News Archive: June 2012
6/28/12 - NPR: Where New Ideas Go to Die? [link to this story]
Public radio broadcasters in the U.S. are coming to grips with the announcement from Tom and Ray Magliozzi that they plan to retire from Car Talk, one of National Public Radio's most popular (and lucrative) programs, this fall.
"Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers" have been doing the show for 25 years. Although they'll be done, Car Talk itself will remain on the air with shows assembled from the archives (one of the producers, a former colleague of mine, says they've got wide discretion to pick and choose what will air and when).
There's been some controversy over whether it makes sense to actually keep running Car Talk since all the content will be rehashed. Ira Glass, founding producer of This American Life (a program that, ironically, NPR declined to syndicate), thinks airing reconstituted shows makes for bad programming precedent on NPR more generally.
"For all of public radio’s successes, the part of our mission we've always neglected the most is innovation," writes Glass. "Our biggest shows...are decades old. The average age of our listeners keeps creeping upward. At 53, I am one of the younger public radio stars. My show has been on the air 17 years.
"We need to make space for new shows, new talent, new ideas. That's our mission, and ultimately, it'll be good business, too, to have exciting new shows bring in new audiences."
NPR's vice president of programming, Eric Nuzum, begs to differ. Calling Car Talk "the single most powerful program in public radio," Nuzum suggests that public broadcasters can't afford to part with the show - at least not in the near future. To him, it's all about the bottom line.
"Car Talk isn't a dying old has-been," asserts Nuzum. "It is our greatest success story TODAY. It isn't our past. It is our present. And it will help make our future possible. Relegating Car Talk to off-hours — or killing it altogether — neither serves the audience or the goal of innovation. It would be a self-inflicted wound."
If Nuzum's perspective is representative of NPR leadership, then the state of programming innovation there is abysmal. We're talking about a call-in program devoted to car diagnostics and repair - far from the high-minded sentiments one finds among many public broadcasters who still like to believe that they go above and beyond their commercial and community-broadcast brethren when it comes to simultaneously enlightening and entertaining the populace.
Car Talk itself is not without its own dark spots. Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel wrote recently about how NPR leveraged the program to force carriage of other shows on affiliate stations, to the detriment of locally-produced programming. Paul's story even got picked up by Harry Shearer, the host of Le Show (also syndicated by NPR).
In addition, most people don't realize that Car Talk has never really been the program it purports to be. One assumes a call-in show is live, but that is not the case here. Instead, the show is a meticulous work of pre-production. When you call Car Talk's toll-free hotline, you're shunted to a voicemail box where you're prompted to leave your name, number, and a brief description of what you'd like Tom and Ray to do for you.
Car Talk's producers then vet each call, choosing which ones to feature on that week's program based on "entertainment value" as the primary metric. Tom and Ray insist they don't do any pre-research on the calls they receive, but this is hard to believe.
Commercial broadcasters have been kicked in the teeth (and justifiably so) for their increasing use of such sonic sleight of hand, pimping shows as "live" when they're most definitely not. The fact that Car Talk's gotten away with it for so long says a lot about the pass public broadcasters get for doing good (and good-sounding) work outside of the commercial paradigm. Yet this is a program that effectively pioneered the practice, long before commercial broadcasters gravitated toward it.
Unfortunately, public broadcasters live in a bubble, strongly defined by their institutional connections/loyalties and a misplaced sense of moral authority that their work is "better" than what else is available on the dial. But if commercial broadcasting is a benchmark by which one judges their own quality and importance, what does that actually say about the service public broadcasters provide? Commercial radio sucks, and good on public broadcasting for sucking less, but it's all still suboptimal, leaving much to be desired.
The fallout from Car Talk's planned discontinuance shines a bright light on just how bereft this bubble is when it comes to program development and support. It's hard to believe that, after 45 years, NPR doesn't yet seem to realize that the majority of its best programs have originated with affiliate stations, who still scrounge for every cent they can just for the opportunity to try and create compelling programming.
The system by which program development happens in public radio is bass-ackwards: NPR's at its best as a program distribution channel, not as a program incubator, and the mentality of Nuzum et al. certainly seems to support this sentiment.
Over the last year, I've developed an increasing level of respect and passion for those who are trying to change this dynamic from within, but it's sad to see that they're still wholly outnumbered and outfunded by folks and forces that seem more interested in protecting a chimera than actually engaging the medium and those who use it in truly innovative ways.
I suspect it'll take a generational shift in the upper echelons of the public broadcasting world before this state of play may change. But since the bubble's walls seem stronger the higher one rises among pubcasting's leadership class, I'm not holding my breath.
6/21/12 - Broadcasters Still Ambivalent About Streaming [link to this story]
Interesting news out of Saga Communications, a broadcast conglomerate with more than 100 stations in nearly 30 markets. Saga has decided to limit its online-streaming presence to the stations it owns in the top 100 markets.
For those stations that will stream, Saga plans to cap listening geographically, limiting online access to those who actually reside in the stations' on-air coverage area. In addition, Saga may implement a 90-minute time limit for online listening: listeners will be prompted to click something to continue the stream after the initial session. If they don't respond, they're done.
Considering that the majority of Saga's stations are outside the top 100 markets, this is a significant diminution of the company's online streaming presence. Saga claims the cost of streaming is prohibitive, as it spends $800,000 per month to provide station streams, while the revenue it generates from them is paltry. Most of this money goes to pay performance royalties on the music it streams.
Contrast this with the actions of radio's biggest player, Clear Channel, over the last year. Clear Channel's building what it hopes to be the go-to portal for streaming broadcast radio stations in iHeartRadio.com. Not only has it repositioned its broadcast properties to act essentially as billboards for the company's online presence, but it's entered into several agreements with other broadcasters (both commercial and noncommercial) to aggregate their streams exclusively through its portal.
Clear Channel is also taking steps to attempt to control the cost of streaming royalties. Earlier this month, the company broke from the rest of the radio industry, striking a deal with the Big Machine Label Group to pay the first-ever performance royalties for broadcast airplay. In exchange, the company gets a discounted rate for streaming royalty payments to the label.
The reaction to Saga's decision has been muted but critical. Broadcast consultant Fred Jacobs thinks broadcasters are being short-sighted by boiling the streaming issue down to the bottom line. "There are some activities that inherently generate revenue while contributing to the brand," writes Jacobs. "There are other endeavors and investments that simply aren't going to make money – at least in the near term. Not every strategy and tactic pays off in dollars....But if radio is going to continue to promote [its ubiquity], the cost of playing is getting higher."
The bigger picture suggests that broadcasters still fail to see the Internet as an integral part of their future. As of 2009, less than half of all radio stations in the United States even had online streams, and there hasn't been much growth since then. Arbitron data released last year puts streaming penetration among broadcasters at a whopping 56%.
It's surprising just how reticent radio broadcasters remain to the convergence phenomenon. Navigating digitalization via HD Radio is proving to be a rocky road at best. There's increasing evidence that the internet is just the first iteration of what is likely to be a universal communications platform on which most (if not all) future media reside. The longer it takes traditional broadcasters to realize this, the less promising and distinctive their own future appears to be.
6/14/12 - Tepid Response to ZoneCasting's Petition for Rulemaking [link to this story]
A proposal by Geo Broadcast Solutions to use FM booster stations to originate programming in a networked configuration attracted a paltry dozen comments to the FCC. None of the country's major commercial or noncommercial broadcasters filed their thoughts on "ZoneCasting," although those who did comment unanimously supported the idea and urged regulators to move forward with a rulemaking proceeding to allow this radical new use of boosters.
Harris Corporation, which recently placed its broadcast equipment division up for sale, told the FCC that it's been working with Geo Broadcast on the technical aspects of ZoneCasting and called the proposal "a novel use of FM boosters, likely unforeseen when the service was established in 1970." Harris believes program origination on boosters "would advance the public interest and can be implemented in a manner that does not cause harmful interference with other stations."
Alta Communications, a private equity firm with stakes in broadcasters such as Radio One and Telemundo, commented that ZoneCasting would "open up radio advertising to a larger audience of potential advertisers. This would have a positive impact on the radio industry which has been struggling over the past several years." This message was (literally) repeated by other investors and business owners that dabble in broadcasting. A couple of local business owners from around the country also commented that they supported ZoneCasting for the opportunity it would provide for them to advertise on radio.
The proposal also attracted some curious supporting constituencies, such as the National Association of Black Elected Legislative Women, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and the National Association of Black County Officials, who all suggested that the hyper-local targeting of advertising will open up the airwaves to the commercial messages of minority-owned businesses, many of whom can't afford the current rates for spots.
Only one commenter - a Texas law firm which "has provided a small amount of corporate legal services to Geo Broadcast and its partners," strayed from this message, suggesting instead that ZoneCasting would be most useful for providing targeted public safety information during emergencies, such as severe weather.
It's anyone's guess whether the FCC will formalize a rulemaking proceeding to authorize ZoneCasting. Given that there was no opposition to the initial proposal, there's no compelling reason for regulators to tank it. However, the lack of industry passion for the idea suggests that it's not going to be a high-priority process.
6/8/12 - Broadcasters Begin Push for Radio Chips in Phones [link to this story]
On June 6, the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on "The Future of Audio" - an open-ended, quasi exploratory affair covering several subjects. Of note was the testimony of Jeff Smulyan, the President and CEO of Emmis Communications.
Emmis, in conjunction with iBiquity Digital Corporation and Intel, unveiled a prototype smartphone with FM-HD reception capability at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention in April. The NAB itself has publicly acknowledged that getting FM reception into phones is its number one legislative priority this year.
Smulyan told the subcommittee that FM reception in cell phones would not only provide "greater access to the free news, public affairs and entertainment programming provided by local radio stations," but it would also "expand access to the critical public safety information that Americans have come to expect from their local broadcasters during times of emergency."
"Public safety" is the policy-angle that broadcasters have chosen to try and convince Congress that radio reception in phones is a necessity. Smulyan called radio "infinitely scalable" and noted that, unlike cell communications, it cannot be overwhelmed by network congestion in times of emergency.
Surprisingly, Smulyan denied that broadcasters are seeking a Congressional mandate requiring FM reception in phones: "[W]e have worked to educate policymakers on the benefits of expanding the availability of radio-enabled mobile phones," he said. "We have also worked for many years to incentivize wireless operators to expand consumer options for radio-enabled devices."
Instead, Smulyan characterized wireless carriers as inhibiting the expansion of radio in the cell space. Noting that many models of cell phones come with FM chips onboard, but not enabled, he suggested that carriers "would rather reap the revenue of data-intensive, fee-based streaming apps than offer consumers a free and local audio alternative."
Smulyan's testimony vilifying wireless providers is a bit disingenuous. For example, comparing radio broadcast content to streaming applications like Pandora is an apples-to-oranges maneuver. Pandora offers the ability for users to customize their content, while radio does nothing of the sort. In fact, the hyper-restricted playlists of most radio stations is one of the reasons why services like Pandora have become so popular.
Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, cited the trend in broadcaster consolidation to dismiss the public safety importance of FM chips in phones. "The vast majority of radio stations operate in unattended mode, meaning without people present to manually control the programming," he said. "When it comes to informing their audiences about time sensitive information unattended stations typically either don't do it at all, or are very slow to get the information out....A warning sent by analog radio is useless unless you happen to be listening to the radio at the exact moment the [warning] is transmitted."
"What this is really about is not about emergencies at all," declared Shapiro. "This is about an industry trying to preserve its market share. 47% of Americans listen to less radio today than they did just one year ago....And they're coming to Congress and they say they're not requesting a mandate, but yet in word and action they're acting very differently." Smulyan begged to differ, calling Shapiro's assertions "crazy."
Representatives of wireless carriers were also hostile to the idea of radio reception in smartphones. Christopher Guttman-McCabe, a top lobbyist with CTIA (the wireless industry's trade organization), told politicos that while broadcasters "will try to wrap themselves in the cloak of public safety" to justify the inclusion of FM chips in phones, his own industry research has shown that "FM is not appropriate for wireless emergency alerts, and thus decisions regarding the inclusion of FM capability in wireless deices must be driven by consumer preference and market forces."
It's curious that broadcasters have preemptively declared that they will not seek a legislative mandate requiring FM chips in phones. Smulyan told the subcommittee that he hopes the government will at the very least sanction further study of the issue. (Some members of the subcommittee were downright skeptical of that idea.) It's unlikely that this will grab the constructive attention of Congress anytime soon, but it'll be interesting nonetheless to watch three trade-titans of the communications industry wrangle with it.