Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clear Channel's Minot Story Just Won't Die

This post by esteemed media critic Dan Kennedy references the infamous poison gas event in Minot, N.D. in 2002. I like Dan's blog a lot, so I was glad to see that at least he was thorough enough to link to a site that explains why Minot was the result of a poorly-implemented and -executed state/local emergency plan moreso than because Clear Channel owned all the commercial stations in Minot.

But good God, man...will this story ever DIE?? It's been five years and we're still beating this dead horse; and I for one find it interesting that nobody attacks Prairie Public Radio, the local NPR outlet, for not providing any real-time information about the event. But I digress...

My point here is that Dan was lamenting FCC Dark Lord Chairman Kevin Martin rammed through deregulation of newspaper and TV/radio station ownership, and that supposedly Minot was an example of the bad things that happen with deregulation. Frankly, Minot is a poor example to cite here. Clear Channel's cost savings from consolidation is probably what let them afford to have at least one token air staff person in the studio that fateful night. The rest were unattended not because of consolidation, but because of computer technology doing the same job for a lot less money. Even independent/local-owned stations make extensive use of computers to replace DJ's...look at uber-local WJIB 740AM, which is often cited as a "good example" of a local station. WJIB has no DJ's at all...it's all just computer automation set up by the owner, Bob Bittner. Before computers, it was Bob's "famous" VCR tapes and cart machines. I don't begrudge Bob that at all, mind you. I'm just pointing out the facts.

Frankly, a better example about how consolidation has hurt localism is the $10,000 fines that WCHC (College of the Holy Cross) and WERS (Emerson College) received from the FCC for public file violations during the most recent round of FCC license renewal.

Sound odd? I'll explain:

The FCC requires all radio stations to file for renewal of their licenses from the FCC every seven or eight years (it keeps changing). As part of that renewal, you must certify that your station has followed all FCC rules during the previous license period. You're supposed to tell the truth, because if you lie on a federal form, it's a felony...something your license holder (the parent college) does not like being put at risk of. But many, MANY college radio stations...even those with their act together like WERS...often have screwed up something in their public file at some point over a seven year period. It's pretty easy to do - the public file rules are rather arcane.

So many stations did tell the truth and admitted some violation of the public file rules. Many then explained what they'd done to correct the problem (sometimes years ago). And the FCC went ahead and fined them $10,000 for their honesty. Mind you, the context here is that the FCC never went after the dozens of stations (some were commercial conglomerates, some commercial independents, some non-commercial...it wasn't just Clear Channel) that lied on their forms and got away with it and never got any fine at all. Great example to set there, Mr. FCC.

Here's where this gets interesting: the renewals are staggered over five years, with stations in different clusters of States, so as not to overwhelm the system. During the first round, the public uproar over deregulation had not taken hold as much as it did by the later rounds...so the FCC kept upping the ante with these public file violation fines. In the first round, stations that admitted to violations got a $4000 fine. Later rounds got a $5000 or $7000 fine. By the time we got to stations in Massachusetts (the fourth round) it was $10,000. It's not like the stations in later rounds could do anything to "fix" the problem in the face of higher fines; the problems all occurred years before the renewals started.

No, the fines just kept getting higher because the FCC was facing more and more criticism about media deregulation...and this was their "solution" for it, since the FCC feels the public file is how they judge stations on localism.

Ergo, thanks to the sins of deregulation, two good college radio stations got shafted for being honest whereas some big commercial conglomerates got away with lying through their teeth. Taken more broadly, because deregulation has led to such huge corporate entities, the FCC has been forced to up the ante on its penalties for them to have any teeth with these billion-dollar companies. Unfortunately it means that a slap on the wrist to Clear Channel could be a death knell to a small college or public radio station...and these stations are self-censoring themselves heavily as a result.

That's the real problem with deregulation - the greater regulation of ideas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Speaking of Overly-Cutesy Marketing

My blog posts are getting prescient! I just talked about how marketing for our soon-to-be-new station, WITH, could easily drive off a cliff by being too "clever".

Then last night, my wife shows me a flyer confirming her voter registration in Monroe County, New York. At the top of the flyer, in a big bold logo, it says "You're Right to Vote"

My wife was an English major at a very liberal arts University. And trust me, once that stuff gets in your blood, you never get it out. She was completely confused and fairly convinced that they'd made a giant typo with "You're" (as in, it should've been "Your").

I, being a political junkie (another thing that gets in your blood) immediately saw what I thought was inappropriate political bias by using the phrase "right" in an electoral mailing (as in, "right-wing" conservative).

Even if both of us are completely wrong...a distinct possibility...this is clearly a case of marketing running amok by trying to be "too clever". I suspect someone thought it'd be cool to send a message that it's both your God-given right to exercise voter choice and also tell people it's a good thing to vote (aka "you're on the right/correct side of things").

I suppose it is clever, but it's trying too hard. I think there's two layers of cleverness and that destroys the logic too much to make it easy to recognize the cleverness. For example, the clever misspelling of "You're" changes the meaning of "right" so much that it makes hard to reconcile. I don't think you can have only one layer of cleverness in this particular phrase, so I don't have a real way to "fix" this slogan without discarding it entirely...which admittedly I'm loathe to do since I respect thoughtful attempts at cleverness.

But either way, this one just didn't work for me or my wife. God only knows how many other people it didn't work for, either.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Get WITH it on 90.1 - Marketing Gone Awry?

So WEOS holds a CP for a new station on 90.1 down in Ithaca, NY. Originally we hoped to get the call letters "WEOI" but those belong to an active ship, so no go. After a while we finally managed to get the next best thing: "WITH".

Yes, I'm serious: WITH...short for Ithaca, of course. But as you can imagine, the possibility for marketing cheesiness is quite high anytime you have call letters that actually spell a word. A prime example is WIFE-FM 94.3 in Rushville, Indiana...their slogan is "The Hot Wife". Grooooan.

And I'm already finding myself getting a little too cheesy for comfort in thinking about our promotions plan when we get 90.1 on the air. For example, one of our biggest shows is Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. So the slogan that immediately comes to mind is:

Get WITH Amy Goodman every weekday on 90.1FM!

...annnnnd it's all downhill from there.

Yes it's clever, but it's definitely straddling the line when you're talking about public radio. Sure NPR is often way too uptight but we do try to have some level of decorum. This is, I imagine, something I'll be dealing with for quite a while. :-)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Public Radio needs a Sugar Daddy

So I had a idea the other day. I'm relatively sure that it's too obvious for someone to not be doing it, have done it and stopped, or there's some reason you just can't do it.

The idea is simple: a public radio station buys a commercial radio outlet. This outlet is operated to minimize costs first and then maximize revenue after that. Then the revenue is used to support the public radio side. That's it. Even a weak-performing commercial license in a medium (or even a small) market typically bills into the six figures' profit every year (I think...admittedly I don't KNOW that, but I'm pretty sure it's true). That's not much for a commercial operator, but it's a helluva lot of money for a pubradio station. Hence, your pubradio outlet has a sugar daddy!

To get more into details...

Preferably the station would be FM, but AM will certainly do. I feel the key is that it must be purchased and operated on the cheap. Well, okay, commercial radio licenses typically go for several million dollars, so "cheap" is a relative term. But anything over $5 mil is probably too expensive for this to work.

Take the commercial license and program it with a minimum of expenses and a maximum of revenue. Have as little regard for quality of programming or ratings as possible; this station isn't meant to be "successful" in terms of getting more listeners or serving listeners better. It's goal is simply to make as much money as you can while spending as little as possible.

I envision one or two salespeople (max) and no other staff. Don't have a separate main studio unless you absolutely can't avoid it. Don't bother investing anything beyond the minimum to the engineering plant. Cheap. Cheap. Cheap.

What to put on the air? Not your regular pubradio programming. This is a "filthy lucre" source and while you don't want to lie about owning it, you certainly don't want to draw attention to it; might upset the delicate donor/station relationship. So instead, you want to find a cheap format that's currently underserved in your market. Foreign-language immediately comes to mind. Maybe even selling your soul entirely :-) and just leasing out airtime to the highest bidder. If that's too distasteful, there's probably an underserved audience in your market...something that's profitable but not profitable enough to satisfy a growth-obsessed Wall Street.

That's something I want to call special attention to: many commercial stations are owned by publicly-traded companies. That means they answer to Wall Street. Wall Street wants growth, period. I think this is the main reason why there are so many underserved demographics in many markets; it's not that they're unprofitable...it's just that they aren't profitable enough for a publicly-traded conglomerate. But they'd be plenty profitable for the purposes of this idea.

I have to think the threshold here is that the station has have net annual profit of at least 10% of the purchase price. Preferably 20%. That way you can pay off the purchase price in a few years, and the rest is pure profit. I've never run a commercial station before, so I don't know if an annual net profit of $100k - $500k is reasonable for a small or medium market...but it certainly seems reasonable.

Let's call special attention to that as well...$100k in net profit would make a substantial difference in pretty much any small or medium market public radio station! Okay, you might have to defer that profit for a few years while you're paying off any debt incurred in purchasing the station in the first place. But by carefully structuring things, you shouldn't be making debt payments for more than a few years.

With Clear Channel selling off so many properties...a lot of stations' selling values have dropped down to more "reasonable" levels, so it feels like this idea should work. Perhaps it's overly audacious, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't work.

Monday, December 10, 2007

There are No Guarantees in the NFL

He's not technically a rookie, but damned if he didn't make a rookie mistake. Hey Anthony Smith! Never make a "guarantee" in the NFL! Especially if you're saying you're going to beat the Patriots.

What a dumass!

It's Opposite Day!

I like Scott Adams's "Dilbert" blog. He's not exactly Descartes, but he usually has something interesting to say...and often it's insightful, and sometimes it's even really clever or smart. That's a lot more than can be said about a lot of blogs out there.

In today's post, he does something he does every now and then: takes a position he doesn't agree with and tries to argue in favor of it. It's an extension of something (and most comedians) he does as a humorist; he asks "What if something is the opposite of what it seems?" If you can successfully do that, you usually will find something funny about almost anything in life. But of course, it's also analogous to the concept of holding two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time...often referred to as a mark of intelligence.

Anyways, I've got it in my head that perhaps I should start doing this with public radio in general. Might come up with some interesting ideas as a result. I don't have anything to commit to the blog just yet, though...but I post this in case anyone's got suggestions.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Holy Crap It Snows a LOT Here

Okay, so I'm from Boston, right? I seen snow. A not inconsequential amount of snow, mind you. I survived the blizzards of 1984, 1993 and 2005 just fine.

But even by my jaded standards...this is a bit much. First month in Rochester and we are getting BURIED in snow. It's basically snowed nonstop for two days...it's hard to say exactly how much is out there; it's been pretty cold so the snow is really powder-ish...blows around a lot. But this pic of my grill kinda says a lot. Maybe 8 or 10 inches plus?

And this is AFTER about four inches fell four days ago and then melted before this storm hit.

Oh yeah, and anyone who says "lake effect" doesn't really reach the Thruway? Completely full of it. Yes indeedy. Plenty of snow on the Thruway.

Monday, December 03, 2007

One Fundraiser, Hold the Fundraising

So while I run a college radio station, it's still a radio station. One aspect of that is, naturally, the budget. Money goes out, so I need to find ways to bring money in.

Recently I learned that your prototypical on-air fundraiser is actually an extremely inefficient way to raise money from your supporters. It's because you have a very low number of actual donors compared to the number of people you're begging money from (your entire listening audience).

So I would think that it stands to reason that ideas that follow the reverse would be more effective. In other words, instead of one method that hits all your potential supporters in the most in-your-face method possible...you'd have multiple methods targeting supporters with specific methods that are as unnoticeable as possible.

Keeping with that train of thought, what concepts could you do to essentially get money from supporters without them even realizing it? Short of actual theft, that is. Two ideas come to mind:
  1. Impulse Buy The equivalent of the candy and tabloids in the checkout aisle. It's right there, it's easy to do, you're ready to pay anyways...might as well do it. The catch here is that you really need an instant gratification to "justify" the "purchase" to the donor. Here's an idea: Convince your local supermarket to add an option to the debit card screen...donate X dollars to your station, get Y percent off your groceries that day. Supermarket also gets underwriting in barter; treats the whole thing like a challenge grant. Another idea: convince your local gas station to have a "public radio pump", where gas costs an extra dime or quarter a gallon. Don't tell the donors this, but say 80% of that extra dime/quarter goes to you, the rest goes to the gas station
    (as an incentive). Admittedly, even higher gas prices might not go over so well right now...but you get the idea.
  2. Wait...I Donated to My Station? Takes the impulse buy concept to the next level - make it so people donate without even realizing it. First step is to find a means by which people pay for something every month without really thinking about it. Utilities immediately comes to mind...heat, electricity, cable, internet, cellphone, car payment, insurance, etc...but anything where people just pay it without thinking about would work. If you can convince the vendor to add a simple way...like a checkbox on their paper bill...by which a person can choose to add X dollars to their monthly bill to support their local public radio station. That way they keep donating every month and they don't even really know it.
Think my ideas are full of it? I guess we'll see over the next several months if my ideas actually work, eh? Or feel free to post a comment today. If I can bloviate here right now, why can't you? :-)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Ignoring the Obvious

A brief word of wisdom: when it's the day before a snowstorm, and you're in Lowe's, and you think you really ought to buy a snow shovel...but you don't? You will spend the day after a snowstorm trying to find a snow shovel with zero success.

At least I thought to get a bucket of ice melt salt several weeks ago...although, natch, every place I went had lots of that.

And my sister in law has the nerve to gleefully point out how much better the weather is in her new home in San Francisco than it was in Seattle. Never mind that neither place has seen more than an inch of snow since the Nixon administration. Grrrr....

Note: I'm just kidding, I actually like my sister-in-law; she's very nice.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Aaron's Not as Dumb as He Looks!

Woo-hoo! A little validation is always a nice thing. :-) I posted a comment over at Media Nation, an excellent media commentary blog by Northeastern University Professor (and journalist extraordinare, Dan Kennedy). It was about how the relative ease of researching quote attribution on the web has led to an unrealistic...and growing...expectation that journalists will be much more thorough in attribution than they've ever been expected to be in the past; and far more so than many do right now.

I quote the esteemed Mr. Kennedy:
Aaron: One of the smartest comments I've seen on this in a long while. I think the ease of blogging and linking is causing a lot of people to look at traditional practices like no-credit backgrounding in a new, less favorable light.

All this and from a Red Sox fan, no less. :-)

Radio Without a Future?

Today I had to manage a minor crisis from afar...part of it involved checking to see if a given program was playing on the air or not, and I couldn't do that because I wasn't near a computer and I was physically outside of our broadcast range.

My very-capable student PD was helping me manage it and she was on-campus, so I asked her to check it. She said she couldn't yet because her laptop was still booting. I said just turn on a radio.

Awkward pause.

"I don't have a radio." came the sheepish reply.

A minute or two later her computer finished booting and she confirmed, via webcast, that the show was on. But this certainly was a glaring, if anecdotal, example of something I and several others have noticed lately: college kids are so not into radio, they don't even OWN a radio. Not even a clock radio; they use their cellphones for an alarm clock. Most still have a radio in their car, of course, but of the ones I've asked, none of them listen to it...every one said they listen to CD's or their iPod.

Part of me suspects that, to paraphrase a bit, Mohamed will eventually come to the Mountain. That is, as these college kids get older and reach a "magic age", they will eventually seek radio out because it will provide content that they find more useful and relevant, and provide it in a way more relevant than a CD or iPod will.

FWIW, I think public radio is better-stationed than commercial radio to welcome these kinds of listeners, too...although that's like saying a swimming pool is better than a bucket at holding a thimble of water; both will do it...but both are still pretty much bone-dry.

I fear that it's more likely that people in the 18-25 demographic...ESPECIALLY those that are at or have gone to college...will reach that beforementioned "magic age" without ever considering radio to be a serious medium for receiving content. And in the 10 or 20 years between now and that "magic age", it's entirely possible that another technology will emerge to provide that content in a way as relevant as radio...or even moreso.

For example, right now I can use my web-enabled cellphone (a sweet Samsung i760...oh how I love this new toy!) to listen to webcasts in my car. However, it depends on the EVDO network from Verizon Wireless (which is not nearly as widespread in coverage as radio is) and I have to use an adapter to hook it up to my car's aux input (a hassle to put it mildly...and it risks damaging the phone's jack) and I have to go through a complicated series of taps on the screen (that cannot be done by touch alone - I must look at the screen) just to start audio playback...never mind try to change webcasts or even pause it. In other words, it's such a hassle to do compared to the inherent simplicity of radio that I usually just stick with radio, even when the content isn't quite what I want.

But this will change. Voice-recognition technology is already here thanks to Microsoft Sync, and the concept will no doubt become common within 5 years, and ubiquitous within 10. Wireless data networks are growing in reach and reliability every day...not to mention bandwidth. Within a few years virtually every cellphone will have the capabilities the i760 has...and a few years after that probably someone will be smart enough to make the user interface as simple yet powerful as the iPod's.

In the more immediate sense, do we have to give radios with our station's logo on it to all incoming freshmen to make sure they've got a radio and a reminder of what station to listen to? Certainly we can't expect them to come to school with one anymore...

Monday, November 05, 2007

T-Radio is Silenced

"A failure of mission" is the phrase that comes to mind with the (at least temporary) demise of "T-Radio" in Boston.

The idea itself seems reasonable on the face of it: pipe in a custom audio feed into various MBTA stations; brand it as "T Radio". It could help pass the time...and Lord knows waiting for a T often requires plenty of time, no matter what Joe Pesaturo likes to say their "on time" ratings are.

Obviously there's a lot of potential for abuse here, and it seems that the MBTA exploited several of them: it was too loud, too inane, too commercial. Plus it was drowning out the local street musicians that routinely perform in various T stations...some of whom are terrible, but many of which are quite good.

What bugs me about it, though, is that this seems like a clear case of the MBTA forgetting what their core mission is: service. In other words, they exist to serve those people wishing to get from point A to point B by means of non-privately-owned-vehicles. Instead, this was viewed purely as a revenue-generation opportunity. Read the articles about it, you'll see exactly what I mean. If you start with that goal in mind, then suddenly all the aforementioned "abuses" make perfect sense. If you start with a goal of better serving the customers, then T Radio never made any sense at all.

The irony here is that yours truly proposed an alternate solution to "T Radio" that would serve the customer better...and proposed it way back in 1998! Admittedly I was younger and dumber back then (note that does not automatically mean I am wiser today!) :-) so perhaps that's why it was ignored...

Here's the gist: campus radio stations have, for decades, used technology called "carrier-current transmitters" to inject a roughly 20 watt AM broadcast signal into a dorm's (or other building's) power grid...turning all the electrical wiring in a building into a low-grade transmitting antenna. In other words, the current "carries" the AM signal. They're not terribly expensive, typically under $2000 each. Very reliable and mature technology, too.

This technology will work just peachy with third-rail (or overhead wire) power technology for trolleys and subways. In fact, it might work better thanks to the more consistent power draw and higher voltages. The only question is whether or not there's too many cutoffs and/or transformers along the lines; CCAM signals cannot penetrate those...so it might take a lot of these little transmitters, but we're talking a million-dollar budget here anyways.

Once installed, this will blanket an area for about 50-100ft around each third-rail with a perfectly good AM signal that any $5 walkman can receive. Publicize this frequency all over the station stops and the trolleys/subways themselves. Put the T Radio feed on that!

Now, a little radio station like this needs a marketing hook to get people to listen...Phil Collins alone does not an incentive make (actually quite the opposite). What's the obvious answer? That's right: real-time status updates. Have a different feed for each line, and every five minutes, for one solid minute, an automated voice reads off where each trolley/subway train is currently located. That's not quite as good as a minute-by-minute countdown, but it's a reasonably good way to estimate how far away the next trolley/subway is.

Now you've got your hook, which means you've got listeners, which means you've got advertising. And all without annoying patrons or musicians. Probably for the same price, too.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Oh yeah, the Red Sox won...

Some Red Sox fan I am...I didn't even remember to blog about it until four days afterwards. SHAME on me!!

Well, in my defense, the night they won I was going thoroughly insane trying to pack up all my (and my wife's) crap to move to another state. Thank God they won in Colorado...I'd hate to drive a giant UHaul truck through hordes of celebrating Sox fans.

And to make it even more delicious, A-Rod is gone, and they were DUMB enough to let Torre go. Now, let's just pray that Theo & Company are smart enough to re-sign Mike Lowell before smoking enough crack to think that A-Rod is worth bringing to Boston. (shudder)

You know, driving down the NY Thruway they have lots of rest stops with little convenience stores, and many of them sell Yankees shirts and whatnot. Many of them say "Got Rings?"

I ask "Any this century?" :-)

Now if the Patriots can beat the Colts tomorrow, it will TRULY be a big week for me!
Update: To dream...the impossible dream...

No More Alan Weisman, PLEASE

Okay, it's official: NPR is Alan Weisman's bitch. Okay, don't get me wrong...Alan is a decent interview, and his book, The World Without Us, has piqued my curiosity. But gimme a break, Alan...since this August you've been on at least EIGHT different shows. Probably twice that. I engineered your interview on Living on Earth before I even interviewed for the GM job at WEOS. This week (nearly three months later) I heard you on one of WEOS's shows, Out of Bounds. Inbetween I know I caught you on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, On Point, Fresh Air, and no fewer than eight zillion other shows. Tell your publicist: ENOUGH PLEASE!

I'm speaking tongue-in-cheek, of course...you have to "make the rounds" on NPR because there's no guarantee that a member station will air the show you're currently being interviewed on. But it does feel like Alan's been a little harder to get away from than most.

I do wish, though, that there was more coordination on the part of individual shows amongst each other and amongst their affiliates, so that you don't end up hearing the same person answering the same questions on ten different shows. I imagine that might be more work than it's worth...but I also imagine this has to sound bad to your dedicated NPR listener...the kind perhaps most likely to be a donating member.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Public Radio is the Real Genius

So WMKK has announced that they're going to refuse to air any commercials between 9am and 12noon. They're treating it as something quite revolutionary. Forgive my giant yawn; that daypart probably doesn't bill well to begin with...I would not be surprised if the only commercials that aired then were part of a bundle deal for more lucrative dayparts.

Now if they said they were going commercial free doing morning drive? That's revolutionary! Suicidal, probably, but revolutionary nonetheless.

But the press release is what gets me:
"Three hours of uninterrupted, astounding musical variety; completely commercial free to start every work day is... sheer genius. An idea that revolutionary could only have come from The Mighty Mike FM," (emphasis added) commented Director of FM Programming Ron Valeri. "Finally, a station that is actually doing something about too many commercials on the radio." (10-17-07)
from Radio Online
Gee, so having no commercials is "sheer genius"? So I guess that means that public radio has been geniuses for over three decades! I know Ron's just trying to drum up some excitement for the idea, which he hopes will mean more listeners for his station. But that's showing some serious chutzpah when WMKK's 12+ ratings are about a quarter of what the local NPR powerhouse, WBUR, gets.




Bonus points to anyone who was in their teens or 20's in 1985 and thought that Jordan Cochran (Michelle Meyrink) was the hottest girl in the world. She was a "geek goddess" nearly a decade before it was cool. :-)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Kucinich Just Got My Vote

Okay, maybe not for real...but after seeing Kucinich's appearance on the Colbert Report, and his proof that Stephen Colbert is literally in his pocket...hell, it's gonna be tough not to vote for him. Regardless of her political skills or anything else about her...I'd like to Clinton or Edwards pull off this amazingly classy act of self-depreciation as well as Dennis just did. I just don't see her capable of it. Obama, maybe, or Huckabee for sure, but nobody else.

I'll post a video clip as soon as I can find one; the whole bit is chuckle-worthy but there's two parts that had me bust-a-gut laughing.

UPDATE: As promised, here's a YouTube link to the clip.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Well, I *was* worried about the Angels...

Despite having the best record in baseball, there was a lot to be concerned about with this year's Red Sox going into the ALDS last night. They're a great team to be sure, but now they're playing other great teams...and the Sox definitely have some glaring weaknesses. The Angels are always a threat to Sox happiness, so I was a little apprehensive last night.

Apparently I didn't need to be. Beckett threw a complete-game, four-hit, shutout...with a brilliant combination of precision and power, mixed up with some disgustingly filthy pitches that nobody could touch. Plus the offensive did rake poor Jake Lackey...who's never had good luck at Fenway (1-5 lifetime)...over the coals for two homers and another two RBI. BOOYAH! RED SOX UP 1-0 in the ALDS!

Tonight the real competition begins, though. The Angels have never faced Dice-K, so that should give him an edge. However, Dice-K has really shown the effects of season fatigue in the past month or so. Fortunately, he should be pretty rested going in tonight...let's hope he doesn't have the infamous one-inning meltdown.

Oh, sweet IRONY...

The irony is truly astounding here.
(from Current.org)

A measure of how far the cultural battle over broadcast indecency has shifted: New York's WBAI, the Pacifica station that successfully challenged the FCC over George Carlin's "seven dirty words," created a special program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that deemed Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" not obscene. But the program is being distributed online, not over the air. Bernard White, WBAI p.d., tells the San Francisco Chronicle that broadcasting "Howl Against Censorship" would put the station at risk for $325,000 FCC fines for each "dirty word" in Ginsberg's poem. "This is about the public airwaves," says Janet Coleman, WBAI arts director. "If we can't control what goes on them, then how much freedom do we really have?"
I tried to think of something to say that would add something to this...and I'm coming up with nothing. I suppose having nothing to say is exactly what some more conservative folks want. Bleh. :-(

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hockenberry Returns to His Roots

PRI just announced that John Hockenberry will be hosting their new morning show, to launch in early 2008.

This news is great news for pubradio fans everywhere as far as I'm concerned. I know John through my work at The Infinite Mind, where he was their regular commentator. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once or twice (TIM's producers, hosts and engineers are frequently all over the country...I was in Boston while John was in New York) but damned if he didn't make me bust a gut laughing (or strike me speechless with solemnity) every time he recorded a commentary. The man knows how to riff on anything under the sun, and he has a great knack for having an intelligent conversation with anyone on any topic; a rare gift.

Heat fans, and early Talk of the Nation fans...not to mention the lucky folks who caught him filling in for Tom Ashbrook's On Point last year, and fans of John's podcast/blog...will also no doubt be stoked.

Of course, a great host alone does not guarantee success...witness the "indefinite hiatus" that Chris Lydon's Radio Open Source went on this summer...but John's still a great choice. I, for one, will be listening with interest to see how it goes. :-)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Today the Division, Tomorrow the World!!! (Series, that is)

With a brilliant bunt down the third base line...the always-dangerous-at-the-end Orioles stunned the Yanks in extra innings. That loss, coupled with today's Sox win over the Twins, means the Red Sox have won the AL East division! First time in 12 years, even.

I've said it before to Yankees fans, and I'll say it again: "How many World Series have you won this century?" Nyah nyah nyah. :-)

Monday, September 17, 2007

AM IBOC: Put Up or Shut Up Time

I should've mentioned this last week, but on Friday September 14th the FCC's new rules for IBOC digital radio (known in the US under the iBiquity brand name "HD Radio") went into effect. That meant, among other things, that IBOC was authorized for 24/7 operation on the AM band.

There's been a lot of controversy in the industry over nighttime IBOC. Anyone who's ever listened to AM during the day vs. during nighttime knows that distant (as in 100's or 1000's of miles distant) AM stations can come in like local stations at night. It's a quirk of the Earth's atmosphere called "skywave reflection". By and large this happens on the "clear channel" frequencies (no relation to the company of the same name) which only have one or two big stations in the entire continental US. These are stations like WBZ 1030 in Boston, WTIC 1080 in Hartford, and WOR 710 in New York...just to name a few.

AM IBOC intentionally puts a lot of RF energy on the adjacent channels of the transmitting frequency; that's just how the system works. So when you're in Boston and you tune an analog radio to 1020 or 1040, you'll hear a roar of white noise. That's the digital carriers...it's sort of like picking up the phone when a fax is transmitting. During the day it's not that big a deal because the AM signals stay local and locally there aren't going to be any stations on 1020 or 1040.

But at night...when these signals start reaching way beyond the local area due to skywave...there might be a station on 1020 or 1040. For example, KDKA in Pittsburgh...another "clear channel" station...is on 1020. So if these stations run IBOC and transmit it at night, will it result in interference?

A lot of engineering and even more speculation has been done on this issue. Ultimately the FCC decided that the answer was "For the most part, no" and authorized it. Radio purists cried foul rather loudly, but until it actually started happening, nobody really knew 100% for sure what was going to happen.

Which brings us to last Friday...when several of these bigger "clear channel" stations were just waiting to start nighttime IBOC broadcasting and immediately started doing so.

What's the result? Honestly I don't know. The invective is still spewing from both sides so I can't trust that, and I haven't been by a HD Radio-equipped tuner until today. I'll take a listen tonight and see what happens.

UPDATE 9/18: Meh, I'm not seeing massive AM disruption. Hell, I can't even get a solid HD signal here. I can get the HD light flashing on WTIC, WFAN and WOR, and even see a bit of PSD for WTIC, but that's it. Can't get a clear enough signal to hear IBOC audio, but that's no surprise...I couldn't do it before, either. I was a bit surprised that WHAM doesn't come in with IBOC here...the analog sounds fine. (shrugs) Anyways, the locals that I would expect to come in here, still come in just fine.

In all honesty, I kinda felt the AM band was a giant mess already...it's not really possible to make it worse. If anything, having more white noise/hash might be an improvement over the four overlapping skywave signals beating off each other.

Either way, my original point stands: we'll soon know definitively whether of not AM-IBOC at nighttime is a "disaster" or not...and the naysayers will either be vindicated or chastized. I fervently look forward to this particular debate being settled.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Insight to Programming Decisions

I saw this on Current.org today:
"I always liked WAMU weekends for the very reason that it wasn't just like WAMU on the weekdays," writes a fan of the Dick Spottswood Show and American Routes,
It's a comment posted on DCist about WAMU's announcement they were dropping bluegrass music from their weekend schedule. I understand the sentiment, but to my way of thinking, this commenter demonstrates exactly why WAMU made a good decision. He or she doesn't want to listen to the overall branding of WAMU, they want to listen to the bluegrass programming that happened to air on WAMU.

That's a very important distinction, because said listener probably can get quality bluegrass programming anywhere. But there's only one place to get WAMU programming. That's because bluegrass is a genre, but WAMU is a brand identity...and a crucial one for any radio station to establish.

No doubt the bluegrass programming just didn't really fit into that branding schema; not surprising since most music lovers don't care for the news/talk and vice versa. Given the overwhelming time for news/talk vs. music on WAMU, it makes sense to stay true to the brand.

This does not mean it's a good thing if the bluegrass programming just completely disappears. Obviously there's fans of it, and if WAMU is smart, I'm sure they're investigating the return on investment to continue the bluegrass programming via an alternative programming channel...such as online (webcast/podcast) or HD Radio multicast.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Ira Represents the Rainbow Crowd

With apologies to the fine folks at Oregon Public Broadcasting...but how could they not see this coming?

http://blog.oregonlive.com/breakingnews/2007/08/ira_glass_popular_public_radio.html
Oregon Public Broadcasting plans to move an Oct. 7 appearance by Ira Glass, the voice of "This American Life," to the Oregon Convention Center after criticism about holding his talk at a Clackamas church that has been prominent in anti-gay rights campaigns.

(snip)

"When Ira found out, he asked for it to be moved," Barclay told The Oregonian. "He was not aware of it before that."

Admittedly, it's not like Ira Glass has been screaming supporter of gay rights in particular. But this is public radio, the bastion of tolerance. Plus, this sort of thing strikes me as completely in-character for Ira to do. And good for him, I might add.

I suppose the church might've been a better venue, and cheaper to rent, than the convention center. That might explain why it was tapped in the first place. But it's an interesting reminder of how inherently "charged" anything to do with religion is, and always will be.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

New Honda

Today I picked up my new car to complement my move out to New York. Gotta get me a Red Sox sticker so's I can represent. :-) It's a 2001 Honda Accord with about 50k miles. Ultimately I was not thrilled with the dealer I bought it from...the usual slimy used car dealer B.S. But I suppose you get that everywhere these days.

The car itself seems nice. Stick-shift with cruise control, leather seats, power seats, sunroof. Now I need to get me XM Satellite Radio so I can listen to Red Sox games and an HD Radio so I can keep an ear on the rollout.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Go west, young man!

On Wednesday September 5th I will be semi-permanently moving to New York state. My wife will join me two months later. The circumstances surrounding this event are why I haven't blogged in two weeks, and why I probably won't blog much for several more weeks. Apologies all around.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Place Your Bets, Gentleman! (Storrow Drive & the Esplanade)

Surprise, surprise...the Storrow Drive Tunnel Repair is going to be far more expensive and take far longer than originally envisioned. So the Patrick Administration is floating the idea of putting a temporary bypass road onto the Esplanade while the tunnel is completely rebuilt. This idea was floated, and shot down, several months ago when the project was first announced.

The bypass road will extend about 40ft into the Esplanade, and reduce construction time by six months, and save about $5 million. On a several hundred million dollar (and two year) plan, that doesn't seem like much, does it? However, it's a big deal because it means that Storrow Drive can continue handling close to the 100,000+ cars that drive on it every day...as opposed to trying to funnel those cars through Beacon Hill and Back Bay.

Yeah, think about that for a second: the already-traffic-choked Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods trying to cope with many tens of thousands of new cars every day for about two years. And that's assuming they finish on time. Just like how the Big Dig was supposed to be a few years, and instead took 15 and counting. Yikes.

Nevertheless, local Beacon Hill residents, and City Councilman Michael Ross, are screaming that this bypass road will destroy the Esplanade and they'll chain themselves to the trees before they'll allow it to be built.

I can see their point...the Esplanade is a real jewel in Boston's crown, and to have a major disruption on it for two (or three, or four or five) years really sucks. And there really is no guarantee that after the construction is done, the Esplanade will truly be returned to its current "impressively decent" state.

However, let's take a look at the alternative: those same residents screaming about "their" precious Esplanade will be the same residents screaming about the horrible traffic lasting until 2am every night if the bypass isn't built. Not to mention the incredible disruption to commuter traffic; since Storrow Drive is a major artery it will have a ripple effect across the entire region. That means lost worker productivity and an already-overburdened (and under-resourced) MBTA subway getting hammered even more. Not to mention the incredible environmental impact that millions of cars idling in traffic for an extra two or three hours per day will have.

The ultimate costs to business, the state and to ourselves could well run into the billions. I don't know what the exact number is, but the Patrick administration bettter figure that out quick because I'm willing to bet it's a helluva lot more than the entire construction project will cost.

And someone ought to remind those selfish SOB "Beautiful People" on Beacon Hill to think of the entire state a little more, instead of only themselves.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Commercial Radio is Minding the Gap

I need to do a longer analysis of this, but here's the short version: after several quarters of public radio stations (mostly news/talk) beating the usual ratings-winners (also mostly news/talk), those commercial news/talkers are getting the message, and they're changing their programming.

At the moment, I'd say it's still a clumsy, awkward change...not one to soon draw away pubradio fans. But the beast has been awakened, and it's not going back to sleep. Sooner or later commercial stations will start tailoring their product to better compete with public radio's offerings, and that's a serious problem for public radio.

Why?

Because public radio, by and large, is not good at competing. Even in cutthroat markets there's still a lingering geniality that (stuffy British accent) we're all good sports here, chap. Plenty of listeners to go around, you know?

Except it's not true, and if commercial radio steals back all those listeners pubradio has fought for, a lot of pubradio stations are going to find themselves deeply in the red. They've come to rely on those listeners to generate fundraising and underwriting revenue.

Here's the evidence: KIRO-AM in Seattle took note that KUOW topped the ratings for two books in a row, and now they're (pretty substantially) shifting their lineup. Anecdotally I can tell you that commercial radio in Boston has not ignored WBUR's rating successes over the past year or so, either...and there's been giant holes opening in the schedules at all three of our big news/talker commercial stations (WTKK, WRKO and WBZ). Just this week it appears that our big sports/talker, WEEI, might also need a new morning show as well. (or it might be just a stunt, who knows?) Still, change is a afoot and I would lay good odds that at least one of those three stations ends up with a more "public radio" sound at the end of it.

Ya know, all that speculation that Christopher Lydon could end up on commercial radio suddenly doesn't seem so crazy after all...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

This job makes me paranoid

Generally speaking, I enjoy my times filling in at Tech Director at Living on Earth. The people are nice, and the show is usually a great learning experience. The only real problem is that it makes you paranoid in a real hurry.

The last time I filled in (about eight months ago) I learned how horrifically unsafe most of the United States' chicken is. I love chicken, so I was spooked. I managed to ask the expert we were interviewing about those pre-cooked chicken strips that are popular now, and she said those were safe from the problems the interview was about, but were also commonly having problems with a different kind of bacteria. ARGH! Fortunately she said that microwaving them for two minutes on high does the trick. WHEW!

This time I learned about bisphenol-A which is a plastic compound commonly found in hard plastic food containers...like those Nalgene water bottles, or the water cooler's tank...and in the lining of soup cans. It's been around for about 100 years, so it's EVERYWHERE. And just now they're learning that this crap really screws up child development while in-utero and in the early years. It's because it can mimic the effects of estrogen. God only knows what else it can do in adults, too. The takeaway I got was to NEVER microwave food in tupperware; nuke it in a porcelain bowl instead.

And don't get me started on the global warming stories we inevitably do each week because there's so much news happening about it these days. Living in a coastal city isn't so attractive anymore, lemme tell ya.

I was joking with Eileen, the show's Senior Editor, that we should open every billboard with "It's Living on Earth and WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!!"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The FAA and NOTAM's

The FAA has recently moved to begin consolidating and outsourcing the process of issuing NOTAM's into a national office (call 877-487-6867) rather than many local/regional offices. A NOTAM, or NOtice To AirMen, is very relevant to broadcasters since many of them are responsible for the warning beacons on their towers. Whenever a beacon fails, the responsible party has to notify the FAA immediately, who then issues a NOTAM to all the local pilots about the lighting failure, so they know to give said tower a wide berth.

The problem is that many of these local offices have developed personal relationships and "local knowledge" of terrain and towers, that is crucial in ensuing accurate notices reach the right pilots. The national push doesn't seem to be allocating enough resources to compensate for that "local touch"; it's more about saving costs.

A Radio World writer asked me for my thoughts on this issue; below is what I sent him. I don't think they'll reprint my e-mail entirely, but if they do I'll link to them instead. Before you read it, bear in mind that I am not directly responsible for any towers, nor have I ever had to issue (or retract) a NOTAM before. I have no special knowledge of the FAA, I'm just commenting as an intelligent observer who does not have any special insight into the actual reasoning behind this change.
There are some valid reasons for consolidating the collection and
dissemination of NOTAM's...after all, if a plane is flying from, say, Boston to
Miami, and the tower with the lights out is in Delaware, logically the
information of the outage will get to pilots faster via a national office than
via local offices. A national office is probably more capable of updating
with time and technology to better reach pilots using a broader spectrum of
communications: e-mail, txt messaging, websites, blogs, etc.

The problem is that this outsourcing/consolidation seems to be driven by
cost-cutting rather than by efficiency, and as such there aren't sufficient
resources committed to compensate for that crucial "local
knowledge". Knowledge like how a tower might be listed for a certain
latitude and longitude, but in reality it's a few degree-seconds to the
east. That small difference on paper could mean life or death for a pilot
in low-visibility weather, and a local office is more likely to have the
personal connections between the FAA and pilots to ensure that knowledge is
shared.

These issues, that local knowledge and personal relations so easily
compensate for, CAN be duplicated with sufficient resources at the
national. It's not easy, nor is it fast, but it can be done.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like that's the goal here. Instead, the
goal seems to be to drive the bottom line as hard as possible. Such a method
inherently compromises safety to some degree. That degree might be quite
small, and thus quite acceptable...after all, at a certain point it becomes
dangerous to fly in bad weather no matter how many NOTAM's are issued.

But I fear it's more likely that the resources will be cut more and
more, and the risk increased more and more, in the pursuit of the fiscal bottom
line. And that the only thing that will stop that drive for profits is a
repeat of the 2004 Black Hawk chopper crash in Waco, Texas. That was not a
failure from corruption or malice (a proper NOTAM was issued) it was just a
system too inefficient to work properly. This recent consolidation
seems to be exacerbating that inefficiency, rather than fixing it.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Busy, busy, busy...

I haven't blogged much lately due to a severe case of lackoftimeus. Also a nasty summer cold, ugh. And damn it's hot! August in da city, folks...

Anyways, this past week, and for the next two weeks, I'll be subbing in as Technical Director at the fine public radio program Living on Earth. Plus work is ramping up at Broadcast Signal Lab as more and more folks are hoping to get a new radio station this October, and need our technical wizardry to find out if they can.

But fear not! A new blog post is soon to be here as I got my review unit of Sangean's new HDT-1X HD Radio receiver. An article in Radio World will also be forthcoming. Sneak preview: it's a pretty good radio, and I see two features that indicate Sangean has been listening to early feedback on their other HD Radio receiver - thanks guys! :-)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Wait Wait I Was in Chicago!

So this week's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me was taped in Millennium Park in Chicago, and since I was visiting an old college friend, my wife and I decided to fly out early enough to catch the taping on Thursday night. We got there literally one minute before the show started - perfect timing! The pic to the left is the closest I could get to the front, from left to right is Carl Kasell, Peter Sagal, Roy Blount Jr, Roxanne Roberts and Adam Felber. Adam was in rare form this week, correctly answering eight questions during "Lightning Fill-In-The-Blank"...that's hard to do, but Adam's somewhat notorious for being a little too well-informed. :-)

It's interesting how much gets edited out on Friday before the show gets distributed to local affiliates across the country; the live show went on for nearly two hours, and listening to the finished product I remember hearing a lot more chit-chat and jokes...not all of them exactly hilarious, but more jokes nonetheless! And if you stick around for the re-takes at the end, the panelists and crew apparently will schmooze with the crowd a bit afterwards; I had a nice chat with Rod Abid, the head-honcho producer. :-)

However, I think I also made my claim to fame...at one point there was a listener caller from Boston. The chit-chat included a mention that the Chicago White Sox were playing the Boston Red Sox at Fenway that night, and I shouted "Go Sox!" (much to my wife's chagrin). It does sound vaguely like my shout made it on tape, although I was mighty far back on the lawn. Meh, even if it's not really me - I'll choose to believe it is. I'm a Red Sox fan...allow me my delusions... ;-)

P.S. We also got a very nice tour of Chicago Public Radio's facility on Navy Pier from Breeze Richardson on Friday; thanks Breeze! Some pics are posted here: there's the "WBEZ statue" out on the boardwalk of the Navy Pier (which CPR is located on). There's also this retro-looking "Remind-O-Timer" I spotted in one of the studios...I have no idea if it works, though. The hands were spinning but the time is wrong. Looks cool, though...all those curved marks around the perimeter are switches. And there's a pic Breeze took of myself and my wife in WBEZ's main mic studio, a very nice studio with lots of mics, high ceilings, and plenty of floor space to have bands perform during interview shows. There's also a separate performance studio (that I didn't take a pic of) that's even nicer.


I also stood not 10 feet from the back of Ira Glass's head while he was in town for a meeting. (Ira's based in NYC these days) My skin is still tingling. :-)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Misleading News about Auto Insurance

Actually this isn't a post about auto insurance, which is big in the news today because Massachusetts is experimenting with "competitive" auto insurance. No, this is a post about the media, which has shameless trumpted a particular news tidbit without providing crucial context.

In Massachusetts, ever since a disasterous experience with market-based competition for insurance rates in 1977, the rates an auto insurance company charges are set by a state regulatory agency. Rates are set statewide, which means drivers in rural areas are subsidizing drivers in urban areas. In 1977, when this subsidy was removed, rates overall shot up over 14% but in the urban areas it was much, much worse than that. Over howls of protest, the flat rate was reintroduced after seven months.

What is often being quoted is that Massachusetts is the "only state in the US where auto insurance rates are set by the State."

While this is factually accurate, it paints a very misleading picture...namely that the other 49 states are all using the same system, and only Massachusetts is not. This is not true - every State regulates their auto insurance differently; while none of them quite come to the level of direct State control over rates, it's not like there is zero regulation elsewhere.

Since this new decision could mean significantly higher or lower rates (mostly higher - we're terrible drivers in Mass.) it's a very politically charged issue. That means people will no doubt be contacting the Legislature to sound off on it.

The upshot here is the way the media at large (both the Boston Globe and WBUR 90.9FM...I haven't checked any other media outlets yet) is reporting this is presenting a subtle but powerful political argument that argues against the status quo. That is unseemly for news organizations that claim to present objective news.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Howie Carr and WRKO's Woes

If you follow Boston's radio scene at all, you've heard about the gigantic coup WTKK scored by "stealing" local Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr from WRKO, where Carr had done afternoon drive for many years. Adam Reilly also did a good writeup about Carr's departure in the Boston Phoenix, and Dan Kennedy has a good writeup about the decline of WRKO leading up to this.

Many other blogs are buzzing, too...I've done a little commenting here and there, but I have little to say about this myself here. On the surface, WRKO has screwed up badly by not offering Carr a contract when they had the chance several months ago...and FM competitor WTKK has gone a long way to fill a gaping hole left by Imus's departure followed by Mike Barnicle's "retirement" from WTKK.

Of course, how much of a "screw up" this is depends a lot on what the future holds for WRKO's right-wing talk format. The current morning host, ex-Speakah of da House Tom Finneran has always had potential but just isn't a good radio personality (ed.note: not alone he isn't...if they'd give him a good sidekick to fulfill the "radio professional" role, Finneran would probably be pretty decent). There's the usual right-wing fare on the rest of the day, the strongest of which is probably Rush Limbaugh, whom is a radio force nationwide but I've heard Boston is his weakest market (not surprising).

Rush alone does not a viable commercial station make. And don't forget WTKK still has some holes in the schedule even with Howie, and there's also WTTT nipping at the heels in the conservative-talker wars. So does this spell the end of WRKO's conservative-talk format?

If so, then letting Howie go might make a lot of sense, although the threat of legal action against him, and letting him keep doing his show, seem fairly odd no matter what. And I can easily see Rush migrating over to WTKK as well. The other shows can find homes here and there (probably on WTTT or perhaps WBIX depending on the show).

The wild card, of course, is the Red Sox. This year marked the beginning of the arrangement where most of the baseball games are carried on WRKO but previous home WEEI (which, like WRKO, is also owned by Entercom) remains where the sports-talk format lives. Most radio geeks have derided this as goofy at best, utterly stupid at worst...although Entercom has claimed there hasn't been much confusion for the listeners, and overall I suppose it adds up to (at least a little) more ratings since WEEI does pretty well all day, not just during the games.

But changing the format of WRKO probably doesn't mean the Sox games will move back to WEEI; the conventional wisdom is that the Sox played hardball with insisting on this WEEI-WRKO split because they didn't like the criticism of the team during WEEI's regular talk programming. So whatever new format comes around has to work around the games. That rules out a lot of options.

Liberal-talk on WRKO has been bandied about quite a bit, even the return of Air America Radio. But I don't see that happening; AAR still has budget problems which make it a risky option. And the last go-around of AAR on WXKS & WKOX was a miserable failure ratings-wise. You can blame that on the lousy night signals and poor overall promotion (and you'd be right) but regardless, it was still a failure before and that makes it no less a risky proposition as staying with conservative talk. Plus I'm of the suspicion that, even though it's more centrist in its politics, the fans of liberal talk are already pretty happy with local NPR offerings WBUR and WGBH.

Going way out into the realm of speculation, I wonder if Entercom is thinking way outside the box and might just sell WRKO for a few tens of millions of dollars. Certainly it solves the programming problem, albeit by cutting the Gordian Knot. But it would help offset the mucho dinero ($12mil per year for 10 years, IIRC) they're paying for the rights for Sox games, and it might essentially "force" the games back onto WEEI (which probably wouldn't be viewed as a bad thing by Entercom). Of course, selling off such a potentially valuable property as a radio station - especially one with WRKO's hefty signal - is rarely done and with good reason; when the Sox games were still on WEEI, Entercom made (I believe) about $35 million a year off of 850AM alone. While that's an extreme example, a well-run, well-listened-to station can rake in at least $5-$10 million a year, so Entercom could potentially earn the same value as a sale in less than a decade. Hence why a sale is somewhat unlikely.

Although if it DID happen, it'd be nice to see it go to WUMB. Hint, hint! ;-) I'm mostly kidding, of course...I'm a pubradio nut so it would be pretty cool to see the folk format on a real hefty signal (even AM, since HD Radio can help overcome the audio fidelity issues of AM). But I doubt WUMB could afford it without ridiculously generous terms of sale.

Anyways...personally, I wonder if Entercom is going to follow Clear Channel's example and target the under-served ethnic populations in Boston. Word around the campfire is that WXKS & WKOX have brought in decent billing in a surprisingly short time with the Spanish-language "Rumba" format. And there are literally a dozen pirate stations airing Caribbean news and music (mostly Haitian) around Boston. Why not a Caribbean-creole/Haitian format? Or maybe copy WJFD from New Bedford and put on Portuguese-language for all the Brazilian communities? It's comparatively cheap to do, and cheap to market (word of mouth is all you need), and obviously there's a market.

I guess time will tell!

Handy Tip - Back of Lightswitch Plates

Reading Friday's BostonNOW I spotted a handy little tip on page 13:
A convenient place to write the name and number of the paint you used in a room
is on the back of the switch plate.
This got me thinking that the back of a lightswitch plate is a handy place for engineers to jot down all sorts of information. For example, let's say you've got a heavy-duty dimmer switch for two dozen incandescent tracklights. This is a special switch, designed to take a lot more than the usual 600 watt maximum. Ten years from now, the engineer of that day - who's renovating the place - might've lost your documentation and he or she doesn't know what the actual wattage maximum is. Well, there you go - write it on the back of the switchplate.

Maybe you could hide a lock combination or spare key back there, too. Obviously you'd have to evaluate whether this is worth the inherent security risk (not to mention be careful sticking a conductive key near electricity!) but it's probably more secure than a key hidden under a doormat.

Depending on how public the info needs to be, you might also put a code there that matches a code at the breaker panel...a handy confirmation for what circuit that lightswitch or power outlet is on.

There's a part of me that thinks there's probably a way to expand this concept of "cleverly hidden info that's easy to forget" to other avenues for the expert radio engineer, but at the moment I'm lacking inspiration. When I think of something I'll post here, but if you have an idea by all means please share!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Shameless plug for the Butterfly Garden

It costs over $20 a head to get in, but I really dig the Boston Museum of Science's Butterfly Garden. Yeah, I'm a dork, but those little buggers are just so cute. Plus they can, and will, fly right over and land on you, get comfortable, and stay a while.

Check out this pic of one on my wife Lisa, who then crawled onto my finger for a few minutes, too (below). That is the same butterfly...that species has iridescent blue wings on top, and drab brown on the bottom, to confuse predators when they're flying. Poor little fellah had some wing torn off (that's common...the wings are super-fragile and butterflies don't live more than a few weeks) but it didn't seem to hamper his flying much.

If you go, make sure it's when the sun is still shining brightly...most butterflies are not nocturnal and they won't fly much as dusk approaches. However, I have been in there about an hour before closing, when it was about a half-hour after sunset, and while not much was moving...you could get really up-close and personal with many of them hanging on the branches. Plus the staff is happy to chat with you at length since it's often pretty quiet that late in the day; you get the place to yourself! Still, daylight really brings the colors out so I do recommend taking a weekday to head over if you can (weekends are pretty mobbed).

I also overheard that any chrysalises that're ready to hatch, tend to do so around noontime. They don't mind you hanging out in there for quite a while, but the space isn't very big...there's enough room to comfortably allow perhaps a dozen or so people at most. And of course, like the rest of the MoS, there's often little kids galore in there...again, especially on weekends.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mac Daniel's New Job: A Conflict of Interest?

I feel like I have a problem with this, but I'm not sure I really should.
The new communications director at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is someone with experience dealing with the agency. Mac Daniel has covered the Turnpike for years as a reporter with the Boston Globe. His hiring comes about a week after legislation went into effect making Governor Patrick's transportation secretary the chairman of the Turnpike's governing board of directors.
See the full article at WPRI.com

I've talked with Mac personally a handful of times, he's a nice enough guy. And in the interests of disclosure I frequently do send in questions & tips to his email address: starts@globe.com

But he's been oft-critized by sites like BadTransit for being too "soft" on the MBTA and other transit agencies around Massachusetts. I don't really agree with that assessment, but I can see why...Mac rarely "went for blood" on his Starts & Stops column in the Globe. Granted, the Globe is not a "gotcha" news organization...they strive to be objective...but I do concede that our transit organizations here in Boston definitely need someone to smack them around on a regular basis, since the elected officials certainly won't (most Massachusetts transit agencies are havens for patronage jobs) and the public is routinely ignored by these organizations.

So you can see why I'm uneasy about Mr. Daniel leaving his job to report on the transit in Boston, to go work for one of the agencies he used to report on. It raises legitimate questions about the objectivity of his reporting.

For example, how long ago did he know he was a candidate for this job? During that entire time, his objectivity is completely in question. Now, carrying that train of thought to a logical (albeit extreme) conclusion...has Mr.Daniel always wanted a job like that? If so, then virtually everything he's ever written should be considered "invalid" because maybe he "took it easy" in his column to avoid annoying the people who are now his supervisors.

Again, for the record, I choose to believe that Mac Daniel has enough journalistic integrity that none of his writing should be questioned. But the problem (mostly for the Globe) is that there's no way anyone...even Mac...can prove that he did have that integrity. And as such, it looks bad.

As my journalist friends often remind me...when it comes to journalistic integrity, looking bad is the same thing as being bad. So that's why I feel uneasy about this.

But at the same time...it's not like he was writing columns for months or years while knowing he had this job in the wings. Charging Mr. Daniel with a conflict of interest feels a bit like a Catch 22; is he never allowed to ever have a job in a transit agency just because he covered transit while at the Globe? Maybe his column gives him valuable insight and experience for the job!

Argh. I don't need these moral dilemmas in the summer...it's too damn humid to think.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What Makes Public Radio Different?

I saw this article in the Boston Globe today: Two Seconds are All an Advertiser Needs

In a nutshell, it's about how commercial radio is starting to use more 2 second "blinks" and 5 second "adlets" instead of the usual 30 or 60 second commercials. They're cheaper and you can fit more of 'em in.

What the article didn't address was how shorter "commercials" are a hallmark of public radio.
Mostly because they're considered "less intrusive". "So what?" you say? Well, this is potentially a huge deal.

Why? Well, we all know public radio depends on fundraising to make its budget. Now, what's an very common theme in pubradio's fundraising? That's right: we're not as bad as commercial radio. To be specific, pubradio doesn't have those long, obnoxious commercials...it has quicker, less-obnoxious "underwriting".

Starting to see why this could be a problem? Experts have warned for years that public radio has relied too heavily on the message of "we're not as bad as commercial radio" and anything like an "adlet" that narrows the gap could be bad news for public radio.

What's the solution? The simple answer is that you have to get away from the old "we're not commercial radio" marketing because it means you're not defining your station...other commercial stations are defining your station...and sooner or later they're going to change to your disadvantage.

In other words, you shouldn't be telling your listeners that you're not as bad as commercial radio...that should just be self-evident from the quality of your programming.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Seriously hacked cellphones

Why is the first I've ever heard of Heather Kuykendall's hijacked cellphone is through a story on WBUR's Here & Now today?

I don't begrudge Here & Now's newsbreaking capacity, but you'd think this would show up on the high tech blogs at least a while before it hits mainstream. This is potentially a HUGE deal.

It took an extra twenty-three years, but we officially live in 1984.

UPDATE 6/29/07: According to Mike Elgan at Computerworld, the whole thing is "bogus". I think Mike's judgement is rather harsh...the kind of elitism I often see from tech people, directed at non-tech people. I do agree that if Mike is correct, then the media has really fallen down on the job here, and is guilty of scaremongering (Fox News? Scaremongering?!? Say it ain't so?!?)

I think something Elgan has overlooked is that while he seems to have found the simple answer, for some reason the local Fircrest, Washington police have not found it. Nor have the wireless carriers themselves, but I expect their tech support to be completely useless by now.

But getting back to the police, I find their apparent inability to recognize Elgan's simple fixes either unlikely or disturbing. Either it's unlikely it's that simple, and something truly sinister really is happening here....or it's disturbing that they're that clueless. Either way, it's in poor taste for Elgan to sneer from is tech-savvy perch. If he's gonna preach about clueless users, he should be preaching that the police can't afford to be clueless users. Not in today's high-tech world, and a high-tech world where people are kept in a constant state of fear.

I'd like to think our law enforcement has to be the voice of knowledge and reason; a place where citizens can turn to not just to see justice done, but also to make us feel a little safer. So far Fircrest's finest seem to have failed in that aspect.

Beyond Broadcast 2007

I've been remiss in blogging about the Beyond Broadcast conference back in late February.

First and foremost, kudos once again to Jake Shapiro and many others at PRX and the Berkman Center for pulling together an excellent conference.

Second, I noticed that the "problem" with the first BB conference was back in force with this year's. That is, there weren't many answers for a lot of really pressing questions. Everyone seems to know that there are significant needs for radio to diversify across additional media channels, but nobody really seems to know how to actually do it...or at least do it in a way that makes money. Even just enough money to break even, never mind turn a profit.

So these conference sessions are fascinating discussions...sometimes veering into bulls**t sessions (but that's okay)...but there's not a lot of the rubber meeting the road here. I suppose that's okay, too...you gotta start somewhere and it's not a bad thing to have a really high-level discussion at the conference that can then spark more mid-level planning back at your station (or comparable media organization).

On a snarky note, there were some definite technical glitches during the conference, too...especially in getting a presenter's videoconference to work. I don't mention this to blame anyone, but more to call attention to how web media has traded flexibility for robustness; your average AM or FM radio is very simple, and has a very well-known and defined set of expectations assigned to it. Not surprising given how radio has been around for more than five decades. Duplicating this remarkable reliability in the web has been frustratingly difficult.

WESU 88.1 Wesleyan University

My wife is a Wesleyan University graduate, and a month or so ago we went down to Middletown for her class reunion. I got to spend a little time with Ben Michael, the most-excellent General Manager of WESU, chatting about the joys (and pitfalls) of managing a college radio station, and the history of WESU overall.

I finally got around to posting some of the pics I took while I was there: enjoy!

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Power of Norms, or "Are Bostonians Hard Little Bastards?"

This morning while riding the Red Line there was a middle-aged woman wandering back and forth in the train, panhandling for a dollar.

Sound run of the mill? Not so fast...

I won't speak for the Blue Line, which I rarely ride...but over my eleven years in Boston, I've regularly commuted on the Green, Red and Orange Lines for four of them. And I've never seen anyone actually panhandling on the trains. It's pretty rare in the subway stations, too.

Granted there's lots of panhandlers right next to the entrances to the stations...but not in the stations themselves, and definitely not on the trains. I mean, it's a pretty serious faux pas to even talk to someone else on the train unless you know them. "Nobody botherin' nobody" is the motto.

So in this case, the best I could describe the vibe on the train was almost one of stunned surprise. You've got to be a bit hard to live in any city to begin with, and Bostonians are notorious jerks to boot. But people seemed blown away that someone had the audacity to panhandle on the train.

Interestingly, this woman seemed outwardly "normal". She certainly didn't look like your stereotypical bum beggin' for change. In fact, I think most people would've thought she really did need the dollar for the bus...if it weren't for her rather loudly (and melodramatically) bemoaning the fact that her parents died here, she's just visiting because her children are in foster care, and Boston is a nasty town and the people in it are mean because they won't give her a lousy dollar even though she's not drunk and "doesn't look dirty and nasty like a bum."

But back to what I wanted to talk about: the reactions of the people on the train. People weren't really ignoring her, they were practically staring...like it was a car wreck. The expressions on their faces really did seem like: This just isn't done! What the hell is going on here!?!? I don't know what to do?!? This...just...ISN'T...done!!!! The social norms had just been shattered by this one poor woman begging for a dollar...who, regardless of whether or not she was telling the truth, was obviously very upset over the whole thing.

I have a degree in psychology, and I work for a show about mental health and psychological issues...so I'm sure someone, somewhere, has done a study on this effect. I'll have to look around and see if I can find it; after living it this morning I have to think it'd be a fascinating read.

Ed.note: I didn't give her a dollar, either...I was a little too creeped out by her diatribe.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Numbr for Crgslst

That bastion of nifty tips known as Lifehacker turned me on today to a handy little webpage called Numbr. It's a free "fake" telephone number you can use for anywhere between an hour and a month, and set it to forward to any other number.

The main purpose behind this is to provide a phone contact on your Craigslist postings, or eBay as well, I imagine. Put the Numbr'd number up on your post, set it to forward to your real phone, and take calls. Interestingly, Numbr will pass the caller ID on to your phone...so you can see who's calling you (assuming their phone doesn't block caller ID).

I have to think this has uses beyond Craigslist...some no doubt for good, some no doubt for evil...but nothing practical for radio is immediately coming to mind. Any ideas, folks?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I gave the MBTA a Piece of my Mind

I like going to public meetings for the MBTA. I get to be the "reasonable" guy in the group. :-)

So on Tuesday I attended the T's PMT/Service Plan Workshop in Cambridge. It's one stop on the Red Line from my job, and it is rather fascinating to see what people, and the T management, have to say. Like most things in life, it's hard to hate the T when you see there's just regular people working there. People who, by and large, are pretty nice and are actually trying to do a decent job.

Anyways, when you're in Cambridge at a public meeting, you're guaranteed to get some passionate people there, sometimes unreasonably so. Tuesday was no exception...the meeting is supposed to be about the MBTA looking for ideas to guide the next 25 years of operation. When you're talking 25 years, that's a pretty "macro-level" discussion. You can't get mired in the nitty-gritty details.

Well, so much for that idea...the discussion of our 10-person group almost instantly devolved in a giant bitchfest about how lousy the MBTA service is. I give the discussion leader credit, she didn't stifle it, and did try her best to interpret the griping into long-range planning ideas. So it certainly wasn't a loss...far from it. I think some definite themes arose that can guide the plans for the next 25 years:
  • Communication: Riders are annoyed at buses (and subways) that are late. But they're really annoyed that they have no idea how late until the bus finally shows up. Everyone feels there's no excuse to not to track buses and subways and do two things: put a countdown timer at the stops, and map the buses/subways in real-time on a website. After all, several metro systems in Europe and Asia do it...at least for the major routes
  • An "Urban Ring" is desperately needed: Nobody working for or riding on the T denies that the "spoke" system of subways and trolleys is hideously inefficient, and that "rings" that connect all the lines at points outside the downtown area are needed. The problem is that most of those areas are densely inhabited and there are precious few right-of-ways already. Any subway built in a ring is going to have gigantic construction costs and disruptions. Regardless, people DON'T want the "Phase II" Urban Ring that is mostly bus lines; the buses are considered too unreliable (Boston traffic IS pretty bad). People would rather wait longer for the payoff and just skip the bus part, and spend the time and money on subway lines instead.
  • The CharlieCard ain't so bad: Widely derided when it was installed six months ago, people have come around to the CharlieCard. At least the regular commuters have...I still argue that the CharlieCard system is more unfriendly to limited-use riders (tourists, especially) than the old token system, but these meetings are dominated by regular commuters so I hope that the MBTA planners are adjusting for that.
  • Need more buses! People will ALWAYS suggest a subway over a bus, but when that's just not going to happen, there needs to be more buses. I can get behind this...many of the buses run extremely infrequently...scheduled for every 20 or 60 minutes during off peak times, and the exact times vary wildly due to traffic...so you could end up waiting (literally) hours for a bus on some lines. That's worse than useless.
  • Need more customer service training: The rudeness of T employees was a surprisingly oft-quoted problem. I fear this is one of those things that will never change...not until the management gets more power to just fire employees that suck. Fat chance with the unions we got in this town. Not that I'm anti-union, but the Carmen's Union is outta control.
I had two suggestions myself that I thought were rather useful: the first would be to add a CharlieCard scanner at the rear doors of Green Line trolleys and at buses. That way regular commuters can enter quickly and easily, without having to wait behind cash-paying riders. I don't begrudge cash-paying riders, but the fare collection boxes on buses & trolleys forces you to enter the money VERY slowly. But, you say, who makes sure people who go in the rear door are actually paying? Well, how is it really any different than the "Show-n-Go" system now? And when you get a few cash-paying fares, the driver often waves everyone in because the bus/trolley is suddenly way behind schedule. Anyways, the MBTA managers there seemed to like this one. Probably because it's pretty simple, relatively cheap to implement and is a highly visible service improvement.

The other suggestion is a bit more wide-ranging; I've often felt that a major delay on the Green Line's B, C and E branches is that they have to wait for traffic lights at street intersections. So install a system that lets the trolley override the traffic light and immediately let the trolley through. Yeah, it buggers the car traffic up badly, but hey...more incentive to use public transit! Anyways, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that such a system is in trials right now on the Silver Line buses through the Washington Street corridor. Unfortunately, it breaks down a lot, so results have been inconclusive. To me, this says that something's been done wrong with the system...either poorly made, poorly installed, or poorly maintained...but regardless, it's good to know that this isn't a "sacred cow"; the MBTA is at least trying the idea.

If you have ideas you want to share with the MBTA for them to do over the next 25 years, there's still one public meeting left: Thursday June 21st at 5:30pm at the Newton City Hall. Technically this is for the western "spoke" of transit, but they'll listen to ideas about any area of the MBTA.