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News of the Moment

4/22/14 - Pirate Raids Offer Glimpse Into FCC Fieldwork [link to this story]

It's been a busy month for FCC field agents and Federal Marshals in the Northeast. Last week they raided and seized the equipment of three unlicensed radio stations in the Boston area, while two weeks prior they took down four pirate stations in New York City.

The Boston raids netted a long-time pirate who operated way out in the open. TOUCH FM, founded by long-time and well-respected community activist Charles Clemons, had been on the air for eight years. Clemons was also quite engaged in the movement to expand low-power FM radio and even ran for mayor of Boston last year. He's been on the FCC's radar since 2007, when he was first visited and warned; the agency followed up with a $17,000 fine in 2008, which was never paid.

The reverberations of TOUCH's bust were impressive. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick even attempted to intervene to stop the raid, but was unsuccessful. Many other state and local officials are pledging to do whatever they can to get TOUCH FM back on the air in a legal fashion, but the sad fact is there are no open LPFM frequencies in that area of Boston.

Little is known about the other two stations taken down in the Boston suburbs.

The raids in New York were the culmination of nearly two years of sleuthing. The four stations apparently operated in pairs; all broadcast a variety of Spanish-language music formats; most of them were not 24/7 operations, on-air primarily at night. The FCC believes that at least one (perhaps more) of the stations were part of a network of Latin music pirates operating throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

All four stations apparently transmitted out of the same high-rise apartment complex in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, while their studio facilities were located in the Bronx, using the Internet as a studio-to-transmitter link. At least one of them was the subject of a complaint about causing interference to an FM translator chain, possibly leading to the pirate's inadvertent rebroadcast.

What's particularly fascinating in the New York busts is the fact that the U.S. Attorney overseeing the seizures unsealed the investigation files, giving a rare glimpse into the tools and tactics field agents utilize in their work. The two documents contain 100+ pages of goodies about the scope and severity of serious pirate-hunts.

Screenshot of FCC mobile DF displayIn addition to running down building owners, vehicle registrations, and website/social media profiles, agents take photos of their targets, make recordings of station programming, and subpoena records from phone companies (Vonage, in this case) in order to obtain identifying information on station operators.

In the field, they use a cluster of measurements to determine a pirate station's precise location and transmitting power, down to the tenth of a meter and tenth of a decibel respectively. Their field vehicles (the unsealed files include make and model of approved field-strength meters) integrate this information into a unified display (right) providing all the essentials necessary to start the enforcement protocol in earnest.

Only federal officials appear to be involved in both sweeps. This is interesting because the state of New York has its own anti-pirate law on the books, which makes unlicensed broadcasting a misdemeanor, and there's no word if the principals behind those stations will face further prosecution. The Massachusetts state legislature is currently debating a similar bill, which would impose stiff fines on pirates and allow licensed broadcasters to sue their pants off.

Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel wonders if these actions are part of some coordinated effort "timed with the ongoing approval of LPFMs in order to demonstrate to the broadcast industry that the Commission isn't going light on enforcement, and that it isn't deaf to the industry's concerns." This could very well be true, though the most egregious violators are also the easiest pickings, and many of these cases have been pending for years.

With all this action, I updated the Enforcement Action Database to see if these sweeps have any nationwide implications. The answer is no: in fact, with activity reported in seven states so far this year, the aggregate rate of enforcement activity is actually running behind the norms of the last couple of years. It's almost as if mustering the energy to make high-profile busts in two of the nation's most notorious pirate hot-spots sapped it away from other areas of the country, or something.

Here on the Midwood/Flatbush border in Brooklyn, a cursory FM bandscan brings 16 pirate stations, the majority of which offer a smorgasbord of Caribbean music and religious programming. That's the most I've ever picked up at once, and pretty compelling evidence that the recent high-profile activity uptown has not reverberated at all just 15 miles away.

4/15/14 - Workers Independent News v. FCC: The FOIA Dance [link to this story]

Yesterday was the initial deadline for the FCC to respond to my Freedom of Information Act request regarding its ruling that Workers Independent News is not news.

Today I had a long conversation with two agency attorneys, who report that because my request was so broad (any correspondence related to the WLS case) there may well be more than 1,000 pages of documents involved. The majority of these are apparently e-mails between FCC staff.

In essence, the FCC attorneys were trying to convince me to narrow the scope of my FOIA request to save them work. This is a common tactic many state and federal agencies use to stymie such inquiries. Their rationales went something like this:

"This is a very old case, there's a ton of stuff here, so it will take us much longer to fulfill your request." Sorry to hear that, but I want everything you have on this case.

"You may not even get the information you seek, because certain types of e-mail correspondence is exempt from FOIA." That's fine, and sorry to make you redact the hell out of things, but even that information may be useful to me.

"Perhaps you could revise your FOIA request only to ask for correspondence relating to that aspect of the decision where Workers Independent News has been impugned." I'd love to do that, but the FCC's journalistic determination about WIN pervades the decision in many respects, so it's not possible for me to narrow my ask down to specific mentions in the Forfeiture Order against WLS ....especially since we don't know yet (and neither do they) if any such discussions about WIN's journalistic legitimacy even took place.

"This is going to cost you." As an academic who is also a member of the news media, I get the first 100 pages for free, and then it's 10 cents per page after that. If that's 1,000 pages, then I pay for 900; I can certainly afford $90 (or even more, if necessary).

"You know, you're not the only FOIA request we have. This one could take us hundreds of hours of time to work on." I totally understand that, but it's also not my fault that someone in the Enforcement Bureau (they do not believe an administrative law judge was involved in the decision) went so far off the reservation that it forced my hand. You made this bed, you lie in it.

Interesting sidenote: during the conversation, the FCC attorneys first claimed that they had not read the Forfeiture Order in the WLS case. Not 10 minutes later, they claimed to have read both the decision and "your Congressional thing." I feigned ignorance: "Congressional thing?" There was dead silence for a beat, and then they came back and said basically, "Whoops, our bad, different case." I don't believe that, which suggests that someone in Congress has reached out to the agency on this issue, and that also counts for something.

All the FCC has to do is rewrite its WLS forfeiture to remove the news value judgments the agency makes about Workers Independent News, and apologize to WIN for straying into making unconstitutional territory, and this would all go away. Obviously this is not something the FCC is prepared to consider at this point. No estimate yet on exactly how long it will take for the agency to comply with my FOIA request, either.

4/8/14 - Digital Developments in Vegas [link to this story]

A couple of weeks ago, Radio World's Leslie Stimson contacted me for some thoughts on HD Radio as part of a "status report" the newspaper was working on. That turned out to be a 35-page "e-book" in which the "skeptics" and "critics" got three pages sandwiched between some "sponsored content" from iBiquity and a piece from the company's director of broadcast sales singing the praises of the "HD Radio-On-Translator play."

While I'm glad that Radio World considers me a "responsible viewpoint" in the ongoing digital radio transition, it's a bit unnerving to be tossed into the "haters" camp so nonchalantly. So here's the entirety of what I wrote Stimson when she asked for comments:

The fundamental detriments of the HD Radio system have not been meaningfully addressed in the years since it first went on the air. The system "works," but only to a certain degree, and not universally. No extended features of the HD system have any meaningful traction (in the HD space), and many of them (especially datacasting) at best replicate what newer, IP-based content delivery systems already offer as native to their design.

Gear costs have certainly come down, but the system still has software-like licensing fees, which the majority of broadcasters refuse to accept on principle. HD's proponents have admitted in the past that in hindsight this was a bad business decision, but yet they've kept at it—as if they would rather own all of nothing than a part of something big. More broadly, iBiquity's insistence of protecting its intellectual property to such an extreme degree has hobbled innovation within the system, effectively constraining it to existing licensees. The first major innovator was NPR, ironically, and now that torch seems to have been passed to Emmis.

Meanwhile, actual, functional improvements to HD, such as DigitalPower Radio's receiver-improvement technology, are frozen out because HD is so locked down. Look in the comments of the AM Revitalization Initiative and see how many people suggested exploring Digital Radio Mondiale—the vast majority of them cited the open nature of the system more than anything else. Were iBiquity to abandon broadcaster-licensing fees, or cap them to some nominal one-time payment, it would see an immediate positive response within the industry. At this point, what is there to lose?

The receiver marketplace for HD is mostly chimerical, especially relative to the other, newer technologies which now directly compete in the "radio" space. It is true that most people don't buy radios anymore, but the fact that you really can't even if you wanted to is not good. Automotive receiver uptake is a passive metric—people don't buy cars for the radio, it's just another piece of bling in the glass dashboard. Consumer Reports just panned HD in their latest automotive issue. The bottom line is, 17.5 million receivers doesn't mean 17.5 million listeners, especially since that receiver market excludes all listening done outside of the car. Couple that with no HD penetration into mobile devices, and it's not a pretty picture.

I honestly think the radio industry should be having the difficult discussion about whether or not the HD system actually represents the natural end-state for digital broadcasting in the United States. If it is, then some fundamental revisions to the ground-rules governing the design and operation of the technology should be considered in order to make improvements and promote its uptake. But if it is not, then the sky's the limit for radio's digital future. I actually think such a discussion would be immensely healthy for the industry, as it might help reinvigorate radio's sense of identity and cohesion, and serve to promote unity around commonly-held goals for its future.

The first four paragraphs are really just basic information; the last one is where my head is at. Broadcaster support for HD is essential for the viability of radio's digital transition, and one way to make that happen sooner rather than later is to make some major revisions to the technology's functionality, both technically and economically, all of which are within the realm of the realistically possible.

More than 90,000 people are in Las Vegas for the National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention, and there's already been some notable digital radio news, such as a summary of all-digital AM test broadcast results to-date and the release of a dashboard-variant of the NextRadio app that integrates HD-related content (HD has yet to penetrate mobile devices). HD proponents may also be setting the groundwork to ask for another power increase to make FM-HD broadcasts more reliable.

While I don't expect much vigorous debate over HD Radio in public at the NAB Show, what I'd give to be a fly on the wall in the suite-discussions. The real world is much more complicated, there's a lot of ground between perfection and failure, and the truth about HD Radio lies somewhere in between. Breaking the unproductive us-versus-them dichotomy is the first step to confronting radio's digital dilemma head-on.

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