Thursday, October 12, 2017

What is it? A radio? No, I don't know how to work it.

by Don Keith

Yes, rapid technological change has led to quite a few things that were once commonplace becoming extinct.  Things like newspapers, telephone booths, and vinyl records.  When I taught communications, I often brought in a 45 or 33 RPM record and asked my classes of mostly 18-to-30-year-olds to tell me what it was.  Few could. 

Then it really hit me one day when I brought in a music CD and no one in the class knew what it was either, or had ever used one.  I felt as if I had been trampled by a dinosaur sprinting away from an Ice Age glacier.

So I am not surprised by this little demonstration from Great Britain's BBC. They gave a portable radio to random young people on the street and asked them to dial in "Radio One."  That is the government-owned broadcaster's primary channel.  I was not surprised that most of them were at least aware of the station itself, since there are still precious few choices on the radio broadcasting band in the UK.

What floored me was how long it took to find someone who actually knew how to use the frequency dial on the radio to find and tune in the station.  See for yourself.

But if you doubt the revelation, just ask the next person under 30 who climbs into your car what the "AM" means on your auto radio.

Now excuse me while I go put a stack of 45s on the Victrola, type up a few pages on the Selectric, and then arrange my VHS movie collection in chronological order.

(Thanks to Phil Sasnett KB4XX for the BBC link.)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Two spleen-venting posts in one

By Don Keith  N4KC

Please allow me to get two things off my chest in one convenient rant, both about a couple of my favorite whipping boys, both media that have been very much affected by rapid technological change.

Spleen-vent #1:

Our old friends at the broadcast-radio news outlet INSIDE RADIO are at it again! A current email and website post crows loudly about Pandora, the free music-streaming service, increasing their commercial load from 3.3 commercials per hour to a whopping 5.3 commercials per hour on their free service. Two more commercials per hour!

How dare Pandora?!?  Don't they know that listeners will tune out in droves if they have their free streamed music interrupted by such a tremendous number of crass commercial messages each hour?

Thank goodness, good, old, free over-the-air radio broadcasters are not mistreating their listeners in such a vicious way. They somehow manage to only run between twelve and fifteen minutes of commercials each hour.  And to cram them into only two or three commercial breaks, so you can get them over with in one fell swoop. Well, in two fell swoops in most cases. And I'm sure that sixth or seventh commercial gets just as much attention for the advertiser as the first or second one.

And certainly more attention than the third or fourth one in an hour on Pandora.  Yes, broadcasters and INSIDE RADIO can absolutely chide Pandora for upping their commercial load by a stupendous 60%...from 3.3 to 5.3 commercials...because traditional broadcasters would have to fill up almost half of every hour to raise their own spot load by 60%.  Oooops. Maybe I should not have made that observation.  Some of them will do just that!

Now, I remove my tongue from my cheek to attack dying-medium #2, my local newspaper:

So I get an alert from my credit card company that there has been a charge initiated by The Birmingham News for $39.68.  Hmmmm.  I do charge my paper-newspaper subscription on that credit card, but that seemed a tad high for the quarterly renewal.

Sure enough, for the past year, the thrice-weekly paper has cost me $28.34 per quarter. It has suddenly--and without any note or warning--ratcheted up 34%!  By more than one-third!

So I call the customer service number, the only one I can find for The News, and get some clearly bored person in some distant city, likely working for a company that fields such calls as mine as an outsourced vendor. I doubt she could find Birmingham on the map, much less my Wednesday paper in the privet hedge adjacent to my driveway. It is also obvious I am not her first call on this particular subject as she immediately informs me, directly from the script in front of her, "This is an increase due to increased paper and distribution costs."

"Odd," I respond, "Since the newspaper you now toss into my driveway is easily a third as many sheets of newsprint as it was only a few years ago.  And you only toss it three days a week, and not the former seven.  I would think the cost of newsprint and distribution would have had to go up at least 12 times (a third as much paper delivered three-sevenths as often) its former cost for there to be an increase of any kind warranted."

She had no scripted comeback so immediately said, "I can offer you two free weeks."

I did the math quickly.  $39.68 divided by 13 weeks is $3.05.  Two free weeks would net me $6.10, about the cost of a Big Mac combo.  I would still pay $33.58 for the eleven non-free weeks.

"Not good enough. You folks are lucky I still subscribe at all because..."

"I can give you a month free," she interrupted. As I say, she has heard all this before out there in Denver (where their call center is if you have an issue with not getting a paper thrown) or over in Atlanta (where the newspaper is printed each of those three days of the week when they bother putting out a paper paper) or wherever she is located.  "Plus you continue to have access to the daily e-edition of the paper."

Thank you for that!  That e-edition.  Same as the paper edition three days a week.  The comics and puzzles the other four, which eventually show up in the printed editions when they bother to throw it to me. All in a clunky interface that is difficult to access and read. Or I can get the same stories on their Internet affiliate,  An even clunkier interface, burdened by incessant pop-up and fly-in ads that seize the screen mid-paragraph, starts loud audio ad messages for which it is impossible to find a cut-off, and constantly dump cookies and other junk on my hard drive.

"Not good enough, ma'am.  I need..."

"We will return you to your previous rate of $28.34 per quarter, sir."

"And credit my card with the difference on the current charge?"

"Yessir."  Sounds of clicking.  "We have credited your card with the difference, sir. Thank you for being a subscriber and I hope you have..."

"Wait. Is there a number I can call or an email address I can use to express my concern about such a big increase with no notice?"

"No, sir. We do not have any other number or email address.  Thank you for being a subscriber and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day."


Just as with my old favorite medium--and the one that fed my family for more than three decades--broadcast radio, the newspaper seems destined to commit economic suicide by doing dumb stuff at a time when rapid technological change is already threatening their very existence.

Now would be the time to do things to counter change over which these media have no control.  Instead they continue to shoot themselves in the foot with remarkably good aim.

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.