If you haven’t lived in LA for decades, the name Saul Levine might not mean anything to you, but if someone was going to compile a list of “100 People Who Make LA Great,” Saul Levine would be near the top.
For years, anyone who has owned a “stick” (e.g. a license to operate a radio station) in a major market like Southern California sold it to the highest bidder, who would program it for the biggest audience, to reap the most profits. That’s why Los Angeles radio is so alienating; why most of the AM dial is dominated by redundant right-wing talk, goofy sports or Spanish-speaking programming, and why most of the FM dial plays hip-hop, classic rock or Spanish-speaking programming. Even public radio has succumbed to compulsion to maximize dollar value per program. It’s why KPCC’s once-great music programming was replaced by way too many NPR chat shows, and why KUSC’s daytime classical programming has become so dumbed-down, playing only the movements of symphonies and concertos that are easy to work, eat or drive by.
Except Saul Levine, owner of K-Mozart, a commercial FM classical station, and KKGO-AM, which plays pop standards. According to a lovely profile in today’s LA Times Business section, Levine could sell the FM station alone to a conglomerate for $100 million, which is about $99,999,975 more than he paid for it. He’s grandfathered into having an 18,000-watt signal, when the current FCC standard is just 680 watts. But Levine just won’t sell. He wants to keep his stations independent — and playing the music he wants to play.
Brahms symphonies…Nat King Cole singing “Sweet Lorraine”…that’s what Levine provides Southern Californians, really, out of his pocket. He undoubtedly makes money doing it, but nowhere near as much as he could serving a bigger audience. Levine is a throwback to a time when people chose a vocation out of love, not necessarily to maximize profit. But he also might be a man ahead of his time:
(He) does not want his children, both of whom are involved in the operation of the family company, Mt. Wilson Broadcasting Inc., to sell when he is gone and live off the proceeds.
“You are supposed to work,” Levine said. “I would not want them to sit around on an island in the Mediterranean.”
Levine’s son, who is KMZT’s marketing director, declined to comment on the station’s future.
“He is still the owner,” Michael Levine said quietly.
In the meantime, Saul Levine forges ahead. He loves to talk about podcasting — the station offers listeners downloadable interviews and lectures about music on its website.
“Otherwise, you are in the horse-and-buggy era,” Levine said.
Now, I haven’t yet read The Long Tail, but I wonder if Saul Levine has. Chris Anderson’s book, which evolved from this 2004 article in Wired (which he edits) believes that the “hit” mentality that has driven the media for a century is giving way to those media providers who will cater to non-mainstream tastes — a process enabled by the zillion-channel universe of the Internet. From the Wired piece:
To get a sense of our true taste, unfiltered by the economics of scarcity, look at Rhapsody, a subscription-based streaming music service (owned by RealNetworks) that currently offers more than 735,000 tracks.
Chart Rhapsody’s monthly statistics and you get a “power law” demand curve that looks much like any record store’s, with huge appeal for the top tracks, tailing off quickly for less popular ones. But a really interesting thing happens once you dig below the top 40,000 tracks, which is about the amount of the fluid inventory (the albums carried that will eventually be sold) of the average real-world record store. Here, the Wal-Marts of the world go to zero – either they don’t carry any more CDs, or the few potential local takers for such fringy fare never find it or never even enter the store.
The Rhapsody demand, however, keeps going. Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it’s just a few people a month, somewhere in the country.
This is the Long Tail.
You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. There’s the back catalog, older albums still fondly remembered by longtime fans or rediscovered by new ones. There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre: Imagine an entire Tower Records devoted to ’80s hair bands or ambient dub. There are foreign bands, once priced out of reach in the Import aisle, and obscure bands on even more obscure labels, many of which don’t have the distribution clout to get into Tower at all.
What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are (see “Anatomy of the Long Tail“). In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity.
Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.”
Radio is a classic “scarcity” medium of the 20th century. Only so much spectrum in any given geographic area. Except now, the spectrum isn’t as much of a limiting factor. Each satellite radio service offers more than 100 channels. Internet audio, including podcasts, grabs more and more ears. And services like Rhapsody and Yahoo! Music allow you to program your own audio streams, either on your computer or in your mp3 device, without having to buy the tracks (unlike the somewhat overpraised iTunes, which demands that you buy a track before you can listen to it.)
Now, Saul Levine is a radio programmer from the get-go. His first act after hoisting his antenna atop a flagpole in 1958 was to spin Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Land of Smiles.” And this is what he and his staff still do. They decide what plays, and you can listen. The element of choice that Rhapsody or Amazon give us, Levine’s stations don’t give you — although his interest in creating podcasts is a big clue that he gets it, that choice is the future.
I guess what you could say about Levine and the Long Tail is that he kept the flames burning until the media could catch up with his craving to serve minority tastes. The kinds of music he programs have been in danger of disappearing from the culture, but in LA, classical music rides one of the region’s strongest signals. Some kid might stumble on K-Mozart tonight and hear Beethoven for the first time. And tomorrow morning, try to find more Beethoven in his computer.