Thursday, May 28, 2009

When market research misses the mark

A colleague told me about a call he recently received. It was from a research company doing some radio research (ironically, he used to work in radio). Unfortunately, he couldn't give them any input -- his age placed him outside the 12-35-year-old demographic they were surveying (but not by much).

Whichever radio station is paying for the research, I'm not sure they're going to get any useful information from it. Why? The group they're trying to reach is self-filtering in two significant ways.

1) Telephone surveys only poll those with land lines. Currently, 30% of 18-24 year-olds and 40% of 25-29 year-olds live in households with only cell phones. Which means a significant part of the demographic will never be reached by the researchers.

2) According to Arbitron, 22% of 12-17 year-olds and 17% of 18-24 year-olds have decreased their radio listening over the past year. Portable players, especially the iPod and iPhone, are primary content providers for this age group.

So this research group will be sampling from the fraction of the demographic that's been left behind by two major trends. What will happen to the station that tries to target this group based on that information?

They should have talked to my friend.

- Ralph

Day 53 of the WJMA Podwatch

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Joan Woodbury - Gangs, Inc.

Gangs, Inc." (1941) provides a wonderful showcase for the queen of "B" pictures, Joan Woodbury. I've written about Woodbury before, but this is the first film I've run across where she really carries the picture.

Make no mistake: like the majority of files cranked out in the 1930's and 1940's, "Gangs, Inc." was never meant to be great art. It was just another commonplace entertainment that the studio hoped would turn a profit -- and to ensure success, the budget was kept as low as possible.

That's not to detract from the film. Producer, Maurice King does such a good job telling his story that one hardly notices the limited number of sets, sparing use of extras, and the supplemental use (but not overuse) of stock footage.

I have to admit when the film started, I thought I knew where it was going, but it played against expectations enough to keep me engaged to the end. Ten-year-old Rita Adams witnesses her criminal father's death after he turns states' evidence. Is the movie about a child running from the murderers who want to silence her? Nope.

Rita ends up in an orphanage, where she becomes friends with Bob Elliot, who builds model airplanes, and Mickey Roman who wants to make dough the easy way. Fast forward 10 years, and the adult Rita Adams (played by Joan Woodbury) is working in a factory; Bob Elliot's in aviation, and Mickey Roman's a gangster (of course). So is the story about Bob and Mickey fighting over Rita? Nope.

Rita's roommate, Donna Andrews (Linda Ware) is an aspiring singer, who Mickey thinks is swell. So is there a romance between the singer and the mobster? Nope, just friends.

But all of those story elements are important to the plot.

Rita is involved with an alcoholic playboy. While they're on a date, he drives while drunk and runs down a pedestrian. His family's lawyer (through the playboy) convinces Rita to take the blame to avoid scandal. Despite assurances that she'll only get probation, she's sentenced to a year in jail -- during which time, the playboy, who was never serious about the relationship, dumps her.

It's a hardened Rita that comes out of the slammer. Especially after Mickey produces evidence he stole from the lawyer's office that Rita was intended to take the fall all along. Rita sets off on a secret life of crime, and when Mickey moves to the big city, Rita and Donna relocate as well -- Donna, because Mickey's found her a job as a nightclub singer, and Rita, because the father of her ex-boyfriend (who died in a car wreck), is heading the Reform Party against the city's racketeers.

Rita takes charge. She makes a deal with the racketeers, and through blackmail pulls DeWitt into the newly-formed crime syndicate that runs the city through politics (the original title for the film, "Paper Bullets," refers to the use of ballots as weapons). In the meantime, Bob Elliot renews their relationship (unaware of her double life), and eventually Bob and Rita marry.

But all is not well. While Donna doesn't fall in love with Mickey, she does with his associate, Jimmy Kelly (Alan Ladd) who is actually an undercover cop. When the lid blows off, Rita's once again standing before a judge, along with the rest of the syndicate.

The film gives Joan Woodbury an opportunity to show a lot of range. Here she is early in story portraying a typical working girl.

After a stint in the big house, Rita turns to crime. She disguises herself for her robberies, posing as a different kind of working girl. Woodbury gets to play two different characters here.

The now hard-as-nails Rita meets with the racketeers....

...then after forging a deal, visits the man who ruined her life.

But there's another side to Rita, and Woodbury does an admirable job portraying it. In this scene, she reconnects with childhood sweetheart Bob Elliot.

The two are married right when trouble hits. Watch the domestic Rita take the blow, and then the hard-boiled Rita take over to end scene.

"Gangs, Inc." isn't a great film, but one that was definitely better than it had to be for the market. And one that I enjoyed watching. Now playing at (for free) at!

- Ralph

Day 52 of the WJMA Podwatch

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Plasticville Profiteering - Market Unreality

We went on a tour of our local antique stores over the long weekend, which prompted me to follow up on a previous post. There are several things that affect the value of a collectible item (any kind of "collectible" item, from postage stamps to Beanie Babys). Some elements are the inherent in the item itself:
  1. Condition
  2. Rarity
  3. Desirability
  4. Historical Importance
  5. Materials
Some depend on the market forces
  1. Growth or shrinkage of core market
  2. Change in availability 
  3. Increase or decrease in overall popularity
  4. Introduction of competing products
And after our little tour, I'd like to add another -- context. As I looked over items whose value I was familiar with, all I could think of was MisterKitty's excellent essay about buying comics in flea markets and antique shops, "The Crazy Grandma Price Guide."   
You hand her a stack of beat up Charltons [comic books] from the 70s; next to worthless in anybody's estimation. However, the little old lady manning the antique booth has other plans. "These book for eight dollars each," she says apologetically. And what book would that be, you wonder? Why, the CRAZY GRANDMA COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE, of course!

Ever since those freaking baby boomers flashed on their own mortality and started turning every bit of their childhood into age-defying fetish objects, newspapers and Sunday supplements have been running inane little filler pieces all about how those old comic books rotting away in your attic are worth thousands of dollars. And maybe some of them are. But ALL of them are NOT. Beat-up Jughead comics will not put your grandchildren through college, lady.
Amen to that. But most people shopping in these stores don't know that. So context matters. Take an item out of its normal market, and the price goes Crazy Grandma. 

Case in point: at the recent York Train Show I purchased an old Plasticville Super Market. The item's fairly commonplace. My cost? Eight dollars. Plasticville structures, in addition to the conditions listed above, have four basic things that affect their value.
  1. Complete - while very simple plastic structures, many Plasticville buildings have pop-in doors, chimneys, stair railings, and other small pieces that are easy to loose or break.
  2. Original box - many Plasticville structures ended up permanently installed on train tables or Christmas displays so often the boxes were tossed.
  3. Loose - again, many structures were placed on train layouts, and often glued together. Obviously, unglued buildings are closer to the original condition and therefore more desirable.
  4. Rarity - some models are rarer than others, and some color combinations of the popular items are less common. All affect value.
My Plasticville Super Market is a common model in common colors. It is not glued, and all the original parts are there, but there's no box (that's OK -- it's going on my layout). So all told, eight dollars was a fair price.

I saw it this weekend at a shop for $35. Same color, all original, but glued together and missing the box. The average antique/flea market shopper probably wouldn't know much about the Plasticville market, and so would have no idea whether the price was high or low. If it was worth it to them, they might buy it. 

But at a train show, in the midst of hundreds of like items, that kind of pricing wouldn't fly. Sure, there's plenty of bargains to had at flea markets, but watch out -- there's plenty of Crazy Grandma pricing, too.

 - Ralph

Day 51 of the WJMA Podwatch

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Market Reality Followup

Yesterday I talked about how changing markets impact collectibles and showed how a fragmenting customer base can erode value (because at the end of the day, a collectible item, like a stock certificate, is only worth what people agree it's worth).

Waiting for in the mail this afternoon was a littler from AmbroseBauer Trains, "the nation's foremost marketplace of toy trains and toy train auctions." In this rather lengthy solicitation letter* Drew Bauer presented another take on what affects market value. He writes:

...Toy Trains do share with Financial Instruments [read: stocks] the fact that values of different Toy Trains do rise and fall depending on current market and demand conditions.

Because of changing demographics, an incredible amount of Toy Trains will come to market over the next several years. This large supply will have a negative effect on prices... since demand will not rise as quickly as supply.
Which makes sense. Even with the same field, the highly desirable items of one generation may not be the top collecting priority of the next. Going back to my post yesterday about Ken's Lionel 752E, the demand (and value) has dropped with the arrival of a quality reproduction that satisfies a certain market segment. As older collectors retire (or pass on), more 752Es are likely to resurface, driving down the price even more.

The lesson's still the same. Invest in a collection for enjoyment. Invest in stocks for profit.

- Ralph

*Note to Mr. Bauer: four-page single-spaced letters need bullet points. Really.

Day 45 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lionel 752E and the Market Reality

Doesn't matter what you collect -- you should do it because you're interested in the subject, not because it's a good investment. Even in the current market, you're better off buying stocks.

Case in point: Ken's Lionel 752E streamliner set. As you may recall, his wife inherited this 1934 Lionel set in its original boxes. When we looked at the train a couple of months ago, the value was appraised at $2,500.

As with any collectible object, that value is a function of condition, availability, and desirability. Last month I attended the semiannual York Meet, one of the largest toy train show and marketplace in the world.

I saw a fair number of Lionel 752E's on the dealer tables in comparable condition to Ken's train -- at an average price of $1,500 (and that was negotiable). What happened?

Lionel and Mike's Train House are working together to reproduce some of Lionel's classical trains with the same quality and materials as the original. One of the first offerings is the M100000, otherwise known as the 752E (and its later incarnations).

(click on image to enlarge)

Now the toy train market consists of two basic and sometimes overlapping groups; operators and collectors. The latter want to display their acquisitions, the former want to run them. The rerelease of the 752E set (with some nice upgrades) basically split the market for the original 1934 train. The reproduction, though, only costs $800. That's about a third the original's market value -- which makes it a better choice for operators.

So let's say I had offered Ken $2,000 for his train when he showed it to me, and he accepted. If I had purchased the 752E because I really wanted it, I'd still be happy.

If I had hoped to score a $500 profit by reselling it at York, I would have been sorely disappointed and probably have taken a $300-$500 loss. And chances are that the value won't significantly increase over time, but the reproduction might go up in value once it's no longer available on the market -- depends on demand.

In our hypothetical case, if I make the purchase because I want the train, then I'm still happy after it loses value. If I'm in it for the money, then I'm not. But either way, Ken's happy with his (hypothetical) two grand.

- Ralph

Day 44 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cvillepedia & Charlottesville Tomorrow -Second Thoughts

Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks this is a good idea.

Last week I talked about the Cvillepedia the on-line open source free encyclopedia about the city of Charlottesville and surrounding Albermarle County. It was developed by Charlottesville Tomorrow as another informational asset concerned with the City of Charlottesville and Albermarle County, Virginia.

So what? Well, first off, it's a viable model for many localities. And secondly, I'm not the only one who thinks so. Jerry Del Colliano, in his recent Inside Music Media post "Life After Radio -- 8 New Ideas" said:
If you're a newsperson, writer, community affairs executive or interested in new ways to dispense information in a digital world ...

4. Pick a town or city and become the "news source" for it -- town meetings, crime, anything that goes on in that locale. Put it up on a website and, better yet, add an Apple app that people in that location can carry around on their phones to touch and connect with what's happening close to their homes in real-time. Monetize the app, the website and ancillary income streams that come from owning the franchise for Hoboken, New Jersey or Newport Beach, California or Ames, Iowa. Newspapers wouldn't do it -- they once did regional editions loaded with feature stories. Radio barely does any news. Own a town and get rich with your production, reporting, social networking and Internet skills.
Sound familiar? Charlottesville Tomorrow has the model; they're more than halfway towards creating a franchise that could easily be adopted by other locals (I don't know if that's their plan, but it's possible).

This could just as easily have been a website built by a radio station -- perhaps all-news WINA, which serves the Charlottesville market? It wasn't. Compare WINA's website to Charlottesville Tomorrow's. The difference is profound.

So how does your local radio or newspaper coverage measure up? And how would something like Del Colliano's online news source be received?

- Ralph

Day 43 of the WJMA Podwatch.<

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cvillepedia -- Bringing the Wiki Home

If you live in or around Charlottesville, VA, you should know about the Cvillepedia. If you don't, you should consider constructing a version for where do you live.

The concept's not brand new. But that's alright. It's the content that matters here, and that's where the Cvillepedia's value lies.

Simply put, the Cvillepedia is an on-line open source free encyclopedia about the city of Charlottesville and surrounding Albermarle County. The form, structure, and ethos are modeled after Wikipedia with an important distinction.

Launched by Charlottesville Tomorrow, the stated goal is to
inform and engage the public by providing clear, non-partisan information and research on land use, transportation, and community design issues with the confidence an informed public will make decisions that will protect and build upon the distinctive character of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area.
The exurbs are encroaching from the north (Washington, D.C.), the east (Richmond) and the south (Lynchburg), and Charlottesville itself is flowing outwards into Albermarle. As with many similar communities across the country, critical decisions about growth and development need to be made.

The value of something like the Cvillepedia is that it pulls together all the information, resource lists, and news about core issues into a single place. And as Charlottesville Tomorrow makes very clear, that single place is to be non-partisan. Not pro-growth, or anti-growth; neither liberal nor conservative -- simply a place where all the facts can be examined.

Would that we had something like it where I live.

- Ralph

Day 37 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Monday, May 11, 2009

WJMA's News Podcasts - Baby Steps

WJMA's news podcasts are improving -- but have they improved enough to stop the podwatch?

Well, let's see. They've added an intro to the news podcast, which helps immensely. Not only does it help identify who's talking, and from where, but it also helps with branding. Because of that intro, played five times weekly for subscribers simply reinforces that information -- which makes their news director (and the station) more valuable.

That's the plus.

But what about the rest of it. You expect a radio station to understand how audio works, but as both Mark Ramsey and Jerry Del Colliano have pointed out, a podcast isn't just recycled audio. It's a different media, which has different requirements (and different ways to be used effectively).

The WJMA podcasts still have minimal metadata. No email address; no URL; not even a graphic. All of which still shows a basic lack of understanding of how the podcast medium works -- and that could be a real problem.

Thought experiment: imagine someone with an extensive theater background who, for professional reason, has branched out into video. You view their video -- it's a stage play filmed with a single stationary camera from the center of the auditorium with no cuts. Obviously, that person's still thinking of storytelling in terms of stagecraft, which doesn't have a one-to-one correspondence to video.

Now imagine that same person positioned themselves as a professional videographer and wants to shoot your business' commercial. If they were a family friend, you might give them a chance. But if you didn't know them, you'd probably want to see their work first -- and them what would your decision be?

Piedmont Communications has received clearance to expand further into the Metro Washington market (DCRTV 4/27). And they've positioned themselves as experts in new media. So what do you think will happen when businesses in this highly competitive market start comparing WJMA's claims against their reality?

Sorry, but I'm going to be just as demanding as those potential new customers. The watch goes on.

 - Ralph

Day 37 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Radio/Podcasting -- Not quite the same, Part 2

Shortly after I shared Mark Ramsey's comments about commercial radio and their mishandling of podcasting, Jerry Del Colliano offered up another viewpoint on his blog Inside Music Media. In his post, "7 Trends Radio Missed" he has this to say:

"Podcasting is personal radio -- the kind that the industry flirted with early in its history and has abandoned today... The difference between radio's version of podcasting and the one I think would provide numerous revenue streams to broadcast owners is the ability to make podcasting a franchise.

Radio missed the podcasting revolution because it doesn't know how to make each podcast a franchise -- funded by revenue derived in ancillary ways (not commercials) and grown by viral social networking tools."
And that's been my point with the WJMA News podcasts. They're not repurposed for the new format. There's no on-air promotion (at least that I've heard). There's no branding. Missed opportunities all around.

 - Ralph

Day 30 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Watt's Thoughts - Fixing a Motherboard (with protection)

My new Asus motherboard quit working.  I went to the Asus website for help.  I was a little confused by Step 2, and I wasn't quite sure how that would work.
1. Please clear CMOS.
2. Please take out your memory cards and video card, try to clean their golden connectors with a rubber, then reseat them back.
3. Please take the CPU cooler out, add some thermal paste to the CPU surface, then reseat the cooler back and keep the cooler tightly installed.
4. Please keep the necessary components(CPU, one memory) onboard for a test.
Finally, we would recommend you to replace a BIOS battery to have a test.
I think they meant to use the rubber eraser on pencil to clean the contacts (I've done that often in past and was taught it by a senior mainframe engineer in the 80's.) I hope that's what they meant. However, that is not what they said to do.

I did solve my problem of no keyboard or display finally on another page that instructed me to unplug power, depress power switch on the computer for 10 seconds, and then plug the cable back in and turn on. Asus said it resets power supply. I had never heard that before, but it worked. I had learned a new trick (so I guess I'm not a quite old dog).

Still not sure about that Step 2, though.

- Dwight Watt
from "Watt's Thoughts," available at

Day 27 of the WJMA Podwatch.