Tag Archives: KDKA

Seems Like We’ve Been Here Before

I teach a course called the “History of Broadcasting in America” at the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University. It’s from this background I’m writing this week’s blog.

Broadcasting began with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation issuing KDKA the first commercial broadcast license on October 27, 1920. Let’s be clear, there was lots of broadcasting going on in America before this date, but this license marks the beginning of radio broadcasting that would be ad-supported.

Think about it. This period in American history was called the “Roaring 20s.” It would be a time the first tabloid newspaper would appear along with publications like Reader’s Digest, New Yorker magazine, and TIME magazine. This would be the world that commercial radio would be born in.

It was a time in America of unprecedented economic prosperity and social change. It was also a time of a strong backlash of racism, fear of immigration and morality.

Radio would be the new kid on the block in the 1920s. Broadband wireless Internet is the new kid today as we live in a period of time giving birth to the “Internet of Things (IoT).”

Déjà vu

Let’s compare the issues of then and now. In the 1920s, immigration was feared. America got tough on immigration with a stringent set of restrictions embodied in the Immigration Act of 1924 designed to limit the flow of immigrants from Europe primarily. Today we hear all about how we need to build a great wall between the American and Mexican border.

In the 1920s, the focus was segregation and discrimination of African-Americans. These same sticky issues are still with us today. Think Charter Schools. Gay Marriage. Muslims.

While women had earned the right to vote by the Roaring 20s, they still couldn’t go to college, most professions excluded women, they couldn’t own property, couldn’t establish credit or get loan to start a business. Women? How’s it going today besides your fight for equal pay, equal rights and women’s health?

The 1920s had the 18th Amendment, which brought about Prohibition. Today we have the “War on Drugs.” It’s been about as successful as Prohibition was, but it appears America learned nothing from its past.

The 1920s saw a technology revolution. American-made films not only captivated Americans, but the world. Every American city would have a movie theater by the end of the 20s. Today, virtually every American home is connected to the Internet, most with Broadband service.

Radio would grow up to be an ad-supported medium. It still is today. The Internet pursued the same ad-support path.

The 1920s were the best of times and the worst of times. Society was made up of the haves and the have-nots. The wealth-gap was huge. Today, that gap is bigger than it was a century ago.

The 1920s saw modern corporations and the federal government in a close alliance. And everyone thought that was a good thing, until October 29, 1929. A day known as Black Tuesday, the day stock market crashed, which would mark the beginning of the Great Depression. After that happened, Americans weren’t so sure about the big corporations’ influence over their government.

The equivalent (and hopefully the extent of it) comparison in our time would be “The Great Recession of 2007 – 2009.”

America 1920, commercial radio was born in America. It was the start of a mass communications revolution. It would kill Vaudeville.

Déjà vu All Over Again – Yogi Berra

Today, we are living in a period of world history that is undergoing a new communications revolution brought about by the creation of the Internet and the smartphone. And what the Internet of Things is doing is challenging the business model of just about every business.

When TV came along in the 1950s, it took the entertainment that radio had stolen from Vaudeville and stole it from radio. But radio, unlike Vaudeville back in the 20s, didn’t die. It re-invented itself into a new form of mass communication.

The challenge for radio today, unlike back in the beginning, is that broadcasters and the government understood they had to make a choice. Have lots of broadcasters and poor quality of broadcasts – OR – have fewer broadcasters but ones that could support the economics of high quality broadcasts.

Broadcasting in those early days was all live programs. Live music, live drama, live comedy, live variety, live everything. This requirement to do only live programming is what separated the big boys from the amateurs and that’s how those corporations got the best signals and the most power to broadcast on.

Operating in the Public Interest

 The requirement for gaining access to the public airwaves for these big broadcasters was that they operate in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity.” The Radio Act of 1927 would embody these principles:

  • Access to the public airwaves would be restricted to a few quality broadcasters vs. lots of mediocre ones

  • They would operate in the public interest

  • They would be regulated by the government

  • They would be a commercial medium operated by private entities

Today, the government is licensing Lower Power FM stations and Translator FM stations like Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees. Today there are 22,970 radio stations broadcasting in America as of June 2015. Add to this the infinite number of streaming radio stations on the Internet and you can see how this challenges today’s radio owner to fulfill operating in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity” and make a profit.

While some may make the case that radio is not living up to the original covenant, you also need to realize that neither is the government. Less radio stations enabled broadcasters to provide more services to their communities of license.

Nielsen Audio says radio still reaches over 92% of all Americans 12-years of age and older on a weekly basis. It’s the #1 reach medium today. It has always been the #1 frequency medium. That powerful combination of reach & frequency is the one-two punch of effective advertising. American’s still love their radio.

But today, places to advertise on radio are infinite. The advertising budgets, however, are finite. The advertising pie has never been cut thinner.

And that’s the problem.

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AM Radio, Streaming Radio, FCC Spectrum Auction & the Future

6Every June, I set-off on a road trip back to New Jersey to speak at the annual New Jersey Broadcasters Convention and Gala in Atlantic City. The roundtrip spans 3-weeks and I drive over 3,000 miles.

This year on the drive up I listened to AM radio and on the drive back I listened to streaming radio. I’d like to share my thoughts with you about what I heard and observed, as well as ponder what the future of both might hold.

Small signal AM radio stations primarily identify themselves with their FM translator dial position (How’s that saving AM radio?). The “pups” are mostly syndicated, automated, religious, sports or Spanish. They aren’t very engaging, which is probably a good thing if you’re driving because you don’t care when you lose the signal. Oh, and just try to hear their translator FM signal; forgetaboutit.

The “big dawg” signals (Bill Bungeroth, former Cumulus Broadcasting president used the term “big dawgs” for those monster signal radio stations and “little pups” for everything else and that’s where I picked it up) on AM like WOWO in Ft Wayne, Indiana, WJR in Detroit, Michigan, WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio and KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are in another universe when it comes to radio programming.

While listening to WOWO, I heard a powerful morning show that was fun, engaging and tuned into the Ft Wayne area. WJR told me about Frankenmuth, Michigan while their midday show was broadcasting live from this unique resort town on the great lakes. WLW was talking about how the Cincinnati police were getting body cameras and how they were loaning them to the news folks in Cincinnati to wear and learn how they work. It was fascinating radio. And KDKA was a potpourri of information about all things Pittsburgh; thoroughly engaging and very enjoyable.

I rode each of these big dawg stations for hundreds of miles and enjoyed listening to them every minute. Each was different, unique, fun, engaging and LOCAL.

The observation I made was that maybe the AM band should be reserved for these high power AM signals that have the bench strength to do great radio.

My drive home started in Albany, New York. I drove back to my hometown in Western Massachusetts following the NJBA Convention and Gala to visit a close family member that had suffered a significant stroke. Thankfully, that situation is improving daily.

I decided my drive back to Kentucky would focus on the other kind of radio available these days; streaming radio. My streaming provider of choice is called Radio Tunes. I like this service because their music formats are curated by people who know and love their genres. Jimi King out of London, England curates the Smooth Jazz channels. Smooth Jazz is a format that has almost completely disappeared from America’s airwaves.

Side Note: WNUA in Chicago, Illinois was a top five radio station playing the Smooth Jazz format. That is until the PPM became the listener measurement currency in Chicago and the other top 48 American metros chasing this format off FM radio. Is Smooth Jazz a PPM unfriendly format for PPM encoding? Might a Voltaire have helped Smooth Jazz? Just asking.

My first day of my 15-hour drive back home allowed me to listen to this streaming radio station through my iPhone4S fed into my car’s audio system with no dropout, no buffering, no disruption of any kind. The audio fidelity beats anything coming out of AM or FM terrestrial radio or SiriusXM too.

On day two of my drive home, I again put on Radio Tunes’ Smooth Jazz channel knowing that Jimi King and Stephanie Sales would be hosting a LIVE 3-hour Smooth Jazz show (they do this every Sunday). This makes Radio Tunes into a real radio station, though I will admit that I love the channel mainly because of all the things it doesn’t do the other 165 hours a week. However, for three of the 7-hours of my second day’s drive, the companionship was really nice.

Again, I experienced no disruption to my listening as I proceeded from Maryland and through the state of West Virginia and into Kentucky. I carried Radio Tunes all the way into Lexington, Kentucky where I stopped to have some lunch.

While eating lunch it occurred to me how well my reception to streaming radio through my smartphone was. It’s scary good when you think about it. Excellent fidelity, no dropout, buffering or other disruptions.

Brian Solis recently spoke at the PromaxBDA Station Summit and told attendees:

“Disruption happens because someone innovated and innovation changes behavior. A good place to start is thinking about a mobile experience. 74% of businesses have no plans to optimize their sites for mobile viewing meaning they don’t have a plan to stay competitive in the increasingly mobile world. If most content experiences are starting here, then that experience needs to be reimagined.”

It wasn’t until I left Lexington that I found gaps in the cell service and finally gave up my experiment of listening to streaming radio through my smartphone in my car.

My observations were cell service is becoming ubiquitous. There are times when having the companionship of LIVE personalities are appreciated versus just streaming music without any talk. Your smartphone gets really hot when you stream on it continuously for a lot of hours. The data use for streaming audio is not huge, like streaming videos or downloading pictures and if all the cell companies make streaming audio free from a person’s data usage plan, it would provide a serious threat to over-the-air radio. Just as Netflix, HBO, Showtime and other OTT (over-the-top) TV services are proving a challenge to cable companies, OTT radio services could be just as challenging to the radio industry.

Then I read this article “Could LTE Broadcast Technology Supersede Over-The-Air Broadcasting?” Listen to what this technology can do:

“LTE Broadcast is based on the eMBMS (Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service) point-to-multipoint interface specification developed for delivery of any content received by multiple viewers at the same time, including files and emergency alerts as well as broadcast video. The motive in all cases was to avoid consuming large amounts of bandwidth through transmission of the same data over multiple unicast sessions, which is particularly expensive in the case of HD video.”

Does that get your attention? Then read this second article “Further Consideration of LTE Broadcast”:

“LTE Broadcast is the most efficient mechanism to distribute the same content to many users, and is an important solution to address the 1000x data challenge. Initially focusing on venue-casting, LTE Broadcast can address many other media distribution such as software updates and breaking news. The evolution of LTE Broadcast makes it dynamic and more scalable, and in the long term, takes it even beyond mobile as a solution for next generation terrestrial TV.”

And anything done for TV is even simpler to do for radio.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner has been reported saying:

“There is a widening skills gap where the existing workforce has been educated and trained to obtain jobs of yesterday and not the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

The broadcast game is rapidly moving to the cellular platform. If you’re wondering why Tim Cook is jazzed about Apple Music it’s because he understands broadcasting is entering a new era. The future belongs to those who can deliver superior content to the global village known as planet Earth.

Now which company do you think has a better chance of winning this race? Apple with $178 billion cash in the bank or, I don’t know, say iHeartMedia with $20.7 billion in debt?

The FCC’s spectrum auction is all about creating more spectrum for the mobile communication platform.

Now do you understand why spectrum is being reallocated?

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