Who killed KPOJ? Carl Wolfson shares the rest of the story.

By Carl Wolfson of Portland, Oregon. For six years, Carl was the local host of KPOJ's "Carl in the Morning" show.

Today’s Willamette Week contains an excellent cover story by Aaron Mesh, headlined, “Who Killed KPOJ?”

It is fairly written. But here’s the rest of the story.

Aaron points out the consequence of Bain Capital loading KPOJ’s owner, Clear Channel, with $16.4 billion in debt. I hope the loss of our signal – deeply felt by tens of thousands of Oregonians and many thousands more who streamed KPOJ nationwide – will renew a deeper discussion of media consolidation and corporate control of the public airwaves.

If you came to Portland in the 1970s, and there were 15 AMs and 15 FMs, you could talk to 15 different owners. But since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, in markets of 45+ stations, one entity can own eight radio stations.

Check out the WW chart. Three companies, Clear Channel (Texas), Entercom (Pennsylvania) and Alpha (Oregon) dominate our licensed airwaves.

That means less diversity and fewer points of view; it is a market model that increasingly fails to deliver radio in the public interest.

I applaud BlueOregon’s SAVE KPOJ petition, which now has more than 15,000 signatures, and its newest petition calling on Congressman Walden to hold official hearings in Portland on media consolidation.

Your voice is critical. This is how change begins. If you were a loyal listener, you heard me quote Frederick Douglass a hundred times: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

I have immense respect for Clear Channel Portland president, Robert Dove; during my six years at KPOJ, he was the perfect boss – helpful and kind to me, especially after I lost my dad in 2010 and my mom this past May.

Robert is fond of pointing out that he’s from Oregon and that the Clear Channel Portland cluster is locally run. But that is not entirely true. Many of Robert’s toughest decisions (like having to lay off dozens and of hardworking employees since 2007) were forced on him by the heavy debt squeezing Clear Channel’s bottom line.

There is a difference between capitalism and vulture capitalism.

The LBO boom of the 1980s, the fever that hatched Bain, has become an incalculable curse on American workers. Fed chair Paul Volcker rightly protested at the time that the greed would eventually destroy jobs and assets.

Similarly, when the firewall between commercial banks and risky security firms (part of FDR’s Glass-Steagall Act) was finally obliterated in the 1990s, the Wall Street collapse of 2008 became inevitable. That takedown of the county’s and world’s economy also took with it the homes, savings, jobs and self-respect of millions of human beings.

Any “Carl in the Morning” listener knows that.

On the other hand, if you tune in to Houston talker Michael Berry (Hey—he’s on Portland station KEX!), you’ll hear that Bill Clinton is Hitler, government-cheese eaters are destroying America, and that Barack Obama is “a big-eared ass clown.”

When Congressman DeFazio called to wish me well, his first words were a critique of that “entertainment,” and the fare that now runs in my old time slot: “Soma.”

Peter’s analysis, as always, was spot on. It’s all Huxley’s delicious soma.

The Bain squeeze affected KPOJ in smaller, yet consequential ways. We were never allowed one penny for promotion.

I, like other on-air talent at Clear Channel Portland, spent nights and weekends at community events. But $200 to produce something creative or sponsor an entry in a parade? You’d have better luck getting Mitt Romney to stick to one position on an issue.

Bill Dickey and Morel Ink graciously donated our bumper stickers and T-shirts. If you saw a KPOJ billboard on Clear Channel Outdoor, it was an original one from the 2005 rollout that was uncovered in between postings.

FM music stations can flourish without the extras. It’s much harder to nourish and cultivate a niche market like KPOJ’s without those precious promotional dollars.

WW’s infographic lists KPOJ as #22 overall and #21 among the 25-to-54 demo. These are Arbitron rankings. And, by the way, KPOJ’s weekly cume for October was 75,200 persons.

WW did not include figures (not measured by Arbitron) for streaming or “unique visitors” to our KPOJ web site. KPOJ was consistently #1 in unique visitors among the seven-station Portland cluster. We ranked anywhere from #70 to #115 among all 850 Clear Channel stations.

Further, in-depth reporting of Arbitron’s radio rating methodology rarely makes an appearance outside of the trades.

For years, Arbitron used its “Radio Listening Diary.” The small journal was sent to randomly selected households that agreed to the weeklong survey. Everybody in the house over 12 years old kept track of what they listened to on radio.

It was easy, dependable and even bilingual – just fill it out and mail it back.

With the diaries, there was a new group of participants every week (it began on Thursday and ended on Wednesday).

Our original program director, Mike Dirkx, my mentor and friend, went over the results with us every week. KPOJ was sometimes up, sometimes down, but, as I recall, usually somewhere between #7 and #15 in the market of nearly 50 stations. At the end of 2008, we were #4. We had a good stretch of consistent top-10 rankings, which garnered us national ad buys (It is common for agencies to say, “Put me on the top 10 in…” whatever city.).

Then Arbitron switched to a device it had developed called the Portable People Meter (PPM). You wear it like a pager and it picks up radio (or TV) signals; it has a charger and a base station which transmits data back to Arbitron. It promised more accurate data than the diaries.

Test figures were reported in the Portland market in December 2009, and the system went into effect in 2010.

Many months before PPM debuted in Portland there was apprehension as to its effects on everyone’s ratings. It was already being used in larger markets, causing significant drops among many AM sticks.

First, what if the person wearing a pager is in a place where the station choice is controlled by others? You might be in a doctor’s waiting room, for instance, and your PPM picks up the easy listening FM.

This quote in Media Life Magazine, illustrates my point:

“An example is you’re sitting in a cab talking to someone and you find out you were counted in the ratings for a Hispanic station because that’s what the cabdriver was listening to,” says Nancy Haynes, communications director at Collins, Haynes & Lully, an agency in Charlotte, N.C.

“There’s a lot of room for error with the diaries, but there’s enormous room for errors with the PPM.”

Second, after the Bush years of illegal wiretapping and surveillance, we laughed that no KPOJ listener was going to agree to wear an electronic device that reported their habits and God-knows-what-else to a major corporation.

And third, unlike the diaries, which sample a new set of people each week, PPM panelists can serve for two years. And what if the panel you are stuck with is not weighted correctly?

Sure enough, in a drop of around 975 meters in the Portland area, our listeners got about 8 or 9.

All stations, you might say, are measured under the same system; all can grow or adapt. But for the reasons listed (and more I will discuss in the future), KPOJ was fighting an uphill battle with PPM. If you don’t think there’s an FM bias, check out WW’s infographic again.

In my opinion – and I know this counters conventional wisdom – Arbitron’s diaries were more accurate than Arbitron’s PPM.

And consider this story by Harker Research last year about PPM panelists gaming the system to keep getting the $1,000/month they are paid by Arbitron:

RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research), the UK’s radio ratings service, spent more than $5 million studying electronic measurement, and rejected PPM in favor of an online diary, which was introduced in the Third Quarter of 2011.

In a separate story, Harker concludes:

“The difference between American and UK broadcasters was that rather than accept Arbitron’s assurances that everything about PPM works, RAJAR insisted on testing PPM. And after the tests were in, RAJAR rejected PPM. UK broadcasters had serious reservations regarding PPM. They chose not to sign with Arbitron.

“No such vetting of PPM has taken place in America. In what is supposed to be the toughest most sophisticated radio market in the world, radio rolled over and signed up without asking a single difficult question.”

After Mike Dirkx left in 2010, we received some coaching on how to net more listeners under PPM, but Arbitron numbers were not shared with me, and I had the lingering suspicion that KPOJ was being left to wither and die until another format became available. And diluting our brand with college baseball was a major mistake.

I worked with alacrity with our sales staff (the absolute best!) to identify potential sponsors and book advertisers. At the end, I had the maximum number of live endorsements (six) and I was told our revenue was excellent.

KPOJ’s audience was fiercely loyal. And our advertisers saw incredible ROI. Listeners would drive 50 miles to buy their glasses at Eyes on Broadway. Liberty Coin and Currency told me they had more traffic from KPOJ, by far, than any other station. Ask Tom Dwyer what KPOJ did for his automotive business.

Our community of fans, callers, sponsors and guests should still be together on KPOJ. I miss it! I miss it every day.

I cannot tell you how proud I am of Paul Pimentel.

Together, we produced and hosted three hours of radio each weekday that was packed with fun, important reporting, history, thoughtful dialogue and the essential faith that knits together a more healthy democracy.

And we did it all with civility and class.

As to my being “constantly in defense of Democrats,” perhaps WW never heard my criticism of President Obama whenever I felt he veered too far from progressive values, or the tongue-lashing I dished out to Senator Wyden when he embraced Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan. (To the Senator’s credit, he came on the show and acquitted himself well.) I tangled with one of my favorite legislators, Congressman Brian Baird, over the Patriot Act. I called them as I saw them.

My Web site debuts next week. And not long after, I will outline my plans for 2013. Get ready!

For now, please know that being your voice on KPOJ was the greatest honor of my life.

  • (Show?)

    One question, one testimonial:

    If you're in a doc's office or cab and the radio is playing a station, aren't you listening to it unless you're deaf? I don't see how that makes PPM inaccurate, per se. Many people turn on the radio and promptly forget about it, treating it like background noise. Perhaps talk patrons listen more actively, but that's true of any talk format, then, not just progressive.

    And: while perhaps I was shunted from once a week to once a month because of it, Carl always let me freely bash folks like Wyden and Merkley, and the mainstream Dem Party in general, during 2008. We disagreed about ACA overall, but Carl didn't disagree about the points I raised in opposition, only that the benefits made it worth it.

    I also think a focus on consolidation as a general principle is the proper one; while I'd like to see Carl back on the air too, I think trying to convince CC to bring it back is fruitless (esp if Bain debt is really the reason; no controverting that if so). Better to work to take out airwaves back for the public good entirely, so that other communities don't suffer the same fate.

    • (Show?)

      You're not necessarily listening to a radio station playing in an area where you're located. You may be on your cell phone or listening to your iPod, or you may be reading or texting and tune out that radio.
      And even if you are listening at least part of the time, that does not mean you're paying attention to the commercials or would support the sponsors or would choose that station.

  • (Show?)

    "There is a difference between capitalism and vulture capitalism."

    Can Carl--or anyone else--seriously define and maintain this "difference"? C'mon. We, including small business people as well as workers, live under capitalism in its late monopoly phase until it self-destructs or else the 98% find a way past it.

      • (Show?)

        Joe, Thanks for this moral distinction, which we need. But in historical terms it offers no way ahead except perhaps for the reference to "government." And once there were laws to slow down the monopoly process, such as Glass-Steagall, but the big money got rid of those. The recent collapse of international finance underlines our historical moment. Meanwhile big energy is still able to fuel the climate change "debate" even as the ruinous flood/drought cycle is already here.

        Still, we gotta keep the faith but preferably without illusions. Glen Beck has announded that the generation aged 19-29 is "lost" to his movement. I hope for once he knows what he's talking about.

        • (Show?)

          Keeping the faith without illusions is quite difficult when access to truth and reason is limited by one controlling interest.

          The only way we have ever fought back the force of monopoly is through the power of the state.

      • (Show?)

        Joe, you argue that "one of the prime benefits of government is to prevent the formation of monopolies...When the marketplace is wholly owned, monopolists protect their position by preventing small competitors from entering the market."

        I think you have this backward. Government is the biggest monopoly around; you may not notice because you like what it's providing, but whether its public education, the DMV or the OLCC government is the entity preventing small (or large) competitors from entering the market.

        And, even when government doesn't provide the service itself, it has been the source of many private monopolies such as the phone company (before the breakup of AT&T).

        In the private world it is rare for any firm to "wholly own" any marketplace. Just ask K-Mart or Sears or any former sector leader what happens when consumers aren't stopped from frequenting new startups by government.

        In the case of radio stations, any monopoly status is due primarily to government claiming that it owns the airways and thus limiting access to them.

        All that said, this libertarian enjoyed listening to Carl on KPOJ and hopes he'll land at another local station soon.

          • (Show?)

            Joe, At&T was created privately, but but became a government sanctioned monopoly following a government anti-trust suit in 1913. The monopoly was broken up by the US Justice Dept., but not until 1984.

            Your idea of great choices at OLCC sanctioned liquor stores isn't shared by many of your fellow Oregonians. The government wholesales the booze and chooses which products can be sold and at what prices, and only in those state sanctioned stores. No local grocers can compete with that state monopoly although they can sell beer and wine.

            I don't know if Clear Channel "claims ownership" of the frequencies it broadcasts on, but I doubt it. The "finite bandwidth of the airways" you mention is not so finite any more. Government creates scarcity in that bandwidth by limiting access to certain uses, and then extracts fees for its use.

            • (Show?)

              Most AM radios start at 540 and go up to 1600. That is a finite bandwidth.

              I appears to me that you have no argument with the fact that it was the power of the state that broke up Ma Bell.

              • (Show?)

                In today's world, the "finite bandwidth" of AM radio stations will become less important as new technologies overcome government-imposed scarcity. Just think back a few years to the "limited bandwidth" of cell phones which caused relatively expensive long distance calls, and how today we have "all you can talk for one fixed price" plans.

                And, yes, I agree that "the power of the state that broke up Ma Bell." But I would hope you agree that that same power created the Ma Bell monopoly in the first place. Monopolies virtually never last over time without the power of the state keeping out competitors.

                Breaking the mini monopolies that current radio companies have over bandwidth may be politically difficult, but hopefully the power of technology will bring us all many more choices.

                • (Show?)

                  This 'power of new technology' is a carrot that pundits like to hold out to placate those who disapprove of massive consolidation in broadcasting. To a large degree we have already seen how the alternatives fare in the face of the free airwaves.

                  For local advertisers, these are not viable alternatives to reach the local consumer. Your suggestion simply underscores how bought up and staked out all the existing airspace is already.

                  The new technology argument is like selling a condo 3 blocks off the beach when all the prime real estate has already been bought up and parceled out.

                  Yes we have satellite radio for pay. We have the internet which you can stream for the price of entry. The only area where there is no up front pay for service is still AM/FM airwaves. This is the area that everyone has an equal claim to in terms of broadcasting for public benefit.

                  As far as corporate breakups go, the only time they happen is when it is forced by the power of the state. Yes, sometimes the state power goes the other way and supports massive conglomeration, ala 1800s railroad industry, 1900s financial, media and communcation industries. This only shows that competing interests are able to push their agendas through the halls of government at different times in history.

                  I'm certain that clear channel and its ilk spare no expense when lobbying officials to preserve their dominant position in broadcasting. Do you imagine it was any different during the time that Bell Telecom was the sole long distance provider?

        • (Show?)

          Steve, do you really believe that private companies should be in charge of licensing vehicles and drivers?

          • (Show?)

            Michael, I was making the point that standing in line at the DMV is one of the most frustrating experiences for many people because the state maintains a monopoly over its services. Why care about customer service when the customers have no other options?

            Many people may be willing to pay a private company if it could provide better, quicker and/or more customer-friendly licensing services. Why not find out?

            • (Show?)

              The line to get through the judicial system is even longer. I'm guessing you suggest privatizing the courts next.

              I suggest you are off topic and just a bit stuck in an ideology.

              • (Show?)


                In early 2002 I had a series of very bad customer service experiences with private businesses. I had an excellent customer service experience with the DMV--the people I dealt with went out of their way to get things done for me.

                Also, look at how much easier it's become to get new tags for your car--it's now a one-step process.

                Also, I don't see how Steve proposes to have a private company perform functions that actually are essentially governmental functions.

                Of course, in many places we are starting to have more and more essentially governmental functions taken over by private businesses, and the result tends to be very bad things. For an example, take a look at what's happening with the private prison industry.

    • (Show?)

      or the 98% find a way to steal it from the rest of us or the 1%.

      I say if you want to start a new business figured out away to get a steady stream of taxpayers money as that is a sure thing. Think what privatization has done? and driven up costs of everything. Just like vulture capitalism has driven up the cost of everything.

      Clear Channel sale and resale was what turned me onto the driving up of prices. It sold I think in late 90's and again in early 2000's and the price had risen a huge amount and I thought what would of caused the value to have increased that much in a few short years. $16 billion in debt and a few fat cats richer. Isn't capitalism grand.

  • (Show?)

    My morning drive to work is so empty, I miss hearing the latest from you. Hope to hear you on another station soon...!?

  • (Show?)

    This would have made more sense if I knew what SOMA meant. But it's early I will re-read after some breakfast. Carl was the source for me and i look forward to his planned web site. I took my "Boycott KPOJ and Beavers games" bumper sticker off my car, nobody in McMinnville got it. Nothing has changed, we will never save the world but as a much wiser man than me explained: You will never eliminate greed, hubris, or sociopathic personalities from positions of power. The best we can do (and must) is throw ourselves under the machine with the hope of slowing it down, postponing complete destruction of anything decent about humanity.

  • (Show?)

    Miss KPOJ it has kept me aware better than any blog...

  • (Show?)

    Ever think of starting a new radio station?

  • (Show?)

    Barney Keep and Jimmy Hollister are spinning in their graves over what's happned to the Mighty 1190. Victor Ives's vampire persona is doing that as well too.

  • (Show?)

    I certaintly miss Carl during my morning walks! I agree that part of the problem was lack of support by KPOJ. I see ads for the other local talk programs on TV and other forms of local exposure. As a loyal listener, I tried to spread the work via FB. It always saddened me that if I was more than 50 miles away from Portland, there was no choice for thoughtful and reasonable listening on radio. It's no wonder that the rural population votes Republican. I will anxiously await new developements--My best to Carl, and to those that we no longer hear from like Thom Hartman or any of the rest of the progressives.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks for exposing what is wrong with the media today.

    Avid streaming KPOJ/Carl listener every morning!

    Come back Carl!

    Jon in Fossil

  • (Show?)

    KBOO has an open house for former KPOJ listeners. Wed Dec 5 4:00 - 6:00 PM.
    I'd like to invite you and all KPOJ supporters to a "Happy Hour Listening Tour" at the KBOO studios, next Wednesday, December 5th, between 4:00 - 6:00 pm. KBOO is located at 20 SE 8th Ave. http://kboo.fm/kpoj-party

  • (Show?)

    This is like a friend or co-worker moving away--you miss things being the way they were, you don't know what you can do and you are looking for a way to strike back. I hope you're well and hurrying back!

BlueOregon Action
guest column

connect with blueoregon