Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Hate Only a Game

My best friend Gabe works for NPR's Only a Game. They're sending him to cover the Superbowl.

Lucky bastard.

Even worse, he's a %!^!@#% 49'ers fan. He doesn't even like the Patriots. I have been a die-hard Patriots fan for over twenty years. I was screaming at the TV in 1986 as the Bears demolished the Groanin' Grogan Boys. I was in the streets of Boston after the glorious Super Bowl XXXVI.

And, of course, there's absolutely nothing Gabe can do to get me into Arizona this Sunday.

I don't blame him for that. But I hate him anyways. Pffffttt!!!!!

Is it still "going postal" when it's a radio DJ?

I've been following the latest KOOP fire on Current.org for a few days now. The most recent newsblog post has inspired me to post as well.

I want to begin by saying that I'm basing my opinions on what's been reported, and it's important to remember that there's a big difference between something being reported and something actually being true. (WMD's in Iraq, anyone?) Or at least there's a difference something being determined in a court of law. I don't want to condemn Paul Feinstein too much until he's had his say in court...so don't take this too much as an indictment of Feinstein, but rather an indictment of overly-passionate volunteer DJ's everywhere.

Okay, that said...if you haven't heard, it appears Feinstein set fire to the station (the third fire to strike KOOP in less than two years, although the first two appear accidental and external to KOOP itself). Allegedly he did so because he was pissed that someone changed the music he selected to play on the overnight internet-only version of KOOP (KOOP shares a broadcast frequency with KVRX in Austin, TX).

Andrew Dickens, president of KOOP, has been quoted as saying "We are kind of worried that people will look at us like a bunch of idiots....Who the hell would have thought somebody would have snapped?" (presumably meaning, "snapped over something so trivial")

KOOP was well known for having a lot of "fringe" (perhaps the "lunatic fringe") volunteering at their station, which is itself in a "fringe" city. (Austin's rallying cry? "Keep Austin Weird"). I personally have worked with a lot of "fringe" myself...between WMFO at Tufts University, WZBC at Boston College, Radio Free Allston, Allston-Brighton Free Radio, Radio LOG, Zumix Radio and many others...Boston has its fair share of people who firmly believe the ends justify any means. So actually I don't look at KOOP like they're a bunch of idiots per se, but I do wonder if they demonstrated poor judgment by allowing continued involvement by unstable volunteers.

Of course, that presupposes Feinstein was visibly "unstable"...initial reports seem to indicate that by and large he wasn't. But put Feinstein aside for a moment and accept that MANY of the stations in the same style of KOOP do indeed have visibly unstable people working/volunteering at them.

Snide comments of the stability of WEOS's current GM are understandable, but will be ignored. :-)

Now, bringing this home, I worry about this personally because I run a small community/college radio station myself. I don't think we're all that analogous to KOOP, but certainly we broadcast in a "weird" or "fringe" area: Ithaca is often half-jokingly referred to as "Ten square miles surrounded by reality". Most of our volunteers are passionate about their shows, sometimes a little excessively so but I actually like that; I'm of the opinion that radio spectrum is too precious to be wasted on people who don't give a damn.

But how passionate is too passionate? Never mind the obvious off-the-air issue...I don't want to imagine the sling my ass would be in if one of my volunteers or students set fire to the station. Fortunately this isn't something I have to worry about too much...but I can remember some other stations I've been involved in where it was a near-constant concern.

There's no easy answer here. You can "fire" anyone, even if they're a volunteer, but like any firing you can rest assured that feelings will be hurt. With someone you're worried is too extreme to begin with...that could easily boil over into revenge. Usually not in the sense of physical damage or harm, but said person could do a real number on your reputation by dragging your name, and your station's name, through the mud. Simply appeasing the person and hoping they don't blow up is the common approach but there's the obvious risks inherent to that...although if you're lucky, it's not all that uncommon for a truly unstable person to fizzle out and go away on their own.

If that's not an option...fortunately in today's internet world and easy-media world, you can set things up so said person may have limited or no access to your actual facilities but can still participate in the station. And in today's security-conscious world you have plenty of reasons (and often funding) to set up protective measures at your studio and transmitter anyways. Stroke a little ego and you might be all set.

In the interest of my continuing education as a manager, though, I'd love to hear other ideas that other folks might have.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Second Life vs. Real Life Economics

This is why people make fun of the government. :-)

On Friday January 18th, the news broke that CPB is funding WGBH's initiative to build a virtual radio station in the online virtual world of "Second Life". The exact amount wasn't mentioned, but the upper limit of this round of grants is $20,000.

The following Tuesday, public radio's Marketplace ran a story about how companies are pulling out of Second Life because there's no money in it and it bodes ill for the future of Second Life as a whole.

Oops. A day late and a dollar short?

I was fairly heavily involved with Second Life from August 2006 until summer 2007 through my work with The Infinite Mind. The entire time it was obvious, to me at least, that Second Life as a concept is a vanguard of things to come; it is a prototype of what the entire web will likely be in the future.

At the same time, it was equally obvious that Second Life as a specific platform/company was inevitably doomed to fail. This isn't an indictment of Second Life or its parent company, Linden Labs; it's recognition of the history that the first major player in any new web venture rarely ends up being the top dog. Microsoft eventually trumped IBM. Google and Yahoo stomped Lycos and Altavista. Anyone remember Friendster...or its namesake's ancestor, Napster? Frequently the first big player shows everyone what is possible, and then some smarty pants realizes they can do it better/cheaper/with-more-profit and the original player has so much infrastructure and institutional mindset invested in the way they've been doing things that they can't adapt...and in the lightning-speed world of the web, that nimble young startup can trounce your business in less than a year.

Second Life also has, and has always had, a real problem with how their software infrastructure works: it's an outrageous bandwidth and computer resource hog. It requires near-constant updates (which take several minutes to download and install, even on a office LAN). And the system's design precludes more than approximately 100 "people" (aka "avatars") from being in the same location, so you can't have large-scale events. It's only a matter of time before someone else outside of Linden Lab solves these problems. And the longer it takes Linden to solve, the more users sign up but then drift away, and the fewer real-world businesses can turn a profit from their Second Life ventures.

This is also why I find this venture by WGBH perplexing. I mean, it's not entirely new...NPR's Talk of the Nation : Science Friday has had a weekly Second Life presence for a while, now. The Infinite Mind had an in-world island and did several events a year and a half ago. And it seems like WGBH is going to spend a lot of time and effort to create, maintain and market a Second Life presence right when most people are drifting away from Second Life to the "next thing"....and virtually everything WGBH will do for the Second Life venture is not portable to whatever that "next thing" is.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sangean HDT-1X Offers Upgrades

Sangean released the HDT-1 component-style HD Radio receiver to the delight of radio engineers. Many of us had been waiting for a radio we could put in our racks to replace a homebrew car receiver (or similar jury-rigged solution) for our in-house monitoring. The HDT-1 filled that need, and then some, with its stylish design, intuitive controls and large display. Even so, the HDT-1 wasn’t entirely perfect, and Sangean has released an updated version, the HDT-1X, that adds a few nifty features while maintaining the same performance of the original.

Quickly recapping the original and new units, the radio is a component-style tuner. It will easily fit in any 2RU space, although it needs a rack shelf. The front panel controls include a large power button, a numeric keypad for presents or direct entry of a frequency, and three rocker switches for incremental tuning, seek tuning, and seek tuning for HD stations only. There’s also a “band” button to cycle through two sets of FM presets and two sets of AM presents, and an “info” button to cycle through various functions on the display.

The rear panel has an AC power connection, a coaxial FM antenna jack, a twin-lead AM antenna jack, two unbalanced analog RCA audio outputs, and a new addition: an optical digital audio output, also unbalanced. A remote control that duplicates most of the front panel’s controls is also included.

I mentioned the optical digital output, that’s one of the main upgrades in the HDT-1X. Its consumer, not professional, but I imagine you could easily convert the optical TOSlink to balanced AES or whatever format you need. However, in comparing the optical output to the analog, the optical sounds slightly “brighter”, with more high-end treble. It’s possible this is a by-product of my amplifier, but this tended to make over-compressed audio sound more “crunchy”, especially on our local HD-AM stations.

The display is fairly large, 2.75 inches wide and 1.5 inches tall. It can be cycled through showing the time, a graphical EQ, artist/title in large, call letters, and frequency + call letters + artist/title. It can also show “SSI” which presumably means “signal strength indicator”. I’m not sure how useful this meter is, since it seems to vary wildly for no apparent reason. Of course, perceived signal strength does tend to do that. Still, it can be handy to fine-tune your antenna’s orientation.

Another bonus in the HDT-1X’s display is the addition of a stereo indicator. A quick scan of the dial revealed all HD signals from FM stations are in stereo…even stations obviously broadcasting mono content. However, on the AM side I noticed news/talker WBZ 1030 was choosing to transmit their HD signal in mono. It’s been long-suspected that the Sangean HD tuners also decode the old C-QUAM AM Stereo, and listening to the sole Boston source of AM Stereo confirmed it; the stereo icon appeared about 15 seconds after I tuned to WJIB 740.

One oddity carried over from the HDT-1 is that where some other HD Radios show some combination of station information, or artist/title, the Sangean will only show call letters. I have a suspicion that Sangean is actually displaying it “correctly” but other radios might using a more aesthetically sensible method.

A Well-Received Upgrade?

In the end, this is ultimately just a radio – so how good reception does it get? I’d say "Pretty good." It’s not the most sensitive tuner I’ve ever owned, but even in Boston’s packed radio dial, it tuned in most stations that I expected it to. Interestingly, some stations that had pretty poor analog reception…and low numbers on the SSI…would still successfully switch to HD. To compare it to the original HDT-1, I split the stock FM dipole antenna into both my HDT-1 and the HDT-1X, and found that they both seemed to have the same sensitivity. Similarly, the stock AM loops in about the same location yielded comparably sensitivity (and SSI numbers) for both radios.

One thing I couldn’t test was reception of HD3 channels and/or multicasts using the Expanded Bandwidth transmission. Unfortunately nobody in Boston is using either as of this writing. However, HD2 multicasts, when present, came in just fine whenever the HD1 channel successfully buffered.

Sangean seems to want to appeal to radio engineers, and the proof is in the HDT-1X’s signal diagnostics and control. The original HDT-1 had several interesting signal diagnostics, such as Bit Error Rate, carrier-to-noise ratio, FUSE Bit Check, (HD) Transmission Mode, and station ID. But the –1X adds some very broadcaster-friendly tricks: force-analog only, force audio to digital-on-left / analog-on-right (for time-synchronization purposes), and force mono vs. stereo (only in analog mode). Worth noting: even in analog-only mode, the display still shows HD PSD information, and not RBDS, if IBOC carriers are present.

And proving that Sangean really aims to please, even certain whining reviewers of other HD Radios (Directed Electronics DHHD1000 Tabletop HD Radio) :-) they even added a bright/dim control to the backlight! And the backlight shuts off when you power off the unit – yay!

So is the HDT-1X every engineer’s dream? Well, not quite. When the radio loses AC power, it defaults to "off" when power comes back. And if the radio loses the HD signal, it switches back to main analog audio after a minute or so; which could be problematic if you’re using it as a multicast channel’s monitor. I spoke to Sangean a bit about this and there’s talk of a branching a true “broadcasters’ radio” model off from the base HDT-1 design. Such a unit would cost more, but would have all the “professional” features like balanced outputs and even more signal diagnostics.

Conclusions

With the HDT-1X, Sangean has taken a pretty good “prosumer” tuner and made it even better for broadcasters. Could it be more sensitive? I suppose, but it’s hardly “deaf”. Could it have a few more features? Perhaps, but the ones it does have are nice. For the price, these downsides are easily outweighed by the improvements: a digital output to preserve the all-digital chain, and the added analog/digital and forced analog controls are very useful. The stereo indicator rounds out a great package of improvements. If you’ve been desiring a house monitor for HD that won’t break the bank and looks slick, the HDT-1X might be just the ticket.

PROS:
Handy digital/analog audio tools.
Reasonably priced.
Large display / Easy-to-use controls.
Good manual / documentation.

CONS:
No professional audio outputs.
Not ideal for silence-sense monitoring.

PRICE: $249 (MSRP)

ON THE WEB: http://www.sangean.com/product.php?model=HDT-1X&prod_id=41

The Payola Elephant in the Room

Radio World editor Paul McLane has a commentary in the latest edition: We Need to Mend Some Fences. Paul talks about how broadcasters and music labels are at each others' throats and how the arguments have gotten ridiculous.

Well of course they have, both industries are based on ridiculous concepts...namely profitability through the restriction of access to intellectual properties...that simply is not viable in the internet age. You can draft laws, you can sue college kids, but in the end...it's just too damn easy to share an MP3; the margins on music have always been fairly thin (despite the image of the filthy rich rock star) and internet file swapping just demolishes them.

So both sides are attacking each other for every dime they can because they can't deal with the real problem. I'm not speaking metaphorically, I mean literally the entire music industry and radio industry is based on concepts and restrictions that cannot adapt to the free-access model and maintain the necessary profits to sustain the existing infrastructure. In other words, sooner or later they'll have to destroy themselves in order to rebuild themselves. But they ain't there yet, and in the meantime many corporate suits have mortgages to pay so lock and load those lawyers and lobbyists!

Anyways, Paul's commentary has a glaring omission: payola. The practice of music labels paying broadcasters to air certain songs. Or, perhaps more accurately, the practice of broadcasters refusing to air certain songs unless paid by the broadcasters. Payola is illegal, but the statute is weak and, since Alan Freed in 1962, hasn't really been enforced too much...save for a much-hyped but arguably ineffectual crackdown by then-NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

From the music labels' perspective, it's bribery pure and simple. The perception of most of the so-called "independent promoters" or "indies" that are a buffer between labels and stations (to skirt the payola laws) as being one step removed from Mafiosos (or not even one step) certainly doesn't help the image of extortion. I direct you to the infamous tale, told in Fredric Dannen's excellent payola expose "Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business" of how Pink Floyd's 1980 monster hit "Another Brick in the Wall pt.2" was not heard on a single Los Angeles Top40 station until their label coughed up the indies...and how within 24 hours of payment, the single was everywhere. That dynamic had been in play for over twenty years in 1980, and it's only gotten much, much worse in the 28 years since.

The broadcasters really don't have any defense here. They could refuse to accept the "indie's" payments and just hire people to, amazingly, review the music internally and weigh it on its own merits and grant airplay accordingly. But they don't, and with over $40 million annually at stake, it's not hard to see why: greed.

So viewed in that light, the oft-touted broadcaster defense that they shouldn't pay any extra royalties for playing a label's music because they provide value in the form of promotional airplay, suddenly doesn't ring very true any more. Frankly, the label is paying through the nose to the station for that hard-to-define "value"...value that is arguably losing influence every year as more and more kids tune out AM & FM in favor of iPods and file sharing.

This does not change the fact that the RIAA is arguably the greatest shakedown artist in the history of legitimate businesses. Well, perhaps not "legitimate" but they are technically a "legal" business, anyways. Even that's open to debate. Regardless, RIAA is slime...and the music labels are coated in their slime, too. But it's not like radio stations are coming up roses...at the very least they are "pond scum" themselves, if not full-bore "slime".

I admit, I'm not truly impartial here. I run a college radio station, and I don't deny there's a part of me that only wishes I could get my share of those millions of payola dollars. But we don't...we choose music the hard way: we review the dozens (sometimes hundreds) of CD's that are mailed to us every day, and pick which ones we feel belong in heavy rotation and write reviews for our DJ's help them decide as their program their own shows. It's a lot of work, and probably 90% of what comes through the door never gets played at all...and at least half of that 90% is just flat out "crap" anyways. But we do the work because that's what it takes to be a "new music" station.

Unfortunately, thanks to labels, RIAA and stations all trying to kill each other, we're likely going to get caught in the crossfire; forced to pay additional royalties on a scale meant for multi-million dollar radio conglomerates. Ugh, thanks a lot. Guess we'll go news-talk only when that happens.

And as always, who gets hurt in the end? That's right - the struggling musicians themselves; denied one of the last few "pure" outlets for their music.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why the Media is Failing

So apparently Mitt Romney has won the Michigan primaries. sigh

From 1996 until 2007, I lived in Boston...capital of Massachusetts. From 2003 to 2007, Romney was Governor of Massachusetts. Massachusetts is often referred to as not just a "Blue State", but the "Bluest State"...mostly because of the whole gay marriage thing, but it is generally a pretty liberal state, even if Bush got 37% of the vote in 2004 there.

So as you might imagine, Romney didn't exactly win the gubernatorial race by being a right wing "Christian" conservative. He won it essentially by saying he was a centrist and by support for abortion rights, gay rights, and by "raising taxes" (technically it's jacking the fees, but if you have to pay it either way, does it matter). It didn't hurt that his opponent was Shannon O'Brien (who?)

Now for us Bostonians, and Massachusetts denizens as a whole, from day one we all knew Romney was a slick-haired used-car salesman who would say and do anything to get elected so he could springboard from Beacon Hill to the US Presidency. He muscled sitting (and "Acting") Governor Jane Swift, also a Republican, out of the way so he could run. Pretty nasty stuff. And he proceeded to spend the next four years putting style way the hell over substance on everything from gay marriage to the Big Dig. This man would say ANYTHING he wanted to win whatever battle he was fighting at the moment, no matter how blatantly it contradicted anything he'd said before. See folks, flip-flopping isn't only a Democrat thing when it comes to major Massachusetts politicians.

So when Romney announced he was running for Prez, most of us merely groaned and wondered why he waited as long as he did to officially announce it since he'd essentially been telling us since January of 2003, and shouting it since 2005 in his constant attacks on Massachusetts while still Governor (classy, Mitt)

Yet while I know all this as a matter of routine, my co-worker...a radio news reporter here in upstate New York...tells me that generally he didn't know anything about Romney until about six or eight months ago when the national media started picking up on him, and even now knows virtually nothing about his record as a Massachusetts politician; much less what most Massachusetts residents actually think of Romney. Namely, that he sucked so bad that his hand-picked successor (Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey) got her ass whipped by a political neophyte who's proven very inept in office.

So why the hell isn't Romney's record, or lack thereof, being dissected on the national stage? Why aren't news organizations showing how Mitt's "business leadership" killed a woman through pathetic mismanagement. Why hasn't the media shown that you can't trust a word Mitt says??

sigh I suppose this is true of all Presidential contenders. I imagine Obama's foes in Illinois are shaking their heads about his success and wondering how the country doesn't know about X, Y or Z. Perhaps that's why Hillary gets such vitriol; she's already been in the White House for eight years; we know exactly what she'll do in there and it scares the crap out of most of us. With everyone else, we can tell ourselves comforting little white lies because we don't know them well enough to know better.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Fair Game Isn't So Much?

From Current.org:

Was Eucharist fair game? But Faith gets forgiveness

Public Radio International has apologized for a recent skit on Fair Game with Faith Salie that recommended an imaginary “Huckabee family recipe” for “Deep-Fried Body of Christ — boring holy wafers no more,” the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said yesterday. The recipe skit was one of several based on weight problems of the preacher/presidential candidate (here’s another), but this one was pulled from the nightly comic interview show’s website, the league said, concluding: “We are satisfied with this outcome — it effectively ends this issue.”

I fully realize this is Monday-morning quarterbacking...but why does this feel a lot like PRI rolled over and muzzled Faith Salie? I mean, come on! They apologized to the Catholic League? This is the same group even the Pope thought wasn't very Christian.
(yes, that's a joke...read here if you haven't seen the South Park episode about it)


I'd like to think that PRI put up a fight for free speech and only backed down when it was clear the League was ready to go to extreme lengths to make everyone's life difficult. But somehow I doubt that.

I also find it interesting that the League insidiously choose to go over a Fair Game affiliate...namely KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah, a station that's no doubt always on the hot seat when it comes to religious issues...rather than complain directly to Fair Game's producer, WNYC. Or the distributor, PRI. And here's the real clincher:

Catholic League president Bill Donohue responded as follows:

“We are lodging a complaint with Ed Sweeney, KCPW’s general manager. This kind of programming would be over-the-top on a shock-jock station, never mind a station funded by the taxpayers. We would also like to know who was behind this assault on Jesus. Therefore, we are asking for an investigation.”


Ummm...if you'd listened to the show, Bill...I think you'd know. It was Faith Salie and the rest of the staff of Fair Game. No real big mystery, there, dude. But of course, demanding an investigation sounds a lot more intimidating and scary.

And isn't the Catholic League based in New York? Why the hell did they go after a station in Salt Lake City?!?!?! Shouldn't they be complaining to WNYC?!?
(Yes, I know the answer is because they knew WNYC would not be so easily intimidated as a smaller station in a smaller market that happens to be in the most religiously-charged city in the country. This is what's known as a "rhetorical question".)

And don't get me started about the "station funded by the taxpayers" bit...never mind the fact that taxpayer dollars make up perhaps 5% of a pubradio stations' revenue...never mind that commercial radio conglomerates get far more in dollar values in tax breaks/corporate welfare than pubradio stations will ever see...isn't a religion talking about another group being a burden on taxpayers the same as the proverbial pot calling the kettle black?

Man, I'm getting outraged again...I need to pay less attention to the world. :-/

Burbank Bails on Bryant Park Project

UPDATE 02/11/08: The New York Observer has a puff piece on the remaining BPP host, Alison Stewart. It also notes the interesting fact that BPP is on 18 stations, although it doesn't say if some of those are HD multicast channels (and thus reaching far fewer people due to the current scarcity of HD Radio receivers out there). What it doesn't mention is anything about Luke Burbank leaving the show and what this means for the future of BPP...although it's possible this article was researched and interviewed before Burbank left.



Okay, so I'm the first to admit and accept that most radio hosts have titantic egos. Moreso, most comedians have even more titantic egos, and perhaps somewhat fragile, too. It's part of the job - you can't be a good radio person if you don't believe you're the best in the world at it...and hell, what else is going to motivate you to put up with all the bullcrap inherent to radio production?

Even so, I have to say that Luke Burbank comes off looking like a giant douchebag for leaving Bryant Park Project only two months after its launch. Especially because it's pretty obvious that he knew he'd be coming back to Seattle with a job offer waiting for him...official statements be damned.

Here's my real problem: Burbank quite obviously busted his ass to get named the co-host of NPR's grandest experiment since Morning Edition came on the air over two decades. He did a lot of work with Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and overall was directly connected to the public radio world for at least two years before BPP came on the air.

"I'm not into news you can use," Burbank explains. "I don't like happy talk or the stuff that TV newscasters say to one another. I just think so much of what happens [on the air] is fake. I'm not about finding 'the local angle' on some issue or manufacturing outrage. That's being done. We don't have to add to that."

(snip)

Burbank too talks about the freedom that was missing when he worked for NPR. Fifteen producers. A tight schedule. Doing segments he just wasn't that into. "There was all this money on the line and then people were just messing with you so much," he says about "BPP."
Quotes from Seattle Times article "Luke Burbank is hip, vain, back in town and back on the air" 01/09/2008

That last quote says a lot. How could Burbank not know what he was getting into when he started BPP? No sh*t there's 15 producers and a tight schedule...it's a national morning show, dumbass. It's not just about you anymore! You're making a product that dozens...if not hundreds...of radio affiliates across the country are counting on you getting right. That's why they're paying your salary, ultimately.

For him to decide, barely two months after launch, that this was all too much, is really a dick-ish move.

And of course, it's dick-ish because it's not just all about him; a move like this could doom BPP. Certainly current affiliates are very nervous about the cash they've ponied up for a show that loses its host after only two months. Potential new affiliates are going to take a pass, preferring to wait and see who the replacement (if any) is. And this is right when WNYC & PRI are about to launch a competing national morning show with a big name host (John Hockenberry).

Going even further, how much you wanna bet whoever NPR finds to replace Burbank will have to sign a contract insisting they stick around for at least a year or two...or more? Bet your ass this'll have a ripple effect with any other "new and exciting" experiment projects like the BPP is; Burbank just proved to all the stuffy suits that this younger generation (Burbank is my age: 31) can't be trusted with a flagship product.

Thanks a lot, Luke...for nothing.

This isn't to say that I don't think Burbank is talented; quite the opposite. He was amusing and insightful filling in for Peter Sagal on WWDTM, and I've heard other stories he's done that were the same.

But that doesn't change the fact that it's still a sh*tty situation that Burbank's put a lot of public radio into.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Public Radio Needs a Sugar Daddy - II

Not long ago I wrote up an idea I had (see original post) about a pubradio station buying a commercial radio outlet in a market and wringing it for all its worth to support the pubradio mission.

In the interim I've had some fascinating conversations with several knowledgeable people about this. Nothing was exactly said in confidence...but there was trade expertise involved, so I'll keep it brief and somewhat vague.

The upshot is that the idea itself is not a bad one...the problem chiefly lies in two places: how commercial signals are typically valued at a sale, and the economies of scale inherent to most commercial stations (which are part of dozens of other stations across the country, all owned by one company).

When they're sold, commercial stations are usually valued as a factor of their annual revenue. So if a station has no money coming in the door, it's worth much less than a station with a healthy sales booking. This makes sense; rather than just estimating what a signal is worth based on its audience or wattage - you get to the meat of the issue. The upshot is that even with major players like Clear Channel selling off lots of properties in small and medium markets, it doesn't translate into firesale prices for stations. Oh sure, maybe it takes the edge off, but if a station is profitable, it will be expensive to buy.

The flip side to that is where the economies of scale come in. By which I mean that if a station is unprofitable, you might be able to buy it cheaply (well, cheaper) but you will have to invest much more start-up capital to build the listenership to make it profitable. That's hard to do when you're competing for ad dollars against the local Entercom or CBS Radio outlet that has the ability to sell spots on a national level, and can consolidate its sales force so that it's got a dozen guys covering your market. Sure they're covering every market in that quadrant of the entire US, but it's still out-staffing your one- or two-man operation, hands-down.

So ultimately, the problem is that there's not really a free lunch here like I thought their might have been. This isn't to say the idea can't work...in fact, for a larger station that already has the economy of scale somewhat in place, the idea can work handily...but it's not a slam-dunk; it will take serious bucks to start, many years to see any return on investment, and it's never really going to be a giant cash-cow.

However, I will add this caveat: if you can find a station available for firesale prices (it's rare, but it does happen now and then) you're eliminated half the battle; this idea starts becoming a heck of an attractive option. In such a case, I would suggest you contact the good folks at Public Radio Capital and talk to them about it.