THE STATE OF RADIO
Every day I hear how radio is going down the tubes and nobody will listen in a few years. I just don't believe that. And I'm not living is a fantasy world.
Radio has never had it easy. Back when stations were live 24/7 with news departments and such, the expenses were high. I can just imagine the mountain facing you back in those days: fully staffed with zero dollars rolling in and building a station to the point of just making that first payment back to the investors.
I doubt it is much different than it is today. In fact it is likely much cheaper to run a station these days than ever before. Even so, it is at least equally as tough to reach breakeven.
Granted radio has really done a poor job in the face it shows the public. Radio sales people tend to learn sales by being tossed in the deep end to see if they can swim. It's go see these people without having a clue of what to do. Many times your programming is not really researched and frequently gets slighted in budget that is mostly spent to help sales. Training is often minimal if anything at all because there is never enough people or time in the radio station to do more. Even PSAs you announce for free are paid for in the newspaper, cable TV and online. In other words, if we were any other industry we'd wonder how they made it as far as they have.
Somehow America embraced radio like a long lost brother. Still today radio listening has only fallen by single digits with so many other platforms threatening to steal away listeners. We must be doing something right.
What we did right was cut operation costs to the bone to compete with all the other platforms out there with salespeople making a good case for their venue. In the past there were no such things as cable TV ads, the internet and such. In fact, there were far fewer stations to choose from on the dial. Where there were one or two radio choices, that population might have 10 local choices today. So that market that could sell $500,000 in real radio advertising dollars then now splits the pie among 10 stations. There's always a couple of winners and a bunch of losers. Plainly put, if you are one of 3 in a race, you have a 33% chance of winning but when 10 are in the race you now have a 10% chance of crossing the finish line first.
Radio consolidated. If you can have 4 stations in a market and cover a different audience with each, you better your chances. Put them in the same building, share the staff among the stations and the resources. Just maybe you can get the dollars needed to pay the bills and turn a profit. That poor standalone is really at a disadvantage. It can offer but one audience and one source of consumers while being burdened with all the staffing and operating costs.
Radio is now likely the best researched in the programming realm than it ever was. We do not rely on 'gut instinct' these days. The sales end has gotten more creative and now you might even get some training or mentoring. Still the sale does not come easy. There's the email blast company, the various websites, cable TV, the newspapers, the shoppers mailed to everyone in the county, the direct mail, billboards and all the other options you fight to win favor in order to make the sale. Literally you have to acknowledge the other options are all good too. You're stuck trying to demonstrate how your option is a better choice for whatever reason.
Radio listening is not losing ground as some think. When I say that folks say radio is ignored by the youth. They're right to some degree but they're comparing it to a time with there were not the options we have today. They say internet radio will destroy over the air radio. They forget most internet radio listening is to over the air radio stations that stream. Let me ask you, now that cable or satellite TV is available anywhere, have all the over the air TV stations vanished?
Radio still does what other media doesn't or can't do. That is what keeps radio viable. And radio is free. Who can claim that? Cable or satellite TV? Internet Radio? Newspapers? (I admire newspapers for creating the concept their content is so valuable you have to pay for it.)
I don't pretend to know the future but from my view, radio is not in peril. Metro newspapers are and even some century plus aged weekly small town papers bite the dust too. Non-broadcast TV networks are struggling (ever wonder why reality TV is so big? It's really cheap to create and syndicators have to be cheap when stations can't afford much for rights).
So, while you have 200+ cable or satellite TV channels, tens of thousands of streaming stations and ample print choices, that crowded radio dial is still able to generate the listeners in great enough quantity to keep itself in the black. And I suspect the fact radio is free, accessible and doing something nobody else offers will keep it alive and breathing for quite some time.
To those who say the younger listeners gave up on radio, I ask you to review your media habits throughout your life. I can guarantee you it has changed drastically as has your life. I suspect those who are not radio users now will be as they grow older. Remember, radio always follows the dollars. Radio will reach them, just give it a little time.
As for LPFM, it is early on in the life of LPFM. LPFM is following a path different from traditional radio. In many respects it is like the domestic feline compared to the lion. In the coming years many will fail but many will succeed, trailblazing the path future LPFMs will define as the road to success. Some have found it and other are still searching. There is a need for LPFM no matter your views of what LPFM is in your mind. There's room for us all and in time LPFM will evolve as the truly localized version of radio nobody else can do. Sure, that is happening now but in the future that will not be a trend but rather the established path.
LPFM will fight through the hardships and come out on the other side whether that be funding or programming.
THE JOHNSON RAG
The Johnson Rag is to newspapers what a Low Power FM can be to radio. You need to see the paper to get what I mean, so you can view a PDF here: http://johnsonrag.wixsite.com/weekly.
I have always felt LPFM could thrive in a small market. Johnson, Nebraska's paper shows what LPFM can be as a small market station.
It isn't pretty. Just a bunch of legal size pages run off on a copy machine at the city office each week. But it's not the layout rather the content that matters. If you'll bother to peruse an issue, I have the ultimate question: Do you feel like you know Johnson after reading an issue? I think you will have a good idea of this tiny town of 369 people in 168 homes. And that's the point. A great radio station is a reflection of life in the community it serves.
When you see how much is printed each week, you might scratch your head about how a mere 369 people can do so much. The truth is it's about average for such a population. It's just that not that many in media have developed the network to reflect every aspect of the community.
I notice a bunch about The Johnson Rag. I actually subscribed for a year a decade or so ago. I spoke to a really nice guy that owned a business in Johnson. He was connected to the weekly. I learned how the publication worked.
First, The Johnson Rag is put together by volunteers. They print it at the city office and use the city's postal permit (I understand) to mail about 200 copies a week outside the town. They ask at least a $20 bill for an annual subscription of 50 editions. Approximately 200 copies go to everyone in town. These are hand delivered, not just set out for people to pick up.
There's plenty of advertising too. And it's really cheap: $1 a column inch. That means a full page ad, a full legal size page would be about $25 or $26. Why so cheap? The philosophy is simple: everybody can afford an ad and I mean everybody. Simply put, to serve everyone, they need everyone able to have a spot in the paper. Just like the news, they want to be all inclusive. Some feel an LPFM shouldn't do this but before you think different, call them. Ask them how important their local businesses are to the health of the town. If you are a true community station, you don't ignore the business community.
In short, The Johnson Rag is a perfect guideline for the small market or neighborhood paper, showing how they reflect all segments of life in the immediate area. It is a testament of community pride, volunteerism and building a network that connects with every household in the area.
Let me give you a little data to understand just how small Johnson, Nebraska is. The town is 369 people, 168 households. In Nebraska incorporated towns are included in the township and election precincts. The precinct is 55 square miles with 770 people and 318 homes. The Johnson zip code covers 666 people in 227 homes in 39 square miles. RecNet shows a 60 dbu population of 699. Total Business Sales is $1,253,931 with 14 businesses. Business Sales is businesses categories that have historically used radio as a part of their marketing. From what I gather, the paper generates about $4,000 from advertising, about $4,000 from mailed subscriptions and likely about the same amount or more from donations.
By the way, Brock, included in the school district, is just 123 people. The town had a weekly paper too, about 6 to 8 legal pages a week, with plenty of ads too. I cannot say it is still published.
If you wonder about Johnson, I've been there. Coming across from Missouri on a US Highway, I turned north of a state highway and then had to turn off on a connector highway. Nebraska highways do not always go through towns of this size and you'd never know the town was there without a map. A short feeder highway noted by the letter A at the end of the highway number is typically a 2 lane paved highway. I drove to Johnson. Where the feeder highway turned to gravel, I turned left to the downtown, not much more than a block long. Thus, it is not a 'pass through' town but a place you intend to go. Thus, a chain convenience store on the highway is not typical nor the other usual businesses in a 'pass through' town. Johnson businesses serve the locals, not pass through traffic. In that respect, Johnson is isolated from the highways. That makes Johnson seem sleepy, slow and lacking activity but the paper shows differently, the bubbling under bustle the passing through motorist misses. It's a great little town.
THE ALL NEWS AND INFORMATION FORMAT
The set up is detailed:
7.5 minute rotation
news and information repeats 8 times an hour
PSAs that are institutional rotate every hour or two
Regular features: Birthdays, Anniversaries, Weather Forecast
Each feature (PSA, news and information item) is 15 seconds
Where more detail is needed, two segments can rotate at 1 every 15 minutes
15 seconds PSA
15 seconds Birthdays
15 seconds Anniversaries
15 seconds Weather
30 seconds Sponsorships (4 clients at 7.5 seconds each)
Sponsors: Birthdays, Anniversaries, Weather, News & Info
150 seconds Business Underwriters: Bunch in three per 30 second unit
180 seconds 12 news and information segments at 15 seconds each
15 seconds Station Promo
10 seconds Station Liners - 2 at 5 seconds each
5 seconds Legal ID
Cycle is 7 minutes and 30 seconds
Sponsorships repeat 8 times an hour for $50 a week based on 52 week contract, $200 initial payment, then 12 payments of $200
Sponsorships are exclusive to a specific business
Sponsors get: Business name and address or phone or website
Business Underwriters air 2 times an hour at $10 per week based on 52 week contract, first month in advance and billed monthly in advance
Underwriters get Business Name, Street and City
4 Sponsorships at $50 each
60 Business Underwriters at $10 each
Weekly Revenue $800
Notes: each news and information item is 15 seconds, stand-alone. All PSAs such as drunk driving, giving blood, anti-bully, anti-drug and other such topics are 15 seconds and repeat in a staggered cycle, perhaps every 2 or 3 hours. Each news is it's own segment. Production music interludes could be used to replace outdated segments once kill date hits on that day. A buyout of production music or subscription service can work as well. In addition, dead segments can be replaced by promos instead of music. News and information features are based more on a day planner sort of system with each segment generally within 24 hours of kill date.
YOU HAVE YOUR CONSTRUCTION PERMIT, BUT...
I hate to see a station go unbuilt and a CP expire. So many just do not understand how rare and special the opportunity is. Do not be fooled. There are only so many radio stations that can fit on the radio dial. Once the dial is full, there are no more. Unlike a newspaper, for example, you just cannot decide one day you'll start a station and just do it. The Federal Government has to OK you for a license and if you have one chance in a decade, then things are running swiftly at the FCC. For many it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
With this said, I have seen boards implode, fight, lose sight of the mission and such. I have seen towns and cities make it nearly impossible. I have seen tower owners price stations out. I have seen many, many things go wrong, and I mean really wrong to the point you want to scream and pull out your hair. I have seen people so perplexed that they cannot see themselves even remotely making the next leap to going on the air.
Bluntly, I have seen astounding ignorance. Strong words indeed, but many have no clue about running a radio station and quite frankly, oppose any advice of radio people that get a paycheck from radio because they actually know what they are doing.
For ignorance, try this: nobody listens to radio because radio station owners are not listening to what the listeners want from radio. How about, you're in commercial radio so you don't have a clue. I hope you see the error of these ignorant remarks. Is one really to believe the say you maximize listeners and income by doing what the listeners do not want? Really? Is this any way to run a business? If nobody listens to radio then why did you choose to start a radio station? And that I work in commercial radio where I earn my paycheck, I don't understand 'public radio'? Let me explain how silly that is: one person does auto repairs on Toyotas and another person does auto repairs on Fords. In your mind is it remotely possible the person who works on Toyotas can also work on Fords? If you don't know that answer ask a auto mechanic. Sure each brand has it's differences but both brands work just the same way. And the true difference between a Toyota and Ford, as far as making repairs is so minimal it is insignificant.
I have spoken to people with a CP that were unaware they could get an extension for another 18 months. The same goes for a group that did not know they could make a minor change to a nearby tower. Some thought board member changes meant they could no longer hold a CP and build the station.
There are some that have been convinced to do or buy this or that and because they just did not know enough about radio to understand how it was bad advice. For example, the guy that wanted to buy a cheap transmitter and then buy processing, spending $250 more than they should have by buying a good reliable transmitter with processing in the transmitter.
There are things you must consider: when an equipment dealer says their transmitter line is the best, when a book tells you $5,000 will have you on the air and when an activist organization not involved in running stations says this is all you need to do. Let's set the story right. The equipment dealer is selling product. What do you expect them to say. I know too many stations that went with a cheap transmitter and were sorry they did. It is possible to get a station going for $5,000 but it sure helps if you are an engineer with great connections because to find the stuff you have to be connected nationwide and you'll need to be an engineer to keep tinkering with the equipment to keep it going. And if you want to take advice from an advocate group for their 'brand' of LPFM station that has never run stations, well, you get what you paid for.
If you choose to take advice from people who continue to get a paycheck from radio, and I mean are in the business and have been, then they will show you the real ropes and tell you how to succeed. A person in radio knows the lay of the land. And you might wonder what they want in exchange. The truth is they share because it is how they learned and they're likely much like me, curious to learn about what you want to do. In other words, your skepticism can be diminished because learning about your station is their payment.
So what do I mean. A friend of mine and I got in touch with one group. We put them in touch with an engineer we trusted and convinced to give them a low rate. Next a local tower owner 1,000 feet away agreed to less than half the quote for renting space on a tower because one of us knew the guy personally. So we offered help to keep their dream alive and saved them thousands a year on tower rental. We accomplished this in about 10 minutes for the grand fee of $0.00. Why? We'd rather you take advantage of this rare opportunity than to lose it.
Another station we discussed formats. The community had some very unique features. All the basic formats were already on the metro stations you could hear in the town this LPFM served. Looking at the transition and trends of the community, we identified a type of person that sought living there and we looked at their lifestyle and why they chose living there. Our format suggestion mimics a wine bar or coffee shop music selection for background ambiance. Why? It is these people who would identify with this station as the community very rapidly transitions from the old timer town to a young and upwardly mobile group. Even the non-music segments were analyzed: be 100% local in announcements; embrace small town living with an emphasis on local events and gatherings that tend to reach a more upscale attendee since the younger group (couples and young families) aspired to be a part of such activities. So, in other words, we looked at what was on the radio, how to carve out a niche that had enough local appeal for a larger cross-section of the community the LPFM serves. We looked at local business owners and how the format choice could find favor with them as well. In short, we tried to understand their mind, know their lifestyle and respond. The results of our research didn't take too much time and to tell the truth, the format was not a choice because we liked it but because it was right for the community.
Now, if you find that CP is tougher than you thought it might be to get on the air and licensed, let us help or at least put you in touch with someone that can. To be honest, to offer some services we will want a little money for but only because of the hours we spend on it. Our $0.00 was because it was 10 minutes, a few phone calls and stuff we knew off the top of our head. Naturally, the objective is to help, now milk your bank account dry. I'd rather work for 5 cents on the dollar compared to the going fees in order to help rather than see a CP expire.
In thinking this through, we figured a basic plan for station operation with an email newsletter every few weeks for around $50 a month. Insanely low pricing, we know, but anybody that offers anything will tell you to offer what people need you need to match the budget they have and can easily afford. Why charge? We did lots of work and research, too costly for any one group to foot the bill on but if 20 or 30 split it, it would be worth it. In fact, based on hours spent and such, I'm guessing it is about $17,000 to $18,000 worth of work that applies to any sort of LPFM station. In fact, I still don't have it exactly how I want it to offer it to stations, but this is what we are talking about. I'm talking how to organize the station, build a media kit, tend to programming and such, then back that up with ongoing ideas and such over the next year. I figure one Underwriting Spot a day can cover us. I want to be that affordable.
For example, at one station we helped folks find another group to carry the torch. We put them in touch with folks that could get a board change approved an pass the station along. We asked $500 each for the two of us doing the work. We didn't act as a broker but rather a matchmaker. That's peanuts, really. I doubt we made very much per hour but we help a station go from dead back to life. A broker would expect thousands. In fact one guy I know would require a $500 deposit just to start work and a percentage of the sale price. But we'd prefer be matchmakers, not brokers.
We have even thought of how we might 'buy you time' to get your ducks in a row. We are exploring ideas of providing programming to start you out until you can afford to do things yourself. This one is still being worked out, but we know of several stations that just cannot afford to operate yet but need to be on the air to get the license. We are looking at options that might cover operating expenses until you're prepared to do so and I have some really low cost ideas that wouldn't rob either of us of our income while giving you breathing room.
The point is, if you are at a dead end, we'll be happy to see if we can help and chances are good in a few minutes, at no cost, you'll be turned around and back on the highway toward getting your station going. As always, our ideas can be used or not, but please don't let a CP go away. It is a rare gem. Every situation is different. No one answer fits all. Only by talking with us by clicking to contact me, can we help you explore options. So, don't hesitate. We want to help and if we think we might need a bit of chump change to invest the hours, we'll tell you up front and match your budget, which is usually slim to none. Granted, most stations die from a lack of money.
TARGET THE MASSES: I FINALLY GET IT, THE EMAIL SAID...
I have preached for years that because your LPFM reaches so few people compared to a full coverage signal, the only logical way to program is for the masses. Obviously, if in a tiny town you might program different parts of the day for various segments of the community. In the big city you can more easily be one thing quite easily because you can achieve more listeners by reaching only a small fraction of radio listeners. By this I mean in a town of 5,000 you need to be all things to all people but in a town of 500,000 you can be all things to 2% of the population and be better off. It is all about the numbers.
One reader of this site gets it. The text went like this: "If I compare radio to McDonalds, I get it. We know McDonalds now sells breakfast all day. For years some complained about breakfast being only during certain hours. Yet, they have been a huge success in monetizing breakfast. I heard people complain they could not order off the regular menu before 10:30. If I am understanding what you are saying, it makes sense. The way McDonalds does things according to my nephew that works for them, they are set up to either sell breakfast or the regular menu, not both. That's the issue."
"If I am getting what you are saying, radio is like McDonalds. You can either serve breakfast or the regular menu. You cannot do both, but if you do, you had better try to sell breakfast during the breakfast hours since you cannot do both."
I can assume the number of people at McDonalds wanting a Big Mac at 7 in the morning is few but those wanting an Egg McMuffin is overwhelmingly more. Since I can serve Big Macs or Egg McMuffins, I would choose the Egg McMuffin because it is what people want at breakfast time. Sure, the Big Mac customers are out in the cold but a fast food restaurant has to have a bunch of customers buying what they want when they want it or they'll close up rather quickly."
"To compare McDonalds to radio, you are saying you have to make a choice. Do you sell Big Macs or Egg McMuffins at 7 in the morning. You are saying to choose the Egg McMuffin. Even further you are saying the people who choose an Egg McMuffin at noon or for the evening meal is rare compared to those choosing the Big Mac. So, if you have a choice, the noon and evening meal hours, it only makes sense to sell the Big Mac and not the Egg McMuffin. In other words you should make your station about what most people want at the time they want it. Am I getting that right?"
"I am guessing you are saying do not program your radio station where you would be selling only Big Macs at 7 in the morning and then Egg McMuffins only during lunch and the evening meal because so few want that choice at that time."
Not only do you get it, you are spot on. In fact this is likely the best example I've seen. Might I add, McDonalds is having real trouble trying to do both breakfast and the regular menu all the time. In fact only a few breakfast items are possible after the breakfast run. Simply put, franchisees hate the logistic nightmare. In addition, the average ticket price has dropped. In other words, the customer count remains about the same but the amount they spend is less. The other issue that has surfaced, the logistic nightmare has slowed service times creating displeasure among customers. In short, at this moment, it is not a win-win for McDonalds. The lesson is you have to go with what the masses want and leave that small minority out in the cold. They might not be entirely left out because if you crave an Egg McMuffin at 3 pm on Wednesday, you might be at McDonalds Thursday morning to grab one. In fact, this fully applies to radio.
In radio, especially critical for the LPFM, is addressing the masses. That small group you don't serve, can likely never get their vision materialized unless it is a specialty program. If you try to include them, nobody is happy. Placement for any of these small groups must be addressed at the right time. Notice McDonalds served breakfast only in breakfast hours, not for dinner or lunch hours instead. Thus, that 3% that wants their format on your station must be scheduled at a time when few of the masses expect programming for the masses, such as late night, weekend mornings or evenings, times fewer numbers of the masses are listening. For example, you don't want that Thrash Metal show at 6 am on Monday morning, that Dance Mix on at 10 am on Monday nor that Big Band show at 8 pm on Monday night. Rather Thrash might be at 10 on Sunday evening or Big Band early on Saturday morning and your Dance Mix on Friday or Saturday night, right?
My point, that this email addresses, is find what everyone wants and give the stragglers a bone at the right time. To choose otherwise is akin to the McDonalds that only sells that Big Mac, Kids Meals or Ice Cream from 6 to 10:30 in the morning and just Egg McMuffins, Orange Juice, hash browns, sausage, bacon and such after 10:30 am. I think you can project how that would go over. What I am saying is way too many LPFM stations take the latter example rather than the former.
I'M GOING TO DO A CHRISTIAN FORMAT.
The email said I was critical of Christian Radio. I am. There's too much of an attitude of "It is God's station so I'm not concerned with any advice or suggestions or trying to follow basic radio rules". That is moronic in my opinion. That is like saying God has led me to preach the Word but I refuse to read the Bible or seek any training because, well, it's God's Will. With that said, it is obvious the person emailing thinks like I do: if it is for God, I'm going to be the best I can by learning everything I can so I can be among the best for God. You see God as your coach that guides and directs but you take on the challenge and better your abilities to win. Let me applaud you!!!
Everybody used to say Christian Radio was a hard road a quarter of a century ago. It was but now it is next to impossible in comparison. In the past you had the most popular national ministries and all the less prolific ministries all buying for the right to air on your station. As a non-commercial station you had a minimum donation to get a segment of time. Maybe not so blatant as that but essentially that is the deal.
The big ministries woke up one day and said, gee, I have a huge audience I can bring to a radio station so I shouldn't pay. I'll offer a share meaning you get a percentage of the donations from your listeners determined by the zip codes your signal reaches. It was never as much as when they were paying and typically much, much less. In fact, a check of any substantial amount is rare. Still you need those ministries to get the listeners.
This is not unlike choosing Conservative Talk and not wanting Rush, Sean or Mark Levin on the station. If you choose to take them, then lots of listeners come to you but the sacrifice is the money. It's like fishing. You offer the worm you paid for to attract the fish and chances are you'll get a fish on the hook. This is what Christian radio has become.
You ride the barbed wire fence, giving away time for listeners, in hopes of getting a local ministry or two willing to pay you to get on the air. Obvious the dance means having enough bait and enough fish reeled in.
You will be have a rough time selling Underwriting. For the business it is a personal drive that causes them to buy Underwriting. This compares to finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. The clients are flighty based on how their income fluctuates. In tight months they cancel. In good months you can count on them.
Christian radio is tough. Beliefs vary and you can't get them all. If you could, you are talking 5.2% of all radio listeners. You have to choose your flavor. You might want to be an outreach, but in reality, most stations have to preach to the choir to get the money. So, what you need to do, outreach, just doesn't get much support.
The result is Christian radio is one where you starve trying to bring new people to God. You'll do well if you don't and you'll still never get some to listen because Christian beliefs are so diverse.
The easiest route is music. Lots of folks love Contemporary Christian music. Southern Gospel and even Christian Country are good targets. Sacred music, as a combination of classical composers, maybe some chants and such do quite well in specialty programs. Ironically, the Sacred side including music normally associated with Orthodox (Eastern and Western) faiths and Chant (Plain, Gregorian, etc.) popular with the Catholic faith, are liked by many, even non-religious folks.
You should know poverty and Christian radio go hand in hand. The number of full power commercial and non-commercial stations I know that operate on under $5,000 a month is common, in fact $30,000 or less a year even fairly common. For LPFMs, too many are in the $1,000 a year range. So don't think you can just go on and be fine without alternative funding.
What you can do is to embrace as much of the community as you can. There are many, many common interests embraced by the Christian and secular radio listener. Embrace this, not to minister, but to bring listeners to the station that you would not get without adding the programming. It is not 'watering down' but the opposite. It is just good business to make your Church, Ministry or station seem involved in the community.
The last point is it is your job to deliver the listener. It is not your job to convert them on the radio but to get them in the Church where that job is tackled. Don't try to do it all but be an effective source for the local ministries to add new faces to what they do. Your station delivers people. If you'll center on this you can easily understand why listening to the radio pros and using all the tricks radio folks use to build and maintain an audience is so crucial to your success. If you try for listeners and work that, you have found your path to creating an effective and more financially viable station.
CAN LPFM EVER BE MORE THAN IT CURRENTLY IS?
Good question. I think the answer is yes. I believe the FCC wants LPFM to work. I think they are prepared to take the baby steps that must be taken to bolster the impact of LPFM on their communities.
So what are the possibilities? At this point I think it depends on an individual station's needs. I'd suggest phoning and asking for help, fully and concisely explaining your position. You might be surprised how much the FCC is on your side. We're not talking breaking rule and getting the okay for that but rather how they might allow for some relief.
What might happen at some point could be primary status of some sort, maybe 250 watts ERP if it fits where you are, bigger moves if it means you go away without an exception and maybe even a little easing on Underwriting rules within reason. None of this am I saying will happen, but if you keep your nose clean, honor the FCC Rules and go beyond the minimum to prove you are a responsible licensee, exceptions and relief are more likely than not. Certainly if you are just a personal iPad, maybe not, but if you have listeners, engage your community and try to be a good community station (serving your community), then the FCC wants you to stick around. Choosing to be a full EAS participant might even be a good idea to help demonstrate this.
There is much confusion on just how much Underwriting you can air on your Low Power FM. Let's clear this up. The FCC has suggested 6 per hour at about 20 seconds as an ideal length and they specifically say more than 30 seconds means you're more likely to step over the line of what you can say.
Fact: This is NOT an FCC rule. It is clear the FCC thinks it is ideal for a station to limit Underwriters to about 2 minutes an hour, or 6 at 20 seconds each.
So, what about those big city NPR stations that run maybe 9 minutes or more and might have as many as 25 Underwriters airing within an hour. The FCC has nothing to say about them, so why not? If you're confused, you're not alone.
The reality is the FCC is more concerned with an Underwriter's Announcement sounding like a commercial. And, it seems the FCC has no problem with a single Underwriting Spot having more than one Underwriter.
Let's clarify. You are running a special program, maybe a high school game. One Underwriting Spot might give some details on half a dozen Underwriters in a sixty second unit. In other words, it might start like this: Tiger Sports is made possible by Joe's Pest Control offering residential and commercial pest control including once a year fire ant control. Joe's Pest Control, 225 Main, 225-P-E-S-T. And by Hometown Market, the local full service grocery store with meat market and bakery, open 7 days a week, Hometown Market. By Sew and Sew offering clothing alterations and repairs, custom sewing and sewing supplies at 412 First Street, Sew and Sew at 255-9831... There might be, say 6 Underwriters in this single unit or spot. The FCC would consider this ONE Underwriting Spot.
So, as you add it all up, that big NPR station running 25 Underwriters in an hour and, say 9 minutes in drive time is perfectly within the FCC standards because the FCC realizes they will not be running tons of Underwriting from, say Midnight to 6 in the morning but mostly because that big city NPR station makes sure the Underwriting Spots do not sound like commercials.
My suggestion is to look at shorter Underwriting Spots, say 15 to 20 seconds, do not add background music, sound effects and multiple voice spots as you would hear on commercial radio. By doing so, you can easily exceed the 6 an hour, especially if you bunch more than one Underwriter in a spot or unit. By this I mean: Support comes from...first Underwriter...and by...second Underwriter...and by...third Underwriter...and listeners like you.
I am a huge fan of the short spots. I consider a 15 second as lengthy. The way I see it, if I charge $3 for a 15 second and 6 spots, why not $2 for an 8 second spot, running a dozen per hour.
WHAT SOME ARE DOING AND WHY
I tend to look for the more out of the ordinary that the usual. When I find that different station I want to learn why and if it works.
A few stations only allow Underwriters to have their business name mentioned. I would think this might be a tough sell. Then I think of how stations are branding their studios and program segments. Generally it goes like this: if your business is named Ace Hardware, what you offer is in your business name so no further detail is needed. If the business is The Cottage, we might need to add clarification: The Cottage Boutique and Styling Salon. This style of advertising works best in smaller communities and at college stations where the business is generally known and within walking distance of the campus.
Some stations use the name mention as a 'sponsor' feature even though there might be several other Underwriting Spots in the hour. You may have heard on commercial talk radio something like "This hour is sponsored by State Farm Insurance". They fill the 12 minutes with other advertisers. In other words, sponsorship does not mean exclusive.
Generally the 'business name only' Underwriting is 1/3rd to 1/2 the price of an Enhanced Underwriting Spot.
One station gives clients an hourly mention for a bit more than a dollar a day. Dirt cheap for sure but they don't get to be all alone. In fact, 5 to 7 businesses are listed in one spot. In fact they have about 25 clients doing this. For the community announcements (read one at a time) each half hour, it's a mere $50 a month to be a sponsor and there are 4 sponsors. Here's how they do it.
"Support is provided by: 1) Family Market, 2) The Cottage Boutique and Styling Salon, 3) Julie Stephens, a Pampered Chef Independent Representative, 4) by Martin Heating and Air, 5) The Downtown Cafe and by 6) Davis Farm and Ranch Supply".
Community Announcements: This community reminder is sponsored by First National Bank, Mike Ferrell, State Farm Insurance, Paul's Auto Repair and Johnson's Department Store...community announcement...credit the sponsors again.
Another LPFM station looked at Cable TV and I think it was a wise choice. In markets all over, cable TV companies have community channels that are almost always just community announcements and ads from small businesses. In some markets that string of announcements and ads might last 12 to 15 minutes or up to an hour. Generally speaking these are single frame or 30 words of text appearing on the screen for 15 seconds. One cable company had 8 second classifieds, generally about 16 words or less.
These local channels offer low cost advertising to the smaller mom and pop business that frequently has few if any advertising options they find affordable. In small towns rates might be as low as $5 a week and in the big city, a section of the city receiving the channel might pay $200 to $300 a month. An average rate is about $60 a month.
The LPFM that researched this felt their average target Underwriter could afford this although I wonder how effective an ad on the community channel would be. After all, a cable system with 4,000 subscribers, for example, an average choice of 189 channels to surf, so how many actually check out that channel? Regardless, business owners buy and find it affordable.
This LPFM has chosen to go with a 30 word spot every hour for $75 a month. They want about 16 clients played 4 in a row every quarter hour.
The second LPFM to look at the 20 word spots. They charge $19 a month to get a spot every 5 hours and intend on getting 80 accounts. They want to play 4 every 15 minutes and think it will take 30 seconds to read 4 Underwriter Spots at 20 words each.
Still another LPFM will limit Underwriting to the business name, street address, phone number and website address. You get 1 a day, 7 days a week for $75 a month. Their feeling is this information is effective and it keeps the station from second guessing if the copy actually is within the FCC restrictions. They did say they have no problem adding to the company name. For example, Johnson Motors (they add Ford, Chevy, Jeep) or Morgan Farm Equipment, the local John Deere Dealer, or Comfort Zone Heating and Air, the local Carrier dealer.
Sure, this is very different from the Enhanced Underwriting, but more and more, radio is acting as the pointer to an online presence where the potential customer comes to the virtual front door of the business.
Does it work? Sure! The business that is remembered first gets the sale. Keep your name out there is crucial.
Logistically it is wonderful...no copy to work up and change from time to time. The price is low enough for a good number of businesses to say yes. Each yes means you keep that sales rep longer. It is simply a good business plan.
TIME IS RUNNING SHORT
I know lots of radio people and I heard from one guy that had an investor that changed his mind at the last minute. While this was for a new commercial station, not a Low Power FM, the problem is universal to radio. If you find time running short and your construction permit is about to expire while your funding has dried up, what do you do. You must create time and lower your losses.
The easiest fix is a CD deck on repeat with a 60 minute track when your legal ID is recorded with silence through the remainder of the 60 minute track. Add a weather radio and broadcast NOAA Weather Radio 24/7.
Other, 'better in my mind' fixes are to use the station to repeat a cycle of local public service announcements such as local events, meetings and such in the listening area. Buy a cheap portable mini disc or two and have at it making each PSA a separate track tossing in a Legal ID as you go. You might be able to get a few dollars from some of the non-profits to pay the electric bill. One guy that did this charged a $7.50 production fee per week from everyone. His loop began at two minutes and quickly went to 3 minutes. In a few months it was a 7.5 to 8 minute loop. The $7.50 was for a 15 second announcement. He figured the rate charged by the local weekly paper for a classified ad was a good rate everybody could afford. At the 7.5 minute level, he was bringing in about $800 or so a month and did no outside sales as groups came to him, cash in hand. I wondered if he had a separate company called the production company that collected the fee from their client, the non-commercial FM station. He had a funeral home wanting to run their obituaries and Churches were regulars.
If you are in an area where tourism is a factor, you might try, say, a 15 minute repeating loop of tourist information. Most elements should be 30 seconds to keep things moving and tossing in a trivia question is nice to keep them listening. As you get going, that 15 minute loop might expand with some features repeated each hour, for example. It's pretty low maintenance and I know one guy that really cleaned up. He got a piece of the local tax the town charged those staying in hotels and motels in town by simply asking. Then merchants called him for underwriting and others traded with him by putting signage to tune to the station on the billboards they had on the highway. Ironically, many of the billboards were for companies that were chains who would not buy underwriting but say the cost of changing the billboard to promote both his station and their business on the billboard in exchange for underwriting a great deal. His was not a huge tourist venue but a smaller town not near any big city, so people frequently stopped to buy gas, grab a meal or spend the night. In about 6 months, with no outside sales, he had about $3,000 coming in. He got $800 the first month.
So, when all looks dismal, there are very cheap solutions that can get you on the air and keep the station alive, buying you time to reassemble your ducks in a row. And that is the key to it all, the license is a hard thing to get and few can get one, so it has value worth saving no matter how extreme the situation might be.
RADIO APPLICANTS...some observations
Some applicants I am really excited about. In fact, one is in New York State and one is in Pennsylvania. What I like about them differs but I see organization from both of them and enough reality to think they are the perfect LPFM applicants.
One applicant released a CD of local music as a fundraiser, a perfectly sane thing for them to do. Their focus is the community and celebrating all the area will be via the airwaves. That includes area musicians. Most impressive was their list of programs. Certainly good choices were on the list and their frequency is very sustainable. A once a week or once a month show simply works for a volunteer staff.
It sure beats one applicant that felt somebody from the local medical community in an listening area of about 7,000 would fill two hours each weekday with medical talk. I have to wonder if they have ever tried to talk about something for 10 or 15 minutes and the prep time it takes to pull that off. They also expect a 4 hour call in talk show each weekday is possible. When I worked a music station in a community of 4,000, it was hard to get people to request a song more than once an hour and I was the only station you could pick up on the radio. The people in this community liked the station but I bet not many want two hours of medical talk hosted by someone that has never done it before. They might like a 2 minute medical tip, however. And the talk show could be a separate phone line where an answering machine lets callers offer an opinion you could play back on the air.
The second candidate is an environmental group. I know what you think but these guys are not the radical type. They push the idea of keeping the wilderness of the area wilderness by getting people to enjoy the scenery and the experience. But they do lots more. The help encourage the local economy, supporting local agriculture and talents, encouraging a way to make kids want to return to their community after school and they strive to help the community to be well kept/maintained. Radio will be a nice fit for them.
I think both of these groups will make great broadcasters. They center on their community and have a desire to serve. They're smart enough to have a clue about radio and a good mind on building awareness and funding.
To be honest, most applicants know nothing about radio, don't care to learn, hate fundraising and make the worst decisions on programming (ie: centering on 1% of what the market wants and wondering why they have to dip in their pockets to pay the bills). Because of this, about 1/3rd of the stations from the first LPFM window have called it quits. I know this is tough talk, but facts are facts. The worst part is some of these folks are really nice folks but they followed their programming desires rather than the community's.
A BIT OF CLARIFICATION:
If you are a singleton, meaning you were the ONLY applicant for your LPFM station's frequency in the general geographic area, the point system no longer applies. You see, you were asked to make some promises and statements to earn 'points' that would be tallied IF you and another applicant wanted the same frequency in the same or nearby location. The idea of the 'points' was to determine the better qualified candidate, if two or more applicants were involved. It is about like this. You go to apply for a job that requires typing skills. If you are being considered with other applicants, the company wants to know the days and hours you can work, how long you have worked in an office and if you consent to a typing test. You agree to everything but there is not another applicant for the job, so you are hired. There is no need to take that typing test since you got the job. All the things you agreed to do not matter because the information did not have to be used to qualify you as the better candidate for the job.
Thus, if had no competitor for my frequency, the 'points' no longer matter and you need not adhere to those 'promises'. You do not need to request that the FCC release you from these 'promises'. Now, even if two applicants were competing for the same frequency and one you you proposes a move to another frequency to resolve the issue and this is approved, you are no longer under the 'point system' as you have become a Singleton just as the other station you were once competing with. In addition, if the competing applicant were to be dismissed or voluntarily dropped their application (especially if you had no contact with them), you become a singleton.
The fact is, many stations from the initial window found their promises were not realistic. Those stations that promised lots of local news, talk shows, number of live hours and such learned reality quickly and mostly adjusted to a reality of not having local news, very few if any volunteers and maybe, at best, one talk show.
Thus, if you are a SINGLETON, the promise of a certain amount of live programming produced locally and minimum office hours no longer apply. Even if they did, you could claim it not feasible and the FCC would make a judgment call. It is interesting to note that no radio station has been fined or admonished for their current operation differing from their proposed or promised operation plan.
This is not to say these are hollow words. If you were MXed, or had multiple applicants for the same frequency and you were chosen, you had better adhere to the promises you made that gained you the points you needed to win that construction permit. It would be good measure for the FCC to fine and/or admonish a station that does not follow through when those promises were a deciding factor in your party getting the station. You should and very likely will be held to those promises.
I am amazed at some of the 'promises' made on programming by people who have absolutely no knowledge of radio. One applicant in a county of about 10,000 that might reach 60% of that population has promised about 12 hours a day of local talk ranging from government officials, health care professionals, educational professionals, farmers and ranchers to provide the content. Really? Have you ever heard of the idea of working for a living? You know public officials, etc., do have jobs to do. It is realistic to have a conversation each week with say, the Mayor, a County official or two, the County Agent, the School Superintendent and you might even get the County Agent to report daily on livestock and farm markets and if you throw some cash you might get the high school coach to do a morning sports report but even if you pull this off, these will be 5 to 10 minute conversations that might fill and hour or two a week. Even getting listeners to call you with such a small listening universe is very hard. Run the numbers: if you hit 6,000 and manage to get 5% of the population to listen, you're talking 300 listeners. When people listen about 1 hour in 8.5, divide that 300 by 8.5 and see what you get. Even if 25% of that 300 were listening, only 2 to 3% of the population would call in to request a song, so maybe you might get two phone calls, maximum and that's not on a daily or weekly basis. Now, go scratch your head and figure out how you're going to fill about 60 hours a week.
Let me offer a tidbit of advice to those applicants who want their station to express political views: it is not a good idea. Let's say you reach 10,000 people. Only a small percentage will care to listen and of that group that will listen to politically charged programming, they span all the political philosophies. If 5% listen, you now have 500 and if half are Republican and half are Democrat, you have at least three major divisions in each party so as you define your stance, that universe becomes so tiny, you'd reach more people speaking in a normal tone ar the local cafe each morning. Remember, the fewer people in your potential listening audience, the more mainstream you need to be to become a viable radio station. Have you noticed the number of non-college, only radio station in a small town tends not to be heavy metal or all classical? There's a reason for that: it is not what the majority of that community wants to hear. That's not to say you cannot do some evening or weekend shows that hit smaller audiences, but it shouldn't be your primary format. The biggest reason for this is money. Unless you have deep pockets and can write a check every month no matter what happens to you, a very specialized format will leave you broke.
Starting a station is like walking across a mine field. There are so many things that seem like a great idea at the time that are deadly to success. Even advice by some in radio is just as deadly. What you need is someone that understands programming, marketing and operations. You must have all your ducks in a row and really understand this business on all three fronts to have a successful station. This is essential: just as much effort should go to funding as programming and operations. If any one of these 3 takes an upper hand, you have altered your chances at success. Do not buy into "I can have everybody listening with my programming idea. We'll be #1 in no time'. Radio is like a car. Programming is the driver. Gasoline is the sales/marketing and the mechanic is the organization that keeps all the parts running properly.
If you think your best idea will work, you are your only cheerleader. It's like owning a business: your employees will never do what you the owner will do to keep the business going. What I'm saying is your great idea is only great to you.
Don't try to change radio. If you went to McDonalds to order a Big Mac, you expect a beef burger not a tofu patty. Don't try to make radio what it is not.
Your friends are your friends. Don't make them your radio station listeners or you'll find your only listeners will be your friends until the newness wears off. And they won't pay the bills. In sales you quickly learn you can get a sale from a stranger but rarely from a friend.
You wouldn't buy a Porsche for your kid's first car. You'd buy a clunker because they're probably going to wreck it as they hone their driving skills. Your radio station should start with a small budget. Let your success expand that budget.
Don't ask for the moon when you don't have a rocket ship. Why people think they can have 100 volunteers out of 1,000 people and each will devote hours on end at your station is beyond me. Most folks are too busy as it is. Can I interest you in this little space rock instead?
Marketing or Revenue Generation is the single biggest problem for Low Power FM. I know how to tackle this but must admit, it takes a person who will act to make it happen. I can tell you how to walk the walk but if you won't take the first step it won't work. Sales is about like a diet for someone overweight. Losing weight is easy if you just try it but most fail because they get off track, prioritize the wrong things, obsess on the unimportant things and lack a win at any cost attitude.
Understand a radio station is a very rare gift. There are only so many stations, period. Expect people to come at you in underhanded ways in order to get what you have. This would not be the case if everyone that wanted a station could have one. Don't sweat the threat if you do things legally by FCC Rules and have your organization set up well. That's all you need to always win the battle.
IF YOU WANT A STATION, contact me. We can have a conversation, free. I think my 35 years in radio and my passion for radio can help you by educating you on the pitfalls so many encounter. Then, when you get further along and have a Construction Permit in hand, I'll be happy to help you set up your operation so you can have your best shot at success.
I've done media kits, helped with programming, and assisted in many other ways for some LPFMs. I am not bragging, nor do I think I'm anybody special. Instead, I would rather say I have seen much in my 35 years in radio and because I am passionate about the business, I study it. One of my bosses, a station owner, said he'd put me up against any big operator and bet on me. Truly the nicest thing anybody has said about me. He had more confidence in me than I have in myself. I can say I can help and hopefully save you from the pitfalls.
Please understand advice is just that: educated opinion. Every market is different. Advice should be taken and weighed for its worthiness and your knowledge of the market. Then you can choose to apply all, some or none of that advice.
I researched and researched. Finally after years of waiting with my board, we organized formally with the state and contracted with an engineering firm known well to the FCC for accurate work.
Organizing was foreign for us but seeing the only link from the state's website was a non-profit organization, we sought the head of that organization the state felt good enough about to link them to their website. We talked a rate to build bylaws and basically do the work to set us up in a way we could easily qualify for a 501c3 designation with the IRS at some point in the future. We wanted no red flags showing. Indeed it was a smart move. You see, the government tends to tell you the basics but not all the details. Following their instructions, you can't do it right. I recall getting my 3rd Class license. The government study book missed so much I failed the test. It was a privately published book that allowed me to pass the test with flying colors. In other words, you needed an expert because you didn't get the whole picture from the state.
Next was hiring an engineering firm to file the application and provide all the documentation. If I had used RECNET or the FCC website to apply, my application would not be complete. All in all it was not anyway. Somehow, the names of the board members was not listed. I was told this was no big deal and we could amend when the FCC allowed. We were told the application might be dismissed but if it was there was a remedy.
A fellow applicant felt my exhibit for short spacing was not detailed enough. His exhibit was indeed much more detailed. My engineer seemed to think the FCC preferred the short version and the long version was filed when the license was applied for. He felt the FCC was dismissing just to lower the number of applicants. As a result, we were dismissed but now to get back in the mix, we correct the board member listing and file the lengthy short spacing technical exhibit. This might seem over your head. Indeed if you went with the FCC website or did this on your own, it likely would be since you wouldn't have the software to develop the exhibit. Proof indeed that an engineer is needed. Anyway, if two are competing, who do you think the FCC would prefer: the do it yourself applicant or the one that hired an engineering firm they know to file your application? Which one says you are serious and most concerned with getting everything exactly right?
So, now my engineer is preparing the data and we submit a petition for reconsideration. That's the process. Like being in court, there is a process you follow, a protocol of sorts, so we are walking through the steps.
You might be surprised that I'm in no hurry to get that Construction Permit. You see, we want to do this without any debt. To pay everything out of pocket, some extra months to save cash is not a bad thing. It lets us save more money and be better prepared.
Some future plans are a generator, a spare transmitter, antenna and coax in case of something like a lightning hit. I've seen coax burned and laced with holes and transmitters fried by lightning and no matter the protection against lightning you install, it will not safeguard you from a direct hit. The last thing I want is to be down for an extended period. Then I want the state broadcast organization's plan where you can pay to have an engineer versed in FCC Rules to give us the all clear on our operation. Plus I would like to be a full EAS participant. Then as we get rolling, we want a CPA to keep us on the straight and narrow plus, if it is right for us, a 501c3 status with the IRS.
In other words, service to my community is essential in my mind and just getting by with the minimum is not my cup of tea. I really do believe a superior product and a dedicated sales team will generate the revenue to function. I see my programming as my product and the sales bringing in the dollars to maintain it. I figure a superior product gets results for my supporters and a happy supporter writes checks to make it happen. If I have a lackluster station, I produce lackluster results and thus, lackluster funding. And I fully want to operate within the realms of what revenue will allow. As revenue grows, so do the advances we make. Not enough revenue means we hold off until it is there. A fatal mistake in business is trying to live above your means. I say this from my experience on air, in programming, in sales and in management. In other words I know radio from the programming side and the sales side. Thus I know radio from both sides and I know it's the chicken and egg syndrome. Simply put, you can't have sales without programming and you can't have programming without sales. One is crucial to the other's success and they should be supportive of each other, not opposed.
At this point, we have nailed down programming and how it will be executed. We have a sales plan and are developing the media kit components. We have a reason for everything and an angle steeped in research. We are not trying to re-invent radio but we are going to do some things that might wow some other stations, not because we play this or that song but in the way we build listenership and how we market ourselves. They're fully simple and seemingly mundane ideas easily executed and easily stolen by the competition should they feel threatened but in my mind creating competitive advantages for us in programming and in sales is the key to finding our spot in the market and hopefully earning our slice of the listening and advertising pie.
With this said, nothing is etched in stone. The flexibility of change is to be a constant factor in what we do. It is much like a race. You know you need to get from point A to point B and you have a solid plan to do so but depending on every factor that can affect your race from point A to point B you modify the plan as needed to achieve your end goal. I'm not married to anything and could care less if our plan is executed as is. The point is I want to reach point B and how we get there will be determined by living it and maximizing our strengths, our position and minimizing our weaknesses. Lucky for me, I'm associated with folks I admire most and in my heart I know we have the talent and integrity to fight the good fight and win. I believe good guys don't have to finish last.
MANAGEMMENT NOTES May 2, 2014When I woke up this morning before the roosters to beat rush hour traffic in order to reach my destination, I was savoring my first cup of coffee as I came across an article about qualities of a leader. I'm not saying I'm a great leader because that opinion rests with the people under the person in charge. I will say the qualities they mentioned always got me in trouble.
And my appointment this morning was an install with the engineer that was a no show. I wasn't upset and got the part I could do completed and went about my business. I'm confident something came up. He's not the type to blow you off. Stuff happens and stuff happens all the time in radio so no point in getting ticked off. It will be done all in good time. Radio taught me patience and taught me there are just some things not worth getting upset about. I'll not mention it to him but suggest we make another appointment. I think he'd prefer I deal with it that way.