Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Can the FCC save AM broadcast radio -- Part Dos

by Don Keith

My recent post about the FCC's futile and short-sighted ideas for saving the already comatose AM broadcast band generated many interesting posts, both on my blog (http://n4kc.blogspot.com) and on my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/donkeith).  Comments seemed to fall into three basic camps:
Radio broadcasting
1) "But I love AM radio!  I like to drive for miles and miles and listen to some station from Cincinnati."  Response: Fine.  Some of my best friends are AM DXers and enjoy capturing skywave signals.  However, neither you nor they mean squat to that station in Cincinnati when the station's staff tries to sell commercials on their air.  There is little to no interest in saving the band for DXers.  Nor is that a valid reason to keep the band as it is today.  Sorry.

2)  "You are right, Don.  But if they could just clean up the signals and maybe give them more power, it would fix everything."  No.  No, I don't think so.  First, today's station owners are not interested in investing anything at all into their plants.  Secondly, we now have--thanks to those owners--a generation of people who not only don't know or care what AM radio is but likely couldn't figure out how to get it on their car radios if they did.  Lack of something worth listening to!  That is one of the big problems.  And the FCC is not going to solve that one.  Nor should they.  That is the responsibility of those who hold licenses.

3)  Those who actually offer some possible solutions.  Best among those came via my friend Dave Barnes WB4KDI who forwarded me a link to a filing in the FCC's inquiry on the subject.  If you are interested, you can read it at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7521066938.  The trouble with most of these suggestions is, as expressed in 2) above, most broadcasters will be unwilling to spend much money chasing a dramatically fragmented listenership.  Plus anything that depends on those listeners to buy new hardware, install antennas, or do too much futzing around to try to hear those new-technology "AM" stations won't work either.

Won't work unless there is something in the way of programming content on those new-technology "AM" stations worth seeking out.  Not when you can drop your smart phone into the slot or easily hook up Bluetooth and have a vast array of free audio anywhere on the planet you want it.

I don't want to be too pessimistic here.  I love radio, including AM broadcast.  I wish there was a practical solution.  I still think it has the potential to be not only the most compelling medium there is but also the one that can do the most for advertisers.  But not if the only programming choices are pablum.  Or wall warts and other noisy switching power supplies pollute the spectrum so badly listeners can only hear a buzz.

Though sometimes I think that buzz is more entertaining and informative than what most AM stations (and FM, too) have on their air these days.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Can the Federal Communications Commission save AM broadcast radio"

by Don Keith

Darn good question up there in the headline!  The article in today's INSIDE RADIO quotes one FCC commissioner as saying he is committed to revitalizing the AM broadcast band.  You remember AM radio, right?  That noisy slice of spectrum from 540 to 1700 kilohertz, filled with static, come-and-go signals, strange-sounding ethnic stations, and hollering preachers.)  The article also notes that less than 20% of all radio listening nowadays is to AM stations.  I'd bet if you look outside the top ten markets, that number would be less than 5%.

OK, so AM broadcasting is in serious trouble. I'm already predicting it will be an amateur radio band within ten years.  What does Commissioner Ajit Pai propose doing?  What high-tech gimmickry does he suggest?  What incentives to broadcast licensees in the AM realm will the FCC develop to save the band?

1) Easier-to-get FM translators.  2) Modification of the so-called ratchet rule.

That's it.

Ratchet rule first: that was a complicated set of regs designed to reduce night-time interference between AM stations, passed in an era when most people still listened to AM and thought FM was only good for classical and elevator music.  I'm not sure what changes they make at this late date--any big alteration would be costly for cash-strapped AMs to accomplish anyway--and frankly, I think it's way past possible to suddenly create excitement among listeners for AM radio by reducing the interference protection for Station A over Station B by 1 mV.  Huh?

Can't wait to hear that promotional announcement:  "WAAA-AM 970, now with a slightly better antenna array pattern so all six of you who listen to us at night can now hear us better by 1 micro-volt!"

Besides, if the trend continues, as AM stations turn in their licenses because the real estate where their towers are located is worth more than the station itself, then this "ratchet rule" issue will settle itself.  There will be so few stations, nobody will interfere with anybody else!

Now, about FM translators.  You can hear this phenomenon already in whatever market you live in.  Listen to that new station that just popped up on the dial out of nowhere.  You know, the one that keeps fading in and out on your car radio and that you can't even get at your desk in the office.  (You try because they play a bunch of music with no...and I mean NO...commercials.)

Listen to its legal station identification, usually occurring near the top of the hour.  "97 Rock is WAAA-AM W375962 Yourtown!"  That is a translator station, a low power transmitter assigned to an AM station to rebroadcast its signal on FM.  That is also why--if you still know how to flip your radio over to AM--you suddenly hear a rock-and-roll AM station among the mostly sports talk, Hispanic, and gospel stations that make up most of the AM dial now.

(You will also hear station identification that sounds like, "This is 97 Rock, WFFF-FM HD2, Yourtown!"  That is a translator that re-broadcasts the sub-channel of an existing FM station.  You didn't know your local stations had such so-called "high-definition" sub-channels?  They do, but few use them for any other purpose than to supply audio for a separately-branded translator transmitter.  That's because practically no one has an HD radio capable of hearing the sub-channel itself.  And if they do, they likely are not even aware they have it or which stations in their town--if any--have programming on that HD channel.)

Now, tell me.  How does allowing AM stations to broadcast their programming (or the programming on the AM station's HD sub-channel...yes, a few have that capability, too) on a low-power transmitter with limited antenna height help keep people listening to the AM band?  How can the AM stations convince advertisers that a commercial on the AM station--that nobody...NOBODY listens to--will somehow suddenly attract enough listeners on that weak FM signal to bring them any customers?

No, what the translator-ization of the FM band--along with the introduction of literally thousands of non-commercial low-power FM stations--has done is make it even tougher for over-the-air broadcasting in general at a time when they are in enough troubles already.  Here's how:

1) The band is already so cluttered in most markets that interference is becoming a real problem.  Why should I try to hear my favorite morning deejay on 97.3 FM when he keeps getting wiped out by some local (albeit low-power) church station just down the dial when I go behind a hill or between buildings?

2) All those new signals, bad as they are, further dilute the listenership to over-the-air stations.  Radio ratings--which stations use to sell and price their commercials--are fractured beyond belief already.  Radio survived for years by selling ratings based on the percentage of people listening to radio at any given time.  That is called "share."  Share of people listening to over-the-air radio.  Now agencies and advertisers are waking up.  They want to see and pay for the percentage of people listening to a station in their target demographic based on the total number of people in the market who are in the demo.  That is called "rating."  A station may well have a "12 share" in women aged 25 to 49.  That is 12% of all women aged 25 to 49 WHO ARE LISTENING TO THE RADIO in an average quarter hour of the day.  Wow!  A commercial on the "Sonny and Goofball Morning Mayhem Show" reaches 12% of the folks a grocery store wants to talk to.  But if you look at RATING...a percentage of women 25 to 49 in the general population, whether they are listening to radio or not, that station may have a 2.  2%.  Hard to get the same dollars for a commercial if a rating shows 84% fewer ears.

See, all those translators are diluting SHARES, but not increasing RATINGS.  They are not increasing listening much at all, just dividing it up more.  Each station has fewer listeners.  Fewer listeners means less money per commercial.

At the same time, listeners have so many, many more places to get audio entertainment, news, information and companionship than over-the-air radio.  The obvious are satellite radio, Pandora and the like.  But with ubiquitous cell phone usage now, millions are not even listening to anything at all but whoever they are talking to on the phone as they commute.

So, the very limited help Commissioner Pai proposes will not help AM broadcasters at all.  It will actually hurt them as their FM translators pry the last few listeners they have managed to hang onto over to a weak FM signal somewhere amid the 100,000-watt guys there already.

And that gesture from the FCC will also continue to hurt existing FM owners at a time when they are already struggling to maintain audience as rapid technological change gives us all myriad choices beyond "The Sonny and Goofball Morning Mayhem Show."  A thousand new signals on the FM band, regardless of their light-bulb-sized transmitter power, is not good for FM.  Unless they bring millions of new listeners.  And they won't.

(And the morning mayhem show, by the way, is probably syndicated out of Dallas and its talent and producers have no idea what I'm facing on my own commute this morning or what topics are of interest to me and my local listeners beyond last night's "Idol" elimination and Kanye's most recent statue swipe.  But that is a rant for another day.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is our government the world's biggest counterfeiter of currency?

by Don Keith

Today's topic has little to do with rapidly changing technology.  It simply is one that is heavy on my mind lately.  And then I see an article that explains the issue perfectly, though it only makes issue hang even heavier on my mind.

I speak of government economic policy that follows the idea that printing tons of money and putting it into circulation "stimulates" the economy.  Or that creating more low-paying or temporary government jobs leads to "job growth."

I tend to believe that reasonable government regulation and otherwise getting out of the way of entrepreneurs in the private sector would do a much better job of creating economic growth (to all levels of society from the poorest to the mega-rich) and lead to far more job creation.  Apparently, though, profit motive and an unfettered, free-market economy scares some folks.

The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, they say.  Greedy capitalists will rape and pillage, hording all the money, while we middle-class schmucks work ourselves to death to make them richer still while we continually lose ground, earning less.  Government must regulate and stimulate or bad things happen.

Anyone who believes that has no concept of economics or human nature or how money gets made, spent or invested.  Read the article and you will see what I mean.

(Best-selling author and award-winning broadcaster Don Keith is also a ham [or amateur] radio operator and blogs regularly on rapid technological change and its effect on society, media and his primary hobby of choice. His author web site is www.donkeith.com.  His amateur radio web site is www.n4kc.com.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Radio broadcasting "feel good" stats -- REDUX

By Don Keith

Following up on my recent post about how head-in-the-sand broadcasters seize upon any feel-good statistic they can find, here comes another one.  And this one is from the same industry trade as the previous straw-clutching "study:"

Survey: Spotify users more likely to be radio listeners.
A new study offers more evidence that the growth of digital music services is additive to radio listening, rather than cannibalizing it. Streamers are 9% more likely to listen to the radio than non-streamers, according to a new global survey conducted by comScore and commissioned by Spotify.
I doubt Spotify was trying to do over-the-air broadcasters any favors with this particular comScore survey, but count on radio station owners to find something...anything...they could claim as a positive stat.

OK.  People who listen to music streams...that is, music over the computer, tablet, smart phone or other source that does not come from some tower on a mountain...are 9% more likely to listen to the radio than those who don't stream.

There are the usual questions from anyone who knows anything at all about research and stats.  Who participated in this study?  What are their demographics?  How many respondents were there?  What does "9% more likely" mean?  Are we only talking about listening to music stations or to radio in general?

Then there is the biggest and most obvious question: did it not occur to the headline writer/positive news gleaner that people who enjoy music enough to listen to Internet streams probably enjoy it enough to seek it out on the radio as well if that is a choice?

There is no way to know how many people listen to Spotify most of the time but can't do so at other times, say while at work.  Many companies forbid employees to use their computers to stream music at work.  Millions more don't have access to a streaming device at work but may well have a radio within earshot. Those respondents would have to include radio listening if asked.  Many--likely most--don't have the capability of streaming in the car so, if they want music, the radio is the only choice.  The only choice, too, for traffic, weather and news while commuting.

The fact that folks who listen to music on their phones or computers are only 9% more likely to also listen to a radio station is not good news.  Not good news at all!  Nor does it prove--or even suggest--that digital music listening is "additive" for over-the-air radio listening.

And what is that I see out there on the sandy horizon?  Lots and lots of ostrich anuses.

(Don Keith is a licensed amateur radio operator with the call sign N4KC. He is a best-selling author and worked in media and advertising for over 45 years.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Another totally misleading feel-good stat

By Don Keith

I'm always on the lookout for folks who use statistics and so-called research to back up whatever preconceived idea they espouse. Seems I spot them most often among radio broadcasters who are desperately trying to show that their industry is not in deep, deep trouble and their 1935 business model is being zapped by rapidly changing media technology and how people seek out information, entertainment, and audio companionship.

Latest example comes--as it so often does--from the broadcast trade publication INSIDE RADIO:

FM/AM radio still leads the listening pack: report.
There is fresh research showing radio continues to hold onto its primary place in Americans’ listening lives. A survey conducted by Morgan Stanley found 86% of those surveyed said they currently listen to FM-AM radio. While slightly below the 92% reported by Nielsen, the survey puts broadcast radio well above any of the competing media outlets.

Well, there it is. 86% of people listen to AM/FM, over-the-air, tower-on-the-hill, "the biggest and best hits of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today with the fewest commercial interruptions," "The Vinnie and Veronica and Vomit Boy in the Morning Radio Show" radio.

Wow!  That's 86%!  That's good, ain't it?

"Okay," the statistical-common-sense voice inside me says, "who did Morgan Stanley--the epitome of trusted media research--ask about their listening habits?"  Give me some demo information. And what were the "competing media outlets" they mentioned?  How were they listed in any questions that may have been asked about them?  And how were the questions worded?

"Do you listen to AM/FM radio?"

How many among you, after thinking about it for a moment, could answer any way other than, "Well, not very much, but yeah.  I may catch the traffic report on the way to work. Or try to catch the score of the game last night. Or the guy in the next cube listens to sports talk all day and I have to listen, too, whether I want to or not.  So, yeah, I guess I listen."

Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  We have a "yes!" And we have ourselves a genuine feel-good statistic!

86% said they listened. Not how much they listen or how often they listen or whether or not simply having the car radio on in the background while chatting on the mobile phone counts as "listening." And we have no idea how many people are even aware if the audio they are hearing spilling out of the dashboard or on their tablet, smart phone or computer at any given time is AM, FM, Pandora, Spotify, their own iTune library, or some kid in his basement in Bloomington streaming head-banging metal music all day.

The most stunning stat here is that 14% of whoever they asked said, "No. I do not listen to AM or FM."

As theoretically ubiquitous as broadcast radio is supposed to be, how would it be possible for anyone not to occasionally--even if accidentally--listen?  Maybe Morgan Stanley's definition of "listen" is far more liberal than mine. Or that of the merchant who is paying good money for that commercial on the AM/FM station.

But, if it makes you feel good, take that 86% stat and run with it, broadcasters.  You still need to be aware, though, that regardless of what this feel-good stat is purported to show, other media that are perfectly capable of delivering compelling audio content to listeners is taking that former audience of yours and running away with them.

And feel-good stats or not, you will have one hell of a time getting them back unless you give them some good reason to return.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Fighting technological change...with spitballs and a cap pistol

by Don Keith

First, before I begin my rant, I hope you and yours have a wonderful bunch of holidays.

Now, let me once again castigate those who have control of my former medium--broadcast radio--for going to war against a raft full of new high-tech challengers armed only with spitballs and a cap pistol.  As the business is crumbling around them, traditional broadcasters continue to argue among themselves about which "solution" will keep them vibrant and profitable even as the whole business of audio has lapped them and is racing away from them.

Even as they load up the FM band with low-power translator stations to find so-called format niches, even as they buy off phone companies to build in FM receiver chips in their devices, they fail to notice that their former listeners are finding much more compelling audio content coming at them from all directions.  (Same is true for video content and no-clue TV station operators, too, but we won't go there for now.)  Do the radio station operators decide to invest in providing something worth listening to, programming that would make listeners stay with them, even through the commercials that the radio stations themselves say--on the air!--are evil?  ("And now, another long set of hits without commercial interruption...")

But wait.  Commentator and researcher Mark Ramsey says it better than I ever could HERE.

It is well worth the read, whether you care about radio or not.  Here is a brief excerpt if you can't be bothered to click on the link above:

I have often pondered what broadcasters could do if they turned back the clock on the six- or seven-figure investments they made in HD radio and funneled just a portion of that capital expense into the quality of their content.
Which makes your brand more compelling in the face of “fractionalizing attention”? Investments in HD radio? Or investments in superior content? Debates about the “connected car”? Or content that draws people to your brand no matter what channel distributes it? FM chips on mobile phones? Or content that demands to be heard on mobile phones, regardless of the mechanism?
Rapid technological change can be a good thing.  It can also trample into the ground those who don't have the smarts, creativity, or insight to react and take advantage of it.

A bunch of people who hold licenses for radio stations are getting trampled right this very minute.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The end of radio

by Don Keith

Regular followers of this rapidly-changing-technology blog are well aware of my constant harping on the dismal future of broadcast radio...those who still broadcast from a tower on a hill and believe that--because they are there and free--they will never succumb to new technology.  Just in case you have not seen my posts urging broadcasters to wake up and provide content worth seeking out--to use the brands they have established to beat out Pandora, Spotify, and other new competitors--here is a succinct summation of why and how soon over-the-air radio will be graveyard dead.  It comes from marketing guru and visionary Seth Godin:

An end of radio

Eight years ago, I described how city-wide wifi would destroy the business of local radio. Once you have access to a million radio stations online, why would you listen to endless commercials and the top 40?
I realized last week that this has just happened. Not via wifi, but via Bluetooth and the smart phone.
The car-sharing driver (Bluetooth equipped car, with a smart phone, of course) who picked me up the other day was listening to a local radio station. It was almost as if he was smoking a pipe or driving a buggy. With so many podcasts, free downloads and Spotify stations to listen to, why? With traffic, weather and talking maps in your pocket, why wait for the announcer to get around to telling you what you need to know?
The first people to leave the radio audience will be the ones that the advertisers want most. And it will spiral down from there.
Just as newspapers fell off a cliff, radio is about to follow. It's going to happen faster than anyone expects. And of course, it will be replaced by a new thing, a long tail of audio that's similar (but completely different) from what we were looking for from radio all along. And that audience is just waiting for you to create something worth listening to.

(To see more of Seth's thinking go to his blog pagehttp://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/

Is it too late?  Maybe.  I'm afraid that the current owners of most of America's radio stations are not willing to admit there is a problem.  And even if they were, they would consider the solutions to be too expensive and too risky.

They simply don't have the imagination to realize that their current content is no match for the other choices listeners now have.  Or the creativity to put something on their air that would compete.

Sad, sad, sad.