Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is Chris Lydon a McCain fan?

Today on my regular blog trawling I checked out Christopher Lydon's Radio Open Source site and got a bit of a surprise: an ad for John McCain For President. Click the image to the right to see a full size version.

I'm hardly a bosum buddy of Chris, but I have worked with him a bit here and there. I wouldn't have pegged him as a McCain supporter, but neither would I guess that he wouldn't be, either. Hell, Chris might not even know about the ad...at the bottom it says "Ads by Google" and, IIRC, the individual blog has little control over those ads.

Regardless, my initial reaction was that it was pretty inappropriate for a journalist/talk-show host's site to have a political ad for any candidate. Impartiality and all that, you know?

Then I mused a bit more and wondered really if it was all that inappropriate. Chris certainly has a long history as a traditional journalist, but technically he's not a radio or TV journalist anyone - he's purely on the web, and like it or not, the rules are somewhat different for web journalists. Primarily because of the odd phenomena where you have so little control over what ads are delivered on your site, and yet most people know that and are, consciously at least, reasonably comfortable divorcing their opinion of your ads and their opinion of your work. Of course, how successful at unconsciously divorcing those two issues is open to debate, and that's why I think most journalists lean towards avoiding the issue entirely.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Catholic Church Scandals - the Gift that Keeps on Giving

By way of Current.org, I learned today that KMBH down in Brownsville, TX (the very southern tip, along the Mexican border and the Gulf) canceled one of their four annual fund drives after only receiving six pledge calls over three days.

D'oh!

So far they're eight months into their fiscal year and have only raised 15% of their annual budget.

D'OH!!!

If you believe the reports in the local newspaper, The Monitor, there is a serious governance problem at KMBH, with the local Catholic Monsignor Pedro Briseño effectively having total dictatorial control over the station. Which in and of itself is not unusual...lots of stations effectively are dictatorships...but apparently he's made some questionable decisions about dismissing more station trustees than is allowed, refusing to hand over public documents and the like. And he's given zero justification for any of it, referring all queries to his lawyer.

Again, I should point out this is all coming from one newspaper. Never underestimate the power of a newspaper with an ax to grind.

But assuming for a moment that the newspaper is being reasonably objective, I have to think the lack of transparency is being severely exacerbated because it's a Roman Catholic institution doing the stonewalling.

Has the Church learned nothing from the sins of the Boston Archdioceses? Stonewalling the public, giving no information at all, sweeping things under the rug, and having an antagonistic relationship with the press should be considered cardinal sins after the long, painful and , ultimately, obscenely expensive ordeals the Church put parishioners through with the priest sex abuse scandals...and that the public turned around and put the Church through in response more recently.

I'm from Boston, and Boston was undoubtedly "ground zero" for the priest sex abuse scandals...so maybe what's obvious to me isn't as obvious to a region 3000 miles away. But apparently it's clear to the listeners and viewers in south Texas, because they're voting with their wallets when it comes to the actions of KMBH management.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Like we needed proof that the T sucked?

Returning to my Boston roots a bit...so there's proof of what many MBTA commuters have known for years: the T routinely and secretly cancels runs of various bus routes because they don't have the resources to actually make all the runs their schedule claims they do. What's worse, they've been doing it for years, no doubt many more than the two years that current MBTA GM Dan Grabauskas admits has been happening under his watch.

Remember kids, Dan was hired because supposedly he's a reformer. Under his administration, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles was admittedly changed quite a bit...my first experiences in 1998 were pretty miserable but by the early 2000's a trip to the Registry wasn't all that bad, especially if you managed to go during "off times". But Grabauskas did very little "reforming" as state transportation secretary, and has done even less as head of the MBTA.

Anyways, supposedly Grabauskas has been working to change this policy of secretly canceling runs...and often stranding riders in the notoriously awful Boston weather...since he arrived. Which to my way of thinking is a ridiculously thin excuse. I mean, granted, this kind of policy indicates corruption at every single level of operation (management and operators) of an organization that it begs the question of where to begin reforming? I can see why a new political appointee who knows damn well what a nest of vipers he's been dumped into is not about to rip a scab off a wound by publicly confirming that everyone at the T is a total slimeball and has been screwing the riders for years. That's a bad way to spend political capital, and a good way to be a very short-term administrator. Conversely, trying to reduce it gradually earns you more political capital you can spend on things that can't be fixed gradually.

But to my way of thinking, that's a logical approach to a situation where logic simply no longer applies. If Grabauskas accepted this job, he should have done so with the ironclad backing of those in power and done so with a mandate to clean up the mess. With that kind of mindset, a giant airing of the dirty laundry right at the beginning would've been more ideal...it's a perfect excuse to get rid of a lot of dead weight (of which the MBTA has tons of) while rolling off a lot of the inevitable public outrage on the previous GM's of the T. Sure, there'd be a LOT of anger from the rank-n-file at Grabauskas if he'd done that...hence why he'd need the ironclad political backing to make sure people didn't pull end runs with their state reps to get him fired. In the end it would be painful, ugly, and it might not have worked. But at least there was a chance.

Instead Boston has a painfully dysfunctional public transit system that is hemorrhaging money, horribly over-budget, is still losing riders, and is dragging down the local economy in the process.

Now he's got the worst of both worlds: the scandal is out and everyone above and below wants his head on a platter. The MBTA comes off looking even worse than usual (that's no mean feat, itself). And worst of all, there's no groundwork laid to leverage this scandal into embarrassing public officials into providing more funding that the T desperately needs...instead there will be just be demands that the T end the practice regardless of the impact on already-overtaxed resources.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Figuring out the Secrets of the Universe (WBTN-AM's demise)

By way of this week's North East Radio Watch I learned that the Bennington Banner is reporting that Southern Vermont College is looking to get rid of WBTN 1370AM. Apparently the station has cost SVC $450,000 since it was donated to them in 2002 by Robert Howe, and the trustees voted last week to "end its losses" by the end of the Spring term. That probably will mean a sale, but technically it could mean anything that ends the cash outlay from the college.

FWIW, Howe is a trustee himself, and voted against the plan. Howe originally purchased the small AM station from Vermont Public Radio in mid-2000, VPR itself had bought it in early 2000 as part of a package deal that included the more valuable WBTN-FM signal on 94.3, also in Bennington, VT. This means it's unlikely that VPR could ride in on a white horse to "save" the AM station.

I also wonder a bit about just how doomed WBTN-AM was from the start, since Howe...a radio professional...tried running it himself as a commercial enterprise from mid-2000 until the donation to SVC in 2002. Then again, the economy was in the toliet around that time. And maybe he wasn't really all that into WBTN-AM (I get the impression he owns or has owned several stations). Who knows?

Anyways, the point here is that I feel there's a "you figure this out and you'll have figured the world out" lesson somewhere in here. SVC took on WBTN-AM with the intention of building a communications program around it. They ran it as a commercial radio outlet...albeit with a distinctly collegiate flavor, I'm sure...and even had the Boston Red Sox games on it (usually a gold mine for advertising).

And yet the station was losing over $75k per year. That strikes me as incongruous.

I mean, I can point to any one of a dozen possible reasons why the losses were so high. The signal isn't the greatest, for example...especially with only 85 watts at night. Although I suppose it covers Bennington and that's what matters.

Maybe they just never really tried to have a successful sales program...if you don't sell ads, you won't have much revenue - doesn't matter if you're non-commercial or not. Selling on a small town AM can be done and done well, but I won't deny it takes a dedicated and skilled salesman. Someone probably paid on commission. That may be something the colleges never wanted to deal with; I know many colleges often feel uncomfortable with the idea of commercial sales in any form, and they usually hate paying on commission.

But here's the thing: let's assume for a moment that they DID at least try to have a decent sales program. Something more than purely student-run. And let's assume they had a halfway-decent physical plant and there wasn't broken equipment everywhere. And we'll also assume that enough was set up with automation to provide for a 24/7/365 service even when students were on break or otherwise not around. These are all reasonable assumptions.

If that's the case, and they still lost that much money each year...what's the reason why? I mean, small-signal/small-town commercial AM's survive every day out there. Often just barely, but they don't lose money. What is it about college-run radio stations that seems to always encourage a deficit budget? I know very, very few college-run radio stations that are fiscally self-sufficient.

Note that I say "college-run", not "college-owned". I know several "college-owned" NPR outlets that are fiscally VERY healthy...but they're not really run by the college. I'm talking about "college-run" where regular college administrators have a regular say in how things operate, and students have an active role in the operation of the station and usually have regular airshifts.

Certainly my station isn't fiscally self-sufficient. While we do our best to raise funds via listener contributions and underwriting, we rely heavily on direct funding from the college to close our budget gap. This is something both my college and I are working to change, mind you...but it doesn't happen overnight. And it's kind of expected, and not just by HWS, that any student enterprise is going to always require subsidizing from the parent college. I know of no "college radio station" that is thought of differently.

OTOH, perhaps that "not happening overnight" is the problem; WBTN couldn't deliver the level of service the student and administrative body wanted and minimize costs until a listenership was developed to the point where enough funds came in. It's not easy to have enough startup funding to get the resources to build that listenership up...not when it can take five or ten years at several hundred thousand dollars per year. Not always that much, but it can be.

I suppose the $64,000 question is whether or not the non-commercial expectations of a how a college-run station should be is just incompatible with the unwritten laws of the marketplace that govern how much revenue you can make. For my own sake I have to think that they are not, but damned if anyone really knows the answer to that.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Quick update on BPP

A bit more news has been added to my recent post on Bryant Park Project's host Luke Burbank leaving the show...thanks to Current.org for noticing the link. Check it out!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Steiner and WYPR...Deja Vu, All Over Again

I have no knowledge of the whole Steiner firing from WYPR beyond what I read in the papers, but I wanted to present two items as food for thought.

First, this is almost certainly tied with WYPR's efforts to secure a new 50,000 watt station out in the Delmarva region; a move like that reflects a certain philosophy and vision in management, and while it's entirely possible Steiner was 100% in favor of it, it's also entirely possible Steiner viewed it as a departure from a local focus on Baltimore, and thus was not in favor of it.

Second, a well-known and public talk show host has a row with management, management tries to buy him off, and host refuses to the point where he's fired. Station looks bad. Host looks bad. Listeners cry foul. Wow. Doesn't this all just sound incredibly familiar to WBUR listeners? Wish you the best of luck, Marc, but remember that things ultimately didn't turn out so great for Christopher Lydon. (well, okay, Chris is hardly begging for change but Open Source is a shadow of the force The Connection was when he was host)

On the other hand, I'd say Jane Christo didn't exactly come out a winner in that tussle, either.

Again, I don't really know any details so it's entirely possible that the analogy is completely false. But on the surface, the parallels are striking.