Things Considered and Morning Edition, I would gladly throw away all of the NPR programs for just one hour focusing on the wonders around me. Here at this site we will keep fighting to get that message out. We hope you will continue to support us in that mission.

—Rev Jim

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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

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.

Smoldering Fires, Bright Lights

Here at the beginning of a new year it’s a bit of a tradition for both individuals and groups to look back on the past year and look forward to the year ahead. Here at Keeping the Public in Public Radio, the contributors and editors don’t want to be left out, so we’re going to take a look now at where we have been for the past year as well as what we see ahead for us. The smoldering fires of the past, the bright lights of the future . . .

And, of course, at the beginning of 2010 this site did not exist. There were instead smaller groups scattered around the country, around the globe. Most of these groups were born of outrage, and of frustration. The common thread between them seemed to be the degeneration of the trust and bond between public radio stations and their longtime supporters. Supporters who had believed in the basic premise of public broadcasting, and believed in the spiels heard so often during the pledge drives. The basic premise being that public stations existed to serve the under-served, and the spiel being that the public stations belonged to you, the paying members. The ones whose pledge dollars went towards the type of programming that you just couldn’t get anywhere else. I believed that when I heard it here in Austin, Texas, & Jeff Boudreau believed it when he heard it up in Boston, Mass. Gwen Fortune believed it down in Gainesville, Florida, and Dru Druzianich believed it way up Seattle,Washington. All over the country we were finding these little groups, mainly thru Facebook, all formed around the outrage that came when station managers suddenly turned their collective backs on their paying members. Serving the public was no longer on the agenda; instead they pursued the Golden Fleece of Arbitron numbers, and of corporate underwriters, both of which should have been anathema to public broadcasters.

Our group here in Austin was originally formed after a major programming change at KUT-FM, as well as what we still fervently believe was the shoddy treatment of three longtime and much-beloved deejays. Our 1,800 members worked together as a group to try and restore sanity and integrity to KUT, but in the long run money and hubris won out and we were left wondering where to turn next. So at a meeting last January it was decided to reach out to these groups around the country, to try and join our experiences and our energies towards shining a light on the practices being adopted by station managers nationwide. And thanks to the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, and Internet tools such as Google Search, we were able to contact a few true believers in the basic concept of public broadcasting and the creation of this site first started being discussed.

Our earliest, and I would say the most stalwart of our original contacts, was Jeff Boudreau in Boston. He brought amazing energy and knowledge to our group, and without him I do not believe we would have ever gotten off the ground. And this is just one of his projects for saving public broadcasting and promoting folk music throughout the Northeast region, indeed around the country. A quick look at the links he has provided under the “About” heading here at our site gives just a glimmer of his projects.

We also contacted a dismayed classical music lover down in Gainesville, Florida — Gwen Fortune. Or at least I first thought it was just plain ol’ Gwen. But after corresponding with the wonderful Gwen I came to realize that she was actually Professor Gwendolyn Fortune, an educator and author, as well as a classically trained soprano recitalist. Her newest book, Weaving the Journey, is now out. Gwen has provided us with many wonderful insights over the past few months, radio matters being just one of her many passions. I strongly recommend looking into her work, visiting her website, or maybe finding her on Facebook. I always look forward to my next message from her.

We also contacted Jamie Peters in Tennessee & Dru Druzianich in Seattle, and without their help we would never have been able to get a national group going. But finally, with all of these individuals across the country pulling together, we were able to get this site up and working. And as of today we have had almost 25,000 hits on the site, a figure that most of us would never have dreamed possible back when we first reached out. That is a figure that directly relates to all of the input and effort from everyone involved, something that I believe each of us can take personal pride in.

But of course the unspoken sadness & frustration behind all this work was the realization that we had not been able to make any meaningful progress on our original, local issues. To the best of my knowledge, not a single station that these groups were originally formed around have ever made any concessions to these most passionate of supporters. And those are the smoldering fires that I referred to at the start of this, the still-warm remembrances of what started this ball rolling, the issues that brought us all together to begin with. And it is my hope that even though we are looking at the larger picture now, that none of us forget those local issues at the core of everything. Public broadcasting was always intended as a local medium, no matter how hard NPR may push the other direction.

But if those are the smoldering fires, then how about the bright lights? With all the frustrations each of us has had to deal with the past year or so, it could be easy enough to miss them, but I can find them when I try. And one is here right at my feet — this wonderful site that we have all managed to grow and nurture. Knowledge has always been power, and the shared knowledge that we gather here makes each of us stronger moving forward. Money & clout may be what the station managers have going for them; we have belief in our ideals and our commitment to them. There are any number of “wear ’em down slowly” analogies I could cite here, but I think we all already know that this is going to be a long struggle. But a long struggle is not a lost cause, so I am sure we will persevere. Already this site has garnered more attention & visitors than I ever imagined. If the station managers choose to ignore the unhappiness we have uncovered here, it will be at their own peril. We are not the “disgruntled few” they would like to make us out to be.

And I feel that is best reflected at our sister site of the same name over on Facebook. As of this writing we are almost 700 members strong there, a number which is not stagnant but continues to tick upward as the word gets around, slowly but surely. As bright lights go, the Facebook site positively glows, as I am constantly amazed at the scope of the comments and input we receive there. It far exceeds anything envisioned when I first became involved with this endeavor. As wonderful as the 1,800 members here at the Austin group were, I honestly believe that the members and visitors to the Facebook site do more to shine a light on public radio issues than anything we could have ever accomplished alone. Which, of course, was just the idea. . . .

Another of my bright lights has been the recent posts, both here and on Facebook, concerning the proposed sales of college radio stations across the country. At one time these type of events would have been been carried out quickly and with little or no input from the students whose assets were being sold off. But due (IMHO) to the publicity generated by groups such as ours, the concerned students at these colleges banded together and formed their own Facebook groups and fought the good fight to have their voices heard. Vanderbilt University in Nashville being one and Rice University in Houston another. At Rice the students put up one hell of a fight, but things are not looking promising. But this site’s “Radio Jim” Ellinger worked closely with that student group and helped to get internal documents released via the Freedom of Information Act, which at least gave some honest insight into the process. I see a bright light there in how we were able to not only communicate the issue nationally, but also to reach out locally to provide assistance.

Looking further down the road, I see some possible bright lights on the horizon as well — one of which comes from the current brouhaha over possible cuts in funding to public broadcasting, much of it brought about by the firing of pundit Juan Williams after what were deemed racist remarks on a Fox News program. This week NPR decided to throw a bone to the right-wing noise machine by firing senior VP Ellen Weiss. Normally Republicans threatening to cut public broadcasting funds would set my teeth on edge, but strange times make for strange bedfellows. And I am seeing the publicity on this as a way of bringing increased public scrutiny to the concept of public radio, and I think we will be ready to help inform on that front.

And even further down the road we may be looking into how we may use some of these issues when our respective stations’ licenses come up for renewal with the FCC. KUT in Austin’s license comes up for renewal in August 2013, and there is already talk of filing a formal petition for denial of the renewal application due to commercialization and failure to serve the public interest. We will be looking more into that as the date draws nearer, as this could be another avenue to approach our collective issues from. This and other ideas are constantly being brought to our attention by the readers at this site, and they show the determination of the many not to give in to the few.

And for me, that is my look at what I see as the smoldering fires of the past as well as the bright lights of the future. I am hoping that others may contribute their own thoughts on these; the beginning of a new year is always a great time to contemplate such things and then approach them all with renewed energies. We always appreciate hearing from any & all, so please let us know how we are doing!

But before I sign off there is another person I need to acknowledge for the creation of this site, not to mention it’s ongoing existence. And that would be our webmaster, Craig Hattersley. It was my conversation with Craig last January that produced the first steps on this journey, and he has been involved every step of the way since. And when it came time to make things happen, he was the one who grabbed the bull by the horns. This entire site was envisioned, designed, set up, and maintained by Craig. The daily posts that you see, those are direct from Craig and his unwavering commitment to this cause. We first went on line last April, and to the best of my knowledge he has come up with a new post seven days a week since then without fail. Any and all who enjoy this site or have found something of interest here owe Craig some thanks. He’s a low-key “below the radar ” kinda guy, but I want to shine the spotlight on him here just for once. Thanks a million, Craig, and a big hats off to you!

—Rev Jim

Don’t Ask! Won’t Tell!

There has been a lot of talk lately about how public radio stations are becoming more and more indistinguishable from their commercial brethren. Except, of course, that public-financed stations have no owners or share holders to answer to. After all, the “owners” of public stations are the paying members of the public, the members of the stations. You certainly hear that ad naseam during the fundraisers, the “on air personalities” (not DJs anymore!) repeating endlessly how “It’s your radio station,” and how your pledge dollars make possible “the music that you want to hear.”

But just how is that music that I want to hear being chosen? And what about the other members? We couldn’t all be wanting to hear the same thing, so just how are the songs we hear selected?

Those very questions have been wonderfully addressed by at least two recent posts at this site. See WUMBier (here) and How Borg Are You (here). In those posts it is easy to see the influence of the Billboard charts in the posted playlists at KUT-FM in Austin and in the programming of “clunkers” at WUMB in Boston. The use of the Billboard charts follows closely the creeping advent of the use of Arbitron ratings at public stations as well. Neither of those services were ever intended for public stations; public stations by their very nature are supposed to take their cues from the public supporting them, the listeners such as you and I. But could it be that the actual selection process is more nuanced than that, that there are other, more community-oriented influences that hold greater sway than national charts and NPR tie-ins?

So, rather than use conjecture or make suppositions of my own, I decided to go straight to the top with these questions. And since traditionally most musical content at a station is the responsibility of the music director, I decided to ask three music directors at three stations nationwide for their input on the issue. And to get as wide of a picture as possible, I chose three stations — the above-mentioned WUMB Boston, KUT Austin (where I am a member), and KBCS in Seattle, which many readers here may be familiar with as well. So I had an East Coast station, a West Coast station, and KUT here in the midwest to try and give as much variety as possible and to eliminate any regional influence. In order to be fair to all, I composed and sent an identical email (available on file if interested) asking for general information on just how a song is selected for airplay at their station. I specified that the article I was researching was not about their particular station, and that their answers could be as general or specific as they they felt comfortable with. But I did ask some specific questions, those being the following:

  • In general, how does a song first come to your attention?
  • Would it be more through record company information and/or contact or through your own interests and research?
  • How much input comes through station staff and on-air talent?
  • How much from the artists themselves?
  • Considering the rise in social networking sites, do sites such as YouTube or Facebook play much of a role?
  • Do you have a committee that discusses and/or approves songs before they are aired, or does the on-air talent have the ability to introduce their own choices without prior approval?
  • And, when an artist is selected to be played, is it generally for their entire CD/catalogue, or are certain tracks selected or “bulleted” for play above other songs?

Seven questions on how songs are selected, with assurances that any answers at all would be greatly appreciated. Seemed reasonable enough to me. I wasn’t asking for the recipe for Coca-Cola or just what 11 herbs and spices go into Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just a general idea on how such decisions get made at their particular station. I sent those three identical messages via email the night of September 19th, just over two weeks ago. And so far I have received . . .

Nothing. Nada. Zero & Zip.

Three different music directors at three different public stations and not one would even reply with so much as a form letter. It seems that the song selection process at our public-financed stations across the country is now some type of closely guarded secret, something that can’t even be discussed with said public. Even, in the case of KUT and myself, with the paying members of that station. One can only wonder just what these music directors are afraid of if they are not willing to even discuss their selection process at all.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to conjecture and supposition. What else is there if the people who have been entrusted to make the decisions using public monies won’t discuss how those decisions are made? For those of us old enough to remember, there were the “payola” scandals back in the ’50s, where record companies were found to be bribing station managers to get songs added. Is there possibly some 21st-century variation of that happening now? Personally I would doubt that the record companies would have any involvement, as they have their hands full with file-sharing issues, etc. But considering how closed-mouthed public stations have become with any and all information about their operations, just about anything could be imagined. Many stations, such as KUT, have multimillion-dollar operating budgets and there is certainly enough money being moved around to make one wonder. I don’t suspect anything so nefarious, but so long as the stations continue to refuse to answer reasonable questions about their practices, suspicions are bound to grow.

So when it comes to just how songs get selected at your station the answer seems to be: Take a guess! A wild guess, use your imagination! Tarot cards? Ouija boards? Chicken entrails? Who knows! But the one thing you don’t want to waste your time on is asking the people who could actually tell you, ’cause they ain’t telling!

The music directors emailed on this were:

John Laurenti at WUMB
Jeff McCord at KUT
Christine Linde at KBCS

— Reverend Jim

Pandora’s Box

The Infinite Dial featured a good post the other day that lead off this way:

If you read the news today, what else could you think but “Oh boy”? Facebook doubled in size in one year, from 250 million to half a billion users. Netflix reported 42% year over year subscriber growth, climbing to 15 million paying users, all in the US. And Pandora announced it has passed the 60 million registration mark, also all domestic, after passing the 40 million mark only at the end of 2009…. What these three have in common, beyond their incredible growth rates, is that they are all bringing media — content — to users in new ways.

For some not in radio, then, business is booming — and in a manner sounding like a Jerry Del Colliano (from Inside Music Media) script, especially with zingers like this:

The growth of these new-media powers makes me think of Lowry Mays’ famous 2003 quote about Clear Channel: “If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company,” said Mays. “We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers’ products.”

Or, in the case of public radio, selling our “underwriters’ ” products. Elsewhere, at Radio Insights, a July post noted the following:

Pandora just celebrated reaching 60 million registered users. It manages to give the illusion that every one of those 60 million users can listen to a personalized music channel, just for them.

The problem, of course, is an underground youth economy that doesn’t pay for music (half of all teenagers, for instance, didn’t buy one CD last year). Eric Garland, whose company tracks legal and illegal downloads, streams on MySpace and YouTube, merchandise sold on tours, and more, says, “If we’re just talking about the breadth of the audience and not the depth of interest, I don’t think we’re really getting at the value of the music.” And as On the Media’s Eric Garland notes: “If you look at the top of the airplay charts, the top of the sales charts, how many songs, on average, do you think people are interested in from those artists? . . . It’s about 1.1.” In other words, they conclude, the average artist on top of the charts is a one-hit wonder. And the youngsters aren’t about to lay out $20 for one song they may like. And what does that say about public radio’s mad dash to AAA…?

Lies, Damn Lies, and IT’S TIME TO UPGRADE

Greg Smith’s latest posts on hdradiofarce.com contain some interesting nuggets, among them about the tacit acceptance by the FCC that HD radio on the AM band could wipe out “skywave reception,” the long-distance pickup of signals from far away so often part of the heartland’s listening experience:

“AM-HD Undergoes Radical Redesign”

“It, in effect, signals iBiquity and its proponents’ firm intention to gradually phase out the notion of long-range listening on the AM band as we’ve known it, and localize the coverage area of all AM radio stations. Apologies to those of you who live in rural areas with no stations of your own, who rely on distant stations as a primary means of radio listenership: you’re out of luck. This is no conspiracy — you simply don’t exist anymore.”

Additionally, Greg traces the skullduggery that led to the adoption of IBOC as the standard, drawing from this post. Here and in attendant links, one can trace the movement by the conglomerates to squeeze out local and low-power stations:

“HD Radio: Doomed from the Start”

“HD Radio was not only doomed from the start, it was such a serious blunder that it may well lead to the death of thousands of radio stations and the permanent stunting of the industry itself . . . Why did this happen? … They didn’t want the 10-Watt student station to suddenly have an equal signal to theirs . . . And the money-men didn’t want dozens of new independent channels to be available to listeners . . . But IBOC gave the money-men the one thing they wanted most of all: It preserves the inferiority of the smaller broadcasters. In fact, amid a sea of IBOC hash from the big boys, it accentuates their inferiority. The end result of this shortsightedness will be bankruptcy for many stations, fewer and poorer choices for the listeners as conglomerates gobble up the remains.”

There’s much, much more in the post for those who are interested in finding out why HD radio is considered a scam by people like Greg Smith and myriad radio engineers, who have been fighting to be heard amongst the over-hyped hogwash of those moneyed interests whose bottom line depends on foisting this off on the American consumer — who have to this point been totally underwhelmed by all the spurious claims. This is a must-read for all the low-power FM advocates, opponents of corporate radio, and activist consumers.

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