Friday, October 31, 2008

Peer Pressure and the Peerless Novel

Peer pressure can be good or bad -- depending on what it guides you to do. In this case, after talking about it for a few years, two colleagues signed up for NaNoWriMo. Which "forced" me to do the same.

The National Novel Writing Month is November, and the goal is to do just that. Start and finish a novel of at least 50,000 words in the space of a month. Great art? No, but it can be great fun. And a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

I was ambivalent about signing up because my time's already at a premium. On the other hand, doing what I really want to do -- write, compose, play music, draw -- seems to be continually pushed to the bottom of the list in favor of more practical things, like meeting deadlines, running a business, and maintaining some kind of normal family life.

So I've taken the plunge. My friends quit talking about it and acted; I felt I could do no less. So tomorrow morning, I start in on my new novel. The outline's ready (that much prep is allowed). All I have to do is fill in the words.

Is peer pressure a bad thing? I'll let you know at the end of the month.

- Ralph

Day 136 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Slamming the Post with the BBC

This post's just for folks who've been in radio -- or perhaps not. I've talked before about the Chris Moyles Show, heard daily on BBC Radio 1, and how effectively it uses the medium of radio (especially in conjunction with new media).

Chris Moyles and the team had a bit of fun with show's assistant producer, Matt Fincham. The previous week they had uncovered a tape of a very young Fincham calling in to a local radio program and talking about his own college radio program.

That resulted in quite a bit of teasing, but it also prompted the team (or at least the support staff) to dig even deeper and come up with some air checks of young Matt on CUR1350, Cambridge University's student-run station.

An important technique for Top 40 DJ's to have is the ability to talk over the musical introduction of a song and stop right before the vocals start. If you can do it and actually say something intelligent in the process, you've passed from skill to art. The technique's known by a variety of terms; the one I've heard it referred to is "slamming the post."

Moyles and company have a bit of fun with this concept as they get Fincham to relive his glory days and slam the post (or "hit the vocal" as they call it).


Listen carefully to the adept use of the audio clips in this segment. There's no pause, no hesitation. Whenever a clip's used to punctuate the conversation, it's always cued up, and it always runs for exactly the right amount of time. Very simple audio elements, but expertly handled for maximum impact. That's what radio should be about.

And the bit at the end where Fincham intros the song? I think most people will find it funny. But only people who have been on the other side of the microphone will fully appreciate the humor.

- Ralph

Day 135 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

WTJU and the Dull Surprise

So this morning I did another fund-raising marathon program for WTJU. If you've been following the saga, you'll know that I've had a program under just about every set of circumstances (good and bad) during WTJU's fall fund drive.

This morning I did a jazz show featuring the music of Buddy Rich. So how did I do? Slightly better than I did Saturday evening, but I still raised only a fraction of what I did the week before.

On the plus side, I was in my regular time slot. In theory I should have been talking to the same people that listen to my show throughout the year.

On the minus side, I wasn't playing classical music; the genre normally heard in that time slot.

And the results were disastrous. For the past five days, we've been airing classical music throughout the day, driving away listeners who are used to hearing jazz, folk or rock programming at specific times. Last night we finished classical fund-raising programming, and started jazz.

So in the middle of the week, the station goes completely to jazz. The jazz listeners who would perhaps respond to this programming were nowhere to be found this morning. And why should we expect them to be? First, that time slot has always been classical music, so jazz lovers have learned not to turn on the dial before 9:00AM, when jazz programming normally starts.

As for my regular audience? Well, I think they gave generously Friday morning when I was on (remember, most people maintain the same listening habits Monday through Friday) and were done.

And those that weren't? Well, I'm sure once they heard the Buddy Rich Big Band swinging hard they knew there was no classical music this morning. *Click*

So the classical audience left, and the jazz audience didn't show up. Several of my fellow volunteers were surprised that the show did so poorly since I had been so successful last week. Nothing surprising about it -- for those who understand how radio works.

I did as well as I could -- and I really do appreciate the calls from the few folks who did pledge -- but it's tough to fight reality.

- Ralph

Day 134 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

WTJU and the Shifting Gear (sans clutch)

Today I hosted a lunchtime fund-raising program at WTJU. There's been a good conversation going on in the comments field of my last post about the station and the way it raises money.

So how did I do today? Better than Saturday, that's for sure! But was as much as I potentially could have raised?

A number of factors were at work that determined my success (or lack thereof). On the minus side, folks who normally listened to "Walk Right In," the folk program normally heard at this time probably weren't in the mood for Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann piano music. In fact, if they made WTJU part of their lunch-time routine, they probably tuned out Monday and haven't returned. So the strong following our noonday programming has was gone.

On the plus side, our fund-raising marathon had been running since Friday, so some people understood that classical programming is what they could expect to hear. That audience, was, of course, the same group that regularly listens to classical throughout the year.

So there were some more pledges today than Saturday, but still from the same subset of WTJU's total audience.

And now that folks are getting used to the classical programming, we'll switch gears tonight and hit them with five days of jazz.

Now don't get me wrong: there are a lot of really great jazz shows scheduled, and a whole series of live, in studio performances with some phenomenal regional jazz artists. As far as content goes, it will be wonderful.

But the classical listeners who tune in tomorrow expecting more of the same will be disappointed. As will any folk or rock programming listeners who tune in hoping the madness is over and they can get back to their routine.

And the jazz listeners? Well, some will understand that we've made the switch, but it will take many a few days to get up to speed. At which point the marathon will be over.

I've got a jazz fund-raising program tomorrow morning 6-9AM. It's my usual time slot, but my usual audience expects classical, not jazz. I don't anticipate getting a lot of pledges (not that I won't try my best). Immediately following my show, however, is the regular 9-12 jazz host with a jazz program. I expect it to do very well, as he talks to the audience that he's developed over the years.

To the volunteers at the station, changing formats for the marathon may seem like just shifting gears. But to the listeners it's like grinding the gearbox. Without some kind of clutch to ease the transition, it can be a jarring experience -- one that most radio listeners prefer to avoid.

- Ralph


Day 133 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, October 27, 2008

WTJU and the Shocking Surprise

I won't keep you in suspense. The shocking surprise is that radio has a certain role in people's lives -- regardless of format. And people are creatures of habit.

Think about your own radio listening habits (for those readers who still use the radio, that is). Chances are, you most often listen to the radio in the car. And most often while traveling to and from work. You probably have a few choice stations preset on the dial, and you flip back and forth depending on what's on.

On the weekend, there's probably certain times you like to have the radio on. I like turn it on when I'm in my garage workshop on Saturdays, for example. And I often use it while I'm working in the attic or other home maintenance-type projects where wearing an iPod would either get in the way or be dangerous.

However you use the radio, it's most likely part of a routine. Complicated schedules don't enter into the mix. Either what you want is on, or it isn't. And if it isn't, then you move on to another station where it is.

So when WTJU blew out its regular programming for five days of classical music and five days of jazz, they messed with people's routines. And what do you do if the station you have on isn't playing what you like? Right. Either turn it off, or turn to another station.

My Saturday evening fund-raising program on WTJU did what I thought it would -- very little. Do I fault those that listened and didn't call in? Not really. Because I don't think that many were listening, anyway. I replaced the Saturday program that had it's own [non-classical] following, so I'm sure many people just tuned out.

I've had many discussions with my fellow volunteers about fund-raising at the station. They continually cite anecdotal evidences proving that listeners love our marathon fund-raisers and wouldn't have it any other way. Well, perhaps, but each drive there's a few less of those long-time listeners who contribute. New listeners (especially those who are used to how public radio works in other parts of the country before moving here) don't know about the marathon tradition at WTJU.

All they know is that they turned on the radio one day, and something different was being broadcast on WTJU. And so they went somewhere else.

I understand how people use the radio. And anyone who uses the radio, if they paused to think about it, understands it to. But to many of my colleagues at WTJU? It continues to be a shocking surprise.

- Ralph

Day 132 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, October 24, 2008

WTJU and the Marathon Unmuddled

I had a fantastic fund raising program this morning on WTJU, and I'd like to thank everyone who called in with a pledge.

Of course, what I expected happened did happen. The phones rang fairly often from 6:00 AM to about 9:00 AM. My show, "Overtures," ran until 10:00, but it didn't matter. At 9:00 the phones stopped ringing and I didn't get another pledge.

Why?

Well, look at the regular schedule for the station. At 9:00 AM jazz programming starts. The folks who only listen to classical are used tuning us out at 9:00 and either switching over to WVTF (which has finished with Morning Edition and starts its classical programming), or have arrived at work and won't listen to the radio again until the evening drive home.

And since this is the first day of the fund drive, people who tuned in all week long at 9:00 AM expecting to hear jazz got a nasty shock this morning. My guess is most of them turned us off almost immediately, never hearing the fund raising message at all.

As I've noted before, when it comes to radio, people are creatures of habit. We mess with the daily routine at our own peril. At 9:00 AM the classical audience went away, and the jazz audience stayed away. And as much as our volunteer staff wishes it be otherwise, our listeners use radio the same way listeners of other stations do.

Care to guess what happens tomorrow when listeners tune in at 4:00 PM, expecting to hear "Jumpin' On the Bed," high-energy American music instead get Hindemith and Persichetti wind ensemble music?

- Ralph

Day 129 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

WTJU and the Marathon Muddle

So tomorrow morning I get to kick off the on-air fund drive at WTJU, 91.1 FM Charlottesville, VA. Most public radio stations just fund raise around their regular programming -- with good reason. It doesn't disrupt the listener's routine. And the on-air announcer gets to talk to the same listeners he/she's been conversing with throughout the year. There's already a relationship there, which just helps the message get through.

At WTJU, we have an all-volunteer air staff. It's our greatest strength, and our biggest weakness. It's our strength, because each announcer gets to program their own show. WTJU's program content is (in my opinion) unparalleled in overall quality. Many of WTJU's announcers have a broad and deep knowledge of the music they play, giving the listener insightful commentary as well as some well-thought out and engaging programming choices.

It's our weakness because, well, most of our announcers have day jobs. They're not involved in radio professionally, and many aren't particularly interested in what other stations are doing. And that can lead to bad radio.

During a fund drive, that can be fatal. When WTJU was primarily a radio club for University of Virginia students, it ran non-stop classical music the first week in December when most students were studying for mid-terms. Eventually the Classical Marathon became a tradition, and in time the other genres at WTJU demanded their own marathons. And when the station started raising money on-air, the marathons seemed the time to do it.

Eventually the jazz and classical marathons were combined into a fall marathon/fund drive, and the rock and folk marathons united into one in the spring.

Three things keep these weeks of special programming from being effective fund raisers. Can you guess what they are?

1) Each genre of music only appeals to a portion of the audience. So when the station goes completely classical, three quarters of its audience goes away. And the same thing happens when it goes all jazz, or all rock, or all folk. So we're trying to fund raise to only a fraction of our total audience.

2) The focus is still on the special programming. Many of our announcers are so excited about creating a special marathon show, that they spend most of their on-air breaks talking about the theme of the show, or the importance of the recording just played, or the one coming up. The fund raising message gets crammed in as an afterthought (or sometimes not at all). Some of our listeners have been completely unaware that we were doing a fund drive at all (based on conversations with some listeners after the fact).

3) Our listeners aren't hearing from the announcers they trust. I'll be doing a show on Saturday evening. I'll be talking to people who are used to hearing a different announcer and a different genre (if they don't tune out right away). How effective will my message be to them?

Now some people will give, and that's fine. But chances are we won't see a lot of first-time pledgers, and I know that we won't reach everyone who would be interested in supporting the station.

Even with all that, though, I hope you'll join me tomorrow (either online or through the radio) for the start of the 2008 WTJU Classical and Jazz Marathon (and fund drive). I passionately believe that WTJU is a rare treasure, and I will do my best to help this station reach its goal.

And make no mistake: the financial need of WTJU is real. Over half of our operating budget has to be raised from either underwriting or listener donations. Which means the support (or lack of it) from our audience will make or break the station.

WTJU continues to serve the community because the community supports WTJU. We probably won't articulate it very well, but the most important question we can ask over the course of this marathon is simply this: Are you a paying member of this community?

- Ralph

Day 128 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Putting the "you" in fundraising

In a few days I’ll discover for myself what the economy’s like. Well, I already know from a personal standpoint. I mean I’ll find out what the general tone among the public is –- at least a certain part.

Friday morning begins the fall fund drive for WTJU in Charlottesville, Virginia. Public radio stations across the nation have reported wildly varying results from their drives. Some stations met their goals, others exceeded them, and many, of course, didn’t even come close.

When money gets tight, folks start to prioritize. How important is that cup of gourmet coffee? Would a cup at a convenience store do just as well? Or perhaps it makes more sense to brew it at home and use a travel mug?

Fund-raising on the radio is a tricky proposition during the best of times. Using only your voice, you have to remind folks of the value the station has in their lives, and why it’s important that they support it financially.

Working against you is the fact that most people listen to the radio while doing other things -– driving, cleaning house, doing chores, working, and so on –- so you seldom have their undivided attention. Furthermore, you’re asking them to pay for something that perceived as free. After all, anyone can turn on the radio and listen to WTJU –- there’s no subscription involved. Folks could listen their entire lives and never contribute a dime, and they’d enjoy just as much of the programming as the people who give thousands.

So why support a public radio station? You shouldn’t do it because it’s a good thing to do -– you should do it because the station is an important part of your life. Think about the radio station you regularly listen to (or audio stream or podcast). Would your life be diminished somehow if it went away?

If the answer’s “yes,” then you need to contribute. Even though times are tough, if the programming nourishes your spirit, then you need to support that station so that it can continue to do so. Call it enlightened self-interest. Your donation ultimately benefits all listeners (even those life-long freeloaders), but first and foremost it helps maintain the quality of your life.

If you’re in WTJU’s listening area, I hope you tune in for the Marathon. You can also listen online if you aren’t. And if you regularly listen to another non-commercial station and haven’t yet done so, please give them a call and make a pledge. You're only helping yourself.

- Ralph

Day 127 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Demographics of Collecting

Here's a question for collectors. In your particular area of interest, does the market change as the population matures, or is it fairly constant?

As my dad and I wandered the halls of the York Fair Grounds at one of the largest toy train meets in the world, we observed something unusual. Every meet (and there's two a year), it seems as if there are a few items that crop up on just about every table. Items that are plentiful at one meet virtually disappear at the next -- but others have taken their place.

Toy train collecting shares something with other types of toy collecting -- people tend to be most interested in they had as children (or what Santa never brought them). So when the Train Collector's Association started in the late 1950's most of the members were looking for toy trains from the 1920's-1930's (the hobby tends to skew to late-middle age).

Trains from the 1960's didn't really become desirable until the late 1980's. And now, of course, toy trains from the 1970's-1980's have become extremely desirable. Those early toy trains snapped up by that first generation of collectors, remained off the market for the most part (save for estate sales). While the rarest and top-of-the-line pieces still command premium prices, most early toy trains have declined in value.

So this train show we noticed, for the first time, low-end train sets from the 1920's-1930's. A lot of them. At many different tables. Sets I've never seen before. And for not much money at all.

Why? Not sure. My guess is that as the primary collectors for these items are downsizing their collections as they move into assisted living facilities -- but that's just a guess.

If you collect something similar, such as comic books, dolls, toy cars, games, etc., I'd like to know if the same thing's happening in your field. Are older items declining in value, and are things previously off the market suddenly appearing again?

I appeal to the wisdom of the crowd.

- Ralph

Day 126 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Back on the grid -- reality check!

Last week I postulated what would happen when I was forced to forgo the Internet for a few days. I officially dropped off the web last Wednesday evening, and didn't log back on until early Monday morning. Some things were as I anticipated, others weren't.

Professional consequences
I was able to talk my business partner through a mastering session Friday, and everything seemed to go just fine. Credit Mark Goldstein at Sandalwood Studios for that. We've worked together for a while now, and I knew he could make aesthetic decisions that would be in line to what I would have done.

E-mail was a disaster, with about 400 missives waiting to be read/deleted/answered/filed. The biggest problem was an order that had come in through Amazon. I normally turn those within 24 hours, but I neglected to have someone in place to handle that part of the operation, so the order shipped today (just at the deadline for shipping), rather than Friday which it should have.

G0ing through the e-mails proved to be more of chore than anything -- turned out most of it wasn't time sensitive. All-in-all, Digital Chips, Inc. and DCD Records managed to do quite well without me.

Personal consequences
There weren't nearly as many e-mails waiting. Most of them were unimportant, and none of them were time-sensitive.

One odd thing happened, though. After four days without a single tweet, I return to discover I gained three new followers at Twitter.com! And there's new friend requests at FaceBook. Perhaps I should be more sparing in my commentary...

And there's a spike in the traffic for this blog. Ken always kills me in traffic on this blog. He submits less posts than I do, the posts are shorter than mine, and they seem to be much more popular. I'm guessing there's a lesson in all this.

Informational consequences
I missed the last debate, and for the first time this election cycle, I had no recourse. I couldn't watch it online later -- I had to rely on what I could pick up from the newscasters, pundits (and SNL) on successive days to piece together what happened.

The first time I heard about Joe the Plumber was in SNL's Thursday night special. I read a profile of the actual person in the Intelligencer Journal Friday, but I was limited to the information contained in the article.

We watched the morning news from Pittsburgh before heading out each morning, and it was depressingly the same. There was about 15 minutes of actual content recycled over and over, each retelling having exactly the same amount of information with slightly different intros.

Information was easier to digest off the grid -- there was less of it. And because I couldn't get online, I began to feel the responsibility of checking sources lifting from my shoulders. I had forgotten how much simpler life is on the other side of the digital divide -- and how much scarier. It was difficult to piece together any kind of narrative with the news stories that were being tossed about. Without background or context, it seemed as if everything was happening randomly -- no wonder most folks are looking for simple, black-and-white solutions. They want to restore order!

Bottom line
I appreciated my time offline. I took long walks in the morning, had some great conversations with my dad, thought about things in depth without the continual attention-diverting tug of multiple RSS feeds, and generally recharged my creative batteries.

At the same time, I missed the connections, the continual hum of conversation, the discovery of new ideas and new concepts, and the ability to ferret out information for myself.

So it was good to go (especially as nothing fell apart), but it's good to be back.

- Ralph

Day 125 of the WJMA Web Watch. (that's something else that hasn't changed)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Going off the grid -- the professional cost

So now that I'm off the grid for the rest of the week, the big question is how do I run my (mostly) virtual business? Digital Chips, Inc., and its record label, DCD Records has a lot of balls in the air right now -- and they're all flying around online.

We have some CD compilations we're working on for various clients -- and I'm expected some clearances via e-mail to come in before the weekend. In addition to the online store on the DCD Records site, we also maintain a store on Amazon.com, GEMM.com, and distribute to Arkivmusic.com. It's my job to process those orders when they come in so they can be picked and shipped -- orders that arrive over the Internet.

I'm also trying to maintain our company's presence by posts to Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace. And that's all done online. So what happens when my motel room doesn't even have a phone (and no cell phone reception)?

Basically, I'm going to rely on my business partner. Normally we divide up the various tasks involved with the company. My partner's strengths and skill sets aren't the same as mine, and he'll have to step into ongoing projects without a lot of background. I'll talk him through it, of course.

But he'll have to check e-mail regularly, and then we'll have to decide what needs a response and what can wait. And if there's a response, well, he'll have to make it.

I know there was a time when out-of-town business was normally conducted this way, but I'm used to carrying my office around in the form of a laptop. It may get a little stressful before it's all over.

But then I think of the Amish, who are everywhere up here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Many people think they shun technology, but that's not quite right. The Amish just prefer to keep technology at arm's length.

They'll turn on an electric generator for a specific job, and once its done they'll turn it off. The Amish control their devices -- not the other way around.

And there's something to be said for that.

- Ralph

Day 122 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Going off the grid -- the personal cost

Yesterday I talked about going off the grid. So what does no Internet access mean personally?

Well, to me it means being cut off from friends and family. Sure, I have my cell phone, but it's not the same. The updates I receive from social media sites like Twitter are a passive and simple way to keep in touch without conversation. The Twitter feed gives me brief snapshots of how everyone's going through their day, providing quick insights and -- through links -- interesting and informative information to further explore.

I'm not much of a Facebook person, but there will be posts that will go unanswered for the next few days. Of course, I won't know about them, so it won't be too bad. Sometimes it's good to just step away from the monitor.

Personal e-mails will go unanswered, but that's OK. Professional e-mails get responded to within 24 hours. Personal ones usually aren't that time sensitive anyway.

Our motel room has broadcast TV access only -- no cable. I won't be able to check the BBC like I'm used to for news, nor visit any of the other online news sources that keep me up to date. I'll have to rely on whatever the Fox43 news team chooses to show me, and the Intelligencer Journal decides to print. That's not too bad -- it gives me insight on what folks across the digital divide experience everyday.

And on the plus side, Dad and I will have a lot of quality time without interruption. And that's what I value most about these trips. I've heard family stories I've never heard before, gained some insight into Dad's life, and what events shaped his personality. And we've had a lot of conversations that, quite frankly, don't lend themselves to 140-character posts.

- Ralph

Day 121 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Going off the grid - prologue

Tomorrow my dad and I make our semi-annual trek to York, Pennsylvania for the Train Collector's Association meet. It's become a major event for toy train manufacturers, in some cases replacing the New York Toy Fair. Which means we'll be seeing some new product announcements at York. But that's not the point of this post.

The point is this. We'll stay in the decidedly old-school motel that Dad favors (it's part of the tradition). The rooms have no phone, and only broadcast TV. I will have no Internet access for the rest of week, or indeed any access to any higher level sources of information. Can I survive off the grid?

Sure. But it's going to difficult, personally and professionally. I'll explain further in the next two posts. And if you're wondering how I'm posting while off the net, well there's not much of secret to it. Those posts will be written tonight, and scheduled to run on the appropriate day.

So while my virtual self is blogging away, I'll actually be enjoying a low-tech weekend in Amish country....

- Ralph

Day 120 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

While We Were Sleeping...

President Bush signed the PRO-IP into law. The Prioritizing Resources and Organzation for Intellectual Property Act beefs up penalties and creates an "Information Czar" to oversee enforcement of intellectual property rights. Any guesses as to which side people fall on this?

The MPAA's happy. The RIAA's happy. They say:
Additional tools for intellectual property enforcement are not just good for the copyright community but for consumers who will enjoy a wider array of legitimate offerings.

But Public Knowledge said:
The Pro-IP bill was not necessary. It simply adds penalties to a copyright regime that already is out of balance.
Whose right? Read the H.R. 4279 for yourself. And think of this - how many times have you inadvertently broken the law recently, thinking that by purchasing a recording or movie you were allowed to use it as you pleased.

Looking over the roll call vote, I see that Rick Boucher, the Representative from my native commonwealth Virginia who "gets" the Internet, voted Nay. As for my representative, Eric Cantor? "Aye."

Aye-yi-yi! Time for another letter to my congresscritters!

- Ralph

Day 119 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Voting across the digital divide

According to a recent survey from MediaVest, there's an interesting split between supporters for the two presidential candidates. John McCain's supporters tend to rely almost exclusively on TV and radio for their news, while those in Barak Obama's camp are "media generalists" -- that is, they get their information from a variety of sources both off- and online.

At the same time, most of those polled saw the Internet as the least reliable source of information, while TV got the highest.

So what does it all mean? Personally, I believe we're seeing a transition from old to new media.

Traditional politics tend to be most effective on the offline side of the digital divide (which makes sense, as their techniques were developed long before there even wasy an online side). The sources of information are limited. Events, once broadcast, soon decay into short clips and sound bites before disappearing entirely, only to be referred to when necessary. Accuracy isn't so much of an issue, as any position can be stated, spun, refuted and/or ignored depending on the moment. In the world of broadcast media, there's no time for reflection, and impression is everything.

Online, it's different -- as Hillary Clinton discovered early on with her story of a dangerous mission to Bosnia. Anything that's a matter of record remains so, and usually remains available long after the moment has past. Within hours original CBS News footage was available on YouTube for all to see (and it's still there). Fact-checking had come to the campaign.

Almost all the claims and accusations made by the candidates can be easily checked online -- and usually from the original sources. For those who use the Internet regularly, it's a fairly simple matter to separate fact from fiction.

So why does the Internet rate so poorly as a source of information? Because while there's a great deal of information out there, a majority of it is unverified. Rumors crop up with regularity, and repeated from blog to blog and news site to news site, take on the appearance of reality simply by the shear number of appearances. Anyone can publish anything -- and they do. On the web, authoritative and well-researched articles have equal weight with ill-conceived delusional rants.

Mainstream media (MSM) content is subject to editorial control, which is perhaps why it's seen as more reliable.

But there's another level to the digital divide. Plenty of people only marginally use the net. They forward jokes and recipes, putter around on a few sites, but for the most part they don't really use the Internet -- and therefore have no way to filter (or in some cases no interest in) the sea of information it contains. Those are the ones, I think, who prefer MSM to the Internet for information.

Those who are used to actively using the Internet, though, have a different perspective. They're the ones who avoid constructing echo chambers that only feed them the information they want to hear. It's the active users who don't accept stories at their face value, but expect to see links back to the source material -- links that they'll follow to look at the sources and judge for themselves.

Are these the media generalists? Partially. You can get your information from many sources, but unless you examine it, you're not much beyond accepting what MSM dishes out. While there are plenty of folks who take everything the McCain campaign says as true, there are plenty who do the same with Obama's messages.

So how to make sense of it all? Well, I always ask the question, "Oh, yeah? Says who?" And with a little help from the Internet, I can usually find out -- and then make an informed decision.

- Ralph

Day 118 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sam(e) FM

So I tried once again to listen to our local mix format station, 105.5 SAM FM Louisa, Virginia (I'd link to their website, but they, like WJMA, are part of the Piedmont Communications radio empire and don't have one). Like similar-styled "eclectic" stations (like Jack/Dave/Tom/etc.), the idea is to keep things fresh by playing a wide variety of music both from yesterday and today.

OK, I did. I gave it a good long listen, too. Here's what I thought of the experience.

The slogan overpromises.
"You'll never know what we'll play next." Perhaps -- but I know what you won't play. SAM plays the hits from several different charts. But they only play the hits. I heard "Brandy" by the Looking Glass, but I know I'll never hear "Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne" by that same group (which also charted), or any other song they recorded.

Radio support of artists is a sham.
All the new media -- satellite radio, Internet radio, and so on -- have to pay artist royalties in addition to publisher royalties for every song they use. Broadcast radio, on the other hand, currently doesn't have to pay artist royalties. Why? Because they made the case back when the rates were developed, that radio play promotes the artist, and that valuable exposure more than made up for any royalty payment.

True enough in the 60's, but not on SAM FM. Not one song or artist was ever identified. If I did hear a song I was interested in, I'd have to remember the lyrics, and hope that the chorus bore some relation to the title of the song, which would help me when I went online to find out the artist and what album it might be on. That's already three steps too many. I wouldn't bother.

Now RDS (Radio Data System) has been in place for years, which allow regular AM and FM stations to send text info. Most stations never go beyond using it to show their call letters. So SAM FM forgoes an opportunity to use technology already installed to identify the songs they play. No wonder artists are questioning that royalty waiver.

I get better programming on my iPod
And I'm not talking about just the choice of music, either (although being able to skip past a song I'm not in the mood for is a definite plus). The music flow on SAM was interrupted by commercials and canned station ID/bumpers.

Anything perceived as an interruption to the programming is annoying. There weren't many commercials, but between every single song there was a snarky little station ID that said absolutely nothing (not even dial position, save the top of the hour).

In the end, it wasn't the song selections that made me bail -- it was those vacuous station IDs, delivered once every four or five minutes that finally did me in. At least my iPod just shuts up and plays the music.

So I'll give up a chance to hear Billy Idol's "White Wedding," Elton John's "Crocodile Rock," and Natashia Bedingfield's "Unwritten" for the umpteenth time and get that new Los Campesinos EP that I just bought transferred over to my iPod. I may not know what SAM FM will play next, but I know it won't be "You! Me! Dancing!"

- Ralph


Day 117 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Garage/Soul '66 - A Social Network Experiment

This is something of an experiment. Just as studios run movies past test audiences before officially releasing them, we're going to pre-test our new podcast before it launches.

One of the things I do at DCD Records is produce it's podcast. The "DCD Classical 'Cast" is classical, and I had a clear idea of what I wanted the show to be, and, since I also host a classical music radio program, what it should sound like.

DCD Records also carries some compilations of vintage 1960's music from Arcania International and Psych of the South. Both labels were agreeable to an anthology podcast, but wanted something that would ensure the music couldn't be lifted out of the podcast (thereby decreasing sales). My solution was to present the music like 60's AM radio, with cross-fades and DJ chatter running straight up to the vocals.

Early in my career, I actually worked for a station that still used 45's, so I was familiar with the mechanics of the sound. But does it make for a good show?

That's where the experiment starts. I'm going through all of my new media outlets, inviting people to go to the Garage/Soul '66 site. Once there, they can read about the proposed show, listen to the sample program -- and leave feedback.

I'll take all the comments and use them to craft the final version of the program.

So if you're at all interested in vintage rock'n'roll or soul music, head on over to Garage/Soul '66 and give it a listen.

We'll see if the wisdom of the masses can help make this podcast a success!

- Ralph


Day 116 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

HD Radio - Hall of Shameless

So Representative Ed Markey has introduced H.R. 7157, the Radio All Digital Channel Receiver Act, on the House floor. The bill's title makes the proposed legislation seem straightforward enough -- who could be against ensuring the public has unfettered acess to all bradcast digital media?

And the goal seems worthy. Now that XM and SIRIUS have merged, there is only one satellite radio service. So forcing the inclusion of an HD Radio tuner into the satellite radio receiver should help break that monoply, right?

Well, there's two things wrong with this.
  1. Satellite radio isn't a real monoply
  2. The legislation supports another monoply

Satellite radio isn't a real monoply
Sure. If you want to get audio broadcast from a satellite, you now only have one choice. So what happens if you chose not to pay the subscription fee? Are you totally cut off from news, music, and sports?

Hardly. There's AM and FM radio, your CDs, your MP3 player, your Internet radio (if you're at home), MP3s stored on your phone, etc. Further, because you don't subscribe to satellite radio, you'll never see a satellite radio tuner -- only subscribers have to purchase one of those.

Now compare that to, say, the electric company. If you choose not to pay the electric company for power, are you totally cut off from electricity? Well, yeah, pretty much.

If the electric company raises its rates, then you just have to dig deeper to pay them. If satellite radio raises it rates, you just cancel your subscription -- there's plenty of other entertainment options out there.

The hidden monopoly
One company -- the iBiquity Digital -- owns all the patents involved with HD Radio technology. So every manufacturer who builds an HD Radio transmitter has to pay a royalty to iBiquity. Every manufacturer who builds an HD Radio for the consumer has to pay a royalty to iBiquity. Every manufacturer who adds an HD Radio chipset to a component has to pay a royalty to iBiquity. Every HD Radio chipset manufacturer has to pay a royalty to iBiquity.

Now the general public has shown little interest in HD Radio, so cash hasn't been flowing into iBiquity in the torrents they expected. But what if every satellite radio tuner had to also have an HD Radio tuner? Well, by piggybacking onto those sales, iBiquity picks up a nice amount of cash -- perhaps even enough to cover their investement in senators and representitives.

I'll be writing my congresscritters instructing them to oppose this legislation. And just to be clear, I'm doing this on principle -- I don't subscribe to satellite radio and have no plans to do so in the immediate future. But getting the government to legislate revenue for a company that can't get it in the general marketplace is just plain wrong.

- Ralph


Day 115 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Zorro's Fighting Legion

Yesterday I talked about the concept of old movie serials being ideally suited to portable media players. Today, I share one of my favorites.

"Zorro's Fighting Legion" is a 1939 serial produced by Republic Pictures. Republic was one of the best studios churning out "B" pictures and serials, and the quality shows.

Many serials were shot using as many interiors as possible, giving them an almost claustrophobic feel (a lot like modern daytime soap operas). "Zorro's Fighting Legion" (ZFL) is a tale of the old West, and has as many outdoor scenes as interiors.

And there's no scrimping on the camerawork either. Here's the opening credit, where we literally watch Zorro's fighting legion assemble as they ride down the trail (behind a camera mounted on a truck). Listen to that thrilling theme song! William Lava wrote it, a talented composer who would inherit the position of music director for Warner Bros. cartoons.

video

And the stunts are top-notch as well. Pioneering stuntman Yakuma Canutt turns in a fine performance -- as many other characters. Here he is (as Zorro) doing an incredibly dangerous stunt.

Notice several things about this sequence. First, the wide-open-spaces camerawork and staging. Second, the stunt itself. Canutt is dragged between to galloping horses, and at one point loses his grip. When he flips head over heels, that's not CGI. Canutt actually flipped, was injured in the process, and could have been killed had he veered a little to either side. Third, if this reminds you of a similar sequence in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," it should. Lucas paid homage to the classic serials with that film.

video

Reed Hadley, a competent enough actor, plays Zorro. Hadley had an opportunity to study sword fighting before shooting began, leading to some pretty convincing action sequences. In this scene Zorro buys his friends more time by creating a diversion.


video

And although Hadley wasn't an "A" list actor, he was more than up to the task. In this sequence he flips back and forth between the competent leadership of Zorro to the foppish uselessness of Don Diego.

video

The serial is available from many sources, including as free downloads from Archive.org. Is it the greatest story ever told? Well, no. But it is darned fine entertainment -- and much closer to Johnston McCulley's original character than the one portrayed in "The Mask of Zorro."

- Ralph

Day 114 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, October 06, 2008

iPod fodder -- Killer serials

Sure, there's all kinds of short-form content available for your iPod (or another MP3 player) out there, but for my money (that is, for free), some of the old movie serials are hard to beat.

There's a good selection over at Achive.org. What makes movie serials great for an iPod? Pretty much the same thing that made them great for the movie theater.

Movie serials told their story over the course of a series of chapters, shown at the rate of once a week. There were usually twelve chapters, so it would take about three months of viewing. Because of this, there was always a quick synopsis to get everyone up to speed, and a thrilling cliffhanger at the end to ensure the audience would return next week.

I generally watch a serial chapter about once a week, and the synopsis and cliffhangers work just fine. Plus each chapter is only about 15-20 minutes in length, so it's pretty easy to find some viewing time. They were shot primarily in a 4:3 ratio, so they fit really well onto an MP3 player's screen. And because they're in black and white, there's a lot of contrast in the small image.

And did I mention that they're free?

Many of these serials from the 1930's and 1940's have fallen into public domain, which means they're readily available for download. Because I haven't spent any money, I have no problem deleting them when I'm done.

And what a lot of fun. If you liked any of the Indiana Jones movies, well, consider going to the source. George Lucas has never made a secret that these movie serials were the point of inspiration for the franchise.

Some, such as the Republic serials, are top-notch film-making. Others, such as productions from Mascot Pictures, are more uneven in quality. But even the bad ones can provide entertainment -- especially if you're a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan.

Sure, "Lost," Battlestar Galactica" et al. are great shows, but sometimes I want something different. And somehow these serials from a more innocent time fill the bill.

- Ralph

Day 113 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Internet Radio Saved? Let's run some numbers!

So the legislation's passed to allow webcasters and the SoundExchange (which represents the RIAA) to continue negotiating the royalty rates the Copyright Board allowed. No one's arguing that rates didn't need to increase -- just that they needed to remain rooted in reality. And not the "reality" of the SoundExchange.

If you go to the SoundExchange website, you can see for yourself what the rates are (strangely, I couldn't link directly to the pages in question). So I decided to run the numbers for myself to try to get a handle on this business.

I had to make some basic assumptions in order to do this -- real-life conditions are far more complicated.

Here goes: for 2006-2007, the rate was calculated based on an hour of listening. One person listening to one hour (or a part thereof) equaled one unit to be paid for. If one hundred people listened to the same stream, then that would equal one hundred hours requiring royalties.

Beginning in 2008, the rate changed from an hour of listening to a price per song. Again, that's multiplied by the number of listeners. For our purposes, I've assumed that the station's playing 100% music for the full hour or 15 four-minute songs.

I've also assumed exactly 100 listeners per hour (people who only listen for part of an hour or part of a song count as a full listen, so 100 listeners may actually generate higher or lower billable hours/songs). And I've assumed the station streams 24/7 with exactly 100 listeners every hour.

Finally, on the revenue side, I've also made some ballpark assumptions. I've taken an average rate of 0.20 CPM, (cost per thousand) for the total amount of ad revenue generated by site traffic. Which means that for 100 visits in an hour, the site earns $2.00 in ad revenue. So for a year, the income would be $17,520.00.

In 2006, the rate was $0.0123 per hour. Which, for 100 listeners, means $1.23 per hour. Our hypothetical netcaster clears $0.83 an hour, for a total of $15,020.00 a year.

In 2007, the rate went to $0.0169 per hour. That boosts the rate for our 100 listeners to $1.69, leaving $0.77 for our netcaster. The net income drops to $6,745.20 -- less than half what it was in 2006.

In 2008, the rate went to $0.0014 per song. That translates out to be $2.10 for 15 songs in an hour for 100 listeners. You see the problem. With an income of $2.00 an hour for those 100 listeners, the netcaster loses $0.10 an hour, for a net loss of $876.00 for the year.

The rate's already set to increase to $0.0018 for 2009, and $0.0019 for 2010. Our netcaster loses $0.70 and then $0.85 an hour respectively. In 2009 they'll lose $6,132.00, and $7,446.00 in 2010.

Now, of course, I didn't factor in bandwidth costs and other operating expenses that the netcaster has to pay for out of that ad revenue. And online ad rates are declining, not growing, so it would be difficult to raise ad rates to keep pace.

Bottom line? It's unlikely there'll be any webcasters left in the U.S. if this goes on. Even the largest ones, such as Pandora and LastFM don't have pockets deep enough to sustain an escalating negative cash flow.

So that's where things stand now -- even after the "saving" legislation just passed.

There's one set of numbers the SoundExchange neglected to run.

(Whatever royalty rate you want) x (No listeners) = Zero money

And if Internet radio's killed off, that's the only equation that will matter.

- Ralph

Day 110 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Internet Radio Saved? Not So Fast...

IInternet Radio is now Saved.
f you just scan the headlines, you'll glean that H.R. 7014 has passed both the House and the Senate, and

Well, kind of.

First off, what does the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2008 do, exactly? It basically updates the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2002, changing the terms slightly and moving deadlines. It allows for Internet broadcasters and the SoundExchange to continue negotiating the royalty rates that webcasters have to pay. And that they can continue to talk, and even reach a binding agreement while Congress is adjourned.

That's good, but not great. The royalty rate is still officially set at the ruinous levels it was on January 1. The SoundExchange has agreed not to collect the higher fees as long as talks continued. But should talks cease, then the entire uncollected balance plus interest would immediately come due -- which would shutter many netcasters with one fell stroke.

Webcasters like Pandora are obviously grateful for any kind of extension, but the SoundExchange is still acting pretty cagey. As their executive director John Simon said, "We are hopeful, but we've been close at other times during the past 18 months." (that would include the time last year when they lobbied the Copyright Board so hard they didn't have time to talk to anybody).

So there's still a need for the Internet Radio Equity Act (H.R. 2060 and S.1353), still languishing in committee. That bill would have the rates set at a fair level by Congressional legislation. The fees would be scalable, so each netcaster would pay in proportion to their income, rather than the current rates that demand a large payment that in many cases exceed the netcaster's income.

Still, it's a start. The Senate passed the bill unanimously, so kudos to my congressmen, John Warner (R-Va) and Jim Webb (D-Va). The bill also passed the House of Representatives, but by a voice vote that was not recorded. So how did my Representative, Eric Cantor (R-Va) vote?

I don't know. His responses to my correspondence on the subjects are always carefully crafted to betray no stance whatsoever. And there's nothing on his website either. Hmm.

This isn't over yet. And the outcome isn't clear at all. There's more to the story than just the headlines.

- Ralph


Day 109 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

HD Radio Hall of Shame Revisited

Some offline comments have prompted me to revisit yesterday's post. I talked about the latest effort of iBiquity Digital Corporation, through various politicians, to require by legislation that all satellite radio receivers also have HD Radio tuners. What makes H.R. 7157 such a bad idea?

It's presented as controlling the new satellite radio monopoly. But where's the real monopoly?

Sure, if you want to subscribe to satellite radio, you now only have one choice. The operative word there is "subscribe," as in "pay for." Satellite radio is optional entertainment. You don't need it to survive (like power from the electric company). It's a premium service -- like HBO.

Don't want to pay for radio? You don't have to. There are plenty of AM/FM receivers around. And most satellite radio subscribers put their receivers in the car next to their AM/FM tuners. So satellite radio's hardly the sole source of audio that everyone must pay to get.

Sure, satellite radio plays a greater variety of music than commercial radio -- but so does your CD player, or your MP3 player, or even your smartphone.

Compare that to a real monopoly, like your local power company. You need electricity, and there's pretty much only one place to get it.

But there is a monopoly involved in this legislation, and it's the company pushing for mandated HD Radio tuners. One company -- iBiquity -- owns the patents for HD Radio technology.

That means every manufacturer who builds HD Radio capability into their products has to pay iBiquity an up-front cash payment and a license fee for every unit made. The chip manufacturers who sell the HD Radio tuner chipsets to those manufacturers have to pay iBiquity a licensing fee for each unit. And every company that makes HD Radio transmitters for radio stations has to pay iBiquity a licensing fee.

So if every satellite radio receiver has to have an HD Radio tuner, then iBiquity will get money from the manufacturers for each unit made, and from the chip makers for each chipset installed in each tuner. For a technology that most Americans (voting with their wallets) aren't particularly interested in.

Final thought: the official reason for this legislation is that by forcing HD Radio into satellite radio receivers, we ensure the consumer has a choice. So shouldn't we also require that every HD Radio tuner also be satellite radio-ready for the same reason?

- Ralph

Day 108 of the WJMA Web Watch.