January 26, 2007

On Radio and the Internet

On Radio and the Internet

Yesterday we pointed out that WETA in Washington, DC has adopted an all-classical format and will no longer carry us. Blog regular plnelson asks:

Why can’t DC listeners listen via streaming audio, from other stations that carry the show, e.g., WGBH in Boston? Or dowload the MP3’s? I listen to programs from all over the world that way, as well as participate in their blogs, etc.

Maybe I’m not “getting” what the problem is here but it seems to me that an old-fashioned radio station where the listener and the broadcaster are limited by their physical location is SO 20th century!

plnelson, in a comment to Open Source, January 25th, 2007.
Mid-century clock radio

I wish I could quit you! [stereonaut / Flickr]

It’s a fair question, and there are two answers. First, as josephmoyer pointed out, public radio stations pay to carry Open Source; a large part of our business model is for public radio stations to use donations from their audiences to pay us to produce this show.

Second, even were we to find ourselves a Medici to write us a yearly check to record Chris talking to interesting people, we’d argue that a public radio presence would remain a crucial part of spreading the gospel. I, for example, am as wired as they come; I listen to the BBC and Georgia Popplewell via podcast on the T, and once in a blue moon I stream RFI at home so I can pretend I’m learning French.

Which I’m not.

The point is, I still listen to Morning Edition on a plain old terrestrial FM signal when I eat breakfast. Radio is easy, like a utility; you turn on the tap and out it comes. I don’t think you can overestimate the value of simplicity. The mere fact that I don’t have to synch anything or wait for a download or maneuver my laptop into place to get plain old radio makes it exponentially more likely that I’ll listen to it.

Or, in other words, we have roughly 150,000 radio listeners and a podcast audience of 8,000. The podcast audience is invaluable; it gives us comments from sidewalker in Tokyo and bicyclemark in Amsterdam. But you can’t argue with 150,000, and we’ve noticed that every time we pick up a new station our web numbers jump, too. A significant portion of our referred web traffic comes from the sites of the radio stations that carry us. (Here’s a list, by the way.)

More listeners = more people commenting on the site = better blog conversation.

So web-based distribution is important, but we have no intention of leaving the terrestrial sphere to inhabit your brains through the web alone. Radio and the web complement each other in ways too important to ignore.

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  • Tom B

    I immediately think about the Great Internet Question: How do we pay the bills for a ‘free site’? Google’s answer: advertising on the net. The New York Times answer: make part of the site subscription. (We won’t go into the ‘deep pockets’ method of financing, where a wealthy patron pays the bills…) Ultimately, it’s the consumer who either pays or doesn’t pay — either directly or indirectly. Where there is demand, money flows in. Where demand falters, it doesn’t. It’s not what people NEED that determines content, nor even what they WANT. It’s what they USE. The bright lining in a dark cloud is that distribution gets ever cheaper with every advance in technology (c.f. blogs). So, providing for a niche market does not spell extinction, simply fewer and fewer eyeballs. A vibrant, though totally NOT influential, community is ‘method bell ringing’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Change_ringing , to take one example. Some may consider change ringing irrelevant, but those involved in this small community would argue otherwise. Perhaps Open Source and similar information and discussion outlets should emululate the ‘bell ringing’ community. And perhaps not. Demand will dictate how it all comes out….

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “Radio is easy, like a utility; you turn on the tap and out it comes. I don’t think you can overestimate the value of simplicity. The mere fact that I don’t have to synch anything or wait for a download or maneuver my laptop into place to get plain old radio makes it exponentially more likely that I’ll listen to it.”

    The interface is likely to be simpler for Radio because it is dedicated to a fairly specific task: receiving waves at tunably prescribed frequencies and converting them into human recognizable sound. Whereas, a computational device is multi-faceted, closer to (but far short of) a general purpose device regarding function. The nature of general purpose devices is such that they are usually accompanied by more layers of interface understanding. As technologies mature, interfaces tend to be simpler due to incremental improvements and due to the reduction in the distance between the knowledge-in-the-world and knowledge-in-the-head. Much writing upon this, I enjoy Donald Norman’s. My favorite interface is the beer tap levers in a nuclear power plant.

    There is also Quality-of-Service aspect regarding reliability of the service. Radio is likely to be more reliable, but never a 100% guarantee of non-stop delivery of the payload of audio content. Redundancies in the system help address this, but nothing is perfect. Systems can be degraded for a variety of reasons: power outage accompanied by a depletion of alternative power redundancy, movement of the receiver, physical aging of sender/receiver infrastructure, catastrophic events (transmitters damaged by weather), spikes in load requests (not a problem with radio), etc. I’m guessing computational oriented infrastructure do not currently meet the reliability quality of FM/AM radio. This may be due to the one-to-many nature of FM/AM radio versus the many-to-many possibilities of computational communication networks as well as understanding/improvements due to the maturation of the infrastructure. Lot’s of other reason I sure.

    Economies of scale: I’m again guessing that FM/AM radio, both for sender and receiver, currently has a cost advantage due to maturity of infrastructure. Both out-of-pocket personal/organizational costs, on costs on the overall collective infrastructure. Obviously this can change over time.

  • Sutter

    Dumb question: I live in WAMU’s listening area. I listen to WAMU. I (sometimes) contribute to WAMU. What can I do to get ROS onto WAMU? (I listen to ROS on XMPR, so its absence from WETA doesn’t really affect me directly, but WAMU would be a great destination for ROS — far more fitting, in fact, than WETA.) Letters? Conditional donations? Incessant calls to Kojo? (Inside joke, I guess.)

  • ROS is aired in Seattle at 9p on KUOW, but I didn’t hear about it until a hyperlocal journalism site in Olympia launched, inspired by a ROS show. I’ve been off and on listening since then, but not listening intently until I got an mp3 player for my birthday last September. You might have noticed a dramatic increase in my comments since then.

    I’ve suggested to KXOT (KUOW’s sister station) that they air ROS live at 4p, but realistically, downloading the show is the most effective way for me to listen.

  • plnelson

    I agree that there are serious funding problems when you leave the terrestrial-based model, BUT

    I sense no urgency about addressing this issue in public radio. In the last year I’ve had several lengthy discussions with staff (including on-air staff) who work at local NPR affiliates. (interestingly all of these occurred at social settings unrelated to public radio – the social circles I travel in just seem to result in my bumping into such people . . . )

    Everyone said they know that the current model’s days are numbered. Everyone can see the handwriting on the wall and realizes that the Internet and satellite are dramatically and rapidly altering the landscape. Everyone agrees that “something needs to be done”. But there is no consensus about WHAT.

    PLEASE look at the newspaper industry: papers closing everywhere, massive layoffs, plummetting morale, no relief in sight. And all because they are frozen in fear and uncertainty and denial about what to do.

    Sure, they’ve dipped their toe into the Internet – there are web-based editions, just like public radio has streaming audio and podcasts. But their mainstay is still ink-on-paper, paid for by advertising, and it’s no longer viable. Soon the donation-based public radio broadcast model will no longer be viable. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m EXACTLY the sort of educated, affluent, professional-of-a-certain-age that public radio has relied on and I do almost ALL my “radio” listening on the Internet, without regard for the geographical source of the program. Even in the car I mostly listen to podcasts.

    So while I agree that currently you are heavily-reliant on the old-fashioned broadcast-and-subscription model, I’ve yet to hear anyone in public radio speak confidently about what they’re going to do in the future.

  • plnelson

    just a followup to my last posting – – –

    I just listened to OTM’s report on WETA’s decision from their Jan 26th podcast (http://www.onthemedia.org/) and they mentioned that WETA is bucking a trend in public radio AWAY from music and toward more talk (this should be good for ROS)

    I think the trend away from music is regrettable because talk is cheap – literally – a talk format show can be streamed with a 24 kbs stream, which is a LOT cheaper for the station to support on their servers than the 128kbs stream minimally required for music. (WGBH seems to use a 32 kbs stream)

    Last year WGBH, which is ROS’s Boston-area host, reduced their music programming by 2 hours a day, to add more talk. But part of what they added was already being broadcast on Boston’s WBUR at exactly the same time, and part removed an hour a day of their jazz programming (the part now occupied by ROS). I like ROS but I want to listen to it AND “Eric in the Evening” (the jazz show that got abbreviated to make room for ROS) and there’s no technical reason I shouldn’t be able to do both.

    Radio stations can stream or podcast talk programs because they don’t take much bandwidth, but I cannot listen to music that way because WGBH, et al, cannot afford the server bandwidth, and also putting music on podcasts runs into copyright problems. So I was incensed at WGBH’s decision to drop 2 hours of music programming, and so I reduced my annual donation to the station, and told them so.

  • Potter

    I wondered about the program duplication between WGBH and WBUR and decided that

    it must have made sense to keep and attract listeners. I can tell you that out here in central MA I get reception from WGBH a whole lot better than WBUR. In fact reception for WBUR has gotten worse in the last few years. WGBH broadcasts over a much wider area.

    Where does the revenue come from for these programs, websites and podcasts that are ostensibly for free? I assume that broadcasting still pays for it through sponsorship- little advertisements- and memberships/donations Those of us that do not pay for what we are listening to are depending on others, something else, to do it. We have begun to notice for instance and probably as a consequence that WGBH (TV) seems to be fund raising all the time.

    I notice that I put off listening to the podcasts ( which compete for my attention with books, articles and audio courses) as I prefer to catch ROS as it airs. There is something compelling about listening to a program as it is happening. How many drivers listen to podcasts rather than radio?

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  • plnelson

    I prefer to catch ROS as it airs. There is something compelling about listening to a program as it is happening.

    I don’t see why, unless you are actually calling-in.

    How many drivers listen to podcasts rather than radio?

    Whatever the number is, I’m sure it’s going up. The big advantage of podcasts are:

    1. It guarantees you always have something interesting to listen to, regardless of what’s on the air at the time.

    2. You can pause it if you need to while you shop or buy gas or have to pay atention to some complicated intersection or directions

    3. You never drift out of range of the station while you’re driving.

    4. You are totally insulated from annoying funding drives.

    As the technology improves and more and more, easier-to-use phone/MP3 player combo’s roll out, and as more and more cell phone networks roll out broadband-everywhere digital networks people will listen to more podcasts while on-the-go, and they will also listen to the archived versions of their favorite “radio” programs over the internet, even at home. I do both. I listen to Car Talk, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Fresh Air, On Point, ROS, Here on Earth, Prairie Home Companion and Le Show every week (or day) without once touching a radio dial. I may be on the leading edge but I’m not THAT far out in front of the curve.

    As I said, I’ve talked to staffers who recognize that the world of public radio is about to change dramatically, but I don’t have the impression that public radio management has quite come to grips with the dramatic nature of these changes.

    I still contribute to WBUR and WGBH, but as I’ve mentioned, I recently slightly reduced my contributions to WGBH. I’m considering doing the same for WBUR (on the other hand, I’ve INCREASED my contribution to WERS) but what’s really needed is a way to to make small donations to the actual producers of the shows I listen to without complicated bookeeping or transactional overhead. Some of the shows I mentioned above aren’t even CARRIED by local Boston area stations.

  • plnelson

    I immediately think about the Great Internet Question: How do we pay the bills for a ‘free site’?

    That IS the central question. I listen to maybe 12 or 15 or shows produced by a similar number of NPR affiliates. Some of them I listen to every episode, others I listen to maybe half, others I listen to just a few.

    Currently we are all stuck with a bizarre indirect “faith based” payment scheme whereby, I donate to my local public radio stations and imagine that through some complicated, fungible alchemy, I benefit the producers of the shows I listen to, even if those shows are not carried on my local stations. It really makes no rational sense whatsoever! I can think of few, if any, other products or services where there is such a total disconnect between the cost of producing or providing the product or service, and what the customer actually pays.

    I could contribute to each of a dozen stations separately , but besides the paperwork overhead of doing so, I would need to decide how MUCH to contribute.

    A full-time member of WPR (Wisconsin Public Radio) gets all their programming for $60 a year. But I probably listen to a couple of “Here on Earth”‘s a month. So what’s my portion of an annual donation? 26 cents? 69 cents? A dollar? Two dollars? Who knows?

    I listen to EVERY episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. So what do I owe Chicago Public Radio? “Wait, Wait” is still only a small part of their programming schedule, and it’s a MUCH more popular show than “Here On Earth” so the cost per listener is probably much less, even though I’m sure it has way higher production costs. On the other hand, the production cots per listener go down, the more listeners you have, but the streaming costs per listener don’t scale down much, if at all.

    And then there’s “Car Talk”. I listen to every episode. It’s one of the most popular shows on radio (and the most popular NPR show) But it’s just two middle-aged guys yakking and laughing and taking calls for 1 hour a week. Its production costs must be miniscule, say, compared to Prairie Home Companion, and with its huge listenership the production cost per show for Car Talk must be PENNIES, if that. I’ll bet it costs more per listener to stream it than to produce it.

    So the bottom line is that I have NO CLUE what a rationally-appropriate contribution would be to the producers of the shows I enjoy. And in addition the Internet has no good way to make tiny (e.g., 75 cent) payments for things where the overhead cost of the transaction wouldn’t swamp the value of the donation.

  • webcastboy

    I think the trend away from music is regrettable because talk is cheap – literally

    plnelson….you’re joking, right?

    Talk is about 10 times more expensive to produce than music because it requires a helluva lot more STAFF to produce quality news/talk programming than music programming.

    In terms of just the show you’re hearing on the air…with music, you need a knowledgeable DJ, and maybe…MAYBE…an assistant. That will cover you for anywhere from one to six hours of programming. Multiply by whatever you need to cover 24 hours in a day.

    With talk, there are six full time staff members for Open Source alone, and that’s one hour of programming for four days a week. Chris can contradict me, but I believe there were 8-10 full time people involved with The Connection (not counting interns). Even once-a-week shows like Only a Game have four fulltimers plus a three-quarter-time tech director.

    For the record, Car Talk has their two hosts plus eight full time staff members and a quarter-time tech director (who splits his CT time with OAG). It’s not just Tom and Ray. And yes, while APHC no doubt costs a lot more due to about three times (if not more) staff….they also have a built-in revenue generator in the form of a theater audience, which I assume must help defray those costs significantly.

    What concerns me greatly is that Open Source was an unintentional victim of WETA’s format change. But WNYC flat out dropped them in favor of PRI’s new Fair Game. I fear that what’s happening is stations see UMass Lowell’s withdrawal of funding as a death sentence and stations are going with more “stable” shows instead.

    Oh, and Sutter? Best way to get Open Source on WAMU is to call (not email) their Program Manager: Lettie Holman. Dial the main line and ask for her. If you’re not in the Washington DC metro area, though, don’t expect her to take your plea as seriously as she would a local listener. Additionally, suggest that WAMU carry Open Source on a supplemental HD Radio channel (aka “HD-2”) if WAMU broadcasts one. While HD Radio tuners are still pretty scarce, it’s an important foot in the door. If WAMU gets lots of calls saying they love listening to ROS on HD-2, they’ll eventually consider moving it to the main FM channel.