Tag Archives: AM/FM

It Was the Best of Times & the Worst of Times

65Radio broadcasting began in the “Roaring 20s.” A time in America that saw the first tabloid newspaper appear. Reader’s Digest, New Yorker Magazine, Time Magazine would also be born right along with radio. It was a time of unprecedented economic prosperity and social change. It was a time of a strong backlash of racism, fear of immigration and morality.

The 1920s and the world we are living in today are not all that dissimilar. Today, the wealth inequality is greater than it was in the early 1920s.

And just like those times, almost a hundred years ago, that gave birth to radio we are living in times that are giving birth to the “Internet of Things.”

Immigration: Then & Now

After World War One ended, America got tough on immigration. The most stringent set of immigration restrictions in American history was enacted with “The National Origins Act of 1924.” It restricted the flow of immigrants from Europe (and elsewhere) to less than 200,000 per year. This fear of immigrants reignited the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK membership saw its membership rise to a new high in 1928. Reformers advocated for a more militant, less conciliatory stance.

Today the battle rages on over building a wall between Mexico and the United States and over immigration of Muslims.

Women’s Rights

While women had won the right to vote, they still couldn’t go to college and most professions still excluded women. While women could now own property, they couldn’t establish credit with a bank or get backing for a business venture.

Many felt that the only thing that changed in America when women were given the power to vote was prohibition; the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

War on Illegal Substances

So while the United States tried to control alcohol in the 20s and failed, today we find America battling another illegal substance battle, marijuana, with much the same results.

People will find a way to do something they really want to do.

Modern Mass Media

The 20s ushered in the first decade of modern mass media. American-made films not only captured the attention of American audiences, but the whole world. Every city would have at least one movie house by the end of the decade.

Because the movies were silent, musicians were in high demand for the movies. And because radio was all live, it too needed musicians to perform during each broadcast day.

Radio Jingles

The 20s also saw advertising agencies now develop departments devoted to the creation of radio advertising and soon the commercial radio jingle was born.

The Worst of Times

The Roaring 20s would end with Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.

While this decade created favorable conditions for big business to prosper, the alliance of government and industry left labor unions out in the cold.

It was these times that radio was born.

The Great Recession of 2008 would be the environment that would see the Internet of Things born.

Today’s Big Regulatory Difference

The big difference I see today for radio versus its toddler years is how it is regulated. The Radio Act of 1927  provided the foundation for all broadcast regulation right up until today. While more Acts were passed and made law over the years, the basics remain much the same as when they were first made law.

Some of the key provisions in the original Act that we’ve deviated from today are:

  • Limiting the number of broadcasters to foster higher quality radio broadcasts versus having more stations of poor or mediocre qualities
  • Radio broadcasters would operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity”
  • Radio would be a regulated medium to assure high quality and operating in the public interest
  • Radio would be commercial and privately owned (a condition that made radio broadcasting in the USA different from every other country in the world)

Those who complain that radio isn’t like it used to be only need look at how broadcast regulations have been changed over the past century; the biggest change being the Telcom Act of 1996.

Utopian Hopes, Dystopian Fears

When commercial radio was born in 1920, it was hoped that it would bring about national unity. Those utopian hopes and dystopian fears would fall basically into four different areas.

  1. Radio would create a physical unity in the country bringing people together as one
  2. Radio would bring about a new cultural unity as Americans
  3. Radio would make America a one language nation providing linguistic unity
  4. Radio would bring about institutional unity where everyone wanted the same things and held the same vision

I will let you draw your own conclusions on the success or failure of these goals for radio.

Internet of Things

Broadcasting in America started out as a government-assisted oligopoly. The internet did too. Both, I would argue, now fall into the unlimited category. While I realize this is definitely true for the internet, I know others would quickly point out the limited amount of spectrum for AM and FM radio broadcasting. However, with the growth of FM translators and LPFM stations, it feels like it’s unlimited.

The original system of a government preferred broadcasting system is being challenged today by the Internet of Things.

And covered in dust, is the original fundamental principle of operating in the public interest, convenience and necessity and not merely for maximum profits.

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SiriusXM Radio is Now Free

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What would you do if you woke up one morning and saw this as the headline in all the radio trades? Have you ever considered the possibility of this happening? Well lots of people woke recently to this headline “Angie’s List is now free: What this means for your business.”

Call it a subscription, a membership fee or a paywall, what happens when they are eliminated? In Angie’s List’s case, less than one percent of Americans were members at the $40/month fee that had been in place. Paying that fee let people see the reviews of other members that had experienced certain businesses or services they had used. Now everyone can see those reviews. Angie’s List had developed a reputation for its members writing rather substantial reviews as well as being a website that is strong, trusted and contains valuable content.

Why Did Angie’s List Tear Down Their Paywall?

Angie’s list is a publicly traded company. Their stock is down seventy-five percent from three years ago. Management is under pressure. Tearing down their paywall means increased page views. When page views go up, revenue goes up. See the strategy?

Could SiriusXM Follow Suit?

Satellite radio currently captures about ten percent of radio listening and mostly in vehicles. The new digital dashboard entertainment centers will be a gateway to Pandora, Spotify, Apple, YouTube and more. Having an XM button on my Honda Accord, I know that my access can be selectively turned on or off by SiriusXM. When they do one of their free listen promotions, they don’t turn on all the channels, just the ones they think will hook me to listen. So, I would imagine, they could create a group of channels that could be on all the time and carry a limited commercial inventory attractive to national advertisers. Like the most popular musical venues, such as adult contemporary. Even if they only turned on the top five music formats, it would mean drivers could listen to them wherever they drove across America, plus SiriusXM would have the ability to pop in promos for their other channels that remained behind a paywall. It’s almost too scary to consider the possibility.

Teens Love Streaming

Teens love streaming audio and their smartphones. According to the Music Business Association and their data partner LOOP, teens spent 51% of their listening time on a typical day streaming their music versus only 12% of their time with AM/FM radio. This is a media usage habit being formed in the next generation. It not only affects traditional AM/FM broadcasters but satellite radio as well. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

NextRadio App

Thanks to Jeff Smulyan and Emmis, the NextRadio App is the way FM broadcasters can get their audio into those smartphones, without running up a user’s data plan. However, Sprint has already removed many audio streaming services from running up their data plans by letting their customers listen as much as they want at no extra charge. Since teens avoid paying any fees whenever possible, free is always an attraction.

Less Than 1% of World Pays For Streaming Audio

AM/FM radio has been built on free. That’s an advantage that too often gets taken for granted. According to Nielsen 61% of people find out about new music via their AM/FM/satellite radio.

Price is the number one reason more people don’t pay for streaming audio. Out of a worldwide population of over seven billion people, about forty-one million buy some form of audio streaming; 0.58% of the world’s population. That percentage turns out to be lower than the total number of people who have a Netflix subscription around the planet.

23,870 AM/FM Radio Signals On-The-Air

The FCC just published their latest numbers for broadcast stations as of June 30, 2016. We are approaching 24,000 signals for radio in America. 19,194 of those signals are FM and 4,676 are AM. Plus we have two satellite radio signals, Sirius & XM, which are now under a single owner.

Pay & Free

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see satellite radio one day deciding to have the best of both worlds. Offer premium pay channels to those willing to pay for them and at the same time create a free tier of channels that could be ad supported by national advertisers.

What history shows us are things that happen in other industries and services eventually make their way around to virtually all of them. It’s only a matter of time.

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Radio, the Same on Every Device, It’s Time

Once upon a time, cars were steered by a stick. The throttle was located on the steering wheel. The high beams switch was located on the floor. And it was different in every car. Computers started off all being different just like the software programs they operated. Today, the only real learning curve is switching between Microsoft and Apple for computers or Apple and Android for smartphones and even they aren’t all that different anymore.

It’s time for radio to standardize.

AM, FM, DAB, DAB+, HD Radio, HD2, HD3, HD4, Streaming….it’s insane. It’s confusing.

Norway, a country about the size of New Mexico has decided to standardize radio around the digital broadcast format. No more AM or FM, just digital. This caused uproar around the globe, but aren’t the Viking folks really doing radio in their country a favor? Standardizing around a single format?

Just imagine if the world operated on a standardized radio platform? All car manufacturers could build a universal radio platform into their vehicle dashboards worldwide and smartphones could all be designed to be used as radios anywhere in the world. Computers, tablets and even radios could all be on the same platform. Less variation in the method of transmission would be more impact.

Likewise, radio programming from any single source should be the same on all devices, not one way over-the-air and another way if you pick up the same broadcast on a stream. If you want to listen to a radio station in Los Angeles and you’re in Boston, you should hear everything being broadcast by that LA radio station. For the incremental dollars, broadcast radio stations degrade their streams with bumpy transitions, high repetition of nonsense filler material and just plain too long breaks; especially compared to commercial breaks on the pureplays.

The pureplays are paying 100% attention to their streams because it’s all they have. Broadcast radio stations handle their streams as an afterthought; if they even give them that much attention.

Hindsight is 20/20. Without changing, historians of broadcasting might one day say “What were they thinking?”

Radio owners and operators need to employ a technique called “premortem.”  What you do is imagine yourself in the future after your project has crashed and burned. In radio’s case, that would be to imagine that AM/FM broadcast radio has ended. The drill is to assume the patient died. You’re screwed. Everything that could go wrong did. You start there and ask “Why?”

Attacking the problem in this manner allows people to freely speak to the reasons things failed without retribution. You can’t kill a patient that’s already dead. See the magic in this exercise?

How could radio be improved on all platforms with this kind of thinking today?

I talk with lots of radio folks every week and in a hushed whisper they will freely share what they know to be wrong with radio today. But they in essence are “winking in the dark” and no one is stepping forward to say “the emperor has no clothes.”

Well here’s a way to do get everyone playing “devil’s advocate” and brainstorming ideas to improve radio programming, delivery and standardization.

If not now, when?

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Top 3 In-Demand Radio Jobs

What is the future for jobs in radio in our digitally connected world? Three jobs in particular stand out as being in demand right now and look to be still in demand as radio celebrates its 100th Anniversary in the year 2020. The first won’t surprise anyone, the second is a job that only recently became critical and the third is a job that’s been a part of radio since day one.

#1 Radio Sales People

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the need for trained, professional sales people is the number one radio job in demand today and as far out as the eye can see. Since I’ve been in radio it seems hiring good sales people was always on the lips of general managers and sales managers. So when we asked the operator’s of Kentucky’s 300 radio stations what were the jobs they most needed to fill, sales was job one.

Ironically, it’s the class not offered by many of America’s colleges and universities that offer a broadcast curriculum. Where I teach at Western Kentucky University, Bart White started teaching radio sales decades ago as part of the broadcast degree program in Radio/TV Operations. In fact, Barton C. White wrote two books on radio sales, his second called The New Ad Media Reality Electronic Over Print should have been widely distributed from the day it came out in 1993. I know I wished I had been aware of it back then.

I was hired to replace the retiring Professor White and immediately charged with teaching both the Broadcast Radio/TV/Digital Sales class as well as the Radio/TV Operations Capstone class. Since I began five years ago as a tenure track professor at WKU, I’ve overseen the creation of the KBA WKU RADIO TALENT INSTITUTE that contains a strong sales component as well as adding a second sales class to the broadcast curriculum in Advanced Radio Sales that enables students earn their professional Radio Advertising Sales certifications in both radio and digital sales from the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB).

My students have learned that with this type of training, they are almost guaranteed a job upon graduation wherever they decide to live. I’ve successfully placed students with companies like iHeartMedia, CBS Radio, E. W. Scripps, Cromwell Broadcasting, Alpha Media, Commonwealth Broadcasting, Viacom, Summit Media, and Forever Communications.

This year at BEA2015 (Broadcast Education Association) in Las Vegas I’m moderating a panel I proposed to encourage other colleges and universities to consider adding radio sales classes to their curriculum by letting them hear directly about the need in this area from some of the radio industry’s leaders who will be in Vegas attending the NAB April Convention.

#2 Internet Content Creator

The next position that is in demand is for people who can create original content for radio station websites. Not cut and paste artists who “borrow” others’ website content and re-purpose it but innovators that can act like a combination of journalist/advertising/public relations specialist and populate radio station websites with engaging, compelling original content that is of interest to people in the station’s service area.

#3 RF Broadcast Engineers

Not that it was ever easy to hire great radio engineers, the talent pool used to be a whole lot bigger. Consolidation chased a lot of them out of the business and what they learned was the job could be more lucrative by becoming a consultant engineer to groups of radio stations. Other engineers found new opportunities in other industries that could apply their talent and strong work ethic that was instilled into them by radio’s 24/7 on-call employment. Computers and digital technology also demanded that radio engineering learn this new radio operational system or get out.

Well, those who went into private consulting are now reaching the age of retirement. Those who went into other industries learned the pay and hours were often better than radio. Further complicating things, most schools are teaching the skills needed for the digital world and radio stations still generate broadcast signals using radio frequency (RF) and there are fewer schools turning out these types of engineers for radio stations. Graduates are sought by the wireless communications companies that have similar needs to radio stations and have the deep pockets to entice them to work for them.

Positions Not In-Demand

General Managers, Promotions Directors and News Reporters are found on the bottom of the employee needs list. It would appear this is a result of radio’s consolidation. One manager is now needed to oversee a cluster(s) of radio stations. Promotions are now planned on a group-wide basis and news hubs have been set-up to serve regional areas.

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It’s Not for You

What’s not for you? Maybe this blog for one. I’m not writing this blog for everyone. I’m writing for people passionate about radio and education.

From years of being on the street selling radio advertising, nothing would frustrate me more than a business owner that said his business offered “something for everyone.” Even Walmart doesn’t make that claim and they come pretty darn close to being able to deliver on that positioning statement.

Today there are more radio stations on-the-air in America than at any time in broadcast history. Tragically, most commercial radio stations are trying to offer “something for everyone.” It’s been proven that when you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing no one.

I work at a big university. Yeah, we offer “something for everyone.” All universities do. However, in the state of Kentucky, the legislature said that some schools needed to be recognized at being best in some area and those schools would see those programs named a “Program of Distinction.” At Western Kentucky University the School of Journalism and Broadcasting is just such a Kentucky Program of Distinction. WKU is the only college or university in Kentucky so designated in the area of journalism and broadcasting. It also earns additional funding from the legislature.

College Magazine named WKU’s School of Journalism and Broadcasting #4 in America.

I think in time, institutions of higher education will eliminate those things it does, but isn’t the best at. The days of everyone offering “something for everyone” are over; if they ever really existed.

Radio also needs to re-think its role in today’s Internet connected world.

Radio was at its best when it was serving the public interest, convenience and necessity. Radio was at its best when it was LIVE and LOCAL twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Radio offered something that everyone needs; companionship. Ironically, in a world where every radio station can have its broadcast studio up on a LIVE webcam where listeners can watch the air personalities, most studios are unoccupied. Radio today is show business without the show.

Looking at this another way, Comedy Central to me was a one hour network. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report were the only two programs I’ve ever watched on the channel. Watched religiously. Did I care if they were in HD? Did I care if they were in color or black & white? Did I care if the picture was a little snowy? Not really. It was all about the content. Content, that was not for everyone.

FOX News Channel and MSNBC understand this very well. (However, does anyone really watch “Lock Down”?)

Radio and higher education are both facing similar battles and they are both still operating in the “something for everyone” mode.

If you were to ask most people what they thought of radio, they’d probably tell you “it’s OK.” And therein lies the problem. No one is passionately pro or con. But they sure were in the days of Howard Stern or Howard Cosell.

Remember this dialog from Howard Stern’s movie Private Parts?

Researcher: The average radio listener listens for eighteen minutes. The average Howard Stern fan listens for – are you ready for this? – an hour and twenty minutes.

Pig Vomit: How can that be?

Researcher: Answer most commonly given? “I want to see what he’ll say next.”

Pig Vomit: Okay, fine. But what about the people who hate Stern?

Researcher: Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.

Pig Vomit: But… if they hate him, why do they listen?

Researcher: Most common answer? “I want to see what he’ll say next.”

Love Howard or hate Howard, he made people passionate about radio.

As Seth Godin puts it: “You won’t be doing great work until you can say to people ‘It’s not for you.’ “

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Who’s in Their Ear?

When radio was first introduced, to listen to it, you needed to wear headphones. Radio was one-to-one and very intimate. As the technology evolved the radio speaker would change the medium from one-to-one to group listening. Radios were expensive. If you owned a radio you shared it. A family would gather around the radio and listen together. Families would transfer this together media habit to TV and the transistor radio would become the refuge of teenagers who wanted to go in a different direction.

Zenith Transister Radio

My first radio was a Zenith transistor with a little ear piece for one ear. I would go to bed and turn it on under the covers and listen to “the world.” It was all AM radio and after sunset, the DX’ing of the nighttime skywave would always bring a new radio station into my ear to savor.

In the mid-70s the Boombox would be introduced to America and these radios grew both in size and the amount of bass they 1could produce. By the 80s they could be as big as a suitcase and carrying them around on your shoulder was a status symbol.

Go to a beach resort, and whether you were walking the boardwalk or on the beach, radios were blasting music from every direction.

When Y2K didn’t impact our fully computerized radio stations, we all breathed a short-lived sigh of relief because it was quickly followed by a new threat; the iPod and ear buds. Once again listening to music became a very personal activity.

The ear buds would transfer to the iPhone and iPad. The introduction of the iPhone6 may have killed the iPod, but not the use of headphones or ear buds to listen to your audio.

So what exactly are all those people listening to? lady listening with ear buds

The latest research from Edison Research says American Teens are spending more time with streaming audio services from places like Pandora and Spotify, than they are listening to either streaming AM/FM radio or over-the-air radio. Edison reports this finding in their fall 2014 “Share of Ear” report.

Remember it was my generation that grew up hooked on radio & TV that were credited with eroding newspaper readership. (Full disclosure: I read all my news online using my computer, iPad or iPhone.)

It’s not all bad news for AM/FM radio. It is still popular Edison tells us “by a significant margin among all other age groups.” So where did the teens go? Pureplay Internet streamers. What do they love most? The ability to skip a song they don’t like.

That’s really not hard to understand. I love my DVR for a similar reason. Especially when it comes to award shows. I never watch them live anymore. I record them for later viewing and I can watch a 3+ hour awards show in about 20 minutes time. I skip all the bad parts.

In fact, I rarely watch anything on TV live anymore. Everything is recorded so I can control it. So is it any surprise that teenagers once they are given this kind of control will ever want to give it up. A new habit is being formed.

The other aspect about pureplays that AM/FM radio could be addressing is their complete focus on the quality of their streaming product. What I’m hearing is a clean commercial insertion. Nothing gets cut off in the middle or repeated multiple times in the same long break. Pureplays deliver their commercial messages in a style that compliments the music programming; in a way that actually has you enjoying listening to the commercial message.

The teenagers have moved their listening to streaming and podcasts. The spectrum auction being held by the Federal Communications Commission is all about creating more wireless connections for all kinds of mobile devices.

I live in South Central Kentucky. I can stream my iPhone into my car’s seven speaker sound system through Bluetooth and everywhere I drive it’s clean and clear with no dropout or buffering. It’s scary good. It’s as easy to do as turning on my car’s audio system. Nothing to plug in or connect. It happens automatically.

South Central Kentucky is also blessed with some excellent over-the-air radio stations. So they very effectively compete, in my opinion, with streaming. But I wasn’t raised on streaming. I also like a good air personality.

The next generation is being raised on streaming that they have some power over to skip things they don’t wish to hear. Reminds me of the old saying “How are you going to get the kids back on the farm, after they’ve seen New York?”

baby listening to ear buds

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The Problem with Digital Radio

The problem with digital radio is FM radio. FM radio is loved by the consumer. They don’t find anything wrong with FM radio (other than too many commercials). With no perceived need to change, the FM radio listener doesn’t. That’s not just a problem for radio station owners in America, but all around the world.

I often like to compare the start of HD Radio with the introduction of the iPod by Apple. Both happened about the same time. One has sold hundreds of millions of units and now is no longer made, and the other is HD Radio.

Interestingly enough, the introduction of digital audio broadcasting was born around the same time as the World Wide Web. It was born before MP3s and iPods. Born long before the advent of Smartphones and Tablets and yet, digital in the world of over-the-air radio transmission is still waiting to get traction with the consumer.

FM radio commanded 75% of all radio listening in America back in the 1980s when the number of AM and FM radio stations in America numbered about the same. So it’s no surprise that over three decades later that FM dominates when the number of FM radio stations, translators (FM stations) and LPFM (FM stations) far outnumber AM radio stations that are on-the-air today in the USA.

Across the pond, the British government was planning to switch that country’s radio listening from FM analog to digital when the penetration of digital radio listening reached 50%. They thought that would happen by 2015. Currently digital radio listening in England stands at only 36% and the government has now wisely put off setting a new date for this transition.

The problem in England goes beyond just radio sets in homes and cars. British folks also can listen to FM radio on their Smartphones. Unlike here in America, the FM chip that comes inside Smartphones has been turned on. These chips remain in the off position in America with no way for a Smartphone owner to turn it on without “jailbreaking” their phone which is illegal. The members of parliament aren’t about to turn off a system that serves around 25 million listeners, if they want to get re-elected.

I own one HD Radio. My local NPR FM radio station broadcasts with 100,000 watts on their analog FM signal. It’s crystal clear and comes in everywhere I go. They simulcast their NPR and other talk programming on their HD Radio signal too. That is plagued with dropout and a short range in terms of where I can pick it up. The same HD Radio that picks up the digital broadcast of my local NPR radio station also has an FM tuner (but no AM tuner). I can switch between the analog FM and digital FM, and to my ears they sound about the same. And therein lies the problem. No perceived difference other than one goes great distances with no drop out and the other is HD Radio.

At this point in time, what seems clear is that is FM radio isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. AM radio station operators would benefit by having a similar FM signal that delivers the same coverage area as their AM license provides sans the sky wave effect. Giving them a low power translator is an insult in my opinion. All Smartphones should have their FM chips turned on. NextRadio should be embraced by FM broadcasters. All broadcasters need to focus on their content and make sure that whether it’s over-the-air or over-the-Internet, it’s of the same high quality and offers all of the same content on both.

I’ve never heard an FM radio listener complain about the quality of their signal and what they do complain about, isn’t being focused on by broadcasters. We have no time to lose.

FM radio has the delivery system in place. Take advantage of it to serve, entertain and inform.

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