Friday, September 30, 2016


Two years ago on September 29, 2014 I started this blog.  I had no idea what to expect.  Now, 512 posts later, I’ve got a better idea of what I am doing. Today I am going to lift the veil a bit and tell you the story of this blog.

Q: Why did you start this blog?

In September 2014 I was at the PRPD conference in Portland.  It had become apparent to me that my vision had deteriorated to the point where business travel was going to be difficult. So, I was looking for tasks that I could do in addition to my home-based consulting work. (I wrote about my vision challenges in March 2015 [link].

At the PRPD I was talking with my friend Mark Ramsey, who I consider one of the best bloggers and strategists in the biz. I told Mark about my situation and I asked him for his advice. Mark told me: “You have had a lot of experience in both commercial and noncommercial broadcasting. Maybe you should share your knowledge and perspective.”

I decided a blog was the way to begin doing what Mark suggested.  When I returned to Minneapolis, I start this blog on the following Monday with a story about consulting work I had done in Portland the week prior.

I’ve always loved journalism and writing. Over my years in public radio I have written articles and Op-Ed columns for Current, Radio & Records and other publications. I knew doing daily blog posts was more demanding than an occasional article.  Within a month, I was hooked. Two years later I have made every deadline with a new post every business day.

Q: What is the purpose of this blog?

SPARK! is an independent, noncommercial voice focused on noncommercial media, particularly noncom radio. I report on news, trends, ideas and people who make noncom media happen. I try to find stories that other news sources, such as Current, either aren’t reporting or where I can provide a different perspective. My goals are to improve the quality and impact of our work, influence policy and shine a light on excellence and incompetence.

Q: What have you learned during the past two years?

The motto for my consulting work is Speak Truth to Power. But telling it like it is as a journalist is different than dealing with clients. I try to report the truth and be specific. I’ve learned that sometimes “the truth” is in the mind of the beholder. It is hard to quantify creative endeavors. 

I’ve learned that words matter. When I said a respected former public radio producer had a “tim ear” it was a cheap shot and I regret it.  Sometimes I have been clumsy while trying to find my writing voice.

As a truth-teller, I have learned that tone also matters.  In my early posts sometimes what I wrote was too “snarky.”  I think I’ve improved. I will continue to be opinionated and, hopefully, not mean or unfair.

Personally, I have learned that I am a good but not an excellent writer. My writing role model was the late New York Times media writer David Carr. I hear Carr’s words, pacing and style in my mind as I write.

Following Carr’s untimely death, the Times created the David Carr Fellowship and conducted a contest to find new Fellows. A year ago, on the first anniversary of SPARK!, I proudly described my intention to enter the competition [link]. Then I had a “reality check” moment.

While looking through my previous posts to find samples for my entry, I realized I am not David Carr. Though I aspire to the quality of his storytelling, I have much to learn.

Q: What is the future of radio?

The biggest danger to the future of radio comes from the people who now run it. Too many people, even folks in noncom, seem to have given up on radio.  They are just hanging out cashing their paychecks until they retire. Instead of creating programming that is important to listeners, they are satisfied with dumbing radio programming down and making it a commodity. If the producers and providers of radio give up on radio, the listeners will give up on it also.

I am very concerned about the lack of new programming and creative folks entering the pipeline. Public radio is not investing enough resources on its on-air product. Podcasts are taking valuable new ideas out of the mix.  While important, podcasts deliver only a small fraction of the number of listeners to radio.

The key to the future of radio is to keep stations healthy. Stations are content factories. Station programming works very well on companion platforms. When someone is listening to radio via streaming audio on a Smartphone, they are still listening to radio. Stations fill a unique role in local communities.  Being a curator, convener and catalyst assures radio’s relevance and value. Indifference leads to stagnation.

As the number of media voices and platforms continue to grow, over-the-air radio’s share of the media pie will continue to decline a bit.  But the transmission of broadcast signals is not going away. As long as there continues to be programing that people like, folks will keep listening. Compelling, urgent programming will continue to resonate.

Keep in mind radio’s innate attribute: Free and ubiquitous delivery that can reach large numbers of people over wide geographic areas. Unlike the 'net, more listeners make program delivery cheaper. Online and mobile platforms will continue to be gated shopping malls where your digital footprints are tracked and sold, usually without your knowledge.

Q: Do you listen to radio?

Yes, but I know I am not a typical listener.  I periodically monitor many stations to hear what is happening. I once said Give me a quarter-hour and I can determine the health of a station.

When I do casual listening it is usually when I am in a car. My background is in rock n roll radio and news. Most often I listen to NPR News station KNOW and Triple A 89.3 The Current. My “guilty pleasure” is  Classic Rock KQRS. In the more than 20 years I have lived in Minneapolis, I have never heard a song on KQ that I didn’t know. Sometimes “comfort food” tastes good.

Online I like to listen to stations originating from places where I have lived and
loved such as Los Angeles and Colorado. KCRW, KBCO and 105.5 The Colorado Sound are my current favorites.

Q: What is next for you and SPARK?

SPARK! will continue to report the news and trends that I feel matter. I am trying to put more humor into my blogging. Often our business seems too damn serious.

I am also in the process of starting a new blog based on my experiences with “low vision.” You can see the prototype of Welcome To Low Vision: Life Between Blindness and Normal Sight at [link].

I appreciate your story ideas, comments and questions. Thanks for reading my blog! Please feel free to contact me at

Thursday, September 29, 2016


At the RAIN Summit just prior to the NAB Radio Show last week in Nashville, Audible Sr. VP Eric Nuzum gave those attending session some blunt advice: Don’t call podcasts “podcasts.”

Nuzum said he thinks the term “podcasts” is pejorative and continues to place a heavy branding burden on the audio-on-demand industry. He told RAIN attendees:

Eric Nuzum
“It’s not that we are embarrassed of podcasting but there are only 50%-55% of people who know what the word is, and only 20% listens to them. 

There’s a pejorative effect of that word. 

Everyone who [uses the term “podcast”] is tying themselves to one platform. [They] will be very sorry when that platform follows the growth trajectory of every other platform.”

Nuzum did not suggest a better term than “podcast.” He appeared at the RAIN Summit to promote Audible Channels new subscription service recently added by Amazon Prime. Folks who are not Amazon Prime members can pay for Audible Channels. Fees are $60 per year or $4.95 per month. You can see more about Audible Channels via Amazon Prime at [link].

Nuzum also discussed how the future of podcasting is being hampered by the lack of basic user data including demographic information. He said Audible will have more complete user data via its subscriber base.


Wesley Horner
Legendary noncom audio producer and arts advocate Wesley Horner announced on Wednesday that he has donated the original files documenting the history of the organization Gays & Lesbians in Public Radio (GLIPR) to the National Public Broadcasting Archives [link} at the University of Maryland.  The collection will become part of Maryland’s Special Collections in Mass Media & Culture.

Horner was one of the founders of GLIPR in the 1980s. The informal group lasted until the late 1990s and typically met for social events at major public broadcasting conferences. The group had several dozen members.

When he announced that the National Public Broadcasting Archives had accepted the GLIPR archives, Horner said of GLIPR:

“To you kids out there, GLIPR was organized by some of us LGBT folks in public radio, to improve our lot as GLBT professionals. We sponsored amazingly well-attended events at public radio conferences that were popular with LGBT conferees and our straight-but-not-narrow colleagues.

We advocated for better GLBT coverage in public radio news, fairer workplace treatment (including, for example, health care benefits for spouses), and safe visibility in the workplace, especially in newsrooms. It helped.”

I got to know Wes Horner when he Executive Director of Smithsonian Productions. While I was at PRI I had the pleasure of working with Wes on projects such as Black Radio, Mississippi: River of Song and Memphis: Rock ‘n’ Soul.

Smithsonian “privatized” their media division in 2001. KCRW’s Sarah Spitz told the Los Angeles Times:

"This is a sad moment in public radio history. They produced exemplary documentaries that fulfilled a key function of public radio: to entertain while teaching you something new that you might not have known before. They created very rich tapestries of sound and very important documentaries."

Horner went on to play major roles in several public radio and PBS programs including From the Top and the PBS television special Piano Grand, starring Billy Joel, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall, Robert Levin, Katia & Marielle LaBeque, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

He also is the author of the book Producer’s Guide to the Hereafter and the creator of the documentary film First Impressions: A Story About Growing Up, Falling in Love, and Meeting the In-Laws.

Wesley Horner is still active in public media today as a
management consultant and content developer in Eastham, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


In an earlier post [link] we said that Tuesday morning (9/20) at the PRPD Content Conference in Phoenix was going to be NUMBERS-PALOOZA! Indeed, it was. 

Three back-to-back presentations that painted a detailed portrait of public radio station listening consumer behavior of listeners.

Dave Sullivan
Today we will focus on baseline information provided by Dave Sullivan, Manager of Client Services for Radio Research Consortium (RRC). 

Sullivan shared his presentation slides from his presentation which were not for publication. (We will have complete reports of the other two NUMBERS-PALOOZA! studies next week.)

Sullivan called his presentation the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.


Public radio’s four main formats have more estimated weekly listeners now than they did five years ago! Jazz stations led the pack with a 14% increase in weekly listeners.

NPR News Stations: Time Spent Listening (TSL) comparing Spring 2012 and Spring 2016 remained even. Average Quarter Hour persons (AQH) were also up.

Classical Stations: TSL remained even of the past five years. AQH reached an all-time high.

Triple A Stations: TSL remained even. AQH was up to a five-year high.

Jazz Stations: TSL has stopped recent declines. AQH is flat.

During his remarks at the Content Conference, Sullivan added a cautionary note: Improvements in Nielsen’s technology are causing PPM numbers to rise.  After the “Voltair incident,” Nielsen made improvements to make its data collection more robust. The amount of the bump is unknown, but it is a for-real consideration.


OLDER LISTENERS: Three of the four formats have audiences in which the majority of listeners are age 55 and older.  I expected the Classical audience to skew old but I didn’t expect much the same pattern for Jazz listeners.

To me being over 55 and still listening to public radio is not “bad.”  After all, I am in the 55+ demo. So lets not turn our backs on these listeners.

FAVORITE STATION: “P-1” indicates the percentage of weekly listeners who listen to a station more than any other station. “P-1” is often referred to as “loyalty” or “first choice station.”

Only one of the four public radio formats has a strong percentage of P-1 listeners. 

A larger percentage of Classical, Jazz and Triple A listeners make the station their second or third choice. This may indicate lower perceived value of support for the station.


I didn’t see anything in the RRC Report that was truly “ugly.” However, we need to keep in mind that the size of radio’s “listener lake” is slowly sinking. That is why “flat is the new up.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Last week just prior to the NAB Radio Show in Nashville Edison’s Director of Research, Nicole Beniamini, presented the findings from Edison’s Share of Ear® study at Kurt Hanson’s RAIN Summit [link]. 

RAIN Summits are periodic full-day seminars with several presenters focusing on the latest developments and trends in radio and digital media consumption. I recommended attending a RAIN Summit if you can.


• 71% of survey respondents listen to audio (from any source) in the car. 29% prefer to drive without audio

• Traditional AM/FM radio remains the number one in-vehicle audio source – 9 in 10 commuters who do listen to audio choose traditional AM/FM radio while in their car on the way to work

• Commuters spend an average of 87 minutes each day listening to audio (from any source) in their cars

• The age of the vehicle makes a big difference in the choice of audio platforms – folks with newer cars show an increased listening to digital sources





Methodology: Share of Ear® results are from a nationally representative sample of 8,721 Americans ages 13+ who completed a 24-hour audio listening diary between September 2015 and May 2016.

Monday, September 26, 2016


Last week the Pew Research Center released a report detailing the quickly growing number of LPFM radio stations in the US [link]. According to Pew’s analysis of FCC data, the number of stations nearly doubled since 2014, with more than 750 new stations in just over two years.

There are LPFM stations in all 50 states and most US territories. 

States with the largest number of LPFM stations are Florida (121), Texas (114) and California (102). 

Plus there are around 100 applications still being processed by the FCC.

Unfortunately, the Pew report uses the FCC’s format designations (shown in the chart on the right) that sorts LPFM programming into five format types. “Variety” is the format at 45% of the stations, a term that tells you nothing. 

The other four formats are some variation of religious broadcasting.  I can’t discern the difference between “Christian” and “Religion” and “Religious Music.” Pew on Pew for their lack of clarity.


Last year I did analysis of LPFM stations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakotas using data published by Northpine [link]. Northpine’s data was from 2013. I examined 104 LPFM stations in the six states. I don’t know if this tabulation reflects the entire country, but I bet it does. 

Chart One (on the left) shows that over 60% of the LPFM stations are owned by religious organizations. No other type of station even comes close. I consider “Community” and “Minority & Tribal” to be “NFCB type” operations. “Government & Public Service” stations are most often outlets that provide traffic, weather and safety information. There are also a small number of “College” stations similar to members of the College Broadcasters Incorporated (CBI).

Things get more definitive in Chart Two which examines the LPFM stations with “Religious” owners. Stations that define themselves as “Evangelical Christian” constitute over 68% of the Religious statins and 42% of the 104 LPFM stations examined.


The Catholic Church in conjunction with the Catholic Radio Association (CRA) [link] has made applications for new LPFM stations a priority since 2014. According to information on the CRA website, there are now 169 Catholic-affiliated LPFM stations, over half of the Catholic radio stations in the nation.

Most of the Catholic LPFM stations are repeaters of EWTN Radio, a 24/7 programming service designed for unattended automated operation. There is typically very little, if any, locally originated programming on these stations.

The stated purposes of LPFM are to provide a voice for local folks and diversify listening choices. From what I have observed, many Catholic LPFMs fail to meet these standards. There are too many that are satellite-fed drones of ETWN Radio, much of which is a simulcast of EWTN’s cable TV channel. Below is a portion of EWTN Radio’s daily programming feed.