Friday, September 16, 2016

An open letter to my local newspaper -- part deux

By Don Keith

This is a follow-up to my previous post, a diatribe against what is left of my market's "daily" newspaper, THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS.  It is yet another example of a mass medium attempting to survive in the face of rapid technological change and the almost overwhelming shift in how people consume media in the 21st century.

And, like other media I follow (especially broadcast radio and over-the-air and network TV), and despite their attempts to remain viable, all they can seem to do is ignore their customers--current and potential--while theoretically trying to find a way to continue to exist.

I gave an example of how the NEWS attempted to do this by suddenly offering four "enhanced feature editions" a year as well as a Thursday special edition on Thanksgiving Day with all those Black Friday ads...whether subscribers wanted these editions or not.  They would simply and happily cut subscriptions short by enough to cover the costs of these wonderful but not-necessarily-desired specials and bill the renewal earlier than they were supposed to.  Earlier than we poor subscribers had agreed to allow them to do.

UPDATE:  I received an email a few days after my rant to the so-called customer service department that they had opted me out of the first "special edition." I assume that means I won't pay for it.  No mention of the other three coming up.  Or the Turkey Day extravaganza.

I must not have been the only one with a beef.  There is now a special mailbox on their confusing and routinely ignored automated telephone answering system devoted to questions about those very "special editions."  How do I know about that dedicated voicemail box?  Let me tell you...

Our "daily" paper only publishes on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.  However, one thing I could usually count on was that the paper would show up in my driveway on those days, usually well before 6 AM.  While about everything else is wrong with the paper...lack of line editing, huge pictures taking up editorial space, outdated stories, no follow up on continuing stories, same story appearing in multiple sections of the same edition...I felt I could at least get the beast delivered.

Not today.  No paper.  I waited until after 9 AM to report it.  That operation requires going through a gamut of "Push 1 to turn off delivery for vacation, push 2 to cancel your subscription, etc." before finally getting to "Push 7 to report a missing, damaged or wet paper."  It may not have been 7 but it was on down the list.)

Ding!  "7" led to another lengthy list of possibilities before I finally got a recording asking if I was calling from the number associated with my account.  It didn't tell me what to do if it was so I said, "Yes."  "We apologize for any inconvenience.  We will redeliver your newspaper within 90 minutes."  Click.  Call disconnected.

Three hours later, still no paper.  I go through the whole routine again, including choosing the number...9...that is supposed to allow me to speak to an Alabama Media Group operator. A live person.  Precisely what I need in order to explain my frustration and maybe get some satisfaction.

It rings and rings and rings and, after about five minutes, disconnects me.  I dutifully dial back, but this time I let the out-of-work former female disk jockey go through all the options on both menus before she says something about speaking to a customer service representative.  Ding.  But I do not get a human at all.  I should mention that at several junctures, I was informed that the company was experiencing unusually high phone volume and the wait might be considerable.  After fifteen minutes on hold, I availed myself of their insistent offer to call me back when my turn came up.

I had my doubts about that particular promise but they actually did call me back after about twenty minutes.  And it was a human being on the other end of the line.  Eureka!  But the young fellow quickly made it clear he could not help me with a delivery issue.  That would have to come from the customer service department, the very bunch for whom I was holding when I opted to get called when they could finally find the time to speak with me. But he interrupted my attempt to so inform him to tell me he would transfer me and immediately did just that.  Maybe he was just tired of calling all of us back.  Or having us question the marital status of his parents.

Guess what.  I got the "high volume of calls" message and the offer to call me back should they ever have a free rep to get me my paper.  After about ten minutes holding, hearing that message over and over, I was about to once again hang up and start all over when a sleepy-voiced, very depressed-sounding lady came on the line. She assured me they would have me a paper within 90 minutes, that my usual guy was off today and his replacement was running behind.

Poor planning on someone's part, I thought, but it could happen.  I thanked her and waited.  Understand this is now about 11:30 AM.  The fill-in guy really was running behind!  By more than six hours!

Two more hours of my dwindling life whiz on by and still no paper has been tossed onto my lawn.

I begin dialing again but there have now been subtle changes in the convolution that is Alabama Media Group's exotic phone tree.  Now, when I finally get to the department to which they insist I go, I am told by the out-of-work DJ that the customer service department is only open until 1 PM, and only on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.  I am welcomed to leave a message and someone will eventually contact me to resolve my issue.  They have shut down customer service without rectifying my seemingly simple problem!  I do leave a message, and, I admit, my demeanor and language does not reflect my usual calm and understanding nature.  I cuss some.  I yell.  I plead.

Finally, at about 3, I call back and begin hitting--in my search for anyone who is not previously recorded or gone home for the day--the buttons for the newsroom (rings and rings for five minutes and finally disconnects...thank goodness I didn't have a big news tip for them!), classifieds (rings about ten times before I give up), and, finally, retail advertising.  I figure if anybody will enthusiastically answer the phone it would be a salesperson trying to fill with paid ads all that space in the paper now occupied by full-page photos and ads for upcoming Alabama Media Group "special editions."

Someone answers!  Never mind the circuit is so distorted we can hardly understand each other.  Before I can even explain that I am not calling to buy space, that it involves getting a copy of the very rag for which she sells ads, she hurriedly tells me she will transfer me to customer service.  Maybe she could tell by my voice that there was no commission in it for her if she talked with me.

"No! No!" I scream, trying to let her know there ain't nobody there until Sunday morning and I'll be in that never-ending high-volume-of-calls-but-we-can-call-you-back-when-it-is-your-turn diatribe and will only be allowed to leave yet another profane voice mail  But she has already hit the button.  Well, it is a different extension apparently.  This time I get a message that I have reached "technical support" and should leave a message so a "supervisor" can get back to me "soon."  Never mind the message sounds as if it was recorded inside a culvert beneath a city street.  I once again leave a blistering but likely incoherent--except for the select Anglo-Saxonisms typically uttered by gentlemen from the docks--message about my plight.

It is 4:15 PM as I type this.  The paper has not arrived yet though many "90 minutes" have come and gone.  I cannot go subscribe to another paper.  There isn't one.  Yes, I could go online and read what passes for news on, but frankly, it is a frustrating experience, filled with dead-end links, ads that creep in and obliterate whatever it is I am trying to read, and others that start playing at a painful volume somewhere on the page where I can't find it to try to turn it off before it fractures my computer speakers.  I could also read the online mock-up of the actual printed paper but it requires constant squinting to determine if I want to enlarge an article or ad to be able to see it, and is so clunky to operate it is the equivalent of an hour on a treadmill just trying to do the Jumble.

I suppose I could even climb in the truck and run down to Kangaroo and get a pack of jerky, a Red Bull, and this morning's BIRMINGHAM NEWS.  But principle forbids.

Look, Tuscaloosa, Jasper, Cullman and other smaller cities surrounding Birmingham have daily papers.  They can all manage to publish and stay afloat with a paper that shows up every day of the week.  From what I hear, they usually manage to get a copy onto the property of subscribers with a modicum of dependability.  Yet in a media market of better than a million souls, one with a proud tradition of print journalism that has included several Pulitzer Prize winners, Alabama Media Group cannot manage to get it done in Birmingham, Alabama.

As an experienced observer of media of all types, I understand the challenges facing traditional print media.  I really do.  But why hasten the inevitable by doing such a terrible job of trying to keep happy those few customers they have left?  Can't they simply do their best to serve us until we all die off and they can fold the paper once and for all?

Even when they get around to printing up a paper, it now appears they can't even find anybody to drive it out to my place and toss it in the gutter.  No, even as they fumble all the other aspects of putting together a newspaper, they now seem intent on messing up the most basic facet of all:

Fulfilling the sacred agreement they have made with subscribers to actually deliver the damn thing to them!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An open letter to my local newspaper

by Don Keith
It is no revelation to even the most casual observer that rapid technological change has had a devastating effect on some traditional media.  Among the hardest hit is the local daily newspaper.  Many large cities no longer have a daily paper with many only publishing a few days a week.  Some towns have no traditional print newspaper at all.

This is clearly because consumers no longer want to get their news and opinion in a printed paper. Or at least not enough people so the publishers can charge advertisers enough for ads so they can make money at it. Still, as with my other favorite media whipping-boy, broadcast radio, it amazes me that those outlets seem hell-bent on hastening their own demise through dumb actions, poor customer service, or attempting to cut their way to prosperity. My local paper, The Birmingham News, is a prime example.

I received in the mail a prime example of this very thing this week.  It came from my town's former-daily-now-three-times-a-week newspaper, to which I still reluctantly subscribe for my own personal reasons, some of which are mentioned below.  The letter happily told me that on September 18 I would receive with my paper "a 100-page investment and Retirement Guide (sic)."  Well, whoop de doo!  

It went on to promise, "This is the first of up four (4) 'premium editions,' in addition to the premium Thanksgiving Day edition, that will be delivered with your Sunday newspaper throughout the year and applied to your subscription account."  Yep, they were sending the thing to me whether I wanted it or not and they were damn well going to charge me extra for it!

After touting in the letter what a fine book the investment guide would be, they get around to the dirty details of what it will cost me:  "$2.99 will be applied to your subscription account for the Investment and Retirement Guide and for each of the other premium editions; and $4.00 will be applied to your subscription account for the Thanksgiving Day edition.  Applicable sales tax will be added.  There will not be an additional charge to your credit/debit card or checking account for these premium edition charges.  However, since the charge is applied to your subscription account balance, it will shorten your paid-through date so the next charge comes about sooner."

Thank you very much sir!  May I have another kick in the teeth?

I had no choice.  I had to dash off a sarcastic missive to the paper's customer service department, which is almost certainly farmed out to some overseas entity.  Still, in an effort to let others know how goofy I think such a heavy-handed thing is--even if the money is not that much--I am presenting my open letter below, primarily for your entertainment.

I do this blog to discuss rapid technological change and its effect on media, society and my hobby of choice, amateur radio.  But I didn't say I was thrilled by every single one of those changes.

I'll let you know if I hear from anyone who speaks English and what they tell me.


Dear Customer Service at The Birmingham News:

I received a form letter from you in yesterday’s mail. It informed me about upcoming so-called “premium editions” of The Birmingham News that will be wafting my way and how those publications will ultimately affect my current subscription term for the printed newspaper.

So let me get this straight.  You will be throwing onto my driveway “up to four (4)” of these so-called “premium editions” during the year—publications I did not order nor necessarily desire to receive—whether I want them or not.  And because I will involuntarily receive these “premium editions” whether I want them or not it will shorten the term of my current subscription in order for me to pay for them.  Note that I definitely want to receive a Thursday Thanksgiving Day paper, which you mention as an example of a “premium edition,” and have done so ever since you decided to only go to the trouble to publish the paper three times a week but on days that do not include Thursday.  I believe, too, that I have thus far been able to do so at no additional charge or negative hit to my subscription term.  Now, though, it appears you are dubbing this T-day ad extravaganza as one of your “up to four (4)” so-called “premium editions,” and will be chopping off $4 worth of my subscription term in order to pay for that bundle of inserts that arrives with the turkey on the last Thursday in November.  Really?  You don't make enough money off that ten pounds of advertising material and have to charge me an additional $4 for the privilege of having to lug the thing up from the street while the bird is being basted?

I also understand from your form letter that even though I have not specifically ordered these fine “premium editions,” you intend to throw them in my driveway anyhow, and to proceed to lop off enough of the end of my subscription to the paper that I did specifically subscribe to in order to pay for these publications that I may or may not desire to receive.  Pretty presumptuous of you, I say.  For example, you have so far only informed me of the nature of one of these “premium editions.”  It is a tome dedicated to telling me how to invest in order to be in better shape financially when I retire.  Frankly, though I’m sure it is a wonderful book and, to some, well worth the $2.99 worth of subscription at the end of the term it will cost them, it is of no value to me at all.  I have already retired.  The die is cast.  There is little I can do to prepare for it since I’ve already done it.

Oh, maybe there is a bit of information, a morsel here or there that may be of use in trying to survive on Social Security and the investing I did before you blessed me with this particular “premium edition.”  I am simply another subscriber who entered into a subscription agreement with your company in good faith that you would toss me a paper three days a week and I’d pay you in negotiable funds for the service for the time period for which I bargained.  It seems to me that I would have some say-so in changes you unilaterally choose to make in that agreement.  Maybe I feel that I could find that very same investing and retirement advice on-line or in a book and really don’t care to receive, sight unseen except for your skimpy four bullet points in the form letter you sent me, the “premium edition” you insist on jettisoning into my yard.

I must also point out that at the same time, you are promising—dare I say, “threatening?”—to launch onto my acreage up to three (3) more of these “premium editions” throughout the year.  You don’t say if the “year” of which you speak is the balance of 2016, the time between now and the same date next year, or at odd, unpredictable intervals in the remainder of 2016 and all of calendar-year 2017.  Gosh knows if it is the first option above--four more "premium editions" with which I am to be blessed between now and New Year's Eve, then the cost may result in my already owing you a renewal.

There is also no mention of the subject matter of those promised/threatened “premium editions,” though you declare you'll so inform us in advance "in the paper," so I have no idea if I really want to see them arcing from carrier to homestead during that unspecified time period or not.  Let me just say right up front that if the future “premium editions” you plan cover subjects such as pruning azaleas, cooking lobster the low-fat way, easy calculations using basic algebra, the care and feeding of alpacas, wiring ones gazebo for 220 volts AC, teaching cats to swim, playing winning canasta, re-decorating recreational vehicle interiors, the Kardashians, logging for fun and profit, best routes to the beach, identifying the sex of various rodents, or how to obtain a business license in Hoboken, New Jersey, then you are wasting time, ink and trees in delivering such a publication to my little slice of North Shelby County paradise.  See, I have no more interest in those subjects than I do in planning for retirement.  They will be dispatched directly to the recycling container without even entering our abode.

But then, as I speculated above, it appears I have no vote in this particular election.  You’ve decided for me that I’ll unroll my paper and find your “premium edition” encased therein whether I want or need it or not.  And you will whack off the end of my subscription to pay for it, robbing funds from my credit card well before the time at which you and I previously agreed such a transaction would occur.

I don’t want to be mean-spirited, but allow me to speculate here.  Could it be that you have previously attempted to market such “premium editions” in the more traditional way, to both subscribers and potential advertisers.  That is, you came up with an idea you thought you could sell to both entities, printed up sales materials that guaranteed a certain number of reader eyeballs that you could promise advertisers, ran ads in your few remaining papers and amid all the clutter and jetsam on your horribly bloated web sites, and then sat back waiting for the dollars to roll in?  And could it be that this way failed to turn a profit?

So now, I fear that you have taken the position that you will still promise advertisers all those reader eyeballs but with a much better chance of actually delivering them since you will “sell” us subscribers the “premium edition” whether we want to buy it or not.  I will promise you one thing: if I am extorted into accepting that unwanted booklet and get my subscription abbreviated, I will not patronize any advertiser included therein.  Sorry to be so vindictive but I do not like to be forced to purchase anything I do not specifically want.  

Let me make a prediction here.  Many of the lingering faithful are hanging on by a thread when it comes to subscribing to your current three-day-a-week-except-four-the-week-of-Thanksgiving newspaper.  The editions are getting thinner and thinner.  Events that occur on one day are often not covered until three days later and even then lack crucial details that are almost certainly available before then. It appears, based on spelling, grammatical errors, and sentence structure, that you no longer employ line editors or proofreaders.  And I fear your posse of reporters is a fraction the size it once was.  Never mind photographers.  Your use of stock photos has increased exponentially.  I understand you have issued your reporters smart phones and most photos you use are taken that way.  

Practically any story worth reading has already appeared on that bloated mess of a web site of yours.  (I’d personally prefer reading it in the print edition because there are no blinking ads, irritating videos suddenly erupting in the middle of the story content and blaring loudly at me, colorful, dancing ads seizing the screen with no readily discernible way to shut them so I can see what I was attempting to read, or disembodied voices unexpectedly screaming at me as I attempt to peacefully peruse the story, leaving me unable to find a way to shut them up before they finish insulting my intelligence and numbing my anvil, stirrup and hammer.)  

Friday’s paper is now virtually a pamphlet.  Wednesday’s would be as well were it not for all those grocery store ads.  Ads that are, by the way, tossed for free—yes, for free!  Now THAT is what I call a “premium edition!”—into the driveways of my non-subscriber neighbors a day or two before they show up rolled up inside my paid-for Wednesday edition of your dwindling “newspaper.”  (May I confess that we have been guilty of walking over to the vacant for-sale residence next door on Mondays or Tuesdays to steal the ads and coupons from the driveway so my wife can plan her grocery shopping a day or two earlier than would be otherwise possible?  Apparently you don’t even have to be an actual human to receive the free grocery store ads and coupons, just a house with an address and a driveway into which the publication can be deposited.  I wonder if your advertisers know that.  But forget getting it free and early if you pay for a subscription.  Your carriers are admirably efficient and never accidentally throw us a free one on Monday or Tuesday, thus the need for our larceny.)

At any rate, would it be possible for me to opt out of this initial “premium edition” on preparing for retirement and leave my subscription term unchanged so that I can apply this admittedly small amount of money to actually surviving during retirement?  And could I similarly request that you give me that same option on future “premium editions” once I have had the opportunity to determine if its content—whatever it turns out to be—will ultimately be of any possible interest or assistance to me?

Please don’t assume you know what “premium” content I want and need to read and how much I will be willing to pay for it.  You may be wrong on both counts, for me as well as other current subscribers, and, in the process, give us just one more reason to no longer avail ourselves of not only your “premium editions” but your occasional “newspaper” as well. By the way, I wonder who decided to make this retirement guide your first effort in providing "premium editions" without permission to your subscribers.  I know what your subscriber demographic is and I'd venture to say that most of them fall into the same bucket as I do...well beyond PLANNING for retirement and doing what they have to do to SURVIVE it.  The hours are great.  The pay is terrible!

Oh, and if you are actually trying to get rid of us hangers-on so you don’t even have to go ahead with your plans to outsource your printing of a traditional newspaper, you are certainly doing a good job of that.

One more thing: a year or so ago, I noticed the charge for my subscription had unexpectedly gone up, but only after I saw the charge on my credit card statement.  I realize that our agreement allows you to pretty much do whatever you want to do, raise the price, make the paper fewer and fewer pages, cut the term short to pay for an unsolicited “premium edition,” and the like.  Still, in the interest of customer service, it seems you would have at least let your subscribers know about the increase rather than simply slapping it onto the automatic charge.  I felt strongly enough about it that I promptly dialed up your customer service line to see if that price increase was at all reversible.  The young lady with whom I spoke had obviously been fielding many such calls and was curt with me.  

“So do you want to cancel your subscription or not?” she asked.  I pictured her finger hovering over the “Delete” key on her keyboard.  At that time, I really just wanted to continue paying what I had been paying for a shrinking product that has other serious shortcomings.  I surrendered and told her that I would continue to subscribe.  I swear I believe from her tone that she was disappointed. 

Meanwhile, you will no longer allow me to subscribe and pay for more than three months at a time.  Could it be you do not want any long-term commitments to subscribers that you would either have to honor or refund when you inevitably deep-six The Birmingham News?  

This policy makes me quite suspicious that it is only a matter of a short time before I get one of your form letters informing me that the presses of The Birmingham News will soon be stilled.  That will be a sad day, but so long as you continue to heave the grocery store ads and coupons onto the lawn of the vacant house next door, I’ll still be getting the most valuable product remaining of what was once a proud journalistic effort in our town.


Donald Keith
Customer number XXXXXXXX

Friday, July 8, 2016

Here goes Pollyanna again!

by Don Keith
Look back at previous posts on this blog and you will see several in which I get all hot and bothered by trade media that cater to broadcast radio's ridiculous attempt to paint any research that comes down the pike as a positive sign of life for what is actually a dying industry.  No, I'm not exaggerating about that dying thing.  Traditional broadcasting is losing listeners in droves to other forms of entertainment and news. And losing them as well to other distractions such as the cell phone.  (As I have noted before, a potential radio listener who is yapping away to her friend on the phone while commuting ain't hearing radio or the ads on the air that sponsors are paying for.)

Yet any research that shows at least a few people still listen to AM or FM sends these guys into shouts of Hosanna. Find some study that shows them to still be #1 for reach and they are absolutely beside themselves.

Most recent example: in today's email update, INSIDE RADIO linked to an article on their web site with the Pollyanna-ish screaming headline:


Trounces!  Wow!  So I bite at their click bait.  The linked article quotes a study by an outfit called Cowen and Company who say that 74% of their respondents report that they listen to "terrestrial radio."  That term, by the way, typically means over-the-air traditional radio but let's assume that none of the supposed 2,500 respondents bragged that yes, they listen to "terrestrial radio."

As usual with these breathless pronouncements about research studies bearing good news, there is no detail about methodology, about what age or ethnic groups make up the study, how the questions were worded or the respondents chosen, over what time span this supposed listening would have occurred, or anything that would give any sort of validity to this "trouncing" declaration.  2,500 respondents who also happen to be "consumers."  That is all we know about the study, at least based on this article that uses the data to prove radio is king of reach and frequency, long live the king!

Okay, so 74% say they listen to AM/FM radio, "making it the number one listening platform." How many of us remember when such a number would have been near 100%?  With the ubiquity of the radio, especially in cars, how many of us don't listen to at least a snippet sometime during a typical week?  How many respondents figured they must have listened sometime so they said they did when asked the question? Even if they had not.

Then, let's look at the other "rivals" who got "trounced."  YouTube came in second at 59%.  That is a not-so-distant 15% back.  Hardly a "trounce" in my definition of the word. Not bad, actually, for a service that is sort of difficult for most of us to even get in our cars.  And one that is not necessarily considered to be a "music" source anyway.

Then you have to look all the way back to Pandora at a distant third with 37%...about half as many "listeners" as radio.  Pandora, which is also difficult for most of us to get, certainly in our cars but also in many of our homes. I assume most Pandora listening is done on phones (which might cost us through data charges) and computers. It is hardly an arm's-length away in your dashboard, at least for most people. And the other "rivals" listed also cost money--some significant money--unlike free AM and FM over-the-air radio.

But the real deal breaker here, the one fatal flaw that makes Pollyanna cry in her Cheerios, is that we have no idea how much listening these 2,500 merry souls do to each of these sources.  Okay, so 74% say they "listen to terrestrial radio."  For how long?  Maybe I try to catch a traffic report on the way to work each morning. I know Rock 108 does one at :20 past the hour each hour.  I hit the button then to hear if I need to detour and then promptly return to Howard Stern on XM/Sirius.  I have just "listened to terrestrial radio" and can happily tell the Cowen folks about it.  For fifteen seconds, five days a week.  I listen to XM/Sirius an hour a morning, eight hours during the workday, and another hour returning home.

If the study is strictly considering "yes, I listen" as a tally mark for each "rival," then in this case, "terrestrial radio" gets one and XM/Sirius gets one.  Exactly the same. For just over a minute's worth a week on AM/FM and at least fifty HOURS worth of listening on satellite.

The reason this sort of false-hype chaps my butt so badly is because the industry...of which I was once a part and one that I hate to see die...uses this sort of feel-good but false data to prop up their opinions of themselves. It borders on bearing false witness.

"See, another study shows that people are perfectly pleased with the cheap, voice-tracked, over-researched, pablum we put on the air.  Hey, 74% listen to radio!  We be cookin'!"

Instead, they should be concentrating on and investing in the on-air product, doing research, not trying to cut their way to profitability, learning to sell the audiences they do attract to potential advertisers, and saving their medium before Pollyanna gives up, gets depressed, and starts smoking crystal meth.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Why your FM radio dial will soon be a cacophony

by Don Keith

A couple of items have my blood pressure elevated today, both related to the continued surrender of broadcast radio station operators who seem clueless in how to take rapid technological change and make their medium even more relevant and powerful.  Instead, they appear to be more interested in sucking it dry and leaving its desiccated carcass to rot in the summer sun.

First is a leaked memo from the brilliant minds who run SBS Broadcasting, a large group of mostly Spanish-language stations and primarily located in large markets.  They have declared that they will no longer pay a talent fee to their employees who do remote broadcasts or for on-air endorsement commercials or recorded spots.  I have three words for these dim bulbs:  Ustedes estan loco.  

I will admit, though, that I didn’t even know anyone still paid talent fees for remotes or recorded spots.  Or that most stations still had local talent hanging around to compensate even if they did such tasks. (You do know that the nice, pleasant voices you hear on your radio, saying all those clever things between songs, are most likely in some faraway city and they pre-recorded their patter a day or so ago, right?) 

Last radio "remote broadcast" I actually witnessed, a scruffy dude pulled up in a station van--which was badly in need of washing and could have used new tires--turned on the yellow lights, and sat inside the van for two hours talking on his cell phone.  As far as I could tell, he never even went inside the business.  The “talent” had pre-recorded the "live" breaks and they were just slotted in during the voice-tracked show on the air.  (And by the way, when I used to get talent fees for remotes, live endorsements, or spots I recorded, it was because it was a line item on the invoice to the advertiser.  I wonder if SBS will continue to charge advertisers a talent fee and just keep it for the greater good of the corporation and its shareholders.)

I’m telling you, the only way some of these guys can cut expenses any deeper is to sign off at midnight to save on the power bill - unless they can convince their electric company to trade juice for commercials.  Why will this affect your access to the FM band or broadcast radio?  Because talent is the lowest rung on the ladder yet it is what makes radio entertaining and informative and gives listeners the one thing they most seek...companionship.  When radio is only streamed music or syndicated talk show hosts, the stations will be even less worth listening to, advertisers will dessert the medium in even greater numbers, and it will go away.

Another harbinger of the mess that your FM dial is becoming:  I was out in a small town over Memorial Day, a little burgh that is about fifty miles from my own much bigger city.  While there, I drove past the little local radio station, an AM on the high end of the dial, one I used to admire for its dedication to the community.  I was aware of some of their recent troubled history, similar to most other AMs and especially small market ones. They got smart and leased an FM translator a few years ago from some church that was licensed to go on a hill near the middle of the town and was designed to cover only the local area.  Allegedly without bothering to check with anybody, they put the transmitter instead on a tower on the tallest mountain in the county. with the intent of putting a good signal over the entire county, making it possible to sell commercials to a broader market.  When one of the big group owners in the nearest big town kicked up a ruckus because it was wiping out their perfectly legal translator on the same frequency, the small-town guys relented…until they could get permission from the FCC to move to another frequency and put it back up on the big mountain.  Which they did.  Apparently, all was now on the up-and-up, and they do cover most of the county.

Well, in the meantime, the tower for the AM – the station they were supposed to be “translating” on FM, running only the programming of the AM – fell down.  I mean it literally fell because it had not been painted or maintained, apparently, in thirty years.  They reportedly decided to not put it back up but instead hooked up a wire dipole, just enough to get a tiny bit of power out, and got back on the air with the AM in order to legally supply programming for the FM translator and "serve their city of license."  Then that make-do antenna must have failed or they decided it was not worth the effort and they allegedly simply turned off the AM.  They apparently have still not even bothered to put the tower back up or even transmit an AM signal on a consistent basis. I don't know if all this is true or not, or if they have somehow gotten special dispensation from the FCC to remain off the air with the AM while programming and selling commercials on the FM translator, but I can testify to one fact.  

I passed within a hundred feet of the station yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, and there was NO signal being transmitted on their assigned AM frequency.  Others I know can confirm that this is always the case, not an anomaly.  However, the FM translator was rocking right along, playing the best of the 80s, 90s and today, commercials, promos, and voice-tracked deejay goodness, and including a legal station identification that was for both the AM and the translator call signs. Oh, and by the way, there is no mention whatsoever of the AM station on their web site or Facebook page. If this is all as it appears, and if there is no permission for the AM to remain off the air, then having the AM off the air most of the time while the translator is "translating" ain’t even close to legal. 

Okay, so why should we care? A county that has only one licensed AM and one licensed FM translator (so far) now has a signal that can reach most of the area with news and information. The old AM hardly covered its city of license when it was on the air.  It is daytime only, too.  If there is a tornado warning at night, the station can now let the entire area know about it on FM...assuming there is a live body there or close enough to get to the station before it all blows over.  It appears to be a thriving business now with lots of commercials on that translator FM and a coverage map that is downright impressive.

Here is why you should care.  Apparently the FCC, the governmental agency that regulates broadcasting, either doesn’t care or does not have the manpower to do anything about it.  And the broadcasters know it.  

There will soon be chaos on the FM dial.  With all the unregulated translators, the AM guys putting all that stellar programming on other translators that have been shoehorned in and, in some cases, put on the air with too much power or in an unapproved location, and with the stampede of low-power stations similarly crammed into every crevice of spectrum and programmed by “non-profit” entities, and with the abysmal lack of technical maintenance and engineering people to keep the signals legal and clean, you will soon not be able to hear your favorite station, even if you wanted to.  And that’s before you even factor in spectrum pollution spewed out by everything from plasma TVs to marijuana “grow lights!”

You may not care if over-the-air radio broadcasting goes away.  But I assure you that you will miss it when it is gone.

I already do because the best parts--the human parts that made radio a special medium--are disappearing rapidly.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Some thoughts on Memorial Day


By Don Keith
It's Memorial Day weekend again, a time for family, barbecue, mattress sales, and, maybe, paying homage to those who have given their lives for their countries. As I was reflecting on all that, it occurred to me that some of those we honor may have died for what we might consider the wrong causes.  

A friend of mine, Michael Stamps, got me thinking when he recently sent out an interesting missive on the subject.  Michael writes: "We must honor our fallen, never forgetting their sacrifice. This is what we must do; this is what is required of the living. We oftentimes remember when they died and at times we are reminded of how. But more often than not, we minimize the reason why they died, simply accepting the words, "to keep us free," without thinking about what words such as these really mean. The concept of freedom means different things to different persons."

How true that is!  I recently wrote the biography (“Mattie C.’s Boy”) of a truly remarkable man who overcame unimaginable cruelty—from family as well as strangers, from black as well as white, though he is African-American—to become a much honored and very successful communicator and businessman. Shelley Stewart hates the term “civil rights.” He straightened me out quickly when I idly used it as most of us do.

“Legally, we all have civil rights and have for a long time. Everybody does. What we have to fight for is human rights. If we recognize and accept everyone as human, it’s hard for even the biggest bigot to argue that all humans don’t deserve the same rights.”

I know wars are fought and men die for wrong or misunderstood causes. That is especially true, I’m afraid, in a time of uninformed people who base their understanding on Twitter posts and Internet postings. Smart marketers disguised as statesmen can convince followers to jump off a cliff in the name of what may or may not be a just fight.  It’s sometimes discouraging to me that we live in a time when information is more easily available than ever before in history yet so many people accept the first point of view they see or are so easily mislead by slick promises and manufactured “truth.”

Are we just overwhelmed by the volume of information and opinion?  Or are we too lazy to seek out truths so we make the right decisions on everything from which potato chip to buy for our Memorial Day cookout to which presidential candidate to vote for to which country we bomb into oblivion?

I just hope as we honor those who have died on our behalf--for our freedom to learn and choose--that we also take a vow to honor them in a new and far more practical way.  Become better educated, truly listen to all sides of an issue before making up our minds, and to make decisions that may cost people their lives based on more than a snap decision or the well-crafted words of a seductive tyrant.  Or even something a friend posted on Facebook.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Better hang onto your horse and buggy

by Don Keith N4KC

There continues to be a rabid land rush among AM broadcasters to file for the newly available FM translator channels (very low-power transmitters on relatively low towers designed to re-broadcast the signal of an AM station on the current FM commercial broadcast band).  This get-'em-while-you-can free-for-all is a ploy by the FCC (the government agency that regulates over-the-air broadcasting) to try to save the quickly dying AM broadcast band.

Read a few of my other posts below to see what I think of allowing AM station owners to "move" to FM in order to "save" AM.

In today's online broadcast trade journal INSIDE RADIO there appears an interesting--and uncharacteristically candid--article about some of the negative aspects of such a shift.  Read it HERE.

I understand the thought process behind allowing this mass creation of interference, poor signals, marginal formats and stations that will likely not be promoted or supported by either advertising or technical maintenance. How many of us really believe AM-only operators are going to spend money on promotions, research, personalities, a sales staff and more for a hundred-watt dim-bulb station getting clobbered from all sides by much more powerful signals?  I don't.  Not when their chances of gaining any sizeable audience with such a marginal signal is so very, very low.

I also understand that the FCC has little else they can do to help struggling AM outlets. About the only other thing they are doing or considering involves relaxation of some arcane technical rules that will not make a bit of difference in the real world.  A real world in which even those 100,000-watt well-researched FM stations are losing audience to all the other audio choices available to today's listeners.

The one result of this whole thing so far?  It will make AM stations have at least some value.  So if you are an AM station owner, you may want to hold onto it so you have an excuse to lease out your low-power FMs to the big operators to put on the air to help further clutter up the band.

To me, it's like the government telling you that you can only put a car on the highway if you have a horse and buggy locked away in a barn somewhere.  And the regulators don't have the money or personnel to make sure you feed the horse and grease the wheels on the buggy.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

This man sure asks a lot of questions!


By Don Keith N4KC
Regular readers of this bloviation are aware that I often refer to blog posts by media consultant/researcher Mark Ramsey.  His latest post features a whole bunch of really, really hard questions.  Questions such as:

So what does it mean when the radio industry headlines lead with debt-burdened iHeartMedia and this: iHeartMedia Battles Angry Creditors as Bankruptcy Looms.
What does it mean when the next headline is about Cumulus, and this quotation: “Q4 and 2015 results dismal as radio’s decline shows no signs of stabilization.”
What does it mean when CBS announces their plan to spin all of their radio assets while at the same time vowing to boost revenue $3.75 Billion by 2020 based on everything except radio: Retransmission fees, OTT, international projects, and more?
What does it mean when Pandora, with more than 80 million users, grows revenue by 25% year-over-year but, thanks to onerous royalties, still can’t cover its expenses amid swirling rumors that the company is for sale?
What does it mean when Spotify tops 30 million subscribers, but while revenue grows, so do losses.
Number three above--the one about the announcement yesterday (March 16, 2016)--really has the radio broadcasters ducking for cover.  CBS practically invented over-the-air radio broadcasting.  Theirs has long been the model for how to properly run radio stations, both for maximum public service and for huge audiences and profits.  Now they're dumping them.  Do they see something that others don't?  Or that others refuse to see?

Or is this the best opportunity for some truly far-sighted bunch of folks to get a foot in the door, put into practice some really unique and daring processes--in programming, sales, and multi-media distribution--that can set the path for other like-minded visionaries to save "radio?"

Okay, so I felt like it was my turn to ask a truly difficult question!

Read the full post by Mark Ramsey HERE.  And note that Mark's opinion is that the "radio" business will soon cease to exist.  And even if it ever existed, the "audio" business is just as dead.  Rapid technological change has assured that.

It's all about giving customers what they want when and where they want it.  But isn't that always the answer to a successful business?

And that last one is not a hard question at all.