Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rapid technology growth must be controlled by...the government?

By Don Keith  N4KC

As many ponder rapid technological change--and especially those who cannot handle change of any kind very well--they often declare, "This is scary!  The government must get control of technology and make sure it is for the good of us all, not the power- and money-hungry."  That, of course, is the usual reaction to anything that has the potential to change culture as we know it, positively or negatively, whether it be the perceived greedy capitalists, robots threatening to revolt, or a hurricane on the Gulf Coast: the government has to take charge of this and fix it!

Well, I ran across a post today on the web site of The Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, on this very subject.  I'll reproduce it below but if you prefer to read it from their site, visit THIS LINK.

It makes perfect sense to me.

Technology and Government Shouldn't Mix

  • Robots and Guns
DECEMBER 17, 2015  Benjamin M. Wiegold
We live in a time like never before in human history. Our scientific knowledge and technological capabilities are rapidly advancing, affecting nearly every aspect of human life. Examples are rife, from smart phones and robotics, to thought-controlled prosthetics, wireless power, even force fields. Countless others that sounded like science fiction a few years ago don’t even deserve mention today as they have become so commonplace.
In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of the process we see at work, when (mostly) free market capitalism unshackled society’s productive imagination. The key was that it allowed individuals to reap the fruits of their labor, providing incentives for workers and entrepreneurs by allowing them to accumulate capital. Capital accumulation is the prerequisite for a prosperous society, without it there can be no sustainable investment or economic growth.

Privately-Owned Technology Is Not a Problem

Yet many are beginning to worry that our technology could soon turn on us and actually bring about our demise. The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking speculated earlier this year that robots will eventually take over the world, but has since revised his stance, now suggesting that capitalist-technology is a greater threat and will bring about unsustainable inequality and poverty as automated production techniques displace human labor. Such fears display an ignorance of history and economic science.
First, economists have for centuries pinpointed labor and land (i.e., natural resources) as permanent factors of production, with capital goods (in this case machines) being ultimately produced out of them. As Murray Rothbard explains in chapter 9 of Man, Economy, and State, there has always been a scarcity of labor, meaning that machines don’t make labor obsolete, but are rather labor-saving devices that make goods drastically cheaper for consumers, enable more leisure time for everyone, and simply redirect labor to other ends. Human labor is always required in some capacity for all production processes — such as the maintenance of machines — thus it’s inconceivable that every single industry could possibly be automated, not to mention the new industries that emerge as labor is freed up from its previous areas of employment. (For a complete demolition of this argument, see here.)
Second, the chilling irony of modern technology isn’t the menace of an AI takeover, where our creations turn against us in an apocalyptic scenario (although it’s impossible to completely rule this out). More to the point is that for all the ways technology is drastically improving the quality of life for people everywhere, the ability to inflict death, harm, and destruction is also unprecedented; and these technologies are being harnessed virtually entirely by states.

State Ownership of Technology Is a Problem

Coercive governments, for as long as they’ve existed, have been abusive of individual rights and the integrity of human beings everywhere, from the torture devices of Medieval Europe, to the cannons of the Civil War. However, the State in its proclivity to inflict violence upon humanity has always been restrained by the technology available to it, whether it was the axe, the sword, or the club in ancient times.
Yet as productive society has advanced in its ability to satisfy human needs and wants, the regimes of the day have used new technologies to expand their weaponry arsenals. The twentieth century will be remembered twofold: for its incredible increase in wealth and prosperity on the one hand, but also for its terrible wars. Indeed, more people were killed by state-governments in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteencombined.
Today in the twenty-first century, the world is embroiled in warfare and disaster wrought by the State, while the glories of the market economy surround us everywhere we turn. Market-societies build us up, while states tear us down.
Despite the sadistic few among us, there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of people prefer peace and prosperity and use technology as a means toward these ideals. On the other hand, it bears repeating that the primary culprit in turning technology toward nefarious purposes is the State.
So perhaps the most profound question of our time is, going forward, how we will use our increasingly powerful technology: as a progressive force to the benefit of humanity by relieving our ailments, extending our life spans, and increasing our worldly comforts beyond our wildest dreams — or as a retrogressive force that acts to our detriment by inflicting pain and suffering and death upon people everywhere?
(For more about Don Keith, visit  If you follow this blog because you are an amateur radio operator, you might also enjoy Don's ham radio site,

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving AM broadcasting by killing it?

by Don Keith
I am on record as predicting that the AM commercial broadcast band will soon be scrapped and given to Amateur Radio operators.  The reason is simple: listenership to AM radio--and especially among that desireable young demographic--has dwindled to almost nothing.

There are reasons for that:

1) AM fidelity is simply not competitive with FM, CDs, MP3s, online and other means of listening to audio.

2) AM, by its nature, is prone to electrical interference, ranging from lightning to LED lighting to your neighbor's leaf blower.

3) AM waves propagate great distances when the sun goes down. This meant that from the beginning, and to crowbar in as many radio stations as possible, regulators made many stations use directional antenna arrays to protect each other as well as Canadian and Mexican stations.

4) Back then (mostly in the early 1950s), those directional stations with their bunches of towers (to get a directional signal) were built in places so their signals would cover the geography where most of their listeners lived.  Guess what.  Cities have grown in the past sixty years, suburbs have been built in areas where those stations can no longer be heard, and especially at night.  I just saw some stats that say that in many cities there is not a single AM station that covers its entire current city of license 24 hours a day.

5) Because of these factors, AM station owners have gone to mostly cheap (as well as bad and boring) nationally-syndicated programming or even cheaper ethnic formats serving small niches.  Those moves have chased most listeners to FM...or to the internet, Pandora, or phone apps.

Well, the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that regulates broadcasting in the USA, has been studying the problem for more than two years.  Finally last week they issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on what they believe will be the savior of AM radio.

Most of the things they have come up with are technical, relaxing some of the onerous restrictions on daytime-only and directional AMs to give them a bit more coverage.  One would be less restrictive on towers, which are the antennas for AM stations, because it has become so difficult to find real estate or zoning ordinances or willing neighbors that will allow those six or eight ugly old towers and the many acres on which they stand.  (As a programming consultant I once had to tell a station owner that the land on which his towers stood was worth far more than his AM station was or ever would be.  It was true.  Now, many AM stations are simply turning in their licenses and selling all that prime development land.)

All well and good, I say, but far too little far too late.  Most AM operators simply can't afford to move their transmitting facilities to some other place that will give them a tad more coverage.  And none of these things are going to send listeners gleefully swarming back to listen to AM radio. I fear that window of opportunity has long since passed.

The really big proposal in the FCC's rulemaking, and the one that has AM station owners dancing a jig, is that the FCC will make it easier for them to apply for FM translators and put their AM programming on a spot on the FM band.  Translators are very low-powered FM transmitters that use antennas at relatively low heights.  They were originally designed to allow FM broadcasters to fill in "holes" in areas in the markets to which they were licensed that might have weaker signals.  Those "holes" were typically caused by mountains or big buildings.

Things related to translators have gotten pretty confused.  People who don't even own a station have been able to apply for licenses for them and they promptly turn around and sell them for big bucks to existing licensees.  Why would they want them?  A translator allows those who already have a big FM station to put a different format on one of their alternate channels (FMs have the ability to transmit several more channels but only listeners equipped with so-called "HD radios" can hear them...unless that programming is also being re-transmitted on a translator.).  Those big operators also have some AMs, too, and they can put a music format, for example, on an AM but count on the rebroadcast of that format on the translator to make them money or block a competitor from adapting that format.  

You may have noticed that the FM dial in your town has filled up with new stations that you really can't get on your radio very well.  And they seem to be mostly music with the occasional disembodied voice and some commercials.  And when they do the station identification at the top of the hour it sounds like someone reading the contents of their bowl of vegetable soup: "W261FQ Nowheresville WAAA-AM Big Town, WFFM-FM HD2 Big Town," or similar.

So, the move that will save AM radio is to allow more AM operators to have a presence on the the FM dial.  Oh, that means they will have to keep that AM station on the air in order to allow them to keep the translator happily filled with stellar programming and information...and commercials for which they can charge more because they will be on FM, too!  But then where's the incentive for the AM owner to spend all the money to move the AM towers and transmitter so the station can be heard where people actually live in the 21st century?  

Actually, in smaller markets the answer might be, "Yes."  Daytime AM stations...and there are almost a thousand of those that have to go away when the sun goes down...that truly want to serve the needs of their city can do shows, play music, carry local high school football and the like on that sparkling new translator.  And so long as the town is not all that big or the area full of mountains and valleys they may be able to cover most of the people they need to reach.

On the other hand, it seems to me that allowing bigger market AMs to get a translator or two or three to give them an FM signal only assures that nobody will be left to listen to that AM programming.  Then, at what point does the FCC say, "Well, we tried but it didn't work.  So, Ham Radio, enjoy that wonderful new extension to the 160-meter Amateur Radio band."

By trying to save AM, they will have killed it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Broadcasters see nothing but sweetness and light when it comes to the "digital dashboard"


By Don Keith N4KC

No, I don't think traditional broadcasting is going away anytime soon.  No, I am not convinced that the huge video display in the middle of most new car dashboards is going to cause the imminent demise of Rock 107 or Classic Hits 92.3.  But if broadcasters want to continue to put their heads in the sand and ignore the impact on their business of this rapidly changing technology, then they will only hasten the aforementioned fate for the medium I love so much.

Latest example of using questionable statistics to convince themselves the sky is not falling: an article in INSIDE RADIO, a publication/e-mail newsletter that does little else but find glimmers of hope wherever they can for the people who subscribe to and advertise in their products.  If you don't want to read the article, here are the key points it makes:

  • Even though the "connected car" is here already and will only increase penetration among auto buyers in the future, recent surveys show that potential new car buyers still insist on the AM/FM radio in the dash.
  • One of those stats says 72% of new car buyers "insist on" having an AM/FM radio.
  • Half the respondents also want a CD player or access for a portable MP3 player, too.  
  • Close to a third also want "apps," satellite radio, and "Internet radio."
  • 20% want HD radio.
As usual, I must mention that the article does not give us any idea of who was surveyed other than they were "potential vehicle buyers."  Nor do they tell us how many respondents were in the sample, how the demos were broken out, or--most important of all--how the questions were worded.  Anybody familiar with research can confirm those are huge factors in the results, and especially in a research project conducted for a known audience and used to bolster that audience's own agenda.  There is no link in the article to the survey or to the entity that conducted it.

Okay, to the first result above: when was the last time a new car was sold in this country that did not have an AM/FM radio in it?  So why would anybody have to "insist on" having one?  Does the question simply show a list of add-ons and ask respondents to choose the ones they would "insist on" when purchasing that vehicle?  I'd say near 100% of buyers would expect to have an AM/FM radio and would, if asked, choose it from a list in a survey as something they would insist on.

If so, should it not be extremely discouraging for broadcasters that less than 75% of buyers "insist on" something so basic and ubiquitous--something so ingrained in American culture--as an AM/FM radio in the car?  Who are those 28% who don't care to have one at all?

Boy, I sure would like to see how that breaks out among different age groups, too.  If old folks who cannot even imagine a car without an AM/FM radio are skewing that number upward, and if a couple of generations of younger folks are not all that crazy about having the device cluttering up their dashboard, then what does that portend for the future of the broadcasting business?  "Well, if it comes with the car and doesn't cost me anything, I guess it's okay to have one.  But I'm not insisting on it.  It ain't a deal-breaker.  But I have to have..."

Should it not also be scary as hell that half the respondents said they would "insist on" a CD player and MP3 player?  That is half the potential listeners to terrestrial radio who want the capability to listen to something else.  How are stations going to ask the dollars they need for commercial advertising if half their potential audience is listening to their favorite CD or iPad instead of Mickey and Mushmouth-in-the-Morning?

Of course, there is another third who want "apps" so they can check traffic, weather, news, and the like on their dash screen instead of waiting for their local radio station to get around to giving them that info.  I see no mention of Bluetooth technology that integrates the mobile phone into the dash, but I have to assume that is what they mean by "apps."  Or at least what the respondents assume they mean.  And if they are using an app to get desired and important info instead of listening to radio to eventually deliver what they need when they need it then what does that do to the stations' audiences?  Oh, and how much time are they spending on the phone as they drive, using hands-free technology?  And if they are yakking on the phone, they ain't listening to Country 107.9.

That final number--20% "insist on" HD radio--stuns me.  First, I can't believe 20% of any random sample of potential car buyers even know what HD radio is, let alone would not buy a car without such a device.  Ask the next ten people you meet if they would have to have HD radio on any new car they wanted to buy.  See if you can find even two who know what the heck you are talking about.  I suspect that 20% saw something on the list that looked like it might be cool and checked that box.

Bottom line: traditional broadcasters will not stave off the threat of the connected car with its digital dashboard with self-serving surveys and self-convincing "analysis."  As in-dash technology and connectivity become more user friendly and effective, auto buyers will insist on a full array of capabilities in the cars they purchase.  Most of those capabilities will drag listeners away from old-fashioned, always-there AM/FM radio in droves.  That will eventually kill broadcasting as a business and a lifestyle.  If nothing changes, such an outcome is inevitable.

We have solid examples that it is so.  Ask newspapers and magazines what happened when subscribers went away, lured by technology that made the content they traditionally got from print easier to access, more powerful, and more ubiquitous.  What happened to the ad rates print media were able to demand?  Have you looked at the classified section of your daily paper lately?  If you even have a daily paper anymore!

So what should radio do instead of commission surveys and play more of the biggest hits of yesterday and today?  Give listeners a reason to keep listening.  Give them content they can't find via Bluetooth, apps, or an MP3 player.  Give up on "broadcasting" and learn to make a profit on a niche audience that can be worthwhile to particular advertisers at a reasonable price.  Learn something about "marketing" instead of relying on the hope that the AM/FM radio always has been there in the dashboard so it always will.  (Newspapers were around long before radio and where are they going now?  Longevity is not a factor in survival as technology changes.  The technical evolution of media is brutal.)

Oh, and I wonder what that percentage of "insists on" would have been if the surveyors had separated AM and FM radios in the list of dash must-haves.  

How many would have "insisted on" an AM radio in that sparkling new vehicle?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A radio group that could screw up a three-car funeral

by Don Keith

If you hold stock in Cumulus Media, you have my deepest sympathy.  Cumulus is the second largest owner of over-the-air radio stations in the USA.  They own some truly legendary stations with call signs like KABC, WABC, WLS and WSM.  But last time I checked, their stock, which had been in the $4 range not that long ago, is now less than 75 cents a share.  You'd have to sell five shares to afford a latte at Starbucks!

If you dig deeper--and really, before you bought stock in that mess, you should have--you will see that they have taken those great radio stations, and the other 600 or so they own, and run them into the ground.  Ratings are down more than 50% on some former market-leading stations.  When stock analysts gave them grief a few years ago, they tried to blame their problems on Rush Limbaugh, resulting in them dropping his show at many of their stations.  I won't go into the details here but, regardless of how you feel about El Rushbo, he does deliver ratings.  And he had no more to do with the problems of the Cloud People than I did.  You simply can't continue to grow revenue every quarter by going out and buying another radio group with borrowed money.

No, the company is the textbook example of the "cut your way to prosperity" school of business profitability.  They have succeeded in chasing away most of their popular and creative on-air talent and programmers because they did not want to pay them.  Instead they have that usual MBA-mentality aversion to "risk" that comes along with having actual, living, breathing humans making local decisions at their radio stations.  "Jesus, what if he gets good ratings and leaves us and takes his listeners to the competition?  The stock analysts would kill us if that happened!  Let's just run music off the computer.  It won't leave us when its contract is up."

And their sales philosophy in the face of plunging ratings?  Work even harder, make more cold calls, don't waste time putting together a real marketing plan for clients when you could better be in a sales meeting--learning how to make cold calls--or working your way through the Yellow Pages and setting up appointments at every potential advertiser with a phone number.  (Don't believe me?  I have seen their "weekly sales calendar."  Nobody has time to sell or work up an effective ad campaign or follow up with those who do buy a schedule on their air.)  And if, despite all this BS, someone actually becomes a star salesperson, he or she has commission cut because the rep is making too much money.  And those good accounts developed through hard work and smarts get re-assigned to the constant influx of new salespeople, hired to replace those who go on to sell cars or cemetery plots, so they will at least stay with the station long enough to justify printing their business cards.  (I'll avoid my "Glengarry Glen Ross" references here, but they would be totally appropriate.)

I could also go into detail about what the company saw as its savior, a massive branding effort for its country music-formatted stations called NASH-FM.  Actually, they had some truly creative and exciting ideas, developed some interesting partnerships, and might have been onto something.  But they forgot the most basic thing of all: they did not put compelling content on their radio stations to attract enough listeners to even be aware of what NASH-FM was all about.  No, they piped in deejays from New York for morning drivetime, the key daypart on any radio station, and ran most of the rest of the day streaming the same 100 songs over and over.  And bragging about how cool and hip NASH-FM was with well-produced drop-ins voiced by smooth announcer-types.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: over-the-air radio will NEVER win the music-streaming battle.  That ship has sailed.  And they certainly won't unless they offer more between the songs to attract listeners willing to put up with those long, long, long commercial breaks they insist on running so they can tout "Fifty minutes commercial free of the biggest hits of the 80s, 90s and today!"  All this is especially true of country music, which is so much a life-style format.  You have to have some warmth, humanity, and companionship on the air beyond the songs or people.  Your whole station, and especially the personalities who pop up between the music, have to be something with which the country-music lifestyle group will identify.  Otherwise, they will simply go to Pandora and listen to the songs after the other.  I don't have any evidence of it, but I'd still bet that nobody responsible for the songs played or the personalities that waft in on the satellite to be on the radio in local markets know what the country life-style group is all about in each and every market.  Where do those listeners work?  What do they drink?  Where do they go for live music?  What sports teams do they follow?  What vehicles do they drive?  Which TV shows do they watch?  Sorry, it is not the same in Nashville as it is in Birmingham as it is in Dallas as it is in Atlanta as it is in the middle of dadgum New York City!

Well, now there is a new development with Cumulus that caused me to launch this latest rant.  Today they announced a shake-up in their top management.  The company has been run--and, let's give them credit by admitting they built a huge group of stations by borrowing money like sailors on shore leave and hypnotizing stock analysts with their business-school-speak--by the Dickey brothers, sons of the founder of the company.

That is no longer the case.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  They needed someone who can buck the trend, do what it takes, change the culture.

Today, they announced a new CEO, someone who will lead Cumulus back to prosperity.  Someone who understands what it will take to save not only the company but commercial radio from the effects of rapid technological change and all that new competition for the ears of America.

Yes, Cumulus went out and hired themselves--well, they didn't exactly "go out" and hire someone because she was already on their board of directors--a new CEO from the world ready for this?...MAGAZINES!  Which medium was the first to succumb to technological change, even before newspapers?  Magazines.

So they hired Mary Berner as their new CEO.  Ms. Berner may well be a fabulous executive and have the skills, smarts, savvy, and creativity to assure that the company comes roaring back.  But if you look at her resume, you will see that she not only worked in this dying industry, she last ran their trade organization, the Association of Magazine Media.  The outfit that was supposed to help fight back against all the new media that has made the print industry a shadow of its former self.

Not only that but she worked for Readers Digest, a magazine made up of articles culled from other magazines!  And TV Guide, which swam against the rip current of technology until it ultimately drowned.  But she did work at one example of the technological revolution, the cutting-edge web site

Why am I so cynical and bitter about The Cloud People and what they are doing to my favorite medium?  Three reasons.

First, at a time when radio most needs strong, dynamic and creative leadership, these folks are cutting, slashing, firing, threatening, and conniving to stay afloat, not by doing something on the air to attract listeners and sell product for advertisers but to keep the stock price up and continue to grow revenue by borrowing money and printing more stock certificates so they can buy more stations, not by doing a good job running the ones they own already.  In my opinion, they are killing radio and that makes me mad as hell!  It is a tough enough challenge if everybody was doing things right.  When the second biggest owner of stations does everything wrong, it does not bode well for over-the-air broadcasting.

Second, I know too many good folks who still work for these guys and are being hurt.  There is something magical about working for a great radio station but these dedicated people will never know that feeling again.  They stay because they love radio or because they've been there for most of their careers or because the other radio operators are only slightly better, so where do they ply their trade if they jump ship?

And third, because I don't think it has to be this way.  Back in the '90s, I had the pleasure of visiting Lew Dickey Sr. in his home in West Palm Beach.  He, like many owner-operators before the FCC messed with the ownership rules in 1995, had started a radio group on a shoestring.  He did everything in his stations, on the air, selling commercials, engineering, sweeping the floors and mowing the grass around the towers.  He understood the one-to-one relationship between on-air personality and listener, between sales rep and advertiser.  Though he had just started building his group, and was seeing considerable success, I got the idea he was not totally sold on how things were changing.

We had a good chat about the medium, the business, and where it was going.  I believe that with some of the things he said and much more he only hinted at that Mr. Dickey knew very well that things were not necessarily playing out the way many of us thought they would.  And especially those of us who believed the change in ownership rules that allowed the creation of these mega-group owners was a good thing.  He died several years ago but I really would have enjoyed rekindling that conversation and seeing if he would discuss what has happened in the meantime to the medium he and I love so much.

I doubt he would have gone so far as to comment on the part his sons have played.  He did not seem to be that kind of gentleman.  But he had to know it wasn't right.  Had to know cutting the heart and soul out of broadcast radio was not the path to success or the way to save a threatened medium.

He had to know that when you take the warmth and companionship and one-to-one out of the most one-to-one mass medium we have, you take away all its power.  All its magic.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Unexpected answers from folks who should know

by Don Keith N4KC

So a publication called MediaLife Magazine did a survey and asked the question "What do you think is the biggest problem for radio today?"  Understand that MediaLife Magazine is targeted at media buyers and planners, the folks that actually do the work at advertising agencies of deciding on which media they will buy commercials and how much they will pay for them.  And when they say "radio," they are talking about commercial radio broadcasting, not ham radio or shortwave broadcasting or any of the goofy Internet "radio" that is suddenly so commonplace.

With that understood, most of us would assume that these buyers and planners would say, "Radio is too expensive," or "Radio is too hard to buy in order to get the best exposure for my clients,"  or "Radio sales reps are woefully inadequate and poorly trained." No, they don't say that at all.  Well, they do say that in some numbers and all three are absolutely true, but the largest vote-getters are the very ones I have noted in this blog.

 In fact, they sound like most of the rest of us who might express an opinion about the state of radio, from the guys in the carpool to individual advertisers who might use radio far more if it seemed truly interested in helping local merchants succeed.  Over half--51%--say radio's biggest problem is the concentration of ownership in the hands of a very few giant companies.  And they believe that is also the over-arching reason for some of the other problems they think are the major ones facing radio:

#2   Decline of local radio and its community involvement   49%
#3   Ad clutter       45%
#4   Lack of innovation   41%

Of course, they also threw in one not-so-surprising one, too: competition from digital players like Pandora, at 47%.  Lack of compelling content (same old music and talk) also was a strong one at 35%.

See, media buyers and planners are not just interested in making the math work when it comes to buying ads on radio.  Sure they want to reach the most human beings in their target as often and inexpensively as they can.  But they also want whatever campaign they are supporting to be successful, too.  They really need those "numbers" they buy to represent excited, motivated customers for their clients' products or services.

Dull, boring, background content with long, tune-out-encouraging commercial breaks don't make people rush out and buy beer, fast food or cars.  And when folks are not buying what an agency's clients are selling, agencies get fired and companies go broke.

(See the story and complete results of the survey HERE.)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Your blogger featured in Amateur Radio Newsline

by Don Keith N4KC

Thanks to Cheryl K9BIK for the great interview with me in this week's AMATEUR RADIO NEWSLINE, Report #1971, dated August 7, 2015.  The interview talks about the real or perceived obstacles some people encounter getting started in ham radio as well as about my two new books that have just been published.

Hear the interview here: Don Keith N4KC ARN interview audio.

Part one of the interview is contained in this report and the second part airs in the next edition, dated August 14, 2015.

 Amateur Radio Newsline runs interview with N4KC

Cheryl, Don Wilbanks AE5DW, and others have done a wonderful job of keeping this audio news service for amateur radio operators going after the recent untimely death of its founder, Bill Pasternak WA6ITF.  And I say that not just because they did a two-part interview with me.  The news roundup is a wonderful service for hams and others interested in our hobby.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


by Don Keith N4KC

Here we go again.  One of the over-the-air-radio trade publications has yet another (with apologies to Ray Stevens) "Everything is Beautiful" article.  Those who follow this blog know that I--a former broadcaster, audience researcher, and station owner--believe that traditional over-the-air radio is in serious trouble, partly because of rapid technological change that has altered how people get music and news, but also because big radio owners believe they can cut their way to prosperity, or at least to some kind of good news to tell analysts and institutional stockholders so they continue to buy their stock.  And do it while not giving potential listeners compelling content that will keep them listening.  And buying what their sponsors are selling.

So here is the latest pronouncement that makes me red in the face as I go, "Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!"  Under the headline "Radio's Reach Hits an All-time High," INSIDE RADIO proclaims:

Radio’s national audience hit an all-time high for the second year in a row in the second quarter. Some 245 million Americans age 12 and older used radio in a given week during the three months ending June 30, according to Nielsen’s Audio Today report.

Yippee!  Doomsayers such as yours truly are certainly wrong.  More people listened to radio for at least five minutes in a week in Q2 2015 than ever before!  Hurray and hosannah!  Maybe people are not tuning away to all those other audio sources out there, talking and texting on their smart phones instead of listening to "the best of the 80s, 90s and today with fewer commercials on Power 99.5," or simply turning off their radios and watching more video.

Of course, I bet if we had data to prove it, we would also learn that more people changed the oil in their lawnmowers, jaywalked, blew their noses, bought a six-pack of beer, or went to sleep in their recliners watching YouTube.

That's because there are MORE PEOPLE.  Millions more people than there has ever been in the USA.  Certainly millions more in Q2 2015 than in Q2 2014.  Census estimates say we gain about 2.5 million people every year.  We have over 321 million now that we know about, not counting quite a few who are illegal so don't get counted...except by Nielsen.

If fewer people year-over-year listened to radio for at least five minutes in a statistical week, I'd say that would be catastrophic.  But ballyhooing the fact that more folks spent at least five minutes with over-the-air radio is nothing to crow about either.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Statistical smoke and mirrors

by Don Keith

Look, I am not necessarily picking on the radio industry trade Inside Radio again.  Or my old friend, Pierre Bouvard, who is quoted in an article in today's email/website edition of the pub.  But somebody needs to once again question their incessant attempts to find blue sky while ignoring the falling sky in the biz of commercial, over-the-air radio.

Ratings: Radio Stable, While TV Stumbles the headline proclaims. "Stable" based on an analysis of Nielsen ratings for both TV and radio by some outfit called MoffettNathanson. Other than wondering if the space bar is broken on their keyboard, I also have to wonder exactly how they come to that conclusion when comparing two entirely different media with drastically different methodology employed to measure viewership/listenership.

See, Nielsen measures much of the other sources of video that compete directly with over-the-air TV.  Things like cable, satellite TV, and the like.  They don't measure most of the stuff that is pulling precious ears away from Rock 107.  Not Pandora, iTunes, or similar.

Notice, too, that the article uses millions of people to show TV's gargantuan loss to non-broadcast sources while employing rating points for radio's almost infinitesimal drop year-over-year.  Frankly, I don't know how many actual listeners radio lost because I don't know how many listeners there are in Nielsen's 48 markets in which the PPM device is used.  Nor does the article tell us what demographics were down in radio as they did when crowing about TV's landslide.

"Radio suffered no such tumble," they note.  OK, broadcast TV lost 600,000 viewers aged 18 to 49.  How many million did broadcast radio lose in that same age group?

Another article in the same day's email digest is a bit sobering, too.   The typical (median) over-the-air radio station--including all those that boast of being all-news or news/talk--has a news staff of...ready for!  One person!  One human being!  The average of all stations has ONE person on its news staff.  And the study quoted notes that in almost 30% of stations that have a position with the title "news director" the job is not even full-time.

Guess why fewer and fewer people depend on local radio to keep them up to date on breaking news.  The medium has gleefully cut staff and is more than happy to allow local TV and web entities with their news apps (along with Twitter and other social media) to have those potential listeners...on a sliver platter.

Shut up and play the hits!  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Jargon: the great discourager

by Don Keith

Do you ever wonder how many people decide not to not pursue new technology, a different pastime, or other avenue of interest simply because they are stymied by the unique language that has developed around those areas?  Whether on purpose (to block others from entering the "fraternity") or accidentally (just because the newly-developed area is complicated), I firmly believe the jargon that develops among "insiders" is a top deterrent to those who might otherwise adopt or enter.  In too many cases, that is a loss not only for them but for those who are already a member of the particular technological brotherhood.

Prime example: my chosen hobby of Amateur Radio.  Not only has technology evolved in the avocation since it started 100 years ago, creating a brick wall of terminology, but those who have joined the ranks along the way also developed their own gobbledygook, just as most areas of human endeavor do.  It's inevitable.  Ever listened to a couple of fishermen talk?  Or folks devoted to golf?  It is a foreign language!  And a tough one for the newcomer to adopt.  Maybe so tough the potential entrant says, "No, thanks!"

I'm convinced that is one of the reasons many hesitate to jump into a hobby in which they would almost certainly find a great deal of satisfaction and opportunity to learn.  Maybe prepare for a new and exciting career in a related field or simply learn to be a better communicator, a skill that is invaluable in any job or just in life in general.

And it is also why I have written two new books to help them overcome that perceived obstacle...among others.  Still, even I was amazed at how many terms I collected as I compiled one of them, THE Amateur Radio Dictionary.  And equally amazed that nobody had attempted something on this scale before.  Yes, there are some simple, incomplete or poorly-written Amateur Radio glossaries on the Internet.  There are also quite a few electronic dictionaries, but they have far more info than the average new Ham would ever need or the definitions are way too complicated.  Or they are written very badly.

By the time I was ready to publish the first edition of the dictionary, I had collected over 1200 terms and more than 1600 definitions.  Even though I have been a licensed and active Amateur Radio operator for more than 50 years, I ran across quite a few terms with which I was not familiar and others whose definitions were not clear to me.  Now, I am confidently marketing the book as the most complete glossary of Ham Radio terms ever compiled.  I believe I am safe in that claim.  And in using all caps for "THE" in the title.

The other new book, Get on the Air...NOW!, deals not only with overcoming the jargon but also the other discouraging things a newly-licensed Ham might encounter as he takes up the hobby.  Things like putting together a station that will give a reasonably good on-the-air experience.  Erecting antennas that will actually work but not cause the neighbor's garage door to go up and down like the dang thing is on crack.  Or knowing what to say and how to say it in that first on-air contact.

Again, I see these initial complications as a deterrent to so many who would truly enjoy the hobby if they could only get past those initial hurdles.  Even if they are not nearly so daunting as many imagine them to be.  (Note that I handled the jargon part in the second book by including the complete text of THE Amateur Radio Dictionary as part of the Get on the Air...NOW! no additional charge.)

Now if I could just get somebody to do a book on the convoluted verbiage encountered when one tries to set up a home computer network or figure out how to build a web page that doesn't make a smart phone go into hiding.  Or become a scratch golfer or catch enough fish for supper.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Will Apple "Beats" Pandora, Spotify and the Rest?


by Don Keith N4KC

Yessir, the landscape of how people listen to music has just been altered...again.  It's a real skyscraper this time.  One that has been around a while, that already changed everything a couple of times before.  It's Apple.  Uncharacteristically late to the party, Apple has finally unveiled their streaming music service with the clever title of...ready?

Apple Music.  But why?  As mentioned in my last post, the services that everyone assumes are doing wonderfully well are not exactly setting the woods afire, though they have made lots of impact on your granddaddy's way of hearing music, the totally ancient over-the-air broadcast radio.  Google is in the mix, too, and they are a pretty big company with which to contend, wouldn't you say?

So why is Apple jumping into the fray to allow people to listen to music on their little hand-held telephones?  Is there pent-up demand for such a thing?  Are the masses clamoring for a music source that is not currently available to them from multiple streamers?  Will millions of people be willing to pop $9.99 a month onto their credit cards just because Apple is in the (rather bland) name of this new service?

I say no.  Nor can I see anything so far that differentiates Apple Music from anyone else spitting out a continual stream of songs.  Oh, there is one thing.  They will have live deejays who are supposedly curating the music...working their butts off, finding songs YOU want to hear, including new music they believe you NEED to hear.  And according to the video, the whole idea is for that music to be consumed by masses of people who react emotionally to the songs and to the deejays playing them...playing them just for all those folks out there listening to them at that very moment.

Wait.  Isn't that RADIO?  Damn straight it is.  Or was.  Have we, with the help of the geniuses in Cupertino, now done a complete 180?  Your typical radio station with a tower on the hill and a colorful logo and cluttered web site is now streaming music--over the air with 100,000 watts of hit power!- and removing such "negatives" as personalities and songs that don't "test well" because they are too new or too creative for the good of the listener.  And Apple Music--basically a streaming web site--is differentiating itself by adding live personalities, new songs they think you would like (though they still use some of the same algorithms to build individual "playlists" based on your choices, just as the other guys do), and some warmth and humanity that the computers at Pandora and Spotify cannot do.

Or, apparently, your local radio station either.  Even though the guys with the tower and transmitter are in prime position to know YOU, who you are and what you and your neighbors want to hear.  But that is a familiar rant that I won't get into today.

So can Apple sell this concept?  Is the Apple name big enough to convince you that their magic touch can inject some life into spitting out one song after another.  And why are they doing this now?

Cynics say they have to, but may have already fumbled the ball.  Phones dominate their massive profits now.  iTunes is way, way down.  If Apple Music can make iPhones even more in demand then it is a good thing.  If they successfully use those live deejays to tell you about all the other wonderful things Apple is doing for YOU at $795 retail for a telephone, then it may be a good idea for them.  If they can justify the billions they spent to buy Beats by using the technology to extend listening beyond the phones instead of just using the name for their "station."  At the worst, if it loses them a billion or two, nobody but the accountants will notice.

Is it a win for music lovers?  For artists and songwriters?  For the music industry?  Maybe.  We'll see, won't we?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Broadcast TV is screwed already. Radio?

by Don Keith

Regular followers here know how I feel about how rapid technological change is affecting media in general and traditional over-the-air TV and radio in particular.  Basically, it's like an armadillo in the middle of a super-highway.  But traditional media continue to waddle right down  the thoroughfare, doing business just as they always had.  And, like our poor armadillo, ignoring all those other technological innovations that were threatening their very existence.

Somehow radio and TV continue to do the same (or less!) than they did when their only competition for eyeballs and ears were themselves.  How could media who are supposed to be so creative be so utterly lacking in creativity or innovation when their entire business model is in danger of getting splattered by a semi?

But even I have to admit that I'm surprised that Pandora and other commercial-free, web-delivered content have not made an even bigger dent in traditional radio.  Especially in light of data that shows Netflix is gutting network TV at a stunning rate...even if Nielsen, the folks who theoretically measure TV viewing, has no way of measuring the outlet that probably has more eyeballs than any one of the networks.

Now comes an interesting blog post by one of the smartest men in the business, and one of the smartest with whom I have had the pleasure of working.  Pierre Bouvard has some interesting observations based on new data, and if you are interested at all in how tech change is adjusting what you will be watching on that big-screen, take a moment to READ it.

So does this mean radio remains strong and vibrant?  No, it is still an armadillo, creeping across a ten-lane expressway, and the tech world is bearing down on it at well above the speed limit.  What this data Pierre shares might mean is that it is not too late.  That station operators can still find ways to embrace how people expect media to be delivered and paid for.  But it ain't playing "the biggest hits of yesterday and today with fewer commercials."

See, time is running out.  Curling up in a shell and hoping the onslaught misses is not a strategy for saving a medium.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Why is the U.S. economy so stagnant?

by Don Keith

Veering just a bit from the usual rapid-technological-change motif for this post, but not very far if you think about it.  Here's the question:

Why is the U.S. economy so stagnant, so slow to rebound from the last recession?

I think I can give a reason for much of the sluggishness by presenting a single chart:

You don't even have to be able to read the labels to understand the impact of the data that this graph presents.  It shows the page count for the Federal Register, generally considered to be a proxy for the amount of federal regulation being inflicted on the country.

Would it surprise you to know that the country's Gross Domestic Product tracks almost perfectly counter to this particular graph.  The ups and downs of the page count in the Federal Register track almost the opposite of GDP.

Makes perfect sense to me!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Good friend, big honor, amazing true story

by Don Keith

My friend and the subject of my book MATTIE C.'s BOY, Shelley Stewart, has just been honored as a "Good Neighbor" by State Farm Insurance.  You can see a short video about Shelley, read the article about the honor, and learn more about the book as well as Shelley's Mattie C. Stewart Foundation HERE.

Shelley's story is one of the most powerful and inspirational that you will ever hear.  I was honored to help tell it.  I wish the book was getting more promotion and awareness.  Everyone...and I mean everyone...could benefit from this man's life experiences and what all he overcame to become such a leading figure in media, business, and human rights.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

I be bloggin'

by Don Keith

I have had the pleasure of doing a couple of blog appearances in the past week.  One will be released in June as part of a brand new World War II blog series done by the History Network in Great Britain.  Angus Wallace did a great job on the interview, and I will try to remember to update this post with a link when it is available.  We are, of course, discussing the USS Neosho and my book about what happened to her--THE SHIP THAT WOULDN'T DIE--at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

I was also honored to be a part of the podcast series from QSO TODAY, a web site belonging to Eric Guth 4Z1UG, who interviewed me from Jerusalem, in Israel.  We discuss amateur radio, how the hobby can enhance a person's education and career, my ham radio book, RIDING THE SHORTWAVES: EXPLORING THE MAGIC OF AMATEUR RADIO, and also about my other books.  Eric does a good job with the podcast but also includes "show notes" that add a great deal to the audio, including numerous appropriate links and even pictures of some of the things we talk about.

You can see the show notes page and listen to the podcast from the QSO TODAY site by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Another promotional blog post from Don Keith N4KC...using that rapidly-changing technology

By Don Keith

You have to admit that I rarely use this forum for self-promotion for my World War II (WWII, WW2, World War 2, #WWII, #WW2) just to get all the keywords in there), amateur radio (ham radio, #hamradio, #amateurradio), submarine, Alabama (Crimson Tide) football, or other books.  But right up front, let me warn you this is one.
The latest Don Keith book, The Ship that Wouldn't Die, a remarkable true story of WWII

While we are at it, are you noticing that most articles you run across on the web...regardless the source...are loaded with both keywords and language designed to put the content at the top of Google, Bing, and other search engines.  Click bait!  It is becoming less and less about what is said and how it is said and more about how Google, Bing, and the rest find and index what is being published.  And so it shall be from now on, I suspect.  And, as best as I can, this article is being written more for Google than for you nice folks who follow the Don Keith N4KC Rapidly Changing Technology blog.  For that I apologize.  But it is what it is.  I feed my family by writing WWII (World War II, World War 2, WW2), amateur radio (ham radio), submarine, and Alabama (Crimson Tide) books.

Well, maybe you are interested that my new book, "The Ship that Wouldn't Die", has now been released and, even before it officially shipped, landed on several (Amazon) bestseller lists. (Amazon) being the top seller of books these days, that is a positive sign for struggling book writers.  The book tells the story of a WWII (World War 2, World War II, WW2) ship that was attacked and left for dead at the Battle of the Coral Sea (#Coral_Sea) and the remarkable efforts of her crew to keep her afloat until rescue ships arrived.

Ship that Wouldn't Die by Don Keith audio book cover for World War II Coral Sea storyI also just got a copy of the audio book (#audio_book) and the fellow who read it, Arthur Morey, did a very good job.

If you like remarkable true stories of average men placed in desperate circumstances who do remarkable things, you will enjoy "The Ship that Wouldn't Die".

And I don't think there is a single potential search term in that last sentence.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Massive tech change in media means...classic rock still top radio format?

by Don Keith

Counter-intuitive, ain't it?  Despite all the rapid technological change in society and its effect on all media...and especially broadcast radio...a format that plays music forty years old is still among tops with listeners.  At least, that is true if you believe Nielsen ratings and this article from our friends at INSIDE RADIO:

Why Classic Rock Refuses to Die.
Despite classics by Led Zeppelin remaining in rotation for decades, a new online survey from researcher Mark Kassoff shows their extraordinary resiliency. Two-thirds of classic rock radio listeners say the music sounds every bit as good now as it did decades ago.

OK, first let me punch a hole in Mr. Kassof's survey.  According to the article:

Asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “Classic rock sounds every bit as good now as it did decades ago,” two-thirds of the 320 survey respondents who listen to classic rock radio strongly agreed.

Well, if you ask 320 people who eat chocolate cake if chocolate cake tastes good to them, I'd expect even more than two-thirds to say it did!

Then why does Nielsen (formerly Arbitron) surveys show classic rock stations to still be among the most popular in most radio markets?  Because of a strange--but purely self-serving--quirk in how radio ratings are gathered and presented.  And because of the nature of today's over-the-air listener.

If I sit at a desk all day and my only choice for background atmosphere is local radio, I probably prefer something familiar, unobtrusive, and non-distracting.  I probably also need something that will not drive fellow cubicle-mates bonkers.  Country gets on the nerves of some people.  Rap certainly does.  Adult contemporary is often a choice.  But almost everyone can tolerate classic rock, and especially if they are over 40 (as the article admits) and grew up listening to this music when it was new.  So, if I happen to be keeping a diary or toting a personal people meter (PPM) for the Nielsen folks, I can tally a whole bunch of listening to Classic Rock 105.5 or whoever.

Secondly, as mentioned in previous rants. radio is careful to yell and scream about its SHARE, not its RATING.  SHARE is the percentage of people listening at any given time to broadcast radio.  RATING is the percentage of every person in the survey area, including those who listen to no radio at all.

SHARE is how big a slice of the radio listening pie your station gets.  RATING is how big a slice you get of the "everybody" pie.  The from a pie whose size is shrinking rapidly.  Fewer and fewer people are listening to over-the-air radio because there are so many other audio sources for them to choose.  Me, sitting at my desk, might listen to Pandora instead of Classic Rock 105.5 if my company's IT department doesn't mind my use of the bandwidth.  But as long as we are talking about a PERCENTAGE of the pie...the will continue to look impressive.

But when figuring SHARE, all that other listening is ignored.  Only over-the-air stations count.  (Yes, new efforts are being made to measure things like radio station streaming and other sources, but we ain't there yet, and share still does not reflect it.)  Even if a station has a big SHARE, it could still be far fewer actual sets of ears than it used to be.  Today's (let's say) 12 SHARE is a lot less human beings than it was a decade ago but SHARES...percentages...are still the same.

Oh, and I can think of one other reason classic rock might still remain a "strong" choice for radio listeners.  Note this sentence in the article:

Nearly 30 years after it emerged as a rock splinter format, classic rock shattered its PPM ratings record in February, underlining the timeless nature of the music.

 Could it be that people who still listen to broadcast radio...and who are willing to keep a listening diary or carry a meter for Nielsen...are not very active listeners in the first place?  That they are not seeking new music or more active formats?  That just want something familiar, safe, and non-threatening?  Something not perceived to be noise?  Could that also be why the most successful classic rock stations have practically no personalities (live deejays) on the air?

Could it be that today's over-the-air radio listeners--far fewer of them, remember...actually only want non-distracting background noise?  Is that where you want your commercials, Mr. Advertiser?  

In the background?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Shameless promotional post

by Don Keith

A couple of positive things lately regarding my books and...though only marginally...they do sort of fit into the "rapidly changing technology" subject of this blog.

First is the posting on YouTube of the short promotional video for my newest book, THE SHIP THAT WOULDN'T DIE.  Yes, it is now impossible (or at least inadvisable) to publish a book without some kind of video to accompany it.  So here's mine.  The hope is that it will make someone actually want to invest in buying and reading it.  Or at least make them look it up on Amazon and see what it is all about.

Of course, the real reason is to give my name and the book more ooomph! when people look for it on Google.  It's all about the views, hits, and likes, you know.

Second bit of news is about casting for the Relativity Media movie HUNTER KILLER, based on the book by myself (Don Keith) and George Wallace, titled FIRING POINT.  Gerard Butler, Billy Bob Thornton, and the actor/rapper/composer Comfort have reportedly been cast for the principal production, set to begin in July in New Orleans.

More to follow...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bear Bryant Certainly Had a Way With Words

(Note: the following post has nothing to do with rapidly changing technology.  It is a short blog post I wrote for the web site of one of my publishers and I thought followers here might enjoy it.)

Legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant probably gets credit for many more philosophical statements than he ever actually uttered.  Still, having just passed another anniversary of his death in January 1983, I’m reminded once again just how succinct and powerful the college coach’s actual words and winning philosophy were.  And how easily they could be applied to success in life as well as to winning football as played by his beloved Crimson Tide.

In my book THE BEAR: THE LEGENDARY LIFE OF COACH PAUL “BEAR” BRYANT, I give several examples of Coach Bryant’s insistence that preparation and hard work were the real keys to success.  One maxim that stood out—and one I know he actually said—was, “It is not the will to win that leads to success.  It is the will to prepare to win.”

I believe it is especially important to the current generation to realize that success is not necessarily something that comes through good fortune or because of a desire for it to happen.  Yes, you may win the Power Ball millions, but consider the odds against you.  You may desperately want to be the next “American Idol,” but wanting to be is not enough.  Everyone wants to win and be successful.  Not everybody is willing to do what it takes.  As Coach Bryant says, you have a much better chance to succeed if you work hard, learn, practice, and excel.  That is, you are willing to do the hard work to prepare to be a winner rather than sit back and wish and hope.

Near the end of THE BEAR: THE LEGENDARY LIFE OF COACH PAUL “BEAR” BRYANT I talk about a conversation the Alabama football coach had with a sports reporter.  Bear admitted that he was sick and no longer able to continue the brutal coaching schedule he had followed most of his adult life. 

“When I give up coaching I’ll probably croak within a month,” he told the writer.  What he was actually saying was that once he was physically incapable of the hard work he knew he needed to do to assure the football success of the Crimson Tide, he would quit the only job he ever wanted.  “I ain’t never been nothing but a winner,” he said.  Once that was no longer possible, it was time for him to step down.  That was exactly what he did.
Bear Bryant’s comments proved to be prophetic.  He suffered a fatal heart attack only a few weeks after his last game as football coach at the University of Alabama.

Don Keith is author of THE BEAR: THE LEGENDARY LIFE OF COACH PAUL “BEAR” BRYANT and more than two dozen other books, fiction and non-fiction, on subjects ranging from sports to history to broadcasting.  His web site is

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Can the FCC save AM broadcast radio -- Part Dos

by Don Keith

My recent post about the FCC's futile and short-sighted ideas for saving the already comatose AM broadcast band generated many interesting posts, both on my blog ( and on my Facebook page (  Comments seemed to fall into three basic camps:
Radio broadcasting
1) "But I love AM radio!  I like to drive for miles and miles and listen to some station from Cincinnati."  Response: Fine.  Some of my best friends are AM DXers and enjoy capturing skywave signals.  However, neither you nor they mean squat to that station in Cincinnati when the station's staff tries to sell commercials on their air.  There is little to no interest in saving the band for DXers.  Nor is that a valid reason to keep the band as it is today.  Sorry.

2)  "You are right, Don.  But if they could just clean up the signals and maybe give them more power, it would fix everything."  No.  No, I don't think so.  First, today's station owners are not interested in investing anything at all into their plants.  Secondly, we now have--thanks to those owners--a generation of people who not only don't know or care what AM radio is but likely couldn't figure out how to get it on their car radios if they did.  Lack of something worth listening to!  That is one of the big problems.  And the FCC is not going to solve that one.  Nor should they.  That is the responsibility of those who hold licenses.

3)  Those who actually offer some possible solutions.  Best among those came via my friend Dave Barnes WB4KDI who forwarded me a link to a filing in the FCC's inquiry on the subject.  If you are interested, you can read it at  The trouble with most of these suggestions is, as expressed in 2) above, most broadcasters will be unwilling to spend much money chasing a dramatically fragmented listenership.  Plus anything that depends on those listeners to buy new hardware, install antennas, or do too much futzing around to try to hear those new-technology "AM" stations won't work either.

Won't work unless there is something in the way of programming content on those new-technology "AM" stations worth seeking out.  Not when you can drop your smart phone into the slot or easily hook up Bluetooth and have a vast array of free audio anywhere on the planet you want it.

I don't want to be too pessimistic here.  I love radio, including AM broadcast.  I wish there was a practical solution.  I still think it has the potential to be not only the most compelling medium there is but also the one that can do the most for advertisers.  But not if the only programming choices are pablum.  Or wall warts and other noisy switching power supplies pollute the spectrum so badly listeners can only hear a buzz.

Though sometimes I think that buzz is more entertaining and informative than what most AM stations (and FM, too) have on their air these days.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Can the Federal Communications Commission save AM broadcast radio"

by Don Keith

Darn good question up there in the headline!  The article in today's INSIDE RADIO quotes one FCC commissioner as saying he is committed to revitalizing the AM broadcast band.  You remember AM radio, right?  That noisy slice of spectrum from 540 to 1700 kilohertz, filled with static, come-and-go signals, strange-sounding ethnic stations, and hollering preachers.)  The article also notes that less than 20% of all radio listening nowadays is to AM stations.  I'd bet if you look outside the top ten markets, that number would be less than 5%.

OK, so AM broadcasting is in serious trouble. I'm already predicting it will be an amateur radio band within ten years.  What does Commissioner Ajit Pai propose doing?  What high-tech gimmickry does he suggest?  What incentives to broadcast licensees in the AM realm will the FCC develop to save the band?

1) Easier-to-get FM translators.  2) Modification of the so-called ratchet rule.

That's it.

Ratchet rule first: that was a complicated set of regs designed to reduce night-time interference between AM stations, passed in an era when most people still listened to AM and thought FM was only good for classical and elevator music.  I'm not sure what changes they make at this late date--any big alteration would be costly for cash-strapped AMs to accomplish anyway--and frankly, I think it's way past possible to suddenly create excitement among listeners for AM radio by reducing the interference protection for Station A over Station B by 1 mV.  Huh?

Can't wait to hear that promotional announcement:  "WAAA-AM 970, now with a slightly better antenna array pattern so all six of you who listen to us at night can now hear us better by 1 micro-volt!"

Besides, if the trend continues, as AM stations turn in their licenses because the real estate where their towers are located is worth more than the station itself, then this "ratchet rule" issue will settle itself.  There will be so few stations, nobody will interfere with anybody else!

Now, about FM translators.  You can hear this phenomenon already in whatever market you live in.  Listen to that new station that just popped up on the dial out of nowhere.  You know, the one that keeps fading in and out on your car radio and that you can't even get at your desk in the office.  (You try because they play a bunch of music with no...and I mean NO...commercials.)

Listen to its legal station identification, usually occurring near the top of the hour.  "97 Rock is WAAA-AM W375962 Yourtown!"  That is a translator station, a low power transmitter assigned to an AM station to rebroadcast its signal on FM.  That is also why--if you still know how to flip your radio over to AM--you suddenly hear a rock-and-roll AM station among the mostly sports talk, Hispanic, and gospel stations that make up most of the AM dial now.

(You will also hear station identification that sounds like, "This is 97 Rock, WFFF-FM HD2, Yourtown!"  That is a translator that re-broadcasts the sub-channel of an existing FM station.  You didn't know your local stations had such so-called "high-definition" sub-channels?  They do, but few use them for any other purpose than to supply audio for a separately-branded translator transmitter.  That's because practically no one has an HD radio capable of hearing the sub-channel itself.  And if they do, they likely are not even aware they have it or which stations in their town--if any--have programming on that HD channel.)

Now, tell me.  How does allowing AM stations to broadcast their programming (or the programming on the AM station's HD sub-channel...yes, a few have that capability, too) on a low-power transmitter with limited antenna height help keep people listening to the AM band?  How can the AM stations convince advertisers that a commercial on the AM station--that nobody...NOBODY listens to--will somehow suddenly attract enough listeners on that weak FM signal to bring them any customers?

No, what the translator-ization of the FM band--along with the introduction of literally thousands of non-commercial low-power FM stations--has done is make it even tougher for over-the-air broadcasting in general at a time when they are in enough troubles already.  Here's how:

1) The band is already so cluttered in most markets that interference is becoming a real problem.  Why should I try to hear my favorite morning deejay on 97.3 FM when he keeps getting wiped out by some local (albeit low-power) church station just down the dial when I go behind a hill or between buildings?

2) All those new signals, bad as they are, further dilute the listenership to over-the-air stations.  Radio ratings--which stations use to sell and price their commercials--are fractured beyond belief already.  Radio survived for years by selling ratings based on the percentage of people listening to radio at any given time.  That is called "share."  Share of people listening to over-the-air radio.  Now agencies and advertisers are waking up.  They want to see and pay for the percentage of people listening to a station in their target demographic based on the total number of people in the market who are in the demo.  That is called "rating."  A station may well have a "12 share" in women aged 25 to 49.  That is 12% of all women aged 25 to 49 WHO ARE LISTENING TO THE RADIO in an average quarter hour of the day.  Wow!  A commercial on the "Sonny and Goofball Morning Mayhem Show" reaches 12% of the folks a grocery store wants to talk to.  But if you look at RATING...a percentage of women 25 to 49 in the general population, whether they are listening to radio or not, that station may have a 2.  2%.  Hard to get the same dollars for a commercial if a rating shows 84% fewer ears.

See, all those translators are diluting SHARES, but not increasing RATINGS.  They are not increasing listening much at all, just dividing it up more.  Each station has fewer listeners.  Fewer listeners means less money per commercial.

At the same time, listeners have so many, many more places to get audio entertainment, news, information and companionship than over-the-air radio.  The obvious are satellite radio, Pandora and the like.  But with ubiquitous cell phone usage now, millions are not even listening to anything at all but whoever they are talking to on the phone as they commute.

So, the very limited help Commissioner Pai proposes will not help AM broadcasters at all.  It will actually hurt them as their FM translators pry the last few listeners they have managed to hang onto over to a weak FM signal somewhere amid the 100,000-watt guys there already.

And that gesture from the FCC will also continue to hurt existing FM owners at a time when they are already struggling to maintain audience as rapid technological change gives us all myriad choices beyond "The Sonny and Goofball Morning Mayhem Show."  A thousand new signals on the FM band, regardless of their light-bulb-sized transmitter power, is not good for FM.  Unless they bring millions of new listeners.  And they won't.

(And the morning mayhem show, by the way, is probably syndicated out of Dallas and its talent and producers have no idea what I'm facing on my own commute this morning or what topics are of interest to me and my local listeners beyond last night's "Idol" elimination and Kanye's most recent statue swipe.  But that is a rant for another day.)