radio

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Here is my short list:

  1. Larry Josephson
  2. Howard Stern
  3. Bob Grant
  4. Bob & Ray
  5. Barry Gray
  6. Bob Fass
  7. Steve Post
  8. Rush Limbaugh
  9. Alex Bennett
  10. Allan Handelman

And here are my qualifications: a) the performer has to do (or have done) a show that runs daily (or close),  b) the listener has to sense that they are missing something if they’re not listening, and c) I need to have been a listener.

I bring this up because in January I heard Howard Stern speak regretfully — and movingly — about how Bob Grant was something like “the greatest broadcaster who ever lived,” and how he (Howard) blew the chance to say that to Bob directly while the old guy was still alive. Bob died on New Years Eve at age 84. (Later Howard was not only reminded that he did say kind things to Bob, but somebody produced recorded evidence. Apparently Howard is correct that his memory sucks.)

I first heard Bob in the early ’70s, when he came to WMCA in New York from KLAC in Los Angeles. (Staying at the same spot on the dial, since both were on 570am.) WMCA had dropped its Top 40 format (conceding that ground to WABC and the FM band) and became the first full-time talk station in New York. I agreed with very little that Bob espoused, but found the show highly entertaining, especially when some dumb caller made no sense and Bob yelled “Get off the phone!”

But Howard is by far the best radio performer, ever. There’s nobody close. He’s funny as hell and his celebrity interviews are masterful to an extreme nobody will ever exceed. All his shows are longer than Gone With The Wind, filled with original comedy bits and supported by a veteran and gifted staff of interesting characters who are themselves sources of entertaining studio encounters. On days Howard’s not on, the re-runs — both from the past few days and from archives that stretch back a quarter century — are also brilliant. The show is blue, but I enjoy that. Life fucks itself all the time, or none of us would be here.

I put Larry Josephson ahead of Howard because I’ve never loved a morning host more than I loved Larry. Back when he was on WBAI in the ’60s and early ’70s, my daily life was anchored in Larry’s show. Larry spoke frankly about his personal life, and flouted just about every morning-host formalism you can list. (As Howard still does. But Larry was first.) He’d show up late, eat on the air, and take calls during which you heard nothing of the person at the other end. He was funny (among other things, like me, he was a sucker for puns), wickedly smart, hugely informed, and deeply interested in big issues of many kinds. Years later he leveraged all that into the public radio shows Modern Times and Bridges. I still have many recordings of both on cassettes in my garage. After leaving the air Larry made a living selling recordings of Bob & Ray (next on my list), who were two of the funniest guys in radio, from the fifties into the seventies. Find those and other goodies (including What is Judaism and Only In Amercia) from Larry at RadioArt.org. Meanwhile, also dig what Larry is doing today at An Inconvenient Jew: My Life in Radio. A better biography than this one or Wikipedia’s is here.

Bob & Ray are next on my list because they were the funniest radio comics of their time. Both had warm baritone voices, which hardly changed whether they were playing characters young or old, male or female. Their humor was droll and dry and played for irony at many levels. Buy some samples from Larry.

I’ve got Barry Gray next because he was — at least for me — the father of all the radio talk shows that followed. His slot from 11pm to 1am on WMCA seemed highly anomalous, given WMCA’s role as one of New York’s Top 40 music landmarks. But for me as a kid growing up in the 50s and early 60s, it was a window on the intellectual and cultural world, giving me lots of stuff to talk and think about the next day. I liked Barry Farber too (they were both pioneers, and Farber is still at it today) but to me, growing up, the better Barry was Gray.

I put Bob Fass and Steve Post next because they were Larry Josephson’s teammates on WBAI during the station’s heyday, and I loved all three of them (and some others I hate not mentioning, but I’m trying to keep this from getting too long). Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable was required late night radio listening in The Sixties, and had enormous influence on the spirit of that time, including too many events and personalities to mention. I recall Steve as WBAI’s smart and witty utility infielder and team captain. He was more than that, both for WBAI and later for WNYC, where he was active while I was elsewhere. Mostly I enjoyed listening to him whenever he was on.

I put Rush Limbaugh next because he is just so damn good at what he does. For many years I enjoyed listening to him, even though I mostly disagreed with his politics. He was tuned in to a sensibility that I knew well, and in many ways he understood the political left better than it understood itself. Maybe he still does. I’m just so tired of right wing talkers at this point that I don’t listen to any of them. But I want to give credit where due, and Rush deserves plenty.

I first heard Alex Bennett on WMCA in the late ’60s, and followed him to WPLJ while I was still living in New Jersey. Later I picked him up again in the Bay Area when he was on a variety of stations there. Alex was at his best (for me at least), when he brought comedians into the studio to hang out. I’m sure Alex played a key role in the surge in comedy clubs that happened in the 1980s. (Wow, I just learned that Ronni Bennett is Alex’s ex. Guess I missed that.)

Allan Handelman is the only guy on this list (and I regret that they are all guys) who has had me as a guest on the air. It was in the early ’80s on WPTF in Raleigh, to talk about radio, like I am now. I first heard Allan when he was on a little FM station in Farmville, North Carolina. I was 100+ miles away, in Chapel Hill, but had a big antenna on my roof that I would aim east to get Allan’s signal, amazed at the guests he would get to come on. Most notable among those was Frank Zappa. Allan’s discussions with Frank are among my treasured radio memories.

So that’s it for now. I started to write this in January and decided to finally throw a few more sentences in, and liberate it from the Drafts folder. If you care, tweet or comment on your own faves. One I would volunteer for a slightly different category (such as “uncategorizable”): Phil Hendrie.

Rushing around

RadioINK reports that Rush Limbaugh is switching stations in three markets:

Clear Channel Los Angeles says Rush will be moving from KFI to KTLK-AM in January. KTLK-AM will become The Patriot AM 1150, home of Los Angeles conservative talk radio, featuring Rush, Hannity, Glenn Beck and others. A similar move is being made in San Francisco where Rush will be moving from KKSF-AM to KNEW-AM. And as expected on Rush will move from WABC to WOR. The Clear Channel strategy is to move Rush off an established station, in the case of L.A. and San Francisco, to anchor a new station and help build that station up. Clear Channel recently purchased WOR-AM in New York and he’s being moved off WABC, a Cumulus station.

In all those cases the move is to a station with less coverage. Technicalities:

I’m also wondering how much the temporary move of Rush in Boston from WRKO/680 to WXKS/1200 helped “build up” the latter.  These days WXKS is running Bloomberg business news, which fills a niche but isn’t a big ratings winner.

The larger picture here, and the reason I bring this story up, is that the real stations aren’t the stations at all, but the shows and the talent. Rush’s listeners care about Rush, not where they find him. As this fact becomes more obvious over time, look for the Clear Channels of the world to become routers of talent and programming through any available medium (especially the Net, which is where everything is already moving), rather than a collection of radio stations.

And let’s face it: Rush isn’t on any one station. He’s on SCAN. Keep hitting that button and you won’t miss him.

Not missing is the future of radio. And, maybe, of all media.

 

towerRadio used to be wireless audio on a broadcast band. That’s still the short version of every dictionary definition.

But now radio is streamed audio. That was already the case when webcasting* showed up in the ’90s, and even more so with the rise of Last.fm, SiriusXM, Pandora, rdio, Spotify and every other audio service delivered over the Net.

And now Apple delivers the crowning blow, with this:

This isn’t just the height of presumption on Apple’s part. It’s a body-snatch on all of radio, as well as a straight-up knock-off of Pandora.

But it’s actually worse for radio than it looks here.

What used to be called Radio (iTunes’ collection of webcasting radio stations), which had already been pushed down one directory level to “Music,” is now available only under a new button called “Internet.” (See the screenshot above.) Worse, it won’t appear unless you open preferences in iTunes and check a box to turn it on.

So Apple clearly hates radio as we’ve always known it, and could hardly be more passive-aggressive about subordinating it to their own closed, exclusive, silo’d and proprietary service. (Here’s some bonus evidence.)

So where does this leave plain old over-the-air radio — you know, the kind that fades away when you drive out of town?

Simply put, in a new context. That context is the Net. It’s the new broadcast band. Here on the Net (where you are right now), audio servers are the new transmitters and mobile devices are the new portable radios.

So, some advice.

For stations, networks and chains:

  1. Normalize to the Net. That doesn’t mean just “digital first.” It means recognizing that the Internet is your coverage area, and the new native land for all forms of radio, including Satellite. This is the lecture that @JeffJarvis has given for years, correctly, to his friend @HowardStern and to @SiriusXM, where Howard (also correctly) anchors the whole link-up.
  2. Recognize that the Net does not belong to the cable and phone companies but to nobody, which is why it covers the world. Think of it as a world of ends (where every audio source and every listener is a separate end), and NEA — nobody owns it, everybody can use it, and anybody can improve it. Including you.
  3. Choose a streaming URL (or a set of URLs) for your station(s) that will be as permanent as your over-the-air dial positions. Make sure you’re streaming in .mp3 or some other standard codec that all mobile apps can receive. (Right now the burden of finding a streaming URL in the first place is a pain in the ass.)
  4. Transmit over the air in HD. Yes, HD has problems, and the adoption rate is still low. But it’s an all-digital bridge between net-casting and over-the-air.
  5. Continue to use RDS (RDBS in the U.S.) with your analog signals. That way it will display your identity and content on radios equipped to do so, most of which, so far, are in cars.
  6. Support every possible app that moves toward re-creating the old dial-based radio experience. The closest I’ve seen so far is the BBC’s iPlayer app, which isn’t available in the U.S.
  7. Have truly unique programming. If you’re running what dozens or hundreds of other stations are running, you’re just a relay.
  8. Look toward making more money from subscriptions and voluntary donations than from advertising. More about that below.
  9. Think in terms of relationships, and not just listeners. This is essential because listeners have communication power now too. Don’t waste it by looking at them only as populations. This isn’t easy, because the grooves of one-way-one-to-many non-relating are nearly a century deep. But those who relate best will win biggest.
  10. Make podcasting a normal and easy part of your mix of offerings. More listeners will listen, more of the time (which they will make for themselves.) And, if you can’t easily podcast because you’re doing music, see the last section below.

For app developers:

  1. Keep up the pioneering work done by Tune InWunderradioPRX’s Public Radio PlayerStitcher and the rest. But note this…
  2.  No app yet (to my knowledge, at least) re-creates the simple experience we got from knobs, dials and uncomplicated read-outs on good old-fashioned radios. In effect we’re still stuck where mp3 players were before the iPad came along with its scroll wheel. Only now the shitty experience is on our mobile devices, including our Apple i-things.
  3. Ease the experience of listening, and recording (like with DAR.fm), across everything possible. I know this isn’t easy, because chains like Clear Channel (with its iHeartRadio) and the BBC like to limit listening within their app to their own stations. But this isn’t what most listeners want.
  4. Work toward a single easy non-proprietary way to support subscription services (such as SiriusXM) and volunteer-pay services, (such as public radio stations in the U.S). Everybody with that model will make more money, much more easily, if the process isn’t different for every station, every network, every service.
  5. Symbolize relationships (especially paid ones) with UI elements that are easy to read and universally used and accepted. I recommend the r-button, which the VRM development community came up with, and which is there for the taking. The ⊂ represents the person’s side of the relationship, while the ⊃ is the ‘caster’s. If you’re interested, talk to me about it.
  6. Think relationships, not just listeners.

For equipment makers:

  1. Quit making shitty radios. The receiving circuitry and antennas for most home and portable radios have been awful for awhile now, and I don’t expect them to get better. But I think there is room for some companies still making radios to put out a few actually good ones. And include HD.
  2. Ibiquity (developer and licensor of HD Radio technology): change your game. Adoption by equipment makers is clearly too slow and too hard. Hell, you’ve been around since 2001, and now you’re bragging on just the first car to feature it. This search on Amazon for “HD Radio” should bring up lots of results, rather than a few hens’ teeth.
  3. Make radios that hunt easily from over the air analog to HD Radio to streams on the Net.

For everybody:

  1. Lobby to get rid of the completely aversive royalty system for webcasting, and its inequities with over-the-air broadcasting. Replace it with something sane and respectful of the all-digital world in which we now live.
  2. In respect to the link above, note this language: Sections 112 and 114 require that rates for the statutory licenses for webcasting and for ephemeral recordings must be the rates that most clearly represent the rates that would have been negotiated in the marketplace between a willing buyer and a willing seller. That boldfaced language is a relic of the DMCA, which was passed in ’98 — just three years after the dawn of the graphical browser, before anybody could imagine that the Net could support willing buyers and sellers of streamed music. The effect of this has been to marginalize or kill music podcasting, to name just one victim. Nobody wants the rights-holders to get screwed, but everybody should recognize by now that its the music itself, and the relationships between artists, distributors (including radio service operators) and listeners that are getting screwed by the current system. And that we can do better. Hell, it’s almost 2014. Let’s get this done.

* “Webcasting” should have been called “netcasting” in the first place. As Wikipedia says at the moment (at that last link), “Essentially, webcasting is ‘broadcasting’ over the Internet.” The difference is important because the Web is something that runs on the Net, rather than a synonym for the Net.

[4:45pm EDST  2 October 2013 — Late breaking news: RadioINK reports that Darryl Parks' blog post — the first item below — has been pulled off the 700wlw site. — Doc]

In A SERIOUS Message To The Broadcast Industry About Revitalizing AM Radio, Darryl Parks of 700WLW made waves (e.g. here, here, here) by correctly dismissing six FCC ideas intended to make life easier for owners of AM radio stations. Those ideas are detailed at that last link (by David Oxenford of the excellent Broadcast Law Blog).

All six, Darryl says, would increase interference. Instead, he suggests, “The answer is not MORE interference. The answer is LESS interference. And you do that by turning off non-viable stations. And before station owners start crying poverty, many of these non-viable AM stations have one thing that is worth a ton of money. The land their towers sit on.”

Well, not all stations own the land their towers sit on. KCBS/740 leases their land from a farmer up in the North Bay. Other stations’ towers, such nearly all of those serving New York, sit in tidal swampland or on  islands that would revert to nature if the towers came down. (For example, WMCA and WNYC, which share the towers next to the New Jersey Turnpike, shown here. Likewise KGOKNBR and WBZ.)

But Daryyl’s right: there are too many stations, and too much interference — not only between them, but also from electronic thingies that didn’t exist when AM’s base technology and regulatory system were framed out in the 1920s.  Computers, mobile phones and energy-saving light bulbs all play havoc with AM reception.

I see three other solutions, only one of which is likely to happen.

The first is better AM receivers. The old tube and transistor types were much better, on the whole, than the newer chip-based ones. But even the chip-based receivers were better in the early days than they are now. The faults are not just in the electronics, but in the methods used for gathering signals. In cars, for example, the fashion in recent years has been to shorten antennas or to embed them in windows, mixed in with defrosting wires. Radios in cars I drove in the 1960s and 1970s would get New York’s biggest AM signals (on 660, 770 and 880) past Richmond, Virginia, in the middle of the day. The radios were not only better, but served by whip antennas on their fenders. Even portable radios were better. When I was a kid riding in the back seat of our new Chevy, on a family trip in the summer of 1963, I listened to WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, from the Black Hills to Minneapolis, again in the daytime (when AM signals don’t bounce off the sky, as they do at night — on a Zenith Royal 400 seven-transistor radio. Alas, modern receivers and antennas are studies in cheap-out-y-ness, and don’t do the same job. In the absence of regulatory or market urgings, the chance of improvement here is zero.

The second is moving to an all-digital AM band. In this Broadcast Law Blog post David Oxenford says all-digtial “has shown promise for an interference-free operation in recent tests,” but “would require that there be a digital transition for AM radio just as there was to digital TV. That might be problematic, as it would require new AM receivers for almost everyone (except for those few people who already have Ibiquity IBOC receivers which should work in an all-digital environment).” I have one of those receivers in my kitchen. (That’s a shot of its display, there on the left.) HD on AM sounds like FM. Combine that with better receivers and antennas, and it’s a double-win. Here there is a small amount of regulatory urging, but try to find find a portable HD radio at Amazon or Radio Shack. Not happening.

The third is to develop better ways of getting radio streams on mobile devices. I have a mess of apps for getting radio streams on my iPhone and iPad, and none of them provide the simplicity of radio’s original dial & buttons system. If one app provided that simplicity, radio would move smoothly to mobile along with every other medium already re-locating there. Stations would continue to operate on the AM and FM bands until doing so no longer made technical or economic sense. But the path would be clear.

The one company that might have made this easy is Apple; but Apple has never been interested in improving radio as we know it. For years it buried radio station streams in an iTunes directory most people didn’t know was there — and then created a Pandora competitor with iTunes Radio. Like Pandora, Apple calls its streams “stations,” which also fuzzes things. The old stream directory still exists, for what it’s worth, under “Music.”

So it’s up to app developers. TuneIn, WunderRadio and Stitcher are currently the big three (at least on my devices), but all of them bury local radio deep in directories that are annoying to navigate and often incomplete. For example, let’s say I want to navigate the “dial” for Boston while I’m here in New York. On TuneIn, I hit “Browse,” then “Local Radio,” then find myself in New York. Not Boston. Then I hit “By Location.” That gives me a map I can pinch toward a red pin on Boston, where I find a virtual dial in the form of a list. That’s less work than it used to be, back when TuneIn wanted me to drill down through a directory that started (as I recall) with “Continent.” But it’s also missing all the great discoveries I used to make in local radio elsewhere in the world, such as the UK. (There are red pins only for major cities there.) Over on Stitcher one hits “Live Radio,” then “Massachusetts,” then “Boston” to do the same kind of thing, but the directory is has just three minor AM stations, then a bunch of FMs, but not WEEI/93.7, my favorite sports talker there. Between WBOS/92.9 and WTKK/96.9 there is nothing. All three do offer search, but that’s not easy to do when you’re driving or walking. (Nor is any of the above.)

All of them also assume, correctly (as do Apple, Pandora, Spotify, LastFM and many others), that individuals would rather put together their own “stations” in the form of music types, program collections, or whatever.

Individuals doing what they want is both the threat and the promise of radio online. Bring back dial-like simplicity, marry it to “roll your own,” and you’ll have the holy grail of radio.

Read Dave’s Cable News is Ripe for Disruption. Then Jay Rosen’s Edward Snowden, Meet Jeff Bezos. Then everything Jeff Jarvis has been writing about lately.

Then listen to the August 9 edition of On The Media. Pay special attention to the history of New York’s newspapers, and the strike of 1962-3. Note how vitally important papers back then were to the culture back then, how the strike (by a union tragically committed to preserving a dying technology that employed >100k people) killed off three of the seven papers while wounding the rest, and how that event gave birth to TV news and launched many young journalists (Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, et. al.). Listen to other interviews in the show about the history of media, from telegraph to telephony to radio and beyond.  Note also how structural separation assures that the past will have minimal drag on the future, and how laws (e.g. antitrust) learn from bad experiences in the marketplace and society. There’s a lot of other meat to chew on there.

Then, if you’re up for it again (I’ve improved it a bit), read what I wrote here about Al Jazeera giving up on the Net while it goes after CNN, et. al. on cable.

I have only one complete, though provisional, thought about all of it:  TV news is ripe for complete replacement and not just disruption. What will replace it is up to us. (Note: radio is different. I’ll explain why in a later post. On the road right now, so no time.)

Bonus link.

Route 66A year ago I entered the final demographic. So far, so good.

@Deanland texted earlier, asking if I had a new affinity with WFAN, the New Yawk radio station that radiates at 660 on what used to be the AM “dial.” Back when range mattered, WFAN was still called WNBC, and its status as a “clear channel” station was non-trivial. At night clear channel stations could be heard up to thousands of miles away on a good radio. Other stations went off the air to clear the way for these beacons of raw 50,000-watt power. As a kid I listened to KFI from Los Angeles in the wee hours and in California I sometimes got WBZ from Boston. Now even “clears” like WFAN are protected only to 750 miles away, which means any or all of these stations also on 660 splatter over each other. Reminds me of a fake ad I did once back when I was at WSUS: All the world’s most beautiful music, all at once. We overdubbed everything we could onto one track.

Funny, a few months back my 16-year old son asked what the point of “range” was with radio. He’s a digital native who is used to being zero distance from everybody else on the Net, including every broadcaster.

He made his point when we were driving from Boston to New York on a Sunday afternoon last month, listening to the only radio show he actually cares about: All A Capella on WERS. While WERS is one of Boston’s smaller stations, it has a good signal out to the west, so we got it nearly to Worcester. Then, when it went away, the kid pulled out the family iPad, which has a Net connection over the cell system, got WERS’ stream going, and we listened to the end of the show, somewhere in Connecticut, with the iPad jacked into the car radio, sounding great.

Meanwhile here I am with a giant pile of trivia in my brain about how AM and FM broadcasting works. It’s like knowing about steam engines.

But mostly I keep living in the future. That’s why I’m jazzed that both VRM and personal cloud development is rocking away, in many places. Following developments took me on three trips to Europe in May and June, plus two to California and one to New Zealand and Australia. Lots of great stuff going on. It’s beyond awesome to have the opportunity to help move so much good stuff forward.

Speaking of distance, the metaphor I like best, for the birthday at hand, is “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Composed in the ’40s by Bobby Troup, the jazz composer and actor, it has been covered by approximately everybody in the years since. The Nelson Riddle sound track for the TV show Route 66 was evocative in the extreme: one of the best road tunes ever written and performed. In addition to that one I have ten other versions:

  • Erich Kunzel
  • John Mayer
  • Chuck Berry
  • Nat King Cole
  • The Cramps
  • The Surfaris
  • Oscar Peterson & Manhattan Transfer
  • Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby
  • Manhattan Transfer
  • Asleep at the Wheel

My faves are the last two. I’ll also put in a vote for Danny Gatton‘s Cruisin’ Deuces, which runs Nelson Riddle’s beat and muted trumpet through a rockabilly template of Danny’s own, and just kicks it.

Anyway, my birthday is happy, so far. Thanks for all the good wishes coming in.

I like and subscribe to Radio INK, which is the main way I stay current with what’s happening in mainstream radio. And Radio INK loves WTOP, the news station in Washington. Do a search for site:http://www.radioink.com WTOP and you’ll get many pages of praise running from Radio INK to WTOP — all of it, I am sure, deserving.

The latest of these is WTOP IS #1 NEWS STATION IN AMERICA. It begins,

A panel of news and news/talk experts have named Hubbard Radio’s WTOP top news station in the country in Radio Ink’s first listing of news and news/talk stations. Under the leadership of GM Joel Oxley, Vice President of Programming Jim Farley, and Program Director Laurie Cantillo, WTOP has developed into a news leader in the Washington D.C. market, competing with newspaper outlets like the Washington Post and television news organizations in the nation’s capital. WTOP has also established itself as a digital news leader with nearly 100,000 regular readers at WTOP.com and 60,000 followers on Twitter and 11 full- and part-time digital journalists.

Here is the list of stations:

  • #1) WTOP – Washington DC*
  • #2) 1010 WINS – New York City*
  • #3) KFI-AM – Los Angeles
  • #4) KCBS-AM – San Francisco*
  • #5) WBBM-AM/FM – Chicago*
  • #6) WCBS-AM – New York City*
  • #7) WBZ-AM – Boston
  • #8) WSB-AM/FM – Atlanta
  • #9) KYW-AM – Philadelphia*
  • #10) WWJ-AM – Detroit*
  • #11) KIRO-FM – Seattle
  • #12) WBT-AM/FM – Charlotte
  • #13) KNX-AM – Los Angeles*
  • #14) KKOB-AM -Albuquerque
  • #15) WBAP-AM & FM – Dallas
  • #16) KTRH-AM – Houston
  • #17) KFBK-AM & FM – Sacramento
  • #18) KMBZ-AM & FM – Kansas City*
  • #19) KRMG-AM & FM – Tulsa*
  • #20) WGAN & WGIN – Portland, ME

I put an * next to the stations that are all-news, meaning you’ll hear live news on them if you tune them in, rather than a talk show. The rest on the list are talk/news, rather than news/talk. By that I mean, if Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity are in the station’s program lineup, it’s a talk station.

But I’m also thinking, okay… As long as we’re opening the door here to stations that are a mix of talk and news, why not public radio stations?

Go to Radio-Info’s ratings page for April, and we find, among other things,

  • WAMU beating WTOP in Washington, 9.7 to 7.9
  • KQED beating KCBS in San Francisco, 5.5 to 5.4 (and KQED also has a 5.6, #3 overall, in San Jose)
  • KUOW beating KIRO in Seattle, 4.6 to 3.3. (And why doesn’t KOMO, a full-time news station in Seattle, with a 3.2, miss the list above?)
  • KPBS in San Diego is the top talk station in that city, with a 4.9. (It has no news stations.)
  • KOPB is the #2 station overall in Portland, with a 6.9.
  • WUNC is #2 overall in Raleigh-Durham with an 8.1 (and is often #1, for example in February, when it had an 8.4)

As I put it in my response to Radio INK’s latest, ”Why not give some credit to the public stations that are huge ratings successes? … I understand that your main interest is commercial radio; but noncommercial radio matters just as much — if not more, if actual listening is taken into account.”

Ed Ryan replied, Doc: Good Points. We did not receive any nominations for non-coms. Hopefully you will nominate a few next year. And, ratings was not the only factor in determining the list. Hope yo are well.  Ed

I hadn’t realized that this story was based entirely on nominations by the stations themselves. Now that I do, I invite public stations to step up and start claiming the credit they deserve. I’ll try to remember to do the same, next time this rolls around.

We’re not watching any less TV. In fact, we’re watching more of it, on more different kinds of screens. Does this mean that TV absorbs the Net, or vice versa? Or neither? That’s what I’m exploring here. By “explore” I mean I’m not close to finished, and never will be. I’m just vetting some ideas and perspectives, and looking for help improving them.

TV 1.0: The Antenna Age

In the beginning, 100% of  TV went out over the air, radiated by contraptions atop towers or buildings, and picked up by rabbit ears on the backs of TV sets or by bird roosts on roofs. “Cable” was the wire that ran from the roof to the TV set. It helps to understand how this now-ancient system worked, because its main conceptual frame — the channel, or a collection of them —  is still with us, even though the technologies used are almost entirely different. So here goes.

tv antenna

Empire State Building antennas

On the left is a typical urban rooftop TV antenna. The different lengths of the antenna elements correspond roughly to the wavelengths of the signals. For reception, this mattered a lot.

In New York  City, for example, TV signals all came from the Empire State Building — and still do, at least until they move to the sleek new spire atop One World Trade Center, aka the Freedom Tower. (Many stations were on the North Tower of the old World Trade center, and perished with the rest of the building on 9/11/2001. After that, they moved back to their original homes on the Empire State Building.)

“Old” in the right photo refers to analog, and “new” to digital. (An aside: FM is still analog. Old and New here are just different generations of transmitting antennas. The old FM master antenna is two rings of sixteen T-shaped things protruding above and below the observation deck on the 102nd floor. It’s still in use as an auxiliary antenna. Here’s a similar photo from several decades back, showing the contraptual arrangement at the height of the Antenna Age.)

Channels 2-6 were created by the FCC in the 1940s (along with FM radio, which is in a band just above TV channel 6). Those weren’t enough channels, so 7-13 came along next, on higher frequencies — and therefore shorter wavelengths. Since the shorter waves don’t bend as well around buildings and terrain, stations on channels 7-13 needed higher power. So, while the maximum power for channels 2-6 was 100,000 watts, the “equivalent” on channels 7-13 was 316,000 watts. All those channels were in VHF bands, for Very High Frequency. Channels 14-83 — the UHF, or Ultra High Frequency band, was added in the 1950s, to make room for more stations in more places. Here the waves were much shorter, and the maximum transmitted power for “equivalent” coverage  to VHF was 5,000,000 watts. (All were ERP, or effective radiated power, toward the horizon.)

This was, and remains, a brute-force approach to what we now call “delivering content.” Equally brute approaches were required for reception as well. To watch TV, homes in outer suburban or rural areas needed rooftop antennas that looked like giant centipedes.

What they got — analog TV — didn’t have the resolution of today’s digital TV, but it was far more forgiving of bad reception conditions. You might get “ghosting” from reflected signals, or “snow” from a weak signal, but people put up with those problems just so they could see what was on.

More importantly, they got hooked.

TV 2.0: the Cable Age.

It began with CATV, or Community Antenna Television. For TV junkies who couldn’t get a good signal, CATV was a godsend. In the earliest ’70s I lived in McAfee, New Jersey, deep in a valley, where a rabbit-ears antenna got nothing, and even the biggest rooftop antenna couldn’t do much better. (We got a snowy signal on Channel 2 and nothing else.) So when CATV came through, giving us twelve clear channels of TV from New York and Philadelphia, we were happy to pay for it. A bit later, when we moved down Highway 94 to a high spot south of Newton, my rooftop antenna got all those channels and more, so there was  no need for CATV there. Then, after ’74, when we moved to North Carolina, we did without cable for a few years, because our rooftop antennas, which we could spin about with a rotator, could get everything from Roanoke, Virginia to Florence, South Carolina.

But then, in the early ’80s, we picked up on cable because it had Atlanta “superstation” WTCG (later WTBS and then just TBS) and HBO, which was great for watching old movies. WTCG, then still called Channel 17, also featured the great Bill Tush. (Sample here.) The transformation of WTCG into a satellite-distributed “superstation” meant that a TV station no longer needed to be local, or regional. For “super” stations on cable, “coverage” and “range” became bugs, not features.

Cable could also present viewers with more channels than they could ever get over the air. Technical improvements gradually raised the number of possible channels from dozens to hundreds. Satellite systems, which replicated cable in look and feel, could carry even more channels.

Today cable is post-peak. See here:

catv and cable tv

That’s because, in the ’90s, cable also turned out to be ideal for connecting homes to the Internet. We were still addicted to what cable gave us as “TV,” but we also had the option to watch a boundless variety of other stuff — and to produce our own. Today people are no less hooked on video than they were in 1955, but a declining percentage of their glowing-rectangle viewing is on cable-fed TV screens. The main thing still tying people to cable is the exclusive availability of high-quality and in-demand shows (including, especially, live sports) over cable and satellite alone.

This is why apps for CNN, ESPN, HBO and other cable channels require proof of a cable or satellite TV subscription. If cable content was á la carte, the industry would collapse. The industry knows this, of course, which makes it defensive.

That’s why Aereo freaks them out. Aereo is the new company that Fox and other broadcasters are now suing for giving people who can’t receive TV signals a way to do that over the Net. The potential served population is large, since the transition of U.S. television from analog to digital transmission (DTV) was, and remains, a great big fail.

Where the FCC estimated a 2% loss of analog viewers after the transition in June 2009, in fact 100% of the system changed, and post-transition digital coverage was not only a fraction of pre-transition analog coverage, but required an entirely new way to receive signals, as well as to view them. Here in New York, for example, I’m writing this in an apartment that could receive analog TV over rabbit ears in the old analog days. It looked bad, but at least it was there. With DTV there is nothing. For apartment dwellers without line-of-sight to the Empire State Building, the FCC’s reception maps are a fiction. Same goes for anybody out in the suburbs or in rural areas. If there isn’t a clear-enough path between the station’s transmitter and your TV’s antenna, you’re getting squat.

TV stations actually don’t give much of a damn about over-the-air any more, because 90+% of viewers are watching cable. But TV stations still make money from cable systems, thanks to re-transmission fees and “must carry” rules. These rules require cable systems to carry all the signals receivable in the area they serve. And the coverage areas are mostly defined by the old analog signal footprints, rather than the new smaller digital footprints, which are also much larger on the FCC’s maps than in the realities where people actually live.

Aereo gets around all that by giving each customer an antenna of their own, somewhere out where the signals can be received, and delivering each received station’s video to customers over the Net. In other words, it avoids being defined as cable, or even CATV. It’s just giving you, the customer, your own little antenna.

This is a clever technical and legal hack, and strong enough for Aereo towin in court. After that victory, Fox threatened to take its stations off the air entirely, becoming cable- and satellite-only. This exposed the low regard that broadcasters hold for their over-the-air signals, and for broadcasting’s legacy “public service” purpose.

The rest of the Aereo story is inside baseball, and far from over. (If you want a good rundown of the story so far, dig Aereo: Reinventing the cable TV model, by Tristan Louis.)

Complicating this even more is the matter of “white spaces.” Those are parts of the TV bands where there are no broadcast signals, or where broadcast signals are going away. These spaces are valuable because there are countless other purposes to which signals in those spaces could be put, including wireless Internet connections. Naturally, TV station owners want to hold on to those spaces, whether they broadcast in them or not. And, just as naturally, the U.S. government would like to auction the spaces off. (To see where the spaces are, check out Google’s “spectrum browser“. And note how few of them there are in urban areas, where there are the most remaining TV signals.)

Still, TV 2.0 through 2.9 is all about cable, and what cable can do. What’s happening with over-the-air is mostly about what the wonks call policy. From Aereo to white spaces, it’s all a lot of jockeying for position — and making hay where the regulatory sun shines.

Meanwhile, broadcasters and cable operators still hate the Net, even though cable operators are in the business of providing access to it. Both also remain in denial about the Net’s benefits beyond serving as Cable 2.x. They call distribution of content over the Net (e.g. through Hulu and Netflix) “over the top” or OTT, even though it’s beyond obvious that OTT is the new bottom.

FCC regulations regarding TV today are in desperate need of normalizing to the plain fact that the Net is the new bottom — and incumbent broadcasters aren’t the only ones operating there. But then, the feds don’t understand the Net either. The FCC’s world is radio, TV and telephony. To them, the Net is just a “service” provided by phone and cable companies.

TV 3.0: The IPTV age

IPTV is TV over the Internet Protocol — in other words, through the open Internet, rather than through cable’s own line-up of channels. One example is Netflix. By streaming movies over the Net, Netflix put a big dent in cable viewing. Adding insult to that injury, the vast majority of Netflix streamed movies are delivered over cable connections, and cable doesn’t get a piece of the action, because delivery is over OTT, via IPTV. And now, by producing its own high-quality shows, such as House of Cards, Netflix is competing with cable on the program front as well. To make the viewing experience as smooth as possible for its customers, Netflix also has its own equivalent of a TV transmitter. It’s called OpenConnect, and it’s one among a number of competing CDNs, or Content Delivery Networks. Basically they put up big server farms as close as possible to large volumes of demand, such as in cities.

So think of Netflix as a premium cable channel without the cable, or the channel, optimized for delivery over the Internet. It carries forward some of TV’s norms (such as showing old movies and new TV shows for a monthly subscription charge) while breaking new ground where cable and its sources either can’t or won’t go.

Bigger than Netflix, at least in terms of its catalog and global popularity, is Google’s YouTube. If you want your video to be seen by the world, YouTube is where you put it today, if you want maximum leverage. YouTube isn’t a monopoly for Google (the list of competitors is long), but it’s close. (According to Alexa, YouTube is accessed by a third of all Internet users worldwide. Its closest competitor (in the U.S., at least), is Vimeo, with a global reach of under 1%.) So, while Netflix looks a lot like cable, YouTube looks like the Web. It’s Net-native.

Bassem Youssef, “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” got his start on YouTube, and then expanded into regular TV. He’s still on YouTube, even though his show on TV got canceled when he was hauled off to jail for offending the regime. Here he tells NBC’s Today show, “there’s always YouTube.” [Later... Dig this bonus link.]

But is there? YouTube is a grace of Google, not the Web. And Google is a big advertising business that has lately been putting more and more ads, TV-like, in front of videos. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a proven system. The question, as we move from TV 3.0 to 3.9, is whether the Net and the Web will survive the inclusion of TV’s legacy methods and values in its midst. In The TV in the Snake of Time, written in July 2010, I examined that question at some length:

Television is deeply embedded in pretty much all developed cultures by now. We — and I mean this in the worldwide sense — are not going to cease being couch potatoes. Nor will our suppliers cease couch potato farming, even as TV moves from airwaves to cable, satellite, and finally the Internet.

In the process we should expect the spirit (if not also the letter) of the Net’s protocols to be violated.

Follow the money. It’s not for nothing that Comcast wishes to be in the content business. In the old cable model there’s a cap on what Comcast can charge, and make, distributing content from others. That cap is its top cable subscription deals. Worse, they’re all delivered over old-fashioned set top boxes, all of which are — as Steve Jobs correctly puts it — lame. If you’re Comcast, here’s what ya do:

  1. Liberate the TV content distro system from the set top sphincter.
  2. Modify or re-build the plumbing to deliver content to Net-native (if not entirely -friendly) devices such as home flat screens, smartphones and iPads.
  3. Make it easy for users to pay for any or all of it on an à la carte (or at least an easy-to-pay) basis, and/or add a pile of new subscription deals.

Now you’ve got a much bigger marketplace, enlarged by many more devices and much less friction on the payment side. (Put all “content” and subscriptions on the shelves of “stores” like iTunes’ and there ya go.) Oh, and the Internet? … that World of Ends that techno-utopians (such as yours truly) liked to blab about? Oh, it’s there. You can download whatever you want on it, at higher speeds every day, overall. But it won’t be symmetrical. It will be biased for consumption. Our job as customers will be to consume — to persist, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs.”

Future of the Internet

So, for current and future build-out, the Internet we techno-utopians know and love goes off the cliff while better rails get built for the next generations of TV — on the very same “system.” (For the bigger picture, Jonathan Zittrain’s latest is required reading.)

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. A lot worse, in fact.

But it will get better, and I’m not saying that just because I’m still a utopian. I’m saying that because the new world really is the Net, and there’s a limit to how much of it you can pave with one-way streets. And how long the couch potato farming business will last.

More and more of us are bound to produce as well as consume, and we’ll need two things that a biased-for-TV Net can’t provide. One is speed in both directions: out as well as in. (“Upstream” calls Sisyphus to mind, so let’s drop that one.) The other is what Bob Frankston calls “ambient connectivity.” That is, connectivity we just assume.

When you go to a hotel, you don’t have to pay extra to get water from the “hydro service provider,” or electricity from the “power service provider.” It’s just there. It has a cost, but it’s just overhead.

That’s the end state. We’re still headed there. But in the meantime the Net’s going through a stage that will be The Last Days of TV. The optimistic view here is that they’ll also be the First Days of the Net.

Think of the original Net as the New World, circa 1491. Then think of TV as the Spanish invasion. Conquistators! Then read this essay by Richard Rodriguez. My point is similar. TV won’t eat the Net. It can’t. It’s not big enough. Instead, the Net will swallow TV. Ten iPad generations from now, TV as we know it will be diffused into countless genres and sub-genres, with millions of non-Hollywood production centers. And the Net will be bigger than ever.

In the meantime, however, don’t hold your breath.

That meantime has  now lasted nearly three years — or much longer if you go back to 1998, when I wrote a chapter of a book by Microsoft, right after they bought WebTV. An excerpt:

The Web is about dialog. The fact that it supports entertainment, and does a great job of it, does nothing to change that fact. What the Web brings to the entertainment business (and every business), for the first time, is dialog like nobody has ever seen before. Now everybody can get into the entertainment conversation. Or the conversations that comprise any other market you can name. Embracing that is the safest bet in the world. Betting on the old illusion machine, however popular it may be at the moment, is risky to say the least…

TV is just chewing gum for the eyes. — Fred Allen

This may look like a long shot, but I’m going to bet that the first fifty years of TV will be the only fifty years. We’ll look back on it the way we now look back on radio’s golden age. It was something communal and friendly that brought the family together. It was a way we could be silent together. Something of complete unimportance we could all talk about.

And, to be fair, TV has always had a very high quantity of Good Stuff. But it also had a much higher quantity of drugs. Fred Allen was being kind when he called it “chewing gum for the eyes.” It was much worse. It made us stupid. It started us on real drugs like cannabis and cocaine. It taught us that guns solve problems and that violence is ordinary. It disconnected us from our families and communities and plugged us into a system that treated us as a product to be fattened and led around blind, like cattle.

Convergence between the Web and TV is inevitable. But it will happen on the terms of the metaphors that make sense of it, such as publishing and retailing. There is plenty of room in these metaphors — especially retailing — for ordering and shipping entertainment freight. The Web is a perfect way to enable the direct-demand market for video goods that the television industry was never equipped to provide, because it could never embrace the concept. They were in the eyeballs-for-advertisers business. Their job was to give away entertainment, not to charge for it.

So what will we get? Gum on the computer screen, or choice on the tube?

It’ll be no contest, especially when the form starts funding itself.

Bet on Web/TV, not TV/Web.

I was recruited to write that chapter because I was the only guy Microsoft could find who thought the Web would eat TV rather than vice versa. And it does look like that’s finally happening, but only if you think Google is the Web. Or if you think Web sites are the new channels. In tech-speak, channels are silos.

When I wrote those pieces, I did not foresee the degree to which our use of the Net would be contained in silos that Bruce Schneier compares to feudal-age castles. Too much of the Web we know today is inside the walls governed by Lord Zuck, King Tim, Duke Jeff and the emperors Larry and Sergey. In some ways those rulers are kind and generous, but we are not free so long as we are native to their dominions rather than the boundless Networked world on which they sit.

The downside of depending on giants is that you can, and will, get screwed. Exhibit A (among too many for one alphabet) is Si Dawson’s goodbye post on Twitcleaner, a service to which he devoted his life, and countless people loved, that ”was an engineering marvel built, as it were, atop a fail-whaling ship.”  When Twitter “upgraded” its API, it sank Twitcleaner and many other services built on Twitter. Writes Si, “Through all this I’ve learned so, so much.Perhaps the key thing? Never playfootball when someone else owns the field. So obvious in hindsight.”

Now I’m having the same misgivings about Dropbox, which works as what Anil Dash calls a POPS: Privately Owned Public Space. It’s a great service, but it’s also a private one. And therefore risky like Twitter is risky.

What has happened with all those companies was a morphing of mission from a way to the way:

  • Google was way to search, and became the way to search
  • Facebook was way to be social on the Web, and became the way to be social on the Web
  • Twitter was way to microblog, and became the way to microblog

I could go on, but you get the idea.

What makes the Net and the Web open and free are not its physical systems, or any legal system. What makes them free are their protocols, which are nothing more than agreements: the machine equivalents of handshakes. Protocols do not by their nature presume a centralized system, like TV — or like giant Web sites and services. Protocols are also also not corruptible, because they are each NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it.

Back in 2003, David Weinberger and I wrote about protocols and NEA in a site called World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It For Something Else. In it we said the Net was defined by its protocols, not by the companies providing the wiring and the airwaves over which we access the Net.

Yet, a decade later, we are still mistaking the Net for TV. Why? One reason is that there is so much more TV on the Net than ever before. Another is that we get billed for the Net by cable and phone companies. For cable and phone companies providing home service, it’s “broadband” or “high speed Internet.” For mobile phone companies, it’s a “data plan.” By whatever name, it’s one great big channel: a silo open at both ends, through which “content” gets piped to “consumers.” To its distributors — the ones we pay for access — it’s just another kind of cable TV.

The biggest player in cable is not Comcast or Time Warner. It’s ESPN. That’s because the most popular kind of live TV is sports, and ESPN runs that show. Today, ESPN is moving aggressively to mobile. In other words, from cable to the Net. Says Bloomberg Businessweek,

ESPN has been unique among traditional media businesses in that it has flourished on the Web and in the mobile space, where the number of users per minute, which is ESPN’s internal metric, reached 102,000 in June, an increase of 48 percent so far this year. Mobile is now ESPN’s fastest-growing platform.

Now, in ESPN Eyes Subsidizing Wireless-Data Plans, the Wall Street Journal reports, “Under one potential scenario, the company would pay a carrier to guarantee that people viewing ESPN mobile content wouldn’t have that usage counted toward their monthly data caps.” If this happens, it would clearly violate the principle of network neutrality: that the network itself should not favor one kind of data, or data producer, over another.Such a deal would instantly turn every competing data producer into a net neutrality activist, so it’s not likely to happen.

Meanwhile John McCain, no friend of net neutrality, has introduced the TV Consumer Freedom Act, which is even less friendly to cable. As Business Insider puts it, McCain wants to blow the sucker upSays McCain,

This legislation has three principal objectives: (1) encourage the wholesale and retail ‘unbundling’ of programming by distributors and programmers; (2) establish consequences if broadcasters choose to ‘downgrade’ their over-the-air service; and (3) eliminate the sports blackout rule for events held in publicly-financed stadiums.

For over 15 years I have supported giving consumers the ability to buy cable channels individually, also known as ‘a la carte’ – to provide consumers more control over viewing options in their home and, as a result, their monthly cable bill.

The video industry, principally cable companies and satellite companies and the programmers that sell channels, like NBC and Disney-ABC, continue to give consumers two options when buying TV programming: First, to purchase a package of channels whether you watch them all or not; or, second, not purchase any cable programming at all.

This is unfair and wrong – especially when you consider how the regulatory deck is stacked in favor of industry and against the American consumer.

Unbundle TV, make it á la carte, and you have nothing more than subscription video on the Net. And that is what TV will become. If McCain’s bill passes, we will still pay Time Warner and Comcast for connections to the Net; and they will continue to present a portfolio of á la carte and bundled subscription options. Many video sources will continue to be called “networks” and “channels.” But it won’t be TV 4.0 because TV 3.0 — TV over IP — will be the end of TV’s line.

Shows will live on. So will producers and artists and distributors. The old TV business to be as creative as ever, and will produce more good stuff than ever. Couch potatoes will live too, but there will be many more farmers, and the fertilizer will abound in variety.

What we’ll have won’t be TV because TV is channels, and channels are scarce. The Net has no channels, and isn’t about scarcity. It just has an endless number of ends, and no limit on the variety of sources pumping out “content” from those ends. Those sources include you, me, and everybody else who wants to produce and share video, whether for free or for pay.

The Net is an environment built for abundance. You can put all the scarcities you want on it, because an abundance-supporting environment allows that. An abundance system such as the Net gives business many more ways to bet than a scarcity system such as TV has been from the antenna age on through cable. As Jerry Michalski says (and tweets), “#abundance is pretty scary, isn’t it? Yet it’s the way forward.”

Abundance also frees all of us personally. How we organize what we watch should be up to us, not up to cable systems compiling their own guides that look like spreadsheets, with rows of channels and columns of times. We can, and should, do better than that. We should also do better than what YouTube gives us, based on what its machines think we might want.

The new box to think outside of is Google’s. So let’s re-start there. TV is what it’s always been: dumb and terminal.

 

Hurricane flag

7:30am Tuesday morning: I can tell the storm is over by tuning in to the Weather Channel and finding it back to the normally heavy load of ads, program promotions and breathless sensationalism. So I’ll turn ya’ll back over to your irregularly scheduled programs. Rock on.

11:14pm The Weather Channel just said 4.1 million homes are without power now. The numbers bounce around. For a good list of outages, check with Edward Vielmetti’s blog.

11:07pm Bitly stats for this page  http://hvrd.me/YerGzj). Interesting: 442 clicks, 30 shares. Below, two comments other than my only one. Life in the vast lane, I guess. FWIW, I can’t see stats for this site, and generally don’t care about them; but I put some work into this post and the list over at Trunk Line, so some feedback is helpful.

10:48pm When you look up “Sandy” on Bing images, shouldn’t you see at least one hurricane picture? Instead, a sea of pretty faces. Here’s Sandy + hurricane. Credit where due: I can figure a way to shorten the tracking cruft out of the URL with Bing. Not so with Google’s Sandy search, which looks like … well, I killed it, because it f’d up this page royally. Please, Google, have mercy. Make the search URL’s sensible again.

10:42pm Glad I stayed in Boston, with power running and a solid Verizon FiOS fiber connection (25mbps upstream and down), right through the storm. Looks like the New York place is powerless right now, and the Verizon DSL connection there is awful even in good weather. Got lots of stuff to do here too, through Thursday.

9:54pm TV stations with live streams online:

In a city-by-city rundown, Hartford wins with four stations, Washington and New York is second with three each, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia come in third with one station each, and Providence loses, with no live stations online at all. (Thanks for the corrections, which I keep adding.)

All the CBSlocal.com stations have “listen live.” C’mon, guys. You’re TV stations.

Some TV stations, e.g. WFXT in Boston, have pages so complicated that they don’t load (again, for me). On the whole, everybody’s site is waaay too complicated. At times like this they need three things:

  1. Live video
  2. Rivers of news
  3. Links to files of stories already run

Better yet, they should just have an emergency page they bring up for crises, since it’s obviously too hard for many of them to tweak their complicated (often crap-filled) CMSes (Content Management Systems) to become truly useful when real news hits the fan.

9:50pm When you go to bed tonight in #Sandy territory, take the good advice of Ready.gov, with one additional point I picked up in California for earthquake prep: have shoes nearby, and upside down, so they don’t take glass if any breaks nearby.

9:46pm What’s the ad load right now on the Weather Channel? Usually it seems like it has more ads than programming. Clearly there is less advertising now. How much less? Are the advertisers paying more? Anybody know the answers?

9:37pm A moment of calm. Rain slowing. intellicast map

The current weather map, via Intellicast, on the right. Note the snow and ice in West Virginia. Eye-less, #Sandy is currently spinning around the juncture of Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. BTW, this is Intellicast’s “old” map, which I like better.

9:29pm A friend runs outage totals from many sources:

  • Total out 3,0639,62:
  • Maine 65,817
  • New Hampshire 120,687
  • Vermont 14,482
  • Massachusetts 378,034
  • Connecticut 254643
  • New York 836,931
  • New Jersey 929,507
  • Pennsylvania
  • Delaware
  • Maryland 279,396
  • Virginia 118,766
  • DC 16,608
  • West Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio 49,091
  • Michigan
  • Illinois

With so many blank TBDs, the numbers must be higher.

9:18pm Please, radio stations, stop streaming in highly proprietary formats (e.g. Silverlight and Windows Media) that require annoying user installs (which won’t work on some platforms, e.g. Linux). Right now I’d like to listen to WOND in Atlantic City, but it wants me to get Silverlight. Not happening.

9:12 Via @WhoaNancyLynn, boardwalklooks like the Boardwalk is without boards in Atlantic City. Bonus link from Philly.com.

9:06 Water covering the runway at LaGuardia, says the Weather Channel. (Which I’m still watching here in Boston over our Dish TV connection in Santa Barbara. Amazing how solid it has been.)

8:54 Added newspapers to the list of sources at Trunk Line.

8:49 Courant: More than 500,000 without power in Connecticut. Boston Globe: 350,ooo out in Mass. Weather Channel: “More than 3 million without power.” Kind of amazed our house isn’t among those. Winds have been just as big in gusts as the microburst from last summer, which caused this damage here. One big difference: leaves. Fall was post-peak to begin with, and remaining color has mostly been blown away. In the summer, trees weren’t ready to give up their leaves, and many got blown over or torn up.

8:03 Just heard Con Edison has shut down the power in lower Manhattan. Con Ed outage map“Completely dark down toward Wall Street.” No specific reports on the Con Ed site. But here’s an outage map (on the right).

7:56 Listening to WCAI (Cape and Islands radio), on which I hear locals saying that things aren’t as bad as had been expected.

7:54 The Christian Science Monitor has a story on the sinking of the Bounty off Cape Hatteras. Two crew are still missing. What was it doing out in that storm? The story says they left Connecticut last week for Florida and was in touch with the National Hurricane Center; but Sandy was already on the radar then, wasn’t it? Maybe not. Dunno. In any case, bad timing.

7:38 Heard a loud pop across the street, followed by a flickering orange light between the houses, and reflected on the windows. Wondering if a fire had started I went out in the wind and rain, found it was nothing and got thoroughly soaked — and almost hit by a car. This is a quiet street that should have no traffic under the conditions, but there it was. Fortunately, we spotted each other just in time.

7:33 Curious: what’s up with JFK, LGA,EWR, BOS. If the seas rise enough, some runways may be under water. But… haven’t heard anything yet.

7:31 Water continues to rise, etc. Yet… Not seeing or hearing about any Big Disasters. The Weather Channel is reporting lots of storm surge levels, all-time records… but no unusual damage reports yet.  Their reporters are still standing on dunes, walking on sea-walls. In a real big-time storm surge, they’d be long gone, along with geology and structures. You can almost hear a bit of disappointment for lack of devastation to show. “We still have hours and hours and hours left…” Translation: “and time to fill.”

7:28 @TWCbreaking: “The water level at the Battery in #NYC has reached 11.25 feet, surpassing the all-time record of 11.2 feet set in 1821.#Sandy

7:25 Big winds, long ping times over my FiOS connection.

7:21 List of mainstream live media covering #Sandy.

7:17 I wonder if the main effects of #Sandy will be like #Irene‘s: while most of the media attention was on the coast, Vermont was quietly destroyed.

7:12pm The Weather Channel just said that #Sandy has lost her (or is it his?) hurricane status, and is now just a “superstorm.” I also notice that Crane 9 quit reporting winds at 4pm. :-( Meanwhile Huffpo says on Twitter than #Sandy has it down.

6:41pm Here’s a “before” shot of the crane on 57th Street that’s now broken. (@DaveWiner has a closer shot here.) I took it on 27 August. Between staying in hotels (e.g. the Salisbury, twice), going to meetings, shopping and other stuff, I’ve gone back and forth in front of this construction site more times than I can count. So, naturally, I shot some pictures of it. Fun fodder: the OUT and IN liquid concrete vats that the crane hauled up and down for many months. These shots are Creative Commons licensed for attribution only, so feel free to re-use them.

6:22pm Just heard on the Weather Channel that up to 10 million people may be without power soon. This “will take a big bite out of retail in November.”

5:59pm Dark now. Just in time for the biggest winds yet. Whoa. House is shaking. Tree pieces flying by.

5:46pm More evidence that station-based radio is declining: the great WBZ, which still carries three of the most august call letters in radio history, is http://cbsboston.com on the Web and @cbsboston on Twitter. Same goes for CBS stations in Washington, New York and elsewhere. Clear Channel meanwhile is blurring all its station brands behind iHeartRadio.

5:43pm @WNYC reports that many of New York’s major bridges are soon to close. Earlier I heard on WBZ that toll booths are abandoned, so feel free to ride through without paying if you’re busy disobeying advice to stay off the roads.

5:22pm Five “creative newsjacks” of #Sandy by “savvy marketers”. At Hubspot. Explanation: “Newsjacking is the practice of capitalizing on the popularity of a news story to amplify your sales and marketing efforts. The term was popularized thanks to David Meerman Scott’s book Newsjacking.” All are, in the larger scheme, trivial, if not in bad taste. For that, nothing beats The Onion:

5:12pm Crane 9 in New Jersey (see the graphic below) now reports steady winds of 46mph from the northeast with peak gusts of 63mph.

4:45pm I have some “before” shots of the crane that broke on 57th Street. I’ll put those up soon.

4:40pm Right now we have the highest winds since a microburst in July took out hundreds of trees in a matter of seconds across East Arlington, Mass. Here’s a photo tour of the damage that I took at the time. In fact I have a lot more shots that I haven’t put up yet. I might do that when I get a break.

4:38pm A gust just peeled back some siding on the house across the street. Watched some pieces of trees across the street break off and fall.  The trees taking it hardest are the ones with leaves, which increases the wind loading. Interesting to see how the red maples give up their colored leaves while the black oaks do not. Same with the silver and norway maples. The leaves on those seem to resist detachment.

2:55pm Given the direction of the storm, it will continue longer in New England than elsewhere, even though the hit is not direct.

2:52pm Just heard a crane on W. 57th Street went down. That’s the site next to the Salisbury Hotel, I believe. Across from the Russian Tea Room.

2:45pm Now it’s getting scary here near Boston. Very high wind gusts, shaking the house, along with heavy rain. Check out the increasing peak winds at Crane 9 at the New York Container Terminal in New Jersey, on the right.

2:21pm Thinking about fluid dynamics and looking at a map of the New Jersey and Long Island coasts, which in two dimensions comprise a funnel, with Raritan Bay and New York Harbor at the narrow end. High tide will hit about 8pm tonight there. Given the direction of the storm, and the concentrating effects of the coastlines toward their convergence point, I would be very surprised if this doesn’t put some or all of the following under at least some water:

  • All three major airports: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark.
  • The New York Container Terminal.
  • The tower bases of New York’s AM radio stations. Most of them transmit from the New Jersey Meadows, because AM transmission works best on the most conductive ground, which is salt water. On AM, the whole tower radiates. That’s why a station with its base under water won’t stay on the air. At risk: WMCA/570, WSNR/620,  WOR/710, WNYC-AM/820,  WINS/1010, WEPN/1050, WBBR/1130, WLIB/1190, WADO/1280 and several others farther up the band. WFAN/660 and WCBS/880 share a tower on High Island in Long Island Sound by City Island, and I think are far enough above sea level. WMCA and WNYC share a three-tower rig standing in water next to Belleville Pike by the  New Jersey Turnpike and will be the first at risk.
  • [Later... According to this story, WINS was knocked off the air.]
  • [Later still... Scott Fybush's Northeast Radio Watch says WMCA and WNYC were knocked offAnd the WNYC site says it was knocked off too. He has a long list of silenced stations there.]

Funnel #2, right where the eye will hit: Delaware Bay. Watch out Philly/Camden/Wilmington.

Funnel #3, Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor.

1:03pm: I forgot to bring a portable radio, so I got a new little “travel radio” for $39.95 from Radio Shack, along with some re-chargeable batteries. After charging them overnight, I put the batteries in, and… nada. The clock comes on at 12:00, but nothing else happens. None of the buttons change anything. The time just advances forward from the imaginary noon. So, it’s useless. Oh well. I have other radios plugged into the wall. But if the power goes out, so do they.

12:48pm: In a crisis like #Sandy, one of the great failures of public television is exposed: there is almost no live local coverage of anything, despite a boundless abundance of presumably willing helpers in the Long Tail. Public TV’s connection with What’s Actually Happening is astoundingly low, and ironic given its name. Scheduled programs throb through the calendar with metronomic precision. About the only times they ever go live is during pledge breaks, which always give the impression of being the main form of programming. If they were as good at actual journalism as they are at asking for money*, they would kick ass. I’ve included local public stations in my list here. None of them are go-to sites for the public. I just scanned through them, and here’s the rundown:

  • Maryland Public Television displays no evidence that a hurricane is going on.
  • WHYY Philadelphia-Wilmington: Pointage to Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, which ran from 10-Noon today. The top Special Announcement is “Visit NewsWorks.org or follow @NewsWorksWHYY on Twitter for continuing coverage of Hurricane Sandy.”
  • WNET in New York is itself almost inert. But it does have links to its three broadcast outlet pages. thirteen.org in Metro Focus has a scary visual of likely flooding in New York, last updated at 7:38pm Sunday. WLIW, another of its stations, has the same pointage. That’s about it. Its NJTV site is a bit more current. They post this: “Committed to serving Garden State residents during what is predicted to be an exceptional storm in Hurricane Sandy, NJTV will provide updates throughout the day plus Gov. Chris Christie’s next press conference. Monday night, join Managing Editor Mike Schneider for full storm analysis during live NJ Today broadcasts at 6 pm, 7:30 and 11 pm. Residents can also expect ongoing weather-related news updates on the network’s Facebook andTwitter sites. NJTV is also planning a joint broadcast with WNET’s MetroFocus news program on Tuesday night at 9:30 pm, to assess the effect of the storm on the Tri-State area.” Can’t wait.
  • WETA in Washington, D.C. has exactly nothing. WHUT appears to be down.
  • CPBN, the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, has nothing.
  • WGBH in Boston points to a show about the great hurricane of ’38. Almost helpful, that.

* See Jan Hooks’ legendary Tammy Jean show on the old Tush program, which ran on Ted Turner’s original cable station back at the turn of the ’80s. It was a perfect parody of a low-end religious program that seemed to exist only for seeking money, which viewers were told to put in the “money font”: a fish bowl on a pedestal. Watch here, starting around 2:50 into the show. Bonus show, with the pitch point arriving about five minutes in.

12:43pm: Normally I’d be headed this afternoon to Jay Rosen‘s Studio 20 journalism class at NYU. But after NYU announced its closures yesterday,  I decided to stay here in Boston and report on what some corners of journalism are up to, as Sandy hits New York. To help with that, I’ve put up a roster of what I’m calling “infrastructural” sources, on Trunk Line, a blog that Christian Sandvig and I set up at the Berkman Center, and which is coming in handy right now. I have websites, feeds, radio and TV stations. Haven’t added newspapers yet. Stay tuned.

12:38pm: A Weather Channel reporter on the beach in Point Pleasant, New Jersey just said, live, “We’ve been told to get out of the shot. Sorry. Gotta cut it off.”

12:28pm: Getting our first strong wind gusts here, from the north. The fall colors, which were right at peak on our street, just flew past my window here in the attic.

12:19pm: We have no TV here at the Boston place. Normally I carry an EyeTV Hybrid thingie to watch over-the-air TV on a laptop, but the thingie is at our New York place (yes, we’re there too; just not now). But we have Dish Network back home in Santa Barbara, so that’s what I’m watching, over our iPad here in Boston, thanks to the Slingbox on the Dish set top box. (Which is actually in a hall cabinet, since “sets” these days don’t have tops. They have edges, none of which supports a box.) Consider the route here. TWC distributes to Dish over a 50,ooo mile round trip to a satellite. Then Dish sends the signal to Santa Barbara over another round trip through a satellite just as far away. Then I’m watching 3000 miles away over a wireless connection at our place in Boston. Credits en route go to Cox for the cable connection in Santa Barbara, and to Verizon FiOS for the connection here. This will work until the power goes out here.

12:12pm: Finally heard somebody on the Weather Channel mention that there is a full moon today, which means maximized tide swings. Here’s the tide chart for the Battery, at the lower end of Manhattan.

11:20am Weather Channel gets all ominous, sez InsideTV at Entertainment Weekly.

11:18a: Slate is on top of Frankenstorm coverage in the papers.

11:05am: Radio stations should list their stream URLs as clearly as they list their dial positions. None do. Some have many steams but not enough links. WNYC, for example, has a nice help page, but the links to the streams are buried in a pop-up menu titled “other formats” (than the “Listen Now” pop-up page).

11:00am: How New Nersey Broadcasters Have Prepared for Sandy, at RadioINK. It begins,

New Jersey Broadcasters Association President and CEO Paul Rotella tells Radio Ink stations in his state have been preparing for Hurricane Sandy since Friday. “This is a perfect example of how only  local radio and TV can provide the critical information our audiences need to know in times of emergency. Sure, you can get a “big picture” overview from some media sources, but our citizens need to know much more detailed and salient information that only local broadcasters can provide.”

No links. Anybody have evidence of that yet? I’m listening to WKXW, aka New Jersey 101.5, After a lot of ads, they have lots of weather-related closings, followed by live talk, where they’re talking about other media at the moment.

10:56am: I’ve put up a fairly comprehensive list of infrastructure-grade Sandy information sources over on the Trunk Line blog. Much of what I’ll write about here will come from checking over there. Note that all the TV and radio stations from DC to Boston carrying live (or nearly live) coverage are listed, plus a number of live streams from stations providing them.

NOAA has Sandy headed straight at New Jersey and Delaware. The Weather Channel has a prettier map:

I was going to go to New York today, but decided to stay around Cambridge instead. All the media are making dire sounds, and there is lots of stocking up going on. Home Depot, Costco, all the grocery stores have had packed parking lots all day. Schools are closed all over the East Coast. New York City is shutting down the subways and Mayor Bloomberg has advised everybody to stay inside. Huge storm surges are expected.

I’m a natural event freak, so I’m on the case, but also need some sleep, in the calm before The Storm. More in a few hours.

A few days ago RadioInk reported that WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C., is now the top-billing station in the nation. Two surprising things there. One is that Washington is the #7 market (behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston), and that in the latest ratings WTOP is #2 overall, behind WAMU, the top local public station. (WAMU gets an 8.2% AQH, or Average Quarter Hour share, to WTOP’s 6.9%,)

One non-surprise is new competition, from WNEW — “all-news 99-1,” created by CBS, which owns the top news stations in New York (WCBS and WINS), Chicago (WBBM), Los Angeles (KNX and KFWB), San Francisco (KCBS) and elsewhere. Of the ten top billing stations (according to that same RadioINK story), five are all-news, and all but WTOP are owned by CBS. So clearly CBS would like to compete in a town that makes more news than any other.

So far, however, WNEW has been all but nowhere in the ratings. WTOP has slipped a bit (a month earlier it was #1 with a 7.5% AQH share), but WNEW went from 0.3% to a “-”. Not good. Still, according to this piece by Ben Fischer in the Washington Business Journal, CBS says things are going “according to plan.”

wnewAs an old radio guy with a transmitter obsession that I’ll never fully repress, I’m wondering if the signal is an issue. WNEW, which is licensed to Annapolis, transmits from a tower in the woods near near Patuxent River Park, between Bowie and Crofton, in Maryland, about four miles east of the 197 exit off the Baltimore-Washington Expressway (295). The maxium power allowed for FM stations in the Northeast is 50,000 watts at 500 feet (above average terrain), and WNEW puts out the equivalent of that with 45,000 watts at 515 feet. (Coverage results from a combination of power and height. You need less power at higher antenna heights to achieve the same coverage. Most FM stations in New York radiate from atop the Empire State Building with 6,000 wats at 1361 feet.)

Could be the idea is to cover both Washington and Baltimore, which it does, as you can see from the Radio-Locator.com map on the right. The red line is the calculated extent of strong signal coverage. But signal strength still falls off with distance from the transmitter, and it helps to be in the middle of town, as WTOP is.

Recently I drove around both cities, and WNEW sounded fine there in a car. Homes and offices are another matter, though. Car radios tend to be pretty good. Home radios and portables much less so. On a kitchen radio in Baltimore, about the same distance from WNEW as, say, Arlington, Virginia, WNEW was all but inaudible.

Some history.

WTOP began life at 1500 on the AM dial, with a powerful directional signal pumped out by its three-tower 50,000-watt facility in Wheaton, Maryland. The signal on the ground covered most of the metro area by day, though it left out places to the west, especially at night. (Thanks to the reflective qualities of the ionosphere at night, the station could also be heard well from North Carolina to the Maritimes.) The Washington Post, the primary owner of the station back then, made WTOP all-news in the mid-1960s. (Around that same time, the Post also made a royally dumb decision to donate its FM station, on 96.3fm, to Howard University, where it thrives today as WHUR — because the Post didn’t believe people were going to listen much to FM.) Then, to make a long story short, the station went through a series of ownership changes and facilities proliferations until it arrived at this current state (first links go to coverage maps):

  • WTOP, the namesake, radiates on 103.5fm, with 44,000 watts at 518 feet above average terrain, from the American University tower it shares with WAMU, WKYS, WMMJ and WPFW. This is equivalent to the legal maximum of 50,00o watts at 500 feet; except that the station has a directional signal, with a dent to about half that power in the Baltimore direction.
  • WTLP, on 103.9, with 350 watts at 950 feet above average terrain, on a ridge alongside Gambrill Park Road, overlooking Frederick, Maryland.
  • WWWT, on 107.7, with 29,000 watts at 646 feet, also equivalent to the legal max of 50,000 watts at 500 feet. on a hill overlooking Warrenton, Virginia.
  • W282BA, on 104.3, a 100-watt translator on a tower in downtown Leesburg, VA.
  • All four simulcast and identify as WTOP.

Meanwhile the old signal on 1500 is now WFED, called FederalNewsRadio. It is simulcast on WWFD on 820am in Frederick, MD. That transmitter is a two-tower rig, alongside I-70 just west of Frederick. It’s 4,300 watts by day and 430 watts at night, when its signal is aimed east over Frederick. Both WTOP and WFED are owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, which recently bought them from Bonneville.

Maybe CBS will buy up a fleet of secondary stations around the edge of the market(s), like WTOP did. That might help. Meanwhile, I think that signal is a problem.

I could say more, but I’d rather just put this up. It’s been languishing in my pile of drafts for long enough, waiting for me to say more. Rather than that, I’ll just leave the rest of that up to those of you who care.

Music was a huge part of my life when I was growing up. It’s still big, but not the same. My life today does not have a soundtrack. As a kid my life was accompanied by music from start to finish. At that finish was another start, as a grown-up. From that point forward, music was less of a soundtrack and more of a break from conversations and silence, and a devotion of its own. The transition was not a sharp one, but rather a growing independence from music radio. Accompanying me the whole way, though I hardly knew it, was Carole King.

She was the composer behind dozens of songs I still hum or sing along to. She wrote or co-wrote 118 Billboard top 100 songs, between 1955 and 1999.  Though I always enjoyed her music and appreciated her talent, I hadn’t thought much about why they were appealing before listening this morning to this Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross (who, it turns out, was a neighbor of Carole’s when they were both growing up in Brooklyn). When I heard that some old videos of Carole had leaked out on YouTube, I went there and was blown away by this performance of Chains, a hit she and Jerry Goffin wrote for the Cookies, which was then Little Eva‘s back-up group.

What you see on that video is pure fun. The song is a simple one, almost a throw-away. But the energy is amazing. Watching and listening to that performance, it’s hard not to fall in love with her. The Carole King I got to know through Tapestry, and other mature works, was more seasoned and complete. But what I see here is something I also realized I knew all along: that her work was also play.

I’m also sold on her memoir, A Natural Woman. Looking forward to checking it out.

Check the Arbitron radio listening ratings for Washington DC. You have to go waaaay down the list before you find a single AM station that isn’t also simulcast on FM. But then, if you go to the bottom of the list, you’ll also find a clump of Internet streams of local radio stations.

You’ll see the same pattern at other cities on this list from Radio-Info.com. FM on top, AM below, and streams at the bottom.

Together these paint an interesting picture. At the top, Innovators, at the bottom, Dilemma. (Some context, if the distinction isn’t obvious.)

Note that Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM and other radio-like streaming services are not listed. Nor are podcasts or anything else one might listen to, including stuff on one’s smartphone, ‘pod or ‘pad. If they were, they’d be way up that list. According to Pandora CEO Joseph Kennedy (in this Radio INK piece),

…we have transitioned from being a small to medium sized radio station in every market in the U.S. to one of the largest radio stations in every market in the country. Based on the growth we continue to see, we anticipate that by the end of this year, we will be larger than the largest FM or AM radio station in most markets in U.S. As a consequence, our relevance to buyers of traditional radio advertising in skyrocketing. We have already begun to see the early benefits of this dramatic change. Our audio advertising more than doubled to more than $100 million in fiscal 2012.

Back when I was in the biz, public radio was a similar form of dark matter in the ratings. If you added up all the stations’ shares, they came 10-13% short of 100%. If one went to Arbitron’s headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland (as many of us did) to look at the “diaries” of surveyed listeners, you’d find that most of the missing numbers were from noncommercial stations. Today those are listed, and the biggest are usually at or near the top of the ratings.

But today’s dark matter includes a variety of radio-like and non-radio listening choices, including podcasts, satellite radio, and what the industry calls “pure-play streamers” and “on-demand music services.” Together all of these are putting a huge squeeze on radio as we knew it. AM is still around, and will last longest in places where it’s still the best way to listen, especially in cars. In flat prairie states with high ground conductivity, an AM station’s signal can spread over enormous areas. For example, here is the daytime coverage map from Radio-Locator.com for 5000-watt WNAX/570am in Yankton, South Dakota:

WNAX Daytime coverage

And here’s the one for 50000-watt WBAP/820 in Dallas-Fort Worth:

WBAP coverage

No FM station can achieve the same range, and much of that flat rural territory isn’t covered by cellular systems, a primary distribution system for the data streams that comprise Internet radio.

True, satellite radio covers the whole country, but there are no local or regional radio stations on SiriusXM, the only company in the satellite radio business. To some degree rural places are also served by AM radio at night, when signals bounce off the ionosphere, and a few big stations — especially those on “clear” channels — can be heard reliably up to several thousand miles away. (Listen to good car radio at night in Hawaii and you’ll still hear many AM stations from North America.) But, starting in 1980, “clears” were only protected to 750 miles from their transmitters, and many new stations came on the air to fill in “holes” that really weren’t. As a result AM listening at night is a noisy mess on nearly every channel, once you move outside any local station’s immediate coverage area on the ground.

Even in Dallas-Fort Worth, where WBAP is the biggest signal in town (reaching from Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, as you see above), WBAP is pretty far down in the ratings. (Copyright restrictions prevent direct quoting of ratings numbers, but at least we can link to them.) Same for KLIF and KRLD, two other AM powerhouses with coverage comparable to WBAP’s. News and sports, the last two staple offerings on the AM band, have also been migrating to FM. Many large AM news and sports stations in major metro areas now simulcast on FM, and some sound like they’re about to abandon their AM facilities entirely.WEEI in Boston no longer even mentions the fact that they’re on 850 on the AM dial. Their biggest competitor, WBZ-FM (“The Sports Hub”) is FM-only.

But while FM is finally beating AM, its ratings today look like AM’s back in the 1950s. FM wasn’t taken seriously by the radio industry then, even though it sounded much better, and also came in stereo. Today the over-the-air radio industry knows it is mightily threatened (as well as augmented, in some cases) by streaming and other listening choices. It also knows it’s not going to go away as long as over-the-air radio can be received in large areas where data streams cannot. It’s an open question, however, whether broadcasters will want to continue spending many thousands of dollars every month on transmitters of signals that can no longer be justified financially.

One big question for radio is the same one that faces TV. That is, What will ESPN do?

ESPN is the Giant Kahuna that’s keeping millions of listeners on AM and FM radio, and viewers on cable and satellite, that would leave if the same content were streamed directly over the Net.

Right now ESPN appears to be fine with distributing its programming through cable and local radio. But at some point ESPN is likely to go direct and avoid the old distribution methods — especially if listeners and viewers would rather have it that way.

On cable ESPN’s problem will be that the distribution will still largely be through cable and phone companies that will wish to be paid for the carriage. That’s a two-sided model that applies now only for TV and satellite radio, but not for anything traveling over the Net, which the cable folks call “Over The Top,” or OTT. (I’m guessing that ESPN already pays for that, in a limited way, through Akamai, Level 3, Limelight and other Content Distribution Networks, or CDNs, which serve a role you might call, in broadcast terms, of local transmitters. Some cable companies, I am sure, do the same. It’s a complicated situation.) If, say, Comcast and Verizon start offering mobile Internet services that are just Facebook, Google+, Twitter and ESPN, they will have kept ESPN from going OTT, and brought Facebook, Google+ and Twitter into the bottom. And, in the process, we will have moved a long way toward the “fully licensed world” I warned about, two posts back. (Interesting that ESPN and others want Arbitron to do “cross-platform measurement”, even as it continues to help make the case for AM and FM radio.)

Regardless of how that goes, AM and FM are stuck in a tunnel, facing the headlights of a content distribution train that they need to embrace before it’s too late.

Read here about Raditaz, which I hadn’t heard about before. It’s a competitor to Pandora. Some differences: unlmited skips, no ads, geo-location.

I started out by setting up three “stations,” based on three artists: Lowell George, Seldom Scene and Mike Auldridge. I’m on the Mike Auldridge station now, and guess what comes up? Dig:

Mike Auldridge 8-string swing

Not just a great Mike Auldridge album cut, but a cover by Ray Simone, my late good friend and business partner, about whom I wrote this yesterday and this last month. It’s like seeing a friendly ghost.

Anyway, some first impressions and thoughts…

  • Need an Android and iPad app [Later... See the top comment below, with better information than I had when I first wrote this.]
  • Would like integration with creative terrestrial stations like KEXP, KCRW, WMBR, WFUV, et. al. (I other words, FM still cuts it. Think symbiosis, not just competition)
  • Would like opportunity for comments with skips, thumbs up and thumbs down. A skip isn’t always a dislike, or a preference. Sometimes it’s just curiousity at work.
  • The Twitter link works well. Give us a short URL for the current song.
  • Need more genres and decades. How about the ’50s?
  • Idea: Let listeners add their own audio — to be their own DJs — for some of the tunes. Make the ability a paid premium service
  • Work with the VRM development community on EmanciPay. Hey, some of us might like to pay more per play than SoundExchange wants. If you’re interested, DM me at @dsearls or dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu.
  • Add a back button.
  • Make one’s whole listening history available as personal data one can copy off and use on their own.
  • RadioInk has quotage from the CEO, Tom Brophy, from this week’s launch announcement. I’d like to find that from a link at Raditaz.com.
  • Says here, “when you create a new station, your station is automatically assigned geographical coordinates so other users can find your station in our map view or when browsed on our explore page.” That’s cool, but what if my head or heart aren’t really where I am when I create a station? I do like exploring the map, though. Listening right now to Johnny Cash from Cleveland, while I’m in Boston.
  • Integrate with Sonos.

Gotta go. But that’s a start.

 

Hassle House poster panel

That’s what many thought when they first saw the poster for Hassle House, in Durham, North Carolina, back in ’76 or so. As soon as any of the posters went up, they disappeared, becoming instant collectors’ items. At the time, all I wanted was to hire the cartoonist who did it, so he could illustrate some of the ads I was creating for a local audio shop. That cartoonist was the polymath Ray Simone, who went on to become the creative leader of Hodskins Simone & Searls (HS&S), the advertising agency I co-founded with Ray and David Hodskins, in 1978, and which thrived in North Carolina and Silicon Valley for the next two decades.

When I put up Remembering Ray, which (among much else) expressed my wish to re-surface the Hassle House poster, Jay Cunningham said in a comment that he could scan his copy. Which he did, and the results are here. In another comment Rob Gringle gives more of the back-story than I had known at the time.

Before HS&S, David and Ray were both with a small “mutilple media studio” called Solar Plexus Enterprises, which grew out of the Duke Media Center. Also there was Helen Hudson Whiting, who was a first-rate epicure as well as the fastest and most capable typesetter I had ever known. I just looked Helen up and found this nice write-up from Duke Magazine Books:

In Helen’s Kitchen: A Philosophy of Food


By Helen Hudson Whiting. Regulator Bookshop, 2000. 241 pages. $17.95.

In the text below is this:

Helen Hudson Whiting ’75 was, among other things, a bookseller and co-owner of Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, a reader, a writer, and an amateur chef. For nineteen years, she wrote food commentaries for Triangle area publications: first for WDBS-FM’s The Guide, and then for The Independent.

In Helen’s Kitchen, organized posthumously and edited by her friends and colleagues, features an eclectic selection of these columns, as well as remembrances from people who knew Whiting and cherished her enterprising, adventurous culinary attitude and her zest for pleasure and her keen intellect.

I worked with Ray, Helen and David at Solar Plexus before we founded HS&S, and Helen continued to work alongside the new agency, doing most of our typesetting. So she became a good friend as well.

But that’s not my point here. My point is that ours was a special community, and at the beginning of many things, although we didn’t know it at the time.

At Ray’s memorial gathering in Pacifica last Sunday, Steve Tulsky made that point beautifully. He said our artsy-hippie community in Durham and Chapel Hill back then was a special group. Much was born there, in music, art, performance, writing, publishing, business, events, and other fields. The Independent, modeled by The Guide, is still going strong. So is the Regulator Bookshop. WDBS is long gone. So are WQDR and WRDU (as what they were then, anyway), which carried forward the radio torch WDBS lit when it went on in 1971. But their spirits survive in Good Radio everywhere. The Festival for the Eno, still going strong, began as the Folklife Festival, in 1976, on the country’s bicentennial. WDBS was highly involved, as the station broadcasting the many musical acts playing there. (Perhaps some old tapes still survive.)

While I was working with David, Ray and Helen at Solar Plexus in ’77, I also worked with the Psychical Research Foundation, which studied scientifically evidence for life after death, and was located at Duke University. The PRF spun off of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, led by J. B. Rhine, who launched the whole parapsychology field out of research he conducted at Duke in the 1930. Among the many decendents of that work is the Institute of Noetic Sciences, headed by Marilyn Schlitz, another member of our community back in the decade.

Here’s another weird connection. One of the central institutions of that time in Durham was the Durham Bulls single-A baseball team, which played at an old athletic field surrounded by brick tobacco warehouses. It was a special team at a special time and place. You might remember the movie about it.

Anyway, I just wanted to bring back to the foreground some of what we’ve lost or forgotten from that wonderful formative period in so many lives, and in so many ways.

Tossed TVsI’m sitting in a medical office (routine stuff) where a number of people, myself included, are doing our best to ignore the flat TV screen on the wall. Most of us are reading magazines, using our phones or tablets, or (in one case — mine) working on a laptop.

When I arrived around 8am, I found the flat screen interesting, because it was showing a radio show I like: Dennis & Callahan, of WEEI. While most sports talk shows sound like human beer cans yelling at each other, D&C is always thoughtful and informative, even (or especially) when it veers off the sports groove, as it often does. I’d never seen John Dennis or Gerry Callahan before, so it was interesting to see them at work. I also like their long 8am conversation with Boomer Esiason every Monday during the NFL season. So digging all that was cool. Then, at 9am, when the show ended, the first of a series of half-hour-long ads began to run. Says here on the NESN schedule page that “paid programming” will continue until noon. Nobody in the room is watching. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of them find the non-stop pitches annoying.

NESN is the New England Sports Network. I’d never seen it before, except maybe in a bar or another place like this one. Nothing I’ve seen so far this morning would make me want to see it again. (I’m still in the Waiting Room, waiting.) While it was nice seeing D&C, I don’t need a TV for that. And, while “paid programming” fills the time between D&C and sports news later in the day, it’s otherwise one big value-subtract for everybody but the station and the advertiser (and, I suppose the people who buy the crap being advertised — currently some kind of electronic “Amish fireplace.”). But then, so might be pretty much everything else on TV that isn’t news or sports you can’t get anywhere else.

That’s being unfair, of course. There is plenty of worthwhile stuff on TV. Talent shows. Sit-coms. Dramas and comedies. Even some reality shows. (I know people who love “Dancing With the Stars.”) My point is that none of it needs to be on TV, because today TV = Cable, and only Cable needs Cable. What we call “channels” and “networks” are just sources of programs, most of which are just files or streams that can be stored as files. We have the Net for that now.

Programs should be made available to pay for and watch on an a la carte basis, or as part of subscription packages that make sense to viewers. Apple does some of that, but most of the programs are too expensive at this point.

Sure, NBC, ABC, TNT, AMC and the rest of them have “brands” as sources of programs. But why should they be stuffed inside so much packing material, like D&C gets stuffed between “paid programming” nobody watches? Why not buy what’s worth more than $zero at prices that also exceed $zero, without also buying all the pure crap that serves as filler?

Mostly because the flywheels of Business As Usual in TV are enormous, and are sustained by FCC regulations for over-the-air, Cable and Satellite (a variety of Cable) that remain anchored in the nearly-vanished Antenna Age. (Speaking of which, there is an excellent exhibition called TV in the Antenna Age, in Terminal 3 at SFO. Check it out if you’re flying United in or out of there.)

Conveniently, all Cable companies offer Internet service as well. TV on the Net they call “over the top.” But in the long run, “over the top” will be the whole thing. The writing is already on the wall. Progress toward the inevitable is slow, but we can see how it ends. What used to be TV will just be files and streams, some of which we’ll pay for, and some of which will be free. Meanwhile, more of the usual crap will just be ignored.

[Later...] Brett (below) makes a good point about the high efficiency of broadcast (cable) for streaming. I should add that cable broadcast as a way of delivering video will make sense for a long time. But the business and technical model as it stands is obsolete and out of alignment with the marketplace. “TV” will become as obsolete as telegraphy. Video will never be.

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Rochester, Vermont

My favorite town in Vermont is Rochester. I like to stop there going both ways while driving my kid to summer camp, which means I do that up to four times per summer. It’s one of those postcard-perfect places, rich in history, gracing a lush valley along the White River, deep in the Green Mountains, with a park and a bandstand, pretty white churches and charm to the brim.

My last stop there was on August 20, when I shot the picture above in the front yard of Sandy’s Books & Bakery, after having lunch in the Rochester Cafe across the street. Not shown are the 200+ cyclists (motor and pedal) who had just come through town on the Last Mile Ride to raise funds for the Gifford Medical Center‘s end-of-life care.

After Hurricane Irene came through, one might have wondered if Rochester itself might need the Center’s services. Rochester was one of more than a dozen Vermont towns that were isolated when all its main roads were washed out. This series of photos from The Republican tells just part of the story. The town’s website is devoted entirely to The Situation. Here’s a copy-and-paste of its main text:

Relief For Rochester

Among the town’s losses was a large section of Woodlawn Cemetery, much of which was carved away when a gentle brook turned into a hydraulic mine. Reports Mark Davis of Valley News,

Rochester also suffered a different kind of nightmare. A gentle downtown brook swelled into a torrent and ripped through Woodlawn Cemetery, unearthing about 25 caskets and strewing their remains throughout downtown.

Many of the graves were about 30 years old, and none of the burials was recent.Yesterday, those remains were still outside, covered by blue tarps.

Scattered bones on both sides of Route 100 were marked by small red flags.

“We can’t do anything for these poor people except pick it up,” said Randolph resident Tom Harty, a former state trooper and funeral home director who is leading the effort to recover the remains.

It was more than 48 hours before officials in Rochester — which was cut off from surrounding towns until Tuesday — could turn their attention to the problem: For a time, an open casket lay in the middle of Route 100, the town’s main thoroughfare, the remains plainly visible.

I found that article, like so much else about Vermont, on VPR News, one of Vermont Public Radio‘s many services. When the going gets tough, the tough use radio. During and after natural disasters, radio is the go-to medium. And no radio service covers or serves Vermont better than VPR. The station has five full-size stations covering most of the state, with gaps filled in by five more low-power translators. (VPR also has six classical stations, with their own six translators.) When I drive around the state it’s the single radio source I can get pretty much everywhere. I doubt any other station or network comes close. Ground conductivity in Vermont is extremely low, so AM waves don’t go far, and there aren’t any big stations in Vermont on AM anyway. And no FM station is bigger, or has as many signals, as VPR.

One big reason VPR does so much, so well, is that it serves its customers, which are its listeners. That’s Marketing 101, but it’s also unique to noncommercial radio in the U.S. Commercial radio’s customers are its advertisers.

VPR’s services only begin with what it does on the air. Reporting is boffo too. Here’s VPR’s report on Rochester last Thursday, in several audio forms, as well as by transcription on that Web page. They use the Web exceptionally well, including a thick stream of tweets at @vprnet.

I don’t doubt there are many other media doing great jobs in Vermont. And at the local level I’m sure some stations, papers and online media do as good a job as VPR does state-wide.

But VPR is the one I follow elsewhere as well as in Vermont, and I want to do is make sure it gets the high five it deserves. If you have others (or corrections to the above), tell me in the comments below.

Some additional links:

The Rock face of the Music Radio island is eroding away, as station after station falls into the vast digital sea. Here’s a story in Radio Ink about how two FM rockers have been replaced by news and sports broadcasts that were formerly only on the AM band. (The illo for the story is a hideously discolored mug shot of the aged Mick Jagger.) But Rock isn’t the only music format that’s in trouble. All of them are.

For most of the last century, music and music radio were Xtreme symbiotes. To be popular, or just to be known to more than your local club or coffee house, you had to get your music on the radio. (For some great cinematic history on this, rent Coal Miner’s Daughter, just to see how Loretta Lynn established herself as a singer.) That’s because you also needed to sell what the radio played, which were recordings. All of those were on plastic discs.

Most music we hear is no longer on discs, or even on the radio.

Radio’s biggest advantage since the beginning was being live. This is why it’s still essential for talk, and especially for news and sports — the three formats that are winning on FM and keeping AM alive. Radio will remain strong as long as Internet streaming stays complicated (which it is, even on smartphones), and radios remain standard equipment in new cars. But music radio is still dying slowly. Three reasons:

  1. Music on radio is rarely presented by connoisseurs who know more than you do, and you’re glad to learn from. This in fact has been the case for a long time. There remain a few exceptions, but none (to my knowledge) make much money. By contrast, the Net is full of music connoisseurs and connoisseur-like offerings (e.g. Pandora, LastFM, Spotify).
  2. You don’t choose what music you want to hear. You can do that with Spotify or Rhapsody, and to a lesser extent with Pandora and LastFM.
  3. Advertising. We used to have no choice about enduring it. Now we do.

But music dying on the radio doesn’t mean it lives on the Net. At least not in the form of radio stations as we’ve known them. That’s because of copyright laws.

Radio has huge legacy legal advantages over all-digital alternatives on the copyright front. I won’t go into the details, because they’re complicated beyond endurance, but suffice it to say there is a reason why there are no podcasts of popular music. (Briefly, it’s that the podcaster would have to “clear rights” with the copyright holder of every song.) All we get is “podsafe” music, and music from outfits like the ones mentioned above, which have worked their own broad licensing deals with copyright holders — and from radio stations that enjoy similar deals and happen to stream as well.

Note that radio stations pay more, per recording, to copyright holders for streaming than they do for broadcasting on the air. But they get a break on the streaming side if they’re already broadcasting music over the air, because they don’t have to clear rights with all the artists they play.

The key here is the term “performance.” The way the law (in the U.S. at least) is set up, every play of every recording on the radio or over the Net is considered a performance, and the assumption by the copyright absolutists (the RIAA, primarily) is that copyright holders need to be paid for those performances. And they’ve been putting the squeeze in recent years on music radio to pay as much for performance rights as streamers on the Internet have been forced to pay. (They put those shackles on the Internet radio baby, right in the cradle.) This will also have a chilling effect on music radio.

So an irony of considering recorded music a “performance,” for the purpose of extracting royalties from radio stations on the Net and over the air, is that music on both is either going away or turning toward new systems, such as Spotify, LastFM, Pandora and the rest. But no new radio stations, on either the airwaves or the Net. Not if they’re going to play music of the RIAA-protected kind, which is most of what we know.

If the record industry were not immune to clues, it would find ways to open up opportunities for new music radio stations on the Net. But I doubt they will, until FM music is on its deathbed, just like it’s been on AM since FM wounded it.

Bonus links: Michael Robertson’s latest improvement to radio, DAR.fm.

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I just learned from Dan Kelly that Bruce Elving passed away last month. Details are thin, but here’s a short list of links:

Bruce Elving, Ph.D.Bruce and I were frequent correspondents for many years, starting the early ’70s, when Bruce began publishing his FM Atlas, an authoritative compilation of technical details for every FM station in the U.S. — and an essential handbook for everyone who loved to listen to far-away FM radio stations. Those people are called DXers, and I was one of them.

From my homes in New Jersey and North Carolina, I logged many hundreds of FM and TV stations whose signals skipped off the ionosphere’s sporadic E layer. If you’ve ever been surprised to hear on your FM radio a station from halfway across the country, you were DXing.

For DXers, catching far-away stations is kind of like fishing. You don’t want to catch just the easy ones. That’s one reason FM and TV DXing was more fun than AM and shortwave DXing (at least for some of us). AM and shortwave depend on the ionosphere for distant coverage as a matter of course. Back before the AM band became a crowded mess, “clear channel” stations like WSM in Nashville and KSL in Salt Lake City could be heard all across the continent at night, because there was nothing else on their frequencies. WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, heard every night on radios in rural areas throughout The South, literally made country music. (I listened in New Jersey, carefully turning my radio to “null out” interference from New York’s WNBC, now WFAN, which was right next to WSM on the dial.)

In its heyday (or heydecade), DXing on FM was about hooking relatively rare and slightly exotic fish. The best months to fish were in late spring and summer, when warm calm summer mornings would bring tropospheric (or “tropo”) conditions, in which FM and VHF-TV signals would travel greater distances than their normal line-of-sight propagation provided. Thus my home in Chapel Hill, NC was often treated to signals from hundreds of miles away. I recall days when I’d pick up WDUQ from the Pittsburgh on 90.5 with the antenna pointed north, then spin the antenna west to get WETS from Johnson City, Tennessee on 89.5, then spin just north of east to get WTGM (now WHRV) from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the same channel.

Tropo is cool, but the best FM fishing is in sporadic-E “skip.” This happens when the E-layer becomes slightly refractive of VHF frequencies, bending them down at an angle of just a few degrees, so that the signals “skip” to distances of 800-1200 miles. This also tended to happen most often in late spring and summer months, usually in the late afternoon and evening. Thanks to sporadic-E, we would watch Channel 3 TV stations from Louisiana, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Cuba and various places in Canada. But, more often, I would also carefully log FM stations I identified in Bruce Elving’s FM Atlas. From 1974 to 1985 (after which I lived in California), I logged more than 800 FM stations, most of which came from more than 800 miles away. Bruce said he’d logged more than 2000 from his home in Duluth, Minnesota. I’m sure that’s a record that will stand for the duration. (Bear in mind that there were only about 10,000 FM signals in the U.S. at the time.)

We’re talking about obsession here.

For Bruce, FM was a cause, forever the underdog, even after it became an overdog with his help. See, up until the early ’60s, FM was the secondary radio band in the U.S. The sound was better, but most cars didn’t have FM bands, and most cheap radios didn’t either. Transistor radios, which were the iPods of the ’50s and ’60s, were mostly AM-only. Bruce championed FM, and his newsletter, FMedia, was a tireless advocate of FM, long after FM pretty much won the fight with AM, and then the Internet had begun to win the fight with both.

I remember telling Bruce that he needed to go digital with PCs, and then take advantage of the Net, and he eventually did, to some degree. But he was still pasting up FM Atlas the old-fashioned way (far as I know) well into the ’90s.

I pretty much quit DXing when I came to Silicon Valley in ’85, though I kept up with Bruce for another decade or so after that. Learning about his passing, I regret that we didn’t stay in closer touch. Though we never met in person, I considered him a good friend, and I enjoyed supporting his work.

With Bruce gone, an era passes. TV DXing was effectively killed when the U.S. digital transition moved nearly every signal off VHF and onto UHF (which skips off the sky too rarely to matter). The FM band is now as crowded as the AM band became, making DXing harder than ever. Programming is also dull and homogenous, compared to the Olde Days. And the Internet obsoletes a key motivation for DXing, which is being able to receive and learn interesting things from distant signals. A core virtue of the Internet is its virtual erasure of distance. Anybody can hear or watch streams from pretty much anywhere, any time, over any connection faster than dial-up. The stream also tends to stay where it is, and sound pretty good.

What remains, at least for me, is an understanding of geography and regional qualities that is deep and abiding. This began when I was a kid, sitting up late at night, listening to far-away stations on the headphones of my Hammarlund HQ-129X (hooked up to a 40-meter ham radio dipole in the back yard), with a map spread out on my desk, and encyclopedia volumes opened to whatever city or state a station happened to come from. It grew when I was a young adult, curious about what was happening in Newfoundland, Bermuda, Texas, Winnepeg, or other sources of FM and TV signals I happened to be getting on my KLH Model 18 tuner or whatever old black-and-white TV set I was using at the time.

When it was over, and other technical matters fascinated me more, I’d gained a great education. And no professor had more influence on that education than Bruce Elving, Ph.D.

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Real reading

Garrison Keillor on books:

I happen to love the sensual experience of walking into a bookstore and examining the wares, picking up books, smelling them, admiring the covers, reading the first page or two. In 15 minutes, I can always find at least five books that really deeply interest me. I can’t do that online. It just doesn’t excite my viscera the way physical books do. This is a learned pleasure going back to when I was 10 and rode my bike downtown and walked into the reading rooms of the Minneapolis Public Library. It’s not a pleasure I can transfer to a digital image on a screen, just as I can’t get as excited about a picture of a naked woman as I do about one who is walking across the floor toward me.

A few days ago at The Coop on Harvard Square a book that deeply interested me was Garrison’s latest, titled simply Good Poems. So I bought it. From his introduction:

I looked at a truckload of poems to find the few thousand I’ve read on the radio, and it’s an education. First of all, most poems aren’t memorable, in fact, they make no impression at all. Sorry, but it’s true. There are brave blurbs on the back cover (“writes with a lyrical luminosity that reconceptualizes experience with cognitive beauty”) but you open up the goods and they’re like condoms on the beach, evidence that somebody was here once and had an experience but not of great interest to the passerby.

Speaking of memorable, a lookup on Google of Keillor and “condoms on the beach” brings up 70 results, including this one, which spared me the need to transcribe the above from the book. The Web is a handy thing. And so is Good Poems.

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Revisiting Austin radio

One of the things I’ve always liked about is listening to Austin radio while I’m in town. I remember discovering KGSR on my first visit in 2006, and there are always new surprises. Here’s what I blogged back then:

Great radio lives

at /107.1 in Austin. Entertainment Weekly called it “an only-in-Austin blend of alt-country, hippie jams, singer-songwriters, and lots of Willie Nelson, of course.” (Sorry, no link.) It doesn’t seem to have the non-stop funky personality of KPIG, but the music is in the same league. They don’t play anything I don’t like, or anything I’m very familiar with, which is an amazing combination.
Wow, they just played Hot Tuna, Willie Nelson (“Shotgun Willie”, an early one, from an album by the same name I’ve long since lost), Stevie Ray Vaughan (I have all his stuff, I thought, but this one wasn’t familiar to me), a new Bonnie Raitt. Creedence (“Midnight Special”). Now they’re playing a local artist; missed the name, but awfully good.
They’re not the biggest station in town: 39,000 watts at about 500 feet, from a tower 16 miles southeast of Austin, near Bastrop, the station’s actual city of license. But they put a city-grade signal over Austin. Does the job.
Says here they’re tied for #9 in all listeners 12+, but I’ll be they’re strong in demographics that matter to advertisers. Hope they are, anyway, so they live.

On this latest trip to Austin (I was there from Thursday to Monday, March 10-14), I was worried at first when I found KGSR missing on 107.1, replaced by a Spanish station. But I quickly discovered that KGSR had moved to 93.3, and a much bigger signal. (This wasn’t KGSR’s first move. It’s long history is explained in Wikipedia.) Other new and old radio finds were:

  • the variously eclectic (and very locally-focused) and , sharing time on 91.7, and on 88.7;
  • classical on 89.5;
  • alternative (101x) on 101.5;
  • landmark news/public/music on 90.5; and
  • old-fashioned “beautiful music” (aka “easy listening”) over on 91.3.

Back to KGSR. I didn’t hear them bragging, but what they have now is the biggest FM signal in town. (now KLZT) was 49,000 watts at 499 feet above average terrain. is 100,000 watts at 1927 feet above average terrain — only 73 feet below the legal maximum height of 2000 feet. With more than twice the power and nearly four times the height (both matter on FM), the coverage area is much bigger. Other stations in the market equal KGSR’s power, but none radiate from the same height. (There are coverage maps at both those last two links.)

Another fun find is that KUT kicks butt in the ratings. Check this out. KUT is tops in Austin in January with a 9.3 share of 12+ listening. Far as I know there are no other public stations in the country that come out #1 in the ratings, over and over, which KUT appears to be doing. KGSR is pretty far back, with a 2.3. KMFA gets a 2.4. KROX gets a 3.3. KNCT gets a 1.8. KOOP gets an 0.2. KAZI and KVRX are no-shows. KLZT, the Mexican music station that now radiates from KGSR’s old transmitter, gets a 5.3. It’s also cool to see five streams listed in the ratings, which is impressive just at the factual level.

What sent me to the ratings was this September 2009 piece in the Austin Post by , about KGSR’s move to 93.3. Writes Jim, “According to Arbitron, the #1 Radio station is KLBJ AM, broadcasting news and information, recently in the news for its decision to reinstate the Todd and Don Show.  The show had been cancelled earlier this year after Don Pryor used the slur “wetback” repeated for about an hour on the air with no management stepping in to stop it.  The station is still #1 with a 7.1 rating.  The #2 station is breezy KKMJ FM.”

Used to be Arbitron didn’t publish noncommercial numbers (and I’m guessing they didn’t when Jim wrote that piece), but now they do, at least through http://radio-info.com. If you’re reading this, Jim, go here: http://www.radio-info.com/markets/austin . Lots of interesting Austin radio story fodder in that list.

For most of my life all I knew about Austin radio was that KLBJ’s story was tied up with its former owner, Lady Bird Johnson, and her husband Lyndon Baines Johnson, the former President. Writes the KLBJ history page, “In December 1942, a buyer, armed with limited capital, a dream, a journalism degree from the University of Texas, and no broadcasting experience, became the new licensee – Lady Bird Johnson.” But there’s more to that story. Here’s Wikipedia:

In January-February 1943, Ladybird Johnson spent $17,500 of her inheritance to purchase ,[3] an Austin radio station that was in debt. She bought the radio station from a three-man partnership which included a future and a future , .

She served as President of the company, LBJ Holding Co., and her husband negotiated an agreement with the CBS radio network. Lady Bird decided to expand by buying a television station in 1952 despite Lyndon’s objections, reminding him that she could do as she wished with her inheritance.[6] The station, KTBC-TV/7 (then affiliated with CBS as well), would make the Johnsons millionaires as Austin’s monopoly VHF franchise.[27] Over the years, journalists have written about how Lyndon used his influence in the Senate to influence the Federal Communications Commission into granting the monopoly license, which was in Lady Bird’s name.[28][29]

Eventually, Johnson’s initial $41,000 investment turned into more than $150 million for the LBJ Holding Company.[30] Johnson remained involved with the company until she was in her 80s.[6] She was the first president’s wife to become a millionaire in her own right.[3]

That squares with my own recollection of the story, from  back when I was involved in broadcasting, in the 1970s.

KLBJ is on 590 on the AM dial, radiating 5000 watts by day and 1000 by night. The night signal is also directional, with dents (“nulls”) to the north and the southeast. From my window seat on the flight out to Houston, I spotted KLBJ’s four-tower transmitter , and got this series of pix, which I’ve posted at the Infrastructure collection on Flickr.

By day, KLBJ’s primary coverage area stretches from Waco to San Antonio, 90 miles in opposite directions. Secondary coverage includes Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Fringe coverage reaches across most of Texas and into Oklahoma to the north and Mexico to the south. And that’s with just 5000 watts, or 1/10th the legal limit. The reason is ground conductivity. Texas has some of the best in the country. (Here’s a station in Atlanta on the same channel with more than twice the power. And it basically covers North Georgia and that’s it.)

Here’s Jim McNabb on what has happened to KLBJ since he served as news director there 35 years ago: that it’s become another mostly-right-wing foghorn. (Here’s a schedule.) The same can be said about countless other news/talk stations, of course.

Back on FM, the most anomalous station I heard was also the most anachronistic: , out of in Killeen. Its format is “beautiful music,” or what we once called “.” This was the “mood music” often disparaged as “elevator music” or “music on hold” back in the decades. I didn’t miss it when it went away, but it did kinda give me the warm fuzzies to hear it again. Sadly, the station doesn’t stream, or you could sample it.

Anyway, I just wanted to dump my thoughts on Austin radio before moving on to other matters, also involving broadcasting.

So now KDFC is on 90.3 and 88.9, while KUSF is off the air. (Though it does have a Live365 stream.) Radio Valencia, a pirate radiating out of the Mission district on 87.9, has expressed sympathy with KUSF’s exiled volunteers, and has provided some airtime as well. The University of San Francisco, which sold the 90.3 license to the University of Southern California, currently has KUSF.org re-directing to this 9-day-old press release.

In my last post I suggested that KUSF’s volunteers apply for 87.7 as a licensed low power TV station. (As fate has it, the audio for Channel 6 TV is roughly on 87.7). I had forgotten about Radio Valencia when I wrote that. Perhaps the two groups can get together and go after 87.7, if that window is actually open.

The KUSF community (at SaveKUSF.org) remains committed to getting their frequency back. The likelihood of this rounds to zero, but I wish them luck. (They’re having some with SF supervisors.) I still think the future of radio is over the Net in any case. Going forward in that direction, a big question for KUSF’s community is how it can keep dealing with USF, which will provide the streaming, the studio, the record library and other essentials, such as the KUSF brand, which is the university’s intellectual property. I’ll be interested in hearing how that non-divorce works out.

Meanwhile there is the matter of expanding KDFC. On KQED’s Forum last week, Brenda Barnes, president of USC radio (which bought KUSF’s license is moving KDFC there) and managing director of the Classical Public Radio Network (which will operate KDFC locally), said many times that her organizations are looking to buy a signal, or signals, in the South Bay, where KDFC can’t be heard from either of its new facilities (the old KUSF on 90.3 and the old KNDL in Anguin on 89.9).

It could be that the USC people are also already thinking about 87.7 (the Channel 6 TV hack) in the South Bay. If that radiates from one of the mountains down there, it would do a good job. (The signal would be weak, but reach far, kind of like KFJC does now). That would be the best solution, I think; but it would also foreclose the 87.7 option for KUSF-in-exile, essentially screwing them over a second time. (So, there’s an assignment for both KUSF and Radio Valencia. Hurry up and see what can be done.)

The more likely option for KDFC is finding a college or university that would rather have money than continue operating a radio station, especially when a buyer comes calling. That’s the option USF took, and it’s a certain bet that Brenda Barnes and friends are already hard at work selling the same options to one or more of these FMs in the South Bay:

  • 89.1 KCEA Atherton, owned by Menlo-Atherton High School. Broadcasts with 100 watts  from a ridge  San Carlos. Small signal.
  • 89.3 KOHL Fremot, owned by Ohlone Community College. Covers the eastern part of the South Bay with 145 watts from the college campus in the foothills.
  • 89.7 KFJC Los Altos, owned by Foothill Junior College. Covers the South Bay well, from Black Mountain, with just 108 watts. This is the KUSF of the South Bay, and the station/community with the most to worry about.
  • 90.1 KZSU Stanford, owned by Stanford University. Covers Palo Alto and the central Peninsula with 500 watts from a hill on The Farm. KDFC’s 90.3 signal in San Franciso protects KZSU with a null in the direction of Stanford. The option here for the KDFC folks would be to buy KZSU and turn it into a KDFC repeater, or to take it dark and crank up the San Francisco signal. But then, there’s also…
  • 90.5 KSJS San Jose, owned by San Jose State University. This too has a commuity. And it covers the San Jose end of the South Bay well with 1500 watts on a high hill on the south side of town. 90.3 in The City also protects KSJS, so the same options for KDFC apply here as with KZSU.
  • 91.1 KCSM San Mateo, owned by the College of San Mateo. This is the Bay Area’s much-loved jazz station, and covers the Peninsula and Mid-South Bay pretty well, plus Oakland-Berkeley. Wattage-wise, it’s the most powerful of the options (11,000 watts), though the transmitter is not on a high site.
  • 91.5 KKUP Cupertino, owned by the Assurance Science Foundation. With 200 watts on Loma Prieta Mountain, KKUP reaches a large area, including all of Monterey Bay (Santa Cruz, Salinas, etc.) as well as the south part of the South Bay.

Another possibility for KDFC is buying a commercial station in the South Bay. There are many of those to choose from, if any is willing to sell. None will be cheap, but most would be better than the options above, with the conditional exceptions of KCSM and KFJC. For example, KCNL on 104.9, which Clear Channel unloaded last year for $5 million, would have been a good deal for the USC people. It serves the South Bay quite well with a 6,000 watt signal from the foothills near San Jose. KRTY from Los Gatos on 95.3 is another one with a similar-sized signal.

In any case, we know who is on the hunt and why. If they succeed, KDFC listeners should be happy. Listeners to the replaced station, or stations, will not be. Looking at the ratings, I am betting that there are more of the former than the latter. In the most recent rating period, KDFC was Number 7 overall (out of many dozens of signals), with a 3.9% share of Average Quater Hour listening, which is great for any station and huge for a classical one. It also had a cumulative audience of 632,000 people, none of which can get the station today on the signal they listened to during that ratings period.

[Later...] A february 10 post at RadioSurvivor.com.

This week the Bay Area loses two of its radio landmarks. On 102.1fm, , which has been broadcasting classical music since 1946, will be replaced by a simulcast of (“K-FOX”), a classic rock station in San Jose. And on 90.3 fm, KUSF, which has been one of the most active and community-involved free-form college radio stations in history, has gone silent. When the signal on 90.3 comes back on the air, it will carry the KDFC call letters and classical music programming. Meanwhile the old KUSF will continue in some form online. The new KDFC will also broadcast on 89.9, which is the former home of , a station licensed to .

This graphic, combined from three coverage maps at Radio-Locator.com, shows the before-and-after situation. One red line is KDFC’s old primary coverage area on 102.1. The other two are its new primary coverage areas on 90.3 and 89.9:

(More about signals below at *)

Since the 90.3 signal is tiny, and the 89.9 signal is far away, KDFC will be losing a great deal of coverage. Neither of the new signals serves the Peninsula, the South Bay or the East Bay beyond Berkely and Oakland. KUSF needs to start over online. On the FM band, it’s dead.

What happened was a three-way deal between , the and the . Entercom is the one of the largest owners of broadcast properties in the country, and an aggressive buyer of broadcast properties. So is USC, which has expanded its classical network from in Los Angeles to five stations spread from Morro Bay to Palm Springs. USF, like many universities, held a broadcast license that had monetary value on the open market while producing no income for the university itself.

According to Radio Ink and other sources, here’s how the deal went down:

  1. USF sold the 90.3 frequency to USC for $3.8 million.
  2. USC also bought KNDL for $2.8 million.
  3. Entercom, which owns KDFC, bought KUFX from the Clear Channel Aloha Trust, and will simulcast KUFX (still as “K-FOX”) over KDFC’s old 102.1 facility. Entercom will also give KDFC’s call letters and record collection to “A new San Francisco-based nonprofit.”

The press releases:

While it’s nice that KDFC has stayed alive, its move to much weaker signals is a far bigger loss for Bay Area classical music listeners than losses suffered by listeners when New York’s WQXR and Boston’s WCRB made similar moves. WQXR stayed on the air with a smaller signal from the same antenna, and WCRB moved to a same-size transmitter a couple dozen miles from the center of town, but most listeners could still get the stations. KDFC’s new facilities only cover a fraction of the population reached by the old signal. Essentially the new station covers San Francisco, and that’s it. More about coverage below*.

KDFC’s listenership is not small. The raw numbers are actually outstanding. According to Radio-Info.com (which leverages Arbitron), KDFC had 632,000 listeners in the most recent ratings period (December 2010), a notch above news-talk leader KGO (624,100). KDFC’s 3.2 average quarter hour (AQH) share was tied for #8 in the market, one notch above “sports giant” KNBR, which scored a 2.8. (KGO was #1 overall for most of the last six decades, and KNBR is an AM powerhouse that covers at least half of California by day and the whole West at night.) In fact, KDFC had better overall numbers than any other Entercom station in the Bay Area.

The problem for Entercom was the format. It’s hard to sell advertising for classical music stations, which have less inventory to offer (sports, news and popular music stations carry many more minutes of advertising per hour), and serve an older audience as well.

Judging from the KDFC statement on its website The Classical Public Radio Network () will hold the license, even though it closed down a few years ago, sort of. It also says,

The new KDFC has already begun to look for new signals to offer reception in the South Bay and the entire Bay Area for our around-the-clock classical programming.

We are happy to let you know Dianne Nicolini, Hoyt Smith, Rik Malone, and Ray White will continue as your on-air hosts, and KDFC’s partnerships with the Bay Area arts and culture community will continue to grow and thrive.

KDFC is the last major commercial classical station in America to make the transition to public radio. This move ensures that classical radio is sustainable for our community into the future. Since 1947, Bay Area classical fans have shown their passionate support for KDFC. Now more than ever, we’re grateful for that support as we begin the new era of Classical KDFC. Comments can be made to  comments at myclassical.org, or by phoning 415-546-8710. If you’d like to send a check as a Founder for the Future of KDFC, please send a check to:

The Classical Public Radio Network, 201 Third Street, 12th floor, San Francisco, CA 94103.

It’s signed by Bill Leuth, Vice President, KDFC. Bill and the other names he mentions are Bay Area classical radio institutions as well.

As for KUSF, maybe going online will be a form of liberation. As signals go, 90.3 barely covered San Francisco. The Internet covers the world. And Internet radio is growing fast. Aribitron now includes online streams in its ratings, which it wouldn’t do that if those streams were not signifiant. In San Francisco, KNBR’s stream had more than 50,000 listeners in November. In Los Angeles, KROQ’s stream had 67,900 listeners in December. Many more people every day are listening to radio on phones and other portable devices. Even Howard Stern, when he renewed with Sirius in December, said the future of satellite listening isn’t over satellite — it’s over the Internet. (Which Jeff Jarvis and I both told him, back when he was still making up his mind. Latelr Howard kindly gave a hat tip to Jeff on the air.)

And hey, KDFC can benefit from the same thing.

Here’s more from The Bay Citizen and the San Francisco Chronicle. And a rescue mission report at SF Weekly… And here’s the audio from a KQED Forum program on the matter. It says that KUSF is slated to become “an online-only training station for students.] Here’s a San Francisco Chronicle story on a gathering at USF at which “almost 500 backers” of KUSF came to confront Stephen A. Privett, the University President. The part that matters:

Privett said he made the decision because the station, dominated by outside volunteers, “was of minimal benefit to my students.”

“This was not a crass business decision about dollars,” Privett said. “This was about ensuring our programs involve our students. … Our primary mission is to our students, it is not to the community at large.”

Privett said some of the $3.75 million would be used to fund the student-led online station, with the rest going to other unspecified educational projects.

Well, “student-led” suggests that the community might still be involved.

For frequent updates follow @KUSF. and at SaveKUSF on Facebook. Feelings are not weak on this matter. KUSF is much loved by its community.

On January 20, I put up a new post suggesting that the KUSF community go for 87.7fm. I think it’s available.

It also amazes me (it’s still January 20) that this post and the next one have not yet received a single comment. Meanwhile my earlier post about Flickr now has 86 comments, and even the highly arcane Geology by Plane has 6. Could it be that the total number of people who care just isn’t that large? Not saying this is a bad thing, just that it’s an isolated one. So far 3,384 people say they like SaveKUSF on Facebook. But liking and doing are way different. As I suggest here, the best bet for doing isn’t trying to make a university turn down $3.8 million for something they clearly wish to unload. It’s to start something new.

* Signal stuff, for the technical:

Lately, thanks to the inexcusably inept firing of Juan Williams by NPR brass, and the acceptance of a $1.8 million grant from George Soros, NPR has tarred its credentials as a genuinely fair and balanced news organization. Which it mostly still is, by the way, no matter how much the right tries to trash it. (And mostly succeeds, since trying to stay in the middle has itself become a lefty thing to do.)

Columnists all over the place are calling for the feds “pull the plug on funding for Natonal Public Radio”. (That’s from No subsidy for NPR, by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. An aside: NPR’s name is now just NPR. Just like BP is no longer British Petroleum.) In fact NPR gets no money from the feds directly. What NPR does is produce programs that it wholesales to stations, which retail to listeners and sponsors. According to NPR’s finances page, about 10% of that sponsorship comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Another 6% comes from “federal, state and local government”.

Jeff points to a NY Times piece, Move to Cut NPR Funding is Defeated in the House, which says “Republicans in the House tried to advance the defunding measure as part of their ‘YouCut‘ initiative, which allows the public to vote on which spending cuts the G.O.P. should pursue.’ The You Cut page doesn’t mention public radio. It does have this:

Terminate Broadcasting Facility Grant Programs that Have Completed their Mission.

Potential Savings of $25 million in the first year, $250 million over ten years.

In his most recent budget, President Obama proposed terminating the Public Broadcasting Grants at the Department of Agriculture and Public Telecommunications Facilities Grants at the Department of Commerce. The President’s Budget justified terminating these programs, noting that: “Since 2004, the USDA Public Broadcasting Grants program has provided grants to support rural public television stations’ conversion to digital broadcasting. Digital conversion efforts mandated by the Federal Communications Commission are now largely complete, and there is no further need for this program.” and “Since 2000, most PTFP awards have supported public television stations’ conversion to digital broadcasting. The digital television transition was completed in 2009, and there is no further need for DOC’s program.”

CPB isn’t in there. And they’re right: the digital conversion is done. So maybe one of ya’ll can help us find exactly what the congressional Republicans are proposing here.

Here’s a back-and-forth between Anna Christopher of NPR and Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard. Says Anna,

NPR receives less than 2% of its funding from competitive grants sought by NPR from federally funded organizations (such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts).

Replies Michael,

I appreciate the smug, condescending tone of this letter, but I’m unconvinced. As one former CPB official I spoke to explained, “they love to claim they’re insulated, but they’re very much dependent on the public tit.” The other 98 percent of NPR’s funding comes from a mix of donations, corporate support, and dues from member stations. The fees and dues paid by member stations comprise more than half of NPR’s budget. Where does that money come from? In large part, from the federal government.

Take the local NPR affiliate in Washington, WAMU 88.5. That station paid NPR in excess of $1.5 million in dues, the station’s largest single expense outside of fundraising and personnel. The station also took in $840,000 in public funding and grants from the CPB. The station spent nearly $4 million on “fund-raising and membership development,” with a return of just $6 million. Fundraising is expensive — public money isn’t.

I looked at the .pdf at that link and don’t see the same numbers, but it’s clear enough that NPR affiliates pay a lot for NPR programming, and a non-trivial hunk of that money comes from CPB. According to this CPB document, its regular approriation for fiscal year 2010 is $420 million, and it’s looking for $430 million in 2011, $445 million for 2012 and $604 million for 2013. Bad timing.

Still, here’s the really interesting thing that almost nobody is talking about. Public radio kicks ass in the ratings. It’s quite popular. In fact, I would bet that it’s far more popular, overall, than right wing talk radio.

In Raleigh-Durham, WUNC is #2, with an 8.2 share. That’s up from 7.5 in the prior survey. Radio people can tell ya, that number is huge.

In San Francisco, KQED is #4 with a 5.2 share.

In New York, WNYC-FM is down in the teens with a 2.2 share, but nobody has more than a 6.5. Add WNYC-AM’s .8 share and classical sister WQXR’s 1.8 share, and you get a 4.8, which is #3 overall.

Here is Boston, WBUR has a 3.3 share. WGBH has a 1.1. Its classical sister station, WCRB (which now avoids using call letters) has a 2.7. Together those are 6.1, or #3 overall.

In Washington, WAMU gets a 4.8, , and stands at #5. Classical WETA has a 4.4, for #6. Add in Pacifica’s jazz station, WPFW, with .8, and you get 10, which would be #1 if they were counted together.

There are places where public radio, relatively speaking, sucks wind. Los Angeles is one. The public stations there are good but small. (The Pacifica station is technically the biggest in the country, but its appeal is very narrow.) Dallas is another. But on the whole, NPR stations do very well.

But do they do well enough to stand on their own? I think so. In fact, I think they should. That’s one reason we created ListenLog, which I visited at length here last July. ListenLog is an app that currently works with the Public Radio Player from PRX.  The idea is to show you what you listen to, and how much you value it. Armed with informative self-knowledge, you should be more inclined to pay than just to cruise for free.

We’re entering an era when more and more of our choices are both a la carte and our own. Meaning we’re more responsible, on the whole. And so are our suppliers. There will be more connections between those two facts, and we’ll be in a position to make those connections — as active customers, and not just as passive consumers.

So, if you want public radio to do a better job, to be more accountable to its listeners and not just to the government (even if indirectly), pony up. Make it yours. And let’s keep building better tools to help with that.

[Later...] Here’s a bonus link from Bob Garfield’s AdAge column. (He’s also a host of NPR’s On the Media.) And a quote:

The only quality journalism available, at least in this country, is from a few dozen newspapers and magazines, NPR, some alt weeklies, a few websites  Slate.com, for instance) and a few magazine/website hybrids such as Atlantic. On TV, there is “The News Hour” and “Frontline” on PBS and that is it. Cable “news” is a wasteland (watch for a while and let me know when you see a reporter, you know, reporting). Network news, having taught cable how to cut costs and whore itself to ratings, isn’t much better. Local TV news is live remotes from crime scenes and “Is Your Microwave Killing Your Hamster?”

Good stuff. Read the whole thing.

Obama’s About page, in a podcast

If you can park your politics (whatever it might be) long enough to listen with an open mind to a one-hour podcast, please dig Reading Obama’s Mind: Pragmatism and Its Perils, an interview by Chris Lydon of James T. Kloppenberg, chair of the Department of History at Harvard, author of “A Nation Arguing with Its Conscience” in Harvard Magazine, and a forthcoming biography, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition.

Chris is one of the first (and best) podcasters, as well as a notable on many other grounds. (Bonus link.) He blogs and ‘casts at Radio Open Source. Subscribe here.

Howard Stern‘s contract with Sirius XM is up at the end of the year, and it was good to hear on the show this week that the full retirement option is off the table. That was one of five options Howard said he was considering. Says the Stern site (on a wrapup of Thursday’s show),

Howard said he had a ’5 point plan’ for the show after his Sirius XM contract expires in December: “I know what the future is.” Howard explained: “One of the points is if we decide to stay here…again, if we decide to stay here.” The other 4 points are the other 4 options–one of which (retirement) has already been taken off the table, but until then: “For four months I’m a company man.”

Before I go into my own prediction, I want to give props to Rob Eshman’s Serious Stern blog, in particular to Ten Reasons Howard Stern’s Retirement Will Hurt the World. Here’s the one I’ll focus on:

9. There will be no one else to save satellite radio.

Unless they find the Moshiach and give him a channel, shalom Sirius.  And I say that as someone who like a friggin’ genius bought stock at—I don’t want to say what I bought it at.  I hope Mel Karmazin will figure out a way to transform the company, but under the current model, it really needs a big personality.  No one has an audience as loyal as Howard’s. Done. Period.

Earlier this week, Howard recalled and compared his meetings with XM and Sirius back when both were courting him. These meetings went down while the curtain slowly closed on Howard’s long tenure in terrestrial radio. XM bragged about having more subscribers, having more repeaters on the ground, yada yada, while Sirius asked him what it would take, and then took it. Once on Sirius, Howard rocketed the company past XM in the satellite radio marketplace, and Sirius eventually bought XM. To sum it up, Howard was the star satellite radio needed to establish itself as a medium.

Now Internet radio needs the same thing. It’s time for Howard to make his move. But it doesn’t have to be entirely away from Sirius XM. The two can be bridged. In fact, they need to be — at least for Sirius XM to survive in the long run.

Right now nearly everything you can get on Sirius XM you can get on the Internet, or on what’s left of terrestrial radio, most of which is also on the Net as well. Stations identify with “WFFF and WFFF.com,” the way they used to say “WFFF AM and FM.”  True, “tuning” on the Net is mostly a chore, but the stuff is there, in far more abundance than on Sirius XM’s channels. That company’s stock is under a dollar, and the market’s faith is not positive. But then, Wall Street doesn’t have a clue about Howard. Or it has the wrong clues. For example, finance blogger Relmor Demitrius considers Howard’s importance, and comes to this:

Conclusion. OEM sales exposed the product to many consumers.  They like XM just as much as they like Sirius, but some (less than 5%) are willing to pay for access to Howard, and probably only half of those 5% only for Howard.  Those that have XM haven’t made significant efforts to move over to Sirius, or cancel XM when their free trial ran out, and install a Sirius exclusive radio.  I believe by the facts presented here that Howard is well worth his salary and should be paid accordingly, as well as offering him on smart phone applications and any overseas content offerings.  But is he the end all savior of satellite radio?  Absolutely not.  Satellite radio would be here with or without him.  Company is stronger with him, but would survive just fine without him.  In fact, the cost difference is so minimal, it would be in tune to having a bad year, or a storm hitting your oil well that month.  A small hiccup that would easily be erased with time due to the overwhelming popularity of the product itself and the now vast options of content offered by both companies.  The revenue generated and saving of the 100 million of his contract would simply give reason to spend it elsewhere, and sign other talent to compensate.  Like any company that losses an asset and has to repurchase another one.  Howard’s popularity is no longer so huge that him leaving the platform would harm it in any way medium or long term.  The facts are quite clear on this.  Sirius XM added more than 1 million customers this year alone.  That would offset losing Howard Stern right there.  Their growth would probably cover any cancellations and they wouldn’t miss a beat.  The company that hired Stern 5 years ago is vastly different in 2010.

This is all framed inside satellite radio, which is floundering. What it misses is what will happen when Howard moves to the Net with his own subscription service. Howard will make Internet radio matter, just like he made satellite radio matter. He won’t do it alone, but it will happen a whole lot faster because he’s there.

Right now most Internet radio is free. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s good, and important. But not all radio will be free, just like not all television is free, and not all newspapers and magazines are free. Some broadcasting, like public radio and television, you can pay for voluntarily. But that won’t work for Howard. He’ll want to charge for the goods, and he’ll want to legitimize the business model, just like he did with satellite radio. Count on it.

Stop for a moment and go read The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet. in Wired. It’s this month’s cover story. The bottom line is this: Internet usage through apps and subscriptions is going up, fast. We’re listening to radio through smartphones, iPads, laptops and other new devices. With the spread of Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G and other wireless connections, we will no longer be tethered to our houses or cars. We will move toward what Bob Frankston calls ambient connectivity. How we get there is less important than the bait that pulls us in that direction. Howard is great bait. That’s why he’ll go there. He fixed satellite radio. Internet radio is next.

What I hope is that he’ll do it independently, and not just through one of the carriers (say, Verizon, AT&T or Comcast). We should be able to download a Howard app for our Android, Symbian, or iOS (Apple iPhone or iPad) device and listen any way we like, anywhere we like. And pay a monthly fee for it.

Now here’s the opportunity for Sirius XM: we should be able to get Howard there too. That’s not just because it’s a good distribution deal, but because the fate of satellite radio is to serve as a repeater for Internet radio. Everything is being absorbed into the Net, including satellite radio. I’m sure Howard knows that. In fact, I’d be amazed if he doesn’t.

So far Sirius XM has done an awful job of embracing the Net. Getting Howard (or any Sirius XM channel) on a browser requires a zillion clicks and an authentication routine that makes going through customs and passport control look simple. The Sirius app for the iPhone is also useless (at least for me and countless others) without Howard (who has never been on it, and it’s never been clear why), and isn’t that great in any case.

But it can be done well. The integration of Internet, satellite — and even terrestrial radio — should be as seamless as possible. If Howard and his new partners get the right techies to help, they can kick ass. In fact, I’m betting that they’ll do exactly that.

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Sad news

The strangest thing about Dan Schorr dying is that he isn’t here to explain it on NPR. I always liked Schorr’s take on things, even when I didn’t agree with him. When was his last commentary? Haven’t found that yet. Didn’t seem like long ago.

He was 93. We should all live so long, and well.

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In the last post we talked about price.

There’s a broad class of goods that either have no price, or that you can get for free whether they have prices or not. These include all digitized media goods. Most notoriously, these include music and videos, which can be uploaded and downloaded with little friction, even if doing so is illegal. This fact of early Internet life has presented an extreme challenge to “content” industries in general, and to the music industry in particular. You might say that the old container approach crashed, and most attempts since then on the industry side have consisted of creating new containers or raising costs to customers of violating the old ones — mostly by taking what the industry calls “pirates” to court.

At ProjectVRM we have plans for the music business, but first we’d rather work with a smaller industry that welcomes our participation, that hasn’t lost business to freeloaders (because giving the goods away is what they’ve done all along) and that has been working with ProjectVRM from the start. That industry is public radio.

The goods here are free for the taking but worth more than $0 — a claim substantiated by payments from listeners to stations for goods from NPR, PRI, American Public Media, PRX and other producers, as well as from the stations themselves. Business here isn’t bad. And public radio has embraced the Internet far more eagerly than most commercial content producers and distributors. Still, only about ten percent of listeners contribute, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

So the challenge we’ve given ourselves is raising that percentage, while also starting to model the free and open marketplace described above. With help from the Surdna Foundation (working through PRX and the Berkman Center) we began developing two VRM tools that put functionality behind r-buttons. The first is ListenLog. The second is EmanciPay.

ListenLog is the brainchild of Keith Hopper, who works with NPR. Keith and I saw two goals for the program. One was to enable self-tracking as something individuals do for themselves (rather than having some organization do it for them). The other was to give listeners a way to know what they value, find their way back to it, and otherwise do whatever they like with it — including making decisions about what to pay for the goods themselves. (For more about self-tracking, read Self-trackKevin Kelly and Gary Wolf of The Quantified Self.)

As it happened a number of public radio institutions were working together on a free public radio player (originally called a tuner), for the iPhone. To make a long story short, the first generation ListenLog is now included with the Public Radio Player, which lets you tune in hundreds of different stations, plus “on demand” programs (basically podcasts stored in the cloud). ListenLog keeps track of your listening through all of them, and provides three different views:

  1. Current ongoing log
  2. Stream Listening Summary
  3. Program Listening Summary

— along with ways to export and delete data.

ListenLog is open source, and we’d love to see it used alongside other apps on other devices, and to model logging of all kinds of stuff (such as music).

So far the Public Radio Player has had more than 2.5 million downloads, which means there’s some chance you already have it, if you’re an iPhone user. If you don’t, and you listen to public radio, get one, check out ListenLog and offer feedback and suggestions below. Or, if you’re an open source developer, help us out.

Once you have the app, go into Settings, activate logging, and follow the results. You do that by clicking “more” on the bottom right tab of the Player, which goes to the page on the right.

Below are three screen shots of my own logs. These bring up questions that EmanciPay can help answer.

First, my current log:

Second, my Total Listening Time Per Stream:

Third, my Total Listening Time Per Program:

As logging applications go, this one is primitive. In fact, that’s one of the ideas behind it. We want others to take and improve on the ideas (and/or the code)_ behind it, and to put it to new uses.

This is where EmanciPay comes in. That’s the subject of our next piece, the third in this series.

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Last July I explained Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station. One hundred and twelve comments followed, the last posted in January of this year. Far as I know, that’s a record for this blog.

Background: when WQXR, which had been New York City’s landmark classical music station since the Roosevelt Hoover administration, was sold by the New York Times to WNYC, it went through two huge changes. First, it went up the dial from 96.3 to 105.9, while dropping to about 1/10th the wattage of its old signal. Second, it changed from a commercial station to a noncommercial one. Those opposed to the moves predicted failure on both accounts.

Instead, WQXR is a success. It’s ratings briefly tanked during the transition last October, then bounced back to their old levels:

Since then WQXR has run neck-and-neck with its parent’s main station, WNYC-FM (which has a signal identical to the old WQXR, coming from the same master antenna on the Empire State Building):

(Source for both: Radio-Info.com. Click on the images for details.)

Those three columns are for January, February and March of this year. The February number, 834,400, was reportedly tops in all of public radio. That’s what Elizabeth Jensen wrote in yesterday’s Classical Music’s Comeback, on Public Radio, in the New York Times. She says WQXR is a financial as well as a ratings success, and typical of successful transitions by other classical stations from commercial to noncommercial business models, in some cases with lesser signals as well.

So, all ends well that starts well.

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March Madness for me this year was a double treat. First, my team, the Duke Blue Devils, won the championship. (Though my heart went out to Butler, which came within inches of winning at the buzzer on a half-court shot.) Second, I got to follow the Devils, and North Carolina Basketball in general, on . I did this over on my iPhone. I listened in my pocket as I cooked in the kitchen, rode on my bike, and walked to the bus and the train. I dug and in the mornings, the PackMan in the afternoon, and hyper-local features such as the Duke Basketball show from the Washington Duke Inn, on Duke’s campus).

I loved hearing old familiars like , and Duke play-by-play announcer , who started as a sales guy at WDNC in 1975, not long after I left that same job. In those days WDNC was a struggling Top 40 station, still owned by the Durham Herald-Sun newspapers, still with studios in the paper’s building, and still carrying CBS news (its lone connection to a glorious past). Since then WDNC has bounced through a number of formats, and currently thrives in the overlap of , and empires. Its FM counterpart is WCMC/99.9, which didn’t exist when I left town in 1985. Currently known as “620 The Buzz” (the FM is “The Fan”), it was until recently The Bull. (In fact, if you go to http://wdnc.com, it re-directs to http://www.620thebull.com/, which is a blank page. Somebody needs to get a second re-direct going there.)

A confession. Not long after Bob Harris took over play-by-play for Duke games, he often had Mike Krzyzewski, then Duke’s rookie basketball coach, as a guest. I wasn’t a fan of Coach K. His predecessor, Bill Foster, was gregarious, emotional and easy for fans to love, Krzyzewski seemed cold and a bit nasty. He rarely smiled and had coaching style that appeared to consisted entirely of barking at officials. I once said of him, “There’s nothing about that guy that a blow-dry and a sense of humor wouldn’t cure.” While it wasn’t quite a nickname for Coach K, it stuck, and I heard it repeated often. Today, of course, Krzyzewski is an institution, and much loved by everybody who knows him, especially his players.

Anyway, the most interesting irony to me, as I listen to WDNC here in Cambridge, Mass, is that it has long been the custom in radio to obsess about signals and coverage — since you can’t listen to what you can’t get. Among souls who still do this I know few who are more devoted, even still, than I am. (The very best is Scott Fybush, by the way. I love his site visits.)

As a kid growing up in New Jersey I would ride my bike down to visit the transmitters of New York’s AM stations, whose towers bristled from swamps on the flanks of the Hackensack river: WABC, WINS, WMGM/WHN, WOV/WADO, WMCA, WNEW, WHOM…

I’d talk with the guys who manned the transmitters (they were always guys, and they were often old), logging readings and walking out to the towers to make sure all was well. I became a ham radio operator around that time, and continued to fancy myself something of an engineer, though technically I wasn’t. Still, I jumped at the opportunity to take shifts maintaining WDNC’s transmitter as a side job when I worked there. The whole plant was about the same age as me (at the time, 27), and spread across about ten acres at the end of a dirt road on the northwest side of town. It was 5000 watts by day and 1000 watts by night, with directional patterns produced by its three towers. The shot above is from Bing’s excellent “bird’s eye” view of the site. (Why doesn’t Microsoft make more of this? Google has nothing like it, and it totally rocks.) And it’s much nicer now than it was then. At that time the fields had turned to high brush, and I needed to ride a lawnmower out to the towers on a bumpy path, so I wouldn’t get ticks. (One could pick up — I’m not kidding, hundreds of ticks by walking out there.)

What fascinated me most about the facility was the engineering files, which included details on the transmission patterns and coverage maps showing how waves interacted with conductive ground to produce signal intensities that didn’t look as much like the signal pattern as one might expect. AM coverage depends on ground conductivity. In North Carolina (and the East in general) the ground conductivity is poor; but at the bottom end of the AM dial the waves are longer and travel farther along the ground in any case. WDNC was at 620, so its signal was many times the size of a signal at the top end of the dial with the same wattage.

Now I can go online and see WDNC’s daytime pattern here and its nighttime pattern here — both at . I can see the coverage they produce at . Here’s a mash-up of patterns (left) and coverage (right):

Which is all well and cool. Playing with this stuff is catnip for me. But it’s also meaningless, once radio moves off AM and FM and onto the Net, where in the long run it makes much more sense.

What we’re dealing with, in the images I show here, is exceedingly antique stuff. The basics of AM broadcast engineering were set in the 1920s and 1930s. FM dates from the 1940s and 1950s. Recent improvements to both (through IBOC — In Band On Channel) are largely proprietary, and uptake on the receiving end borders on pathetic. None of the technologies employed are interactive, much less Net-native. They soak billions of watts off the world’s power grids. AM stations occupy large areas of real estate. FM and TV stations use frequencies that require high elevations, provided by tall towers, buildings or mountains, offering hazards to aviation and bird migration. Not to mention that lots of the biggest towers tend to fall down. In 1989 a pair of 2000-foot TV/FM towers near Raleigh (serving the same areas outlined above) collapsed in the same ice storm.

Three problems stand in the way of building out radio on the Net.

First is the mobile phone system that carries it. When I listen to WDNC on my iPhone, I don’t care how much data I use. AT&T has no data limit for the iPhone or the iPad. Other carriers need to have similar deals. To my knowledge they don’t — at least not in the U.S. (Sprint used to, and after my problems with Sprint last year I doubt I’ll use its system much for media again son.) Still, even AT&T regards subordinates mobile data to mobile telephony. This gets more retro every day. In the long run, we’ll have a mobile data system that includes mobile telephony but is not defined by it (and its infuriating billing systems). These also need to be better integrated with wi-fi from all sources (and not just the carriers’ own). These days most wi-fi access points are “secure,” making them useless as part of a larger system. But that can change.

Second is revising the rules restricting music streamed and podcast over the Net. Copyright law, especially as established by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, screwed the hell out of music broadcasting and podcasting. Today we have some of the former and little of the latter (except for “podsafe” music, which includes approximately nothing that’s been popular over the last 80 years). Fixing this won’t be easy, but it needs to be done.

Third is revising the means by which stations make money, and rules about where advertising can be carried. For the former we need a much better system for listeners to pay broadcasters on a voluntary basis, for both commercial and noncommercial stations. (This is why at ProjectVRM we are working on EmanciPay, for example.) For advertising, there are currently restrictions on much national advertising, which is why the majority of ads I hear on WDNC (and other commercial stations that do streaming) are public service announcements from the Ad Council. Listening to these, over and over and over and over, accelerates the listeners own aging process.

Networks and stations also need to realize that more and more online listeners aren’t tuning in to Web pages. They’re tuning directly to streams using applications on mobile devices. The folks on WDNC do a good job of using Twitter, Facebook and other familiar “social media,” but they don’t seem to have a clue that it’s a heck of a lot easier to listen to mobile radio on something that’s actually like a radio — namely a smartphone — than on a computer. Search for “radio” in Apple’s app store and you’ll get hundreds of results. The Public Radio Player, there on the left, has had over 2.5 million downloads so far. Hopefully the iPad will help. Check out Pandora’s latest.

Anyway, a big thanks to the folks at WDNC/TheBuzz for a great season of Duke, Carolina and ACC basketball coverage — especially for a listener stuck here in New England, where pro sports dominate. (Not that I don’t love those too. I just need my college basketball fix.) Props to @TZarzour and @WRALsportsFan too.

radiofavesThe great — to me the best radio host ever (he was real and honest and funny and groundbreaking and smart long before was the same, and I am a serious Howard fan too) — once explained his radio philosophy to me in two words:

It’s personal.

From the beginning we have regarded broadcasting as a one-to-many matter, even though the best broadcasters know they are only talking to single pairs of ears, and usually act the same way. Yet stations, programmers and producers put great store in numbers, also known as ratings. Stations, even public ones, lived and died by “The Book” — Arbitron’s regional compilations of results.

At this point something like 2.5 million Public Radio Players — radios for the iPhone — have been downloaded. To the degree that the PRP folks keep track of how much each station and program gets listened to, the results are far different than what Arbitron says. See here for the results, and see here for one big reason why.

At this point Public Radio Player (with which I have some involvent) and other ‘tuners’ for the iPhone (such as the excellent WunderRadio) are my primary radios. I use them when I’m walking, driving, or making coffee in the kitchen at home. I listen to KCLU from Thousand Oaks/Santa Barbara here in Boston, I listen to WBUR, WUMB, WERS, WEEI (Celtics basketball) and other Boston stations when I’m in California. My list of “favorites” (such as the list above, on Wunderradio) runs into the dozens, and includes programs as well as stations. Distinctions between live, podcast, on-demand (podcasts served by stations, live) and other modes are blurring.

Three things are clear to me at this point. First is that it’s very early in this next stage of what broadcasting will become. Second is that it’s more personal than ever. Third is that the time will come when we’ll shut down many (if not most or all) terrestrial transmitters.

On this last topic, a number of landmark AM stations that I grew up listening to — CBL/740 from Toronto, and CKVL/850, CBF/690 and CFCF/940 from Montreal — are all gone. The last two of those went off in January. Those were “clear channel” powerhouses, with signals you could get across the continent at night. I could even get CKVL in the daytime in New Jersey. Now: not there. But the decendents of all those stations are available on the Net, which means they’re available on smartphones with applicatons that play streams. While it’s still not easy to serve streams to thousands (much less millions) at a time, it’s also cheaper than running transmitters that suck 100,000 watts and more off the grid and take up large amounts of real estate (including open land for AM and the tops of mountains and buildings for FM). Not to mention that broadcast towers (which run up to 2000 feet in height) are hazards to aviation, bird migration and surrounding areas when they collapse, which is often.

Anyway, I’ve always thought the ratings were good for the mass-appeal stuff, but way off for stations and programs that appealed to many — but not to enough to satisfy the advertising business. Personal listening is much more idiosyncratic, but also much more interested and involved, than group listening, which actually doesn’t happen.

Therefore I expect radio, or its next evolutionary stage, to be more personal than ever — and therefore better than ever.

Bonus link: JP Rangaswami’s Death of the Download. His closing lines:

And what if the customers have given up and moved on, from the download to the stream?

It was never about owning content. It was always about listening to music.

It was never about product. It was always about service.

The customer is the scarcity. We would do well to remember that. And to keep remembering that.

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I love BBC domestic programming (such as Radio 4, which I have to dig to find on the BBC website if I’m coming in from a non-UK IP address, as I am now), and would like to pay as much for it as any UK citizen does through taxes.

Let’s say we come up with a way to do that (preferably without DRM), perhaps along the lines of EmanciPay, or perhaps though something more coercive.

Would the BBC welcome that? Or must the domestic fare remain restricted to domestic consumption for reasons other than economic ones?

Put another way, would the BBC prefer that, when nearly all radio listening and video watching becomes digital, and happens over Net connections, even visitors to the UK should be kept on the outside?

And if we techies come up with a way to bring more money to the BBC from both inside and outside the Kingdom, would they turn it down?

If not, I want to on that.

It’s so odd to look at the list of radio station ratings for Raleigh-Durham. When I left in ’85 I was out of radio, but still deeply into it, and I could tell you something about every signal you could pick up there. Now I know squat. So many of the stations have changed owners, call letters, cities of license, transmitter locations and formats that the dial (another thing that no longer exists, really) there is all but unrecognizable to me.

Yet that change is nothing compared to the move of everything on radio and TV to the Net.

Most of my radio listening today is on computers and phones. Even in my car, driving around Boston, I’m listening to KCLU from Santa Barbara, WUNC from Chapel Hill, High Plains Public Radio, WWOZ from New Orleans, KGSR from Austin, Radio Paradise, Radio Deliro…

The “system” isn’t one. It’s all very ad hoc and not very reliable. Nobody yet has the right formula to reconcile their own costs and programming with the barely-known users and usages out there. How many streams should they support? Should they stream at 128kb and be audible only over ethernet and good “broadband” land connecitons? Should they stream in lo-fi at 24kb or 32kb so they stay audible on iPhones over 3G connections after those go away and the connection drops down to GPRS? (That’s my recommendation, generally.) Should they have multiple streams? (I also recommend that.) For radio on the Net (which also includes podcasting and on-demand), there isn’t enough common usage yet, much less common wisdom about how to serve it on the supply side. It’s like AM radio in 1924. The difference is that much more of it is outside regulatory control. The rules that matter are copyright more than engineering. Ever notice how little popular (or even known) music is on podcast? Thank the DMCA for that one.

In other words, it’s late for radio as we knew it, and early for radio as we’ll know it.

For most of radio’s history, at least in the U.S., ratings “books” ignored noncommercial stations. Commercial radio shares never added up to 100%. Usually the total was around 87%, give or take. In the market where I spent the most years caring about this stuff — Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s (when Dean Landsman was also operating and becoming far more expert than I) — everybody knew that in Chapel Hill had serious numbers. But you couldn’t tell unless you went to Beltsville, Maryland, where Arbitron kept the “diaries” on which listening estimates were based. (In radio one often heard disgruntled managers of stations with unsatisfactory ratings saying “I’m going to Beltsville. I gotta see those diaries.”)

Well, times have changed. You can see noncommercial ratings now. Radio-Info.com is one service. Radio Research Consortium is another. I’ve known about the latter for awhile, but I’m new to the former.

Looking at the December ratings for Los Angeles, has a 2.2 share, which is quite good, especially since the station is just 600 watts (atop Mt. Wilson, where most of the other FMs are, some with over 100,000 watts). Classical has a 2.5. KCRW has a 1.0. (Perspective: the top station, KOST, has a 5.5. And many commercial stations are below both those non-comms. News landmark KFWB has an 0.7. Pacifica’s 110kw KPFK, considered the biggest signal in the whole country, has an 0.2.)

In New York, -FM has a 1.9, WNYC-AM has an 0.8. Freshly noncommercial classical (on a new channel with a weaker signal) has a 1.8. (We’ve had a thread going for months here about that change.) Jazz has an 0.5. (“Party 87.7), which is actually a low-power TV station on old analog channel 6, with audio on 87.7fm, gets an 0.2, but they’ve had as much as an 0.8, which is pretty good for a weak signal below the FM band from the top of the CITI building in Queens, rather than some higher place, such as the Empire State Building. The great music station (broadcasting a directional signal — mostly away from the city — from Fordham in the Bronx, but with boosters coming on all over the place) also gets an 0.2.

In San Francisco, is #4 in the market with a 4.8. (They also have the biggest FM signal, with 110,000 watts coming off Mt. San Bruno.) The big news there is that is tied for #1 with . Both have a 5.8, as both had the month before. KGO has been #1 since the Eisenhower administration. Classical has a 3.4. Jazz has an 0.7 (good for a signal that’s basically just the Peninsula and parts of the East Bay). Little , from the San Francisco Unified School District, gets an 0.3.

Here in Boston, has a 4.5. So you can understand why , with a bigger signal and just an 0.9 rating, decided finally to compete head-to-head as a news & talk NPR-based station. Also why they bought , the classical station with the edge-of-town signal. ‘CRB has a 2.9. , another great music station (but with a secondary signal in the market) had an 0.7. All-folk (with a signal mostly for the south side of town) had an 0.3. Harvard’s WHRB (with a directional signal) got an 0.2).

, my (#213) home market, was last ranked in Fall of ’09. Classical KDB got a 4.2. It’s still commercial, though owned by a nonprofit. I don’t see any noncommercials listed, alas. I’d really like to see how well the new is doing there. Same for its FM, which is a 4-watt translator that does pretty well, considering..

Same goes for Sussex, the then-rural New Jersey market where I got my start in the earliest ’70s, on , a little station on a mountain overlooking Franklin and Hamburg. Back then WSUS was just 360 watts. Now it’s a whopping 590 watts. But it kicks butt in the ratings: down to 13.8 after peaking in the last period at 15.0. Those are very high numbers. I don’t see any noncommercials here either.

Nor do I see any for Raleigh/Durham on Radio-Info, though I’m sure WUNC, WCPE, WSHA and WNCU all do well. Radio Research Consortium is also opaque on the matter.

Continued in the next post.

“I make my living off the Evening News
Just give me something: something I can use
People love it when you lose
They love dirty laundry.

Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry”

Look up “Wikipedia loses” (with the quotes) and you get 20,800 results. Look up “Wikipedia has lost” and you get 56,900. (Or at least that’s what I got this morning.) Most of those results tell a story, which is what news reports do. “What’s the story?” may be the most common question asked of reporters by their managing editors. As humans, we are interested in stories — even if they’re contrived, which is what we have with all “reality” television shows.

Lately Wikipedia itself is the subject of a story about losing editors. The coverage snowball apparently started rolling with Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages, by Julia Angwin and Geoffrey A. Fowler in The Wall Street Journal. It begins,

Wikipedia.org is the fifth-most-popular Web site in the world, with roughly 325 million monthly visitors. But unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting.

That could have significant implications for the brand of democratization that Wikipedia helped to unleash over the Internet — the empowerment of the amateur.

Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” faster than new ones have been joining, and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia …

That’s all you get without paying. Still, it’s enough.

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

The Journal’s source is Wikipedia: A Quantitative Analysis, a doctoral thesis by José Phillipe Ortega of Universidad Rey San Carlos in Madrid. (The graphic at the top of this post is one among many from the study.) In Wikipedia’s Volunteer Story, Erik Moeller and Erik Zachte of the Wikimedia Foundation write,

First, it’s important to note that Dr. Ortega’s study of editing patterns defines as an editor anyone who has made a single edit, however experimental. This results in a total count of three million editors across all languages.  In our own analytics, we choose to define editors as people who have made at least 5 edits. By our narrower definition, just under a million people can be counted as editors across all languages combined.  Both numbers include both active and inactive editors.  It’s not yet clear how the patterns observed in Dr. Ortega’s analysis could change if focused only on editors who have moved past initial experimentation.

Even more importantly, the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal are not a measure of the number of people participating in a given month. Rather, they come from the part of Dr. Ortega’s research that attempts to measure when individual Wikipedia volunteers start editing, and when they stop. Because it’s impossible to make a determination that a person has left and will never edit again, there are methodological challenges with determining the long term trend of joining and leaving: Dr. Ortega qualifies as the editor’s “log-off date” the last time they contributed. This is a snapshot in time and doesn’t predict whether the same person will make an edit in the future, nor does it reflect the actual number of active editors in that month.

Dr. Ortega supplements this research with data about the actual participation (number of changes, number of editors) in the different language editions of our projects. His findings regarding actual participation are generally consistent with our own, as well as those of other researchers such as Xerox PARC’s Augmented Social Cognition research group.

What do those numbers show?  Studying the number of actual participants in a given month shows that Wikipedia participation as a whole has declined slightly from its peak 2.5 years ago, and has remained stable since then. (See WikiStats data for all Wikipedia languages combined.) On the English Wikipedia, the peak number of active editors (5 edits per month) was 54,510 in March 2007. After a more significant decline by about 25%, it has been stable over the last year at a level of approximately 40,000. (See WikiStats data for the English Wikipedia.) Many other Wikipedia language editions saw a rise in the number of editors in the same time period. As a result the overall number of editors on all projects combined has been stable at a high level over recent years. We’re continuing to work with Dr. Ortega to specifically better understand the long-term trend in editor retention, and whether this trend may result in a decrease of the number of editors in the future.

They add details that amount to not much of a story, if you consider all the factors involved, including the maturity of Wikipedia itself.

As it happens I’m an editor of Wikipedia, at least by the organization’s own definitions. I’ve made fourteen contributions, starting with one in April 2006, and ending, for the moment, with one I made this morning. Most involve a subject I know something about: radio. In particular, radio stations, and rules around broadcast engineering. The one this morning involved edits to the WQXR-FM entry. The edits took a lot longer than I intended — about an hour, total — and were less extensive than I would have made, had I given the job more time and had I been more adept at editing references and citations. (It’s pretty freaking complicated.) The preview method of copy editing is also time consuming as well as endlessly iterative. It was sobering to see how many times I needed to go back and forth between edits and previews before I felt comfortable that I had contributed accurate and well-written copy.

In fact, as I look back over my fourteen editing efforts, I can see that most of them were to some degree experimental. I wanted to see if I had what it took to be a dedicated Wikipedia editor, because I regard that as a High Calling. The answer so far is a qualified no. I’ll continue to help where I can. But on the whole my time is better spent doing other things, some of which also have leverage with Wikipedia, but not of the sort that Dr. Ortega measured in his study.

For example, photography.

As of today you can find 113 photos on Wikimedia Commons that I shot. Most of these have also found use in Wikipedia. (Click “Check Usage” at the top of any shot to see how it’s been used, and where.) I didn’t put any of these shots in Wikimedia Commons, nor have I put any of them in Wikipedia. Other people did all of that. To the limited degree I can bother to tell, I don’t know anybody who has done any of that work. All I do is upload shots to my Flickr site, caption and tag them as completely as time allows, and let nature take its course. I have confidence that at least some of the shots I take will be useful. And the labor involved on my part is low.

I also spent about half an hour looking through Dr. Ortega’s study. My take-away is that Wikipedia has reached a kind of maturity, and that the fall-off in participation is no big deal. This is not to say that Wikipedia doesn’t have problems. It has plenty. But I see most of those as features rather than as bugs, even if they sometimes manifest, at least superficially, as the latter. That’s not much of a story, but it’s a hell of an accomplishment.

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@robpatrob (Robert Paterson) asks (responding to this tweet and this post) “Why would GBH line up against BUR? Why have a war between 2 Pub stations in same city?” (In this tweet and this one, Dan Kennedy asks pretty much the same thing.)

The short answer is, Because it wouldn’t be a war. Boston is the world’s largest college town. There are already a pile of home-grown radio-ready program-filling goods here, if one bothers to dig and develop. The standard NPR line-up could also use a challenge from other producers. WGBH is already doing that in the mornings by putting The Takeaway up against Morning Edition. That succeeds for me because now I have more choices. I can jump back and forth between those two (which I do, and Howard Stern as well).

The longer answer is that it gives GBH a start on the inevitable replacement of signal-based radio by multiple streams and podcast line-ups. WGBH has an exemplary record as a producer of televsion programming, but it’s not setting the pace in other media, including radio. The story is apparent in the first four paragraphs of its About page (which is sure to change):

WGBH is PBS’s single largest producer of content for television (prime-time and children’s programs) and the Web. Some of your favorite series and websites — Nova, Masterpiece, Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, Curious George, Arthur, and The Victory Garden, to name a few — are produced here in our Boston studios.

WGBH also is a major supplier of programs heard nationally on public radio, including The World. And we’re a pioneer in educational multimedia and in media access technologies for people with hearing or vision loss.

Our community ties run deep. We’re a local public broadcaster serving southern New England, with 11 public television services and three public radio services — and productions (from Greater Boston to Jazz with Eric in the Evening) that reflect the issues and cultural riches of our region. We’re a member station of PBS and an affiliate of both NPR and PRI.

In today’s fast-changing media landscape, we’re making sure you can find our content when and where you choose — on TV, radio, the Web, podcasts, vodcasts, streaming audio and video, iPhone applications, groundbreaking teaching tools, and more. Our reach and impact keep growing.

Note the order: TV first, radio second, the rest of it third. But where WGBH needs to lead in the future is with #3: that last paragraph. Look at WGBH’s annual report. It’s very TV-heavy. Compare its radio productions to those of Chicago Public Radio or WNYC. Very strong in classical music (now moving over to WCRB, at least on the air), and okay-but-not-great in other stuff.

Public TV has already become a ghetto of geezers and kids, while the audience between those extrmes is diffusing across cable TV and other media. An increasingly negligible sum of people watch over-the-air (OTA) TV. Here WGBH lost out too. It’s old signal on Channel 2 was huge, reaching more households than any other in New England. Now it’s just another UHF digital signal — like its own WGBX/44, with no special advantages. Public radio is in better shape, for now, because its band isn’t the ever-growing accordion file that cable TV has become; and because most of it still lives in a regulated protectorate at the bottom fifth of the FM band. It also helps public radio that the rest of both the FM and the AM bands suck so royally. (Only sports and political talk are holding their own. Music programming is losing to file sharing and iPods. All-news stations are yielding to iPhone programs that offer better news, weather and traffic reporting. In Boston WBZ is still a landmark news station, but it has to worry a bit with WGBH going in the same direction.)

So the timing is right. WGBH needs to start sinking new wells into the aquifer of smart, talented and original people and organizations here in the Boston area — and taking the lead in producing great new programming with what they find. I’ll put in another plug for Chris Lydon‘s Open Source, which is currently available only in podcast/Web form. And there is much more, including Cambridge-based PRX‘s enormous portfolio of goods.  (Disclosure: my work with the Berkman Center is partially funded through PRX — and those folks, like Chris, are good friends.)

In the long run what will matter are sources, listeners, and the finite amount of time the latter can devote to the former. Not old-fashioned signals.

P.S. to Dan Kennedy’s tweeted question, “Is there another city in the country where two big-time public radio stations go head-to-head on news? Can’t think of one.” Here are a few (though I’d broaden the answer beyond “news,” since WBUR isn’t just that):

All with qualifications, of course. In some cases you can add in Pacifica (which, even though my hero Larry Josephson once called it a “foghorn for political correctness,” qualifies as competition). Still, my point is that there is room for more than one mostly-talk (or news) public radio station in most well-populated regions. Even in Boston, where WBUR has been king of the hill for many years. Hey, other things being equal (and they never are), the biggest signal still tends to win. And in Boston, WGBH has a bigger signal than WBUR: almost 100,000 watts vs. 12,000 watts. WBUR radiates from a higher elevaiton, but its signal is directional. On AM that means it’s stronger than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others; but on FM it means no more than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others. See the FCC’s relative field polar plot to see how WBUR’s signal is dented in every direction other than a stretch from just west of North to Southeast. In other words, toward all but about a third of its coverage area. To sum up, WGBH has a much punchier signal. I’m sure the GBH people also have this in mind when they think about how they’ll compete with BUR.

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The longest thread in the history of this blog belongs to Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station, which I posted on July 26, and still has comments this month. The post followed a complex deal by which the New York Times divested its legacy classical music station, WQXR — and by which the station’s format, call letters, record library and some of its personnel survived as a noncommercial outlet of WNYC, on a different channel with a weaker signal. From the comments one might gather that more listeners were unhappy than happy with the deal. My post mostly presented the upside.

Now here in Boston a similar move is underway. WGBH, “Boston’s NPR arts and culture station” will go the way of WNYC-FM, which phased out classical music starting in 2002, eventually shunting it to HD side-channels and Internet streams while populating the FM signal (as well as its AM one) with news and information programming, which tends to be more popular and to attract more money in listener contributions. By saving WQXR, WNYC returned classical music to the airwaves (although the city was still down one classical station, or two if you want to go back to the very late WNCN.) WGBH clearly had the same thing in mind when it bought WCRB, which was already weakened in the Boston metro when it moved from its old local channel (102.5) to its current channel (99.5) in Lowell. (Wikipedia has good background poop on WCRB’s own long saga.) While both WCRB signals have about the same range, the old 102.5 signal radiates from the Boston FM and TV antenna farm in nearby Needham, while the new one on 99.5 comes from a hill overlooking the I-495/I93 intersection, far to the north near the New Hampshire border.

So now WGBH plans to move its classical programming to WCRB, whch will become a non-commercial station (as did WQXR), and to do more news and information programming on its own home signal (89.7), which is grandfathered at 100,000 watts on Great Blue Hill (hence the call letters) in Milton, on the south side of Boston. In terms of wattage alone, WGBH is New England’s most powerful station. (The largest coverage belongs to WHOM/94.9 on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which puts out 49,000 watts from the highest peak in the Northeast.) As a result WGBH can go head-to-head with WBUR/90.9, which is the incumbent public radio leader in Boston. (I’ve looked at the ratings, and WBUR has kicked WGBH’s butt for years — a fact that I am sure has rankled the latter.)

Still, many listeners are not happy. And not just about losing classical music.

WGBH is doing its best to gloss over the signal loss for classical (and other arts & culture) listeners, especially in the southern reaches of Eastern Massachusetts, where WGBH has a very strong signal and WCRB is mostly absent. To demonstrate, here is a comparison of coverage for WGBH, WCRB and WBUR, calculated by Radio-Locator.com:

gbh-crb-bur

Click on the image for a legible full-size version.

Still, my own take in the WGBH/WCRB case is the same as it was for WNYC/WQXR: this is the best that could be done for classical music on Boston airwaves — and it offers opportunities not possible for WCRB had it remained a commercial station. Go back to that first link if you want to see what those are.

As for me, I expect to be more likely to listen to a ‘GBH-run noncommercial WCRB than I did to the commercial one. First, the commercials were (and, at this writing, still are) annoying. Second, the WCRB repertoire was pretty close to all-hits, rather than the more varied and challenging fare found on WGBH. There should be a happy medium between the two, and I’m sure ‘GBH will work hard to find it.

But I’m privileged to live on the north side of the metro, so I get WCRB just fine. I think it’s a safe bet that more than one half of WGBH’s listening area won’t get a useful signal out of WCRB. And the area within which listeners can get WGBH’s HD stream is a subset of WGBH’s coverage area.

A digressive word about HD radio. I got one recently — a $99 Teac unit — at Costco. The tuner is remarkably good, and it gets most local stations’ HD side-channels. But “tuning” HD is a counter-intuitive chore. You tune in the partent station, wait for the HD symbol to appear, and then tune to the one or two HD channels of the station. It’s a multi-step selection process, with delays along the way. I’d be curious to know if anybody (beside those who pick a channel and stay put) has had a positive experience with tuning it.

For those who want to compare apples with apples, here’s some data:

One last thing. I for one (and I am sure there are many more) would love to hear Chris Lydon return to Boston’s airwaves. He has been a podcasting pioneer with an outstanding show. But coming on a live station would be fabulous.

Hey, how about Larry Josephson too?

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Had a great time mixing it up with the BlogTalkRadio folks a couple nights ago, talking Cluetrain after 10 years. Here’s the show. Big thanks to Allan Hoving for lining up and co-hosting it with Janet Fouts and Jim Love. Janet tweeted it live. Afterwards Jim put up a very interesting follow-up post, in the midst of which is this:

The message in Cluetrain is as fresh today as it was 10 years ago. ” We are not clicks or eyeballs, we are people ….deal with it.”

For those of you who missed it, the book started as a website, with 95 Theses splashed on a web page, in tribute, homage or just a scandalous rip off of Martin Luther’s famous set of 95 Theses.  If you don’t know about the original, shame on you.  Martin Luther was the renegade priest who started the Protestant Reformation by nailing 95 Theses to the door of a church.  Equally important but often ignored, he translated the bible from latin to the language of the people (in his case, German) and opened it up for all to read.  He also got married — remember he was a priest.  To some he was a heretic.  To others, he was a reformer who democratized an autocratic organization.

Whatever you think of him, he changed history.  Not on his own.  He didn’t invent the movable type that made it possible to print those bibles and distribute them widely.  He wasn’t the only figure questioning the institution — there was, at the time, a growing movement that were dissatisfied with what they felt was corruption and a lack of integrity in the church at the time.  It related to practices like the selling of indulgences — the ability to buy your way out of sin.  A number of people saw the church as a decaying, archaic and for some, even a corrupt institution.  They’d lost faith in it — literally.

Luther had the courage to say what he did.  In a world where the Catholic church was all powerful, this took a lot of guts.  But that doesn’t explain the power of what he accomplished.  No, he hit the zeitgeist of his era, he was a man of courage at the right place in history.  His ideas took off like a brush fire and the world was never the same.

It’s important to note, however, that this is the view from 500 years later.  It’s all compressed now and we can look back and see Luther’s document as a turning point.

The older I get, the earlier it seems. It’s funny that we chose 95 theses because that worked for Luther, but basically that’s why. (We also called it a manifesto because that worked for Marx. Karl, not Groucho, though the latter was much funnier. I also went to a Lutheran high school. Coincidence?) I don’t think any of us was taking the long-term perspective, though. We just wanted to say what we thought was true and nobody else seemed to be talking about.

But I’m thinking now that it will take many more years. Perhaps decades, before some of what we said will sink in the rest of the way.

Some marketers got it. Jim is clearly one of them. The Cluetrain Manifesto is required reading in the course he teaches. But the future is unevenly distributed. As David Weinberger likes to say, it’s lumpy. Cluetrain’s subtitle is “The End of Business as Usual.” I think that end will take a long time. We’re trying to hasten it with VRM, but that will take awhile too.

The short of it is that Business as Usual is insulting to customers. Take for example the form of Business as Usual that Bob Frankston (more about him here) calls the regulatorium. You get one of those when a big business category and its regulators become captive of each other.  For example, it was in revolt against a tea market regulatorium that citizens of the Massachusetts colony threw the East India Tea Company’s tea in the harbor. The colonists succesfully revolted against England, but customers still haven’t had a proper revolt against the belief by many companies that captive customers are more valuable than free ones. If Mona Shaw and her hammer are the best we can do, we’ve hardly begun.

The liberating impulse is independence, just as it was in 1773. Thanks to the Net, free customers are more valuable than captive ones. To themselves, to sellers, to the economy. We won’t learn that until we become fully equipped, as customers, to act on our independence.

At the end of the show Jim said he thought liberation would be a group thing. Customers getting power in aggregate. While I don’t disagree, I believe it is essential to equip individual customers with tools of both independence and engagememt. By that I mean tools that are as personal as wallets and purses, and just as handy and easy to use. We don’t have those yet.

But we will. And once we do, things will change radically. Count on it.

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Looks like legislation opening up the FM band to more LPFM (low power FM) stations is moving through Congress. While Prometheus Radio celebrates, I gotta wonder if Calvary Chapel of Everywhere isn’t going to gobble a lot of those new licenses up. Since I can’t link directly to results (they’re from a database search, and are linkproof), go to FCCinfo.com, go to Search By / Licensee, and write Calvary Chapel in the Search Parameters box. Then click on Licensee_Search and see what happens.

Most of the results are for translators: low-power repeater stations. The ones with real call letters that end in -LP are for LPFM stations. These are legitimate stations, which, as the FCC describes here, “are available to noncommercial educational entities and public safety and transportation organizations, but are not available to individuals or for commercial operations”. That includes religious broadcasters, of which there are many.

Here’s Wikipedia’s list. (Man, there are so many good wikipedian obsessives on radio. I thought I could help with lot of this stuff, but these other folks are way past me at getting the details out there.)

There are some great LPFM stations. WCOM in Carrboro and KRUU in Fairfield, for example. But a lot of LPFMs are evangelical Christian stations, run by very resourceful outfits, which in the past have run rings around public and other community broadcasters.

We’ll see how it goes.

There’s something new on the FM dial in Boston. You might think of it as a kind of urban renewal. Grass roots, up through the pavement. (There’s a pun in there, but you need to read on to get it.)

You might say that fresh radio moved in where stale TV moved out.

Here’s some background. When TV in the U.S. finally went all-digital several months back (June 12, to be precise), one wide hunk of spectrum, from 54 to 88Mhz—where channels 2 through 6 used to be—turned into “white space“. In other words, empty. For most of us this doesn’t matter except in one little spot at the very bottom of the FM dial: 87.7 FM. It’s the first click on nearly every FM radio, yet the FCC licensed no FM stations there, because that notch belonged to TV channel 6 audio. From January 1963 until June 2009, you could hear Channel 6 (WLNE-TV) at that spot on the dial, across much of Southern New England, including the Boston metro. When analog television shut down in June, WLNE moved to Channel 49 with its digital signal. After that, 87.7 was white space too. (Some more background here.)

In a few cases (New York and Los Angeles, for example), somebody would get a license (New York, Los Angeles) to operate a low power analog Channel 6 TV station, leave the picture off and just broadcast the audio, creating a virtual FM station that most listeners didn’t know was licensed as picture-less TV. (LPTV stations are exempt from the digital requirement.) That was pretty clever, but it was also pretty rare. For the most part, 87.7 was all-hiss, meaning it was open for anybody to put up anything, legal or not.

Such as here in Boston. It was a matter of time before somebody put up a pirate signal on 87.7. That happened this week when “Hot 97 Boston,” an urban-formatted Internet station, appeared there. Hot 97 is also known as WPOT, according to this thread here.

I checked here and here to see if it’s legal (on FM), and can find no evidence. But it does sound like a real station. If you’re into urban radio with a local Boston flavor (also with no ads), check it out. The signal isn’t big, but it’s not bad, either. And it’s worldwide on the Net.

[Two days later...] I figured by now the Boston Globe and/or the Boston Phoenix would pick up on this story. So I just tweeted a bulletin. Let’s see what happens.

[Later still...] Dean Landsman reminded me that Brian R. Ballou of the Globe had a report on TOUCH-FM in June 2008. TOUCH is another pirate that appears from its website still to be active, at least on the Web (though at the moment I can’t get it on either FM or the station’s “click here/listen now” link). [And later again (October 13) ...] TOUCH-FM is still on the air. It’s pretty obliterated by other signals here in Cambridge, but I got it well enough to follow this morning in the car when I drove to Boston and back.

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I like sports, and I enjoy sports talk radio. That’s one reason I have five car radio buttons set on stations carrying games or sports talk: four on AM (WRKO/680, WEEI/850, WAMG/890, WZZN/1510) and one on FM (WBZ-FM/98.5). The other is that sports talk is about 50% advertising, so I like to punch around.

But I wasn’t surprised to read ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate set to sign off, by Chad Finn in the Boston Globe. It begins, “ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate, WAMG-AM 890, will go off the air Monday after four years plagued by a weak signal and limited local programming.” In fact, “weak” doesn’t cover it. By day WAMG’s 25,000-watt signal covers the Boston metro pretty well. But at night the station drops to 6,000 watts and a pattern that excludes the whole north side of the metro. The map at that last link doesn’t show how much like a headlight that pattern really is.

Yet that’s not the worst of it. WAMG was able to “drop in” to the market from nowhere in 2005, thanks to a change in FCC rules that protected what were once called (literally) “clear channel” stations. Because signals on the AM band bounce off the ionosphere at night, powerful ones can be heard up to thousands of miles away. Since there were then only 106 channels (every 10KHz from 540 to 1600KHz), a handful were granted “clear channel” status, making them the only stations on those channels at night. Thanks to this rule, I could hear KFI/640 from Los Angeles in New Jersey and WBZ/1030 from Boston in Palo Alto. Here’s the whole list of “clears” as they stood when their status still held.

Since long-distance listening had mostly gone away by the late 1970s, the FCC in 1980 reduced protection for the old “clears” to 750 miles from their transmitters. WLS/890 in Chicago was one of those clears. So you might say that WAMG appeared through a new loophole. Problem was, WLS had not gone away. It often still reached Boston quite well at night, pounding WAMG’s already-weak signal.

This last week I was down in the South portion of Cape Cod, where WAMG puts no signal at all. As a result I could hear WLS quite well on a portable radio, along with other Chicago giants.

The Globe story suggests that WAMG will probably go dark. Given the coverage realities, that might not be the worst thing.

A thought. WAMG is licensed to Dedham, not Boston. It might not be the worst thing for Clear Channel (the name of the company that owns WAMG and a zillion other stations) to sell the licesnse to somebody in the Dedham community, who could cut the power back (to save electricity) and just try to serve the local community itself. Provided, of course, that local radio of the AM sort (which has changed little since the 1920s) still makes sense.

[Later...] Following up on 10 October 2009, WAMG has been off the air for several weeks.

mtwilsonfire1

Just arrived at my house in Santa Barbara after a long drive down from Monterey. Most of the way I listened to live coverage of the Station Fire on KNX/1070, both through the car radio (KNX has a huge signal that covers the whole southwest at night) and online over my iPhone, which was plugged into the AUX input of the radio in my rented Ford Focus (not a bad car, by the way).

Here’s KNX’s latest story, with a map.

Here is a set of mashed-up fire maps I just created, courtesy of MODIS and the U.S. Forest Service and Google Earth.

On the Live Web

Lots of grist for (and from) the news mills there.

Among other directions, the fire is moving eastward across Mt. Wilson, which looms over Los Angeles from just north of Pasadena. Mt. Wilson is one among many points along the nearest ridge of the San Gabriel Mountains, most of which lie within the Angeles National Forest. Perhaps more significantly, it is the home to nearly all the transmitters of FM and TV stations serving the Los Angeles metro. Also Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Reports say that firefighters (two of which have died so far) are doing their best to protect the Mt. Wilson facilities, but I wonder how long they’ll stay before driving back down. The only road out to the north is the long and winding Angeles Crest Highway — which is closed and may already be burned — and Mt. Wilson Road itself, which goes west through areas colored in the map above. The LATimes says the firefighters will stay there “no matter what”.

I’ve been to Mt. Wilson a number of times, and have often shot it from the air as well. These now comprise “before” pictures of the mountain.

Here is a Bing “birds eye” view of one section of the top of Mt. Wilson. This shot shows the observatory.

This Google Map shows the parking area where I assume firefighting equipment can keep away from advancing fire.

For what little it’s worth, the five zillion channels I get on my Dish Network TV system have nothing I can find on the fire. The locals here in Santa Barbara are running network shows. CNN and HLN are covering two dead guys. CNN has Larry King interviewing Ted Kennedy, and HLN has junk news coverage of Michael Jackson’s creepy autopsy results. As a news environment, TV is a slo-mo suicide victim.

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Imagine a “News from Lake Wobegon” without the homespun prairie jive, lasting for more than an hour every weeknight, and packed with great stories, mostly of being a normal kid from greater blue-collar Chicago. That was Jean Shepherd, who was Required Listening in New York — and the whole Northeast — from the ’50s to the ’70s. “Shep” was also a writer of books and articles, a public performer, an artist and a screenwriter best known for A Christmas Story the 1983 hit movie that has since become required showing on holiday season television.

So I’m listening right now to “A Voice in the Night: A Tribute to Jean Shepherd”, on one of the Sirius public radio channels. I can’t tell which one because the display on the receiver is too dim, and the service’s own guide is nearly clue-free. (And I wont get rid of this receiver, because it’s one of the early ones with an illegally strong FM transmitter, which I like, and because it fits in three different cradles that will fit none of the newer units. I will, with regret for losing Howard Stern, dump Sirius when my subscription runs out later this year.)

Anyway, I’m busy and would love to hear this show later on a podcast. Alas, the only listen-link on the show page goes to a RealAudio stream that requires sitting at your computer (and having a Real player). If anybody knows how to get this on a podcast, let the rest of us know. Thanks.

I love this:

despair_socialmedia

… and I hope the good (or evil, depending on your perspective) folks at Despair.com don’t mind my promoting their best t-shirt yet. (If it helps, I just ordered one.)

You’ll notice that blogging isn’t in the diagram (though Despair does feature it in four other purchasable forms). I bring that up because I think there is a difference between the social media in the Venn diagram and blogging, and that difference is akin to that between weather and geology.  The former have an evanescent quality. I’m still haunted by hearing that users get a maximum number Twitter postings (tweets) before the old ones scroll off. If true, it means Twitter is a whiteboard, made to be erased after awhile. The fact that few know what the deal is, exactly, also makes my point. Not many people expect anybody, including themselves, to revisit old tweets. The four names in the diagram above are also private corporate walled gardens. Blogging itself is not. True, you can blog in a corporate walled garden, but blogging is an independent category. You can move your blog from one platform to another, archives intact. Not easy, but it can be done. More importantly, your blog is yours. That’s why I dig Dave’s Scoble, your blog still loves you post. And why in the comments I said,

FriendFeeds and Facebooks and Microsofts will come and and go. They can be bought and sold, because they’re not human. Robert is human. Companies can’t be charming and lovable. They can, sometimes, for awhile. Ben & Jerrys did. Zappos did. But they got sold. You know, like slaves.

The only publication on Earth that’s all Robert’s is his blog. That’s where his soul is, because he can’t sell it.

It was while pondering the difference between social media and blogging that I posted this tweet today:

Thanks, @dnm54 But I still feel like my posts lately have the impact of snow on water. Too wordy? Not tweety enough? Not sure.

That got some reassuring responses, several playing with the snow-and-water metaphor. That’s one I’ve used often ever since first hearing “Big Ted”, by the Incredble String Band (from their Changing Horses album), played by the great Larry Josephson on his morning show on WBAI, back in the earliest 70s. “Big Ted” was a dead horse, about which the band sang, “He’s gone like snow on the water. Good bye-eeee.”

For a long time I harbored a fantasy about writing a history of radio, titled “Snow on the Water,” because that was its self-erasing quality. It was like unrecorded conversation that way. You get meaning from it, but you don’t remember everything verbatim, for such is the nature of short-term memory. Eight seconds later you might remember what somebody said, but not exactly. Tomorrow you might remember nothing more than having talked to the person.

Now I’m thinking “snow on the water” applies to social media as well. They’re conversational in the literal sense. They’re weather within which tweets fly and fall like flakes, and disappear into the collective unconscious.

On the other hand, blogging is geology. A blog’s posts may be current and timely, and constitute one person’s contribution to conversation around a subject or two, but each post is built to last. It has a “permalink”. Over time posts accumulate like soil deposits. You can dig down through layers of time and find them. What do tweets have? Temp-o-links?

From the beginning I’ve thought of blogging as journalism in the literal sense: Blogs are journals. Yet much of traditional journalism seems to have, on the whole, not much respect for its archives on the Web. Editorial “content” scrolls behind paywalls, doesn’t keep durable URLs, or disappears completely.

Which brings me to this comment by Tom Matrullo, left under this post about advertising. It’s way too deep to leave buried there:

There is no question that advertising requires us to be in the here and now, and not in the there and then, because it seeks to influence our desires and actions. Active repression of time, history, the past is basic to most commerce and commercial speech.

But I’d go further, because this is a large and important topic. Broadcast itself as a medium tends to put the past at a distance, even when it is about the past, because it makes it into spectacle. Something we watch from our NOW, the big now of advertising and current media.

And yet further: no media are more dis-attuned to the past than news media. It is all about the next story. That one last week that was entirely wrong? Ancient history. To be current, in news-speak, is to develop a sort of targeted Alzheimer’s in a certain direction.

Maybe this is one reason why the news media — on the whole, seems to me — have embraced social media of the temporary sort while continuing to put down blogging. Yes, they’ll set up blogs for their writers, but there’s often a second-class quality to those blogs, and the blogs willl get erased after the writer leaves — or even while the writer is still there. Dan Gillmor’s blog at the San Jose Mercury-News disappeared a number of times. Now it’s gone permanently. Dan’s columns are there, if you’re willing to pay $2.95 apiece for them.

It still blows my mind that, on the Web, newspapers give away the news but charge for the olds. Why not charge for the news and give away the olds? That would be in alignment with what they do with the physical paper. People will pay a buck for today’s paper, and nothing for one three days old. In the physical world, old papers are for wrapping fish and house-breaking puppies. If papers gave every old story a true permalink, search engines would find them, could sell advertising on them, and progressively elevate the whole paper’s authority.

I think they don’t do it for two reasons. One is that they’ve always charged for access to “the morgue.” Another is that embalming old papers has always been expensive. For many decades they bound them up like books for storage in libraries. I still have three of these, each for a whole week of New York Times papers from the ’50s and ’60s. The library at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill sent them out for recycling in 1975. The whole huge pile was rescued by buddies of mine who ran the recycling operation. The newspaper and the library at the time were modernizing by putting everything on microfilm. At the “Will Newspapers Survive” forum at MIT a couple years ago, I asked the panel (which included Dan Gillmor) about why papers charge for the olds and give away the news. Ellen Foley of the Wisconsin State Joural replied,

Speaking for the nation’s regional papers, one of our biggest problems is that today’s issues are all on microfilm tomorrow, not online. It would cost more than a million dollars to digitize our archives. It’s hard for me to make this argument to our publisher, who is trying to make money and make ends meet.

It’s not in the transcript, but I recall her adding something about how storing archives on disk drives was also expensive. That didn’t sit well with the audience, which knew better.

Anyway, my point is that, on the whole news organizations don’t care much about the past. They care about the present. I think social media tend to do the same thing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Nor am I trying to elevate blogging into the Pulitzer sphere. (But hey, why not?)  I’m just trying to get my head around What’s Going On.

Here’s my thinking for now. What I write on blogs isn’t just for the short term. I also have the long term in mind. I’m making geology, not weather. Both have their places. The more durable stuff goes here.

Bonus link.

[Later...] Joe Andrieu has a thoughtful response.

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In Curation, meta-curation, and live Net radio, Jon Udell begins, “I’ve long been dissatisfied with how we discover and tune into Net radio”, but doesn’t complain about it. He hacks some solutions. First he swaps time for place:

I’ve just created a new mode for the elmcity calendar aggregator. Now instead of creating a geographical hub, which combines events from Eventful and Upcoming and events from a list of iCalendar feeds — all for one location — you can create a topical hub whose events are governed only by time, not by location.

Then he works on curation:

I spun up a new topical hub in the elmcity aggregator and started experimenting.

That ran into problems from sources. Still it was…

…great for personal use. But I’m looking for the Webjay of Net radio. And I think maybe elmcity topical hubs can help enable that.

So Jon leverages what Tony Karrer described in Second Calendar Curator Joins to Help with List of Free Webinars, and adds,

What Tony showed me is that you can also (optionally) think in terms of meta-curators, curators, feeds, and events. In this example, Tony is himself a curator, but he is also a meta-curator — that is, a collector of curators.

I’d love to see this model evolve in the realm of Net radio. If you want to join the experiment, just use any calendar program to keep track of some of your favorite recurring shows. (Again, it’s very helpful to use one that supports per-event timezones.) Then publish the shows as an iCalendar feed, and send me the URL. As the meta-curator of delicious.com/InternetRadio, as well as the curator of jonu.calendar.live.com/calendar/InternetRadio/index.html, I’ll have two options. If I like most or all of the shows you like, I can add your feed to the hub. If I only like some of the shows you like, I can cherrypick them for my feed. Either way, the aggregated results will be available as XML, as JSON, and as an iCalendar feed that can flow into calendar clients or aggregators.

Naturally there can also be other meta-curators. To become one, designate a Delicious account for the purpose, spin up your own topical hub, and tell me about it.

I really like Jon’s idea. Sometime this weekend I’ll set up what he’s talking abouthere. Or try. I’ve always found Delicious a little too labor-intensive, but then blogging in WordPress’ writing window (as I’m doing now) is a PITA too. (One of these days I’ll get my outliner working again. That’s so much easier for me.)

The new radio dial is a combination of tools and each other’s heads. Given how the Net has eliminated distance as a factor in”reception” (a rapidly antiquifying term), the new frontier is time — how we find it. Or, in radio parlance, how we tune across it to find what we want, and then listen live or off stored files, either in our own devices (podcasting) or in the cloud (on-demand).

As we develop whatever this becomes, we need to avoid the usual traps. For example, there is this tendency for developers — commercial ones, anyway — to believe that the only available paths are –

  1. Making a commodity
  2. Trapping the user

So they do the latter. That’s why we get stuff like the iTunes store, which works with only one brand of mobile devices (Apple’s), and which nearly every other phone maker now, derivatively, wants to copy. (iTunes’ radio tuner, which is nothing more than a directory, works with nothing but itself, near as I can tell. As with most of the iTunes environment, it veers far from Apple’s reputation for ease of use — in addition to being exclusive and non-interoperable.)

What Jon’s doing here is one more among many necessary steps by which control of the marketplace shifts from user-trappers to users themselves.

Speaking of which, there is plenty of user input to the new, improved, and still-improving UI on the Public Radio Player, which now finds programs as well as stations. So, for example, I’m going to be on The Conversation with Ross Reynolds today on KUOW in Seattle, taking about the new 10th Anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto. The show starts at noon (though my segment comes in a bit later). When I looked up “conversation” on the Player, I found Rick’s show in the list results, and went right there. This goes a long way beyond tuning the way it used to be. But it still has a long way to go.

We’ll get us there.

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In his comment to my last post about the sale of WQXR to WNYC (and in his own blog post here), Sean Reiser makes an important point:

One of the unique things about the QXR was it’s relationship with the Times. The Times owned QXR before the FCC regulations prohibiting newspapers ownership of a radio station were enacted. Because of this relationship, QXR’s newsroom was located in the NY Times building and news gathering resources were shared. In a precursor to newspaper reporters doing podcasts, Times columnists and arts reporters would often appear on the air doing segments.

It’s true. The Times selling WQXR seems a bit like the New Yorker dropping poetry, or GE (née RCA) closing the Rainbow Room. (Which has already happened… how many times?) To cultured veteran New Yorkers, the Times selling WQXR seems more like a partial lobotomy than a heavy heirloom being thrown off a sinking ship.

For much of the history of both, great newspapers owned great radio stations. The Times had WQXR. The Chicago Tribune had (and still has) WGN (yes, “World’s Greatest Newspaper”). The Washington Post had WTOP. (In fact, the Post got back into the radio game with Washington Post Radio, on WTOP’s legacy 50,000-watt signal at 1500 AM. That lasted from 2006-2008.). Trust me, the list is long.

The problem is, both newspapers and radio stations are suffering. Most newspapers are partially (or, in a few cases — such as this one — totally) lobotomized versions of their former selves. Commercial radio’s golden age passed decades ago. WQXR, its beloved classical format, and its staff, have been on life support for years. Most other cities have lost their legacy commercial classical stations (e.g. WFMR in Milwaukee), or lucked out to various degrees when the call letters and formats were saved by moving to lesser signals, sometimes on the market’s outskirts (e.g. WCRB in Boston). In most of the best cases classical formats were saved by moving to noncommercial channels and becomimg public radio stations. In Los Angeles, KUSC took over for KFAC (grabbing the latter’s record library) and KOGO/K-Mozart. In Raleigh, WCPE took over for WUNC and WDBS. In Washington, WETA took over for WGMS. Not all of these moves were pretty, but all of them kept classical music alive on their cities’ FM bands.

In some cases, however, “saved’ is an understatement. KUSC, for example, has a bigger signal footprint and far more to offer, than KFAC and its commercial successors did. In addition to a first-rate signal in Los Angeles, KUSC is carried on full-size stations in Palm Springs, Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo — giving it stong coverage of more population than any other station in Los Angeles, including the city’s substantial AM stations. KUSC also runs HD programs on the same channels, has an excellent live stream on the Web, and is highly involved in Southern California’s cultural life.

I bring that up because the substantial advantages of public radio over commercial radio — especially for classical music — are largely ignored amidst all the hand-wringing (thick with completely wrong assumptions) by those who lament the loss  — or threatened loss — of a cultural landmark such as WQXR. So I thought I’d list some of the advantages of public radio in the classical music game.

  1. No commercials. Sure, public radio has its pitches for funding, but those tend to be during fund drives rather than between every music set.
  2. More room for coverage growth. The rules for signals in the noncommercial end of the band (from 88 to 92) are far more flexible than those in the commercial band. And noncommercial signals in the commercial band (such as WQXR’s new one at 105.9) can much more easily be augmented by translators at the fringes of their coverage areas — and beyond. Commercial stations can only use translators within their coverage areas. Noncommercial stations can stick them anywhere in the whole country. If WNYC wants to be aggressive about it, you might end up hearing WQXR in Maine and Montana. (And you can bet it’ll be on the Public Radio Player, meaning you can get it wherever there’s a cell signal.)
  3. Life in a buyer’s market. Noncommercial radio stations are taking advantage of bargain prices for commercial stations. That’s what KUSC did when it bought what’s now KESC on 99.7FM in San Luis Obispo. It’s what KCLU did when it bought 1340AM in Santa Barbara.
  4. Creative and resourceful engineering. While commercial radio continues to cheap out while advertising revenues slump away, noncommercial radio is pioneering all over the place. They’re doing it with HD Radio, with webcasting (including multiple streams for many stations), with boosters and translators, with RDS — to name just a few. This is why I have no doubt that WNYC will expand WQXR’s reach even if they can’t crank up the power on the Empire State Building transmitter.
  5. Direct Listener Involvement. Commercial radio has had a huge disadvantage for the duration: its customers and its consumers are different populations. As businesses, commercial radio stations are primarily accountable to advertisers, not to listeners. Public radio is directly accoutable to its listeners, because those are also its customers. As public stations make greater use of the Web, and of the growing roster of tools available for listener engagement (including tools on the listeners’ side, such as those we are developing at ProjectVRM), this advantage over commercial radio will only grow. This means WQXR’s listeners have more more opportunity to contribute positively to the station’s growth than they ever had when it was a commercial station. (Or if, like WCRB, it lived on as a lesser commercial station.) So, if you’re a loyal WQXR listener, send a few bucks to WNYC. Tell them thanks for saving the station, and tell them what you’d like them to do with the station as well.

I could add more points (and maybe I will later), but that should suffice for now. I need to crash and then get up early for a quick round trip to northern Vermont this morning. Meanwhile, hope that helps.

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Edward Rosten and I have been having an interesting dialog in the comment section of my last post, which was mostly about WNYC buying WQXR from the New York Times (which has owned it forever) for $11.5 million — and moving QXR’s classical programming up New York’s FM dial from 96.3 to 105.9, where the maximum transmission wattage is far less than allowed on the old frequency.

There has been much hand-wringing and prognosticating over the whole thing. What Would You Do With the New WQXR? is a post on the NYTimes site that is followed by a great many comments. Says Edward, “Post #58, I can assure you, is representative of ‘input’ from people who’ve given ANY thought to how the proposed changes will play out. (‘Power to the people’ has yielded to ‘power to the 24/7 classical music station, whatever its name!’)”

So here’s a summary of my own thinking about why this was a good move by WNYC.

  1. $11.5 million is a bargain for any FM signal radiating from the center of Manhattan, even in these depressed economic times.
  2. There will be a 24/7 classical station in New York called WQXR. It will continue to play much, if not most, of the music its current audience likes. It will also employ some of the same people and air some of the same programs. Doing even a subset of this is to buck the tide that is drowning classical stations everywhere in the U.S.
  3. The signal on 105.9 will pack less punch than the old one on 96.3. The new one is 610 watts while the old one was 6000 watts, from the same antenna on the Empire State Building. The difference, however, is smaller than the wattage would indicate. On FM, height matters more than wattage, and those are the same. And signal strength increases as the square root of the wattage. This means that the new signal will be about a third the power of the old one, rather than one tenth. Either way, it’s still plenty of signal for the boroughs, southern Westchester, Jersey counties bordering the Hudson, and Nassau County. Not bad, considering.
  4. WQXR will now be a noncommercial station owned by the top public station in the top metro market in the country. There are many upsides here that are not available to commercial stations — least of all one owned by a struggling newspaper. These include…
  5. No commercials, beyond the usual noncommercial radio pitches for listener support. For an example of an alternative outcome — having a legacy station and its call letters shunted to a secondary signal while remaining commercial — check out WCRB, Boston’s equivalent of WQXR. The Wikipedia entrty provides copious (and depressing) background. What they don’t say is that WCRB plays lots of commercials, in spite of a commercial free sections of its schedule. (I’d suggest checking out WCRB’s live stream, but they’ve discontinued it.)
  6. The opportunity for listeners to support the station directly, and involve themselves in the station’s missions. In the past one could support WQXR only by buying a car or a mattress from an advertiser. Now you can put some money where your ears are.
  7. WQXR can use translators to enlarge its signal, and bring it to places outside its local coverage area. Translators are low power stations radiating the same audio on a different channel from the original signal. WQXR currently has translators on 96.7 in Asbury Park and 103.7 in Poughkeepsie. Now here’s the cool deal: While commercial stations can only use translators to fill in holes in their home coverage areas, noncommercial stations can put translators anywhere they please. Of course, these have to be on unoccupied channels, and most channels are occupied in most places. There are two ways WNYC can go here. One is to buy up, swap or otherwise deal for existing translators. (There is lots of horse-trading going on in any case between public broadcasters and religious ones. The latter have been much more resourceful about maximizing coverage and spreading translators everywhere.) The other is to find open spots where translators can be wedged in. Anywhere in the country.
  8. The Internet is a wide-open frontier. I listen to WNYC’s classical stream (also carried on the air over the station’s HD service on FM) here in Santa Barbara. I also listen to many other stations (including a dozen or more classical ones) here as well. I use either my iPhone or our home Sonos system. Those are my radios, and they sound fine. There are no limits to the number of Internet channels WNYC/WQXR can choose to put out there. For models of station/stream proliferation (and brand extension) see what KCRW and Minnesota Public Radio do. This multi-million-dollar move by WNYC serves notice that it plans to be one of the country’s public super-stations.

I could go on, but you get the point. The opportunities for WQXR as a WNYC property are far wider than the New York Times would dream of contemplating. I advise loyal listeners of both stations to get behind the effort with cash and helpful input, rather than complaints about signal differences and what WNYC might do with WQXR. Hey, WQXR will be a public station soon. That should give you more influence than ever before.

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Heard this morning on WNYC that the New York Times has unloaded its remaining broadcasting asset, which consists of the channel and facilities of WQXR, which has been a classical music landmark for as long as it’s been around. (One way or another, since 1929. Wikipedia tells the long story well.) The story on WNYC’s website says WQXR will become “part of” WNYC. I assume that means it will become non-commercial.

According to Bloomberg, the deal goes like this:

  • “Univision will pay Times Co. $33.5 million to swap broadcasting licenses and shift its WCAA broadcast to 96.3 FM from 105.9 FM, which will become WQXR… WCAA will get 96.3 FM’s stronger signal.”
  • WNYC will pay Times Co. $11.5 million for 105.9 FM’s license and equipment and the WQXR call letters.”

WQXR was for a long time an AM/FM operation. The AM was on 1560, with a 50,000 watt signal out of a four-tower facility in Maspeth, Queens. The FM was for many years atop the Chanin Building, where it still maintains an auxilliary antenna. I have shots of the old and new antennas here and here. In 2007 the Times Co. unloaded its AM station, then (and still) called WQEW, to Walt Disney Co. for $40 million. It’s now Radio Disney, a kids’ station.

Since the 60s WQXR has shared a master antenna atop the Empire State Building with most of New York’s other FMs. This was their status in 1967. Wikipedia has a good rundown of what’s up there today. Scott Fybush also has a comprehensive report from 2003.

An open question is whether WQXR will remain a beacon on the dial. While other signals on the Empire State Building master antennas run 5000 to 6000 watts, the one on 105.9 is just 610 watts. According to WQXR’s  Web site, the station and has an audience of nearly 800,000 weekly listeners. How many of those will lose the signal? Coverage maps from radio-locator.com for 96.3 and 105.9 are here and here.

For the fully obsessed, here is a current rundown of everything on FM hanging off the Empire State Building, or within 1km of it.

Meanwhile, says here WBCN in Boston, a progressive rock radio landmark, is also getting yanked. You’ll still hear it on the Web, or if you are among the appoximately five owners of an “HD” radio receiver and close enough to WBCN’s transmiter on Boston’s Prudential Building in the Back Bay. Meanwhile Boston will get more of the usual: talk sports and “Hot AC” music. (To me “Hot AC” always sounded like an climate control oxymoron, while “adult contemporary” sounded like a euphemism for pornographic furniture.)

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