Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.
There is so much to say and such limited space. No wait...that was the way it was in the Oakland Press, but here on Michiguide.com/on the Internet I do not have that restriction, but I also need to keep you, the reader, interested.
In mid-January I returned from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and in my next column (coming very soon) I will outline that experience, what I saw and what it was like to mingle among 153,000 people, with nearly 40,000 of them from dozens of countries around the world. It was incredible, and I promise to offer my views during this month of February.
After wearing out a pair of shoes at CES, you can imagine how anxious I was to stroll through Cobo Center at the 2012 North American International Auto Show. The reports I heard from General Motors, Ford and others is that soon the CD player will disappear from the dashboard. The exit of the 8-track player for the cassette deck didn't bother me. The exchange of the cassette for the CD player affected me more, due primarily to the enormous number of cassettes I own....but now I, like many of you, have a ton of CD's and the thought of no longer being able to listen to them in my car is not a concept that I can enthusiastically embrace.
For the last year or two, there has been talk of the Internet coming to the car, but now it is no longer just talk. People are screaming for streaming and this is going to change everything. At the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville about 5 years ago, futurist Seth Godin said "if you think competing with one other station in your market is tough, wait until you're up against every country station in America...and throughout the world!"
Right now, with a smart phone, you can easily be listening to WYCD-FM (99.5) from here in Detroit while driving through Nashville. None of the four country stations in Music City will make it to your ears. A scary thought for broadcasters.
It's no secret that I love radio, but I am concerned about its longevity and, in particular, the future of the AM band. America's two oldest stations, WWJ here in Detroit and KDKA in Pittsburgh are now both owned by CBS Radio. At last September's NAB Radio Convention in Chicago there was a "power breakfast" in a packed room with six of the biggest CEO's of major radio groups and a very tempting open microphone in the middle of the floor. I cautiously approached it and felt I had to ask THE big question. "In 2020 radio will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Will there be anything on the AM dial other than paid religion, foreign language or brokered programming?"
Their answers were as varied as "yes we're very concerned" to "perhaps the FCC will move the whole AM band like they did to over-the-air analog TV and create an entirely new platform for these stations."
Some feel that perhaps all of the AM stations, that haven't already jumped over to an FM frequency, will wind up on an HD channel and perhaps THAT can be the savior of HD radio, which is still seemingly trying to find itself.
Just about every important AM or FM radio station is now available via the Internet and they tout it on the air. Listen to the legal ID on WJR. Here's a booming 50,000 watt monster that extends out some 300 plus miles from a tall tower in Riverview, yet the deep voice on the ID says "...and around the world on WJR.com." Recently I looked at the ratings for a major market that listed stations so deep that even several out of market stations were listed and there, near the bottom, were four streamed stations and that is just the beginning of what the future is bringing.
There is a piece of equipment known as an audio processor and nearly every radio station employs one between their studio and the transmitter. It's called an Optimod, named for allowing optimum modulation, and that's as technical as I care to get. The man who developed this device is Bob Orban and his partner in that invention was Greg Oganowski, a former Detroiter who worked at W4 (106.7) FM back in 1971 as a teen-ager. The one-time owner of Gregg Labs is still at it creating new and exciting technologies that will completely change the way we listen to the radio. A couple of years ago, while visiting him in southern California, he held up his early generation iPhone and said "Art, here is the new transistor radio."
Recently we got into his Chevy SUV and with his iPhone connected to the audio system, we were able to listen to CKWW-AM 580 from Windsor in far-east L.A. crystal clear and in superb stereo! On my high quality car radio in Novi, my scan won't even stop on this 500 watt station in the daytime, and at night....forget about it. Yet, it sounded sensational out in California via this amazing new application known as StreamSHiFiRadio available at www.streamindex.com. It's a single app which allows the user to dial up just about any station anywhere anytime. In my iPad I needed 5 apps to hear all of my favorite stations. Yup, this changes everything.
While writing this column my ears were positioned between two quality computer speakers and I selected www.wixy1260.com, a web site where you can listen to a re-birth of WIXY a popular top 40 station in Cleveland during the late 60's and early 70's. The quality is incredible and the variety of music blows me away. I can actually hear it via my Internet Wi-Fi Radio or my PC. Another very creative on-line station can be accessed at www.backwhenradiowasboss.com and it features the sound made famous by CKLW when it was The Big 8 and When Radio Was Boss! This Internet station originates right here in the Detroit area and is accentuated by custom jingles performed by the same Johnny Mann Singers who did the original CK jingles many years ago. Check these out, along with the extremely popular www.richbroradio.com from San Diego, and you will see, and hear, why over-the-air radio should be very concerned.
One thing to remember, however, is that most cell phone data plans are not free and if you listen on a smart phone, in your car, with the output plugged into your vehicles audio system, you will be billed for the time. Very few cell phone plans are unlimited or "grandfathered" with flat rates.
In other radio news, February 1st was the date that struggling talk station WCAR AM (1090) flipped to ESPN Sports. This was a good move, since the high profile personalities of that network were last heard locally via WXYT-AM (1270) which is now mostly syndicated talk. WCAR's biggest problem is its night signal which, at 500 watts, is only listenable in regions straight north of its ten tower transmitter site in Garden City.
A station rumored to switch to sports or country after Christmas was WMGC-FM (105.1). Instead, now without longtime morning czar Jim Harper, the station dropped its decade-long name of Magic and has re-branded itself as Detroit's Soft Rock 105.1. My problem with this "new" format is that it sounds like an iPod. If I want something that sounds like an iPod, I will go out and buy an iPod. As I've mentioned in previous columns, the new method of ratings, known as PPM (personal people meters) tends to downplay DJ chatter and rewards stations with more music. So, talents like Chris Edmonds and Mitzi Miles pop on after every 4 or 5 tunes and say very little.
Further proving that life is unfair, Kevin O'Neill has been reduced to weekends and fill-in's at WOMC-FM (104.3) so kudos to PD Tim Roberts for that assignment, but he'd be great full-time on 'OMC.
My assessment of the big electronics show and more radio news is coming soon, so stay tuned.
Contact Art Vuolo, Jr. via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org