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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Stations: Getting Certified: The Emergency Response Broadcaster Act Program

In an emergency or disaster, broadcasters can be the biggest help to a community of any services.  There’s nothing like watching broadcasters shift into immediate action in a natural or man-caused disaster.  It goes beyond any rules or regulations.  Commercial or non, stations put away the music, turn off the sports or talk, and pitch in.  And the best part is there’s nothing between the station and the community.  If the transmitter’s on the air, they’re communicating to everyone who has a radio.
 
Did you spot the fly?  If the transmitter’s on the air…can, at times, be an issue.  If a tornado takes down a tower, it’s a problem.  And in the past, it sometimes became complicated by first responders.  When areas were cordoned off for safety or other protective reasons, getting past the yellow tape to get a station back on the air was sometimes difficult.  At times, part of the problem was a degree of disorganization.  The propensity of some broadcasters to disobey instruction in the name of “…public interest, convenience, and necessity…” didn’t help matters.
 
Enter: ERBA
 
The Emergency Response Broadcaster Act Program addresses the issues that can surface during a disaster or crisis.  It establishes common approaches and procedures for managing emergencies and the people involved in them.  For the broadcaster, it means certifying designated individuals who can obtain access “behind the tape” in order to service their facilities.
 
How to get certified?
 
It’s pretty simple, if your state has established a procedure inside its emergency action plan.  The application part is what you would expect.  Basically, who are you?  Who do you work for?  What are the call letters?  Where is the station located?  That’s followed by a statement by station management certifying that you are who you say you are.  Put those together with a picture for your ID and you’re about a quarter of the way there.
 
The other three-quarters?  Take two FEMA training courses.  These can be taken at some state broadcasters’ meetings or, absent that, online.  The courses are  IS-100.B: Introduction to Incident Command. and  IS-700.A: National Incident Management System (NIMS). If you take the courses online, when you’ve finished you can take companion online exams and after passing, you’ll receive certificates for both course completions.  Package those (they come as .pdf’s) along with the other elements above and submit all to your state broadcasting association.  In a short time, you’ll get your identification.
 
About the courses, here are my thoughts:
·        These are introductory courses.  Don’t think that when you’ve finished, you’re an expert in disaster management.  That’s not the purpose.  The purpose really is to learn how disaster/crisis managers and first responders work with one another, and how you need to conduct yourself inside that operation. 
·       They also help you understand the commonality of disaster/crisis elements and to be able to carry modes of action from one event to another.
·        Neither course is difficult but it does mean paying attention and reading closely – you really don’t want to be standing next to a rising river reading the course content for an answer to a procedural question.
·        Some of the content is common sense.  But, come on.  Would you want it otherwise?  In fact, that’s a big part of the approach.  Common sense, e.g., Use plain and simple language in communication.  No “10 codes” no jargon…plain language so that anyone listening can understand.  Common sense.  Duh.
·        Plan on a day for both.  You’ll be done in much less time but take your time and read – and digest – the materials.
·        The exams aren't hard; it just covers what you studied.  If you give it a shot and don’t qualify, you can repeat it.
There is one quirk, at least as I see it.  You don’t give them any information about yourself until you’re finished.  Then you provide identification, address, email address…the usual.  Heed the warning about email – enter their address into your email’s “good guy” address book so that your certificates don’t get dumped into a spam folder or deleted.  
 
When your ID card shows up, call your local emergency people and introduce yourself.  Put the card in your wallet.  With luck, you’ll never have to use it.  But should a disaster occur, you’ll be able to get to your sites to keep your stations on the air and maybe help save some lives.

Monday, August 11, 2014

In Memoriam, Robin Williams

Some things are real shockers.  Some passings are that way.  Definitely the case with Robin Williams.  From standup to Mork & Mindy on through dramatic, comedic, standup.  I don't think I ever watched him and didn't laugh. 
 
There was an adlib-off with Jonathan Winters that I think caused my hernia.  He did a piece about golf that hit me right between the pot bunkers.  By and large I think I got more laughs per minute from Robin Williams than any other performer.
 
video
Got to interview him one time - at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival.  The event is a nexus of film, wine and food.  He had some great comments and, of course, I couldn't help but laugh while stuffing a mic in his face.  He was totally approachable, completely willing to take a topic - any topic - and run with it.
 
He left with so much work awaiting his talent...so many laughs and smiles yet to be generated.  For that he truly will be missed.
 
Mr. Williams, thank you for everything you've given us all.  I don't know what else to say.  I'm saddened and we will all be a little less happy without you.
 
 
 
 


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

This Time, It's Political - Well...

As a Libra, I feel very strongly both ways on everything.  So, it's tough in the voting booth.  I'm troubled by the image of my mother-in-law going over a cliff in my new Benz.  And Shrodinger's cat gives me fits.
 
Aside:  Heisenberg and Shrodinger are driving down a road and a policeman pull them over.
 
"Do you know how fast you were going?" asked the cop of Heisenberg.
 
"No, but I can tell you where I've been and where I'm headed."
 
The cop noses around a bit and asks Heisenberg to pop the trunk.  The cop opens a box in the back.  "Hey, do you know you got a dead cat in here?"
 
And Shrodinger responds, "Well, I do NOW!."
 
OK, put that away.  I want to talk about politicians' websites.  I'll start with a simple question to the pols:  "What's the matter with you?"
 
This time the shoe's on the other foot.  People are lying to you!  Those fine men and women in your communications department are telling you that the Internet and social media are mass media. 
 
My fellow Americans, they aren't.  And the fact that you think they are shows your A) gullibility, B) arrogance, C) lack of attention, and/or D) usual willingness to take the easy way out.*
 
Listen up.  New media are one-to-one (1:1) that's you-to-him or you-to-her media.  Ya got that, McFly?  What a phenomenal opportunity to you to talk to someone and let them know that you hear him or her (I refuse to use the plural pronoun, it's one-to-one!) and to communicate with them at that level.
 
Wow!  I see the wheels turning in those narrow minds..."Hey, I can give a different answer to each correspondent." 
 
No you can't!  Well, you can but we constituents aren't quite as stupid as you think.  And we do talk to one another.  But that's not what I'm talking about.
 
Responding to a constituent's email or a post on Facebook is as personal as a handshake or a smile with eye contact.  It's a chance to connect.  And what do you do?  You have an aid or lackey select one of your prepared responses (based on the subject you force someone to pick) and send it in return, often days or weeks later.
 
How do I know?  I've checked out so many pols' sites that I'm nearly cross-eyed.  I've either submitted comments or questions or asked someone in their state/district to do so (for all those office holders who obviously plan to go no higher in politics so don't want to hear from - or respond to - anyone but their constituents.)


Courtesy Majix
Think about email.  Someone took the time to write to you individually.  To ask you a question or tell you how he or she feels about something.  It's tantamount to someone calling you by name and you saying, "Hi there."  What makes it really bad is that you choose to do that.
.
Now ask, how would someone feel if they got a note back that said, "Bill (Jeannie, Tom, Cucuzza, whatever), thanks for your note on the issue with the Department of Education."  Then make a specific reference and respond to his/her question with an answer.  No soft shoe, an answer.  And keep this in mind:  If, as they say, all politics is local, how can you localize your response for that particular person.
 
It might get you another vote.  With regard to that, I'm sure someone in your campaign has calculated the cost of a vote.  Simplest way?  How much did you spend and how many votes did you get.  You know that. Now do the math on the cost of responding.  Cheap, isn't it.  So, will you do it?  Think about it?  Yeah, I doubt it too.  Then again, if your opponent does..."
 
As for Facebook, if you want to be a propaganda machine, go ahead.  People will see it as that.  Can you afford to allow negative posts on your page?  Take a real look in that narcissistic reflecting pool and ask yourself why you shouldn't.  Are you a bad representative?  Bad legislator?  Wrong end of an idea because it serves you personally?  Is it really all about you?   Unfortunately, I know the answer to that one.
 
Twitter:  There is no better way to step in it than Twitter. Quips will be taken out of context. There is no context except with other sources.  There.  Did it in under 140 characters.
   
Now, on to your websites.  A couple of you have at least figured that part out. 
 
Visitors care less about your self aggrandizement and more about what affects them.  Pix of you at a bill signing?  Hint:  It's about the bill. On that very first page, give people information.  Give 'em a choice of finding out more about a number of things that might interest them.  Hey, if some of them link to a page where you are explaining the bill/movement/concern/expense/tax, that'd be great.  But many of those I've seen fall short.  Not because they have bad information but for two other reasons.  The first is the I, I, I POV that, like a lot of pix, makes it more about you than the topic. 
 
The second (Gonna get a little McLuhanish on you here) is production.  I see too many where you think you're giving a speech. Remember that 1:1 thing?  You're sitting just across the table or desk or kitchen counter with the viewer.  And he/she has lots to do. 

Get their attention, make the eye (lens) contact, and speak conversationally.  It is exactly that.  A conversation.  You do all the talking without listening; nothing new about that. (Couldn't resist)
 
Also in the production realm, I see a lot of shots that seem set up with the camera at a distance and zoomed in.  Maybe that's to keep from exposing too much of the background.  But that perspective puts distance between you and the viewer.  It's colder and if you're speaking conversationally, it fights with that aural perspective.  It's that inscrutable psychological stuff.
 
I have the feeling that none of this will be heeded since you're all a lot smarter than any of your voters.  But, what the heck. I learned a lot researching and had fun writing it.
 
"If I'm wrong, nothing happens! We go to jail - peacefully, quietly. We'll enjoy it! But if I'm right, and we can stop this thing... Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters." - Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ghostbusters
 
*Many of you ingrates fall into all four categories.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Who's Gonna Be The First To Sue?

Remember the FedEx spot with fast-talking John Moschitta?  He was clocked at over 500 words per minute.  The concept of fast talk was fun creative.  Made for a memorable commercial.  Especially since he really had to the reading. 
 
John Moschitta in FedEx Commercial
Courtesy YouTube


Sometimes, if you wanted fast talk you could just strobe up (remember that one?) a normal tape – if you could tolerate the pitch shift and the higher vibrato rate.  Anyone recall feeding an audio VFO to an audio amp then to the capstan motor of an Ampex 350 to allow easy speed change on that machine?
 
Fast forward (pardon the old guys’ term) to today with ProTools, Audition and other audio programs.  You want a fast talker? Just highlight the track, go into effects, and you’re off to the races.  Ten-times? One-tenth?  Done!  It may not sound great but it gets you there.
 
That ease of execution may be what put Mr. Moschitta out of a job. At the same time, the fast talking has become pervasive in every audio spot that requires a disclaimer.
 
Four paragraphs to get to the point.  When does that disclaimer become unintelligible? Seriously.  I have a slight age-related hearing issue but I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that many of these disclaimers simply can’t be understood.  
 
So if I’m airing these, is my argument that frequency counts and I’m planning on any given person hearing the spot 5 (7? 10?) times and that by then the language should be clear?  Or maybe it’s that, “Hey!  Here’s the script.  The words are there.  What’s your problem.”
 
Now any of you who know me are probably aware that I think it’s our individual, personal responsibility to check out any product or service before you or I purchase it, asking all the questions.  But, if there’s going to be a federal rule about it, doesn’t it need to get followed?  If not, let’s get rid of the rule.
 
And if we’re keeping the rule, do I get to sue the manufacturer when the product doesn’t perform and the disclaimer was rendered unintelligible by processing?  Take a number, please.
 
Next time, we can talk about mouse type on the screen and how, despite high definition, it can be unreadable.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The "Customer Engagement Center"

A long (I mean really long) time ago, United Airlines ran a spot that showed verite` images of a "manager" passing out plane tickets to his group.  CU's of ticket wallets being stuffed into their hands flashed onscreen as he shouted out names. 
 
I'll paraphrase the copy: We lost our biggest client today.  Too many phone calls, too many faxes (I told you it was a really long time ago).  [then something about] No personal contact.
 
I don't remember if it moved the needle in UAL revenue seats but it was pretty doggoned good.  Made you think.  Is personal contact all that important?  Short answer:  You bet it is.
 
This blog isn't a promo for anyone or anything but if you haven't read Never Eat Alone, Who's Got Your Back? (K. Ferrazzi) or Cluetrain Manifesto (R. Levine et. al), and you're responsible for relationships with other businesses, you should shame yourself.
 
Yes, those books are a little long in the tooth but, c'mon, human nature hasn't really changed.  In fact that UAL spot is still relevant.
 
Well, apparently large number of companies haven't read these or any others that might be applicable - even In Search of Wow (T. Peters).  What's the giveaway?  The creation of the "customer engagement center".
 
What a wonderful thing.  Create a part of your service which engages customers and prospects on line.  I immediately imagine tossing a rubber mouse on the floor for the cat to play with. 
 
"...create part of your service which engages customers online..."  You have to say it out loud to realize the ludicrousness (ludicrosity? ludicroourusality?) of such a statement. 
 
Where to start.  Well, first, your whole doggoned site is supposed to be engaging.  If it's not, get a new designer and webmaster.
 
Second:  Are you really asking a site to do your job for you?  People are engaging.  People are great at creating experiences that are memorable - that bring you to and back to a site.  But to just create an area - we used to call them arenas - that's supposed to engage people?  Pure Barnum & Bailey.
 
If you want to engage people on your site, try this:
 
1.  What's your product?  Really.  What is it.  Is there engagement in that product?  The founder of a company I spent a long time with used the words "inherent drama."  What's the inherent drama in your product?  Can you demonstrate that on line?  Anyone remember a spot for Era detergent where the hand model wrote "Era" on a stain with the product and, after washing, you could read where it had removed the stain?  Where's the drama
 
2.  What's related to the product?  Weather?  Can you tie your product to weather and then info about weather on the site?  Can you engage people to interact with that information?  Maybe it's food.  Dietary interaction?  It might get you somewhere
 
3.  What's another degree of separation away?  Can you relate your product to something that relates to something?  Maybe it's travel that relates to history that could relate to, say, cheese, or bicycles, or golf, or... 
 
But the problem continues to be that you're thinking about automating your engagement.  You might as well go back to the old DOS text games for after customers or prospects get through it once, you're done.  The solution is to engage people to interact with you - a human - rather than canned responses from a website.  THAT's engagement.  Yes, that costs money.  But not as much as you think.  If you're spending money on a 3rd party "chat," run the numbers on eliminating that (if you've checked it out, you know it's a disaster, anyway) and you'll find that adding a person is within the realm of possibility.
 
If you want to automate engagement you can design help and prompts for a human so that as they interact with people, responses are at hand.  I don't mean "give 'em the roach letter*" type responses but, well, it might be numbers or facts or references.
 
It's about real people communicating with real people.  And I'm NOT talking about "chat" lines operated by third party suppliers.  Talk about negative experiences.
 
"But one person won't do it!" is the cry.  You should be so lucky.  Do the arithmetic on how many engagements one person can handle.  More than you'd think.  And if one person handles 100 a day, it'll work out to about a buck a contact...quite often a lead-generating contact.  Where you gonna find that kind of efficiency?  I'm talking about delivering real engagement, memorable engagement.  Make that business-repeating engagement.
 
*Doesn't anyone remember the old story?  It's covered here: 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Charlie's Got It Figured Out

I Met Your Next Director of Customer Relations
 
Seriously.
 
Now, as far as I know the guy's not looking for work.  He seems pretty content.  But if I were searching for a CSM or above, I'd go after the guy.
 
I fly in and out of a relatively small airport on a fairly regular basis. Connected with the flights is a car rental.  Because of my rental frequency, I wind up getting the best price from one particular company.  OK.  It's National.
 
Now, all the folks at this airport are friendly and you get to know most of 'em - even the TSA folks all of whom manage to do what they have to do with a smile.  And the car rental folks are the same.
 
One particular night we were delayed by weather.  Being the latter of only two commercial flights a day that go in and out, everyone there is anxious for you to arrive and, well, get the heck out, I suppose you'd say.  There's no hanging around.
 
As far as the car rental company is concerned, they're programmed to close a half-hour after the scheduled arrival time of the flight.  Of course, they monitor the thing and don't leave you stranded.  But, in this case, we were over an hour late.  It had been raining at takeoff and apparently the plane dragged the clouds along with it since it was now pouring when we landed.
 
Always trying to save a minute, when we land at this particular airport, I run to the rental counter while the bags are being offloaded.  Then I can run back around, grab my bags and head on out.
 
This particular night, soaking wet, I stood at the counter behind a guy who was just as smart and a little bit faster.  Charlie, the National Car guy was working with him.  As he typed furiously. he looked up for a second and acknowledged me with a nod.  In a minute or so, he was ready for me. 
 
As I stepped up, he immediately put my rental wallet on the counter.  Finished.  Alongside, he placed the keys.  "I know you're returning at five A-M.  You remember where the key drop is, right?"  I said I did.
 
"Great," he replied.  Then he went on. "I came up route ***.  It's way backed up.  We've had so much rain, you should consider shooting over to *** and heading south from there."  He handed me a map on which he had already drawn the bypass.
 
Then he asked me if I wanted to walk me to the car with an umbrella.  Whatever residual testosterone kicked in and I said no thanks.  Then he said the magic words.
 
I was thanking him for all of his help and I asked him why he chose to do all that he did.  "I just imagine myself on that side of the counter."  I laughed and said, "Kid, you broke the code.  That's how you get to run the company." 
 
"Who taught you that, anyway?"  He looked at me like Nipper into the horn.
 
"Taught me?  Nobody."
 
That clinched it for me.
 
He thanked me then said, "Sure you don't want an umbrella?"  If I had any sense, I would have said yes.  But I did chuckle a little as, once again soaked, I took a detour around the washed out area with minimal loss of time.
 
Charlie.  If I'm looking for a CSM person, I'm coming after you.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Calling a "Forum" Customer Service

Somewhere, a marketing guy with a little [enough to be dangerous] IT knowledge or a smart IT guy [with zero customer service experience] came up with a terrific idea:  "Let's create a forum for our product.  It's a win-win (hate that reference).  We let users solve their own problems.  We cut down on the calls to our service department, and we get great product feedback."
 
Really?  Really!?  That's what you want?
 
It must be.  Because a lot of companies have embraced the forum as their sole customer service option.  If you want a list, just search for "companies+len+won't+do+business+with" and you'll find a number of them.
 
I recently was called to consult to such a company.  After they said that they were firm in retaining that method of communication, I passed.

"Do you guys ever read the forum?" I asked.

"Sure.  Uh, our webmaster does."

"And what does he tell you?"

Boldly, "We get a weekly report!"

"What does that tell you?"
 
"...how many people joined the forum that week, how many returned and how many posts."
 
"What about content?"
 
With reserve, the reply was, "Uh, Jim, what else?"
 
Jim replies, "Well, when Tim [webmaster] reviews it, if he sees something interesting, he sends it to me."
 
"And you're the marketing guy?" I ask.
 
"Yep."
 
"So, what do you see that's interesting?"
 
Now, proud, Jim speaks loudly.  "Are you kidding?  It's a wealth of information.  The feedback (there's that magic word they love to quote) tells me if we're saying the right things in our ads and to our distributors."
 
"Nice.  What about problems - say two or three people who can't get a solution to a problem so they go bonkers on your product online?"
 
Here's a great retort:  "Our manuals have so much detail...everything's addressed.  And we make them available online."
 
I wanted to say, "Are you nuts?" but managed to utter, "I don't understand.  If everything's answered in the manuals, why maintain the forums?"
 
This just keeps getting better...
 
"Because people are stupid."
 
That was where I knew I needed to distance myself from this group of cetrioli. (Shadrools for you folks in Jersey.)
 
But I stuck around because it was getting to be fun.  "What about extra-site exposure?"
 
"Huh?"
 
"Negatives about your company or a product on other sites.  Ratings on Amazon and other sites?  Ratings on sales sites like Home Depot, Lowe's, Penney's, whatever.  How about complaints.com?"  I rattled off a couple more.  Do you know what's there?  I mean, my experience tells me that those ratings are much more important than anything you say on your site or in a thirty."
 
Silence.
 
"How would you value a 2-star rating on an Amazon sales page versus a negative post on your forum?"
 
A little more silence.  My mind shot to My Cousin Vinny and the line, "I'm done with this guy."  It took many years but I've learned to keep those thoughts to myself.  It's still fun to think it.
 
Full disclosure:  Scope+Focus, Inc. operates Emperor's Valet, a group that does an in-depth research for negatives on a company.  Everything from the mainstream ratings mentioned above to nasties as would appear in someone's blog or facebook post.  It's not a tough thing, luckily I have a guy - everyone needs a guy - who wrote a really neat search algorithm.
 
That said, I was going to do a search and get back to them with it as a freebie but sometimes you just think hell with it, let 'em languish.
 
Now if you guys in Jacksonville are reading this, well, now you know why we didn't hit it off. 
And for the rest, please!  I'm doing my usual Rodney Dangerfield begging.  If you're relying on a forum to take care of your customer service, don't move.  You're standing on a land mine.  Well, maybe you should move.  It's gonna go off either way.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

If You Want Visitors, You Have to Prep for Them

Seriously.  If you had a restaurant with a faulty front door that made it hard for diners to enter, would you not have it fixed immediately?  Or if the phone went out and you couldn’t book reservations or take carry out orders?  You wouldn't be standing on the desk of your telephone service provider?
 
And yet, multiple points in your site can have the same deleterious effect on the bottom line.  I once again repeat my cry, “Don’t take the word of your web marketing or IT person.  Check out your site in depth.  Place orders.  Contact the 'contacts.'"  Even look at the products or models that are featured.  You may be surprised.

Here’s what I see on a pretty regular basis: 

·     404 errors.  When someone gets a “Page not found.” it stops them in their tracks.  “Negative brand contact,” we would call it back in the 1400’s.  Today that often is enough to send the visitor off to another site

·         Forms that don’t work

o   “Cute” departures from name, address, etc. that force people out of the expected for no apparent reason

o   Forms that delete on linking…someone fills out a form and clicks “next” and you tell them they forgot to X and send them back to a now-empty page that they spent time completing

o   Asking for unnecessary information.  I will take it this far:   if you ask for a zip code before you ask for city, A) you’ve departed from the norm (see bullet 1, above) and B) if you have their zip, you know their city – it applies to a lot of those boxes

·    Scripts:  Seems everyone takes high speed Internet for granted.  Page weight apparently went the way of the buggy whip.  So designers dump all sorts of scripts – java and other – onto a page.  Most users, especially mobile ones, don’t have browsers set to map videos, images or scripts.  So the page takes forever and continually hops around the screen.  Amateurish and annoying.  Too often I get the dialog box that says, “A long-running script is preventing page from loading.”  Are you kidding?  Why don’t you post someone at the front door who holds up their hand preventing shoppers from entering.  Same result. 

·     Login confirmations:  You have someone log in.  They don’t remember that they’ve been to your site before.  They try to register and are told that that user name or email address is already registered.  You send them to a “forgot whatever” page.  Then, you make them re-enter the information they already entered.  (Not smart) and then you tell them an email has been sent to that address, and it doesn’t get sent.   (Happened to me yesterday.  Tried 3 times.  Never got an email.  Probably not going back.

·    Contacts:  If you’re taking the cheesy way out, that is, your database folks convinced you that “Contacts” is a great place to grow your database, change that thinking.  Sure, you’ll grow your database, but don’t make that the goal.  Make helping the customer the goal.  Don’t:

o   Force them into categories (silos for you MBA folks) with dropdowns on topic

o   Make them give you their life history.  If you’re selling the product they want, you’ll get that down the line

o   Offer only a form.  Give them an email opportunity

o   Tell them you usually respond within 24 hours and then take 3 days or, worse, not respond

o   I’ll reiterate – dump the form information if they have to return to it because they didn’t do things in the order you want 

Not worth your time to load Xenu or a similar link tracker and check out the site?  Would it be worth $50,000?  If that’s what you’re paying someone to tell you it’s right when it isn’t, it could be what it’s costing you – not to mention the lost revenue.  So do it.  Get an independent review or, better yet, do it yourself.  Check out the site on different browsers, a desktop, laptop, a couple of tablets and a lot of different phones.  If you see something you don’t like, remind yourself that thousands, maybe millions, of folks would use these very devices to visit you.
 
If your site is your business, it’s not micromanaging to check it out – to see how you as a customer experience it.  If you don’t like it, fix it.  No, you don't want to find out any of this, right?  Open an ostrich farm.

[Addendum:  after posting I received a great email from a friend.  Here's a suggestion to try, if you're ready to see the responses...add a dialog box at checkout that asks, simply, "What could have done to make your shopping (ordering, whatever you do) easier?"  Dare you do to it, and to read the responses.]
 
Let me change the title.  If you want visitors, you have to do some of their work for them.  Don’t want to hear that either?  Lock the door.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

AM Revitalization

This one's a little tech and a lot of history...

It was the late 50’s.  Yes that would be the nineteen-50’s.  Living about a mile away from a set of radio towers, I ran a four- or five-foot length of wire to one end of a crystal diode, came out of the diode with a .01 to ground and into our Webcor® tape recorder. 
 
This rig gave me some of the best recording off-the-air that I’ve ever had.  The station happened to be “beautiful music” – yes, on AM – and I think my parents liked it more than I did.  Ah, Sinatra, Clooney, Chris Conner.  Perfection, except for the occasional dropout; you could tell when the transmitter op was reading base or common point currents.  
Alan Freed
Alan Freed
(courtesy R&R Hall of Fame)
 About that time, Alan Freed at WJW (and later, WINS), Murray “The K” Kaufmann at WINS, along with Cousin Brucie, Dick Biondi, Charlie Tuna, Robert Morgan, Larry Lujack and Wolfman Jack were driving those blowtorches up to peak power outputs of over 300 kilowatts1 as Elvis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, The Beatles and many, many more made their impact on America.  
 
Somehow, we all began to believe that louder was better.  And I participated first hand, as part of more than one rock group, in the great speaker proliferation of the ‘60’s.  If you went on a gig without at least 4 columns and double sets of speakers (one or two heads, didn’t matter) for each of Leo Fender’s Showman and Bassman and, later, Ampeg’s SVT amps in use, you were amateurs.  Nobody had enough amp power for all those speakers so they were overdriven.  

Robert W. Morgan
Robert W. Morgan
(courtesy R&R Hall of Fame)
Of course the flattopping blew a lot of voicecoils but speakers were cheap.  And, besides, it was quantity, not quality.

 Aside:  Kudos to Ampeg who did, in fact, print warnings about hearing damage. Like any of us paid attention to that.  
 
Well, overdriving amps became the norm.  First, for loudness but as we became accustomed to the sound, we liked it.  Witness the stomp boxes specifically designed to create distortion.  Usually a preamp, a couple of diodes across the line and a simple amp to overdrive the input of the power amp.  Who knew a 12AX7 could draw grid current.

I know, I know…AM revitalization…
 
Fender Showman Amp, 1960
Leo Fender's "Showman" Amp
(Fender Catalog, 1960)
The music was getting louder.  And so were radio stations.  “Better” compressors, limiters that flat-topped without too much overshoot, and positive modulation peaks up to 125 percent2 started the loudness war, I think to see which station could drive the voice coil of a Delco® speaker up out of the dash and through the windshield of that ‘56 Chevy.  Oh, and don’t forget the reverb.  There were stations with Hammond organ reverbs functioning in the signal chain full time.
 
One tech I know commented that if the jock ever stopped talking, he would have been sucked into the microphone and pushed out the antenna by the signal processing.
 
So the loudness war continued.  And, as it did, three additional things happened:
 
·        The Japanese 7 transistor radio debuted.  (some used 8 but the 8th was really used as the envelope detector, as such, a two-terminal diode, but the FTC didn’t police the “8” claim)
·        More AM stations came on line as a result of rules changes and better directional array design
·        FM Stereo was launched

The portable radios and additional stations worked negatively in tandem.  More stations plus the high levels of modulation, often trying to exceed 100 percent negative and creating lots of splatter, meant it was harder to avoid interference.  Because of that and the inexpensive design of the radios, the IF’s in those little 9v battery eaters were very narrow.  That meant poor high frequency response.  Of course, the 1½ inch speaker had great bass response, maybe down to around 300 Hz.
 
Len.  I mean it.  AM Revitalization!
 
OK.  Next came singles – 45’s – pressed in stereo.  Now there’s a marketing difference for a radio station.  Well, an FM station. 
 
Since ’61, FM had had stereo capability courtesy of Zenith and GE.  The early transmissions were more novelty than music.  A ping pong match with the ball going across the listening panorama or an orchestra but with each instrument mixed hard left or right and no center information.  But music made its way onto FM and kiddies followed.  I think it was a lot like UHF television.  Nobody would buy a converter to tune UHF but after the all-channel act, it was the kids who found it first.
 
And such was the case with FM.  Easy listening on the 50+ side and rock & roll for 12 to 34.  And the listenership ratio of AM to FM began to tilt to FM.  AM looked for new formats.  All news, “oldies” (though not that old at the time), and a bit of news talk.  When the Fairness Doctrine went away in 19873, it was off to the races for AM talk radio.  It was perfect.  AM listenership skewed older and the content – human voice – matched the low response medium.
 
Along the way, people grumbled about AM’s frequency response.  While most stations were transmitting flat well beyond 10kHz4, the receivers, totally out of control of the FCC, got worse.  With television growing, radio listening became more car-centric.  And most auto manufacturers didn’t care about AM.  Nor did the aftermarket folks.  
 
For car listening, AM fit well.  Low bandwidth actually allowed it to cut through the road [and screaming kid] noise better.  So did the heavy compression and limiting.  Note, though, that FM programmers weren’t far behind in signal processing.  
 
But there were other demons lurking out there.  Power line noise was growing.  At lower, AM frequencies, its strength was/is much greater than up in the FM band.  Besides, FM is nearly immune to impulse noise.
 
It doesn’t stop there.  FM portable transistor radios became available.  The FM band happens to have a quarter wave equal to about 2½ feet.  That made a telescoping antenna or an earphone cable a pretty effective antenna compared to the directional AM loopstick.
 
And, of course, along came AM stereo.  Well, sort of.  The commission approved the Magnavox system – one that was almost universally derided as being the worst of the systems proposed.  After years of in and outfighting, the commission threw up its arms and essentially turned it over to the marketplace, washing their hands.  Motorola’s C-QUAM and Harris’ system became de facto standards while Leonard Kahn’s ISB concept fell by the wayside.  Doesn’t matter. 
 
The point is that AM stereo was stalled.  C-QUAM broke into the lead when GM et. al. put the Motorola system in their automobiles.  It caused Harris to cave and embrace C-QUAM and the rest to carp about how bad C-QUAM was.    But it took from then to ’93 – a full 13 years – for the FCC to anoint C-QUAM as the standard.  “Juuuuuuuust a bit outside.” – Bob Uecker, Major League.
 
And, once again, with tribute to Billy May, “But wait, there’s more.”  In trying to eliminate splatter and compensate for the poor frequency response, the National Radio Systems Committee proposed two very important changes:
 
·         Preemphasis – boosting the high frequencies on transmission
·         Brick wall filtering to limit frequency response to 10kHz

To some extent, preemphasis has worked.  But really, when you have IF circuits that barely pass 3kHz, you can boost your signal at 8 or 9kHz as much as you want, they're not getting through to the speakers.  So you wind up with a lot of wasted modulation.  Some chains recognized that and purposely limited their audio to as low as 5kHz, opting for more modulation in the range that receivers actually reproduced.  
 
And the filtering was interesting.  In the mid-90’s digital filtering was iffy at best.  Analog filtering was multi-section and with it came phase shifts, envelope distortion and any number of other anomalies.  Much of that has been eliminated now but the early NRSC boxes were scary.
 
So, have we screwed up the medium enough?  Well, if I’m asking the question, you know the answer.  We added IBOC – in-band-on-channel – digital transmission.  Yes. In band.  As in right on top of the analog signal.  Granted, the method is ingenious.  Flopping the phase of the carriers above and below the analog carrier “nearly” cancels the digital trash that a typical envelope detector sees.  Cool.  
 
Not so fast.  Go up a channel.  Take 710 WOR.  That lower sideband digital information extends into 700 – that’s WLW – territory but a receiver tuned to 700 gets only the lower sideband digital carriers of 710.  Nothing to cancel them out.  More hash than a Van de Graaff generator in winter.
 
Not to be outdone in the noise department, the government – yeah, those guys responsible for policing power line noise – added new regulations regarding illumination, outlawing first 100 watt incandescent lamps and progressing downward in power.  They’re supposed to be replaced by compact fluorescent or LED lamps.  In almost all of the commercial units, the power supplies use some form of switching.  You can tell the switching frequency by tuning up the AM band and counting the “buzzes.”  Regardless of the number, the interference to AM reception is horrendous.  
 
They’re supposed to comply with Part 15 of the rules but I don’t think any do.  In fact, it’s apparent that most computers and electrical appliances don’t.  But the rule is, by and large, ignored unless someone really forces the issue with the commission.  Even then, they have gone after small equipment manufacturers while power companies operate without oversight.
 
And most recently, we added the option of MDCL, Modulation Dependent Carrier Level which will save stations money on their power bills.  Fortunately, this scheme does not significantly degrade the detected audio signal.
 
So (finally I get to the point) we amble along to today, well, about a year ago.  FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai voiced concern for AM’s viability.  Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joins him.  Together they push for a look at revitalizing AM.  And, in October of last year (2013) the commission issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking aimed at revitalization.  
 
It asked pointed questions and put forth basic ideas, calling for comments about improving the plight of AM.  Concerns include the clear channels (does any station need that level of contour protection anymore) to the local daytimers (should they all get FM translators to improve their lot and allow them nighttime service)  IBOC.  Should it stay?  Does programming matter?  
 
An interesting side note to all if this is that younger demos seem intent on quantity versus quality in their music.  Ask them about their iPod or phone and they’ll tell you they have X thousand songs.  Investigate further and you’ll find that the bit rates are abysmal from a quality standpoint.  Apparently those compression artifacts are as musical to them as the distortion we all grew to love 50 years ago.  If that’s the case, maybe they’ll gravitate back to an  AM station playing their preferred music.
 
Comments closed about 10 days ago and the floor is open for rebuttal.  You can comment but only to the extent that it concerns already-filed comments.  Sort of like cross examination.  If it didn’t come up in direct, you can’t introduce it now.
 
After all of this, where will it shake out?  On one side, there is the “back to the past” group, returning AM to full analog.  The other side says wipe it all out and go 100 percent digital.  That second POV is pretty powerful when you consider the bit rates possible if one didn’t have to protect the analog signal.  It would just about put the sound on equal footing with FM. 

However, the downside is large:  it makes hundreds of millions of radios obsolete.  Further, AM can be demodulated by just about any nonlinear device – even a piece of rusty fence.  Remember that simple diode I talked about a bit ago?  In a major catastrophe, that could mean the difference between life and death for any number of people.
 
If you want to check it out or even file a response, start here:
or do a search for FCC 13-139 .
 
It’s fun riding this one out – just to see where it’s going.
1To be accurate, Wolfman for a while actually transmitted out of Cuidad Acuna, Mexico with a power of 250 kilowatts.  That’s 1 megawatt PEP. (100% modulation)
2After the FCC put a limit on positive modulation.  The action was brought about by a certain Louisville, KY station [OK, WAKY] ordering a Gates transmitter capable of 160 percent or more positive modulation.
3My opinion, the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t really fair.  Remember, it wasn’t about equal time; it was about time for opposing views.  Too often, a station would take a position, do an editorial and then immediately go out and find the most stupid, inarticulate individual to interview for the opposing view, further cementing their POV.  Go ahead.  Say it didn’t happen.
4Check 73.47 of the Rules, 1972 edition.