Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NPR -- who needs public radio?

The public radio world is currently in a firestorm of controversy. NPR wants to do a fund drive.

Now if your first reaction was "So what? They do a fund drive twice a year," then you are part of the problem -- the stations' problem that is. In a post around this time last year, "Non-NPR Public Radio," I explained the difference between NPR and public radio in depth. Here's the short version.

National Public Radio (NPR) is a producer of nationally syndicated radio programs. These programs are carried on public radio stations that have an affiliate agreement with NPR. It is possible for a public radio station to carry no NPR programming whatsoever. They could carry programs from Public Radio International (PRI), like "BBC World Service," or they could carry programs from American Public Media (APM) like "Prairie Home Companion" (you thought that was NPR, didn't you). Or they could just produce their own programming in house. Or any mix of the three.

As a way to establish prominence over their competing syndicators, NPR was very aggressive -- and very effective -- in promoting their brand. And they succeeded in making NPR synonymous with public radio. The stations helped in this endeavor. NPR programs such as "Morning Edition" (ME) and "All Things Considered" (ATC) became virtually required airing, and the stations benefited from the association.

But there's a dark side. NPR affiliate fees have continued to rise. And stations have found themselves in a bind. Each year ME, ATC and the other NPR programs have become increasingly expensive. So much so that the major part of a station's fundraising efforts goes towards covering those fees. At some smaller stations, the NPR affiliate fee may actually be the biggest line item in the budget. And yet there isn't a station that would dare drop ME or ATC. They bring in the audiences, and the perception is that a station that dropped the shows would be dropped by listeners.

That's why if there's two or more public radio stations in a market, they will all most likely air ME and ATC. They don't dare not to.

But the needs of NPR as a content provider have never been exactly the same as those of the member stations -- and as audiences move more to other sources of media, those needs are increasingly out of sync. Most listeners identify their public radio stations as "the NPR station." Many would be hard-pressed to name the actual call letters.

So as NPR moves more content online, and develops its own distribution hubs, listeners are starting to follow. After all, why listen to "Fresh Air" on that NPR radio station with the boring fund drives, when you can download it directly from NPR for free?

And now some at NPR want to do a direct appeal to listeners for funds. Not help the stations with their fund drives, but to ask the stations' listeners to send money directly to NPR.

For NPR, it's the next logical step. But for the member stations, it's another nail in the coffin. Not only do they have to scramble to raise funds to keep getting NPR content, but now the network wants to poach their donors as well!

It's causing quite a fuss, but I wonder if its too late for the stations. They cast their lot with NPR, letting their own individual identities atrophy in the process. And NPR is transitioning to a place where the member stations -- many of which are little more than middlemen -- are no longer necessary. Will affiliate stations begin to bail? Will they recognise that it might be time to part ways?

I remember something a program director observed years ago at a public radio conference we attended. "I'm not surprised when pubradio shoots itself in the foot," he said, talking about a recent contratemps, "but I'm always amazed at how fast it can reload."

- Ralph

Monday, March 30, 2009

WJMA Podcasts -- It's a start

Just starting a podcast? Read on.

Friday I outlined a few things that WJMA could do to improve their nascent news podcasts. And it looks like they took some of that advice, so I want to give credit for the changes they made. The basics were pretty simple:

Here is the information this podcast should have to make it useful to anyone downloading it. All of these fields should be filled in.
  • Name: WJMA Central Virginia News for 3/24/09
  • Artist: Phil Goodwin
  • Year: 2009
  • Composer: Piedmont Communications, Inc.
  • Genre: Podcast
  • Artwork - an image of the station's logo with some additional element that says "news."
Looks like someone was busy over the weekend. When I opened up the podcast feed this morning, there was information in place! Specifically:
  • Name: WJMA News 3-30-09 (different name than I suggested, but no quibbles - it works)
  • Year: 2009
  • Album: WJMA News (Yes, we know -- it's in the name field. But what's the dial position?)
  • Genre: Podcast
It's a good start, but I'm puzzled as to why they stopped there. We still have no context. Where's the station? Who's talking? Who's putting out this podcast, anyway?

IMHO, you should think of a podcast episode like a business card. It should have all the information about the product to be useful, to strengthen the brand, as well as the relevant metadata to help the listener sort the episode in their library.

If I'm searching through my MP3 library by cover art -- there's none. I don't know what this is. Ditto if I try to sort by artist. These are pretty basic things -- and the absence of them has me convinced that the powers that be still don't "get" podcasting. And most likely don't listen to them at all.

It's a simple fix, fellas. Album art, artist name, something to give a location. You could even get ambitious and add an email address in there. Every blank field represents a missed opportunity. It doesn't cost anything to fill in the other metadata fields. Really.

Let's see where WJMA stands next Monday. That should be more than enough time to create and attach artwork, and fill in the missing fields. Are these podcasts half-baked, or just half-done? I'm still optimistic.

- Ralph

Friday, March 27, 2009

WJMA, Hear 2.0, and the Interwebtubes

The other day in my post "Podcast Review -- WJMA News" I offered some solid suggestions on how our local radio station WJMA could effectively repurpose their news reports as podcasts. It's not that they haven't been. News and sports podcasts are part of the new website.

But as I pointed out, audio clips from a broadcast can't just be thrown onto the web. A podcast is a different medium with a different audience and different conventions. Follow them, and your audience grows. Ignore them, and you'll be classed as an out-of-touch amateur.

Yesterday Mark Ramsey did a relevant post, "More Than Digital Duct Tape," on his blog, Hear 2.0. He cites a recent IBM study that shows an anticipated 63% growth in online advertising (and a corresponding drop in traditional media buys) -- and how media companies simply aren't moving to where the advertisers and customers want to go -- that is, online. He wrote:
... the digital elements in your portfolio are not "non-traditional revenue," they are "new traditional revenue."

Any broadcaster - and there are many out there (although not likely to be reading this) - who thinks our solution is to return "to the basics" and stick our communal heads deep into the sand is a fool.

Every broadcaster should be restructuring from the ground up around digital opportunities, not simply tacking on digital strategies like so many strips of duct tape.

This is a time of amazing opportunity if you have the vision and the will to have at it.
You can't think of a podcast as a recycled radio bit (even if that's the source). It has to be reworked for the new media.

Will WJMA make the necessary changes? I don't know, but I'll keep you posted.

We'll make Monday the official start of the WJMA pod watch. It'll end when the WJMA news podcasts have metadata that include appropriate IDs and graphics and a proper intro. The station had a static placeholder on their site for 344 days before the website relaunched. I'm hoping we don't set a new record here.

- Ralph

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bigfoot Audio, 1927-2009 -- R. I. P.

It was a sad day for me a couple of weeks ago, when I read the news about the closing of Bigfoot Audio, after over 80 years in the electronics business.

It wasn't a surprise really. Bigfoot Audio, or "BA" as we fans liked to call it, had once been one of the real innovators in the consumer electronics industry, particularly in car audio. I recall many conversations with car audio enthusiasts who were always proud to show off their Bigfoot systems.

But some bad business decisions, and a failure to adapt to the times, drove the company down from the heights. I'm often surprised at how few people appreciate, or even realize, the effect Bigfoot Audio had on the CE industry.

I've collected a lot of BA memorabilia and gear over the years, so I'll post occasionally with a few tidbits about the company's history and their notable successes (and failures). I hope it'll be a trip down memory lane for some of you -- and an education for the rest.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Podcast Review -- WJMA News

When the new WJMA website launched, I promised to check out their podcasts and report back.

As I said back in September of 2008, the news content of WJMA would be perfect repurposed as podcasts. Looks like they took my advice (I'll add that my consulting fee) and did just that with their news and sports reports.

Unfortunately, WJMA's podcasts have a long way to go -- the same problems that plagued their website's newsfeed in April of 2008 are still with them.

Here's the 3/24/09 episode of the WJMA News podcast. See if the same things strike you that do me.

Personally, this tells me a few things about whoever's in charge of WJMA's podcasts.

1) They have very little idea of what podcasting's about -- and how they differ from radio content. If they did, they would understand that we need some context for this news. There should be an intro at the very least. The FIRST thing we should here is an identification of the station, the locality, the date and the announcer. This MP3 can be downloaded anywhere in the world, at any time. What state are we in? What day is this news for? Who is this guy talking?

Imagine this: a simple music bed of urgent music and the sound of a teletype (retro I know, but effective). Over top of it we hear "This is the WJMA Daily News Podcast for March 24, 2009, I'm Phil Goodwin. Here are the top stories from around Central Virginia." Then move on to the prerecorded stuff. And have the music bed return briefly at the end. Now I can hear when this podcast starts and stops -- so when I'm listening to several podcasts in a row, I know where I am.

Remember -- once I subscribe, it's unlikely I'll return to this podcasting page. So I won't get context from any of the graphics or the popup player.

2) They probably don't subscribe to any podcasts themselves. If they did, they would know that metadata is absolutely crucial. This downloaded podcast has "1653340" as the title. Now when I see that on my iTunes menu, that tells me nothing. There's no date anywhere, nor clue as to origin of this podcast. That makes it a prime candidate for deletion.

OK, fellas, I'll make it country-simple. Here is the information this podcast should have to make it useful to anyone downloading it. All of these fields should be filled in.

  • Name: WJMA Central Virginia News for 3/24/09
  • Artist: Phil Goodwin
  • Year: 2009
  • Composer: Piedmont Communications, Inc.
  • Genre: Podcast
  • Artwork - an image of the station's logo with some additional element that says "news."

Do all of that, and you'll have something useful and more valuable to the listener (sort of the point, dont'cha know).

3) They have yet to see the value -- both in branding and advertising revenue -- of this repurposed content. Look, what's the point of a radio station podcast, anyway? Doing something just because all the cool kids are is no way to run a business. There are solid reasons why a radio station should be podcasting -- three, in fact.

First, a podcast should should reinforce the station's brand. Second, it should engage a new audience on their own terms. Third. it should be a revenue stream for the station.

Adding metadata (which I discussed above) will reinforce the brand.

Meeting the audience on its own terms? Well, how about placing this podcast in a few directories already? Getting a podcast listed on iTunes is not hard -- even I've done it. Twice. 50% of web browsing on mobile devices is on done on iPhones, and 70% of the MP3 players in the world are iPods. They both use iTunes exclusively. Put the podcast where your audience is -- don't make them come to you (because they won't).

Finally, how about some additional monitization? Is the Culpeper Star Exponent paying extra for mention on the podcast? I don't know, but they should -- if account managers are throwing it in for free then it will be very difficult to charge for them or others clients for placement later.

Remember that opening I talked about? How about a brief spot right after the intro and before the news? I'll sit through one ten-to-fifteen second commercial to hear the news. When the news is over, though, I'm outta there. Placing spots at the end (like for said Culpeper Star Exponent) is a bad idea. This isn't radio. I don't have to sit through the ad to hear what's coming up next. I can just skip to the next podcast.

What kind of sponsor would work for a podcast? One that has a web-based business or a strong web-based component, of course. Even if the business is local, this is the perfect media for driving traffic to a website. Why? Because the people listening are already online. Podcast listeners are comfortable with technology, and have no problem navigating the Internet. So give them an easily remembered link, and go.

Oh - and you can also use the comments field in the metadata to provide URLs for the sponsors. An added service -- for a price. (We won't talk about enhanced podcasts that you can embed links into. I think that might be too confusing at this point.)

Fixing these podcasts is a fairly simple task. But it's one that needs to be done -- and not 344 days later.

- Ralph

(Don't know what to do now that the WJMA web watch is over. Maybe keep a running total of consultant fees I should be charging?)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Coulton's Blue Sunny Day -- by the numbers

Jonathan Coulton recently posted a blog entry where he breaks down some of the numbers surrounding his material. Now this is significant for several reasons. I've written about Coulton before, and in many ways I think he presents a practical approach to having a successful music career in this post-record label era.
The statistics he cites are quite interesting (and I highly recommend reading the entire post). According to Coulton,
I posted [Blue Sunny Day] to the blog on 3/16, and twittered about it with a link to the blog post on 3/17. I have about 5,000 blog subscribers and about 23,000 Twitter followers.
On 3/16 the blog post received 740 unique views, on 3/17 it received 1,942.
As of today, the original blog post has received 4,313 unique views: 2,518 direct, 1,721 from twitter, 788 from Google, 209 from FaceBook, and then some more smaller sources.
Worst case scenario (every unique view = one free download), the ratio of paying customers to freeloaders comes to about 13.4%
And yet,
The eight-day period since the song was first posted boasts a 40% uptick in digital sales in my store compared with the eight days prior to that…

So then extrapolate what happened with this song across my entire catalog, across all the things sold that make up my income, across the past and present and future, across all the Internet radio stations and file sharing networks and FaceBook pages and Twitter posts and the whole wild and woolly Internet - you will never know HOW it works, but I can tell you that for me it does.

BTW - here's Jonathan Coulton performing his song "Blue Sunny Day, " courtesy of part of the wild and woolly Internet.

Here are the important take-aways from this.
1) Jonathan Coulton doesn't look at the non-paying downloads as lost sales. Mark that thought, because that's what the RIAA doesn't get. They assume that every unpaid download is a lost sale, which is how they arrive at their claim that they're losing millions. But this completely ignores a very basic human behavior (that I've commented on in the RIAA vs. Sam's Club). That is, the lower the price, the more likely someone is to take a chance on it. I’ll try something for free that I won’t necessarily pay money for. One hundred people each taking a free sample meatball does not represent one hundred lost sales of packaged meatballs.
2) Coulton recognizes that what's important isn't the sale of the unit (in this case the song download), but
how that unit improves his overall income. Many artists are beginning to see that the downloadable song has little perceived value to the consumer ($0.99, tops) -- just like a flyer or a brochure.
And just like those non-valued pieces of paper, the song can serve a different function. It can help publicize the artist, increasing interest in their output, driving bigger audiences to the live shows, and more merchandise being sold.
Again, look at the record labels. They're still trying to lock down everything so that they can dole it back out for a price. That's pretty short-term. Because while they're failing at their task, the world's moving on.
There's a very healthy and growing indie music scene that's taken a different tack with their fans. Rather than trying to sue their fans into oblivion, they're sharing their music and reaping the benefits. And an increasing number of these artists (like Jonathan Coulton) are doing fine without a record label.
So Coulton’s taking the long view – and for him it’s paying off (figuratively and literally).
I appreciate Jonathan Coulton sharing some of the stats surrounding his music. Anyone thinking about becoming a musician should be paying attention. Come to think of it, so should the RIAA.
- Ralph

Monday, March 23, 2009

The WJMA Website – 344 Days Later

Longtime blog readers know that we’ve been keeping watch for the return of the WJMA radio website. The earlier version of the site was something of a textbook case of how one can miss the mark moving from one medium to another. And now, after a significant redesign, the site has been relaunched.

So how is it? On the whole, a major improvement.

The Home Page
The home page should make a good first impression -- and it does. All the important information is there – weather, cancellations, music news and an engaging poll question. All pluses. And there’s a calendar with regional events tied to it. Nice!

Across the top, there’s a scrolling picture display, interspersing country artist headshots with photos from the WJMA coverage area. It’s an effective way to tie the station into the locality. My only complaint is the scrolling, which very quickly started to annoy me. And that header is there on every single page. After a while, I had to fight the urge to bail on the site just to make the *#($&@ scrolling stop. I ended up pulling the window down so the header wasn’t visible. Not sure if that’s the solution the station hoped for.

WJMA Country Club
There’s now something for the listeners. WJMA now has a County Club which, in exchange for registration (read: valuable marketing info for the station) you can become eligible for exclusive offers, contests, etc. Very smart.

Disc Jockey Pages
The air-talent page has a little bit of misstep – the main page has the schedule, but no links to the individual bios. That’s about a five-minute fix. The jocks’ bio pages look good. There’s a way on JD’s page to submit birthday notices (gathering more marketing data, very smart). Unfortunately, the “E-Mail J.D. here” text is just that. There’s no link (that’s another five-minute fix).

The news tab has some good features. In addition to the bio of newscaster Phil Goodwin, there’s also a place to submit story ideas. Good interactivity.

The sports page is just a collection of links to the sports team websites of the various schools (the Orange County High School link is currently broken – another five-minute fix). It would be nice if there was a scoreboard with all the local scores aggregated, but this is a good start.

And it looks like they’ll be podcasting their news. I’ll definitely check that out and report on them in another post.

Local Photos
There’s a photo section – another great opportunity for local content. It’s not clear where the images are coming from, though. And there doesn’t appear to be a way for listeners to submit images (which I would recommend reviewing before publication). Another suggestion – how about some picture captions and tagging? Get some SEO going here!

The Community Section
The community pages look good. There’s info on local events, ways for organizations to submit announcements, and a list (with links) of area charities, schools and organizations.

There’s also additional content for country music fans, such as artist links and music news.

And the new website makes it easy to contact account representatives for advertising (they even have e-mail addresses now).

At the bottom of the page, there are logos for Piedmont Communication’s other radio stations, SAM 105.5 and AM1340 WCVA. Don’t bother clicking on them, though – they just go to the WJMA homepage.

All in all, a very nice, professional-looking website. I’m not sure if it was worth a year’s wait, especially as it appears to be somewhat an off-the-shelf solution. But for new listeners and potential advertisers, it presents WJMA in a very good light – and that’s really what counts.

The only thing I find surprising is the lack of ads. Hopefully, they won’t eventually clutter it up like a NASCAR driver’s jumpsuit, but a few well-placed ads should generate a decent amount of traffic. I’ll check in from time to time and see how it develops.

And that’s the end of the WJMA web watch.

- Ralph

You know, I outlined a lot of this back in 2007 "Creating Compelling Content," "Ted Mack's Original Website," "Radio Websites -- Odds and Ends" et al. Wonder if I should submit a bill for consulting?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Radio stations reap the wind

Robert Conrad of WCLV is leading the charge to get the government to not enact the “Performance Rights Act” H.R 848, which would require terrestrial broadcasters to pay additional money for the music they air. Here’s his plea:
WCLV needs your help. And we need it now.
I’m Robert Conrad, president of WCLV. The House Judiciary Committee recently held hearings on the newly reintroduced “Performance Rights Act” (H.R. 848), otherwise known as the “Performance Tax”. If enacted, the bill would require WCLV and other broadcasters to pay a royalty for all the recorded music we play on the radio. This money would go the record companies, most of whom are foreign owned. This would be in addition to the royalty payments we already pay to composers and publishers and to record companies for the right to broadcast our music on the Internet. The financial impact of this performance tax could be financially devastating at a time when the advertising that supports WCLV and its classical music programming is at an all time low due to the recession.
We ask you to write your representative in support of an opposing resolution, the “Local Radio Freedom Act” (HCR 49), was introduced recently. You’ll find a sample letter on our website. Click on the banner on the home page or on the links on every page at wclv.com. Help WCLV and other broadcasters. Express your support of the Local Radio Freedom Act. And please - do it today. Thank you.
I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Conrad. He’s accurately called many trends in the broadcasting and has made WCLV the strong station it is today. In this case, though, he’s having to pay for the incompetence of others, and I’m not sure it’s a battle he can win.

A little background. When the idea of charging radio stations for the music they used first came about, there was (naturally) resistance from the broadcasters. Most stations had their own house orchestras, or featured a lot of live music (this was the 1920's), and so the primary rights issues were with the composers. ASCAP (the American Society of Composers and Publishers) was formed to collectively negotiate fees and collect royalties from various performing venues. They determined that radio stations constituted a public performance and demanded their fees.

When ASCAP double their fees in the 1940's broadcasters responded by allowing their orchestras to only play public domain works (that’s why we have Glen Miller’s big band arrangement of “Little Brown Jug”). They then created their own composer’s organization, BMI (Broadcast Music, Incorporated) to offer much more favorable rates to the stations.

In time, everyone came to terms, and things were fine. When broadcasters started using recordings rather than live musicians in the 1950's, though, the question of paying the record labels for the use of the material came up. Eventually, it was agreed that the publicity radio play – and resulting record sales – far outweighed any fee the labels might collect, and so artist fees never got off the ground.

In the 21st Century, things got ugly. When satellite radio started negotiating fees, in 2004, the record labels weighed in again. It was a new media and the old rules didn’t apply, they argued. They wanted XM and SIRIUS to pay artist fees along with the ASCAP/BMI royalties. And terrestrial radio stations sat on the sidelines and egged the labels on.

Broadcasters were terrified of satellite radio and were hoping that these additional fees would help kill the fledgling industry. There were some NAB members – like NPR – that tried to get their colleagues to see that this was a dangerous precedent to set, but no dice.

In 2007 when Internet radio stations had to negotiate their fees with the SoundExchange (founded by the RIAA), they too had to pay artist as well as publishing royalties. Again, NPR and a few others tried to get the NAB to weigh in, but to no avail. Terrestrial radio stations, for the most part, didn’t stream and wanted these upstart Internet radio stations to be driven out of business by these fees that they didn’t have to pay.

In the end, artist royalties were levied with very little effort. And the primary reason was because satellite radio was already paying these fees. The precedent had been set.

And now the spotlight’s turned to terrestrial broadcasters. If every other broadcaster has to pay artist fees, why not them? And it’s now being argued that over-the-air radio is no longer the place where new music’s discovered – the Internet’s taken that role over. So if the publicity value isn’t there anymore, why should terrestrial radio be the exception?

Why, indeed? This isn’t something that’s come out of the blue. Digital broadcasters have been fighting this battle for the past five years, with terrestrial radio rooting for the other side. And now it's their turn. It's unfortunate that stations like WCLV are getting caught in the crossfire, but I think we’re just seeing an industry reaping what it’s sown.
- Ralph

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Podcast Review: Rocketboom

I've been a fan of Rocketboom for some time -- through the tenures of both hosts, in fact. Amanda Congdon initially hosted the program, and many thought the video podcast would fold with her departure in 2006. But Joanne Colan took over, and while the character of the show changed, the quality of the content didn't.

So what is Rocketboom? It's a daily video podcast produced by Andrew Baron that looks at everything going on around the Internet, and beyond. A typical program will have five or six things fired at you in rapid succession. The quick cuts and unusual juxapositions remind me of Tom Chapin's "Make a Wish," or James Burke's "Connections." The pacing is quick, the commentary tart, and the information almost always useful.

Rocketboom doesn't just cover Internet news, however. They also have a variety of contributers that give the program added dimension. Ruud Elmendorp, a Dutch reporter in Kenya, for example, regularly files stories on conditions in that part of Africa. His reports involve a lot of native interviews, and he focuses on stories -- both negative and positive -- that somehow never get covered by mainstream media, but give the viewer a more accurate idea of everyday life.

There have also been reports from Iraq, which again present a different face of the country and the conflict than those we're used to seeing over here. Primarily Iraqis do the reporting, and the stories aren't political -- they're simply focussed on the day-to-day lives of the people.

Rocketboom's most recent innovation has been their "Know Your Meme" segment. This takes a familiar piece of Internet pop culture, like Star Wars Kid, or the phrase "All Your Base Are Belong to Us." the segment then traces the meme back to its origin. The segment also examines how the meme spreads throughout pop culture and takes on the significance it has today.

Rocketboom's a breezy, informative, seemingly stream-of-consciousness (carefully planned to seem so) program that keeps me up to date in five minutes or less.

Thanks, Rocketboom!

And remember: you don't need an iPod to view a video podcast. Just download to your computer and enjoy. You can even watch it right on the podcaster's site.

- Ralph

Monday, March 16, 2009

Terracotta Soldiers

I went to Atlanta today and saw the Chinese terracotta soldier exhibit at the High Museum. They were impressive, although there were only ten on display. The only thing missing was the effect of seeing thousands of them massed together as I did in China.

The terracotta soldiers were made around 210 B.C. to defend the First Emperor of China, Qui Shi Huang, in the afterworld. The soldiers were discovered in 1974, and are an incredible archialogical treasure. The site at Xi'an, Shanxi province, was one of the most impressive I saw in China during my 2005 trip.

Besides the soldiers, the exhibit here in Atlanta had a horse, carriage, bird and couple entertainers from the thousands in Xi'an (I do not remember the entertainers on exhibit in China). The descriptions and related artifacts were more complete here, or else I missed them when I was there. The site of the Xi'an pits -- each one at least the size of a football field or bigger -- was pretty overwhelming.

The soldiers leave Atlanta next month to spend summer in Houston and then in DC in the fall. See them if you can. Atlanta's a whole lot closer than Xi'an.

- Dwight Watt
from "Watt's Thoughts," available at dwight-watt.home.att.net

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Experience with Satellite Radio

When I received a rental car recently (car vs. deer) I had a chance to try out SIRIUS satellite radio. I've ridden with other people who had satellite radio in their cars, but this was the first time I actually got to live with the radio and try it out first-hand.

The first few days were great. There is decidedly more variety to satellite radio than terrestrial radio. I really enjoyed listening to the bluegrass channel, and the other musical genres that terrestrial radio avoids altogether.

But after a while, I felt boredom kick in. Yes, they have the oldies nicely broken down by decade, so I could just listen to music from the 60's, or 70's or 80's -- but it was always the same old chart-topping hits that got played. Basically, I was hearing the songs that commercial radio had burnt me out on through overplaying years ago. I never had an aha! moment when I heard something unfamiliar, or a song I hadn't heard in quite a while.

And there were commercials -- at least during drive time. Within a couple of days, I was doing the same thing I used to do with terrestrial radio. Whenever an ad came on, I punched the preset to the next station. And did the same when that channel ran a spot, and so on and so on.

Some have complained about the sound quality, but that didn't bother me too much -- after all, it's radio. What bothered me more was the repetition. Once when I was tuned to the Blue Collar comedy channel, I heard the same routine driving home that I listened to driving in. And it wasn't that funny the first time around.

I also didn't like the display. I'm not sure if it's the function of the head unit in the car (a KIA Sportster) or the way SIRIUS fed the metadata, but I seldom saw artist names. For the comedy channels, it was frustrating as I seldom knew who was talking. Not amusing.

But the worst offenders were the classical channels. I tuned in to listen to a work only identified as "String Quartet No. 2 in B flat." That was perhaps the most unhelpful ID ever. Thousands of string quartets have been composed since Haydn developed the form in the late 1700s. Telling me the number and key didn’t narrow the field down that much. I needed to know the composer (or at least opus number).

So how composers wrote their second string quartets in the key of B-flat major? Here’s a partial listing: Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf; Charles Liu; Gerald Manning; Giovanni Battista Viotti; Antonin Dvorak; Bernard Romberg; Franz Xaver Richter' Maddalena Laura Lombardini-Sirmen; Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach; Felix Mendelssohn; Ottorino Respighi; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Wilhelm Altmann.

By midweek I was drifting back to some iPod listening. I had some podcasts to catch up on, and the content was fresher. From that point on, it was all downhill. Within a few days, I was back to my old habit of listening to podcasts as I drove. Lots of new information, minimal commercials (if any), and a programming mix uniquely suited to my tastes.

Now to be fair, my wife loved SIRIUS. She really enjoyed hearing her favorite songs one right after the other. So my negative was her plus.

For the most part, though, it was a somewhat disappointing experience. And while I did return to my iPod’s content, there’s something else worth mentioning. At no time did I ever consider just turning on the AM/FM radio to listen to what was being broadcast over-the-air.

- Ralph

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Podcast Review - Coverville

One of the longest-running podcasts I listen to is Coverville. Brian Ibbott has been producing and hosting the program since 2004, and it's only gotten better of the last 550+ episodes.

The concept of the podcast is pretty simple: play only cover versions of other artists' songs. Sometimes the cover's by major artist interpreting a colleague's work. Sometimes it's a smaller indie band changing a song around to express their own artist vision

Ibbott, who at one time was a wedding DJ, has an ear for selecting the covers that are worth listening to, and arranging them in a podcast to have some sort of logical and pleasing flow. His goal (as he's said many times), is to present covers that give the listener a different insight into the song. So tribute bands need not apply. Note-perfect covers simply don't appear on this program.

Instead, Ibbott gives the listener rock songs reinterpreted as bluegrass numbers, fast tunes slowed down and slow songs played uptempo. Simple songs are developed into lush, complicated arrangements, and sophisticated melodies are stripped down to their essence.

Along the way I've discovered quite a lot of the artists I know, and found out about quite a few artists I'de never heard of before (but have since sought out to hear more of).

Over the years, Ibbot's developed some on-going themes that also help give the program cohesion. There're the "Cover Story" shows, which take a particular artist and present cover versions of their material. And occasionally there's an Originalville special. Sometimes it's the cover version that becomes the hit, not the original recording -- Originalville features those earlier (and unknown) versions.

Over the past few years, Ibbott's even mounted a Coverville Idol competition, inviting bands to submit covers based around a theme. And there's the year-end countdown of the 50 most requested covers of the year, with Ibbott covering Kasey Kasem!

The program's a lot of fun, and gives you a solid 45 minutes of well-played music -- even if it's not entirely familiar.

Count me as a proud citizen of Coverville -- resident since 2004!

And remember, you don't need an iPod to listen to a podcast. Just download to your computer and enjoy.

- Ralph

Day 333 of the WJMA Web Watch. (No, they don't play covers, either.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Mason Brothers Revisited

I first wrote about the Mason Brothers almost a year ago, citing them as a band that understood how to use the Internet to promote their music ("The Mason Brothers: Jarring the Record Industry"). As I said before, maintain a presence on the Internet requires constant work -- you can't just put out a recording and think everyone will come to you.

The Mason Brothers certainly haven't. They have a MySpace page, a FaceBook page, their own website and keep in touch with fans through their e-mail newsletter.

So what has all that accomplished? Well, their song "May You Rise" was used in a recent documentary.

Rainbow Sandals - Battle of the Paddle - PRE-RACE SEQUENCE from Soul Surf Media on Vimeo.

And another of their songs, "Ghost at the Wheel" was used in this video:

BM Surfing Tournament: Environmental Piece (Mason Brothers) from James Mason on Vimeo.

Also, another of their songs was picked up for the film "Don't Fade Away."

So what does all that mean? It means that the band's moved to the next level. Now they don't have to depend exclusively on concerts and CD sales to support them. People who would never have the opportunity to see them live will hear their music in these films. And especially with "Don't Fade Away," it's providing another source of income.

Finally, nothing succeeds like success -- especially in Hollywood. The bands most producers prefer for soundtracks are bands that are already on soundtracks. Being a known quantity is a valuable asset.

And, of course, all the revenue from these projects goes straight to the musicians. There's no record company in the middle doling out a percentage of the fees to the artists (less their advance, of course).

The Mason Brothers aren't an overnight success, and their achievements didn't come without a lot of work. But they'll be the sole recipients of the fruits of their labors -- and that's what makes it worthwhile.

- Ralph

Day 332 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Of course, they don't play the Mason Brothers. If it's not on the charts, it doesn't exist -- much like their website.)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Two Funerals and an Observation

Over a span of eight days, I attended two funerals. Although they were in different towns, and for different types of people in different socio-economic groups, there was one striking similarity. Some people showed up dressed inappropriately.

Sure, there's the school of thought that appearance doesn't matter. We should accept the person, not the clothes they wear. And in most situations that's true.

But clothes do matter, even to those who claim they don't.

And they especially matter in highly symbolic rituals, such as church services, court appearances, graduations -- and funerals.

Funerals, at the heart of it, aren't for the dead, they're for the living. It's a ritualized way to officially acknowledge the departure of a loved one, and to say goodbye in a formal fashion to provide closure.

It's no accident that funeral service attendance is referred to as "paying your respects." By attending, you show your respect for the deceased and their family. So does it matter what you wear? I think so.

I've seen cut-off jeans and ripped T's at funeral services. I even saw someone come in with a water bottle in hand that she swilled throughout the ceremony. Sure, they showed up, but the message is clear: It is not worth the effort for me to change attire, nor am I willing to give up even a little personal comfort. I'm here, and that's enough.

But is it? To take time to change into something appropriate speaks volumes. It says that you're marking this event in some significant fashion. And I'm not necessarily talking about dark suits and black dresses, either. For some, a pair of slacks and a polo shirt might be the high end of their wardrobe. By appropriate, I simply something you wouldn't necessarily wear everyday.

Here's another way to think about it. Most everyone I know who claims that dressing up for funerals, church, and court dates are irrelevant and outmoded always change out of their everyday clothes to go to out for the evening.

If appearance is unimportant, why do that?

Well, because it is important. And it's just as important for less happy occasions, such as funerals. You might come to pay your respects, but your appearance will say whether or not you mean it.

- Ralph

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

My True Life Twitter Tale

Many people who aren't on Twitter don't understand what the fuss is about. What does it do? What is it good for? It's one of those things that's difficult to understand unless you use it.

But the other day I found myself in a unique situation that illustrated to me the value of this service.

As the president and chief bottle-washer of Digital Chips, Inc., I like to attend the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio Conference whenever possible. Most of our business comes from public radio stations, and these are also the broadcasters that are most likely to be interested in the classical music we carry at DCD Records.

Scheduling conflicts (both personal and professional) forced me to remain at home this time.

One of the attendees, a colleague at a public radio station who I follow on Twitter started posting (or "tweeting" as it's known) updates about the conference on their Twitter feed. As is the current trend, the tweets were hashtagged for easy identification -- that is, the tweet had a word marked with a pound sign (#amppr09) that makes it easy to search for all tweets on that subject.

One of the sessions I really wanted to go to was the one about audio streaming. A representative from the SoundExchange was there to give a talk and answer questions. The attendee tweeted the talking points as the presenter went through them, and suddenly I was part of the conversation.

Now in between tweets I was still working away on the project in front of me. But whenever I received an update I would read it quickly (140 characters is very scannable), and fire off a comment or question.

Here's the payoff. One of the questions I asked my correspondent they, in turn, asked the presenter -- and tweeted the answer. Although I didn't attend the conference, I was getting the basic info at the same time as the attendees, and participating (albeit by proxy) as well.

The exchange helped me understand the SoundExchange guidelines a little better, and hopefully, my question gave others in the room additional insight into the issue. The New York Times recently published an article that summed it up. Twitter? It's what you make it.

Unlike some folks, I'm not much for tweeting about what I had for dinner, or when I use the restroom. But as a source of professional information and networking, it's decidedly one of the most important tools in this small business owner's arsenal.

Because that's what I've made Twitter be.

- Ralph

Day 296 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Many broadcasters twitter, too. Of course, they're usually the ones with functioning websites to send traffic to.)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Watt's Thoughts - Saturn and the GM failure

Looking over GM's plans to survive as an automotive manufacturer, I see something that I think shows where GM has their problems. Continuously we're hearing that GM will either shut down, spin off or sell the Saturn division. I received an e-mail from Saturn last week that said they fully expect it will be either sold off or spun off, but will continue operating. I know that Saturn has never made money for GM in almost 25 years as a division.

Saturn was created in the 1980s by GM as an early way to fight the Japanese imports with domestic manufacturing. One of the major plans of Saturn was that it would be the test area to try ideas in manufacturing and then to move them to GM overall. For that reason, the plant was built away from the rest, in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and they got a separate union contract for the division. Employees were empowered to stop the manufacturing if the quality was an issue. Over time they made the Spring Hill facility just another GM plant and scattered Saturn production to other existing GM plants. Basically, GM never moved the concepts to rest of company but instead changed Saturn to just another car produced the same way as other GM lines. So much for experimentation!

In the beginning, Saturn was advertised as a different kind of car company and it established itself as that. In the early years, there employee celebrations and once a year the owners of Saturn cars were invited to a big party in Spring Hill. And the cars were different, featuring non-GM parts and design and most being more plastic and less metal.

The dealers were a different breed also. At Saturn, the rule was no-haggle deals. Also, each dealer was assigned a large geographical area. The dealerships did not get the name of owner (like "John Smith Chevrolet") but were Saturn of what ever geographic area. Interestingly enough, larger area dealerships cited as both the source and the solution to the Big Three's problems and Saturn problems.

On the one hand, critics say that the Big Three auto makers have too many dealers and need to cut back drastically. But they also say the reason Saturn has not done better is because they have a single dealer over a larger area, much like most foreign car companies in the USA.

But there's more to the Saturn story. The dealers also made ownership fun and many had annual picnics for owners. When you bought a Saturn they had the employees come out and send you off to a champion and a winner. Saturn has a strong dedicated following among its owners and Saturn clubs exist today in many cities.

I have personal experience with Saturn and my experience is excellent. I bought a Saturn SL2 in 1999 and kept it for two years. I put about 54000 miles on it and did not have any problems. In 2001 Saturn sent me an extraordinary offer. They offered me 110% of book value on my “old” Saturn and almost 0% financing. I had paid two of four years on the old car and, by doing the trade, the new loan was just four years also and a smaller payment. Basically, I was paid to drive a Saturn two years.

Both of my Saturns came from Saturn of Augusta, Georgia. The 2001 SL2 has been an excellent car. It is my everyday car still today. When I bought it I decided to keep complete records on maintenance and repairs. Since I took the job in NW Georgia two years ago, I have averaged about 45000 miles a year on the car. The car today has 288,000 miles on it.

The odometer actually reads that number -- apparently, Saturn also expected the cars to last, as the odometer is not limited to displaying 99,999 miles as most cars, or 199,000 miles as my 1986 Buick Skylark (which has 279,000 miles).

The Skylark was my primary car for 13 years and I moved it into retirement with 269000 miles on it, although I still drive it most weekends and will take out of town occasionally. Last Thursday and Friday I drove it 100 miles to Macon. The Skylark has had the engine and transmission replaced, but remember, not only does it have 279,000 miles but it is also old enough to drink and vote!

The Saturn is still on the original motor (I changed spark plugs once at 229,000 miles only time and they looked good still) and original transmission (although the filter in transmission did get clogged in Atlanta in February 2008 and had to be towed). I have changed oil about every 4,000 miles. I have managed to wear out all 4 struts on the car getting them replaced after I had 280,000 miles on the car and the handling is back firm like new. I can show you every time oil changed (date and mileage), wipers, head light, tires, brakes, etc.

The car has been excellent. It has been south to Florida, north to Maryland and west to Arizona (twice, last time a year ago with about 250,000 miles on it). I do a lot of highway driving (about 800 miles a week on it). It has been good on gas mileage -- about 36 miles per gallon on the highway and a little less in the city. My 1999 model got the same mileage.

I keep get ads from the different car companies telling me I need to trade in my car on a new higher MPG model and I look at an ad and ask "why?". They claim some of their models get over 30 MPG. Think I will stay with my 36.

GM should look again at Saturn because they failed to see where it worked. It was intended as more than another profit center; it was supposed to be a place they could try new and different concepts.

If Saturn disappears I will be one of that “different kind of car” crowd that will shed a tear for it. I hope it is around a long time to come.

- Dwight Watt
from "Watt's Thoughts," available at dwight-watt.home.att.net

Monday, March 02, 2009

Podcast Review -- Grammar Girl

When people hear that one of my favorite podcasts is all about grammar, I usually get odd looks. Granted, some of that puzzlement is about just the concept of podcasting itself (*sigh*). But mostly folks find it hard to understand that I would voluntarily listen to a show about such a boring subject.

Well, like the concept of podcasting itself, the appeal of something called "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" might seem puzzling to the neophyte. But it makes perfect sense to those that have experienced it. But (also like podcasting) the best way to understand Grammar Girl's appeal is to simply listen to the program. But if you need some reasons to check it out, here goes:

Grammar Girl is actually Mignon Fogerty, a professional technical writer. Her skill at explaining complex concepts in simple, everyday terms came to the fore with the Grammar Girl podcast. Fogerty has a warm, inviting voice, that always seem to carry a hint of smile. And she's really into the grammar tips she dispenses, and that enthusiasm is infectious.

Plus, Fogerty is scrupulous in her research. In answering a grammar question, she'll often cite several different authoritative sources, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage -- especially if there's conflicting opinions on what's standard and what isn't.

But what really makes the program appealing is its inviting practicality. Fogerty's not interested in scolding those breaking the grammar rules. Her goal is to help people understand how grammar works, so they can communicate more effectivel.

The show is tightly scripted, and moves along at a good pace. There's a healthy dose of humor, and Fogerty has a knack for creating mnemonic devices to help the listener remember the concepts she presents.

And if you think I'm odd for enjoying this podcast, know this -- within the first four months of release, Grammar Girl had over a million listeners. Mignon Fogerty's built her single podcast into a thriving network of how-to podcasts (Quick and Dirty Tips), all with the same general character -- informal, friendly, and full of rock-solid information and advice. Plus, Fogerty's book, "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing," shot to the top of the New York Times' bestseller's list.

Considering the size of her audience, and the success of her program and books, maybe when I talk with people who don't listen to Grammar Girl, I ought to be giving them odd looks!

Affect vs. Effect: The aardvark was affected by the arrow. The effect was eye-popping. I never mixed up those two words since hearing that tip. Thanks, Grammar Girl!

And remember: you don't need an iPod to enjoy a podcast -- just a computer.

- Ralph

Day 294 of the WJMA Web Watch.