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sb-radioWhen we moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, the public radio pickings were pretty slim:

  • 88.3 KCLU, a faint signal from Thousand Oaks.
  • 88.7 KQSC, a strong local station on Gibraltar Peak carrying the classical music programming of Los Angeles’ KUSC. Santa Barbara also had classical KDB on 93.7, an equal-sized signal on Gibraltar Peak.
  • 89.1 KCRU, a weak signal from Oxnard carrying Santa Monica’s KCLW.
  • 89.5 KPBS, San Diego’s public station, which came and went depending on weather conditions over the 200 miles of Pacific Ocean it crossed on the way.
  • 89.9 KCBX from San Luis Obispo, via a 10-watt translator on GibraltAr Peak
  • 102.3 KCLU’s 4-watt translator on Gibraltar Peak

So Santa Barbara had two strong local classical stations and no local public station, other than KCLU’s translator. Credit where due: KCLU devoted a large percentage of its local news coverage to Santa Barbara. Also, in those days, KEYT, the TV station, also had a local AM news station on 1250am, with Morning Drive held down by local news star John Palminteri.

In the years since then, the following happened:

  • KEYT disappeared on 1250am, which became a Spanish station.
  • KCLU bought 1340am, which radiates from downtown, and cranked up local coverage for Santa Barbara, in effect becoming Santa Barbara’s first real public radio station. They used John Palminteri a lot too.
  • KCBX left its translator on 89.9 and started a repeater station, KSBX, on 89.5, a signal with 50 watts to the west and south about 10 watts to the east, from Gibraltar Peak. The old 89.9 signal went to a religious broadcaster. Local Santa Barbara coverage was minimal.
  • KCRW got a translator on 106.9, to reach Goleta and the western parts of Santa Barbara from a site on West Camino Cielo radiating 10 watts toward town and as little as 1.35 watts in other directions.
  • KDB got saved when it was bought by the Santa Barbara Foundation, and converted to a noncommercial station.
  • Bob Newhart sold his station at 1290am, effectively, to the Santa Barbara News-Press, which made it KZSB, A 24-hour local news and talk station. At just 500 watts by day and 120 watts at night, it’s small but covers the city itself just fine.

And that was the status quo until just recently, when all this happened:

  • KCLU cranked up the power of its 102.3 translator to 115 watts toward downtown, with nulls to the east and west (across hills and mountains) of 5.4 watts, which is still better than the old 4-watt signal.
  • KPCC, Los Angeles’ main all-news/talk public station from Pasadena, displaced the religious broadcaster on the 89.9 translator. It puts out 10 watts to the west from Gibraltar Peak, and less in other directions.
  • A set of deals went down (see links below) by which KDB’s staff got fired and programming replaced by KUSC’s, which moved up the dial to 93.7 from 88.7, where KCRW appeared with the call letters KDRW. The KQSC call letters were dropped, so the call letters on 93.7 are still KDB, but the station is really KUSC.

As a result, Santa Barbara now has all three main Los Angeles public stations — KUSC, KCRW and KPCC — along with KCLU and KCBX. And that’s in addition to a pair of non-NPR public stations: KCSB/91.9 from UCSB (radiating from Broadcast Peak west of the city, home of nearly all the locals that aren’t on Gibraltar Peak), and a 10-watt translator for KPFK, the Pacifica station from Los Angeles, on 98.7 from Gibraltar Peak.

As Nick Welsh asks in the Independent, NPR Saturation in Santa Barbara?

As a listener, I’m glad to have so many choices. (Even the mostly-news-talk stations are hardly clones of each other; and KCRW is heavily into music and a younger demographic slant.) But if I were KCLU or KCBX, I’d be pissed to find my stations playing Bambi in a fight with three big-city Godzillas.

So here’s a bunch of additional stuff you probably won’t read anywhere else.

First, Santa Barbara’s terrain is weird for FM. There is no perfect transmitter site.

At our house, on the city side of the Riviera, we have line of sight to none of the local stations, which is what you need for a clear signal. So they all sound like crap there.

The Gibraltar Peak site is good for covering most of the South Coast, but is well below the crest of the mountains, block signals toward the Santa Ynez valley. They all sound awful there, or are gone completely.

Power matters less than line-of-sight. This is why KCLU, with just four watts on 102.3fm for all those years, did very well in the ratings I’ve seen for it.

The Broadcast Peak site is much higher (over 4000 feet high, with a view from San Luis Obispo to Ventura. Signals from there are advantaged by the elevation, but its distance from Santa Barbara is also a factor. It’s way out of town. The killer signal there, by the way, is KVYB on 103.3fm. It’s 105,000 watts, making it the most powerful FM station in the whole country. KYGA, a noncommercial Christian rock station on 97.5, is also huge with 17,500 watts. KCSB is just 620 watts up there, which is why it’s strong in Goleta but on the weak side in Santa Barbara. KFYZ doesn’t do much better from the same site, with 810 watts. KCBX also has a 10-watt translator on Broadcast Peak on 90.9, but it’s only full-power south toward Gaviota Beach and northwest toward Solvang and Los Olivos.

These FM issues are why, in my opinion, KCLU’s AM signal on 1340 is a big winner. Its signal isn’t big (only 650 watts), but AM waves flow over terrain that messes up FM. A transmitter site near salt water does wonders for AM signals as well. (KCLU radiates from a red and white pole standing in the city equipment yard on Yanonali Street, a few hundred feet from the ocean. That’s it in the picture above.) So there are no “holes” in its coverage, from Carpinteria to Capitola Beach.

The big loser, hate to say, is KCBX. Their old Santa Barbara signal on 89.9, now occupied by KPCC, had the advantage of nobody else on that channel that could be picked up in the area. By moving to 89.5, their signal had to compete with KPBS, which since then has moved closer to Santa Barbara and raised its power. At our Riviera home on KPBS blows KCBX away on 89.5, nearly all the time. KCBX knew they had problems after they moved, and tried to move back to 89.9 with a bigger signal, but that fell through.

I expect the result will be a lot more public radio listening in Santa Barbara, with KCLU remaining the local favorite, simply because it remains local.

Meanwhile, some other moves on the South Coast:

  • 106.3, which radiated from Gibraltar Peak for many years with different call letters and formats, moved to Ventura, where it is now a country station.
  • KSBL/101.7, which moved from Gibraltar Peak to West Camino Cielo a while back, and dropped its power in the process to 890 watts (a bad move, in my opinion), has a construction permit to move the transmitter to Santa Cruz Island. This involves a raise in the class of the station, meaning technically it’ll be bigger. Santa Cruz Island has great line-of-sight to all of coastal Southern California, but the station will now be more than 30 miles from town. And the signal is directional, mostly to the west, meaning it will only be full power toward the islands and the coast west of Santa Barbara. Toward the east it will be way less. (I’m also not sure how they’ll get electric power to the site, which is on a remote peak of what is also a nearly uninhabited national park.)
  • KRZA-LP is a new 100-watt station on 96.5. The construction permit is licensed to La Casa de la Raza, and will broadcast from downtown Santa Barbara. Says the site, “The mission of La Casa de la Raza is to develop and empower the Latino community by affirming and preserving the Latino cultural heritage, providing an umbrella for services and by advocating for participation in the larger community.” So: a true community station. Says here the transmitter will be at the corner of Montecito and Salsipuedes Streets.
  • KTYD/99.9, which has the biggest signal on Gibraltar Peak (34,000 watts), is getting a new 250-watt translator in Goleta on 104.1, radiating from Platform Holly, off the coast of Isla Vista.

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.

Here are some of my open tabs, now closing as I list them here in outline form:

I’m working in WordPress here, going back and forth between the Visual and HTML tabs in WordPress’s UI for composing posts. I do this by making a plain unordered (bulleted) list, and then hacking it in HTML to make the list into a two-level outline. Labor-intensive, it is.

I would rather do this with an outliner. Which I will, thanks to the Little Outliner that Dave Winer and friends are working on. I’m one of those friends, and I’m looking forward to lots of fun with this. I’m an outlining freak going all the way back to when I first encountered Dave, in 1984, when he was working on Think Tank.

Outlining is one of those practices that are hard to get but easy to do once you get them. With the Little Outiner, people finally will. The right people, anyway. :-)

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:

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.

@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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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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Jonathan Zittrain: “I don’t think .gov and .com never work. We too easily underestimate the possibilities of .org — the roles we can play as netizens rather than merely as voters or consumers.” Yesss. Putting a “vs.” between government and business tends to narrow conversation to arguments that miss important points. Such as what .orgs can do.

That’s a big reason why why I love being at the Berkman Center (of which JZ is a founder). Here’s my .org there. It has (speaking toward Cato‘s libertarian sympathies) the intention of liberating the demand side of the marketplace, and making gazillions of dollars for business, without government help.

I believe some .orgs can create public goods with enormous private leverage. I also think some .orgs can also have the effect of lessening .gov urges to mess with .com business. (Heck, Cato itself is a .org.)

Anyway, I urge folks to check out the whole Cato Unbound thing. It’s the tip of a thoughtberg.

I’m pretty good at getting buzz when I want it. The irony of running ProjectVRM, however, is that I don’t want much of that. Not yet, anyway. About a year ago I did promote it a bit, got a lot of great response, and also spent a lot of time debugging bad understandings of what VRM is and what’s going on with it.

Since then I’ve kept a pretty low profile with it, and encouraged others to do the same. That way we get fewer people showing up, but a better chance that they’re the right people.

But still, the buzz is out there. And, since it’s a new and as yet unproven idea, it attracts detractors as well. Here’s one that lays out “four fallacies” of VRM, all based on wrong understandings of what it is, and what its roles will be. So, I just tried to debug those understandings with this post here.

As I said there, I urge folks to hold off on their judgement until we’ve got working code and actual stuff that does what VRM is supposed to do. Trust me, it’ll come.

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I love Dave Barry. A couple of random paragraphs:

  The Democrats pounced immediately on the choice of Palin, charging that she is unqualified, especially compared to the ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who have a total of nearly 40 years of experience in the U.S. Senate, or, if you subtract Biden, nearly four years of experience.

  But the McCain camp is defending Palin’s résumé, which, aside from being a governor and a mayor, includes being a mom, playing basketball, hunting moose and being runner-up for Miss Alaska 1984. There was some grumbling among Republican insiders that McCain would have been better off choosing somebody with a thicker résumé, such as Mitt Romney, who actually won Miss Alaska 1984.

But seriously, it’s disappointing to see the GOP present itself as the War Party. The most sensible Republican I heard tonight was Ron Paul, talking to Tavis Smiley on the motel TV. The least sensible was Rudy Giuliani, whose mockery of Obama’s work as a community organizer pissed me off. I was once a community organizer. I wasn’t very good at it, but I developed enormous respect for those who were. It’s good, hard and important work.

Obama is still doing it. And he’ll need to do a lot more if he’s going to win in November.

Between now and then it’ll be high road vs. low road. Hate to say I’m betting on the latter.

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