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.

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