Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The silly season

It must be the heat. What did the Indians say about the British colonialists in their country? "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out into the mid-day sun." Must be plenty of mad dogs and Englishmen in the media, advertising and regulatory realm these days.

  1. Some radio stations are refusing to air ads for those who would raise radio's royalty payments to writers and publishers. And some are refusing to play songs by artists who are speaking out, saying radio should pay more. This is getting ugly. Music royalties are dwindling because folks are not buying records/CDs. Records and CDs with a bunch of songs they don't really want, but for which the writers and publishers got their penny or penny-and-a-half simply for being on the same album with the song they do. No more. People download the MP3 of just the song they desire to own. Record stores are shuttering their doors (though I saw an intersting story on NBC Nightly News about how people are starting to buy vinyl albums again, mainly just because it's suddenly retro and cool). So how do writers and music publishers make up that lost income from folks who bought their songs without really wanting to? Charge radio more for the privilege of playing their music on the air. Radio yelps, "Whoa!" They say if they did not play those songs on their air, nobody would know about them and would not even know to go download them. (Weak argument since most stations play very little new music..."the best of the 70's, 80's and 90's!") And besides, radio is hurting just as badly as the music industry. If they have to pay much more money for the right to play songs on their air, they may just have to pull the big switch and send their licenses back to Washington. Complicating the deal: stations typically pay based on their revenue. Radio revenue is down. Songwriters and music publishers are starving.

  2. The stand-off finally attracted the attention of "Big Brother." The Federal Communications Commission (the agency that grants broadcasters their license to transmit) suddenly decided this week to wade in and take a look at the situation. August or not, that sent a chill up the spines of broadcasters. But can the FCC tell radio stations which songs they can and cannot play? Or which advertising they have to run and which they don't? Well, they already do when it comes to political ads, but could car dealers suddenly pop up and say radio is refusing to run ads for the revenue-strapped auto industry unless the poor dealers are willing to pay the ad rates the stations demand? "They're hurting," the FCC might say. "Give them lower rates. After all, we...the federal government...own a share of some of those carmakers, so let's give them a break." Brrrrr. Shiver!

  3. Minority radio station owners apparently think nobody feels their pain. They have complained long and hard and sought FCC intervention in their spat with Arbitron, the company that measures radio station listenership. Arbitron has new technology, you see, that is supposed to be much more accurate in determining who is listening to what station, when, how long, and such. But when they began using the device in some markets, hip hop, urban, and Latino stations saw their ratings drop. "It ain't right!" they shrieked. Never mind that the ancient measurement device used before was suspect (The diary! A #2 pencil and a little paper booklet! People were asked to keep a diary of what they listened to! To write down the stations they punched in on the radio on the way to work during rush hour traffic! Billions of dollars have been spent for advertising based on who people remembered to write down in a diary over a week's time!). The old diaries showed those type stations had more listeners than they probably really had for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this rant. Nobody wants to hear, "Put something on your air that more people want to listen to, why don't you?" No, the minority broadcasters first went to state attorneys general, and they got sympathetic ears in New York and Florida. But those guys have no jurisdiction at all and can only create a lot of smoke and fire. That despite the fact that Arbitron blinked in New York and made a few concessions they were probably going to make anyway. Next, the broadcasters went to the FCC. There are still rumblings there, but if anybody can figure out what that agency's realm has to do with a publisher of copyrighted, syndicated data, then please enlighten me. Data that are universally accepted as the currency of buying and selling advertising on the radio by advertisers, ad agencies, and 95% of the radio stations in measured markets. Now, the wounded broadcasters are appealing to President Obama. That's right. They are asking the leader of the free world--a man who has a few things on his mind, like the economy, healthcare, wars in Irag and Afghanistan, global terror--to intervene because their ratings are lower when listening is more accurately measured. Silly!

  4. And now, maybe the silliest of all. The little device Arbitron now uses in many markets is called the Portable People Meter, or PPM. They ship them to families who agree to carry them for a period of time and they are able to quite accurately tell which radio or TV station, or other source of audio such as Internet streaming, they are exposed to. (Note I did not say "listening to." That's a whole other can of worms, and it's just too dang hot.) So what happened was that several of the devices didn't make it to the intended panel members' home and ended up for sale on eBay. Yes, you, too, could have bought your own PPM to amaze your family and friends. But somebody beat you to them. A guy named Randy Kabrich, a radio consultant who has been uber-critical of Arbitron and the PPM since day one...sometimes justifiably so, sometimes not. He says, since he owns them now, he is going to dismantle the devices and see if they work as well as Arbitron claims. See, Arbitron has not been very forthcoming about their technology...for several reasons. First, of course, they don't want any competitors (and they suddenly have a very big one in Nielsen, the TV folks, who are moving into radio) to know too much about how the gizmo works. But who knows? Maybe there is something inside the little case that gives Kabrich and the black and Latino station owners ground to stand on. It's shaping up as a big PR problem for Arbitron (who let their long-time and very, very good PR guy go last year) and its new CEO. Silly as the "eBay PPM" incident is, it will be interesting to watch through the haze and humidity of the Dog Days of August.

Gracious me! Note that all this silliness relates to technological change. How people get their music. Who makes money on the songs that are written, performed, sold, played on the radio. Whether stations can play what they want for whatever reason and sell advertising to whomever they damn well please. How audiences are measured. Whether the FCC or state attorneys general or President Obama have any reason at all to even consider getting involved in all this heated, sunbaked mess.

Pass me another cold beer and I'll sit back and watch all this play out. It's better than any re-run sit-com you might catch on TV right now!

Don Keith N4KC


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