Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Meanderings...

 
by Don Keith

A couple of items to pass along today:

1 - The Federal Communications Commission was inundated by applications for FM translator licenses on the first day of the filing window for AM operators to grab them.  More than 400 applications were accepted with still more coming in on days two and three.  This is all part of the FCC's initiative to "save" AM radio.  This particular move allows AM licensees to get relief by grabbing FM translators, ostensibly to help stations with weak AM signals, restrictive directional patterns, and especially daytime-only stations.

As noted in previous posts, this seems to me to be an odd way to "save" AM radio...by allowing them to duplicate their programming on FM.  That, I believe, only gives the AM signal an excuse to stay on the air while most listeners will hear the programming over on FM.  That is already the case with many AM broadcast stations.  Groups have been either buying or leasing dog AMs just to be able to get an FM signal...weak as it might be since translators are very low-power and typically have their antennas much lower on towers.  (Never mind how all these new signals are ruining reception on an already-crowded slice of broadcast spectrum.  Or how many of those "excuse" AM stations often manage to be off the air or operating at far below authorized power while their associated FM translators are pumping out the classic rock or the hits of yesterday and today.)

Next, the FCC will likely relax some technical rules that won't amount to a hill of beans, all in the name of saving a broadcast band that is already, for all intents and purposes, d - e - a - d.  And it is a damn shame!

2 - Lots of talk these days about "cord-cutters" and their more radical brethren "never-cords."  These are folks who cancel cable or satellite TV and get their video entertainment and information via the Internet. Or those who start their adult lives without ever subscribing to Dish or cable. Traditional cable and broadcasters are at a loss to figure out how to stop such a trend.

I may be totally off base, but seems to me the answer is to put programming on their channels that people want to watch and charge what the market will bear to access it.  I'm stuck because I primarily watch live sports on TV.  Until I can get all I want to see via web sites, I'll have to write a check every month to DirecTV.  But networks and cable channels are greedy.  They cut deals to send their precious programming right on over to Hulu, Apple TV, Netflix and the like in order to make more money than they'll ever get from commercials.

I subscribed to HBO for one thing: "The Sopranos."  I'm not into "Game of Thrones" so when Tony and the boys went away, so did my HBO subscription.  I picked up Netflix to watch "House of Cards."  Now I keep it for that show as well as for shows like "Making of a Murderer."

I suspect there are plenty like me who will either cut the cord or keep a limited version of it, depending on what they simply must watch.  So get ready for another term: "a la carte."  Cable/satellite providers will one day be forced to allow you to pick and choose channels or content providers at a reasonable price rather than those so-called "tiers."

If they don't, somebody else will.  And content makers will go with whoever pays them the most money...by attracting the most viewers/subscribers.

Oh, and commercial advertising will play a smaller and smaller part in this equation.  There are no commercials in "House of Cards."

3 - Speaking of "cord cutters," many forget that there is plenty of free TV available, just for the taking.  It is the old-fashioned over-the-air TV stations!  Most have multiple channels of programming since the digital age arrived.  Much of that additional programming is bad, bad, bad, but some might appeal to you.  All you need is your current TV set, assuming you own one, and some kind of antenna.

Well, a friend of mine, Mark Higginbotham, has developed a simple, do-it-yourself outside TV antenna that does a good job of grabbing those free signals and is not an eyesore that might attract the attention of your homeowners' association.  It's called the Pennyloop digital antenna and Mark is selling the plans online at a very reasonable price.

You can learn more at Mark's web site.

Now, where did I put my wire-cutters?
 
 
 



Friday, January 8, 2016

Everything old is new again

By Don Keith


The largest convention in Las Vegas each year is the CES...the Consumer Electronics Show.  As of this writing, this year's meet is just now wrapping up and there is a perplexed look on many of the faces of the 176,000 folks who trudged from booth to booth to see what technology is new and exciting and can't-miss.



Perplexed because there really wasn't much new.  Same old drones, 4K TVs, smaller and smaller ear buds and digital storage devices, and the like, but all those things were there last year, too.  But even more perplexing to attendees was what was hot and what "new" technology attracted lots of attention.  It was...well...ancient technology.

Ancient technology like record turntables, speakers, high end audio amps, and even a Kodak video camera.  See an article HERE for the surprising story.



I do this blog to keep an eye on rapidly advancing technology and how it affects media, society, and even--occasionally--my favorite hobby of Amateur Radio.  But I confess that I rue the day when people started thinking that listening to music was best on a tiny ear bud that reproduces a frequency range that is so narrow most of it sounds like a mouse caught in a blender and those low bass notes are non-existent.

Maybe people accept this travesty because some of today's music (and I am showing my curmudgeonly nature here) actually sounds best when you can't hear most of it.  But for the real experience you need to not just hear the full range but to be able to FEEL it, too.  Terms like distortion and dynamic range mean something.  And I do dislike some of the digital brittleness found in much music reproduction, brought on by having to compress and modify in order to change everything to 1s and zeroes to cram the music onto web sites, digital storage media, and fit such a wide range of potential playback devices out there.




It is a fact that music from well-mastered vinyl sounds better and warmer than a digital download or CD, especially if reproduced on a quality turntable with a good stylus, amplified with minimal distortion by a nice amp and fed into well-designed speakers.

What's my reaction to the new old stuff attracting so much attention at CES?

Hallelujah!  And you can play that back loud and proud.
 
 
 
de N4KC
 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What do TV remotes, passwords and cash money have in common?

 
 
By Don Keith

Rapid technological change guarantees that some things we take for granted will be replaced by things and technology most of us can't even imagine.  I still get a kick out of those web sites that offer up sounds you simply don't hear anymore...like the squeaks and squawks of dial-up Internet service, the cheery "You've got mail!" alert from AOL, or the clicks of the old manual typewriter.

Well, here is a list of five things that one article claims will be gone in a mere five years.  I can't say I disagree with any of them.  I rarely use cash to pay for anything anymore.  I've probably electronically signed a dozen documents in the past month.  And when I visited a friend recently, we giggled over the astonishing number of remote controls he had strewn around his living room.  But we talked about how he would soon either use his phone to replace all of them or use some other kind of magical wand that employed wi-fi to do the work of all those battery hogs.


Yeah, I admit I am slow on some things.  Though I have storage for data out there in the cloud (an author really does get paranoid about losing a book manuscript seconds before typing "The End."), I still can't resist backing up onto a thumb drive as well as an external hard drive.

Still, whether it is five years or not, the time will come when we all get over that attachment to something we can see and feel and take advantage of all that space out there in the ether.  And then, bye bye thumb drive.
 
 
de N4KC
     

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rapid technology growth must be controlled by...the government?

By Don Keith  N4KC

As many ponder rapid technological change--and especially those who cannot handle change of any kind very well--they often declare, "This is scary!  The government must get control of technology and make sure it is for the good of us all, not the power- and money-hungry."  That, of course, is the usual reaction to anything that has the potential to change culture as we know it, positively or negatively, whether it be the perceived greedy capitalists, robots threatening to revolt, or a hurricane on the Gulf Coast: the government has to take charge of this and fix it!

Well, I ran across a post today on the web site of The Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, on this very subject.  I'll reproduce it below but if you prefer to read it from their site, visit THIS LINK.

It makes perfect sense to me.

Technology and Government Shouldn't Mix

  • Robots and Guns
DECEMBER 17, 2015  Benjamin M. Wiegold
We live in a time like never before in human history. Our scientific knowledge and technological capabilities are rapidly advancing, affecting nearly every aspect of human life. Examples are rife, from smart phones and robotics, to thought-controlled prosthetics, wireless power, even force fields. Countless others that sounded like science fiction a few years ago don’t even deserve mention today as they have become so commonplace.
In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of the process we see at work, when (mostly) free market capitalism unshackled society’s productive imagination. The key was that it allowed individuals to reap the fruits of their labor, providing incentives for workers and entrepreneurs by allowing them to accumulate capital. Capital accumulation is the prerequisite for a prosperous society, without it there can be no sustainable investment or economic growth.

Privately-Owned Technology Is Not a Problem

Yet many are beginning to worry that our technology could soon turn on us and actually bring about our demise. The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking speculated earlier this year that robots will eventually take over the world, but has since revised his stance, now suggesting that capitalist-technology is a greater threat and will bring about unsustainable inequality and poverty as automated production techniques displace human labor. Such fears display an ignorance of history and economic science.
First, economists have for centuries pinpointed labor and land (i.e., natural resources) as permanent factors of production, with capital goods (in this case machines) being ultimately produced out of them. As Murray Rothbard explains in chapter 9 of Man, Economy, and State, there has always been a scarcity of labor, meaning that machines don’t make labor obsolete, but are rather labor-saving devices that make goods drastically cheaper for consumers, enable more leisure time for everyone, and simply redirect labor to other ends. Human labor is always required in some capacity for all production processes — such as the maintenance of machines — thus it’s inconceivable that every single industry could possibly be automated, not to mention the new industries that emerge as labor is freed up from its previous areas of employment. (For a complete demolition of this argument, see here.)
Second, the chilling irony of modern technology isn’t the menace of an AI takeover, where our creations turn against us in an apocalyptic scenario (although it’s impossible to completely rule this out). More to the point is that for all the ways technology is drastically improving the quality of life for people everywhere, the ability to inflict death, harm, and destruction is also unprecedented; and these technologies are being harnessed virtually entirely by states.

State Ownership of Technology Is a Problem

Coercive governments, for as long as they’ve existed, have been abusive of individual rights and the integrity of human beings everywhere, from the torture devices of Medieval Europe, to the cannons of the Civil War. However, the State in its proclivity to inflict violence upon humanity has always been restrained by the technology available to it, whether it was the axe, the sword, or the club in ancient times.
Yet as productive society has advanced in its ability to satisfy human needs and wants, the regimes of the day have used new technologies to expand their weaponry arsenals. The twentieth century will be remembered twofold: for its incredible increase in wealth and prosperity on the one hand, but also for its terrible wars. Indeed, more people were killed by state-governments in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteencombined.
Today in the twenty-first century, the world is embroiled in warfare and disaster wrought by the State, while the glories of the market economy surround us everywhere we turn. Market-societies build us up, while states tear us down.
Despite the sadistic few among us, there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of people prefer peace and prosperity and use technology as a means toward these ideals. On the other hand, it bears repeating that the primary culprit in turning technology toward nefarious purposes is the State.
So perhaps the most profound question of our time is, going forward, how we will use our increasingly powerful technology: as a progressive force to the benefit of humanity by relieving our ailments, extending our life spans, and increasing our worldly comforts beyond our wildest dreams — or as a retrogressive force that acts to our detriment by inflicting pain and suffering and death upon people everywhere?
(For more about Don Keith, visit www.donkeith.com.  If you follow this blog because you are an amateur radio operator, you might also enjoy Don's ham radio site, www.n4kc.com.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving AM broadcasting by killing it?

   
 
by Don Keith
 
 
I am on record as predicting that the AM commercial broadcast band will soon be scrapped and given to Amateur Radio operators.  The reason is simple: listenership to AM radio--and especially among that desireable young demographic--has dwindled to almost nothing.

There are reasons for that:

1) AM fidelity is simply not competitive with FM, CDs, MP3s, online and other means of listening to audio.

2) AM, by its nature, is prone to electrical interference, ranging from lightning to LED lighting to your neighbor's leaf blower.

3) AM waves propagate great distances when the sun goes down. This meant that from the beginning, and to crowbar in as many radio stations as possible, regulators made many stations use directional antenna arrays to protect each other as well as Canadian and Mexican stations.

4) Back then (mostly in the early 1950s), those directional stations with their bunches of towers (to get a directional signal) were built in places so their signals would cover the geography where most of their listeners lived.  Guess what.  Cities have grown in the past sixty years, suburbs have been built in areas where those stations can no longer be heard, and especially at night.  I just saw some stats that say that in many cities there is not a single AM station that covers its entire current city of license 24 hours a day.

5) Because of these factors, AM station owners have gone to mostly cheap (as well as bad and boring) nationally-syndicated programming or even cheaper ethnic formats serving small niches.  Those moves have chased most listeners to FM...or to the internet, Pandora, or phone apps.



Well, the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that regulates broadcasting in the USA, has been studying the problem for more than two years.  Finally last week they issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on what they believe will be the savior of AM radio.

Most of the things they have come up with are technical, relaxing some of the onerous restrictions on daytime-only and directional AMs to give them a bit more coverage.  One would be less restrictive on towers, which are the antennas for AM stations, because it has become so difficult to find real estate or zoning ordinances or willing neighbors that will allow those six or eight ugly old towers and the many acres on which they stand.  (As a programming consultant I once had to tell a station owner that the land on which his towers stood was worth far more than his AM station was or ever would be.  It was true.  Now, many AM stations are simply turning in their licenses and selling all that prime development land.)

All well and good, I say, but far too little far too late.  Most AM operators simply can't afford to move their transmitting facilities to some other place that will give them a tad more coverage.  And none of these things are going to send listeners gleefully swarming back to listen to AM radio. I fear that window of opportunity has long since passed.

The really big proposal in the FCC's rulemaking, and the one that has AM station owners dancing a jig, is that the FCC will make it easier for them to apply for FM translators and put their AM programming on a spot on the FM band.  Translators are very low-powered FM transmitters that use antennas at relatively low heights.  They were originally designed to allow FM broadcasters to fill in "holes" in areas in the markets to which they were licensed that might have weaker signals.  Those "holes" were typically caused by mountains or big buildings.

Things related to translators have gotten pretty confused.  People who don't even own a station have been able to apply for licenses for them and they promptly turn around and sell them for big bucks to existing licensees.  Why would they want them?  A translator allows those who already have a big FM station to put a different format on one of their alternate channels (FMs have the ability to transmit several more channels but only listeners equipped with so-called "HD radios" can hear them...unless that programming is also being re-transmitted on a translator.).  Those big operators also have some AMs, too, and they can put a music format, for example, on an AM but count on the rebroadcast of that format on the translator to make them money or block a competitor from adapting that format.  

You may have noticed that the FM dial in your town has filled up with new stations that you really can't get on your radio very well.  And they seem to be mostly music with the occasional disembodied voice and some commercials.  And when they do the station identification at the top of the hour it sounds like someone reading the contents of their bowl of vegetable soup: "W261FQ Nowheresville WAAA-AM Big Town, WFFM-FM HD2 Big Town," or similar.

So, the move that will save AM radio is to allow more AM operators to have a presence on the the FM dial.  Oh, that means they will have to keep that AM station on the air in order to allow them to keep the translator happily filled with stellar programming and information...and commercials for which they can charge more because they will be on FM, too!  But then where's the incentive for the AM owner to spend all the money to move the AM towers and transmitter so the station can be heard where people actually live in the 21st century?  

Actually, in smaller markets the answer might be, "Yes."  Daytime AM stations...and there are almost a thousand of those that have to go away when the sun goes down...that truly want to serve the needs of their city can do shows, play music, carry local high school football and the like on that sparkling new translator.  And so long as the town is not all that big or the area full of mountains and valleys they may be able to cover most of the people they need to reach.

On the other hand, it seems to me that allowing bigger market AMs to get a translator or two or three to give them an FM signal only assures that nobody will be left to listen to that AM programming.  Then, at what point does the FCC say, "Well, we tried but it didn't work.  So, Ham Radio, enjoy that wonderful new extension to the 160-meter Amateur Radio band."

By trying to save AM, they will have killed it.
 
 


Monday, October 19, 2015

Broadcasters see nothing but sweetness and light when it comes to the "digital dashboard"

 

By Don Keith N4KC
 

No, I don't think traditional broadcasting is going away anytime soon.  No, I am not convinced that the huge video display in the middle of most new car dashboards is going to cause the imminent demise of Rock 107 or Classic Hits 92.3.  But if broadcasters want to continue to put their heads in the sand and ignore the impact on their business of this rapidly changing technology, then they will only hasten the aforementioned fate for the medium I love so much.


Latest example of using questionable statistics to convince themselves the sky is not falling: an article in INSIDE RADIO, a publication/e-mail newsletter that does little else but find glimmers of hope wherever they can for the people who subscribe to and advertise in their products.  If you don't want to read the article, here are the key points it makes:

  • Even though the "connected car" is here already and will only increase penetration among auto buyers in the future, recent surveys show that potential new car buyers still insist on the AM/FM radio in the dash.
  • One of those stats says 72% of new car buyers "insist on" having an AM/FM radio.
  • Half the respondents also want a CD player or access for a portable MP3 player, too.  
  • Close to a third also want "apps," satellite radio, and "Internet radio."
  • 20% want HD radio.
As usual, I must mention that the article does not give us any idea of who was surveyed other than they were "potential vehicle buyers."  Nor do they tell us how many respondents were in the sample, how the demos were broken out, or--most important of all--how the questions were worded.  Anybody familiar with research can confirm those are huge factors in the results, and especially in a research project conducted for a known audience and used to bolster that audience's own agenda.  There is no link in the article to the survey or to the entity that conducted it.

Okay, to the first result above: when was the last time a new car was sold in this country that did not have an AM/FM radio in it?  So why would anybody have to "insist on" having one?  Does the question simply show a list of add-ons and ask respondents to choose the ones they would "insist on" when purchasing that vehicle?  I'd say near 100% of buyers would expect to have an AM/FM radio and would, if asked, choose it from a list in a survey as something they would insist on.

If so, should it not be extremely discouraging for broadcasters that less than 75% of buyers "insist on" something so basic and ubiquitous--something so ingrained in American culture--as an AM/FM radio in the car?  Who are those 28% who don't care to have one at all?

Boy, I sure would like to see how that breaks out among different age groups, too.  If old folks who cannot even imagine a car without an AM/FM radio are skewing that number upward, and if a couple of generations of younger folks are not all that crazy about having the device cluttering up their dashboard, then what does that portend for the future of the broadcasting business?  "Well, if it comes with the car and doesn't cost me anything, I guess it's okay to have one.  But I'm not insisting on it.  It ain't a deal-breaker.  But I have to have..."

Should it not also be scary as hell that half the respondents said they would "insist on" a CD player and MP3 player?  That is half the potential listeners to terrestrial radio who want the capability to listen to something else.  How are stations going to ask the dollars they need for commercial advertising if half their potential audience is listening to their favorite CD or iPad instead of Mickey and Mushmouth-in-the-Morning?

Of course, there is another third who want "apps" so they can check traffic, weather, news, and the like on their dash screen instead of waiting for their local radio station to get around to giving them that info.  I see no mention of Bluetooth technology that integrates the mobile phone into the dash, but I have to assume that is what they mean by "apps."  Or at least what the respondents assume they mean.  And if they are using an app to get desired and important info instead of listening to radio to eventually deliver what they need when they need it then what does that do to the stations' audiences?  Oh, and how much time are they spending on the phone as they drive, using hands-free technology?  And if they are yakking on the phone, they ain't listening to Country 107.9.

That final number--20% "insist on" HD radio--stuns me.  First, I can't believe 20% of any random sample of potential car buyers even know what HD radio is, let alone would not buy a car without such a device.  Ask the next ten people you meet if they would have to have HD radio on any new car they wanted to buy.  See if you can find even two who know what the heck you are talking about.  I suspect that 20% saw something on the list that looked like it might be cool and checked that box.

Bottom line: traditional broadcasters will not stave off the threat of the connected car with its digital dashboard with self-serving surveys and self-convincing "analysis."  As in-dash technology and connectivity become more user friendly and effective, auto buyers will insist on a full array of capabilities in the cars they purchase.  Most of those capabilities will drag listeners away from old-fashioned, always-there AM/FM radio in droves.  That will eventually kill broadcasting as a business and a lifestyle.  If nothing changes, such an outcome is inevitable.

We have solid examples that it is so.  Ask newspapers and magazines what happened when subscribers went away, lured by technology that made the content they traditionally got from print easier to access, more powerful, and more ubiquitous.  What happened to the ad rates print media were able to demand?  Have you looked at the classified section of your daily paper lately?  If you even have a daily paper anymore!

So what should radio do instead of commission surveys and play more of the biggest hits of yesterday and today?  Give listeners a reason to keep listening.  Give them content they can't find via Bluetooth, apps, or an MP3 player.  Give up on "broadcasting" and learn to make a profit on a niche audience that can be worthwhile to particular advertisers at a reasonable price.  Learn something about "marketing" instead of relying on the hope that the AM/FM radio always has been there in the dashboard so it always will.  (Newspapers were around long before radio and where are they going now?  Longevity is not a factor in survival as technology changes.  The technical evolution of media is brutal.)

Oh, and I wonder what that percentage of "insists on" would have been if the surveyors had separated AM and FM radios in the list of dash must-haves.  

How many would have "insisted on" an AM radio in that sparkling new vehicle?
   
   
   

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A radio group that could screw up a three-car funeral

by Don Keith

If you hold stock in Cumulus Media, you have my deepest sympathy.  Cumulus is the second largest owner of over-the-air radio stations in the USA.  They own some truly legendary stations with call signs like KABC, WABC, WLS and WSM.  But last time I checked, their stock, which had been in the $4 range not that long ago, is now less than 75 cents a share.  You'd have to sell five shares to afford a latte at Starbucks!


If you dig deeper--and really, before you bought stock in that mess, you should have--you will see that they have taken those great radio stations, and the other 600 or so they own, and run them into the ground.  Ratings are down more than 50% on some former market-leading stations.  When stock analysts gave them grief a few years ago, they tried to blame their problems on Rush Limbaugh, resulting in them dropping his show at many of their stations.  I won't go into the details here but, regardless of how you feel about El Rushbo, he does deliver ratings.  And he had no more to do with the problems of the Cloud People than I did.  You simply can't continue to grow revenue every quarter by going out and buying another radio group with borrowed money.

No, the company is the textbook example of the "cut your way to prosperity" school of business profitability.  They have succeeded in chasing away most of their popular and creative on-air talent and programmers because they did not want to pay them.  Instead they have that usual MBA-mentality aversion to "risk" that comes along with having actual, living, breathing humans making local decisions at their radio stations.  "Jesus, what if he gets good ratings and leaves us and takes his listeners to the competition?  The stock analysts would kill us if that happened!  Let's just run music off the computer.  It won't leave us when its contract is up."

And their sales philosophy in the face of plunging ratings?  Work even harder, make more cold calls, don't waste time putting together a real marketing plan for clients when you could better be in a sales meeting--learning how to make cold calls--or working your way through the Yellow Pages and setting up appointments at every potential advertiser with a phone number.  (Don't believe me?  I have seen their "weekly sales calendar."  Nobody has time to sell or work up an effective ad campaign or follow up with those who do buy a schedule on their air.)  And if, despite all this BS, someone actually becomes a star salesperson, he or she has commission cut because the rep is making too much money.  And those good accounts developed through hard work and smarts get re-assigned to the constant influx of new salespeople, hired to replace those who go on to sell cars or cemetery plots, so they will at least stay with the station long enough to justify printing their business cards.  (I'll avoid my "Glengarry Glen Ross" references here, but they would be totally appropriate.)

I could also go into detail about what the company saw as its savior, a massive branding effort for its country music-formatted stations called NASH-FM.  Actually, they had some truly creative and exciting ideas, developed some interesting partnerships, and might have been onto something.  But they forgot the most basic thing of all: they did not put compelling content on their radio stations to attract enough listeners to even be aware of what NASH-FM was all about.  No, they piped in deejays from New York for morning drivetime, the key daypart on any radio station, and ran most of the rest of the day streaming the same 100 songs over and over.  And bragging about how cool and hip NASH-FM was with well-produced drop-ins voiced by smooth announcer-types.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: over-the-air radio will NEVER win the music-streaming battle.  That ship has sailed.  And they certainly won't unless they offer more between the songs to attract listeners willing to put up with those long, long, long commercial breaks they insist on running so they can tout "Fifty minutes commercial free of the biggest hits of the 80s, 90s and today!"  All this is especially true of country music, which is so much a life-style format.  You have to have some warmth, humanity, and companionship on the air beyond the songs or people.  Your whole station, and especially the personalities who pop up between the music, have to be something with which the country-music lifestyle group will identify.  Otherwise, they will simply go to Pandora and listen to the songs there...one after the other.  I don't have any evidence of it, but I'd still bet that nobody responsible for the songs played or the personalities that waft in on the satellite to be on the radio in local markets know what the country life-style group is all about in each and every market.  Where do those listeners work?  What do they drink?  Where do they go for live music?  What sports teams do they follow?  What vehicles do they drive?  Which TV shows do they watch?  Sorry, it is not the same in Nashville as it is in Birmingham as it is in Dallas as it is in Atlanta as it is in the middle of dadgum New York City!

Well, now there is a new development with Cumulus that caused me to launch this latest rant.  Today they announced a shake-up in their top management.  The company has been run--and, let's give them credit by admitting they built a huge group of stations by borrowing money like sailors on shore leave and hypnotizing stock analysts with their business-school-speak--by the Dickey brothers, sons of the founder of the company.

That is no longer the case.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  They needed someone who can buck the trend, do what it takes, change the culture.

Today, they announced a new CEO, someone who will lead Cumulus back to prosperity.  Someone who understands what it will take to save not only the company but commercial radio from the effects of rapid technological change and all that new competition for the ears of America.

Yes, Cumulus went out and hired themselves--well, they didn't exactly "go out" and hire someone because she was already on their board of directors--a new CEO from the world of...you ready for this?...MAGAZINES!  Which medium was the first to succumb to technological change, even before newspapers?  Magazines.


So they hired Mary Berner as their new CEO.  Ms. Berner may well be a fabulous executive and have the skills, smarts, savvy, and creativity to assure that the company comes roaring back.  But if you look at her resume, you will see that she not only worked in this dying industry, she last ran their trade organization, the Association of Magazine Media.  The outfit that was supposed to help fight back against all the new media that has made the print industry a shadow of its former self.

Not only that but she worked for Readers Digest, a magazine made up of articles culled from other magazines!  And TV Guide, which swam against the rip current of technology until it ultimately drowned.  But she did work at one example of the technological revolution, the cutting-edge web site recipesnow.com.

Why am I so cynical and bitter about The Cloud People and what they are doing to my favorite medium?  Three reasons.


First, at a time when radio most needs strong, dynamic and creative leadership, these folks are cutting, slashing, firing, threatening, and conniving to stay afloat, not by doing something on the air to attract listeners and sell product for advertisers but to keep the stock price up and continue to grow revenue by borrowing money and printing more stock certificates so they can buy more stations, not by doing a good job running the ones they own already.  In my opinion, they are killing radio and that makes me mad as hell!  It is a tough enough challenge if everybody was doing things right.  When the second biggest owner of stations does everything wrong, it does not bode well for over-the-air broadcasting.

Second, I know too many good folks who still work for these guys and are being hurt.  There is something magical about working for a great radio station but these dedicated people will never know that feeling again.  They stay because they love radio or because they've been there for most of their careers or because the other radio operators are only slightly better, so where do they ply their trade if they jump ship?

And third, because I don't think it has to be this way.  Back in the '90s, I had the pleasure of visiting Lew Dickey Sr. in his home in West Palm Beach.  He, like many owner-operators before the FCC messed with the ownership rules in 1995, had started a radio group on a shoestring.  He did everything in his stations, on the air, selling commercials, engineering, sweeping the floors and mowing the grass around the towers.  He understood the one-to-one relationship between on-air personality and listener, between sales rep and advertiser.  Though he had just started building his group, and was seeing considerable success, I got the idea he was not totally sold on how things were changing.

We had a good chat about the medium, the business, and where it was going.  I believe that with some of the things he said and much more he only hinted at that Mr. Dickey knew very well that things were not necessarily playing out the way many of us thought they would.  And especially those of us who believed the change in ownership rules that allowed the creation of these mega-group owners was a good thing.  He died several years ago but I really would have enjoyed rekindling that conversation and seeing if he would discuss what has happened in the meantime to the medium he and I love so much.

I doubt he would have gone so far as to comment on the part his sons have played.  He did not seem to be that kind of gentleman.  But he had to know it wasn't right.  Had to know cutting the heart and soul out of broadcast radio was not the path to success or the way to save a threatened medium.

He had to know that when you take the warmth and companionship and one-to-one out of the most one-to-one mass medium we have, you take away all its power.  All its magic.