Simulcasting: The sound of broadcasters running out of ideas

There seems to be a growing trend lately;  Stations that had previously separate programming being simulcast. There are two big ones around here: WGY and WHRL and WPLJ and WXLM.

Lets begin with the first one: WGY, now WGY AM/FM.

WGY (Clear Channel Communications) has been the regional power house since it’s inception in 1922.  It consistently ranks in the top 5 arbitron ratings for Albany/Schenectady/Troy NY and is well received in the community.  It carries the standardized Clear Channel talk radio format of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, etc.  As of September 20th, WHRL 103.1, class A licensed to Albany changed it’s call sign to WGY-FM and began simulcasting WGY 100%.  103.1’s 60 dBU contour is entirely within WGY 2.5 MV/M contour.

It would seem that radios, even bad radios, would have no problems picking up WGY’s signal within the 103.1 listening area.  According to Clear Channel Management:

The decision to simulcast our 24-hour news/talk format on the FM will open up our content to an even wider audience. Despite the huge audience we currently enjoy, the fact is a significant portion of the Capital Region audience never thinks to visit the AM dial.

There is some small amount of truth to that statement; the younger segment of the population generally never listens to AM. Yes.  The reasons, however, are not just because it is AM and they are prejudice.  More likely, there is nothing on the AM dial that interests them.  Satellite syndicated talk is not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak.

The other side of the coin is the former WHRL had an alternative rock format, which never did all that great (I have a theory on why Alternative Rock, AAA and other such formats never get good ratings, but not right now).  They also had a station staff, which by the time they pulled the switch, was down to one person.   The Capital District Business Review notes:

According to BIA/Kelsey, a media research firm in Chantilly, Va., WGY did about $2.8 million in revenue in 2009. WHRL took in about $875,000.

Which is really not bad for a class A FM in market #63, during a recession.  Apparently, not good enough however.

The second example in our little story is that of WPLJ and WXLM.  WPLJ 95.5 (Citadel Broadcasting) is of course one of the heritage FM stations in Market #1. WXLM 104.7, now known as WELJ broadcast from the far eastern end of Long Island (Market #18), so the respective coverage areas do not over lap.  Prior to September 24th, that station was doing a News/Talk format.

That end of Long Island is pretty affluent, a local (unique) station might even prosper.  In fact, up until 2003 it did quite well for itself, then known as “The Beach.”  However, nothing lasts forever and in 2003 Citadel Broadcasting purchased the station.

It has gone through a number of changes since then, most recently a syndicated news talk format.  Unless I am missing it completely, the last ratings period, this station did not even show up in the book.  As of September 21, it began to simulcast the co-owned out of market AC station, likely for the drive by PPM listeners in it.  Again, no word on the fate of the former radio station’s staff (if there was one).

So what gives?  Consolidators have already cut staff levels to the bone with voice tracking, syndication and automation.  Even a voice tracked syndicated station still need some staff members; the occasional morning show, somebody to do promotions, some form of program direction do to things like music logs and other such behind the scenes work.  Staff require salaries and salaries are expensive.  Anyone that has ever looked at a companies P&L can tell you, salaries are the number one expense.  If, however, the entire format is blown out, and something can be plugged in to fill the void that costs nothing and has no overhead and no staffing, well, now they are really saving money.  That money from reduced expense is much better (far easier) than actually earning more money and it goes right to the bottom line.

This never ending drive to reduce expenses at the expense of everything else drives programming quality and thus entertainment value down.  Who wants to listen to radio and be bored?  Not I.  This continuing trend is what will ultimately spell the end of terrestrial radio.

The Problem with the Phone Company

It they don’t care all that much about traditional phone service anymore.  Through attrition, they have reduced their tech work force to about half what it was 15 years ago.  All of the infrastructure; over head cables, buried cables, office frames, switching equipment, is getting old.  Some of the cabling around here, both buried and overhead,  is the original stuff, installed 100 years ago.  Because it is expensive to replace, they don’t want to change it out, opting to simply limp along, swapping out pairs when a line or circuit goes dead.

I will be surprised if the traditional wired telephone network still exists in ten years.  Think about it, ten years ago were were just heaving a collective sign of relief that Y2K turned out to be nothing, remember that?

For the local phone giant, offering 3 in one (telephone service, internet service and cable TV) is more appealing than servicing their existing accounts, including HICAP (high capacity) data circuits like T-1, BRI&PRI ISDN, etc.  Much less so for a POTS line, which, good luck if you really need it fixed right away, we’ll be over when we get to it, just keep your paints on mister.

I’ve written about this before. A particular station for my former employer uses a T-1 circuit to relay the program from the studio to the transmitter site.  This is fairly common in larger metropolitan areas where 950 Mhz STL frequencies are not available, nor is line of site between the studio and transmitter site obtainable.

Back in 2002, when the company was in the process of aquiring said station, I recommended a 950 Mhz STL.  There was an existing STL license, fully coordinated, that came with the main station license.  Only the equipment was needed.  No, I was told by the CFO, we will do a T-1, thank you very much.  I argued my point, saying that putting our radio station exclusively in the hands of the phone company was a bad idea.  We would have problems with outages and service.  No, said the CFO, this is New York, all the radio stations do that.  Not exactly, New York is about 15 miles SOUTH of here, this is Westchester, the cables are old, a lot of them are overhead, which exposes them to lightning, vehicle damage, water, etc.  There will be service issues if we rely solely on a T-1.

No, he said, “We are using a T-1 and that is final.”  I hate to say I told you so, but… Let us examine the history between then and now:

Date of outage Date of restoration Total days
April 5, 2004 April 9, 2004 4
September 8, 2006 September 10, 2006 2
May 2, 2007 May 5, 2007 3
August 27, 2009 September 4, 2009 10
September 5, 2010 September 15, 2010 10

Fortunately, I wrote all this down in the transmitter site log.  I was able to check it yesterday, when I went to restore the station to normal operation after the latest T-1 failure.

During those periods, we have used BRI-ISDN, which is okay but it was carried the same phone cable.  It is likely to go down if there is a major cable interruption.  We have installed a second T-1 circuit, which fails when the other T-1 circuit fails.  We have used 3G wireless sprint card and streamed audio from the internet.  That didn’t sound great, but we did clear inventory.  We have moved one of the AudioVault servers to the transmitter site, and updated it once a day via shoe leather network, that sounded great, but it was difficult to do.  We have borrowed an ethernet connection from another tower site tenant onsite and streamed internet audio via wired connection, which sounds pretty good.

Still, the best thing to do would be to establish our own STL path to the transmitter and get rid of the T-1 lines.

The Problem with the Phone Company is they are not all that interested in simple copper circuits anymore.  Now, there is something called FiOS, which, it would appear is a much better profit center than ordinary copper circuits.

Radio Headed in the wrong direction

Inside radio seems to be hitting its stride, the latest story about a survey they took hits the nail squarely on the head.  Of the survey takers, 74% say that radio is off the rails.  According the Inside Radio, 854 surveys were completed.

Granted, most readers of Inside Radio likely work in the industry.  The Recession (on which all bad things seem to be blamed) has cast a pall over the working environment in most radio stations, especially those owned by the big three.  If anything, this survey is a good inside look at how radio station employees feel.

What is more telling are the thirteen pages of comments that survey takers left, many of which state precisely what I have said in the past:

It’s about live local connection to the community!

That cuts right to the heart of the matter.  Radio has lost its connection with the local community and has marginalized itself.   Now the major owners are riding the wave which is in decay.  Radio is no longer about the listeners or even the advertisers, it is about maximizing profits and minimizing expenses until the day they throw the big switch and turn off the last transmitter.

I wonder if they’ll talk about that issue at the NAB, or will it be drowned out by happy talk of The Recession ending and a bright future ahead.   More likely the latter, no one in high levels of radio management wants to admit there is a problem.  A problem they created.  Firing most of the local talent will be the undoing of radio.  That being said, radio equipment manufactures and vendors will do pretty well this year.  After all, equipment is an asset, employees are liabilities.

15 ways to (un)motivate your employees

Radio stations, at least when I first started in this business, were always upbeat happy places.  Even in the worst of times and conditions, there were enough characters around to keep things lite, even if it was sometimes gallows humor.  Back then, radio was an entertainment business, and who better to practice on then each other.  Working late at night on a crappy transmitter, there was usually plenty of company and pizza.  Even though the pay was low, the perks normally made up for it; diner or a movie trade for overtime, etc.  In short, it was a fun place.

That was then, this is now:  There is no fun in radio anymore, anyone who attempts to have fun will be disciplined or fired.  Here are fifteen ways to ruin your staff’s moral if you think they are having too much fun:

  1. Give the general impression that you don’t care about them, or better yet, don’t care about them.
  2. Slowly erode whatever benefits are left.  Start with vacation time, reduce it by 1/3 or more.  Force give backs on sick days and personal days.
  3. Stop 401k matching contributions.
  4. Make them pay a greater and greater share of health and dental “benefits.”  Make sure the benefits have very high co-pays and yearly deductables.
  5. Place the blame squarely on other shadowy exterior forces such as “The Banks.”
  6. If the employees really have you up against the wall, fire the general manager then blame him/her for every bad thing that has happened in the last ten years.
  7. Don’t give raises.  Make an announcement at the Christmas Party that there will be no raises this year.
  8. Micro-manage.  Make sure that every decision to do anything, no matter how small or insignificant, is run by you first.  No one is capable of independent thought or action.  Delay everything for no purpose whatsoever, just to show them who is boss.
  9. Fire all senior staff members because they are making too much money.
  10. Don’t replace terminated employees, rather spread the work around to those left.
  11. Continually ask the staff why it is taking so long to get their work done, hang around and offer meaningless suggestions on how to be more efficient.
  12. To motivate sales people, attend sales meetings.  Make each sales person stand up and state what their budget is, whether they are meeting it and what steps they plan to take if they are not.  Have the spread sheet in front of you in case they lie.
  13. Do not to any building maintenance:  Roof leaks?  Wear a rain coat.  Furnace doesn’t work? Keep your coat on.  Don’t have a coat?  Here’s the address for the Salvation Army.  Floor rotting out in the production room?  Watch your step, else you may have to crawl through the spider webs under the building to get out.
  14. Strongly “suggest” that all employees should work two Saturdays per month.  If you think they are not meeting that “obligation” harass them every opportunity you get, e.g. the men’s room, staff meetings, the hall way, call them on Saturday at home and ask when they might be coming to work, etc.
  15. If anyone complains, tell them the are lucky to have a job and if they don’t like it, they know where the door is.

Those are the best fifteen, there are many more.  These are tried and true methods that have worked wonders for my former employer’s moral.  Not so much, however, the staff.  Those poor bastards.

You know, when your job interview seems a little off, perhaps it would be better to seek employment elsewhere: