Wednesday, December 03, 2008

NPR is Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

(originally published in July 2007)

After this Thursday's taping of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me at Millennium Park, I got word from a reliable source that the unofficial estimate for attendance came close to filling the 11,000 person capacity of Pritzker Pavilion (4000 seats, 7000 lawn). Based on what I saw, I'd agree...the seats were completely filled, and the lawn was pretty least 5000 people out there, maybe 6000.

Think about that for a least 10000 fans showing up for a public radio show that wasn't even being broadcast live at that time. Granted it was a free event, but still. And this is just Wait Wait's fans who live in Chicago; I doubt there were more than a handful of folks like me who came in from out of town to see it.

Normally Wait Wait records at the Chase Auditorium in Chicago. It has an official capacity of 3563. They charge $20 a head for attendance. It sells out almost every single week. Assuming a few weeks of "Best Of" shows for vacation, that's a staggering $3.5 million dollar source of gross revenue every year for Chicago Public Radio. Granted, not all of that is profit; renting a hall like Chase is not cheap. But still! They could charge double that and they'd still probably sell out every week; Chicagoans love the show.

Ed.Update Dec.2008: I learned today that WWDTM's auditorium is only about 500 people, although it does usually sell out every week. They also do about 10 road shows a year, and I assume about four shows are repeats for holidays, so figure 38 home shows a year, at $20/head, and that's $380,000/yr gross. Just for home shows.

If they do the usual 60-40% split of proceeds with local stations regarding road shows (where the local affiliate pays to rent the hall) then they're probably making at least $1500 to $3000 for a road show if the hall is in the 1500-2000 seat range. Bigger halls in bigger markets cost more but you can charge more per ticket, figure $2000-$6000 per road show for those. Those numbers might be on the optimistic side, and they're also raw speculation. But they probably add up to another $30-$40,000/yr gross, so let's round that off to about $400,000/yr gross, total.

Knowing what I know of concert production costs...which isn't all THAT much...I would be surprised if they're netting more than 70% of that. Hard to say - when you do a regular gig, a lot of the incident costs like lighting, tech, etc, start getting very cheap. And you don't need much security at a pubradio gig. Depends a lot on what they're paying for hall rental at Chase.

Still, the end result is that - assuming my numbers are correct, and that's a big assumption - WWDTM is not profitable off its ticket sales alone. Not with 11 people on staff.

This strikes me as a powerful argument for having a live audience when doing a public radio talk show. Can imagine leveraging the cult of personality that Christopher Lydon has engendered? Fans of the old The Connection and the newer (but unfortunately on hiatus) Radio Open Source would no doubt pay handsomely for the chance to watch Chris interview some local guest in the flesh. And let's sweeten the pot - let the audience submit questions via Blackberry or text message for screening, and then have a producer with a wireless mic go to the audience member whose question they like, and let 'em ask it live on the air.

I picked Lydon just because his "Lydonistas" are somewhat legendary, but really any good public radio personality in any city has lots of dedicated fans. Start small in 250 - 500 seat theaters and within a year or two you'll sell out the 6000-seat Agganis Arena every week. Best part is, you're engaging your local audience in a very powerful way...and it's a fiscally self-sustaining operation since fans will gladly buy tickets to see the show.

The funniest part is that this isn't a new idea; anyone old enough to remember TV in the 1980's remembers how "Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience" (to name one example) because the interaction between performers and audience made for a better show. Public radio is no exception.

Stop pretending that public radio is better when it's sequestered away from the unwashed masses in the glitzy Russ-Berger studios; get out there and interact with your listeners! :-)

Ed.Update Dec.2008: I still think that it makes a lot of sense to do shows like this in front of a live, paying audience. After this revision I'm not sure if the money quite works out, or at least not as blatantly as it did in my initial analysis. But all you need to do is find one venue that is decently-sized and willing to cut you a deal to bring in warm bodies on an off-night like Thursday, and you could almost certainly make it work.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Talk about a Tin Ear

Ed.Update Dec.2008: Quinnipiac has backed down.

How the heck did I miss this?

Apparently the administration at Quinnipiac University either has a real thing for smacking down student media, or they're not the swiftest taco in the value pack when managing them. Either way, it appears that it took national embarrassment heaped on them by the New York Times to get them to back down on a censorship crusade against the student newspaper journalists.

This is only a few years after Q-Pac waited until summer, when none of the students were around, to tear down the campus radio station's broadcast tower without any provisions or plan to replace it, or to allow the station to transmit from somewhere else. It took quite a lot of pressure and outrage to get the college to rebuild it...apparently they never bothered to learn that moving an FM radio station to a different location is always very expensive and often not legally possible thanks to a crowded radio dial.

Isn't Quinnipiac supposed to be known for having a good communications program? Yeesh, not anymore I guess.

I mean, granted, often you hear a story about an administration seemingly putting the smackdown on the poor little student newspaper/radio station/etc for "no reason". And then you dig a little deeper and you find a long and sordid history of the administration trying to work with a recalcitrant student group that refuses to be reasonable in the slightest. Or, at the very least, the story conveniently overlooks that the administration is actually not reducing total student involvement, they're just restructuring things to meet legal/practical realities that the students had neglected for years. I can name no fewer than three examples right off the top of my head of situations like those.

And there are cases where a college really had the best of intentions, but badly managed the execution and the subsequent negative press. The whole WUML debacle comes right to the forefront here...there were dozens of wasted opportunities in that fiasco - from BOTH sides - and while it was most definitely a war...ultimately nobody won it.

But even after factoring that in, this whole Quinnipiac deal smells really awful. When you have everyone (students, alumni, professional organizations, local news outlets) telling you that you're wrong and you need to back down, and you STILL don't do it until months later when - as I said - the New York Times fires the nuclear option (a scathing editorial) on you and it embarrasses your entire college on the national stage?

Ouch. That can't be good come the next fundraiser.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Welcome back from CBI in Kansas City!

I hope y'all had as much fun as I did out there this weekend!

If you're looking for my slides for these sessions:
  • HD Radio: Practical Operational Concerns
  • HD Radio: Engineering Issues
  • Change is Coming: FEMA plus EAS & CAP
  • How NPR+ISDN=Free Money for Your Station
  • Radio Automation / Playback Control
  • Play Ball! Sports Remote Gear Options for Radio Stations.
Check out this site:

You may also find these blog posts and articles, that I've written, interesting as well:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Baseball Players are Goddamn Wimps

You see this bullcrap with Game 5 of the World Series last night? Not the horrendous calls the umps were making, not the lousy plays many players were making. No - I'm talking about this bullcrap about suspending the game until the weather gets better.

"I don't want to speculate now," Selig said when asked when the game would be restarted. "We'll see what happens. But we're not going to resume until we have decent weather conditions.
Newsflash folks: it's late October in Philadelphia. If you wait for better weather, you'll be waiting at least six months!

Goddamn morons.

And goddamn wimps, too. Look at this crap from Wimp-In-Chief Carlos Pena:
"[The conditions] were horrible," said Peña. "It was windy, it was rainy, it was cold." (SNIP) "The conditions were difficult. I remember looking at home plate the last at-bat and all I saw was water. I couldn't even see home plate; it was covered in water. The rain was coming down pretty hard." Asked how he could see the ball to hit it, he said, "That's a good question. I don't even know."
Whassamattah Pena? Playing in the Trop made you soft and weak? Apparently the Rays can't handle playing in anything but climate-controlled indoor stadiums.

Now granted. I'm the first to say that any team that's located north of the Carolinas who builds an outdoor stadium with no roof should have the entire team, from the owner on down, dragged out into the street and shot. Yes, it's that dumb. But until MLB wises up and institutes that policy, these are the stadiums you got and yes, the weather gets lousy come late October in most northern cities.

Look folks, you know what? I don't care. I really. Don't. Care. Play the goddamned game. You're not paid millions of dollars to wuss out just because it's raining. Good God, the frickin' Indians went out there in the '97 World Series and played in the snow! And these wimps are whining about the rain?!? It's the goddamned WORLD SERIES!!!! Nut the f**k up and get out there and play!

Or, more appropriately, get out there and play so the Rays can lose.

Go Sox!

Sadly, I Don't Think Anyone is Really Surprised By This...

Well, the long-embattled Massachusetts state senator Dianne Wilkerson was arrested as part of an FBI sting operation that caught her taking over $23,000 in bribes.

Admittedly, this news isn't as big as deal as it nearly was, since Wilkerson lost the primary to Sonya Chang-Diaz in early Wilkerson's only hope to continue her decade-long stint as Roxbury's senator was a long-shot write-in campaign. A campaign that had about a snowball's chance in hell of working, given how disgusted most of the state was with her seeming inability to remember to pay income taxes.

Frankly, given Wilkerson's reputation as a hack's hack, and her repeated attitude of being "above the rules" that only the little people must follow....the only real tragedy I see in this is that Wilkerson was the lone African-American elected official in the Massachusetts State Senate. I'm not going to begin to claim that race should be a deciding factor in whether or not a candidate deserves to be in public office. But being a minority gives a person a valuable perspective on life that cannot be had by a member of another race. Given Roxbury's high African-American population, I would be inclined to view that perspective as all the more relevant.

Getting back on point, a scandal like this breaking a week before election day would ordinarily be huge news. Even for just a state senator, it could've gotten national play. But it won't. And in two days I doubt anyone will even care. Because Wilkerson's relevance had been fading for years and ended abruptly a month ago in the primaries. And that's a sad thing for her, for her district, and for the Massachusetts State Senate as a whole.

Friday, October 24, 2008

CBI Conference in Kansas City

Next Wednesday night, myself and two HWS students will be heading west to Kansas City, where the annual College Broadcaster's Inc conference will be held in conjunction with the College Media Advisor's conference.

Yours truly will be presenting in six - count 'em, six! - sessions. What da hell was I thinking!?!? :-)

Details on the CBI website:

Monday, October 13, 2008

ISDN + Empty Studio + NPR = Profit!

(below is an expanded version of my September 24, 2008 Radio World article: ISDN Can Help Generate Studio Rentals)

If you’re a commercial radio station, or a college campus, and you’ve never thought about ISDN, I have two words for you: public radio.

The generic term for content creators National Public Radio, American Public Media and Public Radio International (among many others), and their affiliate broadcast stations, “public radio” is an award-winning source of news for over 20 million listeners every week.

You might be wondering: “So what? Both NPR and ISDN have been around for decades, why are you talking about them now?” ISDN hasn’t changed, but public radio has: there are a lot more listeners, a lot more prestige and a lot more producers. These producers need studios to book their guests in, and you can help fill that need.

If you’re a commercial radio station with a lightly used extra studio, public radio has the cash to rent that studio to interview a local guest in. And if you’re a college or university, or a college radio station, you can make your professors available to be interviewed by public radio, thus bringing you national prestige and publicity…and the respect of your college.

Earning extra cash, bringing extra prestige, what’s not to love?

What exactly, is ‘the deal’ here?
Public radio, in general, places a premium on audio quality; ISDN helps achieve that.
In this case, ISDN refers to dedicated hardware that uses special telephone lines and high-speed algorithms to deliver CD-quality sound with almost no delay. In short, even though a guest might be in a studio 1,000 miles away, with ISDN they sound like they’re sitting in the same room as the host.

When an average public radio producer wants to interview a guest, that producer is looking — often frantically — for a readily available studio, convenient for the guest, that has the following:

• A quiet/soundproof studio or room with a studio-quality microphone.
• A location convenient for guests.
• A means of doing a backup recording.
• An ISDN codec compatible with the MPEG Layer 2 algorithm at 128 kbps (a.k.a. “L2 mono/128”).

What makes a good “broadcast studio”? Dense, solid walls, internal acoustic treatment, soundproof doors, baffled HVAC vents, and a method for allowing a trained technician to handle the techie stuff, so the guest doesn’t have to.

Don't have all that?You can still create a “studio” of sufficient quality with much less effort and cost. A regular room that’s naturally quiet — with thick concrete walls, no windows, a solid-core door, and egg-crate foam (make sure it's the fire-retardant kind) on the walls — can do the trick. Or a “pre-fab” solution such as a WhisperRoom booth can work well, too.

One note about WhisperRooms - they don't have built-in cooling, just vent fans that do nothing to cool the air. Once the door is closed, the temperature inside the WhisperRoom quickly climbs to 5 to 15 degrees higher than outside. If you're going to use a WhisperRoom, or a similar "vocal booth", make sure the room it's in has really good cooling (able to be down to 60-62 degrees F) so the vent fans are sucking in chilled air, lest your guest be sitting in a puddle of his or her own sweat.

Harping on the fire issue a bit more, The Station Nightclub disaster really rammed home how dangerous the fire risk really is. However, while a water-based sprinkler system is a great idea for saving people's may also want to consider that a water sprinkler may - in the process - also destroy your setup as thoroughly as a fire would. Check with your campus IT and campus safety office about finding a "electrical equipment / computer-safe" means of extinguishing fires; such as an aerosol-based system.

Okay, back to business. If you’re a college radio station, try talking to your college's marketing or public relations office, which may be willing to pay for your ISDN in exchange for free/cheap access to your production studio. The rest of the time you can rent your ISDN to bring in some extra bucks to your station, or use it for remote broadcasts like concerts and sports.

An installation note: strictly speaking, ISDN is a special data telephone line from your local phone company, or the campus telecommunications department. It’s a somewhat esoteric technology, and telcos are slowly retiring it in favor of IP-based technologies, like VoIP. It may take several calls, and four to eight weeks, to see if ISDN is available and get it installed. To cover your bases, try to get a codec that can handle IP/internet audio connections as well as ISDN. However, I'd also suggest asking your telco if and/or when they plan to “retire” ISDN in your area. Assuming you're talking to someone who will give you an honest answer (first-level tech support is not going to give an honest answer here!), and the answer is "more than five years" then go ahead and get ISDN now and plan to upgrade to IP codecs later. Five years probably is long enough to amortize the cost.

For help with your installation, three major ISDN hardware providers, Tieline, Comrex and Telos Systems, have excellent “ISDN ordering guides” in the Support sections of their Web sites:, and

Okay, I’ve got this ISDN but no one to call!

To fix that, a little marketing and some patience is required.

First, set up a Web site page just for the studio. Include lots of details: directions with maps, parking information, equipment lists, availability guidelines and your rates/charges. I cannot emphasize this enough: time is critical in booking; so include enough contact information that a producer can reach a booking agent quickly and easily. Whenever some pubradio producer is looking for an ISDN studio to put a guest in, they're usually frantically looking...calling at least three or four potential studios. First one to answer the phone "wins" the rental. And I mean "answer the phone". Here is one place that e-mail is useful but it won't cut it alone; you have to have a live person that answers the phone when the producer calls.

Next, make sure your studio is listed on the appropriate websites. When I’m looking to rent a studio, the two I use the most are the “Wisconsin Public Radio’s ISDN Directory” ( and the “DigiFon Digital Dialup List” (
If you’re a college campus, make sure every department head knows about your studio and that their professors can use it to be interviewed by so-called “prestigious” public radio. Make sure the campus public relations/marketing office knows, too. And while you don't want to be obnoxious about it, you probably will have to remind them every once in a while, too. If you hear about a professor getting on the radio and they haven't come into your studio...sent a polite letter saying "Next time, think about coming in to our station - we have ISDN!".

Don’t forget to just call up NPR, PRI and APM, and also any local public radio stations nearby. (Not sure who the local stations are? Try Radio-Locator and search on your ZIP code.) Call 'em up and ask to speak with whoever handles their studio booking on their end, and ask them to keep you in mind if they ever get overbooked. It’s not uncommon for other studios to get requests for studio rentals they just can’t deliver on, and they’ll usually be happy to send you the business.

Even after all this effort — be patient. Most of the time, a producer will find you by stumbling across you through Internet searches. Or because they call a potential guest and, if you're lucky, the guest remembers that they can come to your station. Still, over time you’ll build up a reputation; as more producers find you the first time, they'll remember to call you the next time.

Finally, how much should you charge for your ISDN?
There’s a lot of variation, but to get you started: rates typically run from $40/hr to $250/hr, with a one-hour minimum. The most common is $100/hr but that usually includes a trained engineer to run things for the guest. If you don't have a trained engineer, be ready to offer a steep discount.

If you’re a college station, offer free rentals when it's one of your campus professors being interviewed; it helps build good relations with your parent college.

It's not uncommon for studios to offer extra fees, like $10-$50 to make a backup recording on CD or MiniDisc. Or charge an extra "ISDN usage fee" in quarter-hour chunks to offset the ISDN per-minute fees your telco provider will charge you. Personally, I don't recommend this; I don't like the nickel-n-dime approach and I think it just complicates things unnecessarily. If you need the extra money, just charge a higher main rate.

Getting ISDN…or if you have it, getting the word out about it…is a great way to help turn an empty room into revenue generator; your business manager will love you!

Plus, it can open up a new avenue of free publicity on a national platform; your college PR office will love you!

And you’ll help some poor public radio producer, like I used to be, have it just a little easier. Spread the love! :-)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If the MBTA Had a Work Slowdown...How Would You Know?

Crap like this is why, generally speaking, I really dislike unions. It's why most of my friends dislike - or even outright hate - unions, too. We're not exactly a statistical sample, but the universality is remarkable. Apparently, the spawn of Satan Carmen's Union has decided that, even though the MBTA is fiscally on the verge of bankruptcy, they want their back wages and they want them right now. Never mind that they're already ridiculously overpaid and have the same benefits Wall Street CEO's usually get. So they're going to stage the usual work slowdowns and "calling in sick" (en masse) to make all the commuter's lives miserable in the process.

My question is this: the T already is so goddamn slow and unreliable, would anyone would notice the difference?

All joking aside, it would be quite delicious if the Carmen's Union pulled their little stunt, and hordes of angry commuters started attacking the union members doing the slowdowns. I wouldn't exactly call it a likely outcome, but I do feel reasonably confident that angry commuters are not going to transfer any of that anger towards T management - they're going to direct it squarely at the union members themselves.

I'd almost feel sorry for the bus drivers who came to work that day and tried the slowdown tactic. The odds of getting a spit shampoo would probably be pretty high. Boston commuters are a grumpy lot in the morning...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Epiphany for the Weak Minded

It's late so I don't have time to really flesh this out properly, but I was reading the esteemed Dan Kennedy's MediaNation media-criticism blog, specifically a post about how the town of Nantucket in Massachusetts somewhat inexplicably wanted to suppress details about a severance package a court granted a terminated employee. I'd already commented over there and someone else responded as well, and I had an epiphany of sorts.

I don't think this is really an epiphany, though. I suspect media veterans have been grousing about this for at least five or ten years, probably more like twenty. But hey, I'm not a real journalist - I just play one at my job. :-)

So here it is: it used to be that the media was the fourth estate. Newspapers especially, but radio and TV, too. It was to be feared, and respected. You could use the media to your advantage, but you had to be deferential and you had to treat the media right, or it'd utterly destroy you. But anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to this sort of thing knows that those days are long, long gone.


I mean, we've never lived in a more media-soaked landscape. Where anyone can bring a scandal to the limelight within minutes. We learned a right-wing Christian conservative governor was actually quite forgiving of unwed motherhood and premarital sex...solely because a hateful (and overall pretty stupid) rumor swept the series of tubes within hours of Palin being named McCain's Veep pick.

And yet, the press has never been more whipped and useless than during the eight years of the Bush administration. Used to be if a president stonewalled, lied and bullshitted the press as blatantly as Bush & company have...every newspaper in America would've turned on them so hard, there would've been impeachment hearings back in 2003. Obviously this isn't the case.

I have to think the obvious answer is that the press is so whipped precisely because we live in such a media-soaked landscape. When every yahoo and bonehead can have a blog and reach a national myself...then the meaning of "media" is diluted to virtually nothing. Can you imagine a President saying "If I've lost Cronkite" about anyone in the media anymore?

Couple that with the other side, that the "big media" have been so thoroughly bought and paid for. How can we truly expect anyone at the New York Times, the big three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, or any radio news source...yes, even keep the big & powerful honest? To do that, you must be willing to attack and destroy them. Assuming you even could destroy one of these mega-billion-dollar corporations (or the government) these virtually every case, the big & powerful are the same people signing your paychecks. As a journalist, you can only get fired so many times before you stop biting the hand that feeds you.

I still consider NPR to be one of the most objective sources of news out there. That's part of the reason why I can manage an NPR station and sleep soundly at night. But it is rather dismaying how NPR so often steadfastly refuses to ever really smack around a news source. To insist on taking the high road at all costs. Nobody's really afraid of NPR...and with 20+ million listeners, if some corporate fatcat isn't afraid of NPR, then who? Who's going to keep them honest?

I'll end this with a call to action: I would like very much to see NPR get more commentators that aren't afraid to rip some jerk a new one. Who ask questions and expect a real answer because if they don't get one, they'll make you sorry you didn't give them one. Perhaps a Daniel Schorr for the modern age. I like Dan a lot, but he's just too genteel...give him some young, fiery interns who're out for blood and train them on how to sharpen their fangs.

Granted, thanks to the FCC making it next to impossible for non-commercial radio stations (as most NPR affiliates are) to endorse/detract against politicians, this task may not be easy. But I don't pay NPR fees because I want to be handed the low-hanging fruit. I pay them because I want them to give me the real story, even if it means it's speckled with a few drops of blood.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Scaling the Great Wall of Newsprint

Okay, okay, I know that this entire post is completely being unfair to Kinsey Wilson, the new SVP/GM of Digital Media of NPR. But dammit, this is something I've blogged about before (or commented about it...although I can't seem to find 'em at the moment) so I'll blog about it now.

I'm getting mighty annoyed with this vast influx of non-radio journalists into the radio business. Especially public radio. Just because you're a really good print or TV journalist does not mean you're a good radio journalist. And this further annoys me because I know a helluva lot of really good radio journalists who're struggling mightily to get ahead in the world.

In fairness, I think this is true of other positions within radio, like management and whatnot.

And there's a LOT of examples of it... (name: home / former print or TV home)
  • Tom Ashbrook: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • Jon Marcus: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • Paul LaCamera: WBUR / WCVB-TV
  • Rob Bradford & Michael Felger: WEEI / Boston Herald
  • Sacha Pfeffier: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • David Boeri: WBUR / WCVB-TV
  • Wen Stephenson: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • Michael Barnicle: WTKK / Boston Globe
  • ...and now Kinsey Wilson: NPR / USA Today
Of course, I suppose I can't overlook that - in general - most of radio is crashing and burning hard, and has been for a decade. Not exactly a strong track record and quite possibly an argument for hiring "outside of the family" to bring in some fresh blood.

But I don't think that argument really flies when you're talking about public radio. In general, pubradio has done quite well over the past two decades. Admittedly, this begs the question: has part of that been due to hires from print and TV? Frankly, I have no idea. I don't think it has, but I have no evidence one way or the other really.

And admittedly, I've seen the reverse migration, too. Two good friends of mine worked with me at The Infinite Mind. One came from print (a national magazine) and went back to it...the other went to a local newspaper's web division. I don't think either of them is unhappy with the transitions. Although off the top of my head, I don't know too many high-end radio folks that have transitioned to print or TV.

On the other hand, I also want to point out that part of the reason why so many young folks aren't interested in a radio career is because the possibility for advancement is so blatantly slim. Hiring non-radio people for radio jobs certainly doesn't help that. And between print being a dying medium and TV careers being incredibly hard to break into to begin with, it's not like this radio people can realistically "work their way up" in another medium and then back into radio.

I want to point out that Wilson might well be the most qualified hire. And even if there were more qualified people, Wilson could easily end up doing the job the best. That sort of thing happens all the time.

But it's still a little disappointing that more radio people aren't getting these top jobs.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's Quiet...TOO Quiet...

Sorry for no posts wife and I moved to new digs last weekend and we don't have internet yet at the new condo. Not much time to blog at the job, either...too much sports going on.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Wait, Wait...Don't Cannibalize Us!

So despite the apparent dismal failure that is the Car Talk TV show, it appears CBS is going to make a TV show out of Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.

WWDTM is a top earner and top listener-getter. And with good reason, the show is consistently funny, consistently intelligent and - perhaps surprising for a comedy program - it's consistently informative as well. Taken with Car Talk (the radio show) I would say it's sort of to NPR what The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are to Comedy Central.

I wonder exactly what form the show will take. Arguably you could just use TV cameras to record the Thursday evening tapings of the show and that would still be fairly compelling television. Just tell the panel guests that they're on TV as well as radio and they'll ham it up appropriately. It'll make editing a little tough, simply because the live version of the show usually runs 20-50% longer than one hour, and they re-take several intros/outros at the end for later editing into the 59 minute program that radio listeners hear. That's still perfectly do-able for a TV audience, but as I said, it's a little trickier.

Getting back to the program style, I have a hard time imaging any formula BUT the "radio on TV" model actually working. Certainly you can't have a scripted'd be a disaster. At least 75% of the humor comes from how the panel reacts on the fly to the goofy news bits that host Peter Sagal feeds them, and most of that reaction comes from the feedback from the audience. You can't script this stuff.

But as a manager of an NPR station, my immediate concern is dilution of the brand, and dilution of the listener base. Right now the chief way listeners get WWDTM is through affiliate radio stations (although podcasting is, not surprisingly, a large and growing audience). If the TV show is good but is effectively duplicating the radio program, that could easily cost me listeners. If they intentionally wait to release the TV show to give time for radio stations to air it first, you risk having the "news" on the TV show being very stale by the time it airs.

Margaret Low Smith, VP for Programming at NPR, is quoted in the article as saying:

From the very beginning of our discussions with CBS, we have been guided by the principle "first, do no harm." We know that, above all else, we must protect the Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! brand, the radio show as we know and love it, and the important relationship between the show and Member stations. We are confident that our agreement with CBS will provide those protections and benefit Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, NPR and public radio.

To which I reply: bullcrap! If WWDTM the TV show takes off like a rocket, you can bet CBS will ride that eagle 'til it screams...brand (and NPR) protection be damned. If the WWDTM TV show sucks, that's still not good because it reflects poorly on the overall brand. It's lose-lose for stations no matter how you slice it. Please tell when, in the last twenty years, has a successful TV show ever driven people to listen to the radio?

Seriously, if you can tell me, then I'll gladly revise my opinions...but I can't think of one at the moment.

I also have tremendous reservations about doing this on network TV. I was leery enough about This American Life appearing on Showtime (and I'm still not convinced that was a good thing) but I took comfort that at least Showtime had the willpower and resources to let TAL TV stay on the air to build an audience (I think the contract was for four seasons). With network TV, if you're not wildly successful after two episodes, you're toast.

On the other hand, I'm not so high-minded that I'm above being bribed; if this deal means more money for NPR, and NPR turns around and charges me less to be a WWDTM affiliate, then it certainly ease my conscience. :-)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Flipflopping in the Modern Media Age

A funny thing happened when WRKO conservative talk host Reese Hopkins (inset) told listeners 17-year-old Bristol Palin's pregnancy makes him question VP hopeful Sarah Palin's parenting skills. Angry Republican listeners blew up his e-mail box, claiming Bristol's condition is family business. And Hopkins, who talked extensively on-air about the suspicious Gloucester teen pregnancy pact, was a little shocked. "You called these girls sluts, you said their parents were horrible," he said of his listeners. "But in 125 e-mails I have stacked in front of me, you're telling me [Bristol Palin's pregnancy] is not a big deal." Hopkins went back to the e-mails he received on the Gloucester story and compared them to his Palin e-mails. He found 70 listeners who flip-flopped on the teen pregnancy issue and invited them to explain. On Monday, Hopkins will broadcast live from George's Coffee Shop in Gloucester with Gloucester Daily Times reporter Patrick Anderson and editor Raymond Lamont.

WRKO is the local conserva-talker to the Boston area. Now I've made a general promise that I won't get into politics on this blog. Given what a political animal I am, this has not been an easy promise to keep! So instead of the inherent political angle of the above quote, I'd like indeed to point out something: flip-flopping isn't as easy as it used to be.

John Kerry got hammered, and perhaps rightly so, for being a "flip flopper" in the 2004 election. For whatever reason, nobody could easily turn that around on the Republicans. But avoiding the flipflop charge seems to be getting harder and harder in the modern media age. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have used this to GREAT effect over the years, especially lately.

But if it's creeping into a usually-reliable mouthpiece for the right, against its own party, then it strikes me that pretty anything that anyone says can - and will - come back to haunt them, and before much time has passed, either.

An optimist might think this would encourage people to put more thought into their invective, but realist that I am, I fear this will ultimately force public speakers to scrub anything they say to have even less content than it does now.

Here's the question, though...what happens when the technology advances to the point where anything someone says can be fact-checked so in, within seconds...that if they're contradicting themselves, you can show a video of it while the real-time speech is still going on. I mean, context is key in everything we say, and it's so easy to take things out of context when you're just talking 10 or 20 second video clips.

When, not if, that happens...who exactly decides what clips to air?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Everybody Makes Mistakes?

From the New York Times
At a reception for educators at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Sandra Ross, a special-needs high school teacher from Orlando, Fla, said, “She’s going to be a good role model for the country.” Of Bristol’s pregnancy, Ms. Ross added, “Everybody makes mistakes.”

I know this is a cheap shot, and I'm sure that's why the Times put the quote in there, but this what we, as a nation, find acceptable in a potential Vice President? I don't care what your political party is...when your office is in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, I don't want you to make any mistakes. Too much is always at stake!

I fully understand that this is an unobtainable goal, but nevertheless it is a goal worth striving for! If McCain becomes incapacitated or dies, and Palin becomes President (a distinct possibility), are you comfortable knowing that (she) "makes mistakes"?

Look, I don't mind elected officials being idiots just like the rest of us. Yes, they are human. But does it have to be so obvious? As far as I'm concerned, I want an elitist in the West Wing, not Joe Six Pack. Shouldn't the very best people hold the most important jobs in the country? Don't we, as voters, deserve the very best? Or at least people trying to be the very best? Or least people smart and clever enough to fool us all that they're trying to be the very best?

I know it's cynical but I'll settle for that last one - and be comforted that you've gotta be pretty smart and clever to accomplish that level of fooling.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Radio World Readers - a correction to the VR3 Review

Welcome any readers from my review of the VR3 car HD Radio in Radio World. There was an error in my review that couldn't be corrected before the issue went to print. In reality, the radio CAN be forced to automatically re-tune to a multicast channel after a power loss.

Shifting Sands of Programming

Not long ago, I learned that WSKG is revamping their schedule to add Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and one of WEOS's shows, Out of Bounds with Tish Pearlman. The latter will be Sundays at 11:30am, by the way...I encourage you all to tune in, just do it Thursdays at 7pm to WEOS instead. :-)
(actually, during the Democratic and Republican Conventions, OOB is on at 6:30pm)

Anyways, this weekend, unbeknownist to many (which probably isn't a good thing) we're moving Wait Wait Don't Tell Me to 11am on Saturday as well. Previously it's been on at 1pm, after Whad'ya Know. Basically, we're moving things so it's:
  • 10am Car Talk
  • 11am Wait Wait Don't Tell Me
  • 12noon Whad'ya Know (two hours)
  • 2pm Only a Game (rebroadcast from 7am)
This kinda looks like we're responding to WSKG's moves. Actually, that's not the case, and I wish we weren't airing WWDTM at the same time they are...there's no getting around that WSKG's 90.9 signal is much bigger than our 88.1 signal.

No, the real reason we're moving it is because WEOS broadcasts a lot of Hobart Football games. And if it's not Football, then it's probably Soccer. Or Basketball. Or Lacrosse. And most of these games start at noon or 1pm on Saturdays. The upshot is that for most of the academic year, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me isn't heard at all on WEOS's airwaves. That rather sucks, to be frank. WWDTM is a very popular show. And it also works quite well when paired with Car Talk.

So with WWDTM on at 11am, it will usually avoid being pre-empted. Of course, this means that Whad'ya Know is going to get pre-empted a lot, but it's not unusual for the pre-emption to start at 1pm, so at least one hour of Whad'ya Know will get heard.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I clicked 203 times in 30 seconds, which just surpasses "Delusions of Godlike Power" and approaches "Near Death". And all I've had today is a Diet Coke...didn't have time to hit the Dunkin Donuts on the way to work.


The Caffeine Click Test - How Caffeinated Are You?
Created by OnePlusYou - Online Dating Service

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Convention Coverage on WEOS

All this week on WEOS is Democratic National Convention coverage, and next week is the Republican National Convention. It's meant a lot of changes...temporary our air schedule: most notably that we've pretty much blown out all music programming (World Cafe and Echoes) in favor of special NPR coverage at night, a little more BBC World Service, a big extra hour of Democracy Now, and we're airing On Point with Tom Ashbrook, a call-in talk show, which is doing a morning and afternoon special each day from the convention itself.

Good stuff, all. I think we're providing a good alternative in convention coverage...especially with Democracy Now and On Point, which nobody else around the Finger Lakes are airing. Well, I hear WRVO is adding On Point to an HD Radio multicast channel, but HD penetration in the Finger Lakes is pretty low; we're airing it on our main channel.

There's an oddity that popped up today, though...and it really perplexes me: we're actually getting calls from people wondering where World Cafe is. We're running tons of promos, had prominent announcements on our website, etc etc. And, ya know, it's the National Conventions. These are kind of big deal, aren't they? Can't we live without World Cafe for two lousy weeks? Especially in Ithaca since, as far as I know, WSKG is not airing extra Convention coverage on their Ithaca signal.

I suppose people are just worried that we'll drop World Cafe permanently, which we've said more than once that WEOS will not do. We do plan to add On Point and keep World Cafe once we get WITH 90.1FM on the air in Ithaca. But we're not about to drop World's quite popular in Ithaca and you better believe we know that. It just seems silly to me; to think we'd even consider it, I suppose.

INSTANT UPDATE: No sooner did I finish this that I realized I screwed up our automation system's programming. It was supposed to wait to switch to the BBC until I made the change myself. Instead, it acted on the backup programming that switched it to the BBC feed automatically at 11pm, right in the middle of Hillary's speech. Crap. The backup settings are there in case Hillary's speech ended early, which was unlikely but was always a possibility.

And since I thought I had it set correctly, I didn't notice the error until nearly the end of Hillary's speech. Crap crap crap. At least I got it fixed in time to catch the NPR analysis.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why Jon Stewart is the Most Trusted Man in America

When Americans were asked in a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to name the journalist they most admired, Mr. Stewart, the fake news anchor, came in at No. 4, tied with the real news anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN. And a study this year from the center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that “ ‘The Daily Show’ is clearly impacting American dialogue” and “getting people to think critically about the public square.”
The New York Times has an article today: Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America? Nice article. Great little fluff piece about The Daily Show, what it does, and how it's risen to become a - and this is kinda scary - a trusted news source for many people. But the article dances around what I'd consider the real point here: it's not that Stewart himself is particularly trustworthy. Despite his relentless insistence to speak truth to power, he freely admits that they are not a real news team and if you really look at what they're reporting, they will indeed play fast and loose with a fact if it plays for a laugh.

No, the point is that the rest of TV news is considered so untrustworthy that a frickin' FAKE NEWS SHOW is no more untrustworthy than the rest of the ilk. THAT, my friends, is quite depressing for someone who works in the news business.

God I love The Daily Show, but this is no way to start the day before I've even had any coffee...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Destroy to Create

Word from Current is that Pandora, the "Internet radio service that allows listeners to customize musical selections to their own tastes", is about to die, fiscally. The article says it's chiefly because of incredibly unreasonable licensing fee structures the music labels have set up, and refuse to back down from.

The tone of the article is that, while it'd be sad to see Pandora go away, it might be for the "greater good". In the sense that, in order for the "big, bad, archaic music labels" to ultimately die, every possible revenue source for them must be destroyed first in order to choke them into submission.

I often espouse the "creation through destruction" manifesto...the Tyler Durden Eight Rules About Life, if you will. But here I fear that while it may be the only strategy, it is still a failing one.

I say that because, if I may speak bluntly, many music labels are cockroaches. They're impossible to kill. They're run by soulless, slimy bastards who know that there will always be some wide-eyed doe of a musician willing to sign their life away for peanuts in a deal that makes the label rich and screws everyone else. The music industry seems to attract these kind of people like rats to garbage. Actually that's unfair, the media industry as a whole seems to attract those people. Lord knows I've dealt with quite a few of them in various jobs I've had working in radio, and I've been lucky to only have to deal with a few since I'm mostly on the college/non-commercial side of things. The lessor dollar amounts inherent to this side of radio tends to mitigate the sliminess somewhat.

If you're of the industry and offended by what I'm writing, I say that by no means has everyone I've worked with been a soulless slimy bastard. And I'm not going to say here who I think was one. If you can't handle the potential of accusation, you either don't know me very well or perhaps you need to re-examine your career choice. ;-)

Getting back on topic, the music labels seem determined to pursue a self-destructive model of royalties. A model that guarantees their eventual destruction through alienation of every other participant in the process. A model that maximizes what little short-term gain can be had...and it's not the expense of potentially (and likely) destroying everything in the long term.

But it will be a long, slow and painful death match to that "long term", my friends. These are people who have made a living out of cheating, lying and general scumbaggery for at least forty years. They will learn how to eat their young for a long time before the inevitable finally occurs.

So don't hold your breath thinking that Pandora's death will bring change anytime soon. It will have to get much, much worse before that happens. And it's a damn shame.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Housecleaning posts

"If you've got nothing to say, then don't say anything."

Beats me who that quote is attributable to, but it's certainly true enough in my case. Not that I've run out of things to say, mind you. Just that I don't have much lately that's relevant for the blog. So I'll give y'all a little rundown of what's coming up over the next several weeks that ought to explain a certain lack of posts...

  1. My wife and I are moving, yet again. Fear not, it's not to the land of far, far away like last fall was. This time it's just from Rochester to Canandaigua. Nice little apartment/condo right on the lake. Probably a bit more than we want or need but the thinking is that by all rights we can afford it now (long as we're careful) and that we don't want to move ever, ever again. Well, that's overstating it a bit...but I'll be damned if I move again before 2013. We'll leave it at that. Oh, yes - the reason for the move? Very simple: the commute from Rochester to Geneva sucked. I mean sucked like a Dyson vac - it just never lost the suckage...especially during the snowy winters. This move puts both my commute and my wife's commute pretty much equidistant; we timed it.
  2. It's the beginning of the academic year at HWSC. Like any college, the last two weeks of August, and most of September, are just flat-out insane at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. Gots to deal with all sorts of various issues that are student-related...recruiting new students, managing returning students, filling the shoes of students who have graduated, etc etc etc. WEOS/WHWS is no exception. For an NPR station, we have a lot of students in critical roles here. That's by no means a bad thing...but it does make for a hectic September. :-) We also broadcast a lot of sports and that starts up barely a week and a half from now.
  3. Getting new stations on the air. I have learned, one might say the hard way, that putting a new station on the air is an incredible pain in the ass. I mean, I kinda knew this...I've participated in LPFM "Barnraisings" before, and advised various colleges on how to launch a Part 15 station in the past. But doing it for a "full power" station has headaches one can't even begin to appreciate. Just finding a tower to transmit from has been an exercise in exasperation to say the least...not to mention the licensing and membership issues with all the associations - like NPR, for example - that are involved. I certainly know that any amount of hassle will, in the end, be worth it...but it's quite frustrating to have deadlines...that seemed perfectly blown away on a regular basis.
So that's it. As always I will blog whenever I notice something interesting, amusing or informative. But it's entirely possible that such things will have to rise to earth-shattering levels before I can devote the time to write semi-intelligently about them.

Oh yes, and if anyone needs a nice 2 bed / 2 bath townhouse near Twelve Corners in Brighton, NY? I've got just the place for you if you're looking to move in on Sept.14th or Oct.1st! Contact Blackwood Properties and ask to see #360. Please! I don't want to pay rent on two places any longer than I have to!!! :-(

Monday, August 11, 2008

VR3's Add-On Car HD Radio Hits Target with a Miss, but Makes a Grazing Blow

In my review of the VR3 add-on HD Radio auto tuner, I erroneously reported that the radio could not be forced to return to an HD-n multicast channel after power off.

Thanks to alert reader Tom Wilson, who said his VR3 would indeed return to a multicast channel after power off, I tried some of the other VR3's that I grabbed at the discounted price of $38, and they all would indeed return to a multicast channel after losing power. Even my original VR3 did it.

Why would not work originally? I did a little more testing and couldn't figure it out. Maybe it's something to do with my car's cigarette lighter/power jack? Maybe I just wasn't paying attention to the right thing. Honestly, I couldn't sworn I tested this before writing the review, and the only difference I can think of is that at the time, I was leaving the VR3 plugged into the power jack, and just turning off the key. But trying that now made no difference.

Anyways, as Tom says, just remember to tune to the multicast channel in question, hit the POWER button on the VR3 to power off, then hit it again to power on. Now every time you kill the power at the power cord (i.e. simulated or real loss of power), when power is restored the radio will automatically power up and re-tune to the multicast channel.

Anyways, this does somewhat change the usefulness of the VR3 for in-house monitoring. Unfortunately, after about 10-15 seconds of loss-of-signal it will default back to
the main analog channel. So it's not perfect for in-house'll probably want to rig it so the power is automatically cycled every 12 or 24 hours just to be sure...and yes, you'll have to listen to it now and then no matter what since a silence sensor could be fooled by a radio tuned to white noise instead of real programming.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Future of Crossing the not to Cross at all

I read this article about managing pedestrian street crossing in the Boston Globe today. It's a pretty good article. I like that people are finally starting to realize that it's a losing game to try and make a city be as efficient as possible for cars to the exclusion of pedestrians, buses, bikes, etc.

But there's a gigantic element missing from this article: namely, the elements. Can we stop living in denial that the weather in Boston just plain sucks? It always sucks. It always WILL suck. For at least four solid months of every year, there will be snow on the ground that you can measure in feet. For three months beyond that, you can count on frigid, hurricane-force as not with driving rain. And for good measure, don't forget July and August when it's typically hot as hell and humid to match.

So if you really want to improve the pedestrian experience in Boston, don't make people walk on the street at all. Make them walk above it, or below it. I'm talking about a system like the Minneapolis Skyway, the Montreal Underground City, or any one of a dozen other systems across the globe. A system of walkways and public areas that are in fully-enclosed spaces.

Boston already has a small version of this in the connecting walkways between the Prudential Mall, the Copley Mall, and the Westin Hotel. It's a very handy and pleasant way to walk about five or six blocks in total comfort. Similarly, the system of tunnels under MIT's campus, (PDF) while inherently limited to just serving the MIT area, is also very handy during the winter.

And it's also has the potential to be a prime driver of commerce. Not so much in a true "mall" sense, but you could easily have lots of little news-stand and Dunkin' Donuts kiosks (perfect for commuting times) and some CVS's sprinkled around. Maybe even some mini-supermarkets so you could shop for your dinner ingredients on your way home.

I don't deny this is would not be an inexpensive system to implement. But I would argue that it's probably less expensive than many would think. There's a tremendous amount of public interior space in many buildings that is poorly leveraged at the moment, but could be (relatively easily) connected via a skywalk. Or just renovate the miles of tunnels under Boston that are often just sitting abandoned at the moment.

These tunnels wouldn't even necessarily have to be open 24/7, either. Minneapolis's is not and it works fine. All they have to be is well-lit, well-ventilated (but not open-air) and reasonably clean, and people will use them in droves.

Friday, August 08, 2008


The other day I was driving home, and in Canandaigua I got behind this drag-racing funnycar on Rt.5&20. It was loud as hell and belched smelly exhaust, but it looked really cool. I managed to snap a few covert photos with my cameraphone, including the last one that came out really distorted but in a nifty way. Check out the ultra-wide rear tires in the first pic.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Strangest Commercial Ever...Yet I Can't Look Away

I've been seeing this ad for Reebok a lot lately, and considering that it's got 20 NFL players in it (and how much these guys get paid to appear in an ad) I'm sure I'll be seeing it a lot more. The first time I saw it I was just completely stunned. Not in a bad way, not at all. It was just such a giant non-sequitur, and was just weird enough that it works. Actually, it works really well.

It helps that the music, Train Song by Vashti Bunyan, is just a perfect choice. Haunting yet hummable. Plus, you know, I'm just a disgustingly huge Patriots fan and my boys are indeed featured prominently. Not as prominently as those blankety-blank Giants, but I suppose that's understandable.

Check it out:

FCC approves XM & Sirius merger. World to end at high noon.

Recently I accused FCC commissioner Jonathan Edelstein of "selling out" his normally-left-leaning values, in that he was willing to approve the XM-Sirius merger if various conditions were met. Conditions that were stricter than what had been originally proposed, but frankly, were ultimately meaningless in the face of a government-sanctioned monopoly...which is what XM/Sirius are.

I personally feel this merger is bad news no matter what conditions are imposed, hence my feelings about Edelstein.

Well, I give Edelstein some credit back. When it became apparent that fellow Commissioner Tate was the real sellout and cast the swing vote in favor of the merger...WITHOUT the extra conditions...Edelstein voted against it, after all.

This is still horrible news, but at least Edelstein gets some street cred back.

Quick reminder: both XM and Sirius have been paying quite a lot of money to NPR and other public radio content providers for the rights to air said pubradio programming. With a monopoly in place, you can bet that gravy train will be coming to an abrupt end pretty soon. This is bad news since that revenue was helping a lot to pay for other new initiatives, and it couldn't come at a worse time overall-economy-wise.

BTW, technically this is not over just yet. Various factions - like the NAB and NPR - can and no doubt will sue to block the merger. The merger will almost certainly be frozen until the court case is resolved, which will take months or years. In other words, long enough to see a new President into office. If Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama wins, by law that will shift the makeup of the five FCC commissioners, from three Republicans and two Democrats, to the reverse of that. It might even force the current FCC commissioner/chairman, right-wing, secrecy-obsessed, and under-Congressional-investigation Kevin Martin, out entirely.

Needless to say, an FCC commission with a Democratic makeup might be a lot more inclined to block the XM-Sirius merger. Even with Obama in the White House, I wouldn't take it to the bank, but it could happen. We'll see...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

VR3 Add-On Car HD Radio - price slashed to $38 (!!!)

I recently wrote a review of the VR3 add-on auto HD Radio tuner. It wasn't very kind; the radio isn't bad but it's not all that great, either. Between when I first bought it and when I finished writing the review, the price dropped from $150 to just over $100. That lowered price helped make the radio a lot more attractive.

Well, that was two weeks ago (July 13). Today at Target (July 27, 2008) the price was only $38. Yes, thirty-eight bucks! I grabbed the three units on the shelf and bought 'em for WEOS; at that price they'll make decent giveaways.

However, a price cut that steep can only mean that the model's discontinued (either by VR3 or Target) and is about to be superceded by a new model. That new model may or may not be HD Radio-equipped.

For example, I wandered over to home electronics in Target today as well, and found the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio, a tabletop model that also has a dock for an iPod and supports iTunes tagging (and has a "surround sound" emulator, too). Pretty sexy for $180.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The FCC sells out to Mel

I guess we know where Jonathan Adelstein's bread is really buttered. Adelstein, a Democrat appointee to the five-member FCC board of commissioners, is usually known for being a rather "liberal" member, often taking any stance that opposes "big media" from getting any bigger.

Well today he sold out. Oh sure, he's trying to extract a bunch of conditions of the deal...and I give him props for one of the conditions being that any satradio receiver has to include an AM/FM tuner (no word on if that tuner has be HD Radio-compatible as well...that'd be nice if it were).

But ultimately this is still two big companies becoming a sanctioned monopoly. Our government has a bad history of "regulating" monopolies. And I don't care what price restrictions or channel reservations you insist a merged XM-Sirius have...ultimately the consumer is going to get screwed. You'll see more ads. You'll see lower programming quality. You'll see cheap, disposable talent. And, yes, eventually you will see higher monthly subscription fees.

In essence, you'll see what happened to AM and FM radio when the FCC lifted the ownership restrictions on that: the entire industry went to hell. Well, okay, the industry was already in hell...but it went from the third circle straight to the tenth, ya know?

Congratulations, Mr. just made a deal with the devil. Now go wash your hands.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Let the Pubradio Deathwatch Commence

Good grief. The number of public radio shows that either are rumored to be ending, or have confirmed their ending, is getting ridiculous! Let's do the list, shall we?
Guess that lousy economy is really catching up with public radio. Or is it? In some cases I think that's true, but I also suspect that some of these shows did an excellent job finding a niche and serving it when they started some ten years ago, but they never figured out how to adapt when that niche didn't really need them anymore. Others were just good ideas that weren't given the admittedly long time it would take to really get enough affiliates to be worth it...although I don't deny that it's hard to keep spending millions on a show that only has a few dozen affiliates.

I don't really know for sure, but this is a mighty disturbing trend regardless. I especially find it troublesome that several of the most "unconventional" and "experimental" shows are the ones getting killed off. Granted, "experimental" by definition means you're not sure it's going to work...but I really think that most of these "experimental" shows should have worked but either weren't given the chance or were set up to fail.

Monday, July 14, 2008

NPR kills off the Bryant Park Project

Well, I sort-of-called it back in January, when Luke Burbank bailed on BPP for greener pastures in Seattle's powerhouse AM talker: KIRO. But today NPR officially announced the end of the Bryant Park Project.

I would imagine the biggest reason for the euthanasia was that NPR is not in good financial shape right now. I wouldn't call it a crisis, but the extended Democratic primary battle...while possibly good for the country...was a giant strain on NPR's resources. Not to mention the overall concept of an 18 month Presidential race (ugh!) was daunting enough from a financial standpoint.

Couple that with fewer than two dozen affiliates (no doubt many of which were on HD Radio multicast channels - and therefore with very small audiences) and it's not surprising that NPR claims they spent $2 million over nine months with nothing to show for it.

However, allow me to be among those that give a giant dope-slap to NPR. No crap you didn't get much'd only been on the air for nine months! You're trying to convince stations to not air Morning Edition which is, by and large, the biggest moneymaker for every NPR affiliate out there. That's going to take YEARS, not just nine months.

However, as I said in January, Luke Burbank himself also deserves a lot of blame here. Well, okay, I shouldn't pretend to know all the reasons why he left BPP. But the reasons given in the Seattle Times article published at the time sure point to a massive egotistical a**hole. And I have no doubt in my mind that his departure spooked a lot of potential affiliates - who wants to risk your most profitable daypart to pick up a show that's so personality-driven when the host just quit after only two months? I think that skittishness eventually doomed BPP due to lack of affiliate stations.

Frankly, Alison Stewart's (the remaining BPP host) maternity leave didn't help. Is that sexist? (Alison honestly wanted to know) Perhaps, but I think in this particular case it's more of a perfect storm. The bottom line is that Stewart was going to be away from the show for at least several weeks...and frankly, I think that's as it should be. Dammit, are we all such wage slaves that we can't spend time with our newborns? I certainly feel we shouldn't be.

And in an ideal world, it wouldn't have been a problem for BPP because the other established host, Luke Burbank, would be there to pick up the slack for a few months and then Stewart would've returned and all would be well. But Burbank's ill-timed departure (Stewart went on leave barely three months later) meant that you had what was supposed to be a world-class alternative to a flagship program that had no permanent host, right at a time when a lot of news was happening and budgets were also being drained rapidly because of that news. That equals uncertainty and stations' program directors HATE uncertainty.

No wonder nobody else wanted to pick up the show. Hell, I didn't at WEOS...and for all the reasons I just outlined. I was pretty sure that NPR would eventually dump the show and I was right. Damn shame, but shame on NPR for giving up so quickly. Or for not having a plan that could deal with these problems.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

VR3's Add-On Car HD Radio Hits Target with a Miss

Wandering through Target recently I spotted a big “HD Radio” logo on a box in the auto section. This was the first I’d seen of HD Radio in Target, a store that’s known for attracting shoppers that are younger and have higher median household incomes...qualities many stations like in listeners, too! Perhaps the VR3 VRHDUA100 could be a real boon. Sadly, while I found it to be a decent tuner, the radio itself has a clunky user interface and is limited in features as to be problematic.

The VR3 is an “add-on” tuner, designed to be used through your existing car stereo. There’s three parts: a main unit that you tuck away behind the dashboard, a control unit that you attach somewhere in the interior, and a power supply/cord.

The power supply
Unlike most car radios, the VR3 provides a power plug that mates with any 12VDC “cigarette lighter” power jack in a car. There is no other way to provide power unless you cut off the cigarette lighter jack and strip the wires a bit. Perhaps this is no big deal for a radio engineer, but I can't see Joe Average doing it.

However, this does make installation a lot easier. But for me, it also hogs a power source you might need for an iPod or cellphone charger. And in my case, my 2001 Honda Accord also has a lot of engine electrical noise on that jack, and it came through the radio very audibly with a high-frequency whine that would increase in pitch and loudness as the engine RPM's did.

Hmmm…strike one.

The main unit
The main unit is the size of a small paperback book (6.5” W x 3.75” D x 1.2” H) and easily fit behind my existing car radio. However, as with most add-on tuners it’s designed to go in-line of your car’s antenna. The problem here is that the main unit’s cord, designed to go to the existing car radio, is just 18 inches. So the main unit pretty much has to be installed right where your existing car radio is. Not every car has a lot of room back there.

The main unit also has two RCA line-level outputs for the audio, which work fine. But this revealed a glaring omission: there’s no RF modulator in the VR3. So if your existing car radio doesn’t have RCA line-level inputs, you’re outta luck. Or you have to buy a separate add-on FM RF modulator.

Yeesh…strike two.

For the hell of it, I did open up the case and took a look inside. The interior appears pretty densely packed. Although I never noticed an excessive amount of heat being generated during operation. I didn't take any pictures of the underside of the interior - it's just a blank PCB.

The control unit
The control unit is discreetly small (only 5” W x 1.25” H x 0.6” D) and the package includes a handy snap-in cradle that can suction-mount to your windshield. There’s a two-line LCD display (blue-white letters on backlit blue) and eight buttons: POWER, BAND, SCAN and MENU on the left of the display…TUNE UP, TUNE DOWN, ENTER and PRESET on the right. Enter also doubles as a “change display” button, which can be set to show the song title, artist, call letters, frequency, a signal strength bargraph meter, or scrolling text.

The radio will show PAD from RDS/RBDS or, if HD carriers are present, the PSD from the HD station. If neither are present, it just shows the frequency. Usually the top line is reserved for call letters and “FM”, “AM”, “HD FM” or “HD AM”. The bottom line is what’s controlled by the ENTER button, and it’s erratic to say the least. This is more the fault of HD stations not standardizing on what information they’re displaying using the artist/title/etc fields. But it’s frustrating because the VR3 only shows one at a time, and must be manually cycled. The signal strength meter seems to have little usefulness, especially with FM multicast stations; you already know you’ve lost the signal because the HD audio disappears before the meter drops at all.

There’s no brightness or contrast control on the VR3, and it is exceedingly bright for night driving. I “solved” that problem simply by stuffing the control unit in an out-of-direct-sight location…inelegant but I suppose it worked. This also kinda highlights another shortcoming: while the cradle is pretty well designed in terms of holding the control unit, it's not so great for actually attaching to anything. The click-lock suction cup works reasonably well for attaching to a windshield, but unless you want your car to have a giant "steal me" sign on it, you don't want to leave something like that out when you're parked. So it suddenly becomes a real pain in the neck to remove/setup the cradle every time you go out.

The lack of contrast control was also a problem because I usually wear polarized sunglasses during daytime driving, and LCD displays are inherently polarized themselves. Unfortunately, the VR3's display is oriented so that when viewed normally while wearing polarized glasses...the display turns solid black. D'oh! I had to turn it 90 degrees to see anything on the display. Grrr…

And while we're piling on with the annoying quirks: when you shut off your car, the radio doesn’t stay on the last station it was playing. Instead, when you start up the car, the radio goes to whatever the station was when you last turned on the VR3 itself. This isn’t really a big deal, but it’s one more vaguely annoying thing in a radio that has a lot of vaguely annoying things.

Somewhat more seriously, the radio has an annoying tendency to just tune to "static" when you tune up or down. Especially, and inexplicably, if you tune past 87.5 or 107.9 to "loop around" to the other end of the radio dial. Even if you know darn well there's a clear station on a given frequency, sometimes all you hear is static. Tuning one notch away and then back usually clears the problem, but it's disconcerting nonetheless.

However, something that truly is rather damning: the presets are incredibly difficult to use. You must hit PRESET first, then scroll up and down amongst the 20 presets (10 each for AM & FM) using the TUNE UP or TUNE DOWN buttons then hit ENTER to switch to that frequency. This effectively requires you to take your eyes of the road for several seconds at a time to use any one present.

Hoo-boy…that’s strike three.

Arguing with the ump
Now that I’ve kicked the VR3 while it’s down, I should point out some of the positives. The radio is not the most-ever sensitive tuner I’ve ever used, but it’s not bad. I’ve used the Kenwood HR-100 and the JVC KD-HDW10 in this same car, and both are slightly better, but only slightly. You can feel comfortable recommending this tuner to the non-radiophile for signal selectivity.

I was particularly impressed with the AM sensitivity (listed at -87dBm in the manual) which was markedly better than most stock car radios. I couldn’t find a spec on it, but my ears told me the VR3 dynamically adjusts the AM bandwidth to adjust for signal conditions…and when it had a solid signal it must’ve been very wideband because it sounded fabulous. The only catch, if you can call it that, is that often the bandwidth narrowing was VERY audible. On both AM and FM you’d often hear the sound get tinny or rich very quickly as the filter constantly adapted. Ah well, at least when the signal was good, the sound was good, too.

In all fairness, the VR3 seems designed to focus heavily on the “easy to install” part (the box even touts it) and for the non-technical, it does mostly achieve that goal. Even the simple manual does a good job tackling a universal installation concept. The problem comes when you want to actually use it – it’s just not that user-friendly. Worse, there are better options out there that are cheaper: the VR3 retails for $150.

UPDATE July 13th 2008:
a visit to Target today revealed they have lowered the price from $150 to $105. Looks like a recent change. I admit this makes the VR3 more competitive with comparable models like the Visteon HD Zoom or Directed Electronics "Car Connect" (see my review of the Directed) both of which retail for about $200. Although the Directed, and the similar-looking Visteon, both seem to offer far better performance and features.

UPDATE July 27th, 2008: another visit to Target and another price cut, this time to just $38 (!!!!!) Either Target or VR3 must be discontinuing selling this model to let 'em go at that price. I grabbed the remaining three radios on the shelf at the Henrietta, NY Target to use as giveaways for WEOS. I also noticed that in the home electronics aisle they now have the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio ($180) a tabletop model that has an iPod dock and supports iTunes tagging.

What about for in-house monitoring?
Thinking outside the box, what about for radio engineers wanting in-house monitoring? It's tempting...the radio's design that makes it automatically go to whatever frequency it was set to when you turned the power off via the POWER button on the control unit. And if it was powered on when you cut the power, it'll come back on automatically when power is restored. Quirky, but it means you can be assured that'll come back to a specific frequency in the event of a power loss.

Catch is, you can’t force it to power-on to a HD-2 or HD-3 (or HD-n) multicast channel. Alert reader Tom noticed that this is not true on his VR3; when you tune it to a multicast channel, press POWER to power off, then press POWER again to power on...the VR3 will return to the multicast channel every time after a power outage. When I re-tested my VR3 I discovered that mine did that, too...I don't know why it wouldn't during the original testing. Very weird. So it's got some potential as an in-house monitor. Unfortunately, when the carrier signal is lost, the radio switches back to the main frequency quite quickly...10 to 15 seconds. So unfortunately, it's not quite perfect for monitoring since you can't use it with a silence sensor, nor can you force it to tune to digital only. Still, not bad for $38, though.

In conclusion...
Target’s website offers a few other HD Radio options (although, oddly, the website doesn't list the VRHDUA100), but as of June 2008 I haven’t seen any alternatives in the actual stores as of July 27, 2008, Target is now selling the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio in the home electronics aisle. So for the time being, if your listeners want to walk into a store and walk out with an HD Radio for their car I’d have to recommend you send them elsewhere. If they just want a tabletop model, the Sony is a good one. While the VR3 is indeed fairly easy to set up, it's just too lacking in features and too difficult to use for your non-technical listener that it's not worth it.

The one place I could possibly recommend the VR3 is in a "company car" if your station has one. It's not a bad tuner and, presumably, your company car is mostly going to be listening to your station alone...thus you don't have to worry about changing the channel.

Thumbs Up
  • Decent tuner selectivity.
  • Small size.
  • Fairly easy/simple installation.
Thumbs Down
  • Very poor user interface.
  • Lack of FM RF Modulator.
  • Lack of options for power.
  • Cheap price reflects few features.