Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving AM broadcasting by killing it?

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

There are reasons for that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2015

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


By Don Keith N4KC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

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

by Don Keith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Unexpected answers from folks who should know

by Don Keith N4KC

So a publication called MediaLife Magazine did a survey and asked the question "What do you think is the biggest problem for radio today?"  Understand that MediaLife Magazine is targeted at media buyers and planners, the folks that actually do the work at advertising agencies of deciding on which media they will buy commercials and how much they will pay for them.  And when they say "radio," they are talking about commercial radio broadcasting, not ham radio or shortwave broadcasting or any of the goofy Internet "radio" that is suddenly so commonplace.

With that understood, most of us would assume that these buyers and planners would say, "Radio is too expensive," or "Radio is too hard to buy in order to get the best exposure for my clients,"  or "Radio sales reps are woefully inadequate and poorly trained." No, they don't say that at all.  Well, they do say that in some numbers and all three are absolutely true, but the largest vote-getters are the very ones I have noted in this blog.

 In fact, they sound like most of the rest of us who might express an opinion about the state of radio, from the guys in the carpool to individual advertisers who might use radio far more if it seemed truly interested in helping local merchants succeed.  Over half--51%--say radio's biggest problem is the concentration of ownership in the hands of a very few giant companies.  And they believe that is also the over-arching reason for some of the other problems they think are the major ones facing radio:

#2   Decline of local radio and its community involvement   49%
#3   Ad clutter       45%
#4   Lack of innovation   41%

Of course, they also threw in one not-so-surprising one, too: competition from digital players like Pandora, at 47%.  Lack of compelling content (same old music and talk) also was a strong one at 35%.

See, media buyers and planners are not just interested in making the math work when it comes to buying ads on radio.  Sure they want to reach the most human beings in their target as often and inexpensively as they can.  But they also want whatever campaign they are supporting to be successful, too.  They really need those "numbers" they buy to represent excited, motivated customers for their clients' products or services.

Dull, boring, background content with long, tune-out-encouraging commercial breaks don't make people rush out and buy beer, fast food or cars.  And when folks are not buying what an agency's clients are selling, agencies get fired and companies go broke.

(See the story and complete results of the survey HERE.)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Your blogger featured in Amateur Radio Newsline

by Don Keith N4KC

Thanks to Cheryl K9BIK for the great interview with me in this week's AMATEUR RADIO NEWSLINE, Report #1971, dated August 7, 2015.  The interview talks about the real or perceived obstacles some people encounter getting started in ham radio as well as about my two new books that have just been published.

Hear the interview here: Don Keith N4KC ARN interview audio.

Part one of the interview is contained in this report and the second part airs in the next edition, dated August 14, 2015.

 Amateur Radio Newsline runs interview with N4KC

Cheryl, Don Wilbanks AE5DW, and others have done a wonderful job of keeping this audio news service for amateur radio operators going after the recent untimely death of its founder, Bill Pasternak WA6ITF.  And I say that not just because they did a two-part interview with me.  The news roundup is a wonderful service for hams and others interested in our hobby.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


by Don Keith N4KC

Here we go again.  One of the over-the-air-radio trade publications has yet another (with apologies to Ray Stevens) "Everything is Beautiful" article.  Those who follow this blog know that I--a former broadcaster, audience researcher, and station owner--believe that traditional over-the-air radio is in serious trouble, partly because of rapid technological change that has altered how people get music and news, but also because big radio owners believe they can cut their way to prosperity, or at least to some kind of good news to tell analysts and institutional stockholders so they continue to buy their stock.  And do it while not giving potential listeners compelling content that will keep them listening.  And buying what their sponsors are selling.

So here is the latest pronouncement that makes me red in the face as I go, "Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!"  Under the headline "Radio's Reach Hits an All-time High," INSIDE RADIO proclaims:

Radio’s national audience hit an all-time high for the second year in a row in the second quarter. Some 245 million Americans age 12 and older used radio in a given week during the three months ending June 30, according to Nielsen’s Audio Today report.

Yippee!  Doomsayers such as yours truly are certainly wrong.  More people listened to radio for at least five minutes in a week in Q2 2015 than ever before!  Hurray and hosannah!  Maybe people are not tuning away to all those other audio sources out there, talking and texting on their smart phones instead of listening to "the best of the 80s, 90s and today with fewer commercials on Power 99.5," or simply turning off their radios and watching more video.

Of course, I bet if we had data to prove it, we would also learn that more people changed the oil in their lawnmowers, jaywalked, blew their noses, bought a six-pack of beer, or went to sleep in their recliners watching YouTube.

That's because there are MORE PEOPLE.  Millions more people than there has ever been in the USA.  Certainly millions more in Q2 2015 than in Q2 2014.  Census estimates say we gain about 2.5 million people every year.  We have over 321 million now that we know about, not counting quite a few who are illegal so don't get counted...except by Nielsen.

If fewer people year-over-year listened to radio for at least five minutes in a statistical week, I'd say that would be catastrophic.  But ballyhooing the fact that more folks spent at least five minutes with over-the-air radio is nothing to crow about either.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Statistical smoke and mirrors

by Don Keith

Look, I am not necessarily picking on the radio industry trade Inside Radio again.  Or my old friend, Pierre Bouvard, who is quoted in an article in today's email/website edition of the pub.  But somebody needs to once again question their incessant attempts to find blue sky while ignoring the falling sky in the biz of commercial, over-the-air radio.

Ratings: Radio Stable, While TV Stumbles the headline proclaims. "Stable" based on an analysis of Nielsen ratings for both TV and radio by some outfit called MoffettNathanson. Other than wondering if the space bar is broken on their keyboard, I also have to wonder exactly how they come to that conclusion when comparing two entirely different media with drastically different methodology employed to measure viewership/listenership.

See, Nielsen measures much of the other sources of video that compete directly with over-the-air TV.  Things like cable, satellite TV, and the like.  They don't measure most of the stuff that is pulling precious ears away from Rock 107.  Not Pandora, iTunes, or similar.

Notice, too, that the article uses millions of people to show TV's gargantuan loss to non-broadcast sources while employing rating points for radio's almost infinitesimal drop year-over-year.  Frankly, I don't know how many actual listeners radio lost because I don't know how many listeners there are in Nielsen's 48 markets in which the PPM device is used.  Nor does the article tell us what demographics were down in radio as they did when crowing about TV's landslide.

"Radio suffered no such tumble," they note.  OK, broadcast TV lost 600,000 viewers aged 18 to 49.  How many million did broadcast radio lose in that same age group?

Another article in the same day's email digest is a bit sobering, too.   The typical (median) over-the-air radio station--including all those that boast of being all-news or news/talk--has a news staff of...ready for!  One person!  One human being!  The average of all stations has ONE person on its news staff.  And the study quoted notes that in almost 30% of stations that have a position with the title "news director" the job is not even full-time.

Guess why fewer and fewer people depend on local radio to keep them up to date on breaking news.  The medium has gleefully cut staff and is more than happy to allow local TV and web entities with their news apps (along with Twitter and other social media) to have those potential listeners...on a sliver platter.

Shut up and play the hits!