Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Telephone Game

Perhaps you played it as a kid: Arrange a bunch of people in a circle. One person whispers a brief story to the person next to him. That person whispers the story to the other person next to him. . .and so on, around the circle. The story whispered back to its originator is usually unrecognizable.

Thanks to irresponsible media and the ease with which data can be passed along via the Internet, we are experiencing the ill effects of the biggest telephone game ever played. And it is killing us.

Why this topic? Why now? It was prompted by an email from a reader:

My father just called me to let me know our new [FCC] Diversity Chief was on the Glenn Beck Show tonight.  He feels the U.S. should model our radio after Venezuela and that the government should tax stations 100% of gross revenues and if they can't pay it, they would have to forfeit your license. He didn't think there should be private ownership of radio stations. I thought you might want to look into that for our next issue.

Tax stations 100% of their gross revenues? Look into it, indeed!

It turns out that Dad was not entirely accurate in his recollection. A segment of Beck’s show was about new FCC Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd; Lloyd did not appear. The discussion was between Beck and Media Research Center Director of Communications Seton Motley.

Beck started the discussion by paraphrasing Lloyd’s position—based not on recent statements while in his current job but passages from his 2006 book, Prologue to a Farce: Communications and Democracy in America.

While Beck, in setting up the segment, said that Lloyd would have each station pay 100% of its gross—kicking off a lengthy diatribe—Motley later set the record straight(er) by saying, “That’s not exactly right. That’s an estimated total of what the operating costs are, for somebody like Premiere Broadcasting, who syndicates several large talk show hosts. That’s just an extrapolation of the fine we’ve been discussing, which is dollar for dollar for the annual operating costs.” Huh?

I’m not saying we don’t have concerns with the whole idea of a “diversity chief” within an already-misguided Commission. But with all respect to our reader—a good friend of this publication—and his dad, the email in question is a great example of a malady afflicting our land today.

It started with the estimable Mr. Beck, who didn’t have his facts straight. . .exacerbated by Dad, and doubtless many others, who heard the wrong information wrong and innocently passed it along. This is the telephone game writ large and at its most dangerous. (Our reader, in a follow-up email, noted that his dad is 81, so he can be excused. . .but I guarantee you that similar distortions have been spread by others far younger.)

Admittedly I am in extremis, having made some good-sized gaffes in this all-too-public arena. But how else to explain the ability of, say, the RIAA to perpetrate believable but baseless blather in the performance tax battle? Or the groups who would have us believe that the Portable People Meter is a racist tool?

But we who represent the Fifth Estate should be in extremis, too. Just as we take pains to ensure accurate reporting on the air, we must do so in everything else we do and say as well.

Truth is not-so-slowly being replaced by what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”: things that seem true but are not. We have the power to counter truthiness. Let’s use it.

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear

Not-So-Confidential Memo to Arbitron:

I know you guys are busy beating back the geniuses who are perpetrating the anti-PPM fraud, while at the same time making much-needed advances in diary methodology. I know you have a lot to focus on in the road ahead, but it’s a good idea to glance in the rear view mirror from time to time.

See that cloud of dust in the distance? See how it’s closer than the last time you checked? Guess who’s coming to the party? Guess who’s winning the PR battle, not having to worry about the PPM cacophony overwhelming their message? Yes, it’s They Who Must Not Be Named.

There are some who would like nothing better than to see our resident ratings giant brought to its knees. There a many who welcome formidable competition, and there is much to be said for that argument: better data, faster delivery, lower cost.

But the other side of the issue has merit, too: especially now, do we need confusing, conflicting radio performance data?

AIG and Bernie Madoff aside, I believe in a free market, and I believe competition is a good thing.

And the need for affordable universal health care aside, I believe in survival of the fittest.

That’s why this gentle wake-up call to the denizens of Columbia, MD: Beware that dust-cloud approaching quickly from behind. Not only might it just overtake you, but it might also, er, cloud radio’s story at just the wrong time.

Where Are Radio’s Cheerleaders?

Southwest Airlines was a different company when Herb ran it.

Wal-Mart was a different company when Sam ran it.

Radio was a different business* when radio people ran it.

With incredible respect to the broadcasters in boardrooms and on selection committees, we have lost focus and direction. . .because we have lost the clear, omnipresent leadership of yore.

When Herb ran Southwest, you would see him everywhere—taking tickets, handing out boarding cards, serving coffee.

When Sam ran Wal-Mart, you would see his plane at the local airport and the man himself leading associate rallies and saying to customers (who mostly thought he was just other retiree greeter), “How may I help you?”

When radio people helmed our industry* associations, they gave us a very personal, public, omnipresent face. They may not have served popcorn at remotes, but they were in touch with the community in ways that inspired, informed—and exemplified.

Yes, Southwest, Wal-Mart and radio are different businesses today, and all the king’s Herbs, Sams, Eddies and Garys can’t have stopped the trends of time.

Nor am I advocating a return to those golden days of yesteryear. We have to face the realities of today and tomorrow, and we need leaders who are of today and tomorrow.

But those leaders will serve us best if they are also of our industry. As individual operators, we need a big dose of what we’re lacking right now: visibility, inspiration, cheerleading. That’s the leadership we need. I hope we deserve it.

*A word about wording: I am sensitive to those who want to call radio something other than an “industry” or a “business.” “Craft” falls short and “profession” has a limited application. When we settle on a better word, I’ll use it.

Too Big to Fail

I note with interest that members of the minority broadcast industry are calling for emergency federal assistance.

Why not? I’m sure we’ve got a few billion kicking around that we can throw at the problem.

What’s that, you say? Your business is hurting too? Well, let’s see what we have for an unorganized bunch of independent business people with zero political clout. Um, we’ll have to get back to you on that.

Remember what I said about believing in a free market? Assuming for a moment that such a thing could actually exist, the logical extension is that in that environment, businesses are free to succeed—and they are free to fail.

Minority broadcasters have a bunch of burdens that the rest of us don’t, and I’m in favor of a helping hand. I agree with Inner City’s Pierre Sutton that “Black and Hispanic must not be allowed to go extinct.” But I feel less charitable toward anyone who leverages political clout to misinform and overstate.

I certainly don’t want to see obviated the too-short history of minority advancement in radio. But I want to see fairness and honesty in the process.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Friend George

morris-george George Taylor Morris died over the weekend. You may know George as the longtime host of Deep Tracks on XM. . .or the morning guy in Boston and New York. . .or the host of the syndicated Reelin’ in the Years.

I met George when he came to work at WBLI on Long Island, an experiment in youthful self-indulgence that, thanks in large part to George’s prodigious talent, ruled the ratings from a tiny town near the East End of the island. He and I became fast friends, but we both moved on and lost touch, although I, for one, followed his career with interest and just a little brotherly pride.

I found out about his diagnosis about six months ago from a mutual friend. I hadn’t talked to him in many years, but I called him, we reconnected, and the years fell away. Subsequently he visited many friends around the country—a farewell tour, as it turns out—and we spent a wonderful day together.

Even though George had not been central in my life for some time, his passing leaves a big hole. I thought of the line in James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”: “. . .but I always thought I’d see you again.”

Typical GTM: When he showed up on our doorstep, I told him (truthfully) that he looked great. He gave me a big smile, that trademark cock of the head, and said, “Of course.”

Only George could pull that off.