Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The future of public radio isn't its past

A couple of weekends ago, I attended "Radiolab Apocalyptical," a live show presented by Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at the landmark Chicago Theatre. For those of you who aren't familiar with Radiolab, it's a weekly hour-long public radio show that covers science topics in an incredibly engaging way. The Chicago Theatre was packed, but what was really interesting was who it was packed with. The audience was young--most of the people I saw were in their 20's and 30's--not at all what you'd expect from a public radio audience in the U.S. Cast and crew members from NBC's "Chicago Fire" and "Chicago PD" tweeted pictures of themselves backstage at "Apocalyptical."

For much of the last two decades, public radio has been wrestling with a big problem: Its audience, while growing, is getting older. Twenty years ago, I was a member of one station's "big donor" club, and I attended several of its events. Other than the radio station's staff, I was by far the youngest person attending; most of the attendees appeared to be in their 60's or 70's. The public radio audience is, quite literally, dying off. Listeners have historically been older, well-educated and high-income. That's great when you're seeking donations, but not so good when you're trying to attract younger listeners and get them to become members for decades.

Public radio stations have been torn between keeping their older audiences and attracting younger ones. That becomes more difficult when even the hosts of shows that attract older listeners start retiring. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of "Car Talk," one of the most popular shows on public radio, retired last year. Instead of cancelling the show or taking a chance on new hosts, WBUR Boston and National Public Radio (NPR) decided to rerun old episodes. Some of the episodes being rerun are 20 years old, and since they cover car repairs, Tom and Ray are talking about cars that many listeners may not have ever heard of. (Geo Metros, anybody?) Just about every public radio station runs Car Talk at least once a week; some run it several times a week.

Another show that's very popular with older audiences is "A Prairie Home Companion." Creator and host Garrison Keillor caused panic at public radio stations when he told the AARP in March 2011 that he planned to retire from the show this year. In December of that year, he changed his mind, and now says that he'll keep doing the show as long as he "love(s) doing it."  "Car Talk" and "A Prairie Home Companion" are two examples of public radio shows that appeal almost entirely to an older audience, but they're far from the only ones.

There are shows on public radio that draw younger audiences; "Radiolab" is one, along with "This American Life," "The Moth Radio Hour," "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and Roman Mars' "99% Invisible." But, shows for younger listeners are far outweighed, both in number and in scheduling, by those that target older listeners. If public radio stations are serious about attracting younger listeners, the first thing they can do is cancel "Car Talk" and put a show for younger listeners in its place. There's no excuse for giving prime radio time to 20-year-old reruns of a radio show that many listeners found banal when the shows were new.

And, while we're at it, let's get rid of pledge weeks (a misnomer, because most of them now run two weeks.) Pledge weeks give regular listeners to public radio a strong disincentive to contribute, because everyone has to put up with having their favorite shows interrupted whether they pledge or not. With the wide availability of smartphones that can receive streaming audio, public radio stations can offer subscribers apps that would enable them to listen to uninterrupted programs, so long as they maintain their subscriptions. Pledge weeks would continue on the broadcast station, but paid-up members could avoid them by listening through their smartphones. That's what younger listeners are doing already with Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Slacker and other services. These services typically offer free and paid versions; with the paid version, subscribers have to sign in with a username and password, but they get their music or talk commercial-free.

Public radio already has the shows to attract younger audiences (although it could have a lot more,) and it has the technology to do away with pledge weeks for listeners on smartphones. If public radio stations are serious about getting younger listeners to become members, the ball is in their court.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The unbearable misery of upgrading to Windows 8.1

There are some events that we humans know from experience will be painful: Childbirth, passing a kidney stone, or getting a colonoscopy without anesthesia. After last weekend, I can now add, without hesitation, upgrading Microsoft Windows. I've been doing Windows upgrades since Windows 3, and it's always been relatively straightforward: You either do a straight upgrade that includes everything, or you do a clean install of the new version, restore your files and reinstall your applications.

Things got muddled with Windows 7. I, like many people and companies, decided to skip the abomination against nature that was Windows Vista and stay with Windows XP. That turned out to be the right decision, but when Microsoft introduced Windows 7, even though it really wanted XP users to upgrade, it prohibited direct upgrades from XP. That meant that XP users could move files, folders and some settings over to Windows 7, but they had no choice other than reinstall all of their applications. In my case, I had a huge number of applications that had accumulated over the years that I was running XP. So, I nursed my old system along until last winter, until it was just too slow to be useful any more, and then transferred what I could to a newer PC running Windows 8 and reinstalled my apps.

Then came Windows 8.1, specifically the Windows 8.1 Preview, which I installed when it was released. I hoped that Windows 8.1 would solve some of the worst problems with Windows 8, starting (no pun intended) with the Windows Start menu. Although the Preview never fixed the Start menu issue, it did resolve some of Windows 8's other aggravating design flaws. However, when it came time to upgrade to the final release of Windows 8.1, the Preview turned out to be much more trouble than it was worth.

Here's a step-by-step summary of the update:
  1. Bought a new Toshiba Satellite laptop with a current-generation Core i7 processor and 16GB of RAM to replace my old Samsung first-generation i3 laptop.
  2. Installed the Windows 8.1 Preview on the new machine to make it simple to transfer everything from my old machine to the new one.
  3. Learned that Windows 8.1 Preview cannot be updated to the final release version of 8.1 without having to reinstall all the applications, so I put everything on hold for almost a month until the final version of Windows 8.1 was released.
  4. Last weekend, installed the final Windows 8.1 on my new machine from the Windows App Store.
  5. Found that I couldn't install the final version on that machine without a serial number, and it would cost more than $100 to get one, so I figured out how to roll the new machine back to Windows 8. That also reinstalled all the crapware I had removed from the machine, but at least it allowed me to install Windows 8.1 for free.
  6. Purchased a to-remain-nameless PC transfer program and installed the program on both machines. The software required that I uninstall all Norton software from both PCs, so I got all of the Norton software off my old machine, and all the preinstalled Norton crapware off the new one except for one anti-theft program that failed to uninstall.
  7. Ran the PC transfer program, which failed instantly with a cryptic error indicating that the registry on my old machine was corrupt.
  8. Sent diagnostic file from old machine to vendor of PC transfer software, and received reply saying that I had to send diagnostic files from BOTH machines, even though there was no way to do so from the old machine using the vendor's program, and oh by the way, I still had some Norton software on the new machine, and I had to remove ALL OF IT.
  9. Manually removed every remaining Norton-related file I could find on the new machine and tried the transfer again. It again failed instantly with the same cryptic error.
  10. Checked the registry on the old machine and downloaded software to send a diagnostic log from that PC to the transfer software vendor. Sent diagnostic logs from both machines. Received a reply the next day from the same tech support engineer that was word-for-word identical to the previous one, except that he highlighted the note that I HAD TO UNINSTALL ALL THE NORTON SOFTWARE.
  11. Reinstalled Norton on the old machine so that I had some protection on the Internet, then purchased and downloaded a copy of Laplink PCMover Professional. Installed PCMover Professional on both machines. Threw the unnamed transfer software into the garbage.
  12. PCMover's documentation was much less cryptic than that from the unnamed transfer software, but it required me to disable a fair amount of software (Internet security, backup, defragmenter, scheduled tasks, etc.). Disabled everything relevant I found on both systems and started the transfer.
  13. The transfer took about six hours, but it worked. All but a handful of programs from my old machine transferred over, and PCMover was very clear about what it could and couldn't transfer.
  14. Once I started working on the new machine, I found out that not everything that transferred worked as expected. For example, Google Chrome worked fine on the new machine, but it couldn't update. The solution was to remove all my Google applications, wait an hour, and then reinstall them, which fixed the problem.
Step 5 started last Friday evening; it took me to Monday night to get through Step 14. So, what are the lessons to be learned from this experience?
  1. Never install a Windows Preview or Beta version on your primary PC. Even if you're a developer, load it on a PC that you can afford to wipe when the Gold Master or Final Release is available.
  2. Use Laplink to do the system transfer when you're not doing an in-place upgrade, and avoid transfer software from companies you've never heard about before, even if they have good reviews. You don't know if those reviews were paid for.