Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Radio Waves Podcast #165

Radio March 17, 2017

I wouldn’t put it on the same level as when the fictional WKRP in Cincinnati changed formats from Beautiful Music to top-40, but listeners to many of Saul Levine’s smaller Los Angeles stations must have been caught by surprise last week when most of them made some sort of switch.

First off, Levine’s first musical love -- Classical -- moved down the dial from the digital HD stream of 105.1 HD2 to 88.1 HD2. This puts classical onto Long Beach State’s signal that Levine happens to run from his Mount Wilson Broadcasting Company studios in Westwood.

You need an HD Radio to pick up the digital signal and those mentioned below; HD radios are widely available in many new cars and aftermarket car stereos as well as home tuners and radios. Levine has long been a supporter of the technology.

88.1 HD2 will feature classical music 24/7, while the main signal of 88.1 - KKJZ -- will continue to feature jazz and blues programming. The classical programming on 88.1 HD2 replaces a secondary jazz format the station used to run; 88.1 HD3 will continue as K-Beach, run by students on the campus of CSULB.

Now that classical has moved down the dial, it frees up 105.1 HD2 to become ... OLDIES. Real oldies. As in focussing-on the-1950s-and-1960s oldies, the songs long-ago abandoned by the major broadcast groups. Levine calls it K-Surf, to invoke images of the Southern California beach lifestyle and the songs that were once heard through transistor radios plastered against your ear. As I write this, Bobby Vee’s Devil or Angel faded segued into To Sir With Love by Lulu followed by Pipeline by the Chantays.

It’s only been on a few days -- the debut of the oldies format was last Saturday -- but Levine says the response has been tremendous. So much so that he’s thinking of putting the format full-time on KBOQ (1260 AM) full time; for now KBOQ will continue to play standards during the week, though it added oldies on the weekend ... leading to frantic calls and emails from fans of the standards format.

If all that sounds confusing, here is the program listing:

Classical: KKJZ 88.1 HD2 and online at KMOZART.Com, 24 hours

Standards: KBOQ Monday-Friday only, KKGO 105.1 HD3 and unforgettable1260.Com 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Oldies: KKGO 105.1 HD2 and LAOldies.Com 24/7, KBOQ 5 p.m. Fridays through 9 a.m Mondays.

All of the stations can be found via apps such as TuneIn and StreamS HiFi. It may even be on the iHeart app, but that has gotten so bloated I cannot stand using it any more.

For now the music is commercial and DJ free. I hope Levine adds DJs (and jingles!), especially to K-Surf, even if they are voice-tracked to keep costs down. Radio is a personal thing and DJs bring that connection, at least in my opinion. I’d do a shift for free.

Now, you may be thinking ... didn’t Levine just change 1260 to standards? Why is he thinking of switching to oldies so soon?

Here is where having independent broadcasters is so important. Yes, one could quip that formats change on 1260 more often than some people change underwear. I’ve joked about it myself, though the changes slowed down in the past few years. But that misses the point.
 
Levine could have sold out years ago and retired very comfortably. KKGO itself is worth a small fortune, KBOQ is worth less but would still fetch a decent amount ... and with the lack of commercials, one can easily assume that KBOQ currently doesn’t make enough to pay the electric bill. But Levine stays in radio because he loves radio, and he is constantly finding formats that are in his opinion missing from the local airwaves.

He did it -- and hit pay-dirt -- with country. He’s continued to support classical and standards. And now he’s playing oldies that absolutely no one else plays. I sincerely hope that the Levine Los Angeles radio dynasty continues for many generations.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Radio Waves Podcast #164

History in the Making

For the first time ever, an internet stream had enough listeners to take the number one ratings spot in a key demographic, listeners aged 18-34.

This happened in Nielsen’s January ratings report for the Tampa, Florida area. “Maxima 92.5” WYUU’s internet stream finished first 18-34, ahead of all broadcast stations in the area, including WYUU’s own on-air signal. Quite a feat for a stream that, for at least the previous year, didn’t register enough listeners to even make the ratings at all.

History in the making, right? Absolutely. But for all the wrong reasons.

Turns out that, according to radio industry consultant Randy Kabrich who studied the issue, the impressive ratings came from two -- count ‘em, two -- people who probably received some sort of streaming device during the holidays and left it on WYUU continuously. The likely Nielsen Portable People Meter (PPM) holders are a Hispanic female aged 18-24 who spent 32 hours per week listening to the stream, along with a Hispanic male aged 25-34 listening 20 hours per week.

Let that sink in for a while as I recall the various problems associated with the PPM system: It doesn’t credit ratings well during spoken word programming (news, talk, DJ banter); it doesn’t work in noisy environments as when you’re in a car with windows down; it doesn’t work with headphones; it over counts background listening as in offices and stores; and there have been problems with data collection.

This latest hitch -- one in which a station stream can be credited as the top station via only two listeners -- proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Nielsen has nothing close to as many PPMs in the field as they need to calculate accurate ratings, especially when the data is further split into various subgroup demographics. Let me be clear -- the Nielsen PPM holders (the two listeners in question) did nothing wrong, and I have no doubt that they listened to the stream in question. But two people can propel the stream to the top of the ratings? In a city of over 2.5 million radio listeners? Really?

If this is not proof that Nielsen’s PPM is so severely flawed as a ratings system that its results can not be taken seriously, I don’t know what is. Radio stations have no alternative but to use it, as it is the only game in town. And some observers fault station owners for not wanting to pay the required fees that would make expanding the number of PPM holders a reality.

In my opinion, PPM is one of those things that looks great on paper, only to be proven unreliable and obviously flawed and invalid. The problem is what to do. Advertisers deserve to have a reliable determination of station ratings; it would seem that the Federal Trade Commission or Congress itself may need to get involved.

New Station in the IE

The longtime simulcast on 93.5 FM of KDAY/Redondo Beach and KDEY/Ontario has ended. KDAY will stay the course -- for now -- of playing classic hip-hop, but KDEY is now Wild 93.5 with an urban hits format designed to compete with KGGI (99.1 FM).

“Compete” may be s strong word, as Wild has a very limited regional signal and KGGI is a powerhouse that covers the entire Inland Empire and comes in strong even where I live in Southern Los Angeles. But if they super-serve the local community as the original license intended, it could work. Local businesses need to advertise too, and a local station is always a welcome addition to the radio landscape.

Now the choice of format? Going against KGGI ... as well as the Los Angeles stations that penetrate the market ... may not be the best move. As one post to the KDAY Facebook page said, “Why make a station with modern hip-pop music when we have Power 106, Real 92.3, and 99.1?? Good luck staying relevant.”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Radio Waves Podcast #163

Radio: March 3, 2017

Cumulus Media, owner of 447 radio stations nationwide including KABC (790 AM) and KLOS (95.5 FM) locally, was dealt a huge blow last week in its effort to reduce its debt. Reuters reports that a federal judge rejected a plan that would have allowed the company to exchange a portion of its $2.4 billion in debt with ... other debt.

The plan involved exchanging “senior notes,” or loans that are soon due to be paid back, for “a combination of stock and up to $305 million in secured debt borrowed through a $200 million revolving credit line.”

I would love those terms. If I could borrow $305 million from a $200 million line of credit, I could pay off the entire line of credit and still have $105 million. Hmm...

The real question, other than the financial sleight of hand that this entire deal seems to be, is: can Cumulus use a line of credit to help it pay down older debt at a discount? Major debt holder J.P. Morgan said no, and the judge agreed. What happens next could decide the fate of Cumulus Media as a company and the repercussions may be felt throughout the industry, as iHeart, the largest radio company in the world, also carries a huge debt load. 

If Cumulus is unable to refinance by March 13, a previously-reached agreement with the majority of debtholders will expire; if that agreement expires, it could trigger what is described as a “springing maturity” of debt that could easily bankrupt the company.

Here is what I don’t understand. I’ve done a few columns on the idea of someone like me buying Cumulus outright. As I write this, Cumulus stock sits at just under 76 cents per share, giving it a total market value of just over $22 million. My plan would be to buy the company for what is essentially less than the value of KLOS alone, sell off the majority of the stations, and -- even if many of station sales were sold at fire-sale prices -- be left with about $2 billion to run the remaining ten stations I’d keep. Those ten stations would have no debt, meaning I could put the remaining money into talent, programming and promotion. With no debt and a huge cash stash to be used for running the remaining group, my ten station network easily be the most profitable, dynamic stations in the country.

Why isn’t someone actually doing this? Or the related obvious question: why isn’t anyone forcing Cumulus to do this themselves? What am I missing? Shouldn’t a company that owes debt have to start selling stations to pay off said debt? And will someone please explain this to the FCC and Congress, both of which allowed this radio ownership model of “too big to succeed” to happen in the first place? The best way to make radio profitable again it to make it smaller, as consolidation has brought down the entire industry. 

A cap of ten stations total nationwide would go a long way to bringing back radio to the level of success it deserves. If new FCC chairman Ajit Pai really wants to help radio -- as he claims he does -- this should be the first move. 

Woody Mornings

It was KNX (1070 AM) that won the overall morning matings -- meaning all listeners aged 6 and over -- but it was Alt 98.7 FM’s The Woody Show that won the coveted and lucrative demographic of listeners 18-34.
 
If you haven’t heard the show yet, you should check it out. Yes, parts of it may be considered “light crude,” if there is such a phrase. Such as when they play recordings of someone, um, passing gas with listeners calling in to guess which of the morning crew passed it. But over all it is a remarkably creative, clever, funny and witty show that is well worth listening.

Stiffs and Hits

A funny thing happened as I was listening to recordings of The Real Don Steele on KHJ circa-1967 or so via ReelRadio.Com. Lots of stiffs. Thought not necessarily bad music. Let me explain.

I was told once by Bill Drake, who along with Gene Chanault consulted KHJ in the 1960s and KRTH (101.1 FM) in the 1990s, that KRTH could easily play tapes of KHJ and few would notice ... it was the same music.

Yet as I listened to recordings of Steele, I found just the opposite. Many of the songs were not hits, even when new. KHJ, and most hit stations of the era, tried to break as many new songs and new bands as they could. It was a bragging right as well as a survival technique, as many songs were shorter than three minutes and would quickly burn out if new music didn’t come in soon to replace it.

So unlike today, when a song can stay on station playlists for years, in the 1960s and ‘70s the entire playlist could be totally different in a matter of weeks. Thus, even “hitbounds” didn’t necessarily become hits at all. And old recordings such as on ReelRadio offer music that you truly may have never heard in decades, if you ever heard it at all. I’m not saying this is good or bad,  but it is a difference between radio then and now.