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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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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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So I’m walking across the Harvard campus, going from one Berkman office to another, listening to KCLU from Santa Barbara on my iPhone. The guest on the show is Berkman’s own John Palfrey. I think, that’s coolwhat’s the show? The tuner doesn’t tell me, because (I assume) KCLU doesn’t provide that data along with the audio stream.

To find out, I just sat down on a bench, popped open the laptop and started looking around. KCLU’s site says what’s on now is OnPoint. That’s because the time on the scuedule block says 9:00am. It’s currently 10:45am, Pacific. The next show block on the schedule is Fresh Air at 11:00am. John isn’t listed as an OnPoint guest, so… what is the show he’s on?

I wait until the interview with John ends, and then I learn that the show is Here & Now, which KCLU says comes on at 2pm. Here & Now has the JP segment listed. Says this:

More Countries Use Internet Censorship
Listen
We’ve heard about countries like China, Iran and North Korea censoring websites. But our guest, John Palfrey of Harvard’s Berman Center for Internet and Society says the practice is becoming more widespread—more than three dozen countries do extensive censoring, even France, Australia and the U.S. engage in some type of censorship.

Now it’s 11:00am Pacific, and KCLU brings on Science Friday. Also at variance from the schedule.

I’m not sure how to fix the problem of not including show data in a stream (or, if included, getting it displayed on software tuners), though I am sure it’s fixable. More importantly, I am convinced of the  need of listeners to know what they’re hearing, to bookmark it, and to find out more about it later. At the very least they should be able to find the answer to the “What was that?” question — without spending fifteen minutes surfing around a browser on a laptop.

Being able to know what you’re hearing would also inform decisions about, say, how much money you’d like to throw at the station or a program, if you’d like to do that. That’s what EmanciPay (which I wrote about yesterday) would help do.

Anyway, that’s why we’re working on Listen Log, as a variety of Media Logging. Input welcome.

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The shot above, a screen capture of a Google Earth view, with a .kml overlay from MODIS, shows the first fire detections (that I’ve seen at least), south of Foothill/Cathedral Oaks and west of 154. It also shows the first detections across the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains. 3:02am. (All times Pacific.)

These detections do not mean fire spreading. During the Tea Fire, there were many detections that didn’t spread, at some distance from the fire itself. Still, this map gives a good visualization  of the growing fire perimeter. 3:03am

KEYT/3′s 3:00am video report. 3:04am

Far as I know, only KTYD is covering the fire live right now, at 3:10am. All the talk is about evacuations. Nothing about homes burning. KTYD’s four sister stations are also carrying the same audio. Click on “Listen Live” on the website. 3:13am

The latest from the Independent:

The fire is only a few hundred yards from Foothill in the San Roque area, but doesn’t appear to be burning any houses at the moment thanks to the firefighters concerted effort to hold Foothill Road.

Firefighters extinguished a small spot fire at Steven’s Park and trying to save homes at Canyon Acres off Ontare. One structure is already burning there; firefighters requested three to four extra engines to protect approximately 12 houses. 3:28am

Collected Independent coverage. 3:28am Copied from a byline: Ray Ford, Matt Kettmann, Chris Meagher, Ben Preston, Nick Welsh. These guys are doing a great job. Near as I can tell, the Indy is the only news organization with reporters working the fire around the clock. Outstanding work.

Hats off to Edhat as well. There are 328 comments so far to Ed’s latest report. 5:32am

From among the Edhat comments, this collection of GOES-10 satellite photos. Interesting to see where the smoke goes. 5:35am

John Wiley has lots of photos. 5:41am

I listened to the first three or four speakers in the 8am press conference, and then made the good chap I had an appointment with wait while we both listened to see if anybody would say what listeners most wanted to hear: what homes were lost, and what homes were most in danger. I hate to be critical of people doing heroic and much appreciated work, especially when it is quite true — as these speakers said — that many more homes were saved than lost, and at great risk and effort. I’ll just say it was frustrating not to get specifics about homes. Maybe they came around to it eventually. I don’t know. Eventually I had to turn off the radio (actually an iPhone tuned to KTYD) and get on with my meeting.

On the positive side, dig what Matt Kettmann (Contact), Sam Kornell , Ben Preston (Contact), Ethan Stewart (Contact) of the Independent wrote in Assessing What’s Burned: Damage Report, Updated Friday:

Although the task can be difficult in a wildfire zone — especially one with as many twists, turns, and long driveways as the foothills of Santa Barbara — The Independent’s reporters are trying their hardest to deliver what everyone who’s evacuated wants to know: the addresses of homes that have not survived the Jesusita Fire.

And deliver they do. First, the disclaimer:

We are fully aware that mistakes in this sort of reporting could be horrible for homeowners who get the wrong information, so we’ve strived for the utmost accuracy. Furthermore, based on responses we’ve already received during this fire and others, we believe that this public service is one of our most valuable roles as a media entity, and hope you find the information useful.

As of 1:30 p.m. on Friday, the following is what The Indy’s team of reporters has been able to put together.

Then the list, with very careful qualification. Excellent stuff. If the Indy doesn’t get an award for its fire coverage, there is no justice in Officialized Journalism.

Here is a recent Google Earth shot with a MODIS overlay of fire spottings by satellite. Note the difference between this one and the shot at the top from early this morning:

jesusita_google_modis5

The nearest red spot is above San Jose Creek in the canyon above Patterson Ave, near some orchards or vineyards. This is in or below the area burned by the Gap Fire in July of last year. Perhaps more scary is the set of new red squares advancing northwest toward Painted Cave, which is on the left edge of this shot. Here’s a better view:

painted_cave

The last big fire in Santa Barbara — and the biggest ever in terms of home loss — was the Painted Cave Fire of 1990. More than 600 homes were lost. But none in Painted Cave itself. The fire started near there, but advanced straight down toward the sea. Many of the houses you see on this picture between the 101 and 154 symbols on this shot were burned in that fire. 5:09pm

There’s a press conference going on. I’m listening on KNX/1070. Also KCLU/1340/102.3. The KCLU stream (which is what I’m now listening to, here in Boston) is here. 5:14pm.

30,500 are evacuated. (That includes us, by the way. We’re kind of extremely evacuated, staying about 3,000 miles away.) “There will be no re-population tonight.” Shelter is available. Room left at the Multi-Activities Center at UCSB. Find it off Mesa. “A supurb evacuation center.” Special needs folks should go to the Thunderdome on the campus. KCLU is summarizing now. KNX continues to carry the audio of the conference. Surprising since KNX is a Los Angeles news station that covers all of SoCal, and needs to run advertising every few minutes. So they’re eating that income. KCLU is back to its regular NPR program. 5:22pm

Inciweb has a Jesusita Fire incident page now. For earlier fires, Inciweb has been the canonical (if unofficial) source of data. KNX just directed listeners looking for non-Santa Barbara news to KFWB, its sister station in Los Angeles. KNX has a strong signal in Santa Barbara. KFWB has none and is much more local to L.A. itself. 8:27pm

They’ve been using “multiple arial assets” including a DC-10 that can deliver large payloads.5:32

Getting close to posting addresses and other “assessments”. “Confident we’re moving towards” posting those. In the next two days. Close to 2500 personnel. More than 200 fire engines. Massive mutual aid program. 5:33pm

Can somebody ask about Painted Cave? 5:34pm

Pictures from Mercury Press. 5:40pm

Ray Ford has another excellent piece in the Independent. To answer a commenter, below, Cocopah was okay. Ray names names on other streets as well. 7:31pm

Here is a view toward MODIS fire findings. I’ve added Gap and Tea Fire perimeters as well. When this thing is over, we’ll have a charred mountain face, but not a bad fire break. For a short while, anyway. 7:38p

jesusita_google_modis6

Okay, that’s enough pictures for your browser to suffer. I’m heading for bed. It’s 10:39 here and I need to be up early. 7:39pm

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No tweets on #jesusitafire OR #santabarbara OR roque OR jesusita in the past three hours. That’s because it’s 5:45am in Santa Barbara right now. Not because nothing is happening. Check this scary image, from 3:25am.

I’m listening to KCLU. They did  good job last night. So did KTYD/99.9, the audio of which was substitued for the usual programing on sister stations KTMS/990 and KIST/1490.

Now it’s 6am, and KCLU only reports that three Ventura County firefighters were injured, some seriously. KTYD is taking a break from music programming to talk about what’s happening. Mostly it’s school closing.

KNX, at 6:05 has a reporter “live from the fire line.” Another at the fire command center. A story about a guy on Palomino Road (where some of our closest friends live) who did something with bush reduction that saved his house and those of neighbors. Doing correct pronunciations, too. “San Row-kee”. “La Coom-bra”. Well done.

Among the local TV stations yesterday, KSBY was the most helpful, because they had a helicopter parked a few hundred feet above the Foothill/San Roque intersection, looking for good video in the burning residential areas, that appeared to run west to east from upper San Roque/Santa Terasita to Tunnel Road. The shots I put up here were mostly from KSBY’s copter.

(Not quite oddly, KSBY is a San Luis Obispo station. SLO is a long drive over and around several mountain ranges. Over the air, KSBY’s signal is already weak where it’s walled off by the Santa Ynez mountains. But it doesn’t matter because almost nobody watches over the air TV in Santa Barbara anyway. There’s only one local English-speaking station (KEYT). If you want more TV, you get cable or satellite. KSBY is a cable station in SB.)

6:15am Pacific. KNX has a guy from Spyglass Ridge, who says all the houses on Holly Road burned, while Spyglass Ridge was spared. The fire jumped over his whole neighborhood. When a fire “jumps” it is usually by dropping burning “debris” at a distance from the fire itself. A the vertical winds in a fire can be high enough to lift burning shingles, bark, hunks of fences and whole flaming bushes, high into the sky, and drop them, still burning, up to half a mile or more away. The Oakland fire in 1991 leaped from Hiller Highlands across Temescal Lake, and two highways — 13 and 24 — to set the Piedmont district on fire. Well over 3000 homes burned in that one. It was easily the most amazing thing I have ever seen. At the height of the fire, a home was blowing up, literally exploding, every four seconds. We had friends who lost houses in that one, and not even the chimneys were standing. The heat at the center of the fire was several times that required for cremation. Cars were reduced to puddles of metal and glass. Once a fire like that gets going, “fighting” it is an optimistic verb.

This is the risk in Santa Barbara. The Cheltenham area, shown on the near side of the smoke in this shot here, is very much like Hiller Highlands and the Upper Broadway sections of Oakland, which burned in that ’91 fire. It’s a neighborhood of closely spaced homes on narrow winding roads, packed with beautiful yet highly flammable forests and landscaping. In other words, the kind of place that can go almost at once, and fast. Santa Barbara’s Riviera district is also like that. So is Barker Hill. And so were some of the regions burned by the Tea Fire.

As of right now, 6:25am, the winds are still calm. But the fire is 0% contained, and burning away on the face of the Santa Ynez mountain range that rises like a wall behind the city to nearly 4000 feet (at La Cumbre Peak). The woods here are dense with what they call “fuel”, and can be an abundant source of burning debris if the winds shift back south toward the civilization and the sea. High winds are expected later today.

So how can we keep up with news?

First, there’s Twitter. At 6:29am, the latest tweet on this search is from 3 hours ago and says

zbasset: #jesusitafire Has anyone been outside to do a visual this morning? How does it look? about 3 hours ago from web

This is actually helpful. So are any other tweets with actual reports, or links to useful information. Most of them are. Kudos to the tweeters.

It’s remarkable to see how far we’ve come since @nateritter started @sandiegofire in 2007. That showed what Twitter can do. In Santa Barbara it did much more in the Gap Fire and the Tea Fire. But now it’s mainstream. Every radio and TV station that wants to play in the clue flow has a Twitter account. The problem is, most of them are clueless in other ways, mostly because they still don’t realize that they are no longer the only lighthouses on the coast. There is an emerging ecosystem of news now, and it’s one in which everybody pariticipates. The result looks and sounds more like a trading floor than a newspaper or a radio or TV dial.

Speaking of which here’s a good list of local radio stations in Santa Barbara.

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We’re in Boston, watching neighborhoods near our own in Santa Barbara, burning as the Jesusita Fire spreads south out of the mountains and into town. KSBY is running a live feed from a helicopter here. The audio is on constantly, so you can hear the pilot talking with the studio when reporters aren’t.

Here are some screen captures and Google Earth views, enhanced by MODIS satellite overlays. MODIS detects heat on the ground from a satellite that passes overhead a few times per day. One of those is above. The MODIS information is from early this afternoon. No new ones have been posted since then, and it’s now 7:50pm. The fire has spread into the middle left part of the shot above. If you go here and mouse over the picture, you’ll see the area that has been burning. The fires are in patches.

Here’s a google map with lots of helpful info.

KCLU radio is running constant coverage. Listen here. Good that they fired up a good new signal on 1340am. Lots of listeners calling in right now. [Later... KTYD is now running nonstop coverage.]

Much of the town is under evacuation orders, including areas that run all the way down to State Street, which is the main drag through the middle of town. Our home is in one of the mandatory evacuation zones. We’re highly evacuated, yet wishing we were there.

The winds are clearly from the west, moving straight east, toward Mission Canyon. In the path is the Cheltenham Road area, which is hill covered with lots of foliage and lots of houses. This is an area very much like the Oakland Hills, where I watched more than 3000 homes burn in 1991.

The last house that burned on TV is west of San Roque Road and Lauro Canyon Reservoir (which appears in some of the footage). I think it’s on Santa Terasita Road, off North Ontare. I’m taking some screen shots and trying to match them with the terrain view on Google Earth. I’ll put those shots up too.

One structure I see burning appears to be on the north side of E. Alamar Avenue, behind the Cheltenham neighborhood. Not sure, though.

I’d say this is surreal, but it’s all too real, and familiar. And scary as shit.

Okay, flames on San Roque Road, above the reservoir. Spyglass Ridge Road. Maybe Palomino Road. It would be nice if the reporter or the pilot would identify the roads they’re looking at. Instead they’re talking about hitting the Elephant Bar after they land.

I also notice that the winds have stopped. There appears to be a lull. The smoke is moving in the vertical direction. This is very good. Hope it lasts.

8:13pm Pacific. Here’s a Twitter stream on the fire. Props to KCSB for that one.

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Well, the Tea Fire has been upstaged by the Sylmar Fire. (Both links are to LA Times stories. Do LA Times stories still drift behind a paywall after a week? Not sure. If so, I’ll change them to more permanent pages later.) Here’s the latest I’ve heard from KCLU radio…

  • The official toll of burned structures is now 111, although the real number is likely higher than 150.
  • There are still small ground fires to put out along the north side of Mission Ridge Road, and that’s what’s keeping the evacuation roadblocks up.
  • The fire is officially 40% contained.
  • Officials are hoping to lift evacuation notices by the end of the day.

Noozhawk says the number may be as high as 200. Here’s more.

I’m heads-down, finishing a major writing assignment, and won’t be revisiting fire matters until later today. Meanwhile it’s clear that the Tea Fire is in the mopping-up stage, as the life-rebuilding stage has barely begun for hundreds of people here.

A friend just called and said that the barricades are still up, but the cops there also said they expected some areas to be opened within an hour. If you’re in an evacuated area, check with SB County Fire or Montecito Fire.

Other links: fire.ca.gov on Tea Fire, Edhat news, Noozhawk news, SB Independent news, City 2.0 bulletin boardHere are some pictures of the Westmont campus. Amazed it wasn’t much worse.

More later. (Including the pictures I just put up.)

[Later...] Back home. Other parts of town are still barricaded, but ours isn’t. I’m at my desk now, getting to work.

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