Monday, December 29, 2008

Number one with who counts -- LISTENERS!

Back on November 12, I posted a note about how radio listening is down for commercial stations but National Public Radio affiliates are actually growing nicely. Now comes word that the new Portable People Meter developed by my old company, Arbitron, shows something very interesting in Washington, DC, a major radio market.
The number one radio station between 7 PM and midnight in this big media center is not the local hit music station, not the news/talk or the urban/rap station. No, it is a listener-supported, non-commercial contemporary Christian music station, WGTS-FM.
How can that be? How can such a narrowly-targeted station beat all those other consulted, researched, promoted, fire-breathing monsters?
I'm not that familiar with WGTS, and it is definitely NOT the kind of station I would typically listen to, but after visiting their web site and listening just a few minutes to their stream, I think I have a good idea. Anyone listening or visiting the web site who falls into the group for whom the station is intended instantly feels like he or she belongs. They probably feel that this station "belongs" to them. Everything is inclusive, not excluding. The pieces fit together. Listeners are invited to be a part of what they are doing.
There is an open invitation for listeners and visitors to design a billboard for the station, using the theme "Why I believe in God." People are invited to send video of their kids' Christmas pageants to share with others. There's a chance to choose a gift from a catalog to send to a child in Asia for Christmas. Of course, there are blogs, a chance to follow station personalities on Twitter and other social sites, and a high-quality station stream that does not require some kind of exotic player--just Windows MediaPlayer--or demands that you register to listen (there's an optional opportunity to give your email address if you want to be on the station's distribution list).
Again, it's not my kind of station, but I can readily see why the PPM shows it to be doing so well. They are not trying to reach "listeners." They are trying to attract participants...members of a club that a large number of people would like to join. And they are not doing anything any other radio station couldn't do.

Don Keith

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

And the biggest advertiser on broadcast radio is...

Are you ready for this? The biggest-spending advertiser on broadcast radio nowadays is not Coca Cola. It's not beer or fast food or on-line dating services. And it's certainly not auto makers.

It is...TA!

Yes, the biggest advertiser on radio is radio. That's spending to promote so-called "HD radio."

So you tell me: how much do you know about HD radio? Did you plan to give them as gifts this Christmas?

Could you tell me three things that make a new HD radio a good purchase?

I didn't think so. Obviously money well spent.

Don N4KC

Friday, December 12, 2008

Creating a relationship with customers

I often cite a blog I follow that is written by media researcher Mark Ramsey. He quotes quite a few marketing "gurus" and their takes on the business of radio and other media. Some are better than others. Some are unrelated to rapid technological change or are only peripherally relatable to media.

But in one of Mark's most recent posts, he quotes from an interview he did with marketing consultant and author Tom Asacker, who, in a few sentences, may have given the most profound formula yet for a radio station intent on attracting a large audience:

"You can't create larger audiences by trying to create larger audiences. You can only create larger audiences by trying to get deeper with smaller audiences.

Think about how to get deeper and make more relevant, valuable connections with individuals in a culture or a subculture.

Don't think about audience size. Think about the depth of the relationship and how important it is and how valuable it is. The more you do that, the bigger the audience gets."

I am convinced that the more choices people have for their entertainment, information and virtual companionship, the more they will gravitate toward those sources with which they can identify, feel a part of, while becoming a member of a community with similar likes and dislikes. It goes back, too, to my continual braying about how radio listeners, TV viewers, Internet surfers, book readers--all users of all media--are looking primarily for companionship. For a shared experience. A shared experience with someone with whom they feel comfortable.
It's as simple as a morning dee jay saying, "Gosh, I know how you feel after the (home team) lost the big game last night. Here's a song I pulled out of the stack, just for days like this. It made me feel better. I hope it does you, too."

Don Keith N4KC

Friday, December 5, 2008

God help radio and God help radio's customers

So I was traveling this week and got a free copy of USA TODAY on my hotel room doorknob (does anybody actually buy this paper?) Inside was a nice, colorful insert, urging me to give “the gift that fits.” (Here’s a link to the insert:

The piece says I should give an HD Radio to someone special this Christmas, not a gift card, a necktie, or a “re-gift.” It claims there are 100 different HD Radios and gives me a long list of manufacturers and retail stores. There is even a bullet-point list of various types of HD Radios that exist: alarm clock, table top, and portables, to name a few.

If I look hard enough, I finally see a few reasons listed for WHY I should give someone an HD Radio for a gift: more local stations, higher quality sound, and no subscription fee. That's it. Still, it seems the main reason is because 29 manufacturers make HD Radios and eleven retailers sell them.

I can’t help but ask several questions”

· What am I missing here? Why is the fact that people make and sell a product a reason why I should give it as a gift?
· Are the three value propositions offered on this piece enough to make that lucky giftee squeal with delight on Christmas morning? I’m trying to think who on my gift list is looking for “more local stations” or, for that matter, “higher quality sound” than they are getting already. Gosh, yes. My wife, my boss, my brother have all been telling me how much they would like more local radio stations! Thank you, broadcasters, for providing me the perfect gift!
· OK, so they want me to find “just the right HD Radio for your special someone” (honest, that’s what the copy says!). What is the point of this expensive print insert piece? Are they trying to drive me to a store or to a web site? It can't be that they want to give me any reasons why the HD Radio is such a spectacular gift. If they want to push me to the web site, they only list the URL once that I can find, and it is in a font and color I can hardly make out. And I don't see a compelling reason for me to "visit." How many people will actually go there to “print out a customized shopping list?”
· And finally, who are these guys trying to reach with this piece? Why USA TODAY? Of all possible placement or media, why USA TODAY?

Radio tells its customers that they are “marketing experts” who will help them sell their product or service. God help the radio industry and God help its customers!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ubiquitous free broadband -- it's coming, and soon!

USA TODAY says it, so it has to be true:
Free broadband for America has inched closer to reality: The plan, after two years of debate, is finally on the calendar for a full vote by the Federal Communications Commission.
Assuming the plan is approved at the FCC's Dec. 18 meeting, one of the agency's last before President-elect Barack Obama takes office, free broadband could become reality within a year.

That means not only your laptop but your car, your utility meter, your refrigerator (!) will be able to connect to the Internet from just about anywhere. Think about it. You can start your car, have your house warming up, check the roast in the crock pot, set your DVR to record that show you forgot about, 20 meter CW on your home rig and big antenna...all from your desk or while having an after-work drink with your buds.

The possibilities boggle the mind of a guy like me who has been alive in seven decades. I remember when we had three (THREE!) TV channels. When the only broadcast radio we could hear at night was Chicago or St. Louis. When mail had no "e" in front of it. When ordering Christmas presents out of a catalog meant a paper catalog, a money order, and a trip to the post office sometime in October.

What other possibilities does ubiquitous, instantaneous connectivity promise? What is the potential impact on how people communicate, how they get their entertainment, how they use media, how they live their lives? When your thermostat on the wall at home, your locker at the gym, your car, and your dog all have IP addresses and are accessible from any computer or handheld communcation device (no longer just a "cell phone" or "PDA")?

Take a deep breath and hang on!

Don Keith N4KC

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It Just Keeps Coming!

I don't make this stuff up. Really, I don't. Sometimes I have to question if there is any sanity left in the media world. Look, I know things are changing rapidly, and many who hold the keys to media outlets are just not equipped with the vision or forethought to handle that change. But considering the dollars and careers that are at stake, doesn't it seem that somebody would stand up, draw a line in the sand, and say, "Let's get creative! Let's do something so daring and...well...good that we can find a business model without selling our souls."
Here are a couple of items that have me grinding my teeth this morning:

Item #1: In a radio trade newsletter: (Talking about when stations belonging to America's #1 radio company, Clear Channel, were allowed by corporate to begin playing all-Christmas-music formats this year...some before Halloween!) Where does the Christmas music come from? Not the North Pole, but (if you’re a Clear Channel station) Cincinnati. That’s where the main server is located and most CC stations that are going all-Christmas get a Selector (music scheduling software) database with pre-programmed logs. I’m told that if the local PD (program director) wants to salt in some regional favorites, he or she needs to check with the Regional VP of programming.
Don's comments: Lord help us all. If you can't trust your local-market programming person to slide in a few local-interest Christmas songs in the most tepid, rigid, non-original musical format ever created, then why even give somebody the title? "Please, please, please, Mr. Regional Programming VP, can I play 'Christmas in Dixie' by Alabama since I'm in Alabama, which is in Dixie, and it's freakin' Christmas? I know it doesn't test well in LA, but..."
Wait. Is that Brenda Lee and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree?" Wow! I haven't heard that in, oh, twenty minutes. Turn it up! Sorry. I was overcome with sarcasm and mistook it as the spirit of Christmas.

Item #2: (From another media trade newsletter) Consultant: Make radio like Wal-Mart: Media consultant Jack Myers says that for the next 24-36 months, radio needs to run its business for advertisers. He suggests stations dramatically cut prices for :30s and strike multi-year, low-rate ad deals. "Radio needs to become the Wal-Mart of the media industry."
Don's take: Let me get this straight:

1. “Run your station for advertisers,” not listeners? Remember them? Listeners? Some of you in the radio biz used to have them! Does this loon not understand that if somebody would just run a station for LISTENERS for a change then advertisers would flock to them like job-seekers to Obama's transition team?

2. Could he have used a more inappropriate metaphor than Wal-Mart? Yes, everybody goes there, but nobody is proud of it.

3. But the biggest tragedy of all is this nut case is saying, “Cheapen your product!” “Present yourself as the cheapest!” “Establish the value of what audience you have left to sell as somewhere between a 1984 Yugo and a can of store-brand pork ‘n’ beans.” So how are you going to come back next year when you need to show 10% or 12% greater revenue to impress some analyst on Wall Street and say, “You know last year when we told you we were Wal-Mart. Well, now, with even less audience and a more fuzzy target, we are Saks, so pay up or you don’t get any of our air.”
Finally, this one doesn't make me mad but scares me when I think about how radio--my old medium and one I think could still be the most personal, the most effective in reaching people--will ignore the implications. It is a simple factoid: Just one year ago, under one-third of online households had watched online video. Today, that number has risen to more than six out of ten.
Don's thoughts: OK, "watching video online" covers a lot of territory, from a full-blown, first-run Hollywood movie to a funny :10-second blip on YouTube. I'm shocked the number is not vastly higher. The implication is, though, that people want stuff to move online. If they are watching some guy get hit in the crotch with a Roman candle on YouTube, they are not watching "Grey's Anatomy." The big networks are getting it, putting entire episodes of their shows online for people to watch at will and developing other compelling content that will bring viewers to their websites. Some still don't know how to make a buck on that but something tells me they will figure it out.
But radio? Video is the Devil. They are afraid of it. They play music off a hard drive and voice-track the "personality." How do they get that to move and dance and shine all glittery-like?
I don't know, but somebody better figure it out. And fast.
(Corollary: WGN-TV is now telecasting each night an hour of "The Bob and Tom Show," a syndicated morning radio program that is heard on quite a few radio stations around the country. These guys have been around forever and have had good ratings. I've never understood their popularity but I'm not in their target. Like so many shows, though, it's all about "the show" and not the listener or what's going on in his or her life. Let's give OUR take on wacky stuff in the news. What goofy thing can we get the intern to do? What did Bob and Tom or the other cast members do over the weekend that was semi-funny? Who can we get to call in and make a fool of themselves to qualify for a couple of concert tickets?
I invite you to watch their "show" weeknights at 11 PM CST and tell me if this is the way to get radio on video. Two old guys, an old sports guy, and a news gal, each hugging their microphones, talking in deep voices (even the news gal), reading off-the-wall wire copy if it contains anything salacious or has to do with body parts or toilet functions, and telling penis jokes. I swear nothing moves but their mouths!)
OK, I'm going to go lie down for a while.

Don Keith N4KC

Monday, November 24, 2008

XM/Sirius Down to Two Years Left?

I continue to hear complaints from subscribers who lost their favorite channels in the recent Sirius/XM merger. Inevitable, but that is not the reason the new entity is not long for this surrounding this world.

Mike Elgan, a columnist for Datamation, a respected IT pub, recently wrote: “I hate to say it, but somebody has to: Satellite radio will come crashing down to Earth within the next two years.” He concedes that satellite radio has gotten better, with smaller receivers and new features. His reason for such a dire prediction is simply that the world is moving too fast for satellite radio to keep up.

“The ugly truth is that satellite is simply an obsolete way to deliver sound,” he says. "Satellite radio is already living on borrowed time – and borrowed money – and simply will not and cannot survive.”

He maintains that such technology as MP3-compatible cars and in-dash mobile broadband will eliminate the need for satellite radio. The big reason, though, is purely financial. He questions whether Sirius XM will be able to refinance its staggering $1 billion debt in 2009, considering what is going on in the economy.

Some broadcasters are already popping open the champagne. They may want to consider that they face the same hurdles before they celebrate so long and hardy that they wake up with a hangover...and no business.

Don Keith N4KC

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Juxtaposition shows obvious truth

I pulled up one of my email newsletters today and read the top two stories, related to the radio broadcasting biz. Here they are, exactly as written:

Public radio hits all-time high.
CPB-supported stations are reaching more listeners than ever. Following a 3% increase last year, the stations climbed another 3% in the Spring 2008 survey to 28,744,600 listeners (12+) in an average week. RRC president Joanne Church says excitement over the election helped drive the increase.

Reach steady, but TSL slips.
Despite a growing number of media choices, 92.5% of Americans 12+ listen to the radio in an average week. The bad news is time spent listening by this cume, on average, was just under 18 hours per week, roughly 45 minutes less than a year ago. More in today's Inside Radio.

If you are not in the broadcasting industry, you may not appreciate the irony of those two back-to-back stories. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has always been noted for their well done content and programming that attracts habitual listeners. Many people make sure to turn on the radio to hear "A Prarie Home Companion," "All Things Considered," and "Click and Clack." They have also been praised for their use of sound. Sound is a major part of anything you hear on their air. Hmmm. Clever use of sound on an aural medium? What a concept! So it should come as no surprise that their listenership is growing.

Commercial radio is losing listenership, as noted in the second story. TSL means "time spent listening." Radio continues to honk its horn about 93% of Americans listening to radio in a week but the real measure of listenership is how LONG they listen. (That 93% is based on people who only have to listen for at least five minutes in a week to get their usage counted.) And obviously it is dropping like George Bush's approval ratings.

45 minutes less TSL in a year is monumental! And the NPR spokesperson is being modest. The interest in the election should have impacted commercial radio as well.

Sea change, folks. Sea change.

Don Keith N4KC

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wi-Fi About to Be More "Wi" Than Ever

I received a breathless message yesterday from the state broadcasters' association, clearly apoplectic about an action of the Federal Communications Commission earlier this week. That action opened up a huge swath of radio-frequency spectrum to the next generation of Wi-Fi...the no-wire method many use to reach the Internet from their computers. The broadcasters are concerned that the new technology, operating virtually without license, will cause interference to their signals. I maintain that should be the least of their worries.

Wireless Internet has been around for a long time. Who among us has not stood on a hotel balcony, holding the laptop at an odd angle, to try to glom off somebody's wireless network instead of paying the hotel ten or twelve bucks to hook up to their wired connection? Or consumed too many cups of $3.95 coffee so you could linger at Starbucks long enough to download your email?

Stand by for the day--now closer because of the FCC action this week--when you can reach the web from just about anywhere, using your laptop, your Blackberry, some kind of device not even invented yet, or a computer modem that resides in the dash of your car, right next to the radio and just below the GPS. The FCC move was simply the next shoe dropping. As Larry Page, co-founder of Google, wrote, "These spectrum signals have much longer range than today's Wi-Fi technology and broadband access can be spread using fewer base stations resulting in better coverage at lower cost."

The way we get and use information, entertainment, communication and more is about to change so dramatically that it will leave many dazed, wondering what happened to telephones with wires, newspapers, Yellow Pages, over-the-air TV and radio stations, movie theaters, and more. When you can ride down the freeway, listening to a streaming "radio station" from the other side of the country, getting driving directions and maps from Google on a high-res screen embedded in your steering wheel to help you locate a certain restaurant you searched for, the kids watching a first-run, streaming movie that you rented from Netflix on the HD monitor in the back seat (that they can pause when you get to the restaurant and finish watching when you return home), and your spouse is talking with a friend in Sweden and exchanging vacation photos on the VOIP phone, then we will have gotten much closer to realizing the full capabilities of "the web."

But nowhere near the full capability. Ready or not, here it comes!

Don Keith N4KC

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

BROADcasting--now a dead concept?

In a day and age when we can have web sites personally designed to give us the information we want immediately upon log-in, when we can subscribe to RSS feeds on any subject imaginable (and some unimaginable!), when we have a choice of 200 channels on our TV, streaming audio/video on our cell phones, and hundreds of radio stations cascading down from space and into our radios...then I have to take a breath after that long opening sentence before asking the question: Is there any longer such a thing as "broadcasting?" Emphasis, by the way, on the word "broad."

Many media have had as their primary reason for existence the goal of delivering the largest possible audience or readership. LIFE, LOOK, THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, READERS DIGEST...all were successful because they gave advertisers access to millions of readers each week. Network TV--ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox--presented a "mass" audience...millions of TV households tuned to their prime-time offerings. Radio stations all tried to be "number one!"

That is all fading away, replaced by one of my favorite made-up words: demassification. Most advertisers no longer want to reach (or pay for) a mass audience. They want to target, to efficiently reach targeted potential customers. What better target for a carpet cleaning service than a search engine where people are searching for carpet cleaning services? Why spend what it costs to reach thousands of people on TV, radio or in the newspaper when practically none of them are in the market to have their carpets cleaned? Those guys are on the Internet anyway, looking for a carpet cleaner!

Advertisers can target with cable/satellite TV, based on programming. The audiences are much smaller per channel, but ad guys know where to go to reach potential customers...not paying for vast masses of people who have no interest in what they are peddling, simply to hit those who are.

That is why those big national magazines no longer exist. And that is why I can boldly predict the following:

-- Network nightly newscasts will be gone in fewer than ten years. I can't wait to see which network blinks first and gives up on the entire concept. Fox now looks especially brilliant for never starting it, happy instead to go the 24-hour-a-day cable channel route in the first place.

-- Networks will move more and more toward narrowly-targeted programming...maybe a night aimed at non-ethnic teens, a night geared to high-income 35+ viewers, or the like, and will be happy to settle for third or fourth place because they charge higher rates and make more money than the number one network...because they efficiently deliver the right sets of eyeballs.

-- By 2013, many mid-size cities will no longer have a newsprint-on-paper daily newspaper. When car dealers and grocery chains finally give up the fight and stop using newspapers, their doom is sealed.

-- Many radio stations--especially AM stations--will go away, returning their licenses to the FCC, and no one will file for them. Still, someone will figure a new way to price radio audiences to advertisers and will invest in the programming that it takes to attract a marketable block of listeners. And how to incorporate other means of distributing their compelling content, too, and make money on each of those means.

--Narrowly-focused cable/satellite TV channels that use Internet content to enhance the viewers' experience will thrive. Examples: Golf Channel, Big 10 Network, HGTV.

Doubt it? A recent Friday night, the number one prime time TV show reached fewer than 10 million households. That was the first time that happened since the 1960s...when there were far, far fewer TV households. The number one radio station in my home market used to have a 12 rating...12% of the entire population of the city listened to that station for at least fifteen minutes in a week. Now the top station has a 5 rating.

I've been saying this for the last dozen years or so and it is rapidly coming true: any medium has an audience/readership that has some value to some advertiser at some price. The goal is to have enough of an audience for which you can charge enough of a price that you can make a profit.

Nowadays, that means you better attract an audience that advertisers want and are willing to pay for. Size does not necessarily matter that much. Quality does. Targeting does.

Are the people with the keys to radio and TV stations and print media ready to invest in the research and creativity it will take to remain in business in this new climate?

Stay tuned.

Don Keith N4KC

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gored oxen

I am likely stating the obvious here. Those who resist change most vehemently are those who feel most threatened by it. Native Americans were perfectly happy with the status quo. The influx of pale people--modern conveniences, railroads, and evangelical religion notwithstanding--was not viewed with particular enthusiasm. They resisted violently. Ask General Custer.

I see a perfect example of such resistance to change by those most threatened by it when I look in my former field of broadcasting and the current controversy over how viewership and listenership are measured. It had to change. Previously used methodology is archaic and not very accurate at all. Billions of ad dollars are spent based on those estimates, and those decisions have been made primarily on the memories and honesty of diarykeepers. Busy, distracted people, facing a glut of media swirling all about them, are asked to write down what shows they watched or stations they listened to over a one-week period. I won't even try to tell you all the horror stories I have personally witnessed or all the things that can and do go wrong with this methodology.

Then, Nielsen (a company that used meter technology over 50 years ago but still measured the bulk of TV viewing by hastily scribbled diary entries and pencil) started extending the use of its set-top boxes in the homes of so-called "Nielsen families." There was great anguish and gnashing of teeth from some groups because the results from this much more accurate measuring stick came in better for some stations and shows and worse for others than they had with those diaries. Arbitron (who built a multi-million-dollar business on diaries and pencils) heard the clamor from advertisers and developed the Portable People Meter, which has been previously discussed on this blog, including my own limited personal involvement when I worked with Arbitron.

Wow! A device that impartially measured whatever its bearer was listening to. No recall. No guessing about call letters or dial position. No writing down the call letters of the station with the most billboards and bus panels, just because that was the only one the diarykeeper could remember. No having one teenager in a household fill out eight diaries for other family members who did not want to fool with such silliness.

But, just as with Nielsen's far more accurate methodology, those who felt the new, more reliable way of measuring actual media usage was hurting their particular segment of the business began yelling loud and long. Loud and long enough that the attorney general of the state of New York was asked to intervene and take legal action against Artibron's "illegal and misleading business practices." And the Federal Communications Commission was asked to intervene (I'm no lawyer, but I see now way there is any jurisdiction here!).

Yes, many stations that are programmed for African-Americans and Hispanics lost ratings with the PPM, just as happened when Nielsen meters became more widespread, replacing diaries. And lost ratings mean lost dollars from advertisers. Sometimes millions of lost dollars. I undersatnd the plight perfectly. I, too, owned a radio station that suffered from Arbitron's diary methodology.

(Could it have been that the diaries allowed some people to "vote" for "their" stations to whom they felt called to show loyalty by indicating more listening than was actually taking place? I'll save that argument for some other blog post.)

Well, NY AG Cuomo has filed suit, claiming Arbitron's methodology is biased and that the company has deliberately misled customers and advertisers. The FCC is deciding if they have authority to look into the syndicated audience estimates of a company that does not have to have FCC approval or license to do so. (That would be like the FCC investigating a television critic who pans certain shows.) Sure, Arbitron, whose whole business is based on publishing accurate, unbiased, third-party audience estimates, is going to put into the marketplace ratings information they know to be wrong! That is too ridiculous for words!

Look, no research that relies on statistically valid sampling or some type of system for collecting that data is going to be 100% accurate. But the PPM is by far the best way of measuring radio (and TV, too, if the nuts at Nielsen would realize it and re-enter the partnership with Arbitron...especially for measuring out-of-home viewing [never saw a Nielsen meter on my hotel TV sets] and video streaming).

Although it almost sounds like the argument that religion, railroads and "civilization" were much better for Native Americans than the lifestyle they had happily lived for centuries, I believe the changes in the industry are good for stations. Accuracy is a good thing for everybody, including those whose audiences may actually decline in the beginning. Accuracy means advertisers can trust the numbers they are seeing and will, in the long run, mean more ad dollars for radio, including those who feel like they are being slimed by Arbitron's new device. And with all the other challenges facing traditional terrestrial commercial radio these days, the industry needs all the credibility it can get, credibility that can only be enhanced by more accurate ways of estimating usage.

But then, I am an advertiser. My ox is not getting gored.

Don Keith

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Dashing through the snow..."

Prediction from one of the pundits I read:

This year, Christmas music on the radio will be at an all-time-high popularity level.

Reason: people are so depressed about the economy and the presidential race that they will seek solace in Johnny Mathis and the Harry Simeone Chorale like never before.

What do you think?

Truth is, I got so burned out on seasonal songs when I had to play them on the radio that I turn pale when I hear the first notes of "White Christmas." Still, I understand the logic here, and I think it is probably correct. Of course, I always felt that going "all-Xmas music all the time" was a lazy way to program a radio station. And when stations started switching before the last trick-or-treater had pummeled my doorbell, I gagged.

Or maybe it was all those little Snicker bars.

Don N4KC

Friday, October 3, 2008


I know this blog that is supposed to be dedicated to technological change often tends to swerve toward media, but darn it! That's where I've lived most of my life. And there is so much technological innovation (and disgusting pig-headedness) there that it begs discussion.

Here's a short blurb from a media trade email that got my blood pressure up already this morning:

"When PPM rolls out in eight additional markets next week, dozens of new stations will get a shot at appearing in the monthly ratings book. But not all operators are encoding their multicasts, and so far no HD2 or HD3 station has showed up in the ratings. One GM says 'Nothing can kill a new idea faster than metrics.'"

Quick background: PPM is the "portable people meter," a device that has the capability of measuring exactly what a person is hearing. Though it is only being used for radio now, it has the capability of measuring TV, Internet streams, and more. We were in the development stages of this device when I was with Arbitron, and it is by far the most accurate media measurement system ever passive as possible (not dependent on people remembering or writing down what stations they listen to) and single-source/multimedia (can measure more than just radio and give a picture of people's media usage HABITS, not just radio listening).

"HD2" and "HD3" refers to the ability of digital over-the-air radio stations to broadcast additional programming on separate channels from their usual main one, all on the same signal.

With digital radio happening all over, station owners and operators are facing several hurdles:

  • Despite millions of dollars of marketing, the general radio-listening public remains mostly unaware of digital over-the-air radio

  • Those who are aware are almost completely put it mildly

  • No one knows how to monetize those additional channels...advertising? Donations?

  • And if the idea of having an extra channel or two attached to every AM and FM broadcast station in America should catch on, won't stations actually be competing with their main channel with all those additional sources of programming?

And all this is happening at a time when traditional terrestrial commercial radio broadcasters face competition from streaming Internet stations, XM and Sirius via satellite, iPods, people talking on and getting programming from their cell phones. And at a time when broadcasters refuse to develop talent, spend money on programming, or take any chances whatsoever. Yikes!

I know owners and investors are scared. But that one quote in the story above is about the silliest I have ever seen.

"Nothing can kill a new idea faster than metrics."

Instead of saying, "We are going to put content so compelling on our sub-channels that the public will flock to us...please, please measure it so everyone will see what we have," they are afraid someone will see that, once a yardstick is applied, there is nothing there to measure. This is the very "head in the sand" attitude by the people who hold the keys to America's radio stations that will eventually kill the medium graveyard dead!

Don Keith

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Managing the "mood" of the public

This blurb in one of the advertising-industry newsletters got me to thinking:

Amid turmoil and panic in the global credit markets, ads for some financial institutions are touting long experience. Experts are divided on the wisdom of trying to reassure customers and investors during a financial crisis. One PR expert says that such ads will be greeted with skepticism, given the prevailing news, while others suggest that financial brands need to communicate stability and empathy.

In good times, advertisers are primarily concerned with moving product and/or converting customers from another brand to theirs. Good marketers and advertisers have gotten very sophisticated about doing this. I've often joked that I have given up fighting the junk food industry. They simply have too much money to spend and super-sized expertise in convincing me that I need to eat more chicken nuggets, so I will never be able to fight them. Pass the honey mustard sauce, please.

But how do advertisers handle tough times? Is it incumbent on AIG today to be honest with policyholders (and POTENTIAL policyholders)? How do they go about convincing everyone to stay put with their term life policies instead of cancelling and going to someone else who appears to have a better chance of meeting their obligation when the customer croaks? And for sure, how do they attract new business. Since you, I, and all American taxpayers are now co-owners of this fine financial company, I want to know how we are going to grow the business so we can get our money back...with interest.

And how do competitors handle this? First, they have to assure everyone that they are solid as...well...the rock of Gibraltar. Powerful as a sounding whale. That's no small task when the entire sector is suddenly teetering. It's hard to be funny or clever. Even a caveman can see that. And it's patently unseemly to point to AIG and gloat. Yet, somehow, insurers and banks have to gain back the public's trust, even if individual players are doing fine.

Now, let's see how these "sophisticated marketers" handle these little challenges.

It's the stuff future marketing doctorate theses are made of!

Don Keith N4KC

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Satellite Radio -- does it have a future?

Dumb question, that. Of course, everything has a future, even if it consists of ceasing to exist. That still qualifies as a "future." But I don't really think a new, combined Sirius/XM is doomed to failure, as many terrestrial broadcasting wags suggest. Latest? INSIDE RADIO gushing about the stock price sinking below a buck:

Sirius drops below $1 as subscriber growth evaporates. Selling a pay radio service is an uphill battle in a decent economy, but when things get tough as they are now it’s an even steeper climb. That’s one reason Sirius XM Radio says it will add only two million subscribers next year, bringing it to 21.5 million users — it’s smallest increase ever. Its stock closed at 98 cents yesterday — its lowest level in more than five years.

I can see a number of obvious reasons for pessimism about the satellite service's future.

  1. INSIDE RADIO is probably correct about economy worries preventing some folks from buying a radio and contracting for a subscription. Poor new-car sales is probably a bigger factor. That tail wags the dog of subscription radio.

  2. Many savvy potential subscribers are probably waiting for the next shoe to drop. Will the combined entity offer channels a la carte so subscribers can pick Channel 18 Spectrum and Howard Stern from Sirius and whatever sports franchises they want from XM? And will those who have already signed up have the same privilege? As an existing DirecTV customer, I did not have the option of upgrading to a free HD receiver/DVR, like someone coming new to the service does.

  3. Maybe most importantly, though, is the quality of the offerings. Most music channels are a jukebox. Subscribers quickly tire of hearing song after song after song with no entertainment value...or even someone telling us on many channels who the artist is or why we should care...between those songs. Listeners still want warmth, companionship, and a reason to listen besides song after song after song, even if those songs are not necessarily available on terrestrial radio. An iPod full of my favorite music is far cheaper and more portable than an XM/Sirius receiver and antenna, and it sounds just as good if not better.

So, we'll see what the future holds for satellite radio. Some suggest they will begin offering some content free. I already get a bunch of XM channels on DirecTV--not really free since I pay for the service, but they are there at no additional charge.

They may start making Howard Stern and other top content available on terrestrial radio for an hour or two a day, or on a one-day-delay basis. They'll charge stations for the privilege of carrying that content or make advertisers pay for the additional audience or both. (Note that a huge part of Howard's compensation is Sirius stock and he has to be miffed at where its value has gone. I'd imagine he would be amenable to doing whatever it takes to get the arrow pointed back upward, even if he had to clean up his act a bit for a couple of hours a day. Some even maintain he has lost his edge, even though he can say or do about anything he wants on the bird, because he can't tweak his nose at the FCC anymore.)

Just like regular over-the-air broadcasters, the sat guys will one day have to realize that they are purveyors of content, not satellite receivers and little, bitty dishes. How they deliver that content--via satellite, from a tower on a hill, over cell phones and PDAs, by strands of wire, or wrapped in butcher paper like a fresh halibut steak--is immaterial. People will still pay for content that inspires, warms, entertains, informs, or makes us laugh. And we'll pay with a check each month or by putting up with commercials. So long as a content provider can get enough people to do either (or both), the future will be bright for that entity.

Don Keith

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Excuses, excuses

Once again, I have allowed life to get in the way of my blogging! Hey, I'm a very busy man! But it is all good stuff. There are a few technical-change issues lurking out there that I'd like to tackle and get feedback from you guys, and I'll try to do so as soon as I can. One especially got me going last night. I only half-heard a news report on NBC NIGHTLY NEWS that only about 50% of TV households are set for the changeover to digital TV in February '09. Half? Give me a break! With cable and satellite penetration, I find this very difficult to believe. And with the government giving people coupons (backed by taxpayer money) to go out and buy converter boxes, too.

Not necessarily in order of importance, here are some of the things that I've been up to:

  • Had a great trip (through the dousing remnants of Hurricane Gustav) to the U.S. Submarine Vets' annual convention in Ft. Worth, Texas, September 3-6. I had the pleasure of talking with a bunch of sub vets, but missed the ham radio breakfast on Thursday morning. Reaction to THE ICE DIARIES was wonderful. Thanks to all who bought and allowed me to sign their books.

  • Spent most of the Labor Day weekend (when I wasn't grilling ribs for the family) working on a homebrew hexbeam antenna. The thing went together nicely and I am anxious to get the tower planted and get it up about 35 to 40 feet. The commercially-offered base plate from W4RDM and the pre-cut fiberglass spreaders from Max-Gain Systems make this a one-weekend project for most folks...which means three weekends for me...but I think it will be a very effective, limited-size, light radiator. Visit Leo Shoemaker K4KIO's web site for specs and detailed instructions on cobbling one of these "upside-down umbrellas" together.

  • Promoting THE ICE DIARIES. Check out my newly-redesigned web site and listen to some of the interviews that I've put up there. We've also been negotiating for a movie deal on an unpublished follow-up novel to FINAL BEARING that George Wallace and I wrote. I'm probably jinxing it by writing about it here, but everyone has agreed to the terms and we are waiting for paperwork to be signed.
  • Getting QSL cards out to the 500 or so who have responded from contacts with N9N in Groton, CT August 2 and 3. QSLFactory did a fantastic job on the N9N card and I think you who are getting them will like them very much. Granted the dollar-to-pound exchange rate (QSLFactory is in Great Britain) was painful, but Dave did a wonderful job with some design tweaks and got the cards to me last week. Now, the wife and I are doing as many as we can each night before we collapse. The first batch went out yesterday.

  • Oh, and our daughter just got engaged, with a June 2009 wedding planned.

  • And there's the day job with Education Corporation of America. We are expanding like crazy, it is a rollercoaster ride for sure, but lots of fun, too.

But I'll try to keep this blog up to date. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and reply. We have had quite a few new commenters and I think everyone who drops by appreciates your outlook.

73, (as we hams say..."best regards!")

Don N4KC

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

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stop the presses: HAM RADIO VANISHING!

At least that's what it says, right there on the main AOL home page. The story references a web site that is running a series titled "The top 25 things vanishing in America."

Some have been mentioned before in this blog: Yellow Pages, classified newspaper ads, news magazines/TV news, movie rental stores.

Others are a given: dial-up Internet access, landline telephones, VCRs, incandescent light bulbs, cameras that use film.

Some are news to me, like Chesapeake blue crabs (oh, no! Those are the best reason to go to Baltimore!), ash trees, and stand-alone bowling alleys.

But one sort of got to me. "Vanishing thing" #16 is ham radio. Clearly, I disagree. The nature of the hobby is changing and the numbers are down slightly, but I believe the hobby is as vibrant as it ever was. Most of us still enjoy "old-fashioned" aspects like CW, FM and SSB, but there are so many new things happening in digital communications, Internet control, satellites, VLF propagation, and the like, I see no way our hobby is "vanishing."

See the article about ham radio HERE.

See the primary article that links to all the "vanishing stuff" HERE.

Don Keith N4KC

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Anatomy of a Special Events Ham Radio Operation

Wow, it has been a busy month! We have beaucoups things going on with the day job, the family spent a week at the beach, and now I'm launching into book promotion on THE ICE DIARIES. The highlight for me will be speaking at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT, on Saturday, August 2, at noon. Of course that will be in the middle of our N9N special event ham radio station operation, too. I put together this little article and submitted it to some of the ham radio websites. It remains to be seen if they will consider it too self-serving to publish, but I'll reproduce it here, just in case. I hope it helps others who are considering doing a special event station.

Wish us luck, and you hams look for us on the bands all weekend, August 2 and 3.

Anatomy of a Special Event Ham Radio Operation

I like amateur radio special event stations. When done correctly, they accomplish several positive things:
· Gets amateur radio some visibility, especially when the event or operation is at a spot where the general public can see what is going on and, just maybe, they can ask some questions about all those strange looking radios (and maybe stranger looking operators!).
· Often, media covering the event will include the amateur radio operation, too.
· It can help call attention to the event or location. The East Podunk Opossum-Eating and Watermelon-Seed-Spitting Festival can get some national (or even international) exposure—at least among us amateur radio types—when some civic-minded hams put it “on the air.”
· It can be a lot of fun for those who participate. Fun, too, for those of us who like to work them and perhaps collect QSLs or certificates from them.

When I am dialing around and hear such an operation, I always give them a call. I really appreciate it when the op takes the time to tell me (and anybody else listening) a little about the significance or background of the historical event, covered bridges, railroad spur, or the particular fish, fowl or indigenous plant that they are saluting that weekend. I especially like the lighthouses and museum naval vessels when I hear them on the air. There is also a great one each year that operates from a historic World War II troop train that winds its way across several states. Many of us enjoyed working W9IMS from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the major races there. But it does not have to be anything major. I had a great chat recently with a station operating at a covered bridge festival in Ohio.

So, that got me to thinking. I had just finished writing a book about USS Nautilus and her historic trip beneath the polar ice pack to the North Pole via the long-sought Northwest Passage. We wanted to get it out before the 50th anniversary of the accomplishment, August 3, 1958. What else, I wondered, could be done to honor that historic achievement? We have a whole generation who may or may not know what that risky transit involved and few who fully understand how important it was, why it mattered, and why it was such a big deal back then.

What better event to commemorate than something that Time Books recently dubbed one of mankind’s greatest adventures? And since I’m a regular on the Submarine Veterans Amateur Radio net, I know there is a large number of hams who are also former or current submariners, including several who served aboard Nautilus during her twenty-five-year career. I suspected there would be widespread interest among hams everywhere in contacting a station devoted to the North Pole transit. And if we could get it on the air from some appropriate location and around the anniversary of the event, we could not only call attention to the bravery of the 116 crewmembers of Nautilus, but also give amateur radio some wonderful exposure.


It is our good fortune that Nautilus “pierced the pole” on Sunday night, August 3, 1958. And in 2008, August 3 once again falls on a Sunday. The 50th anniversary was on a weekend! If at all possible, that was the weekend I would shoot for to have the special event station on the air. Also, wouldn’t be cool if we could keep the stations on the air late Sunday night and give some ops a QSO at the precise moment—50 years before—when man first reached the North Pole?


It is also fortunate that Historic Ship Nautilus is still with us, unlike so many other historic ships and buildings. She and USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides” in Boston) are the only two vessels in the country dubbed “Historic Ships.” She is moored adjacent to the Submarine Force Library and Museum, on the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut. I knew the museum would be holding all sorts of events around the anniversary of the polar crossing so there would be a wonderful opportunity to put amateur radio on display before a large group of people.

Problem: I live in Alabama. Nautilus is in Connecticut. Between my day job, book promotion, and starting on the next book, the logistics of getting equipment to the area and setting it up seemed daunting. That did not even take into consideration that someone had to get permission to operate from the Nautilus site and coordinate the setup well in advance. In the back of my mind, I made a contingency plan to try to do the event from the USS Alabama Battleship Park, four hours south of me in Mobile, Alabama. They are amateur-friendly and there is a club that puts the battleship and nearby submarine, USS Drum, on the air for many events.

But there was really no tie to Nautilus or the North Pole in Mobile. The Gulf of Mexico has never frozen over!

Groton was my goal, and as close to Nautilus as I could get without being arrested or keelhauled.

I decided to seek help. In late-December, 2007, I dashed off an email to several of the amateur radio clubs in the Southern Connecticut area. A couple of clubs were nice enough to reply and say they would poll the membership and see if they were interested in getting involved. Meanwhile, I got a nice note from Chuck Motes, K1DFS, who is active in the Navy/Marine Corps Military Affiliate System (MARS). Scott Moore, W1SSN, who had actually operated from Nautilus in the past, had forwarded my plea for help to the clubs to him and to the area MARS director, Bob Veth, K1RJV.

Bottom line: Chuck and his group were willing to help get permission, coordinate with the museum staff, and set up stations we could use that weekend. And Navy MARS hams were excited about honoring Nautilus and manning the stations all weekend. It would give them a chance to test their emergency preparedness and operating skills as well as help them promote MARS to other hams and to the general public.

It appeared the answer to my prayers was coming from MARS!


I have never ramrodded a special event station before, but I wanted to secure a unique callsign if I could. So I did what most people do. I “Googled” “1 X 1 amateur callsign.” Up popped the
W5YI site and it offered all I needed to know to request the call letters I wanted. When Nautilus emerged from beneath the ice pack near Greenland after the successful transit through the North Pole, she tried to let the world know what she had accomplished. She spent some time fighting the notoriously bad propagation in the high latitudes before finally raising a U.S. Navy station in Hawaii. She transmitted to the Pentagon and White House the cryptic but historic message, “Nautilus 90 North,” confirming that she had, indeed, reached 90 degrees north latitude and lived to tell about it.

I wanted the 1 X 1 callsign N9N to reflect that message. I was pleasantly surprised how simple it was to get it. Once I confirmed that no one else had requested it for the time period I wanted it, I sent an email to one of the volunteer examiner groups that administers the 1 X 1 callsigns, explaining when and why I needed it. The approval came back the very next day. Specifically it was Rae, K4SWN, at the W4VEC group who handled my request. Remember, the “V” in “VEC” is for volunteer, and if this is any example, these folks do a great job.
One thing I did not count on, though, was that a group of guys procure N9N each year to use in their state’s QSO party. They are only good for a short period of time. In my case, I have it reserved for a two-week period centered around the August 2 and 3 weekend. I arranged to have the Nautilus special event details listed on under N9N as soon as I got the approval. That meant several hams thought they were working the Nautilus special events station in the QSO Party in March and sent QSL cards to me. I will return them…with the completed N9N/Groton card if we work them, or a blank one if we don’t. If I do this again, I won’t submit the callsign to until a month or so before the actual operation, just to avoid confusion like this.

As of this writing, in mid July, everything seems to be progressing toward a successful event. Chuck and his MARS group report all is on track. We have gotten some pretty good publicity so far and I am re-submitting the details to every amateur radio outlet I can find. Several of the submarine-veteran-related websites have also given us a mention, so I hope all sub vets who are also hams will know about it.

Only minor snag is I have a bunch of other events that have been set up for me during the weekend, including a three-hour presentation and book signing on Saturday at the museum with members of the North Pole Nautilus crew. While I’m looking forward to that, I most want to be on the microphone or key at N9N, telling everybody who will listen about what those brave guys did back in ’58. And how they were able to give America the heroes we so desperately needed in the wake of the launch by Russia of Sputnik.

I will do a post-event wrap-up when I get a chance. Maybe it will give some of you some ideas on putting together your own operation—things to do, things to avoid. But if you read this before August 2 and 3, I hope you will make it a point to look for us on the bands that weekend from N9N. It is the least we can do to pay homage to the heroes who call themselves PANOPOS—Pacific to Atlantic North Pole Sailors—the men who took the world’s first nuclear vessel to the North Pole, the least explored area of the planet, thus changing the course of the Cold War.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Counting grains of sand with your fingers

One of the knotty problems with the proliferation of media choice these days is how in the world the media can count viewers and/or listeners. And how can advertisers know if they are paying the right amount to reach those folks. That's what the entire advertising business is based on--ratings or other research that becomes the "currency" of buying and selling advertising.

With hundreds and hundreds of TV channels available on most television sets these days, with satellite radio and Internet streams galore challenging over-the-air radio broadcasters, and with the coming ubiquity of the Internet literally placing a browser on every desk, hip, and dashboard, it becomes almost impossible to measure smaller and smaller numbers of media users--counting grains of sand with your fingers!

That's a wonderful metaphor found in this very interesting article by media-watcher Erwin Ephron.

Now, you say, that doesn't affect me one way or the other. Yes, it will. I firmly believe the daily newspaper as we have always known it will soon disappear. Most cities now are down to one daily paper. That old standby when you needed a plumber or litigation attorney, the Yellow Pages, are not long for this world. Bill Gates gives them five years. The nightly network newscast on TV is a dinosaur soon to be covered over by the volcano ash of 24-hour-a-day cable news channels. You older folks might remember magazines such as Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. No more. Remember when TV Guide and Readers Digest were neck and neck for highest circulation of any magazine? Not now.

We cheer having cable channels dedicated to golf, video games, gay people, sappy "Hallmark" stories, and cooking. It's wonderful that we can subscribe to magazines totally focused on the most esoteric pursuit or interest. And websites created for the most exotic and tiny audiences we could imagine--or maybe not even be able to remotely comprehend.

But as the users of these narrowly targeted outlets become a smaller and smaller subset of the total population, the more difficult it becomes for the operators of those media outlets and the advertisers who support them to determine the size and demographic makeup of those audiences. Advertisers don't like to spend money on anything they can't measure. Also, there is risk that the listeners, viewers or readers will become such a small number that advertisers will no longer want to use them for their commercials. Or the price that the outlet is able to charge for its space or time is too small to cover the cost of generating and distributing content. Then the medium simply goes away.

Interesting times! You may want to hang onto that copy of the Yellow Pages. It may be a collector's item soon.

Don Keith N4KC

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Surf and turf!

Following up on a recent post, word is out today via a story in the Los Angeles Times that Chrysler Corporation will soon have Internet capability as an option in its 2009 model cars. The article says:

"UConnect Web is an extension of the company's UConnect system, which provides Bluetooth connectivity for cellphones and MP3 player integration with the car stereo. Rival Ford provides similar services, but without Web access, in its popular Sync system. With the added Internet connectivity, drivers and passengers will be able to get such devices as laptop computers and Nintendo Wii consoles online. As to what users can download while in the car, Chrysler's Leung said anything was fair game. "There are no limitations in content," he said."

Aside from the obvious safety worries, what else does this mean for drivers and passengers? For in-car media usage? For dash-top or built-in GPS? Even for ham radio?

Many amateurs are already equipped to access their home stations remotely via Internet hookups (though some get pretty Rube-Goldberg-esque with their Skype audio links and more). Will this finally give us the ability to hop on 20 meters during the morning commute, using full legal power, a 90-foot tower, and full-sized monobander...all from the car?

I'd be interested in your thoughts on the coming ubiquity of the web.

Don N4KC

Saturday, June 14, 2008

We Can't Even Handle Geologic-Speed Change

When we talk about how people react to change, we assume we are discussing--and on this blog our mission is supposed to be!--rapid technological change. But how can we expect them to accept a doubling of scientific knowledge every five years if they can't handle the concept of natural, long-term, climate cycles? Change that occurs over thousands of years?

You guessed it. I'm about to wade into global warming.

This was precipitated by (pun intended) a post on the excellent weather blog under the direction of James Spann. James is not only the Birmingham, Alabama, TV market's best-known and most highly-respected weathercaster, but he is also a long-time ham, WO4W. Though many fuss when he interrupts their favorite programs with continuous dangerous-weather coverage, he has saved many lives over the years by doing so. Seems like a reasonable trade-off to me!

James has caught quite a bit of heat lately for his common-sense comments about Al Gore's global warming campaign. A representative from the Weather Channel even proclaimed he should lose his certification from whatever high-level organization certifies weather forecasters...all because he maintains warming of the planet is nothing more than the natural cycle of things. On Earth, we are either in an ice age, warming up from one, or cooling down for the next one.

The post on his blog that I read this morning is mostly a replay of an article on another web site by John Coleman. John was, ironically, one of the founders and early stars of the Weather Channel. He makes some very intriguing points about the hysteria surrounding the supposed calamitous heating of our planet, all caused by the emissions from our beloved automobiles. Regardless of which side of the debate you are on, it is an interesting read.

Of course, I couldn't help but chime in so I posted some comments on Spann's blog. There are some things so obvious you would think they did not have to get their own bullet points, but I suppose not. So:

– You can sell far more books, movies and speaking engagements with a crisis than you ever could with naturally occuring phenomena. As always, follow the money!

– As mentioned by James and others, people have short memories. We tend to see things in our own limited little area of time and space. Weathercasters perpetuate things when they say, “The high today will be 90, and that’s ten degrees above average for this date.” “Average” is determined by taking the high temperatures for this day all the way back to when recordkeeping began, adding them together, and dividing by the number of days we are considering. Not only does that ignore millions of years of history, but it is a math exercise that smooths out a lot of temperature extremes!

– People want simple answers to complex problems. Just like they expect murders to be solved and wars to be won in sixty minutes–less commercials–they want to be able to solve any perceived crisis in a simplistic way. If we stop driving cars and using electricity, the polar bears will survive and New Yorkers won’t be paddling rowboats down Broadway.

Is every one of the folks on the other side of this issue only in it for the buck? No, I think most are sincerely worried about what they believe to be the truth. Are others in it for the notoriety or for the money? No doubt about it. Those are the scoundrels who should be ashamed of themselves.

The rest of us, though, should step back and broaden our perspective. This whole thing would be comical if it didn’t also mean the ensuing hysteria may have far more negative impact on society than the “crisis” we are supposed to be hysterical about.

How are we going to handle REAL change if we can't understand something as slow as climate evolution?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Follow the $$$$$

We have seen the birth of a totally new medium in our lifetime. Now it is fascinating to many of us to watch it grow, morph, and evolve into something much more powerful than we could have ever imagined. A little over a decade ago, I'd say 90% of us had little idea of what the Internet was, let alone what its potential would be. I remember thinking, "How are they going to make money on this thing?" See, it has to make money or it won't be a factor, right?

(That was especially true of Google. There were no ads on the main page! No banners! How were these goofy nerds planning on making money with this thing? Shows what a visionary I was!)

Now, it appears the Internet is poised to become the second largest advertising medium (read: "money maker") of them all, second only to that vast, all-encompassing category called "direct marketing." A recent article in MediaPost, an ad industry trade mag, says:

"According to a recently released study by IDC, the U.S. Internet Advertising 2008-2012 Forecast and Analysis, overall Internet advertising revenue will double from $25.5 billion in 2007 to $51.1 billion in 2012. During the forecast period, Internet advertising will grow about eight times as fast as advertising at large. The Internet will go from the number 5 medium all the way to the number 2 medium in just 5 years, says the report, making it bigger than newspapers, bigger than cable TV, bigger even than broadcast TV, and second only to direct marketing.

"Video advertising will be the principal disruptor of Internet advertising during this time, as its revenue grows sevenfold from $0.5 billion in 2007 to $3.8 billion in 2012 at a compound annual growth rate of 49.4%. Brand advertisers will shift significant amounts of money into video commercials, primarily from broadcast television and to a lesser extent from cable television.
Karsten Weide, program director, Digital Media and Entertainment, says 'What will (help) drive this trend is that consumers are starting to realize that, as opposed to TV, Internet video lets them watch what they want, when they want, and increasingly, where they want.'"

One point I think the article misses is that a considerable amount of that "video advertising" will be delivered by -- you guessed it -- the Internet. And that along with some other signs I see lead me to believe this estimate of Internet ad growth is very, very spectacular as it is already!

Not bad for a 12-year old!