Sunday, April 15, 2007

BE PREPARED - it's not just for Boy Scouts

We live in a material world, as Madonna so famously sang in 1985. For good or ill, our entire society is based on assigning value (in our case, money) to everything; even things that you don't usually think of in objective terms. September 11th brought this concept home in a stark way for insurance companies that had to calculate the dollar value of a victim's life. Grisly, indeed.

On a less-dark note, though, we have something that runs almost directly counter to this entire concept: college radio. College radio disdains the idea of assigning a material value to both itself as an institution and itself as its programming. Fortunately, most college radio stations have the financial support of a parent university so they don't have to face the dreaded "fiscal reality". But I'd suggest that there's more benefits than just cash when you take a little time to look at your station's objective value.

When you assign value to your programming, it helps you make a wide variety of decisions that your station faces on a daily basis. Let's take a classic example. Most stations have a transmitter. At some point, this transmitter will need to be off the air for some reason. Maybe it's scheduled maintenance, maybe it's an upgrade, but regardless...for some period of time you won't be broadcasting. EEK! The obvious solution is a backup transmitter. But is it really worth that substantial cost?

Of course, it probably is...but how can you tell? And how much backup do you really need? The simple answer is "As much as you can afford," but for a college station, that doesn't work. You're probably already on a shoestring budget, so you need to figure out just how much backup you really need before you can figure out how you're going to pay for it.

How to do this? Well, first you have to calculate what is the dollar value associated with you being on the air at a given time. Commercial stations do this all the time when it comes to their spot load. If they don't air a commercial spot, the cost of the spot they would've charged the advertiser is now charged back to the station...either in the form of a monetary refund or a make-good of some other kind. In addition, being off the air for more than a few seconds usually means lost listeners, which can affect a station's Arbitron ratings. Right now that affect is difficult to quantify, but with the rollout of the hyper-accurate Portable People Meters...the affect of just a single minute of downtime can be measured.

The same concept can be applied to college radio, too. How does being off the air "cost" your station? Do you have to issue make-goods or refunds for underwriting? Do you lose listeners? Do you lose subcarrier rental revenue? Don't forget that you will want to decide that your station is committed to offering a certain level of service to your listeners, so there's a self-imposed cost if you cannot maintain that level of service.

These costs may change across the day and week. For example, being off the air from 3am to 5am on a Wednesday is less likely to cost you listeners than being off the air from 4pm to 6pm on a Saturday. Especially if Saturday is game day for sports coverage, or some other similarly special event.

Balance this against what direct benefit being on the air gains you. In many cases, this will just be the same amount as the cost...simply turned positive instead of negative...but not always. Best to be thorough in these analyses.

Now estimate how much downtime is caused by various scenarioes: transmitter failure, regular maintenance, DJ didn't show up, STL fails, fire in the studio (or transmitter), tower collapses, etc etc etc. It may help to seek professional advice from an engineer and/or broadcast insurance company (or even your campus legal/insurance office) to help you make sure you've thought of as many possible disaster scenarioes as you can. Try and cover everything from the smallest issue (say, one CD player of three croaks unexpectedly) to the biggest (say, a disease quarantine forces your DJ's to not do their shifts).

Don't assume that something is "just too unlikely" to happen to you. You don't have to look any further to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, or 9/11 and the World Trade Center, to know that the unthinkable can suddenly become your reality...and by the time it happens it's too late to prepare for it; you've got to be ready ahead of time. Even the relatively mundane can suddenly throw a giant wrench into your operation...a serious but relatively contained fire at the One Broadway building in Cambridge forced The Infinite Mind's entire operation out of their studios for over six weeks. It cost us dearly in time, funds and productivity to set up temporary facilities and rent other studios in the interim.

The aforementioned insurance professional should also be able to help you assign probabilities to each scenario's occurrence, although with anything that can take you off-line for more than 72 hours...you should assume that it can happen anytime and have a plan in place to deal with it.

Okay, now that you've got all this information, it's a relatively simple matter of deciding which problems/disasters are most likely to occur and how much downtime you're willing to accept if one of them does occur. Once you know this, you'll know what you need to have in place to deal with the problem and avoid the downtime.

Mind you, this isn't all doom-and-gloom. With some stations, the cost of downtime just isn't very high...so you don't really need to spend that extra money. But until you actually perform an analysis of the costs and benefits, you're not going to know for sure - and that means you're not prepared.

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