Satellites + radio = big changes for listeners
Boston — ''All Things Considered.'' ''Morning Edition.'' ''The Sunday Show.'' ''Jazz Alive.'' To listeners of National Public Radio, these and other programs have become welcome friends, the fruits of a blossoming public radio system.
At the same time, they are prime examples of how technology is changing radio: All are sent to NPR affiliates by satellite, which is is also revolutionizing many other areas of communication. The impact of satellite on radio listeners - who compose about 95 percent of all Americans, according to industry figures - is on many fronts.
One is in audio quality. Shows coming from New York or Washington, where most radio networks are based, will sound much clearer on local stations, both AM and FM. Satellite also enables networks to send shows in stereo.
Another effect will be in programming. Because transmission will be much clearer, listeners can expect to hear more shows sent from long distances. At this point, most of what is heard on radio originates locally (much of the time using taped music).
Diversity is another benefit. There should be an increasing variety of music shows (including live concerts), sports events, news and feature specials, and other programs benefiting from higher quality sound.
Satellite, because of its efficiency and the resulting cost savings, has given many companies a chance to try to elbow their way into the industry and become new ''networks.'' These networks offer everything from round-the-clock ''top 40'' rock shows (identical in format to most local shows) to specialized news shows.
At this point, the radio industry is in the midst of the changeover to satellite transmission. Along with NPR, the five major radio networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Mutual, RKO) will have switched to satellite by the end of this year. Mutual and RKO, in fact, are already using it, along with a number of new networks.
For NPR, satellite has meant being able not simply to send out sound, but to receive it as well. Eighteen ''uplinks'' (transmitting facilities) scattered across the country enable the network to receive and transmit music and news reports from virtually all sections of the country.
In the past, American Telephone & Telegraph land lines and the US Postal Service were the only ways NPR, or any of the commercial networks, could send programs.
Remarks Barbara Cohen, vice-president for news, ''When we sent by land lines, by the time it got to the Midwest or Far West the sound had deteriorated. Now it sounds as clear as a bell. In interviews now you can hear the pauses, the sighs, the emotion.
''When we used to feed stations by land lines we could only give them one program at a time [even when programs that needed to be broadcast live occurred at the same time]. We had to make editorial decisions that were not necessarily the right ones for each market.''
They now have 12 channels - enough to send six stereo programs at once.
But as some in the industry have hailed this as being the start of a sunny new era for radio, a cool breeze has recently blown over some companies.
There have been notable mistarts, including the cancellation (at least temporarily) of ABC's Superradio, a program that would have provided 24 hours of pop and rock. Several enterprises jostling for a position with the established networks have failed, putting to lie the idea that everything satellites touch is gold.
Industry experts attribute the setbacks to the sheer number of companies trying to slice off a piece of the business. According to Miles David, vice-chairman and chief executive officer of the Radio Advertising Bureau, ''The impression in the trade is that new networks have captured well under 5 percent of total network advertising dollars at this early stage.''
Inside Radio, a weekly publication for those in the radio business, predicted in a recent issue that the bad economy would bring ''formerly optimistic satellite executives down to earth'' and said that 1983 would be a ''very troublesome'' year for new networks.
''Satellite has a tremendous future'' says Jerry Del Colliano, editor and publisher of both Inside Radio and Radio Only, a monthly radio magazine, but he adds, ''The people who have been running the networks - all they are trying to do is put land line programming up in the sky.''
James Magid Sr., security analyst for L. R. Rothchild, Unterberg, Tobin, is pessimistic as well. ''The cost of having a radio satellite is a lot less. But none of the services are new. Radio is a local product. What does a national station have that a local doesn't?''
Satellite Music Network and Transtar, which offer round-the-clock programming , assert that they provide a brand of highly professional disc jockey patter that many stations cannot afford. Most other networks simply offer news and special programs.
Furthermore, these networks say the average listener should be unable to discern that these DJs are not sitting in the hometown stations, but rather hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles away. This is accomplished through a highly sophisticated blending of national programming (and often recorded tapes by the network DJs) with local announcers giving community news or other programming.
Paul Bortz of Browne, Bortz, and Coddington, a communications consulting firm , believes the current challenges in the industry can be attributed to ''an overexpansion of the advertising inventory (the programming on which advertising can be placed).'' However, he adds, ''Over the period of a few years advertising business will build and there will be expansion.''
Mr. Bortz is not the least concerned with failures in the industry. ''People don't anticipate the time needed to develop something new.
''Satellite transmission has sufficiently decreased costs to allow the burgeoning of networks. Where at one time transmission was quite costly, now it is relatively insignificant. Over the next few years virtually everyone will be on satellite.''
He sees a big increase in ad hoc networks as well, or in other words, companies broadcasting special events such as a rock concert.Dr. John Kittross, a professor of communication in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at Temple University and an author of books on the broadcasting industry, remarks, ''I'm not sure satellite is going to mean that much of a change. It does have one advantage. [For advertising] it's a lot easier to deal with one network'' than with many individual stations.
Mr. Kittross, however, regrets the effects on broadcasting employment. ''If local programming drops, the chances for people moving up are going to drop.''
Richard M. Brescia, senior vice-president of CBS Radio networks, predicts 1983 will be a strain on the major networks as CBS, NBC, and ABC switch to satellite. One challenge for CBS has been its asking radio stations to buy the necessary satellite receivers (which in many cases cost around $10,000). When asked if CBS was going to loose any affiliates because of what could be a burdensome cost for some smaller stations, he replied that he hoped not, adding, ''We've had some honest exchanges.''
''Right now, the technology is really outpacing the productivity (programming). But what you will find is the networks will motivate each other (in what is broadcast).''
One of the bright spots has been Mutual, which permitted itself to be left behind when CBS, NBC, and ABC began their gradual transfer to television about 35 years ago.
Until recently, Mutual was an also-ran. Today, it's a leader in the switch to satellite. Recognition was accorded by the November issue of Radio Only, which featured Mutual's president, Martin Rubenstein, on the cover.
Jack Clements, senior vice-president of Mutual, minces no words on what he regards as the importance of the new technology. ''It's the dawning of a new day. It's the rebirth of network radio.''
Last fall Mutual became the first commercial network in many years to broadcast live a symphony orchestra with a 13-week series of concerts of the National Symphony of Washington, D.C. Remarks Mr. Clements, ''If we didn't have multicasting (a word the network coined for sending more than one program at once by satellite) we couldn't afford to do it.'' He adds that Mutual, which today sends to its affiliates a variety of news, sports, and feature programs (including the Larry King talk show) is considering adding more fine-arts programming to its schedule.
Contrasting with Mutual is newcomer Satellite Music Network. SMN offers three 24-hour formats for affiliates: country, adult contemporary (pop and rock), and nostagia (big band and other pre-rock popular music). ''We enable a small-town station to compete with big city stations,'' remarks Eastern Division sales manager Bob Bruton.
''We have made this country relatively homogenous,'' said Ivan Braiker, president of Satellite Music Network. ''Elton John doesn't sound any different in Johnstown, Pa., than he does in Boston. [But with Satellite Music Network] you have efficiencies of scale and efficiencies of operation.
Some networks, however, propose to provide much more specialized programming. There's the Wall Street Journal Report, a division of Dow Jones. Eighteen 3 -minute business and financial reports a day are sent by satellite to its 75 affiliates.
Among the other types of programs traveling by satellite: ''beautiful music'' by the Bonneville Broadcasting System, round-the-clock news from the Turner Broadcasting System, and black-oriented programming on the Sheridan Broadcasting Network.