Sunday, March 30, 2008

Zipcar and Competition

I spotted this article about Zipcar in today's Boston Globe. Apparently the old staid behemoths of car rental have noticed that, surprise, surprise, Zipcar is actually doing exceedingly well in the car rental market.

Ed. Note: In the interest of disclosure, my wife and I were members of Zipcar for a little over a year in 2006 and 2007. I thought it was an excellent alternative to the hassle of owning a car...especially since we lived in Brookline which is exceptionally car-UNfriendly with obnoxious and expensive overnight parking restrictions. Even so, don't kid yourself - if you need a car on a regular basis (as I often did) then Zipcar is no substitute. I was glad to have the option, but I sure wished I could've afforded to own my own car, and had I lived three blocks away in Brighton, I probably could've afforded it given what I was paying each month for Zipcar.

Okay, back to the article: if you've ever rented cars or trucks from places like Hertz, U-Haul or Enterprise (or any one of three dozen other major renters) then you know exactly why Zipcar does so much better: Zipcar's customer service is so much better than anyone else's that it's laughable. Whereas with Zipcar I have cars within a few minutes' walk of my location, and I can choose exactly which car to rent, and I can do it with about five minutes (at most) notice and effort, and no interaction with any obnoxious, unhelpful "customer service representative" whose sole purpose is to try and upsell all sorts of insurance and crap I don't need? Gee, no wonder I prefer Zipcar!

In fact, the sole reason I routinely used Enterprise for longer (weekend) trips was because of Zipcar's maximum of 125 miles per day included in the rental. If you go over that, the extra per-mile fees add up incredibly fast. I suppose Zipcar is trying to discourage renters from going far away from "home base" (and thus risking expensive solutions if the car has an accident or breaks down far away) but besides those fees, it was really no more expensive to go with Zipcar for a weekend rental. Hell, if it weren't for the fact that Enterprise had a rental location in my office's building, I probably wouldn't have used them...that was the only way they could "compete" with Zipcar in terms of convenience and that was just sheer luck.

I think Zipcar will have a problem of sorts with this, but not for quite some time. Car rental companies typically earn substantial revenue by screwing the customer...or at least I assume they must, because they never miss an opportunity to force me to come to them and then stand around waiting in their office while they try and upsell insurance and all sorts of other crap on me. The entire operation is a demonstration of how little they trust and respect me as a customer.

Not to mention a giant pet peeve of mine: you have pretty much no choice whatsoever as to what car you get. Oh sure you can choose "economy", "midsize" or "full"...the difference between each is minimal and it's really just a way to get you to pay a few bucks more per day. And really there's no promise at all you'll get even the size car you chose. Half the time there's nothing "available" in that size, so you get something else instead...usually a bigger car that sucks down more gasoline. Or the car you get isn't really a "midsize" car, despite the's really a subcompact.

With Zipcar, I get EXACTLY the car I picked. I really liked that: if I wanted the sporty Mazda 3, I got it. If I needed a minivan, I got the Mazda 5. If I needed to haul cargo, I got the Honda Element or the Toyota Tundra. Granted it sometimes meant traveling out of my way to get the exact car I wanted, but usually it wasn't too bad.

And with Zipcar, instead of nickeling-and-diming me on different "classes" of cars, I basically paid the same rate for any car I wanted, period. Man, that was nice.

The bottom line is that Zipcar works on a model of trust; the company actually respects and trusts its customers to do the right thing. All the other car rental companies are, at best, an adversarial relationship. It will take a long, long time for the culture at these other companies to change enough to truly be "competition" to Zipcar...and the article mentions this: the initial attempts by U-Haul and Hertz were pathetic blends of their existing service and halfhearted attempts to copy Zipcar, instead of a careful analysis of why Zipcar is so popular with its members and then a serious attempt to launch a service that actually competes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

DOJ Approves XM/Sirius Merger - How this will Hurt Public Radio?

It's all over the news, but Current gets the link for having a collection of links themselves. :-)

So yesterday the Dep't of Justice approved the XM/Sirius satellite radio merger. It still has to be approved by the FCC but don't expect them to deny it, not with Kevin Martin in charge. And expect Martin to ramrod it through before the election and his almost certain ouster (it's just a hunch, but I doubt McCain or Clinton/Obama will keep him around).

People can wax and wane all day about how this will or will not be good for consumers, for radio, and for media in general. I have only two specific points to make:

First, I really hope that, should this go through, it means they'll have home TEAM announcers for all the MLB baseball games, instead of just the home FIELD announcers. I'm not paying $14/month to listen to those horrid Yankees announcers when my beloved Red Sox are playing in the Bronx.

Second, I see no way this is not bad news for public radio...and in a very specific way: program licensing fees. Both XM and Sirius pay tidy sums to NPR, APM, PRI and dozen or so independent shows each year for the right to air their shows on the satellite "public radio" channels, like XMPR and NPR Now (on XM and Sirius, respectively).

A major factor in those tidy sums was each satradio operator trying to outbid the other to get the programming they deemed compelling enough to lure listeners to satellite radio.

I won't say which, but I have it on good authority (as in, from the guy who writes the budget) that a Top 10 Arbitron market NPR affiliate (i.e. one of the big ones that produces a few national shows that many other stations carry) was getting more revenue for their station from XM/Sirius programming fees than they were from NPR programming fees.

I'll say that again...XM/Sirius were paying this station MORE for the NPR programming than NPR itself was. That's a stunning statement...and indicative of perhaps how out of control the spending has been at XM & Sirius.

Discussions on best practices in business and budgeting aside, I have no doubt that many of these stations - and the networks themselves - have gotten used to those tidy sums padding their budgets. And I can almost guarantee you that at the next contract renewal, those tidy sums will be a lot less tidy. Why shouldn't they be? XM/Sirius knows damn well they overpaid for most of their content and now there's no other satradio operator to sell your wares to if one refuses to pony up.

So there it is in a nutshell - this merger actually is "bad" for public radio in a very real and tangible way.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The No Journalism Zone

A friend of mine alerted me to this little bit on page 22 of the Feb.2008 edition of Boston Magazine. Click the image to read it, but the short version is that the Daily Free Press (the independent student newspaper at BU) is in deep doo-doo financially and is considering money from the king of "truthiness": Bill O'Reilly.

Bill O'Reilly?

Bailing out the Freep??


Okay, I admit...I'm a WTBU grad, and there was a serious rivalry between WTBU and the Daily Free Press. Neither of us had much respect for each other and, in retrospect, neither of us deserved any respect anyways. So there's a certain degree of glee for me that's associated with bad news for the Freep.

And it's not like the Freep is immune to all the problems that have plagued the newspaper industry as a whole in the past ten years. Certainly the arrival of the Boston Metro and BostonNOW have been exceptionally damaging to the Freep...since prior to them, the Freep was indeed Boston's third largest daily newspaper. And the Freep was great for BU students because it was free, readily available all over BU's campus, and a quick enough read to be taken in over lunch...three things both the Metro and BostonNOW are as well, and are (debatebly) better papers to boot.

But dammit. Even I wouldn't wish this on the Freep.


Something that has come up often in my discussions on journalism is that PERCEPTION MATTERS. If you are going to present yourself as an objective source of journalism to your readers, you must be above suspicion of any lack of objectivity.

Bill O'Reilly is the living embodiment of lack of objectivity. Regardless of how he may be in person, his "news show" never fails to bend, or break, the truth. It plays fast and loose with the facts. In short, it has zero regard of objectivity...and it is NOT objective journalism. It is advocacy journalism...and while technically there's nothing wrong with that, I do wish more people in America would realize that fact and take everything Bill says with a fat grain of salt.

Kyle Cheney is simply wrong here: there is very much a reason why the Freep should distinguish between alumni when it comes to financial assistance. If you take Bill's money, you take his taint as well; you can't sell only a small piece of your soul, as it were.

All the more so as O'Reilly is quoted as saying "I need to see exactly what their situation is; then I can come up with a plan to help them." Which is entirely the worst kind of donation: the kind with strings attached. Oh sure, O'Reilly is correct in saying "just to throw them a check ain't going to help in the long run" because the problems with the Freep are endemic to the newspaper industry as a whole. But to turn to O'Reilly to develop strategies for dealing with those problems means you're going to sensationalize the news and turn the Freep into a print version of the "No Spin Zone" because, fiscally, that's what's worked for O'Reilly and Fox News in general.

But that doesn't mean it's the only solution, and it sure as hell doesn't mean it's the RIGHT solution. The last thing this world needs is several hundred little Fox News disciples churning out of the Daily Free Press every year.

As an alum, I don't give anything to Boston University because the school was far too focused on business and profits when I was there. That's changed somewhat since former BU President John Silber left, but nowhere near enough. That the Freep is even considering having O'Reilly restructure them is just more evidence that my alma mater is still not worthy of my donations.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rest in Peace, little Molly

Our beloved hamster Molly took a noticeable turn for the worse yesterday; her edema was very pronounced, she could barely walk, wasn't eating right...and she had stopped grooming herself at all. Plus she was breathing and shaking in a tell-tale way that indicated she was often in pain.

Yesterday I called the nice folks at Cats & Critters here in Rochester and made an appointment. Tonight at about 7:15pm, after much cuddling and a tasty last meal of cucumbers and cheese, we put Molly to sleep and she was cremated.

I know it was the right thing to do. So does my wife. But nonetheless it was a very, very sad evening for both of us.

I miss our hamster.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Boston Roommates : Five's a Crowd

So Boston finally decided to do something about slumlord converting 2 bedroom apartments into six bed places by changing every single room into a bedroom, shoving as many students in there as possible, and jacking up the rent. New rule is: no more than four non-family members to a place.

Slumlords are, not surprisingly, frantically shoveling the bulls**t trying to fight the measure. Fortunately they lost and it looks like the rule is now the law in Boston, but check out this gem in the Boston Globe article on the issue:

Some property owners denounced the plan as unenforceable and said it would backfire by deepening a housing shortage that would drive up rents.

They urged the city to focus on enforcing other occupancy codes and on cracking down on absentee landlords, rather than restricting their property rights and ability to turn a profit.

"If you reduce my five-bedroom to four, I'll just raise the rent to what I would have gotten," said Greg Hummel, a Brighton property owner. "And if students can't afford it, do you think the Starbucks crowd will pay any less?"

How do you know if a landlord with student renters is lying? His lips are moving.

Let's take a slightly closer look at Mr. Hummel's assertion, marked in bold (my emphasis) above. A look at Boston Craigslist on Thursday March 13th, with search term "Allston" (a somewhat-grungy neighborhood, popular with students) and set to 5 beds yields many entries. The average seems to be around $3800/month.

So that's $760/mo per roommate....$3800 divided by five.

Now let's reduce it to only four roommates; $3800 divided by four means it's $950/month.


Yeah, you really think anyone's going to pay almost a grand a month for that craphole in Allston?!?! Good luck on that, pal. That much per month gets you a place in generally-much-nicer Central Square or Cambridgeport in Cambridge...or even Coolidge Corner in Brookline.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I Won't Say it Stinks, but it Sure Could be Better...

It has not been a good week. And it's only Tuesday.

As I had to boldly proclaim on the website, there was a major power outage in Geneva on Saturday thanks to the ice storm/blizzard. Triggered by that was a rash of major equipment failures: our automation system (Enco), our satellite downlinks (Pacifica demod) and our mix board system (Logitek). The first one seems to be mostly up and running again, the second one is down for the count and we're scrambling to find alternative means of acquiring Democracy Now and Free Speech Radio News. But the last is truly maddening...there's some glitch in the triggers table that crashes the entire Supervisor software (that controls the Audio Engine) whenever the wrong trigger is fired. Plus I'm still finding bizarrely-routed audio and commands everywhere; the system is amazingly intricate and complex...lots of flexibility but lots of places to go wrong.

And of course, this week we were supposed to have two live lectures and three sports games.


And to top it all off, our (meaning my wife and my) beloved hamster, Molly, is not doing well. I had to take her to the vet today because she was rapidly getting "fat". It turns out she's not fat at all, she's got tumors/cysts and has protein/fluid leakage...which is probably making it hard for her to breathe and is definitely making it hard for her to move around and also to groom herself properly. No wonder she's been sleeping so much.

I believe she's actually much older than we thought. The MSPCA wasn't sure, but they were told she was maybe 2 months old when she was donated to them, and subsequently we got her. But even then she was much too grown up to be that we thought maybe she was six months old. Given what's happening now, and that we got her last July, I'm thinking she might've been over a year old back then.

But the inescapable fact is that Syrian hamsters only live maybe 2 or 3 years. So the bottom line is that she's dying. And that bites.

The vet didn't expect her to make it much beyond a few weeks, maybe a few months at most, before she got to the point where she'd be in so much pain and discomfort that we'll have to put her to sleep. Best we can do in the interim is some anti-inflammatory meds and to keep her as happy and comfortable as possible.

Molly when we first got herI haven't had a real pet in well over a decade, and I'd forgotten how much of a part of your life they become. Even little hamsters.

This sucks, man. :-(

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Nitpicking NPR's New HQ (not really, it turns out)

UPDATE 03/01/08: Current has additional details about the move, including a link to the Washington Post that reveals the new HQ will be property-tax-free for 20 years (that's a HUGE cost savings) and also a link to a FAQ provided by NPR CEO Ken Burns, who - in other news - also left/was-forced-out-of NPR today. The timing kinda stinks on this one, but the reasons percolating out about Ken's departure seem focused more on NPR's strained relationship with affiliates than anything to do with management of the HQ move.

Heh. I don't know what I'd do without my daily fix. :-)

Today it was announced that NPR has chosen the NoMA (North of Massachusetts Ave) neighborhood for their new Washington DC headquarters. I barely even knew that NPR was looking to move, but hey - always exciting to have new digs.

But in reading the Current article, I noticed something immediately when I checked the handy Google Map showing the new and existing locations: the new location isn't near any subway stops.

Granted, the existing place on Massahchusetts Ave just east of Mt. Vernon Square is still a three block walk to either of the two nearest subway stations. But the new place is a six block walk to Union Station.

And supposedly a big decision in this move is to help the "revitalization" of the NoMA neighborhood...which tells me that the neighborhood currently is pretty sketchy. Not the kind of place you'd want to walk six blocks in the dark, ya know? Eh, I'm reading a lot into that statement, though...maybe NoMA isn't so bad, I honestly don't know one way or the other.

Okay, maybe there's buses that go through there...but I'll bet that making the change from subway to bus or vice versa is not a pleasant one. I've never done it in DC, but I've done it in enough cities to know that usually it's not a good way to commute. And I have ridden the DC subways during rush hour and while it's not an unpleasant experience by any means, it is a very looooooong one. Those subways have a lot of ground to cover and man does it take forever. I have to think waiting for a bus adds a ton more travel time to a total commute experience.

However, I will concede that a closer location to Union Station might be beneficial to workers who take commuter trains into the city from the suburbs. I don't know that neighborhood's transit options well enough to judge, nor do I know if most NPR employees use the subway or not. For all I know they all drive and this new place is better with more parking. I doubt that, but it's possible.

Ultimately...on the face of it, I have to wonder if the subway-bound employees of NPR just got screwed. I hope not, and I hope someone who knows DC better will tell me otherwise.

UPDATE: 03/18/08 I had a brief chance to talk to someone who works for NPR about this today...turns out the satellite maps of the area don't really tell the story that well; because of the entrances/exits of both the old and new NPR building, as well as for the metro stops, the new NPR headquarters is actually more convenient to the Union Station metro stop than the old place is to either of the metro stops near it. Also, there's many of the NPR crew that live along the commuter rail lines (esp. towards Baltimore) that all converge on Union this new HQ will be a considerably quicker commute for them.

So...yay for NPR and public transit! :-)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

When 50,000 Watts Isn't Really 50,000 Watts

Caught this story in Current about "Community Wireless" (public radio) in Park City, Utah.

I don't have much to say about the situation in general, but I did want to point out something the article didn't touch on much. Let me set the scene...

The overall story is about how Community Wireless shrewdly sold a transmitter/facility they had in Coalville for a significant profit, and used the proceeds to buy 1010AM in Tooele, UT (a close-in suburb of Salt Lake City) with the idea of getting access to the more lucrative (population dense) Salt Lake City market.

Seems like a good idea in theory, but here's the problem. While 1010 is a nice 50,000 watt AM station during the day. It's still a Class D daytimer with a weak 3,100 watts during Critical Hours (the short time around sunrise/sunset) and a miserable 13 watts (yes, just thirteen watts) at night. Fortunately that 13 watts is right next to downtown SLC, so there's some chance that it's reaching a more densely populated area. But with all the sources of RF interference out there these days (wi-fi, cellphones, lamp dimmers, power lines, computers, etc) that 13 watts might as well be nothing.

The unfortunate reality is that in today's on-demand / instant-gratification age..."super D" AM's, that essentially disappear once the sun goes down, are damn near impossible to make work financially. You can't have your signal go "poof" right in the middle of morning or afternoon drive...or worse, miss it altogether. Well, okay, with some niche/block formats you can do it because listeners tune in for a specific show, regardless of the time of the day. But while public radio is somewhat inherently block-formatted, there's no denying that the two big listener draws are Morning Edition and All Things Considered...otherwise known as when everyone's driving to and from work. During the summer it's not as bad as there's more daylight, but during winter it's a giant bummer when the sun sets at 4pm and your signal disappears.

Even worse, you've got to make enough money to keep that 50,000 watts pumping out during the day; transmitters that big are not cheap to operate. At least it's an non-directional facility. I can't imagine how expensive it'd be to shove 50kW through a directional array.

I wish the article had focused on this'd make the initial shrewdness of Community Wireless's owners seem more foolhardy, but that's kind of the point; CW spent a lot of money to try and make this work, and now the station is struggling financially. It appears the struggling is as much due to fiscal mismanagement (if not outright fraud) by CW's managers, but this transmitter point might be something you could point a finger at, too.

Or maybe not; I don't know enough about the background of the story to really know for sure. But my point still stands about how a lot of these Class D AM stations are in an inherently difficult...if not impossible...situation.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Boston Globe needs to sharpen the fangs a little

Now I'm not saying we need the Boston Globe to become another Boston Herald. One tabloid rag is just more, no less. But this week's Starts & Stops in the Globe could use a dash of bloodlust the tabloidish Herald is known for. I'll explain:

This week, Starts & Stops author Noah Bierman (with assistance from Sarah M. Gantz) writes:

Route 66 woes
Bruce Blake gets no kicks on Route 66.

The Allston man waited more than 25 minutes during rush hour Wednesday morning for a number 66 bus, which is supposed to arrive every 10 minutes.

For years, he has been taking the ride from Allston to Harvard, the T's sixth-busiest bus route, and says the huge rush-hour gaps in service are commonplace. "I know folks who have waited a good 45 minutes in a snowstorm," he said.

It is a lament among bus riders that goes back more than a decade.

"You're standing out there waiting for the bus and it ain't coming," Blake said.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T added another bus to the route, which also goes through Roxbury and Brookline, last winter and believes there are now enough in service to accommodate the 11,100 daily passengers. He said the 66 goes through 40 traffic lights, making it especially tricky to keep buses from stacking behind one another, which can create gaps in service.

In response to complaints, the T recently reassigned supervisors to monitor the route and prevent these gaps. By the end of this week, the T will finish installing Global Positioning System equipment on Route 66 buses, another measure meant to help keep them better staggered.

Blake will wait for proof. He said other complaints have been fruitless: "It's maybe different for an hour or a day, but nothing changes."

Now I'll overlook the fact that printing any response from Joe Pesaturo...without aggressive followup and fact-checking...can only be described as "rip and read" journalism. Joe might be a nice guy in person (I don't know, I've never met him) but his statements as the T's public relations guy are almost laughable in their rah-rah "The T is Never Wrong" tone, no matter how glaring the evidence is to the contrary.

And in this case, it's pretty glaring.

In particular, I'm referring the damning admission that the T regularly cancels bus runs on various routes because they can't afford to do them. I've blogged about this before, too.

Note that I say "cancels", not "canceled" in, past tense. Supposedly MBTA GM Dan Grabauskas ended the practice quickly after becoming GM a few years ago, but continued the lie because he knew what the political fallout would be. I say that's bullcrap, and that the T is using a smidgen of truth to cover up the lie; that they're still routinely cancelling bus (and probably subway) runs all the time in a desperate attempt to cut costs.

Regardless, this is news that is directly relevant to the story in this week's Starts & Stops, and yet no mention whatsoever is made of it.

Why not?