I’ve transmitted megabytes about public broadcasting’s fight for taxpayer financing, but I thought I’d share an anecdote about how it works in the real world.
Earlier this week, I noted KMOJ-FM’s sudden rise in the ratings. The African American community station jumped from about 0.7 percent of the local listening audience to 1.5 percent in February. That may not seem like a lot, but in the crowded radio world, it matters.
Astute St. Paul listeners quickly informed me that one reason the station spiked was that it just boosted its 745-watt signal many times over. The Minneapolis-based station that once struggled to reach the St. Paul African American community (and fellow travelers) no longer struggled.
KMOJ general manager Kelvin Quarles explained that the $275,000 antenna upgrade was a matter of necessity. Like many stations, KMOJ was badly hurt by new ratings technology that came into the market in early 2009. Instead of people writing what they listened to in a diary, their listening habits were automatically recorded via “portable people meters,” clip-on devices that pick up a hidden signal in radio transmissions.
“A lot of our fans were writing us down in the diary even if they couldn’t get our signal,” Quarles acknowledged, frankly.
That hurt a lot of bigger broadcasters with die-hard fans who would straight-line their diaries on behalf of their heroes — KQ and Joe Soucheray to name two. For KMOJ, its share plummeted from the mid-2s to under 1. While KMOJ isn’t as commercial-dependent as commercial competitors, numbers that low greatly affect the ability to raise funds.
KMOJ had to stop benefitting from sympathizers bluffing and actually reach them instead.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gets around $400 million in taxpayer funding annually, kicked in $103,000 for the antenna upgrade. The Minneapolis Foundation kicked in $83,000, and KMOJ raised the other $89,000.
The antenna is currently blasting out 5,400 watts, and Quarles says when the upgrade is complete, full power will be 6,200 watts. That’s still a pittance compared to the 100,000 watts a station like WLTE can crank, but it’s enough to reach KMOJ’s genuine audience.
To be sure, foes of taxpayer funding can say such spending isn’t essential. But while not everyone who listens to KMOJ is black, and not everyone who’s black is poor, the recent data says the Twin Cities has an African American unemployment rate second only to Detroit. There are more sobering stats from our own Doug Grow here. As underserved communities go, it seems deserving of this sort of subsidy.
The nice thing now is that KMOJ’s gains prove if you help pay for it, they will listen. Even if the 1.5 percent share merely levels off, the station’s new 20th-place ranking puts it ahead of fellow subsidee MPR Classical and ideological talkers The Patroit (a subsidy foe) and AM950.
[Awesome update: It turns out KMOJ’s old transmitter is bound for Nigeria.]