Thursday, May 4, 2017

What is Nielsen thinking?

By Don Keith
For those who do not know, Nielsen is the company that dominates ratings measurement for television and radio. (They bought Arbitron several years ago, assuring both traditional media would be owned, lock, stock and barrel, by a single entity.)  And also know that accurate viewer and listener data is crucial, not only for stations, cable and satellite companies, advertisers, and program providers, but for consumers as well.  The shows you watch, the formats you hear, are determined by viewer and listener data. Heads roll based on minor swings in "the numbers." Careers are upended if a show drops in ratings or a personality on the radio does not beat the competition. But the products you are able to buy and how you hear about them is also determined by how successfully advertisers can reach their target audience.

All that explanation is to set up what I think is a major glitch in how Nielsen is trying to make their data more reliable. For TV, most rating info comes from a set-top box in each home, attached to TVs, that automatically measure what people watch. A bunch more viewing is measured by volunteers who keep a paper diary and write down what they see and when.  Something similar happens with radio. In bigger cities, a group of people volunteer to carry a small, beeper-like device that keeps track of what the person is hearing from radios. But a sizable number of towns still rely on the outmoded paper diary.  How "Twentieth Century!"

The problem is that these methodologies are expensive and it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit people willing to install the box on their TVs, carry the little meter, or, worse, write down all they see and listen to in a one-week diary. That is especially true of younger people, a valuable target audience to many marketers.

Data is more important than ever, and especially to under-siege media like over-the-air radio and TV, yet it is becoming more and more difficult for Nielsen to provide accurate information.  So what does Nielsen do?

They go out and spend over half a billion dollars to buy a company that has technology to gather data about radio listening in cars, unbeknownst to the car's owner and/or operator. I won't even go into the concerns I have about the privacy violations of such a scheme. I'm just amazed that the company is spending so much on something that will only duplicate the capabilities of the existing technology they already own, the little beeper-like device they picked up when they bought Arbitron.

I don't know all the ramifications, or the impetus for them to do the deal, but seems to me that Nielsen could have spent that half billion bucks on recruiting more folks to carry their beeper--which, by the way, measures radio and TV--and on increasing economy of scale in manufacturing the devices while improving that technology. And moving more markets away from the diary methodology.

But what is another half billion? Heads roll, careers end, products are not able to be properly marketed. But nobody can go to the other ratings provider.

There isn't one.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

AM broadcasting continues to fade away...literally and figuratively

   By Don Keith

I've blogged here often about how AM broadcast radio is dead, dead, dead, and weak efforts by the Federal Communications Commission to save it are futile at best and laughable when you get right down to it.

Further proof? See this post on Facebook, decrying the fact that a legendary, high-powered AM station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, WFLI, is going dark...the broadcasting term for pulling the big switch, signing off and not signing back on.

How is the FCC trying to overcome the obvious, the fact that rapid technological change and its inherent flotsam and jetsam has left AM broadcasting in its wake?  By offering AM station owners weak, ineffective FM stations on which they can re-broadcast their AM programming and allowing them to make minor, subtle changes to their on-air signals.

Neither will work, of course. FM translators are just cluttering up an already crowded FM band and those that do manage to find an audience are only further diluting ratings and listener-ship, making it more difficult for anyone to make a living. The AM band is also rife with man-made electrical noise, making stations almost unlistenable in urban areas. In many cases, the real estate on which the AM stations' towers rest is worth far more than the station as a whole.

But the main issue is one the FCC cannot possibly solve. BROADcasting as an advertising medium is rapidly becoming obsolete. Most advertisers want to NARROW-cast. We now live in an age in which a merchant selling widgets to 22-to-27-year-old Hispanic males can direct a message right to them. They don't have to pay the freight to "purchase" the ears of 18-to-34-year-old males just to reach their very narrow target...and one that is actively searching specifically for the product offered by the merchant, not just potentially being lost among the mass of listeners to a radio station.

Sad to see an icon, and once a member of the same group of stations for whom I worked, throw up their hands and pull the plug. But you will see more and more examples of stations with which we grew up go off the air. Many have already changed to niche formats or ride satellite programming that is of little interest to listeners (but it's cheap!) Some are mere excuses to have one of those low-power FM translator stations and that is not economically viable.

I stand by my prediction: the current AM broadcasting band will be a ham radio band within ten years. N4KC says that, but I am not happy about it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Another "wizard" is gone

By Don Keith
We lost one brilliant human being the other day.

I first met Courtney Haden when we were both students at Alabama. I knew right away he was smarter than the average Broadcast and Film Communication student, most of whom would have been happy to just graduate and then pull the midnight-to-six deejay shift on an AM in Clanton.

We sort of kept up with each other but I'll never forget the day he and Greg contacted me and asked if they could provide me a short comedy sketch bit on my morning show on WRKK K-99FM. Their demo of "4th Avenue Car Wash" was so brilliantly observational, bitingly on-point and goofily funny on so many levels it was an easy answer. Plus they were offering it free. It went on the air right away and ran for I-don't-remember-how-long. (I'm tearing the place apart hoping to find some cassettes of the show. Greg Bass? Help!)

I wondered but don't remember asking why they weren't doing a radio show somewhere. The medium desperately needed them. Soon they were, on Kix106. And it was good. No, it was TOO good. And I was glad I had moved on to Nashville and did not have to try to compete. He and Greg are among those "wizards" to whom I dedicated my novel, WIZARDS OF THE WIND, radio personalities who could work magic with a couple of microphones, a pair of turntables, and some tape cart machines.

Last time I saw Courtney, I was voicing a book at Boutwell Studios, a dry and verbose training manual for employees at some factory somewhere. He made it a fun experience. That was no small task, engineering efficiently while trying to stay awake and not giggle at my solemn, serious tone. We promised to get together soon and catch up on everything that has happened since 1968, know how that goes.

Then, in this day of instant communication, I did not hear about Courtney's crossing the bar until this morning. I know one thing. If there is any way possible, he will pen a droll, astute, accurate, heart-breaking, hilarious article about the whole experience. And I'd read it and, as usual, wish I was half the writer he was.

I'll be checking upcoming issues of Weld and other local publications, just in case he finds a way.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How rapid technological change cost me almost $200

By Don Keith
Rapid technological change often brings us convenience and benefit we could not have even dreamed of a few years ago. Take booking a rental for our annual family beach trip. Once upon a time, such a transaction was conducted blindly, typically by mail, or on a long-distance telephone circuit.

Now, we are able to not only see and easily compare potential places, with rates, amenities, available dates, and more, but we can book them quickly and securely. It is especially helpful to be able to see photos of rooms to determine how beds will work for our brood, the size of the kitchen and living area, and to confirm the pool is not a plastic tub on stilts. Good stuff!

But I just learned a costly lesson. All that convenience and info may well mask the fact that you may encounter unexpected costs.

I'll try to make this quick, and hope it saves some of you some money. We were pretty sure of the property we wanted to rent. I Googled it and quickly found that it was actually rented by two different outfits, a local real estate company and  The local outfit's website was lacking a bit in design convenience so I switched to VRBO to better peruse the pictures, rates, availability calendar, and other info. Both sites clearly showed identical rates and open dates so I went ahead and began the booking process on the VRBO site.

All was fine until I got to step two and noticed that the total price--including a $250 cleaning fee, a $100 administrative fee, and a whopping 11% lodging tax, all of which showed as additional charges on both websites--was still more than $200 higher than what it should have been.  It appeared to me that they may have charged me the "pet fee" though I clearly indicated in step 1 that we would have no pets with us.

So I reverted to the old-fashioned way and called the VRBO customer service number. A nice lady who spoke very difficult-to-understand English assured me my total rental would be exactly what I first expected and insisted that she stay on the line while I completed the online form, just in case I encountered other anomalies.  I tried but in only a moment or so, their nice form refused to accept the expiration date on my credit card, even though it is valid and I had entered it precisely as they told me to.

Again the hard-to-understand lady offered to enter the info on her end and get the reservation completed "before someone else takes the open week you want." I allowed her to do so.

"Have you read and agreed to our terms?" she asked at one point.

"No," I told her. "Your web site will not allow me to see them until sometime later in the process."

She assured me there was no commitment until I had accessed and read the terms, which I soon learned consisted of about six pages of tiny print.  While she waited, I skimmed it as well as I could and actually saw no issues. It was identical to other terms I had seen from other rentals in the past.  It did include the really scary info that unless you purchase their renter's insurance, you cannot cancel the agreement and get any of your money back, not even if there is a zombie apocalypse or the planet is destroyed by meteors. I did not want to pay over $300 for such protection, nor have I in the past, so I agreed to the terms.

Then, when she told me the grand total, it was the higher amount that had sent me to the toll free number in the first place. First, the cleaning fee was actually $275, not the $250 listed on both websites. "The owner probably raised the fee and we just have not updated the site," she told me.

OK. The clock was ticking. Vultures were probably swooping in and grabbing my week, the only one the entire family had decided would work for everyone.  But what about the rest of it?  Another $180?

"That is the VRBO charge...what we charge for handling the rental for the owner. It also covers our customer satisfaction guarantee. We cannot complete the rental unless you agree to that."

Dumb me, I assumed VRBO got their $180 whether I rented on their site, the real estate company's site, or directly from the owner.  I further assumed they had exclusivity and that I would pay no matter how I committed.  I swallowed hard and did the deal.

Minutes later, when I received an email receipt--from the local real estate company, NOT VRBO--I noticed the charge was the original smaller amount I had at first expected, plus the unexpected $25 of cleaning fee increase.  No $180 for VRBO's time and trouble and customer satisfaction guarantee.  Same with the email confirmation from my credit card company that I get anytime anything gets charged online.

I promptly called the real estate folks to see what was what.  They were extremely nice.  Even apologetic.  The lady--in a nice way--told me I was a sucker for going with VRBO and not using their site.

"But I thought VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) was cheaper or at least the same as you real estate guys," I whined.

"Rarely if ever," she said. "They charge the same rates we do plus a fee to cover their overhead and make a profit."

"That's not built into the rate?" I naively asked. "Your commission is."

"No. We always urge renters to use our site and not have to pay their fee."

"Where on your website do you urge us to do that?" I asked.

"We don't. We are afraid there may be legal ramifications."

"Legal ramifications for telling folks that the other guys charge more than you do?" I asked her incredulously. "Oh, and what about the additional $25 plus the 11% tax on it to clean up the joint after we vacate?"

"Oh, the owner must have raised the price and forgot to tell us."

"Shouldn't you make that change on your website?"

"I'll put in a work order but it may take several weeks."

Rapid technological change, indeed! But she did immediately volunteer to remove that charge from our total.  I also told her the credit card charge they had already done did not include the VRBO fee.

"They will run the card a second time for that," she assured me.  Indeed they did.  That bit of email news arrived by the time I had finished my chat with the nice lady.  And she remained nice, even when I fussed about how their website was funky and that was what sent me galloping over to VRBO in the first place.

I admit I was the typical gullible shopper.  I assumed too much.  I assumed VRBO was cheaper (or at least the same cost) as the local real estate guys.  Then I assumed the real estate people would charge me that extra fee if I worked through them instead of VRBO.  And that if I didn't nail down that one week we needed, it would be gone in an hour or two.

No, I should have told broken-English-lady at VRBO goodbye when she insisted I read all those pages of fine print and pay the unexpected fee.  And when she didn't immediately agree to honor the cleaning fee as it appeared on their website. Then I should have verified the price with the locals.

But it was so easy.  So convenient.  The pictures on the VRBO site were so beautiful.  Even when I hit a snag trying to rent online, there was the English-language-challenged lady perfectly willing to type stuff into the form for me.

And for all that technology, I ended up paying $180.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Latest suggestion for the AM broadcast band? Zap it!

by Don Keith N4KC

As noted in many previous posts, I am convinced that no amount of fiddling with arcane rules or tweaking technical regs will ever save the AM broadcast band.  Despite the fact that most of us baby-boomers grew up on AM radio, that whole side of over-the-air commercial broadcasting has been soundly whipped by FM.  And new challengers for aural attention--satellite, digital, in-car broadband, and more rapidly developing technology--have only hastened the service's inevitable demise.  It is beyond being on life support.

Now, an influential group has a rather dire but eminently practical suggestion for the new administration on what to do with AM: kill it.  Euthanize it. Put it out of its misery. But do so in a humane and fair way.

Read the article in INSIDE RADIO and you'll see what the group's thoughts are. I wholeheartedly agree.

Oh, and though I'm not sure which other radio-frequency services might have desires for 540 khz to 1700 khz, but we Amateur Radio operators sure would like to have some more room for our experimentation, public service activities and just plain fun.

One thing is for sure. With us on those frequencies, there would be more listeners than the current users have in most cities.

Friday, November 4, 2016

More bad news for traditional media...but no surprise

by Don Keith

It's no surprise...and especially to regular followers of this blog...that the revenue news from traditional media continues to decline in the face of rapid technological change. That change, of course, has radically affected how people consume media and how advertisers attempt to get their messages in front of those consumers.

Here's a recent blurb from MediaPost, which follows buying and selling of advertising, concerning yet another dip in the New York Times Company's revenue for the most recent quarter:

It’s worth noting that [circulation] revenues now make up 59.7% of NYTCO’s total, up from 41.3% in the third quarter of 2010. The proportion derived from advertising has fallen from 51.8% to 34.3% over the same period.

Share of print media income from circulation has not been so high in, I'd guess, decades. Advertising was the primary generator of revenue by far. And classified ads were a huge portion of that. Have you who still read newspapers noticed the size of your classified section? Were it not for legal ads, mandated by governmental entities, most newspapers' "want ads" would be a page or two on a good day. And note that this change in percentage of revenue does NOT mean people are paying more to subscribe. It means advertising revenue is dropping like an anvil.

But let's not just pick on the doomed newspaper biz. An interesting observation from research guru and blogger Mark Ramsey:

In TV, meanwhile, it’s well established that everything you see on your cable box (assuming you use a cable box) is being paid carriage fees by the cable operator. In other words, that’s not ad revenue, it’s subscription revenue, and you are paying for it directly through the middleman of Time Warner or DirecTV or U-Verse or Cox.

And that begs the question: How do traditional radio and TV charge customers for content as their revenue from ads goes down, down, down?

Yes, TV gets some money from cable systems and satellite companies in return for their signals being re-broadcast. But it will soon not be enough to off-set ad revenue declines. That and the time will come when cable and sats will be more than willing to drop local signals--where legal--when TV stations ask too much for carriage fees. You see the threats all the time now.

Radio? Assuming there was a way to charge listeners for the pleasure of getting "Rock 107, the Best of the '80s, '90s, Double Zeroes and Today!" how much would you be willing to cough up?  None, you say?  "I can get music streamed to me anytime anywhere, usually without commercials...even in my car and for free!"

That means traditional media will have to come up with other ways to make money off their brands besides ads in newspapers in driveways or commercials interrupting "We begin 13 Action Team News at 7 with breaking news, but first this word from the legal firm of..."

Web sites? It's been a struggle so far. But radio's and TV's survival depends on creative thinking and content worth seeking out. Content that is even worth paying for.

Sorry but I'm not optimistic.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Your car, your Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, your dashboard future

by Don Keith

Anyone even mildly interested in new automobiles is certainly aware that one of the things that is changing most rapidly is the media and communications technology in the dashboard, and certainly when it comes to that big video screen in the middle. Thanks to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto--the current leaders by far for the in-vehicle entertainment system--our automobiles are quickly gaining almost unlimited information and entertainment possibilities.

A recent article in USA TODAY says:

The auto industry is racing to keep up with the growing demand. Less than a year ago, fewer than 50 vehicles were offering one or both, or were scheduled to. For the 2017 model year, the list has grown to more than 100, and more announcements are expected in the coming months. General Motors now offers both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay on 30 models. Ford wasn’t even on the list a year ago, but for the 2017 model year it becomes the first full-line vehicle manufacturer to offer Android Auto and CarPlay on every vehicle line it sells.

For those unfamiliar with this sea-change, such technology simply makes the dashboard in your car an easy extension for the capabilities of your smart phone. From your car you can surf the web, watch video, listen to music, talk shows, and podcasts, get directions, check traffic, listen to music, listen to news, check your email, post on Facebook, write your blog post...hey, you get the idea! (Hopefully most of that not while driving.) You can even make telephone calls, as radical as that sounds.

I just bought a new Honda truck and was impressed that my lower end model allowed me to synch a Bluetooth phone or other device and easily make calls and such. That is only scratching the surface of what higher end models of my Ridgeline and many other cars now offer.

What does this mean to the constituencies of this blog? Amateur radio?  Broadcasting and other media?

Lots. Hams can now worry about new ways our mobile radios can interfere with the stuff that all the other occupants of our vehicles really want to watch, see and listen to. We will have to be even more conscious of RF interference in these systems, just as we were when electronic gas injection and the ubiquitous computer first appeared in motor cars. Remember keying the mic to talk and having the car stop dead in the middle of the freeway?

Broadcasters? Even though the traditional AM/FM radios are not going away (though some manufacturers no longer supply an AM receiver as a standard offering), the fact that people in cars--who once had few other choices besides broadcast radio--have a literal worldwide web of potential media offerings they can consume. You can only imagine what that effect will be on Rock 107 with its stream of a couple hundred high-testing classic rock songs played over and over and 15 minutes of commercials each hour...and few other reasons to listen.

Amateur Radio operators and car manufacturers will figure out ways to minimize potential interference. That is what we do.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, either don't have a clue or are not willing to do what they must to try to keep people from turning down (or off) their radios so they can use all that other exciting technology that sits there less than an arm's length away as they zoom down the highway.

If they are not listening to radio, ratings go down. If ratings go down, revenue decreases. If revenue decreases, today's over-the-air broadcasters will do more of what they have been doing. Fire all non-essential personnel. Chop sales training. Pay lower commissions to sales reps. Order them to make more cold calls rather than develop true marketing plans for potential ad clients. Automate something else. Forget research and promotion. Sell more commercials for less dollars per announcement. Run fifteen or twenty commercials back-to-back after "107 minutes of commercial-free music!" Postpone maintenance on studio and transmitter equipment. Cut benefits for employees. Blame the ratings companies when audience declines. That is, do whatever you have to do to make cash flow look positive to blow smoke for stockholders, Wall Street analysts, or the venture capitalists who invested in your group in the first place.

And continue to wonder why things are going downhill so quickly. Damn rapid technological change!