Campus Battles

Tom Taylor’s newsletter carried the following entry about the battle for the soul of college radio:

Protests about college-owned stations break out in Houston and Gainesville.

The Houston situation is the $9.5 million sale of Rice University-owned KTRU (91.7) to the University of Houston. Rice students have long enjoyed the open-door-programming policy at variety-formatted KTRU, but that will change when the University of Houston takes over and re-makes 91.7 into a classical and fine-arts station. There’s a “Save KTRU” group and website (here) and yesterday it announced that it’s retained the Paul Hastings law firm to fight the sale. KTRU station manager Joey Yang says “it is shameful that the Rice University administration has not heeded the thousands of voices asking to stop the sale.” This is one case where the school (Rice) isn’t pleading poverty. It just got an offer it couldn’t refuse. The second college protest is in Gainesville, Florida. WRUF-FM (103.7) alumnus Alex James says “with the impending flip [of Rock 104 to country], a couple of station alumni and I have put together a Facebook page to show support for the long-time rock format, the artist and listener community it serves, and the unique educational opportunity it has provided UF students, like myself, through its 28-year existence.” Alex, a former PD in Sarasota (WYNF) and in New Hampshire (WHEB, WGIR, WMLL), says “in just over two days, ‘Keep Rock 104 A Rock Station’ has already passed 1,000 ‘likes.’” Alex says he’s no longer in radio, but he remains passionate about Rock 104. The reptilian flip to “Gator 103.7” is due on Monday.

The Facebook site for protesters at Rice (here) and Vanderbilt (here) are booming: The Rice site boasts more than 2,500 members and Vanderbilt’s kicking it at 4,700. In Gainesville, where the University of Florida’s student rock station, WRUF, a 100,000-watt monster, was flipped to cowboy-western — in a city where the top two stations already play chuckwagon fare — the initial Arbitron numbers (flaky though they may be) show a decline (here).

The WRUF Facebook site, here, is now past 3,000, and its postings include some vitriolic stuff about the switch. When one post noted that the “new” station had announced that “the students voted for the change in format . . . I wonder how true that is,” these remarks followed:

If they are saying the students voted for it, that is complete bullshit. The students were “informed” just 2 days before the change, and, even then, only because the story broke on RadioInsight.com and then in the Gainesville Sun.

I’m a UF Student and I was NEVER informed. We didn’t vote at all.

There is no “democracy on the dial” without The ROCK Station! An online stream will never launch because Democracy in this Dystopian Fiction of Randy Wrong’s Vision of what we want is as flawed as the research put into this whole mess. There are no plans to bring Rock back, only to pacify our desires for blood with smoke and mirrors.

Let me make this real clear. For those of you, who are hoping for Rock 104 to return online, it will not happen! There are no plans, whatsoever, to launch the online stream. The Telecommunications department at UF has slashed its budget, which caused the demise of Rock 104. The online stream is not cost effective and will not generate enough revenue to make it viable.

The manner in which this whole charade was foisted off on Gainesville and the UF students was all too familiar: the mealy-mouthed mumblings of bean counters justifying their actions with whatever excuse du jour occurred at the time. Or became necessary after the last bumble was busted.

College radio plays a large part in the greater struggle for free-form radio and the soul of public radio for at least one salient reason: 63% of public radios operate under the auspices of a college or university. Too many, such as KUT in Austin, operate under the cloak of state laws that allow them to hide any financial shenanigans. The bottom line is that any institutions — radio stations included — that receive public funding, through the CPB or otherwise, or are supported in part or whole by solicited pledges should be required by federal law to disclose all finances. Everything. Period.

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No Sun Up in the Sky

We reported on the changes in Florida radio here back in August. The University of South Florida planned on moving WUSF to talk-talk, with overnight jazz, while moving its classical lineup to a Sarasota non-com, WSMR, it bought up. WSMR would also go canned, plugging in American Public Media’s Classical 24 service. “For those folks north of Tampa and in other areas where they can’t receive Sarasota-based 89.1,” Tom Taylor’s report read, “the school can at least offer classical on the HD-2 channel of 89.7.”

The big switch was supposed to come September 15th, but something happened. Greg Smith sent along this link to a story out of Tampa, along with the line, “It appears that NPR’s bait-and-swtich to force listeners to purchase HD radios is just pissing them off.”

The transition Sept. 15 was supposed to be seamless. WUSF would switch to news and public affairs, with jazz at night, utter bliss for news junkies and those devoted to Fresh Air or the BBC. A new all-classical station — admittedly, one that broadcasts farther south than some WUSF listeners — would go on the air.

But what actually happened was like watching a sweet performance by a string quartet when somebody suddenly lobs a tomato….

The signal for the new classical station, WSMR-FM, turned out to interfere with a user of the same radio tower, one with emergency response services. What everyone hoped would be a delay of mere days has now stretched into a month.

And how’s this for fun: While dealing with this glitch, listener-supported WUSF is in the thick of a pledge drive…. Last year’s goal was $400,000. This year they aim for 4,000 pledges instead of a specific money amount. It’s too soon to say whether all-news enthusiasts will balance out longtime listeners who might cut ties over the classical gaffe.

The comments to the story were a mixed bag, but more than a few expressed outrage at the state of radio in Tampa, in a state that’s already seen upheaval in Gainesville over WUFT’s dumping classical music for all-talk and college rock station WRUF morphing into a country-western station. (WRUF, a 100,000-watt station, was “the fourth-highest rated in the Gainesville-Ocala market,” reads this story, and now “will compete with two established country stations in the market: K-Country 93.7 FM, the top-rated station in recent Arbitron ratings, and Thunder Country 102.3 FM, tied for seventh.” A Facebook site, here, has nearly 3,000 members after just a week.)

I am a sustaining member of WUSF and WMNF . . . If WUSF does not get this sister station online soon, I WILL depend on CDs for my Classical fix, and give ALL of my money to WMNF. Some of the new shows are really good, but I want a classical music station to listen to in the car . . . FIX IT!

I’m one who has stopped listening to WUSF. I don’t like “talk” radio regardless of what the talk is. I find WMNF to be very unprofessional, so that’s not an option to me. I’ve switched to an oldies station. I won’t be renewing my membership in WUSF.

I think that WUSF should postponed the change until they got WSMR up and running. I think they have the potential to lose and alienate a lot of their listeners from this bungling of the airwaves. I also dislike how WUSF’s program changes are affecting WMNF, 88.5. They had a very bad pledge drive last week, and a lot of it is due to WUSF going to all news/talk. If you listen to WMNF, please support it so that this excellent radio station can stay on the air.

Some of us are tired of seeing WUSF stab WMNF in the back. They brought in this “news” format when WMNF was the only one doing local news, but had also already had NPR. These are the same people that refused to let WUSF have a college radio station, like every other university has, so the USF students, who already pay a lot of tuition, had to go to WMNF. Great message to send to your Journalism majors USF. Frankly, while I do want WUSF to survive, I am glad they finally got a badly needed case of karma.

I ‘was’ a sustaining member. I have no interest in talking heads or having a HD radio installed in a brand new car. My monthly donation will now be spent on CD’s.

It seems that listeners in northern Florida will have to get used to talk-talk and cowboy-western music.

What’s in a Name?

Non-commercial stations acting like commercial stations

There’s a website of interest to those who’d like to follow the money in public radio. This one, belonging to Public Radio Capital, lists some of the local stations that have benefited in their manifest-destiny policies — that is, in acquiring new stations to expand their reach. We’ve already reported on the $50 million that you, the taxpayer, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, have laid out to local stations to bring up HD channels, those worthless add-ons piping out canned claptrap (much of it provided by NPR, PRI, the BBC, and the like) while mucking up adjacent channels and creating havoc for those in the heartland, for instance, used to tuning into stations from afar.

This is an additional source of money, brokered by the PRC — which is, in its own words, a “facilitator”:

Founded in 2001, PRC has led its clients through more than $240 million in radio transactions, securing public radio access for approximately 45 million people nationwide. We help public radio organizations assess their business options, secure new channels, increase revenues and expand public radio services.

By partnering with visionary organizations, foundations and individuals, PRC creates innovative opportunities in the public radio landscape. PRC is the only nonprofit in the nation that focuses on expanding the capacity and asset base of public radio.

In other words, PRC has helped public radio stations become the “consolidators” that Jerry Del Colliano of Inside Music Media writes so eloquently about, the companies like Emmis and Clear Channel and CBS, stretching their budgets to absorb more stations, mount more HD channels, build new facilities, then cutting where is “necessary” — i.e., local talent and shows, for one. This page on the site gives a rundown of the money extended to local stations for their acquisitions, some of which are shown here (click to enlarge):

Note, you Boston folks, that WGBH appears twice in this list. Not a big surprise, as their bean counters like to think big. Like some of the biggest commercial companies . . . So what’s the difference between a commercial and a non-commercial consolidator? Not a lot, really, as Jerry D. himself noted in an email exchange. But for one thing, a non-comm uses public funds and donations. And, as shown in an earlier post, it might not even give you a clue how it’s spending your money, as at KUT in Austin — not so much as a “by your leave.”

First We Kill the Bean Counters

The outlook for public radio? This post on MinnPost.com would seem to indicate things still aren’t all so rosy, at least for Minnesota Public Radio — and, by extension — all of public radio that’s intent on chasing the flaky ratings purveyed by Arbitron:

MPR’s three local stations — News (KNOW-FM), Classical (KSJN-FM) and The Current (KCMP-FM) — all have smaller shares of the Twin Cities listening audience than a year ago. News is off 23 percent, The Current is down 14 percent, and Classical has declined a whopping 38 percent in the broadest measure of listenership (people 6 or older, 6 a.m. to midnight).

Of particular interest is the performance of the all-news station, as the peerless prognosticators of public radio are of a mind that the talk-talk format is top dog:

The News slippage has been more gradual but more consistent — its last two months (4.6, 4.4) were the lowest since a new measuring technology, portable people meters (PPM), replaced listener diaries in April 2009.

Madness in the methodology?
To some extent, MPR’s troubles reflect national trends. PPMs, which are wearable and pick up ambient music whether the listener is listening or not, have tended to favor big music stations; talk and classical stations have seen numbers fall across the country.

“It does seem that in diary days, people didn’t forget to note they listened to their news station,” Eskola says. “Did they write down every music station they listened to, or their kids listened to in the car?”

Locally, though, MPR News has seen a bigger slide in the past year than several non-music competitors.

Perhaps there is some feeling amongst the bean counters that it might be time to kill the messenger:

Like for-profit radio execs, [MPR research manager Joe] Eskola worries that Arbitron’s “jury” system — roughly 1300 people metering for 13 weeks with far less turnover than the old diary method — may not have all the kinks worked out. Early on, minorities complained about underrepresentation, and locally, there were big gyrations in the first couple of PPM months.

During the 16-month PPM era, Eskola has seen some big shifts — The Current’s 35-to-44-year-old listenership shrinking dramatically, and then “popping back up” in March; at Classical, “the 65-plus crowd cut in half” — that make him wonder about methodology.

Still, Eskola says, “I don’t want this to be, ‘MPR sees crummy numbers, blames it all on Arbitron.’ Do we feel concern? Yes. Are we treading carefully? Yes. We have started to dig in more, but there’s no major ‘Holy Cow, batten-down-the-hatches’ changes to news because we had low numbers in July.’”

As noted in recent posts, one month’s surge is most likely followed by the next’s plunge, and the format changes playing out like musical chairs in our “public” radio stations may only be a fool’s ploy. So what’s the next good idea at MPR? Do the ratings portend more massive changes?

Eskola says ratings do affect income from MPR’s sponsorships. When it comes to dramatic changes, Eskola says he is preaching caution. PPM isn’t more than a year old, and 2010 is its first full year. “If there are seasons and cycles, we feel like we only have one data point, and we’re at the start of Year Two,” he notes.

While there are no doubt tweaks being explored for each station’s programming day — various teasers and tweaks to keep listeners listening longer — Eskola says there’s probably more to gain by getting more people to listen. That would imply a marketing challenge more than a programming challenge.

However, for a 40-year-old network that is public radio’s biggest by far, how many more listeners are there, and how much longer before bigger programming changes are considered?

When you hitch your wagon to farcical Arbitron ratings, you’re in for a bumpy ride. The suits at our local “public” stations seem to be doing just that, at the expense of local programming and more than a few disgruntled listeners. Could it be that all the heroic talk of “staying the course” gives way to more panic among the suits? How long can the GMs rely on the noblesse oblige of the monied minority kicking in the cash to support management vacillations for the sake of a tax writeoff — at the expense of the unhappy listeners who tighten their belts to contribute to “their” local stations? Will the portentous rumble of a guillotine being rolled out change the thinking of the royalty in our public radio stations?

Underwriting Mean Time

Tom Taylor’s blog on radio-info.com carried this note about the effect PPM is having on when stations play their ads. Not only does PPM change the kind of music played — witness the flocking to AAA music preceding the advent of the PPM in various markets — it also affects when stations are now playing ads (or, excuse me, “underwritings,” in the case of public radio stations):

The PPM is affecting not only stations – but syndicators. Specifically, in placement of spot sets. Listen to some of the sports syndicators (ESPN Radio, Fox Sports Radio), and you’re hearing a cleaned-up hourly “clock” that reflects some of the lessons (so far) of the Arbitron PPM. Such as — spot sets now positioned at the end of the quarter hours, along the lines of the advice that one presenter gave at last December’s Arbitron Consultant Fly-In. Clear Channel-Atlanta programmer Scott Lindy jokes that by that same December evening, almost all the stations in Atlanta had adjusted their clocks. Now syndicators and networks are getting with the program, too. Fox Sports Radio starts either right at :00 or :01 in most cases and goes to nearly the end of the first quarter hour before a spot pod with its own network ads and then local spots. The advice out of the Fly-In was to think about slotting commercials starting around :13 or :14 after the hour, and again about :43-:44. What’s going to become much less common in PPM-practice is the traditional toxic-dumping of spots into the fourth quarter hour. Many stations used to load up those 15 minutes with two lengthy spot sets — because the diary showed that listening was the lowest in that final quarter hour. But PPM reveals listening is distributed much more equally around the hour, and that lesson is being acted on by stations and now syndicators.

Look for your public radio stations, who have become enamored of the ad-buying demographic 25 to 54, to follow suit — despite every indication that the youth market has gone elsewhere. See the post from yesterday . . . And this mad rush to AAA radio, in vain pursuit of a younger audience, flies in the face of the purported mission of public radio. As KUT GM Steward Vanderwilt waxed so poetic once upon a time:

KUT is . . . a community for music lovers. From adult rock to folk, from blues to world music, KUT seeks out music that isn’t promoted, packaged, or hyped. Music you wouldn’t find without us. . . .

KUT is a community of people like you — principled and independent, curious and intelligent. People who cherish their rights as individuals to think, speak and act for themselves. Citizens who get involved when they know that they can make a difference.

And sometimes they get involved when they can’t make a difference — when they’re cut out of the equation… In that vein, a new Facebook site has sprung up around the Boston station WUMB, whose listeners are among the most involved of those protesting the move to Triple A radio (link on side) and the loss of Barnes Newberry, whose Facebook site is here if you want to let him know.

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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