Friday, June 17, 2016


Some of you might know that blogging is NOT my full-time job. About half of my work time is spent consulting clients who create, produce, market and distribute nationally syndicated programs that air on noncommercial radio stations. I have been doing this very specialized work for almost 30 years.

I try to keep my "money making" work separate from my journalism. I produce SPARK! as a commercial-free public service.  However, this week one of my clients made news that I am very, very pleased to report: American Routes is debuting this weekend on WXPN, Philadelphia.

American Routes [link] is a weekly two-hour public radio program produced at Tulane University in New Orleans. Since it made its national debut in 1998, American Routes has become recognized as the “gold standard” public radio program about American music. It features a broad range of music and styles including blues and jazz, gospel, soul, old-time country and rockabilly, Cajun and Zydeco, Tejano and Latin, and roots rock n roll.

 My company – Ken Mills Agency, LLC – has been associated with American Routes since July 2011 when the program moved from American Public Media (APM) to PRX, who continues to distribute the show today.  I work closely with founder, host and executive producer Nick Spitzer.  Today’s post is about what the new association with WXPN means to me and perhaps to Nick.


For around 18 years American Routes was heard on WHYY in Philly. WHYY has been a terrific host. Recently WHYY continued its programming evolution and became a full-time NPR News station. American Routes was one of the last remaining music programs on the station.  A couple of weeks ago they cancelled it.

Triple A powerhouse WXPN stepped forward to embrace American Routes. It will now be heard exclusively in Philadelphia on 88.5 WXPN Sunday afternoons fro 3pm to 5pm.  Everyone associated with the program is so pleased to be associated with ‘XPN.  We deeply appreciate the kind support we have received from Bruce Warren, Roger LaMay, Elise Brown, Kimberly Winnick and David Dye.

There is more to this story that just a change of stations. In some ways Nick Spitzer is returning home and music tribe is finally back together.


Nick Spitzer, now just past 60 years old, started out as “Nicky.” He grew up in New York City and rural rustic Old Lyme, Connecticut.  His early interests were rock radio and learning how people express themselves musically.

After graduating from Old Lyme High he started college at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing anthropology. His passion became progressive rock radio, which was flourishing at the time. At Penn he began doing volunteer air shifts at then-student station WXPN.  He was really good at it!

At WXPN Nick combined his love of African American a cappella doo-wop music and avant-garde jazz with his anthropology studies. In many ways he was a pioneer bringing music of the street into serious scholarship.

Philadelphia in the early 1970s was a nationally recognized hotbed of “underground” progressive rock radio.  Nick began working at WMMR-FM, part of Metromedia, who also owned legendary stations WNEW in New York, KMET in LA, KSAN in San Francisco and WMET in Chicago. Nick was really good and WMMR soon offered him a full-time hosting gig.


At WMMR he worked with David Dye, Carole Miller, the late Ed Sciaky and Michael Tearson.  At that time, commercial underground stations like WMMR not only allowed, they encouraged experimentation with many genres of music. 


How eclectic was WMMR?  Here is a small sample of what Nick played on WMMR Monday, December 18, 1972:

The Kinks - Top of the Pops
Randy Newman - Lonely at the Top
Bessie Smith - I'd Rather Be Dead and Buried in My Grave
String Driven Thing - Circus
The Beatles - Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite

A set that cool can only be found on American Routes today.


By the later 1970s, corporate commercial radio was becoming more mass-audience oriented. WXPN began hiring a professional staff, displacing students. This didn’t please Nick and he let people know how he felt.  This led to a falling out with other folks in WMMR/WXPN “radio tribe.”

Nick decided to focus on his studies.  He moved to Austin and worked at alt-country KOKE while completing his Masters and PhD at UT in anthropology and folklore. During the next decade he dabbled in media as a commentator and producer for NPR’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air, ABC’s Nightline and World News Tonight.

Spitzer directed the documentary film Zydeco: Creole Music and Culture in Rural Louisiana in 1986, one of more than a dozen films he producer or contributed to.

But something deep inside kept haunting him.  What about creating a remarkable program for the emerging public radio system?


By the mid 1990s Nick was living, teaching and writing in New Orleans. In 1997 he fleshed-out the concept that became American Routes while doing volunteer shifts at WWOZ. He collaborated with noted ATC producer Mary Beth Kirchner to create American Routes.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) agreed to fund the new series. Public Radio International (PRI) agreed to distribute American Routes. When the show debuted in 1998, it was already considered a major success, airing in almost every major market in the nation.

Now Nick’s voice and program is returning home to WXPN where the “radio tribe” is ready to greet him.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


 Life is Wonderful in Happy Valley
State College is one of the ultimate college towns. The city of 100,000 in central Pennsylvania got its nickname – Happy Valley – during the 1930s.  Unlike most places in America at that time, State College was a place with jobs, schools and fun because it was (and still is) the home of Penn State University (PSU).

Today Happy Valley is still heaven on earth with a rich mix of education, arts, funky businesses and endless parties.  If you are in the radio biz, Happy Valley is now calling you.


The advertisement in a broadcast broker’s newsletter offers an amazing, unique opportunity to live, work and play in Happy Valley.  The cost is a mere $450,000, cash only please.

Lets look a little closer…

The station is most likely WRXV 89.1 RevFM, the anchor of The REV Radio Network [link], a DIY Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) station owned by Invisible Allies Ministries, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization.

RevFM pushes 4,400 watts of power from a transmitter that is 1,100 feet above the Happy Valley. It signed on in June 2004.  That is the happy part of the story.

The sadder part of the story is that the station has proven to be unsustainable.  In fact, RevFM appears to be broke.


Perhaps State College, Pennsylvania has too many radio stations. Because of its remote location the market has seen many move-ins and new stations all over the FM dial. Keep in mind that a city of 100,000 can only support a limited number of commercial and noncom stations. According to Radio-Locator, over 40 stations put competitive signals into the market.

The noncom dial in State College is challenging.  In addition to NPR News on Penn State’s WPSU and PSU’s awesome student station WKPS The Lion, there are four other religious noncoms all doing basically the same thing as RevFM: CCM music.

The other CCM players are repeaters of K-LOVE and WAY-FM, long-time local CCM voice WMMH 91.9 and the rapture-loving WJSA, owned by the Institute for Creation Research.  How much God is Too Much God?

The financials for the licensee, Invisible Allies Ministries, are pretty grim.  According to its 2014 IRS 990 filing, RevFM’s total revenue was just over $87,000. The filing says the station operates totally with volunteers. The transmitter site costs $7,000 per year. Invisible Allies Ministries biggest assets are the perceived value of the network’s FCC licenses.

RevFM has no streaming audio and the last entry on their website was made in 2014.

And, the RevFM Radio Network? It consists of three stations, all located in the State College area.

So, you decide. Is this Happy Valley opportunity worth $450,000? If you want to take the risk, I’ll give you the broker’s contact information.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Today’s post is an updated version of a story from our archives. It was originally published on January 5, 2016.

Burlington, Vermont has been called the happiest city in America for a good reason. It hugs the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain, the largest freshwater lake on the eastern seaboard. Burlington is full of dreamers and has a strong do-it-yourself ethic. It is an enclave for liberals – Senator Bernie Saunders was mayor. It is a place where eople in suits and people in t-shirts mingle comfortably.

Burlington is also a very sophisticated noncommercial radio market. Vermont Public Radio’s NPR News stations set the pace with an incredible 18.0 weekly Cume Rating.  Local CCM WGLY – The Light – is a regional presence.  WOMM is one of the best LPFM stations in the nation.

Though the city of Burlington has a population around 50,000, the area has over 300,000 including lots of folks in Upstate New York on the west side Lake Champlain.


88.1 WXLU is a repeater of WSLU – North Country Public Radio – based at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. North Country Public Radio’s regional news is highly regarded.

 89.3 is a translator and satellite-fed repeater of Family Radio, the rapture-loving folks based in California. Consider this to be further proof of the lameness of the FCC’s rules that allow noncom religious broadcasters to use satellite-fed translators and do fundraising in places where they provide no local service.

90.1 WRUV is the radio voice of the University of Vermont. Their emphasis is on the local music scene. Most of WRUV’s funding comes from student fees but pledging and underwriting from the community continues to climb. WRUV provides a comprehensive guide to venues and life in Burlington.

90.9 WOXR is the flagship of Vermont Public Radio’s (VPR) classical network. In 2007 VPR bought a struggling religious station and flipped it to classical allowing VPR’s statewide NPR station to concentrate on news.
 91.1 WGDR puts a marginal signal into Burlington but has a larger reputation.  WGDR broadcasts from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. Goddard’s alumni include such notables as actor William H. Macy, writer David Mamet and musician Trey Anastasio of Phish fame. WGDR is old-school community station, combining political shows like Democracy Now! and local music and talk programming. WGDH, a repeated of WGDR signed on in 2008.

91.5 WGLY is owned and operated by local nonprofit Christian Ministries Incorporated. WGLY is the flagship of The Light Radio Network, one of two regional CCM networks serving the faithful in Vermont, Upstate New York, New Hampshire and Canada. 

91.9 WCEL is a repeater of Northeast Public Radio (NEPR).  It repeats WAMC, Albany. NEPR is a regional public radio network with over 30 stations and translators that serve portions of seven states.
105.9 WOMM is 105 The Radiator, an excellent LPFM station operated under the auspices of the Burlington Peace and Justice Center. It is part of the Vermont Alliance of Musicians and Presenters, a gutsy nonprofit doing business as Big Heavy World

The volunteer-based organization also makes possible an artist directory, business referral network, a record label and an online music store. The station plays a tasty blend of Triple A and Alternative Rock with smatterings of blues, Americana and lots and lots of Vermont artists.  I wish there were more LPFM’s like this one!

107.9 WVPS is Vermont Public Radio’s primary NPR News signal in Burlington. Since 1977 VPR has provided remarkable service to the entire state of Vermont. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


I occasionally report about Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) because it is an important part of noncommercial media.  When correctly done , CCM stations have a lot of listeners. The leading CCM stations reach as many, if not more, listeners than the top public radio stations: KSBJ in Houston (803,600 weekly cumulative listeners), KTIS in the Twin Cities (451,600 weekly cume), and WGTS in DC and Baltimore (539,200 weekly cume). Source: Nielsen Audio May 2016 PPM.

CCM’s trade group Christian Music Broadcasters (CMB) is a sophisticated group of broadcasters that use music testing and perceptual research as well as any commercial music station. CMB has borrowed ideas from public radio and their annual meeting – Momentum [link] – reminds me of the PRPD.  CMB invites top radio consultants such as Mark Ramsey and Paul Jacobs to do custom research and speak at Momentum.

An article published earlier in June by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog [link] has raised a new concern: Maybe CCM is too damn upbeat and blissful.

Writer Leah Libresco, in her report The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop says perhaps CCM radio is taking “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” a bit too far. She asks if songs like Beautiful Day, a monster CCM hit by Jamie Grace, are too filled with “cotton candy” to be relatable to listeners other than the hand-core core. Consider these lyrics:

This feeling can’t be wrong
I’m about to get my worship on  
Take me away  
It’s a beautiful day.

Dylan never wrote a better hook.


Libresco backs up her claim with research.  She listened to the top CCM songs from the past five years and categorized them into comparative pairs “Life/Death” and “Grace/Sin” etc. The result?  Libresco says:

There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.” 

Then she compared current CCM hits with Old-Time hymns. You guessed it: CCM tunes are much, much more positive than older stuff.

Libresco’s point is that CCM is missing an opportunity to add more listeners by playing a greater number of songs that touch on negative themes. She believes they make it easier to tell the positive stories because of the comparisons. In the real world, she says, a relationship with God that is more touched by pain, distance or doubt:

[Many listeners] can’t recognize themselves in the “Walt Disney-fixation” of CCM music.


Libresco’s research and conclusions met resistance from one of CCM’s most successful programmers. Brad Hansen from WAY-FM, a national CCM channel wrote in an op-ed [link]:   

Look, I get it. The writer cites a common complaint: CCM doesn’t have enough {songs] about judgment, sin, darkness, death, etc. Years ago, I made this argument myself.

I fully realize that life includes much suffering. We should expect it. So why doesn’t Christian music on the radio reflect it?

Well, here’s an answer: It’s radio.

Radio is a particular medium. People use radio, just like they use any tool. It turns out that people on the way home from a tough job do not use the radio to hear a song about sorrow and judgment. We can foist it on them for their own good, but they have these darn buttons they can click.

Monday, June 13, 2016


Classical music is one of the oldest radio formats, long pre-dating CPB supported public radio.  It has shown amazing resilience and it keeps building listening. Skeptical? According to Nielsen Audio PPM reports, the number of estimated weekly cumulative listeners grew substantially in many markets.

WBJC in Baltimore, WCPE in The Research Triangle and WQXR in New York led the charge.  In fact, of the 23 fulltime Classical music stations we included, 12 (53%) saw gains.  Here are the top performers:

Scroll down to see the list of stations with the biggest declines in the number of weekly listeners.


For noncommercial “public” radio stations in Nielsen Audio PPM markets, we group them into two groups: Fulltime Classical and Dual format.

Fulltime Classical stations air classical music close to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  In the radio biz we call these stations “pure” because they are consistent in ways that are similar to other fulltime music stations. It’s “Apples to Apples.”

Currently we are tracking 24 Fulltime Classical stations in PPM markets. One station – KVTI, Tacoma – isn’t included in the analysis because this is the first time it has appeared in the Sea/Tac book.

We also track three Dual Format stations. All three of these stations divide their schedules between Classical and Jazz:

Of course, none of this would be possible without the ratings data provided by our friends at the Radio Research Consortium (RRC) and Nielsen Audio. Thank you.

We also track commercial stations that share attributes with noncom public radio stations.   

Both stations we track are operated by not-for-profit organizations. 

We republish Nielsen Audio commercial numbers that have been published.   

Here are the two stations:



These data are provided for use by Nielsen Audio subscribers ONLY, in accordance with
RRC's limited license with Nielsen Audio.

Monday-Sunday 6AM-Midnight Persons 6+
Data Copyright Nielsen Audio.
Format designations are the sole responsibility of Ken Mills Agency, LLC.