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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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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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