Thursday, September 29, 2016

It only took eighteen years

by Don Keith

In a previous life, your blogger worked with a company called Arbitron.  They were the guys that measured and syndicated radio listening estimates and pretty much had the market to themselves.  While I was there--and a member of the executive team--I had the opportunity to observe and discuss progress on a radical new way to determine radio listening.  They were developing a system in which every radio station would include a digital signature in their over-the-air audio which could not be heard by listeners but could be detected by a small device they were to call the Portable People Meter, or PPM.  The PPM would be worn or carried in a purse by "panel members" and would, without any input by the person carrying it, record what stations were actually being heard...or if there was any listening at all.  The person would drop the device into a charger sometime during the day and it would not only recharge the battery but would also dial up a telephone number and dump all the day's data into the Arbitron computers.

Considering that all of Arbitron's measurement of radio listening audience was then being done by providing volunteers with little paper diaries that they were to complete and mail back in to show what stations they listened to, I felt this new technology would result in much more accurate and complete data.  See, as a former radio station personality, manager, programmer and owner, I knew the archaic diary methodology was rife with what statisticians like to call "artifacts," quirks that made the data less accurate.  Plus, it was just downright expensive and it was also getting more and more difficult to recruit volunteers--especially in certain age and ethnic groups--willing to keep a written diary of their actual listening for a whole week.

Yes, there would be problems with the PPM, too.  We knew that.  Major among them was the cost of developing the devices, the framework necessary to upload data to our computers, and replacing lost or broken devices...once we found out they were no longer working.  And, of course, the considerable cost of perfecting the technology in the first place.  To help pay for it, we anticipated the assistance of other potential partners, chief among them being Nielsen, our equivalent on the TV viewing audience measurement side.

We saw the PPM as a superior way of gathering passive, single-source, multimedia data.  The digital signal could be employed on any medium that made a noise.  That included both radio and TV and in all their variations -- internet streaming, out-of-home, satellite (like XM), and much more -- and would give invaluable data on media usage habits since the same person would measure all media at the same time, not just through a paper diary, a set-top TV box, or by answering a random telephone call during dinner.  We would not only know where they went when they dialed off their favorite station, but if they went to TV or to satellite.  Of if they simply consumed no media at all, which is also valuable to know.

Nielsen was agreeable.  They realized the potential to their business, too.

Sometime later, though, and after I had left Arbitron (believe me, there is no connection), Nielsen apparently cooled on the PPM and stopped financial support.  I have no idea why.

Then, a few years ago, Nielsen bought Arbitron.  Few speculated it had anything to do with PPM.  Most felt that they just saw a new potential market they could capture in one fell swoop...or by writing one big check, anyway.

Now, almost eighteen years after we came up with the idea, I see the headline in today's INSIDE RADIO:

Nielsen To Use PPM To Measure Local TV Viewing.
Nielsen will use the Portable People Meter to measure local TV viewing in 44 markets where the meter is currently used to track local radio audiences, the company announced Thursday. Deploying the PPM for double duty will enable the measurement giant to double local TV sample sizes and introduce out-of-home TV measurement in the 44 markets.  
More details at

Okay, some of the PPM problems we foresaw remain.  A few we never anticipated have cropped up.  But potentially, the technology can provide the same passive, single-source, multimedia consumption, and provide the reasonably accurate data we thought it might.  It appears Nielsen finally decided the same thing.

Look, it is not just radio and TV stations that need reliable listening and viewing estimates.  It is advertisers, too, who spend billions and need to be sure it is going to the stations and programming content that can actually help them sell stuff.

But it is also a good thing for listeners and viewers.  Unless programmers know what people are listening to or watching, and where they go when they leave their station or channel, they won't be nearly as responsive to public demand as they could be.

Maybe the PPM is not the absolute best.  There are others working on some exciting technology but it hasn't happened yet.  And it's not like stations and advertisers can go to the other TV or radio ratings company.  Right now, it is almost entirely Nielsen.

And it appears that big hulk of a monopoly has finally awakened and realized what they have with the PPM.

Friday, September 16, 2016

An open letter to my local newspaper -- part deux

By Don Keith

This is a follow-up to my previous post, a diatribe against what is left of my market's "daily" newspaper, THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS.  It is yet another example of a mass medium attempting to survive in the face of rapid technological change and the almost overwhelming shift in how people consume media in the 21st century.

And, like other media I follow (especially broadcast radio and over-the-air and network TV), and despite their attempts to remain viable, all they can seem to do is ignore their customers--current and potential--while theoretically trying to find a way to continue to exist.

I gave an example of how the NEWS attempted to do this by suddenly offering four "enhanced feature editions" a year as well as a Thursday special edition on Thanksgiving Day with all those Black Friday ads...whether subscribers wanted these editions or not.  They would simply and happily cut subscriptions short by enough to cover the costs of these wonderful but not-necessarily-desired specials and bill the renewal earlier than they were supposed to.  Earlier than we poor subscribers had agreed to allow them to do.

UPDATE:  I received an email a few days after my rant to the so-called customer service department that they had opted me out of the first "special edition." I assume that means I won't pay for it.  No mention of the other three coming up.  Or the Turkey Day extravaganza.

I must not have been the only one with a beef.  There is now a special mailbox on their confusing and routinely ignored automated telephone answering system devoted to questions about those very "special editions."  How do I know about that dedicated voicemail box?  Let me tell you...

Our "daily" paper only publishes on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.  However, one thing I could usually count on was that the paper would show up in my driveway on those days, usually well before 6 AM.  While about everything else is wrong with the paper...lack of line editing, huge pictures taking up editorial space, outdated stories, no follow up on continuing stories, same story appearing in multiple sections of the same edition...I felt I could at least get the beast delivered.

Not today.  No paper.  I waited until after 9 AM to report it.  That operation requires going through a gamut of "Push 1 to turn off delivery for vacation, push 2 to cancel your subscription, etc." before finally getting to "Push 7 to report a missing, damaged or wet paper."  It may not have been 7 but it was on down the list.)

Ding!  "7" led to another lengthy list of possibilities before I finally got a recording asking if I was calling from the number associated with my account.  It didn't tell me what to do if it was so I said, "Yes."  "We apologize for any inconvenience.  We will redeliver your newspaper within 90 minutes."  Click.  Call disconnected.

Three hours later, still no paper.  I go through the whole routine again, including choosing the number...9...that is supposed to allow me to speak to an Alabama Media Group operator. A live person.  Precisely what I need in order to explain my frustration and maybe get some satisfaction.

It rings and rings and rings and, after about five minutes, disconnects me.  I dutifully dial back, but this time I let the out-of-work former female disk jockey go through all the options on both menus before she says something about speaking to a customer service representative.  Ding.  But I do not get a human at all.  I should mention that at several junctures, I was informed that the company was experiencing unusually high phone volume and the wait might be considerable.  After fifteen minutes on hold, I availed myself of their insistent offer to call me back when my turn came up.

I had my doubts about that particular promise but they actually did call me back after about twenty minutes.  And it was a human being on the other end of the line.  Eureka!  But the young fellow quickly made it clear he could not help me with a delivery issue.  That would have to come from the customer service department, the very bunch for whom I was holding when I opted to get called when they could finally find the time to speak with me. But he interrupted my attempt to so inform him to tell me he would transfer me and immediately did just that.  Maybe he was just tired of calling all of us back.  Or having us question the marital status of his parents.

Guess what.  I got the "high volume of calls" message and the offer to call me back should they ever have a free rep to get me my paper.  After about ten minutes holding, hearing that message over and over, I was about to once again hang up and start all over when a sleepy-voiced, very depressed-sounding lady came on the line. She assured me they would have me a paper within 90 minutes, that my usual guy was off today and his replacement was running behind.

Poor planning on someone's part, I thought, but it could happen.  I thanked her and waited.  Understand this is now about 11:30 AM.  The fill-in guy really was running behind!  By more than six hours!

Two more hours of my dwindling life whiz on by and still no paper has been tossed onto my lawn.

I begin dialing again but there have now been subtle changes in the convolution that is Alabama Media Group's exotic phone tree.  Now, when I finally get to the department to which they insist I go, I am told by the out-of-work DJ that the customer service department is only open until 1 PM, and only on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.  I am welcomed to leave a message and someone will eventually contact me to resolve my issue.  They have shut down customer service without rectifying my seemingly simple problem!  I do leave a message, and, I admit, my demeanor and language does not reflect my usual calm and understanding nature.  I cuss some.  I yell.  I plead.

Finally, at about 3, I call back and begin hitting--in my search for anyone who is not previously recorded or gone home for the day--the buttons for the newsroom (rings and rings for five minutes and finally disconnects...thank goodness I didn't have a big news tip for them!), classifieds (rings about ten times before I give up), and, finally, retail advertising.  I figure if anybody will enthusiastically answer the phone it would be a salesperson trying to fill with paid ads all that space in the paper now occupied by full-page photos and ads for upcoming Alabama Media Group "special editions."

Someone answers!  Never mind the circuit is so distorted we can hardly understand each other.  Before I can even explain that I am not calling to buy space, that it involves getting a copy of the very rag for which she sells ads, she hurriedly tells me she will transfer me to customer service.  Maybe she could tell by my voice that there was no commission in it for her if she talked with me.

"No! No!" I scream, trying to let her know there ain't nobody there until Sunday morning and I'll be in that never-ending high-volume-of-calls-but-we-can-call-you-back-when-it-is-your-turn diatribe and will only be allowed to leave yet another profane voice mail  But she has already hit the button.  Well, it is a different extension apparently.  This time I get a message that I have reached "technical support" and should leave a message so a "supervisor" can get back to me "soon."  Never mind the message sounds as if it was recorded inside a culvert beneath a city street.  I once again leave a blistering but likely incoherent--except for the select Anglo-Saxonisms typically uttered by gentlemen from the docks--message about my plight.

It is 4:15 PM as I type this.  The paper has not arrived yet though many "90 minutes" have come and gone.  I cannot go subscribe to another paper.  There isn't one.  Yes, I could go online and read what passes for news on, but frankly, it is a frustrating experience, filled with dead-end links, ads that creep in and obliterate whatever it is I am trying to read, and others that start playing at a painful volume somewhere on the page where I can't find it to try to turn it off before it fractures my computer speakers.  I could also read the online mock-up of the actual printed paper but it requires constant squinting to determine if I want to enlarge an article or ad to be able to see it, and is so clunky to operate it is the equivalent of an hour on a treadmill just trying to do the Jumble.

I suppose I could even climb in the truck and run down to Kangaroo and get a pack of jerky, a Red Bull, and this morning's BIRMINGHAM NEWS.  But principle forbids.

Look, Tuscaloosa, Jasper, Cullman and other smaller cities surrounding Birmingham have daily papers.  They can all manage to publish and stay afloat with a paper that shows up every day of the week.  From what I hear, they usually manage to get a copy onto the property of subscribers with a modicum of dependability.  Yet in a media market of better than a million souls, one with a proud tradition of print journalism that has included several Pulitzer Prize winners, Alabama Media Group cannot manage to get it done in Birmingham, Alabama.

As an experienced observer of media of all types, I understand the challenges facing traditional print media.  I really do.  But why hasten the inevitable by doing such a terrible job of trying to keep happy those few customers they have left?  Can't they simply do their best to serve us until we all die off and they can fold the paper once and for all?

Even when they get around to printing up a paper, it now appears they can't even find anybody to drive it out to my place and toss it in the gutter.  No, even as they fumble all the other aspects of putting together a newspaper, they now seem intent on messing up the most basic facet of all:

Fulfilling the sacred agreement they have made with subscribers to actually deliver the damn thing to them!