WBUR

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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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@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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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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I’m sitting at #ima09, at one of the last panels: “Future of Public Media News: A Vision and A Plan.” Leonard Witt is speaking right now, and has a killer proposal: turn PBS into a “news powerhouse.” His case is brief and right-on.

Newspapers aren’t the only news organizations that are faltering, he says. Local TV news is crapping out too. As with newspapers, advertising is drying up: going away or moving elsewhere. Nobody talks about it much, but your evening news has been brought to you for many years by car dealers, spending co-op money from Chevy, Toyota and the rest of them. Bottom line: the advertising model is failing too.

Meanwhile, public broadcasting is sitting on — or next to — lots of news gathering and sharing organizations, including local and regional public radio stations, and allied listeners and viewers out the wazoo. Lots of those folks are blogging and tweeting. There is a natural sybiosis between these affiliated individuals (whether or not we call them “members”) and stations. Leonard is talking about how even small staffs — one reporter per TV station, for example — can add up. And (this is critical) without the high overhead of newspapers and other commercial media.

Another thing. PBS — and public television in general — desperately needs to move beyond its good but dull and old-hat stuff. The Discovery Channels (there are six), the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel and lots of other cable channels are eating away at PBS’s viewing shares. PBS, once one of the four major TV networks, now just holds down a few notches on a “dial” that isn’t anymore, and has hundreds of other channels. And this doesn’t even count the Net, which will continue to widen in bandwidth. At some point anybody will be able to stream anything to anybody in reasonably high definintion. When that happens, all that will remain of TV “networks”, “stations” and “channels” will be their antique names. These will matter as “brands”, but their content will matter far more. People will watch what they find interesting, relevant, familiar and reliable. And, in the case of news, sometimes necessary.

So here’s an interesting and opportune coincidence: as commercial TV news continues to tank, PBS and its affiliates can leverage their standing strength in news — one substantiated by their colleagues over on the public radio dial.

PBS’ news work can expand beyond the News Hour, Frontline and Bill Moyers. PBS stations can also go into the news business and appeal to the same people who currently spend a buck or more per day on newspapers — and can spend on other news sources.

We’ve seen what’s happened already with public radio. Stations like WNYC, KPCC, WBUR, KQED and WUNC all jacked up their ratings and income by moving from eclectic to “information” programming, built around morning and evening news programs from NPR. Public radio had advantages — a “dial” of finite width, for example (with one wide end  — 88-92Mhz) carved out just for noncommercial use, plus the homogenization and downscaling of commercial competition. So, while PBS was having its lunch eaten by commercial competition, NPR was eating the lunches of its commercial competitors. (The stations listed above are at or near the top in their local markets’ ratings.)

Can PBS and its affiliates get news teeth? I think they have to. Fortunately, commercial TV news has a very soft underbelly.

Now Susanna Capelbuto from Georgia Public Broadcasting is talking about GPB Radio’s Georgia Gazette. The show does video too (on the Net). How big a stretch is it for the network, or its stations, to do that on TV too — especially since ditital TV stations can now transmit up to four program streams (each called a “station”) at the same time. Yes, the costs of production can be high, but so are the benefits.

I’m sure there will be plenty of resistance, but it’s a damn fine idea. Leonard, during the Q&A, addressing the public TV broadcasters: “You have the gravitas, you have the reputation, you have the name. You have everything you need except the will to do it.” Perhaps not quite verbatim, but close enough. That was right after telling them that the idea is too good, and too opportune, to pass up. If public television does pass it up, commercial broadcasters will get the clues. CNN is already on the case.

[later...] Nice follow-up no the whole event, including endorsement of the above, from Robert Paterson.

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