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Not profitable radio

By J.J. Jackson
web posted January 19, 2009

Editor's note (Jan. 21, 2009): Enter Stage Right inadvertently ran an earlier version of Mr. Jackson's article. The text that follows is the actual final version of his essay.

So it finally has come down to the brass tacks; the government asking itself for a bailout.  There is nowhere else to run.  There is nowhere else to hide.  We are stuck staring the truth straight in the face as the news is that National Public Radio, a government sponsored entity which does not make enough money to stay afloat without millions of tax payer dollars, is asking for a bailout (i.e. more taxpayer money) in order to fund all sorts of pet projects and big dreams.  PBS is also sticking their hands out too for more tax dollars than they already receive.

In all, these government funded consumers of valuable air waves and bandwidth are asking for, according to reports, another $550 million.  The money, they claim, is needed because they provide such a valuable public service and that we would all be in such a terrible crisis if they were to not survive the latest economic downturn and tough times.

I have a slightly different take on this.  If the service they provided was indeed so valuable that we, the American people, could not do without it, they would not need to beg their government benefactors for a single dime.  If their service were so in demand advertisers would be stumbling over themselves to reach the millions of people tuning in each and every day to government sponsored broadcasts and government sponsored programming to sell whatever it is that they have to sell.

Of course, the reality is that the "valuable" service that NPR, PBS and other government sponsored entities provide is not really all that much in demand and there are not millions of people tuning in each and every day to listen or watch.  For PBS when pledge time comes around, there are not phones ringing off the hook with patrons eager to fund their operation and plans apparently.  For NPR they cannot sell advertising and charge rates high enough to make advertising revenues reach the levels needed because not enough people are listening.  If they could, they would!

But even a quick glance at the latest ratings for the local Pittsburgh market for Fall 2008 shows that none of the three stations broadcasting NPR programming (WDUQ, WQED and WYEP) have any listenership that registers at all.  Each of them also gladly accepts advertisers or "underwriters" as they are often known in the public radio, "not for profit" business.  So knowing that these stations do not even register as a blip on the ratings scale how can anyone make the claim that they provide a service, valuable or otherwise, when no one is listening?

In Pittsburgh you have stations like WDVE-FM which plays Album Oriented Rock pulling down an 8.9 Average Quarter Hour Share to lead the market followed by KDKA-AM and WPGB-FM, two stations with in inarguably conservative news and information slant pulling down a combined 15.0 share (8.5 and 6.5 respectfully).  Heck, even WPTT-AM which was the local liberal station featuring nonsensical mumblings from local moonbat Lynn Cullen and national "talent" Thom Hartmann at least registered on the radar!  Sure they limped in with a pathetic 0.8 share before shutting down and restarting as a news talk station focusing on financial and economic issues but at least they could claim to have some listeners!

National Public Radio should be renamed Not Profitable Radio while the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) should be called more inline with the support it actually receives; Pretty Blah Support.

Let's look at reality.  Radio is free as long as you first shell out as little as $10 for a radio at K-Mart.  Basic television is also free as long as you first cough up as little as $100 for a low, low, low end television.  Every American makes a choice what to watch and listen to and the results are in.  Radio hosts like Limbaugh, Beck, Quinn & Rose, Boortz, Hannity and Savage are not looking for bailouts nor, dare I point out, are the vast majority of stations that broadcast them.  At worst, these stations might be suffering because other hosts on their lineup are not carrying their own weight and they are relying too heavily on hosts actually in demand by the public to keep afloat a variety of personalities that cannot draw more interest than crazy Aunt Martha at Christmas dinner.  You know, the kind of person that you tolerate out of civility when they are in your presence, but someone you would not hang around if you had any choice in the matter.

NPR certainly doesn't need a bailout.  It certainly does not need taxpayer money.  What they need is programming that people will tune in to hear!  Until they are willing to enter the real world and accept the laws of economics that prevail out here they should be allowed to fail and fail miserably without a single penny of tax dollars to bail them and their grand schemes out.

Author's note:

*Note this version replaces the originally published version which was actually a draft and not meant for publication.

**Note #2: This article sure has generated a lot of angry emails, particularly from people at NPR stations, radio consultants, etc.  They don't like that I inferred that NPR does not really have "millions" of listeners because they seem unable to get enough revenue to fund their venture without government assistance.  There is a lot of misinformation out there being sent to me by angry industry insiders as to exactly how much of NPR is publicly funded.  The truth is that NPR receives 6% of their revenues from local and state governments and 13% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting meaning that 19% of their revenues are public money. (source and source)

Claims that they receive less than 2% of their funding (which more than a few have tried to claim) are false.  This means that this venture (NPR) is nearly 20% underfunded if it were to rely on market forces alone.  How many companies could survive with that sort of red spewing from their books every year?

Now, I understand that a lot of these radio industry types are upset.  In an draft of this article originally posted and distributed by accident and corrected within a few hours, I cited Arbitron data which these industry types also seem to like to cite to refute my claims.  Well, you will notice that in the FINAL draft, that data was removed and here is why.  First, I have worked in radio as an advertising salesman so I am familiar with Arbitron.  After writing the first draft I remembered that NPR stations were given their own reports and not included with the other data I originally looked at.  So I pulled it.  Then I also considered my own personal experience with Arbitron data as a salesman.  Needless to say my own personal experience which included a lot of surveys of my own of people I was trying to sell advertising to as well as their patrons certainly did not ever bear out the Arbitron data.  In my own experience, Arbiton severely underestimates the audiences of stations over a 5.0 share and and severely overestimates audiences under a 5.0 share.  I blame this on the fact that they weight their samples from book to book to try and prevent massive swings of data (or bad books).  Of course this assumes that previous data was good to start.

There is however another reason why I disregarded Arbitron data and that is because even they have admitted that their diary system is outdated.  They are currently rolling out a new system called PPM which is causing quite a stir.  This system is wholly electronic and simply monitors the stations you are listening to so you do not have to rely on your memory.  Stations that believe that they might have been benefiting from artificially high ratings have caused quite a stink!  In fact, such things have actually resulted in lawsuits filed against Arbitron by upset station managers despite the fact that they admitted that they overweighted the samples of the group testing these new devices in favor of certain groups and stations.  The suit was recently settled and by court order, not sound science, Arbitron will be no doubt further tweaking their survey methods to make sure no one is offended by the new data.  Knowing this and knowing that Arbitron has essentially admitted that their previous methodology is flawed, this new data cannot be trusted either.

So you can cite the Arbitron stats all you want.  But you are only citing data even Arbitron has by default admitted is flawed in my opinion which is backed up by the facts stated above.
ESR

J.J. Jackson is a libertarian conservative author from Pittsburgh, PA who has been writing and promoting individual liberty since 1993 and is President of Land of the Free Studios, Inc. He is the lead editor contributor to American Conservative Daily and also the founder of SignalCongress.com.  He is the owner of The Right Things - Conservative T-shirts & Gifts. His weekly commentary along with exclusives not available anywhere else can be found at http://www.libertyreborn.com.

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