"If No News, Send Commentary"
Listen to most of the 7500 broadcasters gathered here for the NAB Radio Show, and you could easily be lulled into a feeling that the industry's future is just as bright as the day Marconi sent that first "S" into the ether above the Atlantic.
But in the occasional unguarded moment, the signs are clear that even the veterans can see the business shifting, and nobody knows quite where it will all end up.
As with any pressing radio question, the best advice seems to be "ask an engineer" -- and that's just where NERW started our week here, listening to a panel of long-serving engineers talk about the challenges facing their corner of the industry.
And in the very first hour of the conference, the signs of the shift were already apparent.
In-band, on-channel digitial radio may be the star of this convention, with the new industry consortium called "IbIquity" one of the most visible sponsors. But listen for a moment to Susquehanna vice-president Charles Morgan: "There is no consumer demand for it."
Flash forward now three hours, to a room filled with dozens of alternative rock program directors discussing their future. Amidst the talk of call-out surveys and redefining playlists, listen carefully to the words of a woman named Susanne Gubanc.
"I asked the students in my first-year media class how many songs they've got (downloaded from Napster) on their hard drives, and all the guys' hands went up -- 200 songs, 300 songs, 400 songs -- and this was after just three weeks at school," says the Buena Vista University professor, who manages the school's commercial KBVU (97.5) in Storm Lake, Iowa.
"They may be listening to our radio station, but they're downloading stuff from Napster at the same time, and when they get continuous play, I'm afraid of what's going to happen," she says.
We'll give credit to the modern-rock panel for at least trying to take on the threat: there was discussion of providing additional Web streams to complement on-air programming (offering, for instance, an 80s-modern and a grunge channel). But still...against 100+ channels coming from the sky to the whole country, will it be enough?
Against that backdrop, it was more than a bit disconcerting to head off to a panel of lawyers and FCC officials discussing modifications to the current multiple-ownership rules. No doubt people like Mass Media Bureau Chief Roy Stewart mean what they say when they talk about "public interest," but even Stewart admits he has no idea what the media landscape will look like five years from now, or whether today's media regulations will have any meaning then.
Stewart even mentioned the one word we haven't heard from anyone else inside the Moscone Convention Center (and can't stop hearing about from the demonstrators outside): LPFM.
"The market is changing -- more video competition with satellites and cable, we're going to have satellite radio soon, and we may have LPFM soon," he observed.
"Or not," was the immediate retort from NAB general counsel Jack Goodman.
It's nice to see that kind of confidence, we suppose...but it's hard not to think it's misguided.
One unrelated note: We couldn't resist the chance, after the panel, to ask Roy Stewart about the status of those FCC public databases. (Don't ever say NERW doesn't look out for the interest of our readers!)
The answer required two FCC staffers to come to the chief's aid, and it comes down to this: the FM database is again being updated, although it still contains some errors. As for AM: "We're working on it."
Off now to the floor, to see what the folks who sell to this optimistic bunch of broadcasters have to say. We'll be back with more from San Francisco later in the weekend.