Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Let the Summer Commence

You'd never know it by the weather...but the calendar doesn't lie. Commencement was this past Sunday so it's "officially" summer on the HWS campus. For many of us in academia, that means something of a breather.

Not for WEOS, no sir.

We've got the daunting task of getting WITH 90.1FM Ithaca on the air, basically from scratch. I meet on Thursday with my engineer to get a handle on what, exactly, the hell we are doing. I could fill a thousand blog posts on that aspect...and perhaps I will if I have the time...but I just wanted to pass on a little nugget: Programming a radio station is simultaneously very easy and incredibly hard.

This has been brought into stark relief for me, since WITH will - by necessity for reasons arcane and complex - be required to have a somewhat different program schedule than WEOS. Eventually...within a year or two...we'll expand WITH's coverage into Geneva and the surrounding towns with our 90.3 application in Auburn. The upshot here is that between the three stations, we'll effectively have thorough coverage of the central Finger Lakes region to have two completely separate program networks...and I'll have ironclad reasons for putting different programming on each.

But how different? Aye, there's the rub. I could make an all news-talk service on one, and more of a arts-culture-music service on the other. In fact, ultimately that's likely what we'll do. But there are many needs to consider here. First and foremost are that we are a college-owned station, and thus have to provide a measure of service to our parent college. Since we are part of the Division of Student Affairs, that measure of service mostly is in the form of students having access to opportunities at the station. Unfortunately for everyone, that's usually seen as being limited to just a student being a DJ and more-or-less playing whatever music they want. That rarely works well from a general listenership standpoint, and it completely overlooks both the opportunity and the need for student help in many other aspects of "running a radio station" (newscasters, sportscasters, engineers, music directors, etc)...but I don't deny that it's generally very fun for the students to do, and that is a very important part of being a Student Activity.

So the upshot is, where are the students heard, and how much?

Then there's the issue of sports, another big part of our service to our parent college. Most of our listenership hates Hobart & William Smith sports...and that's not surprising; we're primarily a public radio outlet, the most "sports" that usually entails is an hour a week from Only a Game with Bill Littlefield. But sports has TREMENDOUS appeal to a small but enthusiastic crowd, and it's both wrong and stupid to disregard their feelings. There is also significant student appeal to having the games on the air, and it provides excellent training opportunities for student sportscasters (we have a pro that does play-by-play for some games for us, but we ALWAYS try and get a student to do color commentary with him...and there's a lot more games than the pro can cover by himself). This is truly an aspect where you cannot make everybody happy...so it's a constant balancing act.

But those are the easy issues, really. There are distinct interested parties involved who provide immediate feedback...both positive and negative...on the choices we make as a station. That's easy; we make a decision, we live with the results, we learn for the next time. Simple.

It's the REST of the schedule that's a bear, because we're mostly operating in a vacuum. Oh sure, I could just toss a show here or there and see how it goes. Or I can put a show on the air because I like it personally, or because I know the guy who produces it and I want to do him a favor. And yes, sometimes that is a deciding factor when trying to pick between multiple qualified options. The upshot here is that really you can put together a broadcast schedule with a minimum of thought and at least you won't have dead air.

But really, does any responsible program director do that? Of course not. You agonize over every choice. You make one little shift, and invariably it reshuffles half your daily lineup. You debate internally. You debate externally. You solicit opinions from others. You get unsolicited opinions from others. Actually a lot more opinions are of the unsolicited type.

And invariably you know that there's probably a really cool show out there that would fit perfectly at a given slot if you just knew about it. But at the same time, you're often bombarded with people begging you to air their program. Well, okay, maybe not "bombarded" given what a small operation WEOS is. But I get quite a few e-mails, mailings and phone calls.

For the record? I hate getting phone calls. Put together a good website with several shows I can download and listen to at my leisure. Email me about it and then leave me the hell alone. It usually takes weeks before I have the time to review your show, if I have the time at all, and I'll get to it when I'm damn well good and ready. If I think it's good for my station, even if I don't like it myself, I'll air it - you don't have to convince me. If I don't think it's good for my station, nothing you say is going to change my mind. (unless the "you" is "my boss" :-)

What really drives me bonkers here is that it FEELS like I should be able to just toss something together that's relatively simple to "get things going" and then tweak it from there. But these forced-changes are just significant enough that no matter what I do, I'm going to have to have a pretty different schedule on WITH than on WEOS. And once I get to that point, invariably I start thinking of other things that I really ought to tweak. And so the dominoes start falling all over again.

sigh Yeah, I think it's time to bring in some professional help. No, not THAT kind of "professional help", you dork. I just mean a programming consultant. I don't necessarily have to do whatever he/she tells me (something I think far too many commercial radio PD's did back in the late 1990's) but it would be nice to have a little guidance from someone who's got a successful track record in this arena.


Anonymous said...

What about setting up a focus group made up of probable listeners in the WITH coverage area? I hear that some stations set up community advisory boards, too.

Ithaca listener

Aaron Read said...

This might sound arrogant, but it's actually the opposite: I am of the opinion that most "community advisory boards" are a way for a station to appear like they care about listeners in an area when really they're setting up a no-win scenario for said listeners.

It's not hard to stack an advisory board with milquetoasts; people who'll never really question anything you do. Then when someone in the listening area gets annoyed at something you do (which inevitably happens), you can point to your advisory board and say "They liked it, what's YOUR problem???"

Radio is a cynical business, and a community advisory board is a cynical exercise that I'd rather not engage in. I'd rather stand before a listener and take full responsibly for my choices in programming. And, since there's no such thing as a one-sided coin, challenge said listener to justify why they think a given programming change is necessary.

Similarly, I'm under pretty much no obligation to really be responsive to anyone, save the HWS administration, when it comes to programming. "Because I said so" is a remarkably valid justification. :-) Fortunately, I feel rather strongly that it's no way to run a railroad (so to speak) so I like the idea of being more directly responsible; directly answerable to comments...good or bad...about the programming on the station, instead of hiding behind someone else.

And for what it's worth, we certainly have no shortage of listeners throughout our signal area who seem to have no reservation about telling us what they'd like to have on the air. Setting up a focus group feels a little redundant.

Anonymous said...

Good! Then I'll just mention a few of my most desired programs. CBC As it Happens. CBC Ideas. Anything by Deutshewelle Radio. And whatever you can find that doesn't sound like formula NPR format. I like documentary, I like good production, I like creative use of radio as a medium. I hate Car Talk, I'm sick of This American Life, I'm kinda liking LeShow, a lot, actually. WarNewsRadio can be a bit boring but sometimes quite good. Out of Bounds tries my patience - something about it borders on smug. I miss Plato's Cave. I never listen to Unwelcome Guests anymore - it's her voice!! Latino USA is essential. Tavis Smiley is a good way to wind up on a Friday. Kinda losing interest in Making Contact. And, finally, for now, I lose sleep to catch BBC and am always miffed if it's not on at midnight, 'cause I know I'll just stay up another hour to listen.

So - when will WITH begin to air?

Aaron Read said...

Lots of people have missed Plato's Cave...it was a shame that Iva and Linda decided to end it but that sort of thing does happen.

Anyways, our loose goal is to get WITH on the air by late summer. We're hoping by Labor Day weekend, but there's a lot of pieces that still have to fall into place; tower rental, ordering a transmitter, figuring out how to get audio from our studios in Geneva to the transmitter in Ithaca, etc.

BTW, if you like the BBC, you'll be in luck. One thing we plan on doing is using HD Radio multicasting to deliver a 24/7 BBC World Service channel. The details are still up in the air, but that's the hope, anyways.