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News of the Moment

7/29/14 - Industry Mulls Second FM-HD Power Increase [link to this story]

When HD Radio was under development and policy-discussions on the technology were in their infancy, proponents of the system bragged about all of the game-changing features it would have. This included audio quality that sounded better than CD and the ability to broadcast a plethora of digital data beyond audio itself.

They also told us that digital radio signals would be more robust and easier to receive than their analog counterparts. This was a critical assertion, because HD Radio works by shoehorning digital signals onto the existing AM and FM bands, right next to analog ones, and thus to avoid interference the HD signal can only be broadcast at just a fraction of a station's analog power output. But proponents said that was okay: HD Radio only needed a fraction of the power to kick ass and blow minds.

Then came reality. Broadcasting at just 1% of a station's analog power, HD Radio signals can be difficult to receive. Not only can they drop in and out when you're on the move, but HD signals have a hard time penetrating some buildings. These problems are especially noticeable on the FM band.

Starting in the mid-2000s, HD Radio proponents embarked on a quest to build the case for increasing the broadcast power of FM-HD signals from 1% to 10% of analog power. The process was quite controversial, with public radio broadcasters very concerned that increased digital power would cause increased interference between stations, while commercial broadcasters said it would be no big deal.

After months of slagging each other, National Public Radio and HD Radio's commercial-broadcast backers came to a back-room compromise on an FM-HD power hike, and in 2010 the FCC approved it. FM-HD stations could raise their digital power to anywhere between 4% and 10% of their analog output. The FCC also implemented rules that made it nearly impossible for a broadcaster or listener to lodge complaints about any increased HD-related interference between stations.

Generally speaking, these slightly beefier signals are somewhat easier to lock and listen to, and they are somewhat more receivable in buildings. However, very few stations have actually applied for and implemented any digital power increase, which the FCC calls "disappointing." Additionally, increasing FM-HD power has indeed led to actual increased interference between stations—the FCC may be in denial, but examples abound on YouTube.

What do you do if your controversial solution to fix a design flaw in FM-HD doesn't work? Apparently, you double down.

In June, Clear Channel senior operations engineer Alan Jurison published a white paper about increasing FM-HD power, designed to "add to the technical record the tangible benefits of elevated digital power." After mouthing the standard industry-lines about the technology (HD is great, it has traction in the marketplace, and increasing FM-HD power has been painless and fruitful), Jurison provides a report on some listening-tests he's conducted on Clear Channel FM-HD stations in New York and Los Angeles.

In a nutshell, Jurison drove the major highways of the metropolitan areas with reception and logging equipment and compared FM-HD signal robustness at 1% of analog power and 4% of analog power. No real surprise that increased power leads to better digital reception—but it still falls short on many stretches of roads, especially in the more affluent suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut.

In the LA metro, the terrain and density of stations on the FM dial means that most are limited to running at the minimum FM-HD power (1% of analog). But no two radio stations are exactly alike, so there's some variation in the amount of digital wattage Clear Channel's stations can put out. For example, both KBIG-FM and KIIS-FM are, in FCC parlance, "Class B" stations that run their FM-HD signals at 1% of analog output. But KBIG is licensed to broadcast with more power, and thus can broadcast a stronger FM-HD signal (650 watts) than KIIS (80 watts).

Again, no surprise that it's easier to receive KBIG's digital signal than KIIS', but the area's terrain exacerbates reception challenges for both stations. This problem is inherent to HD Radio's design, and reflects an early-held (and wrongheaded) belief that just because a signal is digital, it will outperform analog.

Jurison lays some blame for this at the feet of auto manufacturers, who have sacrificed antenna functionality for vehicle design aesthetics. Over the last two decades, stock radio antennas in automobiles have morphed from external whips mounted on the front of the vehicle to little nubs that can be located anywhere. In many newer cars, the antenna is now a small wire often buried in the rear window. Result: radio reception has been degraded in the car, and this is especially noticeable with digital radio.

The primary takeaway of Jurison's paper is that the 2010 FM-HD power hike from 1% to 4% of analog power has not been a meaningful solution to HD's listenability problems, "almost always fall[ing] short in replicating a station's analog coverage." Considering that radio faces increased competition in a networked world, this is an existential threat, and something must be done:

Many complaints are logged by people regarding the underperformance of their digital radios. Those complaints and the dissatisfaction of listeners will only increase as millions of additional digital radios are sold each year. If current trends continue, by the end of the decade, digital radios will reach critical mass. I feel the industry is woefully underprepared for how inadequate [4% FM-HD power] coverage can be.

Jurison then suggests that the industry work to renew research in broadcasting FM-HD signals at 10% of analog power. The FCC's digital radio rules limit many stations from adopting the full FM-HD power increase, in order to reduce the chances of interfering with their neighbors on the dial, especially in crowded markets. But Jurison says these concerns are overblown, and points to the lack of official complaints about FM-HD interference.

"Why should we hold back and harm the entire industry from having a successful digital transition based on concerns that still, to this date, have not materialized?," he writes. "Let us ensure there are safeguards in place to mitigate any interference on a case-by-case basis." But "the time has come" to push for a full-on, broad-spectrum 10% FM-HD power level for all stations.

Of course, Jurison ignores the fact that the FCC's rules set the bar so high for making a complaint about digital radio interference that you really can't file one—the regulatory equivalent of plugging your ears and singing "la la la I can't hear you." This, too, was done by design. It's not an honest rationale.

I expect we'll see increased presentations on this subject at industry conferences, including the annual NAB Radio Show in September, and in the broadcast engineering trades over the next year. Clear Channel will work with iBiquity and the National Association of Broadcasters to produce the necessary "science" to justify the change, and a plethora of broadcast-investors in HD Radio will endorse the results without qualification. Then it's on to the FCC to press for a blanket 10% FM-HD power increase (at a minimum), with little oversight or recourse.

Although other avenues exist to improve FM-HD reception without dramatically raising broadcast power, it appears HD proponents prefer the brute-force option.

The interesting thing to watch will be whether the industry splits again over the idea. The driving force behind NPR Labs, public radio's primary HD innovator, has since retired, his replacement was just canned, and financing and oversight of the Labs have been folded into NPR's Technology and Operations division. Thus there will likely be fewer thoughtfully critical voices engaged in these future projects and policymaking. More's the pity.

7/22/14 - FCC: Democracy is a Bug, We're Working On It [link to this story]

It's always a little happy-sad to watch the FCC solicit public comment on an issue and then be surprised and self-defensive when the public responds in force. This time, the cycle involves the FCC's consideration of rules involving network neutrality: more than a million comments were filed during the initial round of feedback. That's a new record for public participation in a single FCC policy proceeding. (Now you have until September 10 to submit reply-comments.)

There would not have been such an upwelling of public comment on media policy were it not for the Internet, so it's only fair that an Internet policy proceeding now holds the crown for citizen input. Similarly, the FCC's apparent inability to cope with this input tells us much about the state of policymaking in the United States.

Like much of our infrastructure, it is wobbly and prone to upset. The FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System, developed in 1996 and never substantially updated, crashed multiple times during the initial comment-round. The most notable instances happened in June, after John Oliver helpfully redefined "net neutrality," and again just hours before the initial-comment deadline last week.

David Bray, the FCC's Chief Information Officer, has released traffic logs showing the spikes in ECFS traffic caused by the literal manifestation of "the public interest"—"some of the highest concurrent commenting levels that ECFS has seen in its 17-plus year history." Interestingly, FCC staff can only batch-download 100,000 comments at a time from ECFS—simply put, the system was never designed for mass public participation in media policy.

Chairman Tom Wheeler squarely blames Congress for these troubles. Nearly half of the FCC's information infrastructure is 10+ years old, and tens of millions of dollars of system upgrades were cut from the federal budget as part of the sequestration process, leaving those systems (like ECFS) systems to atrophy. "It is particularly distasteful that the FCC – the agency entrusted with promoting a world-class broadband infrastructure for the nation – could ever be incapable of dealing with Americans expressing themselves via that broadband capability," seethes Wheeler.

Note that nobody's talking about what will actually happen with the public comments themselves. Broadcast attorney Harry Cole, for whom navigating the FCC is a full-time job, conservatively estimated it would take decades to process and respond to them under current resources and workflow—maybe a year if the agency makes network neutrality its top priority. "The transparency of that end of things is far more important to the outcome than the raw hourly numbers of incoming comments," Cole says. "Ideally the Commission has a plan for that. We’d love to know what it is. Wouldn't you?"

Shirking the duty to process public comment simply because it is overwhelming could open up any future network neutrality rulings to appeal. Then again, it's not like there's formal ground-rules at the FCC to engage with such comments: such processing is left up to staff, who apparently have great latitude to ignore or dismiss them as they wish.

Since Chairman Wheeler both personally invited comments on this network neutrality proceeding and committed the agency to seriously consider them—and he would also like to have some rule in place by the end of the year—any shirking will have to be creative. That's not the type of "innovation" the Internet nor a democracy in austerity-mode needs.

7/15/14 - Wrath of Interns Reaches Clear Channel [link to this story]

The nation's largest radio conglomerate is the newest target in a growing crusade against internship exploitation. Plaintiff Liane Arias alleges her internship at Clear Channel consisted of menial administrative tasks and staffing promotional events—things other employees would have done had her free labor not been available, and a far cry from the educational experience her internship promised. More importantly, she's asking for class-action status for her case.

Arias is represented by an NYC-based law firm that specializes in labor and employment law and is making a name for itself in unpaid internship litigation, spearheading a similar complaint against SiriusXM satellite radio. This is just the latest in a series of lawsuits filed by former interns against media companies in the last few years: the floodgates opened in 2012 when unpaid interns for PBS' Charlie Rose Show settled a class-action lawsuit. Then, in June of 2013, a judge ruled that the Fox Searchlight movie studio violated labor law in its use of unpaid interns.

Since then, suits have been filed against Condé Nast (which promptly closed its internship program), Gawker Media (still in court) NBC Universal (still in court), and Viacom (still in court), among many others. Clear Channel is the first terrestrial radio broadcaster to be hit with an unpaid internship lawsuit.

It's no secret that corporate America has slashed jobs and attempted to make up the difference with automation, outsourcing, and in many cases, the labor of unpaid interns. These practices are especially prevalent in the media industries, where the "glamour" and "access" they ostensibly offer means much more labor supply than demand.

Thus many unpaid internships are nothing more than glorified gopher-jobs with a potentially valuable brand name. Such practices are found even in the "liberal" or "progressive" media, who fall far short of the values they espouse in their own workplaces.

Colleges and universities have fed into these schemes by uncritically embracing unpaid internships as some vaguely-defined rite of passage. In many instances, that doubly screws students: they don't get paid at their intern-job and have to pay for the college credit they receive for working. If it's a "prestigious" internship in a big city, students are also expected to front the travel and housing costs for the duration.

Only recently has there been any move in higher education to critically evaluate internship opportunities, spurred in part by an ongoing ProPublica investigation into the nature and scope of unpaid internships. This ambitious inquiry seeks data on internships across economic sectors, including self-reporting from interns directly. The reports from arts and entertainment interns catalog such exciting and educational work as lunch-delivery and dog-walking.

Of course, not all internship experience is exploitative and valueless, and not all schools are mindlessly feeding students into the internship mill. In broadcasting and journalism, there's a long history of pre- or paraprofessional experience as part of the educational process. But it's incumbent upon educators to make sure that theses experiences are meaningful.

When we revised the Broadcast Journalism degree program at Brooklyn College last year, we instituted a requirement that all students must complete an internship or an independent study. This allows students to avoid internships altogether, though they still must spend at least a semester engaged in some intensive, specialized study. Our department also evaluates internship opportunities to weed out the meaningless and we encourage our students to look beyond the traditional corporate media for internships.

Sometimes the value of an internship is that it teaches you what you don't want to do with your career. For example, I've had students intern at several local television channels and the unvarnished look they got at the vapid pack mentality taught them more about that business than me and my colleagues ever could.

Of course, my experiences are colored by being based in the #1 U.S. media market, where decent internship opportunities abound, and at an institution where internship stipends are available. Similarly, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism provides stipends for students on summer internships—still not enough to live meaningfully on in Manhattan, but tons better than nothing.

In a perfect world, everyone would get paid what they (and the work they do) are actually worth. Labor is money, and inculcating students with the notion that their labor is worthless sets a depressing career precedent. If the change won't come from the educator or "employer," then keep those lawsuits coming.

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