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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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In a meeting yesterday, somebody on the IRC shared links to “Re-identification of home addresses from spatial locations anonymized by Gaussian skew” and “Bregman divergences in the (m x k)-partitioning problem“, from Science Digest. Sez the abstract of the latter,

A method of fixed cardinality partition is examined. This methodology can be applied on many problems, such as the confidentiality protection, in which the protection of confidential information has to be ensured, while preserving the information content of the data. The basic feature of the technique is to aggregate the data into m groups of small fixed size k, by minimizing Bregman divergences. It is shown that, in the case of non-uniform probability measures the groups of the optimal solution are not necessarily separated by hyperplanes, while with uniform they are. After the creation of an initial partition on a real data-set, an algorithm, based on two different Bregman divergences, is proposed and applied. This methodology provides us with a very fast and efficient tool to construct a near-optimum partition for the (m×k)-partitioning problem.

Keywords: Confidentiality; Data masking; Fixed cardinality partitioning; Fixed size micro-aggregation; Bregman divergences; Pythagorean property; Convex partition

What’s extra wacky is that I actually spent time diving into this stuff, even though it’s about forty thousand leagues over my head. Still, it was fun trying to remember all that math I barely learned too long ago.

As I recall, the highest grade I ever got in high school math was a C. That was in Geometry. (Hey, I’m a visual guy.) The only math course I took in college was Statistics. The teacher and I couldn’t stand each other, and I dropped out, or thought I did. Turns out I was too late doing that and the guy gave me an F.

But I kept the book, which served me well years later when I was studying Arbitron’s ratings for radio stations. To my surprise, I actually liked the subject, and used what I learned from the book to develop algorithms for factoring out seasonal variations in station AQH (average quarter hour) shares, to aid in predicting which stations would do what in the next “book”. In addition to racking up billable hours for my company, and helping our client station sell advertising, I was able to win bets with friends in the radio business.

The biggest bet of all was that WFXC, the station with the weakest signal in the Raleigh-Durham metro, would kick ass in the first book after its programming went “urban” (that’s radio talk for “black”). The math was easy. The market was about 40% black, and no other FM stations addressed that population.

I won. Foxy was #1 in its first book. (And it’s still doing well, 2+ decades later.)

As it happens, WFXC “Foxy 107″ (a name I suggested to the owners before they picked the call letters, though I don’t know if I was the first to come up with that) was consulted at the time by Dean Landsman, whom I didn’t know at the time. We became good friends years later when we both haunted the late Compuserve’s late Broadcast Professionals Forum, which was run by Mary Lu Wehmeier, now a friend as well. She was the “Sysop” for that forum, where I occasionally came off the bench to help. Running the Sysop Forum was Jonathan Zittrain, who later helped found the Berkman Center, and now stars as a professor at Harvard Law School. Making things even more circular, Dean is now a valuable and diligent contributor to ProjectVRM. Dean, a closet math whiz, made a living for many years doing in-depth work around radio station ratings. I’ll be he knows, or could puzzle out, the quoted text at the top of this post.

By the way, my nickname is the fossil remnant of a radio persona called “Doctor Dave”, featured on WDBS, the prior incarnation of WFXC, which is still around (now with a somewhat better transmitter, and a second and much larger signal on another channel, covering the east side of the market). When I was there, in the mid-’70s, WDBS was owned by Duke University and had awful ratings to go with its awful signal. But it was a great little station. Still friends with folks from those days too.

Ah, I found the picture I was looking for, now at the top of this post. That was the WDBS staff in 1975, I’m guessing. I’m the guy with the wide tie and the narrow shoulders in the back row. There are many missing folks too. I’d love to follow this digressive path, but have too much work to do. At least I’ve left plenty of link and tag bait. :-)

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