Friday, July 31, 2009

What do people want?

OK, back from the beach and ready to pontificate and pronounce! I've done some reading lately, especially on a couple of blogs I follow, and there is still much thought devoted to what people really want from media. Yes, I'm an old radio guy. And yes, it pains me to see the attitude of those with keys to radio stations who say, "Hey, I got a license from the FCC and I got a 100,000-watt blowtorch with a tower on a hill and everybody...EVERYBODY...has a radio in his or her car, so how can I possibly lose the battle for those ears?"

They are partally correct. Terrestrial broadcast radio is still likely the most ubiquitous medium. But when everybody...and I mean EVERYBODY...has a smart-phone on his or her hip, and that will plug into the dashboard of their car and their TV set at home and the computer at work, that will no longer be even remotely true. That development alone means audio and video anytime the user wants it. With true wi-fi available across vast reaches of the fruited plain, from your car, your phone, myriad devices, then none of us will be more than a button push away from all the audio and video and messaging we might want, spewed out by a dizzying number of devices and media.

What does that mean when we consider what people want from all this wonderful connectivity? When news, talk and music is always available, whether in the car, at the work desk, hiking Mt. Wayupthere, on the beach...ummmmm....allow me to remember last week for a moment. OK, back to the rant...wherever? It means broadcasters (to use an anachronistic term! I prefer the rather bland but more accurate "content providers") have to give people more than the same old music and news and talk.

What's that we have to give them, you ask?

Companionship. Humanity. A feeling of belonging to something. A source of stuff where the content provider is not streaming over-researched and way-too-familiar-but-"safe" music, or bland "personalities" talking TO the audience. A source where the user is a part of what is going on, is interacting with it. They become a member of the coolest club around, a special "tribe" where they feel comfortable and welcomed. And all they have to do to join this wonderful tribe is access it on the radio dial, on the cell phone, on a podcast download, on a website...through a vast array of ways. That's ubiquity!

But it is risky. It costs money. It is currently impossible for Arbitron or Nielsen to accurately measure it. Ads have to be sold based on results, and probably priced based on performance. It takes creative, thinking people, not only to come up with content but to sell it to advertisers. The club has to be big enough and active enough that it has value to enough advertisers to make money. It has to be broad enough to do that yet exclusive and targeted enough to be different from anything else available through any medium. You would compete with content from all over the world, but have the unique ability to localize it, if that is where your target exists. It has to be compelling and sellable.
Now do you see why owners don't even want to think about such a thing when they can play songs on a jukebox relatively cheaply, have no personnel worries, and still bring in a few coins?

I'd love to take one of these stations pulling a 1.0 share and do a little research and provide content that would attract a sizeable enough "tribe" so it is a viable block of ears for advertisers to have interest in reaching them. Reach that "tribe" not just with RF from a mountaintop but through any other means available. Empower the "tribe" to be a part of what we are doing through feedback, public meetings, events just for them, communication in the truest sense of the word, not just one-way "broadcasting." Leverage all this emerging technology in new ways none of us have even thought of yet...but could.

Truth is, nobody wants to take the plunge, so that 1.0 share station will just sit there, streaming music to a silent, non-responsive few. The owners would rather rock along breaking even or losing money, hoping another signal or two in the "cluster" covers the loss. (A friend of mine says there is only one other word goes with "cluster" and it starts with an "f.") Be safe rather than risk going to a lot of trouble and possibly losing more than the other couple of signals can cover. Even if there is a chance of doing much, much better with the 1.0. Why try to anticipate further change?
Heck, things have changed in media since breakfast! Don't try to anticipate it. Let it happen and trail behind, picking up the crumbs. That's the safe thing to do.

I may be self-delusional, but I know it can work. I've done it before when the only way of reaching people was with an FM signal. I know what it is like to put a music-and-personality mix on the air and have people respond to it. And the station does not have to be top-3 in Arbitron to have a sellable "tribe" with true value to advertisers.

Oh, if I were only 35 again!

Why give people what they want--companionship, membership in a cool club--when it is easier and safer to do the same things the mega-station owners were doing five years ago?

Because it is not really safer. Putting all your money under the mattress appears to be the safest investment option these days. But is it really, when you lose 3% a year in value to inflaction?

Not changing, not adapting, are almost certainly the most risky actions of them all.

Don Keith

Thursday, July 23, 2009

V - A - C - A - T - I - O - N

So I'm at the beach this week with most of the family, and man! we are having a great time. I had planned to be prolific and profound and post pithy blog entries on some truly fascinating things going on with rapid technology changes.

Didn't happen. Nor did I write a word on the new novel I've started. Or work on the book proposal I owe my agent. Or edit a couple of spec scripts we're pitching. Or do a couple of day job things I wanted to get out of the way before reporting back to the office Monday.

But you know what? My grandaughter, Alexa, and I raced each other all over the pool. Laci...our some great photos of the beach. They and their dad got a kite way, way up there and went crabbing (caught a couple and released them). Our daughter got to stay four days and our oldest son has been here all week, along with his bootleg, low-power radio station with a format that puts the commercial broadcasters to shame. Charlene and I have loved watching all of them have a great time (Just wish the daughter- and son-in-law could have been here, too.). We've had some wonderful meals--inside and out--and slept in, stayed up too late, ate too much junk, and spent hours just watching sunsets and pelicans, and talking.

So to heck with this blog. At least until next week.

Don Keith N4KC

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Power of Pop

Seeing the pictures of Paul McCartney performing on the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater for David Letterman's show got me to thinking. And I caught a bit of a McCartney concert on one of the HDTV networks and the lovable long-haired lad from Liverpool sounded absolutely horrible...flat, off key, hoarse. And then I got a press release about the research below done by an outfit called Rapleaf:

** Prior to Michael Jackson's death, The Beatles had more online fans than Michael Jackson, Elvis, and Madonna combined. After his death and the social media flurry that followed, Michael Jackson topped The Beatles in popularity

** Even though Madonna has the most-recent career, Michael Jackson has the youngest fan base, followed by The Beatles (Elvis has the oldest fan base).

No kidding! But I mention this because there was a time when everything was about the popular, likeable/unlikeable, recognizable and other similar criteria a personality was. Those scores were a prime factor when casting a movie or getting a guest on a network talk show. I remember when the TV networks circulated lists with personalities ranked in tiers, mostly based on Q-Scores. If a producer was trying to sell a special to the networks, he had to have at least two out of the first tier, one or two from the second. If all your "stars" were in tier three or below, forget it!

I wonder if that is still the case? And especially in a day when FaceBook or Twitter can--if they wish--accumulate data on how many times a celebrity gets a mention on their sites. Whether those mentions are positive or negative. Within days, we know if Conan is cutting it. If President Obama is up or down. If Oprah counts anymore. How Steve McNair rates in recognizability now as compared to a couple of weeks ago.

I'm just not sure I would want to do what it apparently takes to really score on this list.


Don Keith

Friday, July 10, 2009

How do you measure "engagement?"

Those companies that measure media audiences--and those who make their livings based on those data--are struggling to keep up with new technologies that are rapidly changing the landscape of advertising, marketing and media. "Rapidly" as in "the speed of light." It's tough keeping up! And the new CEO at Arbitron (radio ratings), Michael Skarzynski, is paddling as fast as he can. While testifying to a government hearing, he let slip that his company (and MY old company) is pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The story, quickly:

PPM tracks exposure to stations, but Arbitron says it's cracked the code to measuring listener engagement. CEO Michael Skarzynski says they've developed a prototype which "couples" exposure to engagement. The development may be a way to quiet PPM critics. Some Black and Hispanic broadcasters believe the drop in ethnic station rankings is a measurement of exposure -- not station affinity. Skarzynski told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday they'll release the new engagement tool later this month.

PPM, by the way, is a passive device carried by panel members recruited by Arbitron. It "listens" and logs encoded audio from stations and web sites so the device knows what the panel member is hearing. Not necessarily what they are "listening to," but still it is about as close to real audience listening measurement we have seen yet.

Fly in the ointment: the PPM is showing dramatically lower listening to ethnic stations than did previous methodology. Some claim the other forms of measurement--keeping a listening diary, doing random telephone calls--allowed ethnic groups to "vote" for "their" stations, not to necessarily accurately report their true listening. There is no "voting" with the PPM. It can only hear what the panel member is hearing.

I cannot imagine what Arbitron has up its sleeve. But here is why YOU should care.

Electronic media has almost always been priced on ratings. So many dollars per rating point (one percent of the population) and the like. But as media becomes more and more diffused, the value of an audience is not in its numbers but in its makeup, its tendencies, its propensity to do certain things predictably. And in the media’s ability to make them do those things for the benefit of advertisers. If my radio station can deliver 3,000 people who will likely eat at a particular restaurant, it has far more value than another station that can deliver 50,000 people, none of whom will ever eat there. Using the old model, the station with 50,000 sets of ears could command the highest rates for its commercials and probably got the bulk of the advertising.

Now, if we could just deliver data about “predictable propensity,” and the software to make a compelling case, we’d have something. But it has to be as compelling as “lowest cost per point” once was.

How does this affect YOU? Advertisers support programming and media and stations that move widgets down at the store. If media effectiveness is not measured properly, ad money goes to the wrong media or station or programming. And those media, stations, and programming stay around, even though they are not necessarily what you or your peers want to read, watch or listen to. And the "good" ones go away because the "power" of their audiences--if not their numbers--are not getting reported accurately.

It impacts you in many, many more ways, too, but this is a blog, not a doctoral thesis.

But Lord help us all if Arbitron does some statistical mumbo jumbo, like weighting ethnic listeners higher than the rest of us, just to appease those who claim the PPM is somehow being unfair to stations that serve them. Nielsen is facing the same criticism, primarily from Hispanic TV stations, and could be forced into the same sort of audience measurement witchcraft.

If it ain't accurate, it can't be believed. And if it can't be believed, data have no value. So why bother?

Don Keith

Friday, July 3, 2009

Somebody please explain it to me

I heard a writer yesterday make the statement that, “In World War II, we had the greatest increase in government spending in history…spending far more than we had coming in…and things worked out just fine.” That is absolutely true, but my wife and son thought I was crazy when I screamed at the TV like a lunatic.

“Yes, but that spending went for stuff!” I screeched.

And that is the point, one I hope I can make rationally and without screaming at the keyboard.

The point that government spending during World War II built tanks, airplanes, ships, submarines, uniforms, rifles, things that blow up, all to support the war effort. And those things were made in honest-go-goodness factories that hired people and bought steel, rubber, oil, and other raw materials to create something tangible. The money went to pay salaries and bought things that other factories created...factories that paid people to design it, make it, or mine it and then to ship it. And it went for transportation providers who hired drivers and pilots and rail engineers and ship crews and built or leased warehouses built by others and who bought ships and airplanes and trucks and trains that had to be manufactured by factories that paid wages to people.

Now I am not advocating starting a world war to stoke the economy. I'm just saying the reason the government spent all the money it could print in the 1940s and things actually got better was that the money went for SOMETHING. I make the same argument about the space program. The money does not end up buried in a big hole on the moon. It goes for things that are created--tangible things that go for wages at many levels down the chain and that gets recirculated. The guy who works the machine on the production line that stamps out o-rings for the rocket ship has a job and makes more money so he buys a house, a TV, a car and sends his kids to college, all of which keeps the money circulating. Or he invests some of it in stocks, bonds, mutual funds or CDs so the money gets reinvested to modernize a factory or add equipment or open a new plant somewhere so more people can be hired.

It's a wonderful thing! Wonderful when government helps the economy by spending on things that are needed and stays out of the way of commerce except to enforce reasonable laws that make the whole thing fair for everybody, and avoids taking away the incentive to work and invest by levying too many taxes. Every dollar goes to work to make more dollars. More dollars and more tax revenue. More tax revenue so less taxes are needed. It's like all those "beget" statements in the Bible!

That begs the question: Where is this new spending going?

Really, somebody explain it to me. Where do all these billions the government is spending now end up and, other than make us feel like something is being done, how does it really help in the long run? It has to be going somewhere. Somebody is getting it. How many wages are those "somebodys" paying and how many more people will they hire? How many factories will they build? How many warehouses or railroads or machinery for other people who are making something? What other parts, supplies or raw materials will they invest in with that taxpayer money so it goes around and around?

What in hell are they creating with this wealth? What are they making that can be sold, transported, and used to make something else that creates jobs and wages…or used to fight a war?

Yes, some of it went to the automakers who have factories producing something tangible, made by people who earn wages, but it will likely be used to pay down debt, modernize plants so fewer workers will be needed to make cars that consumers have already proved they don’t want to buy. To buy advertising to try to convince us we want that dog car. To meet pension obligations so those retirees who left after 20 years of age 40...won't have to go back to work, God forbid.

And I know there was talk that this dough would be used to repair our infrastructure...highways, bridges, airports. What happened to that plan? That would do double duty. Companies would have to expand, hire people, buy bulldozers, trucks, and cranes, contract for concrete, rebar, asphalt, engineering, and more. And all those people would pay taxes...payroll/income, sales, etc. Of course, my cynical side says most of the infrastructure that got improved would be in the districts of those Congressmen with the most power and influence. That bridges would be built to nowhere and perfectly adequate airports would become super-airports, just so the Congressman could crow about all the money and jobs he brought back to his state or district.

Believe me, too, that I am not advocating the government spending us out of the recession or that it is even government's role to create jobs by tapping into the treasury. But the infrastructure needs some work. And World War II needed to be won. I'm just saying, if we are going to spend trillions, let's spend it on something that needs to be done, and something that would create wages, tax revenues, and stuff that is tangible.

And if someone can tell me where all this money is going, who is going to get the most benefit out of it, please tell me so I can invest there.

Man, I am glad I live in a country that has a bottomless treasury. Otherwise, I'd be really worried.

Don Keith

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

King of Pop and Technological Change

So what does the untimely death of Michael Jackson have to do with rapid technological change? Well, to talk about it, I have to crowbar it onto the topic somehow, don't I?

And then there is this statement I read the other day: "Michael Jackson will be one of the last pop music superstars." By "superstars," the speaker was talking about Elvis, Michael, and the Beatles. And he was alluding to the fact than nobody will ever capture such a broad music audience, or sell anything near as many albums.

Albums? You remember those, right? Vinyl discs with ten or twelve songs on them, the music etched into the vinyl material in a continuous spiral that wound in from the outside of the disc to near the middle. You reproduced the sound by dragging a needle along the spiral groove. It vibrated in relationship to the material carved into the groove and was amplified so we could hear it.

How primitive! remember CDs, right...made those obsolete. But they also took away some of the "soul" that was captured in those vinyl discs.

Elvis sold records with starring roles in mediocre movies, but with plots that allowed him to flash that grin, wiggle those hips, and sing enough songs to fill an album. And remember when the Beatles released an album that didn't have silence between the various songs? It just flowed from one song to another, and the songs seemed to be related to each other. "Sgt. Pepper." The album covers were great. Pieces of art. Information about the songs and more. It was a package. And Michael Jackson sold albums by dancing his way through 20-minute-long music videos that MTV made a big deal of debuting and showing every hour on the hour. You remember music videos, right? And MTV?

Albums. Nobody wants to buy an album anymore. Forget the cover art and the information. Save money and don't do a 20-minute-long music video, even if your artist happened to be pretty and charismatic enough to pull it off. Record companies and artists got greedy. Of the ten or twelve songs on the album, only a couple were hits. Or songs anybody wanted.

But when the 45 RPM remember the 45 RPM single, right?...went away, if you wanted the song, you bought the whole album. When MTV quit playing music videos, we were exposed to fewer total stars...people who could sing and dance and look good. And radio went into a shell and stuck with "proven, tested songs," not taking a chance on actually introducing its audience to a new superstar, unwilling to take any risks whatsoever.

Now you buy the songs individually, if you even decide you want to possess them. And music as well as the places to get it is fragmented. You can get songs in myriad places. Just the song you want. Often for free. Or for a buck if you are honest. You don't have to own the entire album to get the songs you want. You don't have to care about or know anything about the artist or group. You just want the song. For a little while. Then you delete it from your iPod and put something else in there.

So with all that music out there and so cheap, the day of the superstar pop artist...the kind like Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson...will be no more. There'll be big stars. Coldplay. Green Day. Kenny Chesney. But put those names in the same paragraph with the real pop stars and I think you see what the commentator was saying.

Nobody will ever dominate music like those guys did. And technology is one of the big reasons.


Don Keith N4KC