Change the label, not the goods

Change is in the air at WUMB is a story ran ran in the Boston Globe yesterday, about trouble the U Mass Boston radio station is having with the label for most of its programming: folk. And perhaps the programming itself. It begins:

  Money changes everything, at least for WUMB-FM (91.9). Thanks in part to a recent grant that allowed it to evaluate its mission, the public station may well drop wide-ranging music programs “Mountain Stage” and “Afropop Worldwide” by March 1. The station may even end up dumping its identification as “folk radio.”

  But in exchange, say those in charge, listeners will be getting a station that is more responsive to the community’s needs.

  The impetus for these changes is a station-renewal grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. One of five awarded in July to stations across the country, the grant of approximately $500,000 has allowed WUMB, which is based at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, to poll listeners and conduct focus groups about what the station should be as it finishes its first 25 years on air.

Hey, WUMB: poll me. I like the station. I don’t have a problem with “folk radio” — although the label does call to mind an old Martin Mull line: “Remember the Folk Music Scare of the Sixties? That fiddle and banjo crap almost caught on.”

WUMB’s music isn’t even close to “all fiddle and banjo”. It’s an artfully eclectic mix of what might better be called “traditional” or “americana”. But how do you draw a categorical line around the Subdudes, David Lindley, Shawn Colvin, Goeff Muldaur, JJ Cale, Dolly Parton, Sleepy John… except to say you can’t. You’ve gotta listen to tell.

I started listening on line (in Santa Barbara) before I got to town, and on the radio ever since I moved here in September. My car radio has a button on WUMB, and my Webio runs its streams.

Hope they don’t give me a reason to change that.

[Later...] Actually, the station’s main problem is really its signal. The transmitter puts out only 660 watts at a height of just 207 feet above average terrain. It also doesn’t come from the campus on the shores of Dorchester Bay, but rather from the corner of a golf course in Quincy, a few miles southeast of town. Its signal to the northwest (say, Cambridge and beyond) is too weak to stop “scan” on a car radio. At my house I need the hands of a safecracker to tune it in on our kitchen radio dial.

As an old radio engineering type, I know the dial is too packed with existing signals to offer much if any elbow room for moving the transmitter or raising the power or antenna height; but I’d suggest putting some of that new money toward, say, a booster transmitter on one of the downtown buildings currently shadowing the signal. Or toward buying one or more other stations around the edge of the market. I’ll bet that some of the AMs would come for a bargain. And with “HD” radio coming, some of those signals could carry music at sound qualities that are higher than the current legacy technology allows. In any case, it’s worth some study (if that isn’t happening already).

To its credit, WUMB has a bunch of other signals (actually, stations), two others of which are also on 91.9. That helps. But with money perhaps more could be done.

As for “the community”, I have some other thoughts about that, which I’ll link to here after I put them up.

[Later still...] This morning’s Guest Set features bassist John Troy, providing faves from the Pousette-Dart Band, Little Feat, NRBQ, Tower of Power, Chris Smither, Sal Baglio… Wow. Great, great radio.

Back to the Globe article…

  “There is a definite call to replace some of the syndicated programs with live shows,” says Pat Monteith, general manager of the station, which also broadcasts at 91.7 FM in Newburyport and 1170 AM in Orleans. “Some shows,” she learned, “people want more of.”

  Perhaps most startling, she said, was the reaction to the station’s ID. “Several people [said], ‘I hadn’t listened before, because I really don’t like “folk” music, but when I listen to your station I like it,’ ” Monteith explained. “Even our heaviest listeners find the word ‘folk’ very challenging.”

Hence the headline above.

3 comments

  1. John Handelaar’s avatar

    Is it using RBDS? Or do the aforementioned “scanning” radios not use it over there?

    I noticed, with a station I worked with in Scotland last year, that when its RDS identification wasn’t being broadcast we couldn’t find a car radio which could see the station at all.

    Even though it’s optional in the UK, that’s five hundred pounds you evidently don’t want to scrimp on.

    Just curious whether anything similar’s in play there.

  2. Trudy Schuett’s avatar

    They might solve the identity problem by putting an “s” on folk, which may be more descriptive.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    John, I believe they aren’t using RDS, or RDBS (the barely-different U.S. version of RDS). On my portable radio, which displays RDS, the RDS symbol sometimes flickers, but doesn’t come on. Could be, however, that the signal is too weak, or there’s too much multipath.

    Unfortunately, RDS is barely in play at all in the U.S. in any case. Lots of stations use it only to identify themselves on the relatively few car radios that have it. The AF (alternative frequency) feature — essential in other countries — is not implemented at all in the U.S. Nor do car radios support it, far as I know. That’s because RDS came along at a time when most stations in the U.S. had only one signal on one frequency. Now that many stations are found on multiple frequencies, spread around a region, the U.S. is much more like, say, Europe. It would make sense for U.S. stations to start using RDS, and for sellers of U.S. radios to use it as well. But I don’t see that happening. Everybody’s waiting for HD radio to take care of business. But it’s a proprietary and compromised system with little support by radio makers, little awareness by listeners, and no mandate by regulators. So don’t expect much to happen there, either.

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