Thursday, August 28, 2008

Here we go again

Blurb in one of the broadcasting trade newsletters this morning:

DNC seeks free radio for candidates

As part of its campaign finance reform agenda, the Democratic National Committee this week ratified a platform calling for "free television and radio time" for politicians. There's also a nod in the document to potential public service obligations and a renewed effort to fight for more diversity in media ownership.

I realize that our campaign finance system is broke and only leads to candidates finding ways to fudge. Fudge to the tune of millions of dollars. I know things about the Federal Election Commission--the body that is charged with keeping national-office campaign finance on the up-and-up and distributes those wonderful taxpayer contributions--that would curl your hair.

But you tell me: do you have access to about all you want to know about the candidates. With Fox News, CNN, CNN Headlines, MSNBC, CNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, CSPAN, CSPANII, PBS...the initials go you really not have plenty of opportunity to see who the candidates are and what they say? And that does not even get into print, radio, or...whooooo!...the Internet.

So now, we need FREE radio and TV time to allow the candidates to tell us what they intend to do and why they are the ones deserving of our votes?

You know, I might be all for free radio and TV time--if the government also mandated free newspaper space, magazine space, Internet web coverage, billboards, text messaging, sandwich boards, skywriting...

No! What am I saying? Of course I'm not in favor of government-mandated free access for candidates on any level. If the people want to see more of the candidates, they'll demand it and the media will have to give it to them. Simple as that.

What's your opinion?

(PS: I am absolutely and unequivocally in favor of increased minority ownership of media. But I think government's role there is to enforce any discrimination laws that prevent minority investors from having the same chance anybody else has to acquire media outlets.)

Don Keith

Saturday, August 23, 2008

N9N Followup

I guess--strictly speaking--news and updates on our ham radio special event operation from USS Nautilus do not fit the scope of this blog. But heck! It's my blog and I'm still thrilled with how well this whole thing came off and the reaction to it from the amateur radio community. The image on this post is the front of the QSL card, which I hope to have in-hand in a few days, thanks to the quick work of the QSL Factory in Great Britain.

Thanks to the Navy MARS crew, I now have a bunch of photos. I'm working through them, getting IDs on some of the people in the pictures, and will post them on my ham radio web site ( when I get a chance. (I know I need to update that site, too, but there are only 26 hours in my days lately!).

I'm also working on an article about the event that I will submit--first to QST, the amateur radio society's magazine and then, if they don't want it, to other publications.

Coming up, we're off to Ft. Worth, Texas, on September 3 for the United States Submarine Veterans convention, then back to Groton/New London, CT, for the reunion of former crewmembers of Nautilus.

Look for me, too, either Thursday or Friday, August 28 or 29, at 11:30 AM EDST on the radio on the nationally-broadcast G. Gordon Liddy Show.

Don N4KC

Friday, August 15, 2008

First trans-fat, now radio ratings!

Oh, brother! Maybe it is my basic belief that government is out of bounds when it does much of anything beyond minting money, regulating interstate commerce, and negotiating foreign treaties. But when I see a news article like the one below, I have to pause, count to ten, and cool off before launching a brick at the computer monitor. Read this:

Arbitron faces political pressure over PPM

The New York City Council plans to ask the FCC to conduct an investigation into PPM's "potential racial and ethnic biases." They also want Arbitron to further delay deployment until a review has been completed. Council speaker Christine Quinn says the city is keeping its options open, such as seeking a court injunction against Arbitron.

OK, if you live in NYC, maybe you can tell me if your city council might have far weightier problems to ponder than whether or not Arbitron, the radio ratings company, has adequate minority sample participating in its panel. Or whether or not the methodology of a research company is any business of government at all!

Background: Arbitron measures radio listenership and then sells its copyrighted information to radio stations and advertisers so stations can develop programming to gain more audience or advertisers/agencies can effectively purchase advertising that reaches sizeable targeted audiences. The company has developed a device that can detect which station is being listened to. Panel members in a city are chosen and asked to carry the devices for a period of time. As with any research, it is important that the panel reflect the demographics (age, sex, race, etc.) of the city so that the listening habits measured are as accurate as they can be.

Arbitron (and I say this NOT just because they are my former employer) is doing all they can to reach a representative sample to recruit panel members. It is a tough job, and always has been, even with previous methods of gathering listening and viewing data. Some groups are harder to reach than others. Caller ID on telephones makes it even harder. But the company usually hits its goals most of the time, and the data coming from the PPM (Personal People Meter) is by far the most accurate that radio has ever seen. Previously used methodology had far more problems.

Recruiting participants in any kind of research study is a challenge today. Yes, Arbitron, as the only really viable source of such data for radio, should absolutely be held to a high standard. Billions of dollars in advertising spending depends on the accuracy of that data. From my experience there, I KNOW Arbitron is committed to presenting the most accurate estimates for radio listening that they can, and they will continue to improve recruitment methods so their panels will look like the market they are measuring.

So can somebody please tell me where the city council has any dog in this fight? California has now forbidden restaurants in that state from using transfats in their food. New York is threatening a court injunction if Arbitron doesn't meet whatever the "research experts" on the council see as a representative sample of minority groups. And they are also asking the Federal Communications Commission--which, by the way, has ABSOLUTELY NO JURISDICTION in this area--to conduct an investigation of Arbitron's methodology.

Please, somebody, help me understand the rationale at work here!

Don Keith

Thursday, August 14, 2008

When $$$$ just are not enough

Regular readers know that I have a commercial radio broadcasting background...23 years on the air! Nowadays, my day job involves planning and buying advertising, so I have even more reasons--in case I needed any--to follow what is happening with traditional radio. And there are plenty of things, most of them not so good.

Obviously, there are more and more ways for people to get audio entertainment, and even video is quickly becoming as ubiquitous as the traditional "tower-on-the-hill" over-the-air radio stations. In an attempt to blunt some of the momentum away from radio, broadcasters finally, after many years of wrangling and in-fighting, settled on a digital transmission standard as the way to stop the bleeding. Dubbed "high definition radio" or HD radio, this new technology offers listeners greater fidelity, even for AM, the ability to send digital text to receivers, such as traffic reports, stock market updates, or sports scores, and--maybe most intriguing--allows stations to have sub-channels that might offer alternative programming. In effect, one station would now be two or three stations. Of course, anyone wanting to hear the greater fidelity and sub-channel stations offered by HD radio would have to invest in a new receiver.

Well, the technology has been in place for a while now, and the National Association of Broadcasters and a unified group of station owners have been touting it extensively for a couple of years. This has involved millions of dollars in marketing and untold dollars' worth of air time on radio stations. They have had a little success in getting some auto manufacturers to make HD receivers an option in their new vehicles.

Otherwise, the effort has to be considered a bust. The chart at the top of this post is based on Internet searches on Google for "Internet radio" (orange line), "satellite radio" (red line), and "HD radio" (blue line). Granted, people searching on the Internet might have a slight tendency toward searching for an Internet streaming audio source, but this clearly shows that HD radio has hardly made a ripple, despite the air time, dollars and marketing behind it. Google searches are usually a pretty accurate indicator of the public's awareness and interest.
A blog I read regularly by a media researcher named Mark Ramsey (and the place where I stole the chart above) maintains that broadcasters completely misunderstand what listeners really want. Fidelity is not the issue. Most people think regular FM sounds just fine. It is not even variety that people want...a fact that has led to a flattening of satellite radio subscription rates since that is their key selling point. They want entertainment, information, and compelling content they cannot find anyplace else, and they don't care how they get it--iPod, Internet, cell phone, Blackberry, a speaker in the dash of the car. And more and more, they want all that stuff to MOVE. They prefer video to go along with it.
I'll go a step farther. I think people want companionship. They want a friend on the radio who understands what they are experiencing. A buddy who makes them laugh. A guy who can't wait to share a new band or song or story with them.
Like everybody, broadcasters are looking for a quick technological fix, and the cheaper and simpler, the better. Install some stuff in a rack and run some HD radio ads on their stations and instantly people break up with their iPods, drop their cell phones, divorce their XM subscriptions and flock back to their old girlfriends.
But it takes more than that. They have to give the people what they want. And that costs money. Money and time and creativity and risk. In an industry that has gravitated to primarily attempting to please Wall Street analysts, those four words are equal to the preaching of the anti-Christ.
Whoever is the first radio group to really, really invest in research and talent and take a few calculated risks will be the one that shows the way. I see nobody really stepping up to lead the parade.
I love the medium of radio. I hope it is not too late to save it from itself.
Don Keith

Friday, August 8, 2008

Back from the Big Boat -- on a real RF high!

Well, it was a fabulous weekend! Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • N9N went on the air at 0900 EDST Saturday from the Submarine Force Museum and Historic Ship Nautilus in Groton, Connecticut, with stations on 40 and 20 SSB. Chuck Motes and his crew from Navy/Marine Corps MARS had done a fabulous job of setting up the stations, including a comfortable camper trailer, a G5RV Sr., and a trailer with a portable crank-up tower and 4-element beam--plus air conditioning and some fantastic vittles. It was a great setup! They also had gone to a lot of work to schedule volunteer op and logger shifts. I can't say enough about all the folks who participated, including non-MARS volunteers and a group of Army MARS members. One highlight was the sausage stew. Man! I'll mention names and give more credit later.

  • Only glitches were a support rod for the G5RV that decided to break Saturday morning, requiring the lowering of the tower so it could be climbed and the rod replaced, and a nasty Alabama-like thunderstorm that rolled in Saturday afternoon. By the way, all I had to do was walk in, sit down, and operate. And when the storm hit, I was nice and dry inside the museum, doing my little presentation (below).

  • Besides N9N, I was there to do a talk and book signing at the museum and library, in support of my new book, THE ICE DIARIES. Several members of the crew who took Nautilus to the North Pole in 1958 were there for the anniversary celebration, and I was a little nervous, hoping I would get it right when I talked about it. They all came up and assured me I did fine, and that means a lot to me. Thanks to all who came by. We must have sold 75 books. Thanks to the musuem staff, and especially Lt. Cmdr. Caskey, the commander of the museum and ship, for their hospitality.

  • Sunday was a little cooler and less humid, and we were back on the air about 0900. 20 rocked all weekend, 40 was not quite so good, especially around mid-day. We also did some 75 meters and I got a chance to do about an hour on 20 CW. A contest was underway and it was difficult to find an open frequency there. One highlight of the weekend was working AC3Q Harold Dennin, first on SSB, and then switching to CW. Harold was one of the Navy radio ops in Pearl Harbor who received and confirmed the first signals from Nautilus when she emerged from beneath the ice pack after successfully transiting from Pacific to Atlantic via the North Pole. That transmission -- "Nautilus 90 North" -- was the basis for our special event call sign N9N. Wow! Recreating that "QSO" was special! It was also a thrill to work several other former Nautilus crewmembers, folks who worked on constructing the ship, and other submarine and military vets.

  • I deserted the team again on Sunday afternoon for a special ceremony commemorating the polar run anniversary. This took place right next to the Nautilus, with an honor guard, a band, the congressman from that area, and the sub squadron commander who oversees most of the Atlantic fleet. Nine PANOPOS -- Pacific to Atlantic North Pole Sailors, the Nautilus North Pole crew -- were present, too, along with some family members of those who had passed away. On the way back to the station afterward, I passed through the reception area and got to sign about another 15 copies of ICE DIARIES. I also got to meet the daughter of Tom Curtis, the man who was primarily responsible for adapting the gyrocompass that allowed the North Pole run to take place. He was aboard for both trips north in 1958.

  • I finally had to leave Sunday night at about 9 PM. I had to get up at 2 AM Monday morning to drive down to New York City for a TV appearance. Chuck reports the "Magic Minute" was wild and wooly...and wonderful! It was his idea and I loved it! Nautilus reached the North Pole at 11:15 PM EDST on August 3, 1958. At that precise time in 2008, N9N took as many "check-ins" in one minute as the ops could capture call signs, then went back and worked each one for a valid contact. Chuck reports 18 stations were confirmed. If they send QSLs, we'll include a special certificate with their N9N return card. I understand it was recorded and I'm looking forward to hearing it.

  • The rest of the trip was mostly promotional...a quick interview on channel 11 in NYC and a very nice one-hour interview on Joey Reynolds's national radio show that originates from WOR 710 in New York. A real treat was sitting in for a segment of the show with guest Earl Klugh, one of the truly great jazz guitarists. I got to introduce a song from his new album that he played live for us. I also managed to get a ticket to be in the audience for the taping of the David Letterman Show that aired Monday night. Dave made one of his "how old is John McCain?" jokes that included a mention of ham radio. Finally, it was an early flight out of Providence Tuesday, back to Birmingham just in time for a signing event at Alabama Booksmith. Thanks to several hams who dropped by for that, too.

I operated on about 10 hours of sleep for the entire weekend but it was a wonderful four days. I can't say enough how much I appreciate Chuck and his crew for what they did to help get word out pay tribute to those 116 men of Nautilus and what they did 50 years ago last weekend.

Now, back to reality. When I got home Tuesday night, there were already 50 cards waiting. Since then, I probably have about 300 stacked up on the operating table. I will design the card this weekend, print them ASAP, and hopefully start responding in a couple of weeks.

If you worked N9N, I hoped you enjoyed the experience. If we didn't pull you out of the pile-ups, I apologize, but thank you for trying. I told Chuck when I first got there that I would be thrilled with 500 QSOs. Well, we got over 2,000! That has to be a record for a non-DX one-weekend special event, a testament to the volunteer ops and their abilities, the quality of the setup the Navy MARS guys provided, and the interest in that submarine that went to the North Pole to help win the Cold War 50 years ago last weekend.

Don Keith N4KC

Friday, August 1, 2008

Climbing on the big bird to the big boat

Well, I'm up at 5 AM, ready to catch a plane, headed for Groton, Connecticut, for this weekend's events surrounding the Nautilus North Pole 50th anniversary. It's a full few days for an old book-writer/ad guy. Because of the connections, it will take me all dang day to get there, and then I want to run by the Submarine Force Museum and Library and see if I can help Chuck Motes and the Navy MARS guys in setting up our stations for the special operating event.

From what I know of Chuck and his crew, that will probably long since have been completed, but I do want to meet them in person and shake their hand and thank them properly for all they've done. We'll kick off N9N tomorrow (Saturday) morning at 9 AM. I talked them into letting me have the first operating shift on 20 meters, so hope for good propagation.

Later, at noon, I'll speak to whoever might be gathered in the museum and sign some copies of THE ICE DIARIES for anybody who wants to buy one. Several of the North Pole crew from Nautilus will be there, too, and I'm excited about meeting a couple of them I have not yet met.

Sunday is an operating day, and maybe a chance to actually tour the submarine I wrote about, USS Nautilus. Then I have to be in New York City, on 42nd Street, at WPIX-TV, at 6:30 Monday morning for an interview. That day will not end until sometime in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, doing the national Joey Reynolds Show on the WOR Radio Network.

Then I drive back to Groton, try to get an hour or two of sleep, and then catch a plane mid-day in Providence, RI. From there, it's back to Birmingham for a signing event with my favorite bookstore in the world, The Alabama Booksmith, at 6 PM.

See how exciting the life of a book-slogger can be!

Don Keith N4KC