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...