Tag Archives: FCC

Oh, The Insanity

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) submission to the Federal Communications Commission for the FCC’s 2018 Quadrennial Regulatory Review is eye-opening.  You can read it for yourself HERE. It left me shaking my head.

The NAB told the commission that “’local radio stations’ Over-The-Air (OTA) ad revenues fell 44.9% in nominal terms ($17.6 billion to $9.7 billion) from 2005-2020.” Local 2020 digital advertising revenues by stations only increased the radio industry’s total ad revenues by $0.9 billion bringing them to $10.6 billion.

The NAB’s solution to the problem is for the radio industry to become more consolidated.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over

and expecting different results.

-Albert Einstein

Say What?

Back in the mid 90s, the radio industry was telling anyone who would listen that the problem with the state of radio broadcasting in America was that the industry was made up of little “ma and pa” radio stations/groups which could not scale and if the ownership caps weren’t lifted the radio industry would perish.

Excuse me, but I’ve already seen this movie and how it ends. So, why would doing more of what didn’t work, result in a different outcome.

The Media World Has Changed

I don’t think anyone would contest that the media world we live in has changed dramatically since 2005. Facebook, the world’s largest social media company with over 1.84 billion daily active users, opened its doors on February of 2004. YouTube began in 2005 and Twitter in 2006.

Google, the dominate search engine on the internet, began in 1998 and internet retailing behemoth, Amazon, began in 1994.

The new internet kids on the block that dominate our day are WhatsApp (2009), Pinterest (2009), Instagram (2010), Messenger (2011), SnapChat (2011) and TikTok (2016).

The Top 10 internet companies at the end of 2020 raked in 78.1% of the digital ad revenue ($109.2 billion).

All Ad Dollars Are Green

While we like to break money spent on advertising into distinct categories like digital media, traditional media etc. the reality is the total number of advertising dollars is a finite number and in the end you can’t tell a dollar from digital from a dollar from analog advertising.

“You can’t handle the truth!”

Colonel Jessup

(played by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 film “A Few Good Men”)

Since 2005, many young entrepreneurs have created a better mousetrap to capture those advertising dollars. No one ever made a regulation or a law that prevented the radio industry from doing what any of those internet companies did. The passenger railroad industry never thought of themselves as being in the transportation business but only the railroad business. That’s why it found itself challenged by other means of people transportation, namely the airlines.

The radio advertising industry was born by entrepreneurs that learned how to create a product that attracted a large listening audience, which in turn enabled them to sell audio advertising to companies wishing to expose their product or service to these consumers.

Unfortunately, we found ourselves challenged by new media competition. Initially, it was television, but transistor portable radios, along with car radios, allowed our business to reinvent its programming and flourish once again.

With the advent of the internet, radio was caught flat-footed.

If that were its only problem.

Radio Stations (2005-2020)

In 2005, America had 18,420 radio signals on the air.

  • 13,660 AM/FM/FM Educational radio stations on the air
  • 3,995 FM translators & boosters
  • 675 Low Power FM stations.

By 2020, those numbers increased to 26,001 radio signals.

  • 15,445 AM/FM/FM Educational radio stations
  • 8,420 FM translators & boosters
  • 2,136 Lower Power FM stations

18,330 vs. 26,001

That’s a 41.8% increase in the number of radio stations.

While radio folks were busy trying to steal radio advertising from the station across the street or consolidating with their former competition, the internet folks were focused on selling more advertising. From 2005 to 2020, the sale of digital advertising grew from $12.5 billion to $139.8 billion. That’s an increase of 118.4%.

But during that same time, radio grew its digital advertising footprint by $0.9 billion.

Quantity vs. Quality

When radio regulation began in America under the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) the decision was made by that regulatory body to focus on the quality of radio programming versus the quantity of radio stations they allowed to broadcast. Only people or companies with the economic capital to operate a radio station in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity” would be allowed to obtain a radio broadcast license.

I believe you could say that the radio industry’s downfall began when we ceased worrying about quality and went with the more signals we license, the better for radio listeners mantra.

Sydney, Australia

Sydney is a major city in the country of Australia with a population of 5.312 million people. There are 74 radio stations on the air in Sydney.

By comparison, Los Angeles (America’s second largest city) has a population of 3.984 million people and 158 radio stations serving its metro.

In July 2021, radio revenues in Sydney were up 11.3% year-on-year according to Milton Data.

The Benefits of Pruning

Gardeners know that pruning is the act of trimming leaves, branches and other dead matter from plants. It’s by pruning a plant that you improve its overall health.

A beautiful garden is one where the plants have been trained to grow properly, to improve in their health/quality, and even in some cases to restrict their growth. Pruning is a great preventative gardening and lawn care process that protects the environment and increases curb-appeal.

The irony of gardening is, the more fruit and flowers a plant produces, the smaller the yield becomes. Pruning encourages the production of larger fruits and blooms.

Why do I share this with you?

I believe that everything in the world is interconnected. You can’t for a moment think that what makes for a bountiful garden would not also make for a robust radio industry.

Today’s radio industry is so overgrown with signals and other air pollution, that it has impacted its health.

Doing more of the same, and expecting a different result is insane.

It’s time to get out the pruning shears.

Less Is More

I believe that the way to improve the radio industry in America, to have more advertising revenues to support quality local services including news, sports and emergency journalism, along with entertainment by talented live performers, is by reducing the number of radio signals.

AM radio is the logical first place to start.

Elsewhere in the world we are seeing that not only the AM band being sunset but the analog FM band as well. The world has gone digital.

American radio has one final chance to get it right by correcting for past decisions, hurtful to radio broadcasting, in creating a new and robust digital broadcasting service.

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What Do Radio Broadcasters & Almond Farmers Have In Common?

Last week, an article in The Atlantic titled “The Well Fixer’s Warning: The lesson that California never learns,” was a terrifying read about the water supply used to irrigate the almond orchards on the farms of Madera County. So many of the farm’s wells were coming up dry and the farmers were puzzled as to why water flowing out of their wells had been reduced to a trickle and were mostly producing sand.

Matt Angell is not only an almond farmer himself, but owns Madera Pumps, a company that drills wells and repairs well pumps. He knows that droughts, like the California sunshine go hand-in-hand, and as John Steinbeck wrote: “no one (forgets) the last drought faster than the farmer.”

Since the middle 1970s, almond farmers have persevered through at least five droughts and their solution to the problem was always the same – BUILD MORE DAMS.

BUILD MORE DAMS

Those three words stopped me cold. Who else thinks like this? Radio people, that’s who.

Today in America, there are now 26,076 radio stations on the air, 2,500 of these stations are broadcasting in HD which adds another 2,100 multicast radio channels to the mix. That’s about a 93% increase in the number of radio signals from when I started in high school.

The radio industry and almond farmers, have both felt that the way to grow is by adding more and more and more. Almond farmers added more acreage of almond trees and radio owners added more signals.

Aquifers

The dam reality was the San Joaquin River already had a half-a-dozen dams diverting its water, so the next solution to obtaining more water for almond irrigation was to drill down to the aquifers beneath the farmlands. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the farmers of Madera County to pump out the easily available ground water and see their wells coming up dry. As they were drilling deeper and deeper into the earth, a hidden lake beneath the farmlands was discovered in 2014. It was shocking to see it pumped dry in only seven years.

Angell noted that the snow on the mountain had melted two months earlier than “normal,” and the water level of the San Joaquin river was so low, it was now nothing more than a series of unconnected ponds as well as the wells – residential, business and farming – all over the community were running dry.

The reality is, the Madera County underground water table is one of the most over-tapped aquifers in the West, and all those wells had depleted the underground water source, causing the aquifer to collapse.

The Advertising Pie

It was before the COVID19 pandemic gripped our world, Gordon Borrell hosted a webinar back in early 2019 and told of how the media pie (the radio industry’s aquifer, if you will) is over-tapped.

To put things in perspective, Gordon shared how an over-populated media landscape is impacting local advertisers.

  • 1,300 daily newspapers, 6,500 weeklies
  • 4,700 printed directory books
  • 4,665 AM radio stations, 6,757 commercial FM radio stations
  • 1,760 Class A TV stations
  • More than 1,000 cable systems with local sales staffs
  • 660,000 podcasts were actively produced in 2018
  • 495 NEW TV shows were introduced last year in addition to what’s already on
  • PLUS, local ad sales are taking place on Facebook, Google and Amazon

Same Old Answer

Despite the fact that the water from the aquifer and river was being depleted by droughts, climate change and being over-tapped, the almond farmers’ answer was always the same, said Mark Angell, “Plant more almonds and pistachios. Plant more housing tracts on farmland. But the river isn’t the same. The aquifer isn’t the same.”

Listen to radio owners, and they will tell you they too need more and more radio signals in order to stay viable, despite the fact that the advertising pie is finite and media supported by advertising continues to expand exponentially.

“I used to use the word unprecedented to describe what we’re doing to the land,” said Angell, but “now I use the word biblical.” Is it any different for radio broadcasters?

The Solution

For the nut farmers of Madera County, the solution is a hard pill to swallow, it’s “to figure out a way to retire one million acres of the six million farmed, “otherwise, we’re looking at a race to the bottom,” said Angell.

For radio broadcasters, Gordon Borrell said the solution to the future of media expenditures would be a process of “thinning the herd.”

The way advertising buyers are responding to a world of media abundance, Borrell says, is by:

  • Decreasing the number of companies from which they buy advertising from 5 to 3.5, and
  • 90% of their media buys are being made with companies who can bundle traditional and digital advertising.

Killing the Golden Goose

Do you remember the Aesop fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs? Let me refresh your memory of this tale. It’s about a farmer that was poor. One day he makes a startling discovery when he finds a golden egg in the nest of his pet goose. Skeptical at first, he has the egg tested and finds that it is indeed made of pure gold. Even more amazing, each day this farmer awakes to find that his goose has laid another golden egg. In very short order, this poor farmer becomes fabulously wealthy. But then his wealth brings greed and impatience. No longer satisfied with just one golden egg per day, the farmer cuts open his goose to harvest all of its golden eggs at once only to find the goose is empty inside. With a now dead goose, there will be no more golden eggs laid.

In remembering this fable, it sounded so familiar to the world of radio broadcasting and almond farmers. Both possessed a wonderful “goose” that laid daily “golden eggs.”

Unfortunately for almond farmers, in wanting more, they are killing their water supply, and for broadcasters not wishing to wait for each day’s golden egg, cut open their goose beginning with the Telcom Act of 1996, that allowed them to own as many radio stations as they basically wished.

The moral of Aesop’s fable is if you focus only on the golden eggs and neglect the goose that lays them, you will soon be without the very asset that produces the golden eggs.

The radio industry’s quest for short-term returns, or results, took their free FCC licenses and ruined them by not maintaining the balance between the production of desired results and the production capacity of the asset.

Aesop’s fable is the very principle of effectiveness. It’s a natural law. Like gravity, you don’t have to believe in it or understand its principles, but you can never escape its effects.

Radio broadcasters probably saw the moral of the fable being the more geese you own, the more spots you add to the hour, the more effective your R.O.I. (Return On Investment) will be.

Almond farmers saw the moral of the fable as planting more trees, install more powerful pumps to withdraw more water and watch your R.O.I. grow.

But ironically, it is the principle of “Less Is More” that in the end rules the day.

To be truly effective, you need to maintain the balance of what is produced (golden eggs/revenue) and the producing asset (your goose/radio station/almond trees).

Everything in excess

is opposed to nature.

-Hippocrates

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HD Radio – The Answer to the Question No One Was Asking

I was reading about how HD Radio was celebrating its 15th birthday recently and that had me scratching my head as HD Radio is older than that. In checking the records, I saw that the Federal Communications Commission selected HD Radio as America’s digital standard in 2002. By comparison, Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPod in October 2001, XM Satellite Radio began service in 2001 and Sirius Satellite Radio in 2002.

Radios Go High-Definition

This was the headline that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on January 7, 2004. Unfortunately, unlike HDTV (High Definition Television) HD Radio never stood for “High Definition.” And possibly that was the first mistake. HD Radio was simply a name they chose for the digital radio technology, but even today, many people still think it means “High Definition” or “Hybrid Digital.”

Sadly, by 2004, America’s digital radio was late to the party and if the industry is now marking the date of 2006 as its moment of birth, it was really late!

Remembering 2006

In 2006, Facebook opened up its social network to everyone in the world. The original requirement that you be a college student enrolled at a specific university was eliminated and the only requirement now was that you were over the age of 13 and had a valid email address.

In just 15-years, Facebook has grown to over 2.85 billion active monthly users.

Let’s look at what else was born in 2006 that competes for our attention:

  • Twitter was launched in 2006 and today enjoys 199 million monetizable daily active users.
  • Wii game system was introduced with its handheld motion controller that got families off the couch and in motion doing all kinds of sports in front of the TV.
  • PlayStation 3 came online to provide strong competition to XBOX 360. (Video gamers spent about eight hours and 27 minutes each week playing games, which is an increase of 14% over 2020. The video gaming industry predicts revenues of $100.56 billion by 2024)
  • Google bought YouTube in 2006 and now has over 2 billion users, the channel grosses over $19.7 billion in revenue and users are uploading videos at the rate of 500 videos per minute with over a billion hours/day spent watching videos on the platform.
  • The one billionth song was purchased from Apple’s iTunes, the dominate source for music lovers in 2006. (Two years later Spotify would arrive and not only disrupt how music was sold but how it was listened to in general.)

When we look at 2006, it becomes easier to understand why HD Radio wasn’t such a big deal to the average media consumer.

Solving a Problem That Didn’t Exist

What HD Radio did for FM radio stations was solve a problem that listeners to FM didn’t feel existed. No one who listened to FM radio was complaining about the quality of the sound, they were complaining about other things, like too many commercials. And for AM radio stations, it meant people buying radios for a service that didn’t offer anything they really wanted to hear or couldn’t get elsewhere. AM radio was now the service of senior citizens who already owned AM radios, who grew up with AM radio’s characteristics and whose hearing was not the best now anyway. So, HD Radio for AM wasn’t anything they were asking for and worse, AM radio stations that put on the new digital signal found it lacked the benefits of skywave and often interfered with other company AM radio stations as the industry quickly consolidated radio ownership.

Industries Most Disrupted By Digital

In March 2016, an article published by Rhys Grossman in the Harvard Business Review listed “Media” as the most disrupted by the growing digital economy. Turns out, if you’re a business-to-consumer business, you’re first being most disrupted by digital. The barriers to be a media company used to be huge, but in a digital world they are not, meaning that the business model that media companies depend on has not adapted well to the digital economy.

Elephant in the Room

But the elephant in the room remains the broken media business model. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television – any media that is ad supported – will be challenged to find a way to capture revenue to continue operating.

Walt Disney famously said “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make movies.”

Broadcasters of my generation had that same attitude about creating great radio.

Do the people owning and operating today’s radio stations still embrace that concept?

* In 2021, it’s estimated there are 3.78 billion social media users worldwide.

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Can Algorithms Be Fair?

A while back, I wrote a blog article about “The Fairness Doctrine.” After the January 6th siege on Capitol Hill, many people began wondering if this policy, originally enacted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949, but then eliminated under President Ronald Reagan, should be re-instated.  

To review, this doctrine required the holder of a broadcast license to both present controversial issues of public importance, and to present these issues in a manner that was honest, equitable, fair and balanced.

In other words, broadcasters were supposed to not only uncover what the people in their broadcast service area should be aware of, but also to present both sides of the issue.

The Fairness Doctrine only applied to radio and television licensees and no other form of media. Even if it was still in place today, it wouldn’t have applied to Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or any other forms of non-broadcast communication. The problem with social media is that what we read, see, and hear is all controlled by algorithms.

The Challenge of Controlling Algorithms

Unlike most innovations that human beings have designed, algorithms are not static and easily defined. You can’t say that one algorithm is good and the other is evil. They are like a living organism, in that they can learn, adapt and change over time.

Cornell University online behavior scholar, J. Nathan Matias, put it this way:

“If you buy a car from Pennsylvania and drive it to Connecticut, you know that it will work the same way in both places. And when someone else takes the driver’s seat, the engine is going to do what it always did.”

With an algorithm, it changes with each human behavior it comes in contact with and that’s what makes trying to regulate it, from a government standpoint, such a challenge.

Broadcast radio and television was an unknown when it appeared, and government was challenged to regulate it. It used as a model, the regulations that had been developed to oversee America’s railroads. In fact, that’s where the concept of requiring radio and TV stations to operate in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity” comes from. It’s also why no one has ever been exactly sure of what this phrase actually means when it comes to broadcast regulation.  

Closing the Barn Door

The old saying “It’s too late to close the barn door, once the horse is gone,” might be the type of problem facing regulators trying to bring fairness to today’s internet dominated world.

The European Union’s first go at trying to regulate Google Shopping, demonstrated how the slow moving wheels of justice are no match for the high speed technology of today. By the time regulators issued their decision, the technology in question had become irrelevant.

20th Century Solutions Don’t Work on 21st Century Problems

We all learned in school how America’s Justice Department, and in some cases individual states, broke up monopolies in oil and the railroads. Historically, what government was trying to do was breakup price-setting cartels, and lower prices for consumers. But with entities like Facebook and Google, no one pays to use their service; it’s free!

Promising Technology or Dystopian Reality?

When commercial radio was born a hundred years ago, it was greeted with the same exuberance that the internet was and people thought radio would connect people, end wars and bring about world peace.

Then American radio would give a voice to Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit priest who eventually turned against American democracy itself through his nationwide radio broadcasts, opening the door for the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine coming into regulatory existence.

A Collaborative Solution

Media regulation in the 21st Century with algorithms that act like living organisms maybe should be regulated in the same way we protect our environment.

As an example, how would you go about improving a polluted river?

“To improve the ecology around a river, it isn’t enough to simply regulate companies’ pollution. Nor will it help to just break up the polluting companies. You need to think about how the river is used by citizens—what sort of residential buildings are constructed along the banks, what is transported up and down the river—and the fish that swim in the water. Fishermen, yachtsmen, ecologists, property developers, and area residents all need a say. Apply that metaphor to the online world: Politicians, citizen-scientists, activists, and ordinary people will all have to work together to co-govern a technology whose impact is dependent on everyone’s behavior, and that will be as integral to our lives and our economies as rivers once were to the emergence of early civilizations.”

-Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev, The Atlantic, “How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire

Now you know why bringing back “The Fairness Doctrine” will not work in a communications world controlled by algorithms.

We need to think differently.

Albert Einstein said it best,

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

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Your Cell Phone is a Radio

By definition, radio is, a: the wireless transmission and reception of electric impulses or signals by means of electromagnetic waves. b: the use of these waves for the wireless transmission of electric impulses into which sound is converted, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.

Your cell phone sends signals to (and receives them from) nearby cell towers (base stations) using Radio Frequency (RF) waves. This is a form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum that falls between FM radio waves and microwaves.

My First FCC License

When I studied for and passed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) test to obtain my 3rd Class Radio-Telephone License, I initially wondered why it said “telephone” on it.

Telephones in 1968 were all wired devices, like in my parent’s house in which our family phone was connected by a copper wire and bolted to the kitchen wall.

When I began to study the history of radio, I learned that an early experimenter in radio broadcasting, Kentucky melon farmer Nathan Stubblefield, wanted to be able to talk to his wife while he was driving his automobile while away from their farmhouse. In those early days, no one had a clue what this new technology would become.

Radio’s Metamorphosis

The podcast “Local Marketing Trends” hosted by Corey Elliot and Gordon Borrell, recently featured an interview with the Radio Advertising Bureau’s (RAB) President/CEO Erica Farber in which she said the radio industry’s sales arm was going through a metamorphosis; today the RAB thinks more broadly, to include all things audio.

Gordon asked Erica if she meant podcasting and streaming audio like Spotify and Pandora, to which she said “Yes.” When might this happen, Gordon asked, to which she responded, “maybe today.”

Farber explained how she feels radio is ahead of the curve in not just delivering content, but in delivering services too. Radio is no longer just about selling thirty and sixty second spots but it’s a very different business now, with radio’s core product today being “delivering results.”

Audio Advertising Bureau

Might the Radio Advertising Bureau change its name to become the Audio Advertising Bureau?

I hope not. Here’s why I say that.

Radio suffers from traditional broadcaster thinking that it needs an FCC license, radio tower, antenna and transmitter which sends a signal out over the AM or FM radio bands. But if you ask a young person, what is radio, they will tell you about their favorite stream or podcast which  they listen to through their smartphone.

Radio is not a dated identifier, it’s very much in vogue in the 21st Century, but what imagine comes to mind when one says the word “RADIO” will differ depending upon a person’s age.

1940s Floor Cabinet Radio (what my parents listened to)
1970s Transistor Radio (the radio of my youth)
21st Century Smartphone used as a radio & a whole lot more (the “radio” I use today)

Apple Music Radio

You might have missed Apple’s August 2020 Press Release about how they were changing the name of their radio service from Beats 1 to Apple Music Radio. In spite of trying to invent a new name for their streaming music offerings, their users called it “RADIO.” And now, so does Apple.

Beats 1, has been Apple’s flagship global radio station since its launch in 2015. Five years later, it’s been renamed Apple Music 1. Oliver Schusser, vice president of Apple Music, Beats and International Content, explained

“Apple Music Radio provides an unparalleled global platform for artists across all genres to talk about, create, and share music with their fans, and this is just the beginning. We will continue to invest in live radio and create opportunities for listeners around the world to connect with the music they love.”Beats

Now is NOT the time for AM/FM Radio broadcasters to abandon the sonic brand known as “RADIO.”

Adapt or Die

When people started streaming over the Internet and calling it “radio,” traditional broadcasters looked down their noses in much the same way that print journalists looked down their noses at the new media platforms like Buzzfeed and Vice Media invading their world.

Traditional media survivors will learn to accept and embrace the new platforms that disrupt the world as we knew it and are creating the world that will be.

An inability to adapt to new platforms is what causes both people and industries to fail.

AM, FM, internet streaming, smartphones, connected cars are all platforms. Radio, newspapers, magazines and the like, are all media products. Understanding this dichotomy is critical.

And so, the challenge for radio is not changing its name, but adapting its product to today’s platforms.

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What was The Fairness Doctrine?

After the January 6, 2021 siege on Capitol Hill, I began hearing people saying we need to bring back “The Fairness Doctrine,” as if that genie could be put back into the bottle.

But what exactly was “The Fairness Doctrine?”

It was a policy enacted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949 requiring the holder of a broadcast license to both present controversial issues of public importance, and to present these issues in a manner that was honest, equitable, fair and balanced.

In other words, broadcasters were supposed to not only uncover what the people in their broadcast service area should be aware of, but also to present both sides of the issue.

Operate in the Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity

From the beginning of my broadcast management career, I knew that my number one job was to protect the radio station’s FCC broadcast license to operate. Without a broadcast license, you were out of business. Second, my radio station(s) must operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity of the people in the area we were licensed to serve with our broadcasts.

The FCC created The Fairness Doctrine to ensure that “all sides of important public questions were presented fairly.”

For decades, this doctrine was seen as the keystone of broadcasters fulfilling their commitment to operating in the public interest. Compliance with The Fairness Doctrine was a primary litmus test during the license renewal process.

It was during the 1960s, when I started my radio career, that the FCC increased their enforcement of broadcaster compliance to The Fairness Doctrine. In 1963, the FCC formally stated that the presentation of only one side of an issue during a sponsored program would require that opposing views be given free air time to present their side. That rule became known as the Cullman Doctrine.

Broadcaster’s Free Speech

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that all of this increased oversight by the FCC on a broadcast station’s program content was seen as interference with a broadcaster’s “free speech.”

This would eventually be challenged at the Supreme Court in the Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC decision of 1969, with the high court upholding the constitutionality of the public interest standard in general and The Fairness Doctrine in particular. In their decision, the court stated, “It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.”

The End of The Fairness Doctrine

In 1985, the FCC finally decided that The Fairness Doctrine was incompatible with the public interest. It would eliminate this rule in 1987, and in 2011, the FCC removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register.

“[T]he Federal Communications Commission should reestablish two principles that formerly served this country well: the public service requirement and the fairness doctrine. Every television and radio station should once again be required to devote a meaningful percentage of its programming to public service broadcasting. The public, after all, owns the airwaves through which signals are broadcast, and the rights-of-way in which cables are strung. And every television and radio station should once again have to follow the fairness doctrine: those with opposing views should have the right to respond to viewpoints expressed on the station.”
― 
Bernie Sanders, United States Senator

Trump Tweets NBC Broadcasts “Fake News”

In October of 2017, President Donald J. Trump tweeted “With all the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

Broadcast legal experts immediately criticized and dismissed Trump’s tweet as both implausible and having no legal basis.

The American Bar Association’s Legal Fact Check wrote:

“The FCC publishes specific rules and guidelines related to news hoaxes and distortions and bars a licensee from knowingly broadcasting false information concerning a crime or a catastrophe. But the bar or threshold is high. Six days after Trump’s tweet, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his agency cannot revoke the license of a broadcaster ‘based on content of a particular newscast,’ and cited First Amendment protections of the press. FCC statements previously noted that the commission ‘often receives complaints … that stations have aired inaccurate or one-sided news reports or comments, covered stories inadequately or overly dramatized the events that they cover… (but) the commission generally will not intervene in such cases because it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own.’”

FOX NEWS CHANNEL

The Fairness Doctrine ended during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, however, it’s often wrongly stated that this gave birth to cable’s FOX NEWS CHANNEL. It did not. Cable channels are not, nor have they ever been, regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Similarly, the internet is also not regulated by the FCC.

The Fairness Doctrine only applied to the licenses of broadcast radio and television stations.

A case could be made that the end of The Fairness Doctrine did open the door to the Rush Limbaugh Show, which made its nationally syndicated premiere in 1988. Rush Limbaugh was a savior for AM radio stations, who saw most of their music audiences moving over to FM radio stations, and those advertising dollars moving right along with them.

Limbaugh proved so popular with AM talk radio audiences, that AM radio station owners added more talk shows like Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and others.

Cumulus Media

Following the siege on our nation’s Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, Cumulus Media, the radio syndicator for the Mark Levin Show sent a memo to its talk show hosts to stop spreading rhetoric about a stolen election or face termination.

Brian Philips, executive vice president of content for Cumulus Media wrote in his memo:

“We need to help induce calm NOW (and) will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended. The election has been resolved, there are no alternative acceptable ‘paths.’ If you transgress this policy, you can expect to separate from the company immediately.”

Cumulus Media operates Westwood One, which syndicates Trump-supporting radio talk personalities like Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino.

Free Speech

I find it ironic that the people screaming the loudest about what Cumulus Media has done is to thwart free speech. It’s not “free speech” to tell lies. United States constitutional law does not always protect false statements under the First Amendment.

Moreover, these same people are usually the ones who say, “Let the market decide.” In other words, let the corporations and companies make those hard decisions.

In this case, Cumulus Media did just that.

iHeartMedia which syndicates Trump-supporter hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity has not publicly announced any similar action for these talk hosts as of the writing of this blog article.

In 2016, SiriusXM suspended conservative talk host Glenn Beck for agreeing with one of his show’s guests who asked, “what patriot will step up to remove Donald Trump from office if he’s elected president and oversteps his authority?” SiriusXM, operator of America’s two satellite radio services, suspended Beck because they worried the conversation might “be reasonably construed by some to have been advocating harm against an individual currently running for office.”

Michael Harrison, who publishes Talkers magazine was sympathetic to the Cumulus memo saying:

“Corporations are responsible for what’s on their air. They have to deal with client feedback. They have to deal with public image and protection of their license. Private corporations can control their platforms, and I believe that in and of itself is an expression of free speech in action.”

I’m all for the Fairness Doctrine, whatever that is.

-George Voinovich*

*George Victor Voinovich (July 15, 1936 – June 12, 2016) was an American politician who served as a United States senator from Ohio from 1999 to 2011, the 65th governor of Ohio from 1991 to 1998 and the 54th mayor of Cleveland from 1980 to 1989, the last Republican to serve in that office.

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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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Radio’s History of Feeling Inferior

Family Listening to Golden Age of Radio“There are some things that will scare you so bad, that you will hurt yourself,” said Molly Ivins. And that’s exactly what I believe the radio industry has been doing to itself for most of its 100-year history.

The Golden Age of Radio

The first golden age of radio was during the 1930s and 40s, and was a period when over-the-air commercial radio was sewn into the fabric of American’s daily lives. It delivered the day’s news and provided entertainment to people struggling with the effects of the Great Depression and a second world war.

Here comes TV

Television was introduced to America at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with a live broadcast of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opening the fair on NBC’s experimental station W2XBS in New York City.Family Watching TV

Unfortunately, the development of television in America was halted by Japan bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and bringing the United States into World War II.

When the war ended, there were only six television stations on the air in America, three in New York City, one in Chicago, one in Philadelphia and one in Schenectady, New York.

The number of television sets in use in 1946 were about 6,000, but by 1951 that number grew to over 12 million, and by 1955 half of all homes in the United States had a black and white television.

Radio’s Over Because of…

Radio’s inferiority complex began with television, and probably for good reason. Television stole radio’s prime time programs and right along with it, it’s listeners. Worse, radio’s big station owners and radio networks, CBS and NBC, would use radio’s revenues to fund the development of television stations and TV networks.

There were many who predicted that television would be the demise of radio broadcasting.

This was the first known case of “radio’s over because of…”

What’s Killing Radio, Let Me Count the Ways

I worked in the radio industry all of my professional life. Other than earning money as a professional musician early in my working life or as a Broadcast Professor at the end, radio has been my source of income and my love.

During that time, I would hear about the latest new technology that was going to put radio out of business.

  • TV was going to be the end of radio
  • FM was going to be the end of AM radio
  • CB Radios were going to be the end of commercial radio
  • 8-Track Tapes were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • Cassette Tapes were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • Compact Discs were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • MP3s were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • Satellite Radio was going to be the end of radio
  • The internet was going to be the end of radio
  • iPhones/iTunes were going to be the end of radio
  • Pandora & Spotify et al were going to be the end of radio
  • YouTube was going to be the end of radio

Have I missed any?

FCC Symposium Sees Radio Industry Challenged by Competition and Regulation

The FCC held a symposium at the end of 2019 to solicit things it needed to be addressing for the health of the radio industry. Fingers, by the invited panelists, were pointing in every direction, but at themselves.

The radio industry believes it can make itself better by more consolidation and less regulation. Yet when I look at the history of radio, its most successful years were during a time of intense regulation and severe ownership caps.

However, it amazes me that the only answer offered continues to be the same one, that to my eyes and ears, got the radio industry into this predicament in the first place.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone.
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

-Joni Mitchell

What’s Radio’s Real Problem?

radio signWhen television came along and took away radio’s people and programs that were attracting its large listening audience, it was forced to re-invent itself.

Radio dropped its block programming and began programming music. The transistor made radio portable. Radio personalities, promotions and new music made radio exciting to a whole new generation of listeners.

One of the people at the FCC’s symposium was Karen Slade, VP and GM of KJLH Radio in Los Angeles. Instead of the 30,000 foot view of radio’s current situation being shared by the radio owners and CEOs, she said she saw the problem from about ten floors above street level. She said her radio station had 500,000 listeners but that she was trying to reach more listeners through a variety of other platforms. My question is why?

For my entire radio career, I don’t think I ever managed even a cluster of radio stations that delivered that many total weekly listeners. Yet, my radio stations were very successful.

I managed a radio station in Atlantic City that had about a tenth of that many listeners and still delivered a million dollar bottom line to the stakeholders, plus we delivered results for our advertisers.

Radio’s real problem is not investing in what it already owns. Radio instead thinks the grass is greener in someone else’s media playground.

Smart Speakers

Forbes says smart speakers are the future of the audio. AM and FM radio is available via smart speakers, but so isn’t the entire world of audio content.

It’s estimated that smart speakers will be in 75% of American households in five years. Smart speaker reach had already passed a tipping point, before this past Christmas’ robust speaker sales, with 41% of American homes owning at least one of these devices.Child using Smart Speaker

So, what makes a smart speaker owner choose an AM or FM radio station’s content to listen to versus a pure play or even TV audio content? Let me use television as an example to demonstrate what I think matters.

Why does Stephen Colbert’s Late Show reach 3.1 million nightly viewers versus the 1.8 million viewers that both Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon combined reach? Each of these shows look pretty much the same on paper. The difference can be found in the personality that presents the various program elements.

Radio stations used to understand how important the air personality was to the success of the station and its revenues. Radio promoted its air personalities on billboards, buses, on TV, direct mail and in print.

George Johns wrote about the time he hired a competing air personality in his market and paid him to sit on the beach for a year to wait out his non-compete contract. At the end of the year, he put him on the air in morning drive on the radio station he owned and was rewarded with huge ratings and revenues.

When Larry Lujack moved between WCFL and WLS in Chicago, his listeners and revenue moved right along with him. They didn’t call Uncle Lar “Super Jock” for nothing.

Mel Karmazin knew that Howard Stern would change the fortunes of Sirius Satellite Radio when he hired him away from his over-the-air commercial radio network. While Howard and SiriusXM prospered, his former radio properties became a shadow of what they once were.

Everyone I know who ever fell in love with radio growing up, has stories about the radio personalities that they couldn’t live without. My students at the university told me they would listen to their hometown radio personalities on streams in their dorm rooms.

Sadly, it seems like every day I’m reading about tenured radio personalities being let go. The very people who spent years building an audience are disappearing.

As Molly Ivins saw so clearly, sometimes there are things that scare us so badly, we hurt ourselves.

 

 

 

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What’s the Purpose of a Radio Station?

WSM Tower SiteRadio is a business.

Peter Drucker said the purpose of a business is to create a customer.

For radio, that means creating two types of customers: 1) a listener and 2) an advertiser and when done correctly, a radio station makes a profit.

Making Money

For most of my radio career, radio enjoyed a revenue expansion that rivaled the infamous “internet bubble.” Owning a radio station was considered a license to print money. Bottom lines often delivered a profit of 25 to 50% or more, so, while those profits were noticed by Wall Street investors the ownership limits on radio stations kept them away. Investors were frustrated that there was no way to scale up the size of a radio broadcast company.

Telcom Act of 1996

Then President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It relaxed radio’s ownership rules making it possible for one company to own multiple radio stations in a single market.

Wall Street loved the change! The money poured in from eager investors, and companies like Clear Channel, Citadel, and Cumulus quickly bought as many stations as they could using other people’s money. Mom & Pop radio operations had multiple companies vying for their properties and radio station values soared.

Ownership Limits

In 1953, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted its so-called 7-7-7 rule to encourage diversity of broadcast ownership. In essence, no single owner could own more than 7 AM radio stations, 7 FM radio stations, and 7 television stations in the entire United States of America.

By July of 1984, the FCC said they sought to encourage media competition and increased the number of radio and television stations a single owner could control to 12-12-12. The FCC Chairman was Mark S. Fowler. The President of the United States was Ronald Reagan. The five member FCC was 3 Republican appointees and 2 Democratic appointees. The vote to expand the ownership limits was 4 to 1 in favor.

“Bigness is not necessarily badness,” Chairman Fowler is reported saying. “Sometimes it is goodness.”

The New York Times reported reaction on Capitol Hill to the expansion of ownership limits this way:

On Capitol Hill, there was mixed reaction to the plan to abandon all limits on broadcasting ownership in 1990, although sentiment has grown in recent years for raising the ownership maximum somewhat.

Representative Timothy E. Wirth, the Colorado Democrat who is chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, said, ”The 12-12- 12 rule is just as arbitrary as the 7-7-7 rule.”

Mr. Wirth said a broad bipartisan consensus in Congress favors adoption of ”objective, long-term rules that assure diversity and competition.” He said such rules would provide for increased broadcast ownership but would not completely deregulate it.”

He went to say “If they deregulate in 1990, we could end up with a handful of companies owning every broadcasting outlet in the country.”

President Ronald Reagan

Reagan loved two things, cutting taxes and eliminating regulation. Remember Reagan famously said that “Government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” Reagan’s pick for FCC Chairman, Mark Fowler, fully embraced this vision and actively applied it to the FCC.

However, the prediction of Congressman Timothy Wirth wouldn’t come into existence until President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It would be the first significant overhaul of the 1934 Act in more than sixty years.

Radio station ownership in the first five years under this new act went from 5,100 owners to 3,800.

Instead of opening up ownership to new and more diverse ownership, it created an opportunity for media monopoly. The Wall Street funded radio companies could now buy out the Mom & Pops and the temptation to sell at never-before-seen-multiples was too good to pass up.

Operating in the Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity

When no one really knew what radio broadcasting would become, they did know they wanted radio to be a communications business that would serve its community of license for convenience in good times and of necessity in times of trouble. The airwaves were considered to be owned by the public, so operating in their best interests was a requirement to being an FCC broadcast licensee.

Changing Competitive Landscape

Historically, radio stations competed against one another. Most markets had such battles as, WLS vs. WCFL, WMEX vs. WRKO, WPTR vs. WTRY, KHJ vs. KRLA etc. When FM radio began to take over from AM, a station such as WABC no longer had just WMCA to beat, but now WTKU-FM too, which offered better fidelity and stereo. This new radio competition replicated in every radio market in America.

Then came Satellite Radio, followed by Pandora along with other pureplay streamers, and podcasts so that today, the radio competition landscape lines are blurred beyond recognition.

Mission vs. Platform

Today’s communications company needs to clearly define its mission and needs to earn the trust of all of its stakeholders. That means building trust between its employees, advertisers and listeners.

We need to stop thinking of “radio” as AM or FM.

We need to think of radio as being the audio leader for creating an environment for convening and supporting groups. We need to be preparing for a future that is still coming into focus.

 

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Too Much Is Not Enough

too muchI was reviewing the last FCC report about the number of broadcast stations in America as of December 31, 2018 and in my head I found myself singing a parody of the Bellamy Brothers song, “Too much is not enough.” Only my version was “too much is way too much.”

FM Signals Continue to Proliferate

My editor at Radio World, Emily Reigart, recently wrote about how the total number of broadcast stations (radio & TV) grew in the past year by 3,150 stations, it would appear to not be an industry in decline. Unfortunately, while TV and FM stations increased, the number of AM radio stations continues to shrink.

Which again reminded me of that Bellamy Brothers song where they sang “I’m getting weaker, as the day goes by.”

How Much is Too Much

Back in the 1950s through the 1970s, John B. Calhoun, an American ethologist and behavioral researcher, studied what happens when an environment gets overcrowded. In Mr. Calhoun’s case, he studied what happens when you keep adding rats to a defined space. It was to learn about population density and its effects on behavior. Calhoun predicted that what he witnessed with his rats foretold of a grim future for the human race.

I believe much as what Everett Rodgers would learn in studying the adoption of new innovations of Iowa corn farmers that produced his famous Innovation Adoption Curve, that these things have universal applications and impact all areas of our lives.

Overpopulation is overpopulation.

Matters not whether we’re talking rats, people or radio stations.

In more recent times, researchers felt that Calhoun’s experiments didn’t so much predict the effects of overpopulation as much as the moral decay that arises with too much social interaction. Did he foretell of today’s internet connected world?

FM Signals

Breaking down the FCC’s latest report for just radio stations, we see that there are now 4,619 AM radio stations on the air. That’s 20 fewer AM radio stations than a year ago and 167 fewer than a decade ago. This is a trend that shows no sign of changing. That’s why I wrote, that “like coal, AM radio ain’t coming back.”

On the FM side, there were 25 more commercial and educational FM radio stations than a year ago, and compared to 2008, there were 1,422 additional FM radio stations added.

Translators & Low Power FM

Where things get really messy is the addition of translators and low power FM radio stations.

For those not fully versed in these two forms of broadcasting, they are basically the same, in that both occupy space on the FM radio band. The difference is that translators rebroadcast another signal, be it an AM, FM or HD broadcast, and low power FM radio stations originate their programs. Low power FM radio stations are non-commercial operations and limited to a maximum power of 100-watts. (Note: commercial and educational FM stations can have a maximum power of 100,000-watts) Translators or boosters are limited to a maximum power of 250-watts but it’s not surprising to find many operating at a lot less power due to other factors involved.

When we look at the number of these two additional classes of FM broadcasters, we find another 10,124 FM radio stations bringing the total number of FM signals on-the-air in America today to 21,013 FM radio stations. Over four and half times as many FM signals as AM signals.

Inversion Layers

Now while studies are done to determine what power and location an FM station can be located to prevent it interfering with another FM radio station on the same or adjacent frequency, all of these studies are done in a perfect world. By that I mean, one in which weather is behaving.

However, having operated radio stations along the Jersey shore for decades, I know that vertical layering of moisture content and temperature in the atmosphere (inversion layers) can cause an FM signal to travel hundreds or thousands of miles further than normal.

These weather conditions can affect radio signals from several hours to several days.

This weather phenomenon is called anomalous propagation and is usually likely to occur when weather conditions are hot and dry.

With the planet’s climate changing, expect to see even more, less than “normal” weather conditions going forward and therefore even more interference.

Automobile FM Radio

The place radio still dominates, is in the car, though all electric cars are excluding AM radios due to electrical interference, in favor of FM radios with internet and blue tooth capabilities in what manufacturers call “dashboard entertainment systems.”

I’ve traveled all over our great land this past year and what I find is, it is almost impossible to dial in an FM radio station and keep a clear, listenable signal for any great distance or period of time. It quickly turns into an interference situation with another FM radio station, either on the same frequency or an adjacent one.

Less Is More

The radio industry would greatly benefit from fewer signals, with the power to fully cover the area they are licensed to serve, and regulated to insure that they are properly operated in the community of license’s interests, convenience, or necessity.

The FCC can’t abolish the laws of physics.

The advertising base to support local radio is finite.

In Sydney, Australia, a city with about 5-million people, there are 48-radio stations. In Los Angeles, California, a city with about 4-million people, there are 114-radio stations.

The value of a broadcast license was that it was a limited commodity, and as such being granted spectrum on the public’s airwaves benefitted the community, the advertisers, the listeners and the broadcasters.

The Infinite Dial

The internet has created an infinite radio dial and has challenged the value of an FCC broadcast license.

The FCC’s inability to protect the AM spectrum from the myriad of electrical devices that produce an ever increasing noise floor has doomed the future of the senior band as it closes in on a century of service.

Unless something is done, I fear the FM band will suffer a similar fate.

In many ways, it already is.

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