Saturday, May 29, 2010

Catching up

Couple of topics on my mind this thundery morning in the to do with media and another related to ham radio.

TOPIC 1 -- Radio ratings are killing radio

The oft-quoted Mark Ramsey has a great video on his blog this morning on this topic, and Mark flatly states that is the case, that ratings are killing radio broadcasting. Even if you are not into media, it is a thought-provoking commentary, even if Mark does look a little like he has been working on the piece all dang night!

Here, with some elaboration, was my comment on his piece posted to his blog. Ratings are a tool. An RF ammeter in a radio station's transmission line is a tool to make sure the station does not break FCC rules. The computer and software package a radio station uses to keep track of billings and to send out invoices each month are tools to help the station do business. Ratings are a tool to help a station estimate what its listenership is, to help make programming decisions, and to help market the station to potential advertisers.

If the station uses a slight deflection in the meter readings to decide that, since it is reading incorrectly, they will arbitrarily double the power to make up for it, is that appropriate? If the station determines that the billing software has an error and it is charging customers 15% too much, do they simply keep going and not fix it?
Same with ratings data. So long as rating estimates are not the sole reason for making decisions, or the only benefit a station can present to a potential sponsor, then they are well worth the money invested. It is when the tail wags the dog -- when everything we do, every decision we make, is to try to squeeze out another tenth of a share point--that we get into trouble.
I posit that is part of the angst with PPM, Arbitron's new methodology for gathering audience info using data encoding on transmitted signals measured by devices hanging on recruited panel members. (Disclaimer: I was an executive with Arbitron during the early development of this technology and am convinced it is the best method yet for measuring radio listening.) It is more and more difficult for radio stations to "game" the numbers. PPM carriers are listening or they are not. No rubber clocks (giving incorrect time so diarykeepers would write down longer periods of listening) or hyped contests all aimed at getting diarykeepers to write down our station, whether they are listening or not.
Radio programmers nowadays have no idea how to make people listen to their stations. They only know how to make them write down their station in their diaries. PPM carriers write nothing down. If they listen, it is recorded. If they don't, the station gets no credit.
I still cringe when I hear about stations interfacing music scheduling software with PPM data and making major song choices based on a precious few "meters" who "tune out" during the song. Or using dangerously narrow demo/daypart/geo data to make crucial choices in programming and personnel.
The ability to get near-immediate multi-media single-source listening data that is gathered as impassively as PPM does is a wonderful thing. The danger of reading too much into those data could be another nail in the coffin of a medium we all love so much.

TOPIC 2: New Kenwood radio

Lots of commentary since the Dayton Hamvention about the prototype Kenwood TS-590 transceiver displayed there. It looks almost exactly like the prototype at the Tokyo show last August, and the Kenwood reps were saying the same things they said there and when I talked with them at the Huntsville Hamfest, also last August.

Two things are sparking this interest in just another HF/6-meter radio:

1) Kenwood has been relatively dormant in the amateur radio HF market for a while. The TS-2000 (Disclaimer: a rig I own and love!) is, well, 10 years old now with practically no changes in design or firmware. The TS-480 is their other primary HF radio, and, as I hear, a good one, but hardly groundbreaking or a major challenger to Yaesu or Icom and their very full range of gear. Is Kenwood--and especially since their sale a few years ago to a massive electronics conglomerate--going to remain in the ham radio business? If this rig is as robust as some hope, it is a good sign that they are.

2) I was told in Huntsville that the new radio would have a receiver the equivalent of the Elecraft K-3, a very fine little radio indeed. Some commenters have proclaimed Kenwood has declared war on the K-3. I doubt that is their intent, but if they do have a competitive receiver to go along with Kenwood's excellent user interface, transmit audio, and other features, they could have a winner with the 590.

Why should we hams care? The more competition the better. And the more manufacturers stretch the capabilities of their products, the greater performance for the dollar for us.

And that is a very good thing.

Don Keith

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Interesting times

I don't do much politics here, preferring to deal with technological change, and especially as it applies to media and amateur radio. But I received the following link from my friend Dennis Dease N4NR:

It sort of got me going. First, let me say again, I was absolutely thrilled when America finally reached the 21st century and elected a black man as president. This was a far-too-long delayed milestone. I only wish it had not been this particular black man. It should not surprise anyone that the most liberal senator is now our most liberal president in decades. And with a Congress now controlled by the most liberal leadership in my lifetime, it should come as no surprise that we are seeing more and more proposals that shock my Libertarian soul to its core. See, I think less government is best government. It is not the role of government--and especially a federally centered government--to make sure everyone is shielded from any bad stuff from cradle to grave, regardless their own choices in life. I'm not radical about it. I think collectively as a nation we should have systems in place to take care of those who, through no fault of their own, need asssitance.

But look at "The War on Poverty." How many billions of our taxpayer dollars have been thrown down that rat hole and more people are living in poverty than ever? Look at government education. Despite billions of our taxpayer dollars and an astoundingly massive bureaucracy, test scores continue to go down.

Now they want to re-work our individually controlled retirement savings accounts so they can "take care of us," and, by the way, do it with OUR money. I've always been amazed that the government created and allows us to "get away with" anything that makes as much sense as IRAs and 401Ks. I bet the way they go about this will be that they will dredge up some poor souls who lost everything in their 401Ks during the big downturn and are now surviving on dog food and Cheetos. Never mind those pitiful so-and-sos got greedy and put all their IRA money into stock in Fly-by-night Platinum Mining Company in East Timor.

"See, this kind of individual-funded retirement account does not work," they'll say. "People who don't know what they are doing are losing their nest eggs. Poor things! We--the kind and benevolent government--will now take charge of these accounts and assure old folks are taken care of, with no risk or danger whatsover."

And I'm sure the government will do just as swell a job with my IRA and 401K as they have done with Social Security, AMTRAK, and the U.S. Post Office.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bouncin' around

The press of the day job and several book projects are my excuse for not having posted here in a while, so let me catch up on a couple of things.
First, for you media types, here is a LINK to a very interesting--if not downright profane--presentation by a very smart guy. His name is Bob Garfield, host of NPR's "On the Media," author of "The Chaos Scenario," and former media critic for Ad Age. This is a speech he gave to the British Columbia Broadcasters Association in which he tells a bunch of TV and radio guys exactly what they don't want to hear. The key point to me--just in case you don't want to or can't stand to watch the whole thing--is that radio and TV stations must compete with more than video and audio. They must be a full-bore media provider, using every means that the audience uses to consume media.
And the truly frightening part is that, if you are, say, a radio cluster, you must compete with not only every other radio station in the market, but also with every TV station, newspaper, and other media in the market, plus limitless other sources around the world, including Internet, iPod, cell phone, etc.
Forget "local." Forget the other radio signals if you are a radio station. Your competition is multi-pronged, it's worldwide, and it is, in many cases, far better and more relevant than and almost as easy to get as what you have on your air right now.
Second quick subject, and it is for my ham radio brethren. The continual evolution of the amateur radio equipment market continues to fascinate me, because it is a study in marketing to a decidedly vertical market. The big guys--Icom and Yaesu--continue to introduce scads of new model radios with only slightly different feature sets. I assume they know what they are doing, but one has to wonder. Unless they re developing the different models that are for potential markets other than amateur radio and slightly modifying them and putting a different face on them for us hams, I don't see where the profit is. Still, it is a wonderful thing for us. We get plenty of choices in feature-rich gear. We gripe about prices, but if you look at the quality and technology we are able to purchase, even the most frugal among you (as if hams are a frugal lot!) have to admit these radios are bargains. Of course, these guys have much new competition for this very limited market from people like Elecraft, who is producing really innovative and wonderfully performing radios, and Flex, who developed the first practical software-defined radio and pushed technology to a new level. Maybe having a dozen HF transceivers in your catalog is one way to fight back. I just don't know.
And then, there is Kenwood. They announced in a cryptic press release on Friday that they would be debuting a new HF radio at Dayton Hamvention. It has long been rumored that Kenwood (once the third leg on the big amateur radio manufacturing stool but now almost an after-thought) was developing something new and exciting. The "new" part is now confirmed. The "exciting" part is yet to be.
Their TS-2000 has been a big seller for almost ten years now and is a marvel of technology with so much packed into such a small box. I know. I own one and love it. But what could they possibly do with a new rig to compete with all those choices from Yaesu and Icom, not to mention Flex and Elecraft and TenTec, and even low-end guys like Alinco and the new gear emerging from China?
Here's one to watch. And I wish them all the luck. If it turns out to be a good product with some distinguishing features or technology, it can only mean more competition, more choice, more pressure on pricing...and that is all good for us, even if it causes ulcers down there at the manufacturers' plants.

Don Keith N4KC