Media Convergence, As Cold As Ice

When I was working on my undergraduate degree back in the early 70s, I did a research paper on media convergence. At that time, we thought that convergence would occur around cable television. But not today.

Even in the 90s, the concept of media convergence seemed like the world of Jules Verne. People consumed each source of information, on its own separate platform. Print came in the form of a magazine or newspaper. Radio, via a reception device designed to pick up only AM or FM radio signals and television, through a big picture tube encased in a giant wooden cabinet. It was beyond most of our imaginations that print, radio and television would ever be delivered to us on a single device that we could carry in our pocket; like today’s smartphone.

Even more amazing is the fact that our smartphones can also publish our written thoughts, broadcast our spoken word and even transmit our pictures/videos to today’s global village.

Maybe even more shocking to us as Boomers, is the fact that the Millennial generation doesn’t even have memories of the fragmented media world we grew up with.

How Innovation Changes Our World

In order to try and help media people understand how innovation can change the world as we knew it, let’s take a look at how bringing “cold” to the south set-off a change reaction of change.

Two hundred years ago, if you lived in the south, there was no way to escape the heat. Frederick Tudor, Boston’s “Ice King” would spend a decade figuring out how to transport ice from New England to the south and even around the world. New England’s natural ice would become so treasured, that in the early 1900s, it would become America’s second largest export after cotton.

Then a physician, Dr. John Gorrie, wanted to try to cool the hospital rooms of his Florida hospital, in order to make his patients who were burning up from fever more comfortable in the sweltering heat of the south. Gorrie invented a refrigeration machine, and when he applied for a patent on his invention, he wrote: “Artificial cold might better serve mankind. Fruits, vegetables and meat, would be preserved in transit by my refrigeration system and thereby enjoyed by all.”

When ice fishing, Clarence Birdseye learned how the Inuit Indians of the north flash froze the fish they caught, by leaving them out in the frigid air. This caused their catch to be instantly frozen and allowed the Inuit to keep their catch fresh to eat at a later time. This inspired Birdseye to improve artificial refrigeration to enable the flash freezing of all kinds of produce,  creating the frozen food industry.

Fred Jones, created refrigeration units that could be placed on tractor trailer trucks, shipping containers and railroad cars, allowing for long-haul transportation of perishable goods.

Innovation Eats Its Own

In the 1800s, having an idea to bring cold to a part of the world that was always hot, was considered an insane idea. Everyone thought Frederick Tudor was an oddball. His efforts to perfect the transportation and storage of natural ice at one point put him in debtors’ prison, but his persistence would eventually make him a very wealthy man, until the birth of mechanical refrigeration. Gorrie, Birdseye and Jones would bring an end to the natural ice industry, with their innovations in cold.

Big ideas don’t come from a “Eureka moment.” They come from one person asking themselves, “I wonder if…” From having a hunch that just won’t go away. Big ideas are created from many other people having small, incremental ideas, that then get networked together, and over time become the next big thing.

The Internet

Fifty-one years ago, at 10:30pm, the internet was born with the transfer of one simple message. Charley Kline, a student programmer at UCLA, would type the letters “L” and “O” and electronically send them more than 350 miles to the Stanford Research Institute’s computer in Menlo Park, California. The computer system immediately crashed after they were sent, but a communications revolution had begun.

Now if you think of analog communications as “natural ice” and digital communications as “artificial ice,” you can see it really isn’t unusual for new innovations to extinguish original big ideas.

While today, we’d never consider putting an old fashioned ice box in our modern kitchens, the business of selling ice still exists. I for one, still frequent my local convenience store’s ice box, to pick up a couple of bags of ice cubes for my picnic cooler.

Likewise, I think a need for a few local radio stations may remain, but only if they provide a unique and unduplicated service to their listeners.

But I also believe that the analog communication model will slowly fade into the background as new communication innovations come along and replace it.

AM/FM radio’s days, as we Boomers knew it, are numbered.

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Happy Thanksgiving 2020

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November 26, 2020 · 7:39 am

Thank You Sue

I knew from the moment our eyes first met, that you were someone special.

When I asked you to share your life with me and you said “YES,” it was magical.

This week we celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of our Best Day!

2020 has been a very challenging year, but loving you wasn’t.

I’m grateful for everything you do.

Thank You.

I Love You.

P.S. Thank You Sue for editing this weekly blog.

(Today’s I edited on my own.)

-0-

Next Week: Media Convergence, As Cold as Ice

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Radio in Mayberry USA

Dick Taylor in front of WPAQ

Like many people my age, we grew up watching television shows like The Andy Griffith Show. My wife and I have been watching every episode on Netflix before turning off the lights and going to sleep. We’re currently in season seven.

Mayberry, NC

While there never was a town in North Carolina named “Mayberry,” Andy Griffith’s home town of Mount Airy, NC embraces the spirit of Mayberry to this very day. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to find any kind of collectible that says “Mount Airy,” but you will have no trouble finding lots of things with Mayberry on them.

We recently took the short drive from our home in Virginia to Mount Airy to visit the Andy Griffith Museum. It did not disappoint.

Historic Earle Theatre

Included with your museum admission, is admission to the Historic Earle Theatre located on Main Street in Mount Airy. Upon entering the theater, the first thing that caught my eye was an “ON AIR” light by the stage and pictures of radio station WPAQ.

The theatre even runs a video presentation about this radio institution, founded by its original owner Ralph Epperson, on Groundhog Day in 1948.

This year’s annual birthday celebration marked the station’s 72nd year of service to its listening area, which always includes a free concert at the Earle Theatre for its loyal listeners.

WPAQ

The first thing I Googled on my iPhone when I saw the call letters WPAQ was to find out what they stood for, as I could not imagine what they had to do with Mount Airy or North Carolina. Turns out, they really don’t stand for anything (much like America’s first commercially licensed radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh).

In fact, Ralph Epperson said the station actually ran a listener contest to try and give the station a name that went with the call letters WPAQ, but nothing ever really seemed to fit. One listener suggested that they stood for “We Piddle Around Quietly,” but Epperson said that wasn’t what they were looking for.

I think that listener got the idea from the disparaging nickname given to FDR’s Works Progress Administration (renamed Work Projects Administration; WPA). Some people felt Roosevelt’s New Deal program was a waste of money. They assailed this program that employed millions of unemployed people to carry out works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, along with employing musicians, artists, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literary projects.

The WPA spent $13.4 billion during the Great Depression but detractors of FDR’s get America back to work program said WPA stood for “We Piddle Around.”

So, you can see why Mr. Epperson didn’t adopt this suggestion, as he was a man of progress and forward thinking, he was never one to “piddle around,” let alone quietly.

The Voice of the Blue Ridge Mountains

While Mount Airy always embraced its role as the model for its native son Andy Griffith’s popular television program, WPAQ likewise always promoted and worked to preserve North Carolina’s mountain music heritage as the Voice of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

WPAQ is the source for local news, old-time bluegrass and gospel music, religious services and the broadcast of local obituaries. I truthfully can’t remember the last time I heard obituaries on the radio until I started listening to WPAQ. However, I remember writing many obituaries in my early radio days when I did news at WBRK in Pittsfield, Massachusetts back in the 70s.

The Saturday Merry-Go-Round Show

WPAQ broadcasts live from the Historic Earle Theatre every Saturday from 11am to 1:30pm on a program called the Merry-Go-Round. It’s the second longest continuously broadcast live radio show of its kind in America, second only to WSM’s broadcast of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

WPAQ’s program used to be the third oldest, until WWVA gave up its weekly broadcast of Jamboree USA with then station owner iHeartMedia who moved the program from WWVA to WKKX before ending the weekly broadcasts in 2008. Jamboree USA returned to the air in 2014 on a non-commercial low-power FM in Wheeling.

Mount Airy residents and tourists alike believe live radio music is part of the charm of the area.

Ralph Epperson always said he wanted his radio station to be different, saying “Why should we be like everyone else?”

Ralph Epperson passed away in 2006, but his son Kelly, along with Kelly’s wife Jennifer, co-own and manage the radio station exactly as Ralph envisioned. With one possible exception…

No Static at All

WPAQ was licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broadcast on 740 KC with a daytime power of 10,000-watts, 1,000-watts one and half hours before both sunrise and sunset and 7-watts at night.

On August 6, 2020, WPAQ signed on its brand new FM translator at 106.7 delivering the stations programs in stereo. The station also broadcasts its programming online at  https://www.wpaq740.com/listen-online/ .

During a recent evening walk around my neighborhood, I heard the sound of a fretless, five string banjo coming from a neighbor’s porch. When my neighbor finished his song, my wife and I applauded the performance and commented that he sounded like the music on WPAQ. He responded by telling us that he streams WPAQ on his iPhone and makes regular trips to Mount Airy for the blue grass/mountain music festivals.

Legacy Lasts

In these times of uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that radio stations like WPAQ are keeping family values, traditions and the roots of both this type of music and this type of radio broadcasting alive.

Proving that providing live, local and unique programming never goes out-of-style.

Looking into WPAQ’s main studio from the performance studio.
Announcer desk in performance studio.
Baby grand piano in performance studio.
Main Studio with Jennie Lowry playing records, CDs, & using carts.
Solid wood studio doors from trees grown on Ralph Epperson’s father’s farm.
Ralph Epperson in front of radio station WPAQ, Mount Airy, North Carolina
Ralph Epperson

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Hold On or Let It Go

Life gives us many challenges.

Sometimes, the hardest thing to decide is when to stick to something and when to let it go.

Traditional media – print, radio and television – are at that moment now. Do they stay the course and hope the “good old days” will come back, or do they let it go and begin inventing and innovating for the future?

Indiana Jones

In 1989, the third Indiana Jones movie was released. The film was a wonderful parable about what’s really important in life. Parables, as you may know, are simple stories used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.

In this film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the parable told is about what happens when greed overpowers the soul.

Indy and his dad are searching for the Cup of Christ, the Holy Grail. When Indiana finally holds the treasured bounty in his hands, he is faced with a life or death choice. Does he hold on to the cup or use both hands to save his life, for you see Indiana is in a rather precarious position on the edge of a cliff and can’t do both.

Indy’s father whispers, “Let It Go.”

Radio

2020 for the commercial radio industry is a milestone year. It marks the 100th birthday of an innovation that forever changed the world.

Like Indiana Jones, radio needs to decide, should it hold on to the past or let it go.

Back to Our Movie

After the senior Jones asks his son to “Let It Go,” you can see the terrible anguish on Indy’s face. Both father and son have spent a lifetime searching for the Holy Grail and now Indiana has it firmly in his grasp. To let go of the cup would seem to have made their life’s quest meaningless.

Indiana’s father now says more firmly, “Indiana, Let It Go!” And this time he does.

Movie audiences gasped.

The Lesson

In the end, the father and son journey was never about possessing the Holy Grail. It was about the importance of spending time together, of taking on a challenge that one of them could not do alone, and by building a stronger relationship. The true meaning of life is never about the things we can possess, but about the relationships we can build.  

Radio strength was always about the people creating the magic and not about the delivery system. Unfortunately, the radio industry’s leaders held on to the “cup” instead of its people.

For radio, the really valuable prize is the relationship it can have with a radio listener, and its ability to bring together businesses and services for the betterment of a community.

Is there still time for radio to make this change?

Empty radio studios all across America, as stations run on full automation

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Why Make Radio Advertising Harder to Buy?

The headline in Radio Ink proclaimed, “No More Free Ride For Non-Subscribers.” It was a news story about how Nielsen Audio was no longer going to provide buyers with any data pertaining to non-subscribing radio stations through their ratings service.  It will be as if these radio stations vanished from their markets.

Ratings Gathering Costs Money

I can understand the perspective of both Nielsen Audio subscribers, as well as Nielsen itself as an audience ratings provider. If there weren’t subscribers there would be no money to pay Nielsen to gather this data in the first place. Subscribers don’t wish to see those radio companies not paying and then enjoying the benefits of data gathered. Likewise, Nielsen wants to be able to garner the biggest bang for their ratings gathering dollar by trying to force all radio operators to be a participant in the process.

So, on the surface, why would anyone object to this change coming in January 2021?

Winners & Losers

The reality is that even if everyone pays to have access to the data, only the very top performing radio stations will enjoy the benefits. Stations placing out of the top five or ten– often any station not rated number one or number two – will be paying for data that in the end only helps the market’s “big dawgs.” For many stations, it’s paying big money for nothing.

Nielsen vs. Eastlan

In those markets where both Nielsen and Eastlan measure radio listening, we see all the stations in the Eastlan report’s cover page giving a total radio listening perspective for that  market, but with a Nielsen Audio report, we only see subscribing stations. In 2014, Nielsen ceased reporting non-subscribing radio stations from the “topline” numbers it provides to the radio trade publications and newspapers.

For anyone who grew up in radio, having radio stations that are impactful in their market not be listed seems sacrosanct; like not seeing 650AM WSM appear in the ratings for Nashville. When this became Nielsen’s policy, I stopped looking at their ratings reports, since I knew they were incomplete and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Eastlan Ratings, on the other hand, includes every radio station in their topline numbers in every market they do audience measurement. However, if anyone wanted to drill down the data to a more granular level, then they would need to subscribe to the report, and that seems fair.

Of these two radio ratings companies, I find Eastlan’s philosophy to be more valuable to the radio industry and the selling of radio advertising.

Subscriber First

Nielsen is calling their new policy “Subscriber First.” But will the result be a positive for Nielsen subscribers if it makes radio advertising more difficult for people to buy?

Radio ratings are, after all, only estimates. Estimates of what people ages 6 and older are listening to on their radios, smartphones and other audio devices.

Unlike my subscription to Netflix, Amazon Prime, PBS, or The Washington Post, where I am actually counted as paying for a service that I receive, radio ratings are attempting to estimate listening based on a small sample of people, and then extrapolate those results as the habits of an entire marketplace population.

Radio listening estimates  are not perfect, and as a radio manager, some of my radio stations have taken a “ratings bullet” and seen a precipitous drop in reported listening, even when nothing in the market changed to cause such a drop. History taught me that patience was in order and that things would return in the next ratings period; which they always did.

Radio Station Owners vs. Radio Advertising Buyers

It’s radio’s buyers who really want to know who’s listening to what, and when, and for how long etc. And it appears that radio buyers, as a group, are none too pleased with this change in ratings reporting. I’m reading quotes like “as a long-time client, not being consulted before a final decision was made is quite troubling,” and “ we feel like we will no longer be receiving the data we originally contracted for – a full view of radio listening in measured markets.”

Radio station owners, on the other hand, feel that non-subscribing radio stations should not have anyone know the true impact their radio station is having in a measured market. Those stations should be made to “pay to play,” or simply disappear.

Customer Friendly?

It seems like the timing of this change could not come at a worse time for the radio industry. With so much of its business impacted by COVID-19, making radio’s reach more transparent instead of opaque should be the order of the day.

I’ve read that Nielsen estimates two thirds of its agency subscribers won’t have access to any data regarding non-subscribing radio stations. Might these agencies just also cease being subscribers to radio ratings? Is this really the direction we want things to head in?

I think not.

Nielsen’s change, from my vantage point, will potentially reduce the level of confidence buyers will have about buying radio advertising. It’s a path of erosion that could negatively impact the entire radio industry.

The Better Advertising Mousetrap

Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have coined the phrase: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” When it comes to advertising, social media has built the better mousetrap, and you and I are helping them to improve it every day.

I wrote a blog article on social media’s ability to manipulate our attention, wants and desires for the benefit of their advertisers. It should give any radio broadcaster pause. You can read that article HERE

The reality is, today the internet is a more efficient way to sell our attention to advertisers.

When radio makes buying the medium more difficult, buyers have other choices, and once they invest more heavily in them, they may never return.

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’:

illegal drugs and software.”

-Edward Tufte

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Commercial Radio’s 100th Birthday

Election night at KDKA November 2, 1920

On Tuesday, October 27, 2020, commercial radio will celebrate it’s 100th birthday. It was on this day in 1920 that “the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation, which served as the radio licensing agency of the day, issued the first radio license ever to KDKA,” as told on the station’s website.

Radio Call Letters

Ironically, those famous Pittsburgh call letters – KDKA – don’t stand for anything. They were simply assigned to the station with its broadcast license from a roster maintained to provide identification for ocean going ships and marine shore radio stations. KDKA just so happened to be the next set of call letters up for being assigned with a broadcast license.

WJJW

This story is analogous to what happened at my college back in the 70s. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from North Adams State College in 1974. During my four years at NASC, I helped to obtain the college’s FCC FM broadcast license and become its first general manager. I vividly remember standing in front of a classroom blackboard with my fellow college broadcasters trying to decide what call letters we wanted the FCC to assign to our station. During this meeting a knock came to the door, and the person who knocked handed me an important letter from the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC. I anxiously opened the envelope to find that the FCC had granted our request for an FM broadcast license and had pulled the next set of unassigned call letters off the roster to go with our license. Those call letters would be “WJJW.” And like KDKA, they would stand for absolutely nothing and there again, never changed.

Call Letters

Some of the radio stations I listened to over the years had call letters that represented something, like WLS & WCFL in Chicago. WLS owned by Sears, chose call letters that stood for “World’s Largest Store” and WCFL, chose call letters that stood for “Chicago Federation of Labor,” the name of their union. WCFL proudly called itself “The Voice of Labor” at the top of every hour when it was required to give its call letters and city of license.

Do you know what the call letters for WKBW in Buffalo and KHJ in Los Angeles stood for? WKBW’s call letters meant “Well Known Bible Witness” and KHJ had call letters that stood for “Kindness Happiness & Joy.” Neither radio station would mention the origin of their call letters during their Top 40 days.  

Radio stations I worked for and managed also had call letters that represented something:

  • WBEC – Berkshire Eagle Company (the local newspaper)
  • WBRK – Berkshires
  • WUPE – Whoopee Radio
  • WFPG – World’s Famous PlayGround (Atlantic City)
  • KOEL – the first three letters of its city of license, Oelwein, Iowa
  • WLAN – Lancaster, PA
  • WSUS – Sussex, NJ
  • WOND – WONDerful Radio (Atlantic City)
  • WNNJ – Northern New Jersey

Call letters today tend to have been replaced by other forms of identification, like “Kiss,” “Froggy,” or “The River,” with the only problem being that they’ve lost their unique, one-of-kind identity that call letters branding gave them.

When I say KHJ or WBZ, you immediately know I’m talking about a radio station and that the station is located either in Los Angeles or Boston. When I say “Kiss” or “Froggy” you have no idea of which Kiss or Froggy radio station I’m referring to nor where it is located.

KDKA Covers Its First General Election

Shortly after receiving its commercial broadcast license, KDKA began planning its coverage of that year’s general election results to begin at 6pm on Tuesday, November 2nd, 1920.

Four men would climb to a little shack on the roof of one of the Westinghouse Electric’s buildings in East Pittsburgh to report on the results relayed to that shack via telephone. Leo Rosenburg delivered the results, becoming radio’s first announcer on the first licensed American radio station. You can hear a recreation by Leo of that broadcast HERE

About a thousand people tuned in to hear the broadcast and they would be some of the first people that year to learn that Warren G. Harding had beat James Cox to become the next President of the United States.

Election Night 2020

One hundred years later, election night will be quite different. People will most likely learn of the results via their smartphone, and probably not until all the votes have been counted. Due to COVID-19, we can expect that the vote counting process will take days, or even weeks, before a victor is declared.

Remember, your vote is important. Many recent elections have been decided by the thinnest of margins.

Do your civic duty and please VOTE.

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The Play’s the Thing

William Shakespeare wrote “the plays the thing” in his famous play “Hamlet.” Actually, Hamlet says “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare had Hamlet planning to catch the king red-faced when confronted with his evil deeds presented in the play. In other words, he hoped to expose the king’s guilty conscience.

It’s my first week back from a little R&R, so I thought I’d try to convey a more optimistic tone.

SPOILER ALERT: This week’s blog has nothing to do with radio, television etc. but everything to do with life in troubled times.

The Plague

Alright, maybe this doesn’t sound like I’ve struck the right cord, but please bear with me.

From late 1592 until early 1594, people living in London were dealing with the bubonic plague, a scourge that had been around for thousands of years . The plague during these two years would kill more than 10,000 Londoners.

London was home to William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. So, when the plague was ravishing London, much like COVID-19 is ravishing the United States, everything closed down.

All of the theaters of London actually closed down for a full year to prevent the spread of the black death. This occurred in the midst of Shakespeare’s career and life.

Good Times Don’t Last, but Neither Do the Bad Times

When the plague subsided, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre re-opened, people starved for entertainment lined up for his productions. Gate receipts were huge and inspired the Bard of Avon to write “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In fact, Shakespeare used his plague experience as source material in “Romeo and Juliet.” You might remember the scene where Friar John is sent to deliver a message to Romeo about Juliet’s fake death, but due to being suspected of living in a plague infected house, Friar John is quarantined and never completes his delivery.

When the plague’s second wave during Shakespeare’s lifetime came in 1603, he continued to write his plays, completing “King Lear” and “Macbeth” as 30,000 more Londoners would perish. They would become some of his best loved productions.

Living with a Pandemic

William Shakespeare lived his whole life in the shadow of the bubonic plague and along with another influential Elizabethan playwright, Thomas Nashe, shared the view that there might never be a medical solution to the plague. Steven Greenblatt, professor of Humanities at Harvard writes that both men would focus their words on what they felt was an even greater plague, that of “being governed by a mendacious, morally bankrupt, incompetent, blood-soaked and ultimately self-destructive leader.” Writing in The New Yorker Greenblatt states:

“But the strange thing about these lines from “Macbeth” is that they are not intended as a description of a country in the grip of a vicious plague. Instead, they describe a country in the grip of a vicious ruler. The character who speaks them, Ross, has been asked how Scotland fares under Macbeth, who is nominally the country’s legitimate king. But everyone suspects what is the case, that he has come by his exalted position through underhand means: “I fear / Thou play’dst most foully for’t.”

The results have borne out the worst suspicions. In office, Macbeth has ruthlessly pursued his enemies and betrayed his friends. Egged on by his “fiend-like” wife, he will do anything to make himself feel perfectly secure—“Whole as the marble, founded as the rock.” But, though he always finds people willing to carry out his criminal orders, he only ever feels more anxious: “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears.” And, under increasing pressure, calculation gives way to raw impulse, the reckless confidence that his instincts are always right: “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand.”

So, it would seem, we are living in times not so different than those of Shakespeare and we should strive to produce our own best work in these most troubled of times.

Build Character

Overcoming adversity is character  building. It shapes us into who we are and who we will become. It creates the confidence to overcome and the learning mechanisms to deal with the things that don’t go our way.

Create Resilience

Learning to deal with and address adversity is what creates resilience.

-Jim Haudan, Co-Founder and CEO, ROOT

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Rest and Relaxation Part 2

From the seashore to the mountain tops. Always socially distancing.

Back with a new blog article next week.

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Rest and Relaxation Part 1

Taking a little time off for some sea & salt air.

Back with a new blog article in two weeks.

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