Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A medium with a death wish

 By Don Keith 

Regular readers of this blog know that I often castigate broadcast radio and the gutless corporations that now hold the keys to those tower-on-a-hill facilities.  At a time when rapid technological change and the way consumers expect to access media offers traditional broadcasting so many possibilities for creativity and momentum, those dunderheads are stuck in low gear.  As a successful former broadcaster for 22 years, and a guy who either marketed to radio owners or bought advertising from them for the next 22, I continue to be amazed at how these guys remain stuck in 1998.  When they most need to do bold things, they stick to the tried-and-failed.

Here is what inspired this latest fit of pique. Cumulus Broadcasting, the second-largest group operator by number of stations owned (behind behemoth Clear Channel) purchased an FM signal in New York City.  Over the last few days, they employed the oldest trick in the book to try to create attention: the "Wheel of Formats."  Back in the day, we called that old saw "stunting," trying to drum up excitement as people heard all different kinds of music and talk programming presented on the station's air.  Listeners were supposed to work themselves into a frenzy trying to guess what the station's new "format" would be.  

Here is what it sounded like.

Of course, most radio listeners don't have a clue what a "format" is.  Nor do they really give a damn.  Only radio geeks pay any attention to things like this.  It is so inside-radio.  People like what they like and have no trouble finding it--be it music or talk--in an unprecedented variety of places.  Places that don't live and die by Arbitron ratings.  That includes the FM radio band (AM radio is dead and rigor mortis has long since set in, all because of the same thick-headedness that is now destroying the FM band).  But oh, are there so many more choices now than there were back in 1974 when this sort of junk actually worked!  

That includes the Internet (Pandora, iTunes), iPods, tablets, XM/Sirius, computers, smart phones.  In some of those places, users can even pick and choose which songs they want to hear, and the source will learn their tastes and add in other songs the computers think the listener will like.  Radio stations will never be able to do that!  So what do they do?  They play the same 400 songs that "fit the format" over and over until what listeners that remain vomit and give up.  

People can hear any kind of music they want to hear free, usually without commercials, screaming promotional announcements about how cool the radio station is and how many songs they play between those dreaded commercials, blathering disk jockeys who read the same insipid slogans over and over, try to be funny when they are not, and insist on telling you that was Kansas singing "Carry On My Wayward Son" for the umpteenth time--all the junk that makes broadcast radio almost unlistenable.

This was a chance to some things right in the nation's most major market.

For a day and a half, though, the new NYC country station's Internet-stream web page did not even list the names of the artists and song titles.  A city without country music radio for so long may not know who Little Big Town or Billy Cunningham are, or why they should care that a spot on the FM dial was now playing a kind of music that was previously available to them on over-the-air radio.  Same thing, though, on the air.  See, there is still no human being conversing with all those potential new listeners between the songs.  Instead they have those irritating produced promotional things that they are jammed in between each song played.

No warm, welcoming voice, telling Staten Island or the Bronx who these singers, musicians, and songwriters are or why New Yawkuhs should care that Nash 94.7 is on the air.

I doubt the music mix is customized for New Yawk, let alone individual New Yawkuhs.  No, if they are sticking to form, Cumulus is playing the country songs that are getting the most "spins" on all the other country radio stations around the USA.  That is the ultimate tail-wagging-the-dog.  And probably the top 200 oldies that people most want to hear according to tests that are done in hotel ballrooms around America.  Tests in which a hundred folks are recruited, paid $20, and sit for an hour or two, listening to 10-second bits from mostly the same 400 songs each time and asked to rate them.

Look, it has been a long, long time since I programmed a radio station and plenty has changed since then.  But I maintain that the medium is about to become an afterthought.  Mark my words: FM will follow AM to total darkness.  

That is simply because radio insists on taking what they deem to be the safe path.  Put on some tested-to-death tunes, eliminate everything that has ever been considered an irritating tune-out, do only what has researched well in the past, remove any risk, use a pat and constantly-repeated slogan, play one song after the other, and tell listeners over and over--beneath a wooshing cacophony of electronic sounds and using an emotionless but deep-voiced announcer--just how great and wonderful Nash 94.7 is.  Not what makes it different.  Not what makes it worth their attention and time.  Not what makes the station any better than all the other places they can find the exact same music on a multitude of listening devices.  Not what should make them run, not walk, to Facebook and Twitter to tell friends about the new station and how great it is.

They play songs sung by Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood?  So?

For God's sake, let's not give Wall Street analysts or stockholders any reason to suspect we are doing something risky.  So what if we become just more background noise, right along with Pandora, XM/Sirius, or iPods.  No, we can't beat all those other sources of streaming music, so let's just stream it ourselves and keep convincing advertisers that our 10 share in Arbitron is still the same number of actual warm-blooded listeners today as it was in 1998.  And that those listeners are as involved in our station--and our station in their lives--as they were in 1968.  Tell them enough how great we are with those over-produced things between the songs and they will believe it.  Heaven forbid that we even try to be creative, other than having some poor production sap in Atlanta put together that 10-minute montage Nash 94.7 ran for the switch to country yesterday morning.  The switch that occurred at 9:47 AM.  See, we are being clever!  And bless him for splicing together all those country stars saying their names out loud.  You know, I bet any country singer alive, with the knowledge that an FM station in the nation's largest radio market was about to begin playing country music, would have popped into a studio somewhere and recorded a custom bit, welcoming Nash 94,7, giving a shout-out to Queens and Manhattan, the Nets, and the Yankees.  But somebody would have had to ask.  And collect all that digital audio.  Too much trouble.

But no.  A chance is missed.  You don't get a second chance at a first impression.  A chance to do something creative and compelling right there in the midst of Big Media, Madison Avenue, and 8.5 million souls who have not heard good radio in 20 years.

We don't get to meet--right out of the chute--the warm, human personalities who will introduce the Big Apple listeners to what's happening in country music.  That and otherwise brighten their days from now on, not only with the music they play just for them, but with the human interaction that made radio such a personal medium from its very start.  No, Cumulus did all that insider-radio "stunting," screamed incessantly about "formats," and ran the grandiose and overproduced transition "stager" that some poor guy in Atlanta had to produce (and you can bet will be played in its entirety on all of the other 86 Cumulus country stations around the nation as they transition cookie-cutter-like to the "Nash" branding).  They chose to insert those irritating recorded "drops" between every single song, telling us how special it is that NYC has a real, live country music radio station, even if those who preferred that brand of music had myriad places to find it even before Cumulus gifted them with Nash 94.7.

Oh, they will run commercial-free for the next little while, too, further reinforcing in the minds of listeners that commercials originate from Satan.  And when they do begin to run them, I'll bet you they have at least a quarter of every hour filled with those commercial announcements, assuring any listeners they may have attracted will go running back to all those other sources of streaming music that is still right there at their fingertips.

I will also bet that when actual human personalities do begin "interrupting" the music, except for the morning show (which will play only minimal music but will bust their guts to be topical, edgy, and funny), will be done by pleasant-voiced people who reside far, far from NYC--I'd guess Atlanta--who record those inserts and digitally zap them up to the robots in Manhattan the day before they are to air.  Will they know the Nets won a close one last night, that sewers are backed up in Times Square, or even that Travis Tritt is playing at a little club in SoHo?  Will Travis drop by and tell a few stories on the air while he's in town?  Can they break "format" and play just the perfect set of songs for a dark, gray, snowy day?

How ironic it is that the same day I heard the Nash 94.7 stream and the stunting-to-new-format mess on YouTube I also saw the cover of the new issue of ALABAMA HERITAGE magazine.  There is an article in this issue about the late radio personality Joe Rumore, a fixture in Birmingham radio in the '50s and into the early '70s.  Most nowadays would consider his shtick corny but he knew his audience.  And his audience knew him and loved him.  He got fan mail from all over the country.  One Christmas, he received 40,000 Christmas cards from his listeners.  He sold goods and services for his advertisers.  He was an integral part of so many peoples' lives, their friend, and they felt they knew him even if they never met him.  They forgave him if he played a song or two they didn't like.  Or if he talked about something that didn't interest them because whatever else he said or did would be entertaining and/or endearing.

Joe wasn't the only one.  There were so many others that I call "wizards of the wind."  They were the glue between the songs, the voices in the night that provided companionship and friendship to go along with the music.  (I wrote a novel about them:  WIZARD OF THE WIND.)  That warmth and interaction is, I believe, the only way over-the-air radio broadcasting can continue to be a factor, the only way the medium can hope to prosper in the wake of rapid technological change that is so rapidly rendering broadcasting obsolete.

The answer certainly is not format "stunting," long-distance voice-tracking, and streaming the very same songs people can get in so many other ways without all the dumb hype and cold delivery.

But there is some risk involved.  Personalities get sick, want to be paid, and can cross the street and take listeners with them.  Playing music that might not fit some consultant's definition of a "format" can cause listeners to wander.  Why take a chance?  Why not just do it the way Nash 94.7 is doing it?

Because the damn medium itself will be an after-thought in a New York minute if somebody doesn't step out of his comfort zone and try something creative and innovative.  And make the investment to deliver it to consumers in every way possible, not just from a transmitter on the mountain and a half-assed web site and off-air music stream.

I hope I'm wrong on this one.  But I don't think I am.  And that is a crying shame.

Monday, January 14, 2013

So many topics, so little time

By Don Keith N4KC

It is difficult to keep up with rapid technological change and how it affects media, society and amateur radio. And even more difficult to keep this blog updated on that subject.  Some quick comments on some cogent topics in a feeble effort to keep up:

  • Is it just me or will the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) issue an unlimited number of FM translator licenses to existing broadcasters?  Apparently all you need to get multiple FM signals (albeit relatively low power but on the air nonetheless) is an AM license in a city.  There are some here in my hometown that give a station identification as "Birmingham" but are so covered up by other signals on a typical car radio that they are unlistenable.  Will the broadcasters be able to make money with these things?  Costs are likely very, very low, but one assumes they will have to garner some ratings or give advertisers some results if they are worth fooling with.  All I see them doing is cluttering up the FM band with more automated music or talk programming and further diluting the listenership of the other full-powered stations...all of whom are carrying automated music or talk programming.

  • Pending the approval of the government regulators, Arbitron will soon be sold to Nielsen.  Arbitron is "the leading supplier of radio audience listening estimates," as we were always required to say when I worked there.  Truth is, they are really the only one that sells radio ratings.  We were seeking a partnership with Nielsen, the TV ratings company (among many other things), when we developed the PPM device that could measure any medium that made a sound.  That included radio, TV, internet streaming, and more.  Nielsen showed signs of seeing the value of such a partnership since it would finally allow them measure TV viewing in sports bars, hotel rooms, and other places unreachable by their set-top boxes.  Ultimately, though, they shunned such a seemingly good marriage.  Now, with the purchase, it appears they see not only the value of the technology but Arbitron's monopoly on radio.  Only problem is Arbitron is joined at the hip with radio at a time when the medium is in deep, deep trouble and one has to wonder how much longer broadcasters will cut that huge check to Arbitron for estimates of a smaller and smaller piece of the media pie.  Stay tuned.

  • Just did a delightful interview with Nick Gale, a book blogger based in Great Britain.  Nick's an example of an entrepreneur who is using the virtually free platform of the internet to build a publicity business for a niche market.  It helps me promote books and my books helps him promote his site and services so it works well for all involved.  You can see the interview HERE.  We discussed everything from WIZARD OF THE WIND to THE SPIN to the state of self-publishing and how it is affecting the traditional book-publishing business.  Nick wants to do another session and delve more into that realm.  Followers of this blog know how I love to talk about that subject!

PS: Note that I now have a byline at the top of my blog posts.  Google is making changes again and their robots dearly love having names in bylines at the beginning of content.  And whatever Google loves I adopt! If they tell me I should put flying monkeys up there, I put flying monkeys up there.