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2/12/2007


Why XMPR drives me bonkers…

Filed under: Radio Today — Charlie Summers @ 7:34 am

Ok, kids, before getting into today’s rant, let’s recap a bit. I’ve been a public radio listener for my entire adult life, although once pubrad stations started streaming, I stopped supporting my geographically-closest pubrad station (they do classical, I want news) and started listening to stations all across the country, particularly west-coast stations every morning to hear Morning Edition repeated until noon eastern. Especially when Annie was sick and Katie was little, I needed those multiple repeats to actually hear the entire thing. Then certain NPR pinstripes ticked me off by canning Bob Edwards from Morning Edition and went out of their way to infuriate me by telling me they knew what I wanted to hear in the morning more than I did, and oh yeah, “shut up and pay us to do your thinking for you since you’re clearly too stupid to do anything other than write a check,” that I vowed never again to support National Public Radio - there are plenty of other ways to support public radio without giving those weasels a nickel. So far, I have been able to support public radio and not support NPR, unless you count the small percentage NPR managed to cut itself in for when it convinced WBUR in Boston to drop The Connection, bring the shrill On Point to daytime, and take over co-production credits - say what you will, these guys are shrewd at consolidating power if uncaring about the listener. (How have I kept my money out of the hands of NPR? If you’re interested, ask in the comments and I’ll tell you.)

Any-who-how, XM Satellite Radio’s XMPR (Channel 133) has become “my” public radio station - I have often said in this space that I believe a commercial public radio station, one that profits from quality programming, was not only possible but a necessary competition to the staid terrestrial public radio system, which has for too long allowed the NPR tail to wag it. And just like any other public radio listener, I feel an investment in “my” station and desperately want it to succeed and thrive, as if I “own” part of it. (Hey, I pay better than $20/month for XM, and listen mostly to XMPR, so I “support” the station to the same level most folks support a terrestrial public radio station.) So when they continually shoot themselves in the foot (or even higher) I can’t just sit back and say nothing, hence this open letter to them, and you dear reader.

One thing I have griped about in this space repeatedly is the lack of promotion. The previous program director of XMPR had some interesting ideas, many of which were kinda cool, and always hidden under a bushel, and it seems the new PD is heading in the same direction. I keep hearing Arthur Dent sarcastically say, “Ever thought of going into advertising?”

Case in point: The Kalb Report, an occasional series from The George Washington University, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, and The National Press Club. Famed journalist Marvin Kalb moderates discussions about some of the most interesting media-centric topics, and I quickly learned to love the things back in 2004-2005 when they were broadcast live on XMPR…of course, they were almost never promoted ahead of time, so it was something of a hit-or-miss thing to actually hear them - more than once, I found out after-the-fact they had been on, and had to scramble to find repeat slots.

I know why they are no longer aired live (not germane to the issue at hand), but what I can’t figure out is why they are still not promoted. This ain’t rocket science, kiddies, even if the XM website (the first place most techno-geeks, or everyone twenty-five-and-under, would look for up-to-date information) is difficult to update for the PDs and a useless piece of doggie-doo when it comes to being actually useful for the listeners (another rant for another time, skip it for now)…you have a couple of “anchor” shows (The Bob Edwards Show, Here and Now, The World) and a whole lot of second-tier shows (ad-nausium reruns of This American Life, for example) - stop wasting our time promoting Oprah and Willy already, and run some spots for The Kalb Report and any other non-schedule programming a week or so ahead of time. Simple, really, for anyone who “gets” public radio (oh, don’t worry, I’ll get to that in a minute).

This weekend, as I do every weekend, I set my Nexus (used to use the Tao XM2Go, but the Nexus is more convenient for a whole lot of reasons) to record some programs to listen to later in the week…From the Nation’s Capital, From the National Press Club, Planetary Radio, The Commonwealth Club, The Mimi Geerges Show, you get the idea. In checking From the Nation’s Capital, I was both pleasantly surprised and a bit miffed to find in its place last Monday’s edition of The Kalb Report. Pleased because I could hear it, angry because yet again no one bothered to promote the d*mned thing, as if it doesn’t matter if anyone actually listens to it. Did it run delayed on Monday night? How would I know…if it did, no one mentioned it, and if it didn’t, I only recorded it on the Nexus by raw blind luck anyway. Either way, for the folks at XM it’s yet another example of not knowing what you have right in your hand.

Gets better, though. I checked the recording of From the National Press Club recorded two hours later on Saturday evening, and guess what the kids at the National Press Club decided to air in their self-produced hour? You see it coming, don’t you…yep, The Kalb Report. At best, there’s a lack-of-communication here; at worst, well, I hear Arthur Dent echoing through again…

So ignoring that I now have two copies of the same thing on my Nexus, and the same 55-minutes aired twice within the space of three hours, unless a subscriber happened to be listening during that short window Saturday night (when no one has anything better to do, of course), they missed it entirely.

Ok, it’s a small thing, but it demonstrates the huge problem with the way Channel 133 is handled at XM. They want the prestige of having a public radio channel, and they want to avoid paying NPR for third-tier programming (I’m with them on that one, as I mentioned), but they also don’t want to put any effort into drawing in public radio listeners. They put a sign on the office door, and figure that’s enough.

Think about that for a second, please. The folks at XM Satellite Radio, a pay-radio system, are foolishly ignoring the one segment of the radio listening audience who is already accustomed to paying for the radio they listen to!

Yeah, seems pretty d*mned stupid to me, too. When talking to public radio listeners, you don’t have to climb the curve of trying to convince the listener to pay cash money for radio programming…public radio listeners have been doing exactly that for decades.

Ok, so how does XM fix the serious problem they clearly have? Good grief, that’s simple…and won’t cost nearly as much money as all the other talk nonsense they have does - no Oprah-level payouts here, honest, yet the dividends will be substantially larger than these high-profile shows are giving you, if you play your cards right.

Step One: Take XMPR seriously. That’s right, quit thinking of it solely as a delivery outlet for The Bob Edwards Show and start treating it like a real public radio station. Yeah, I know, money’s tight and staffing is at laughable levels, but take it seriously. This costs nothing but some XM executive mental-time…that’s right, instead of spending time on Oprah or Air America, I’m asking for some thought and energy in the direction of XM Public Radio. Stop dismissing it the same way one would dismiss a lot of the other AM-style “talk radio” - public radio is wildly different, and you really need to grasp that.

Step Two: Hire some experience. I’m not suggesting you spend six-figures for some semi-retired public radio executive, just hire someone with some terrestrial public radio experience to help the current program director understand the public radio listener better and manage the channel. I’m not picking on anyone, but it’s clear to anyone who listens to the channel that there has never been a real “public radio” experience to the channel; sometimes I’ve wondered if the people programming it have ever listened to terrestrial public radio, let alone programmed in it. It’s treated as yet-another-talk-radio outlet (look at the wildly mis-matched Left Jab that airs Sunday mornings - no legitimate public radio station would air that nonsense, not even the “fringest” of Pacifica stations, yet here it is on XMPR on Sunday mornings, no less), with no care or concern to the public radio listening audience. Someone who’s actually worked in the public radio arena could help a lot with the little things that could quickly turn this around, and might even educate the executives, who are apparently more used to confrontational AM “talk radio” than the wildly different public radio programming. But this depends on Step One, something the XM executives seem unwilling to do, and also is going to cost a little money. It can be made up quickly in additional subscribers, but like terrestrial radio, the thinking may be too short-term to see that.

Step Three: Start advertising specifically to public radio listeners. You’ve already got one helluva foot in the door with PRI distributing Bob Edwards Weekend to terrestrial stations, now you need to let those same listeners know about XMPR. Every bloody terrestrial pubrad station has some kind of magazine or member publication…advertise in ‘em already. Promote Bob Edwards Weekend, but promote XMPR, too, and the rest of XM (remembering that public radio listeners probably won’t be swayed by Willy or Oprah being on the service - this is where that knowledgeable hire in Step Two comes in). Compared to national advertising, this’ll cost practically nothing, yet you’re reaching people who, let me say it once again, already pay for radio. Your biggest hurdle is completely out-of-the-way; once Step One and Step Two are accomplished, this is a slam-dunk.

Step Four: Give ‘em deals on radios. This is a no-brainer, you’ve already got promotions and rebates running, simply re-brand some of them for public radio listeners and promote them as such. This has zero-cost (promotions are already there for the re-branding), so once Steps One, Two, and Three are accomplished, this is just the close.

Do I expect XM to start thinking this way? Nope, my guess is the execs are too busy with other problems (*ahem* RIAA *ahem*) to see what a mess they have in XMPR, and how ridiculously simple it is to fix it and make it one of the most powerful public radio outlets in the nation, and make it directly profitable to boot. And that’s a darned shame, since I hate to see “my” public radio station’s potential squandered this way.

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One Response to “Why XMPR drives me bonkers…” »

     

  1. Nostalgic Rumblings » Oh, that’ll make everything better… Says:

    […] So in the same week I post a long-winded examination of XMPR, XM releases a press release touting the acquisition of A Prairie Home Companion and Marketplace. Now don’t misunderstand, that’s nice (a lot of people like PHC; that I am not one of them, and find it frankly annoying, isn’t the issue - although I’m terrified at what I’m going to miss during those promised, “additional encores airing throughout the week,” and while I’m ranting “encores” seems to be the only programming at which XMPR excels), but there’s a real problem. […]


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