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News of the Moment

4/15/14 - Workers Inependent 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.

4/1/14 - Book Report, etc. [link to this story]

Two weeks left to spring break in the CUNY system and everyone's struggling to maintain their sanity on the tail-end of what has been a grueling year. So a potpourri of sorts this week:

Radio's Digital Dilemma. 75 copies of the hardcover have been sold through mid-March, which is way more than I had expected by this point. (You or your local library can order direct through Routledge and receive 20% off by using code JRK96 at checkout. Amazon's Kindle version is similarly "cheaper.") Once 200 copies are sold, a sanely-priced paperback run will commence. Routledge gives 18 months to make this goal, which puts the drop-dead deadline for paperback release in June of 2015.

Last week, Routledge published a five-question interview with me about the book and where it came from. Long story short, the seeds for this project were planted well more than a decade ago, when I first became a refugee from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

I've also written a commentary related to the book for the European Journalism Observatory, a project of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. It emphasizes the primary cautionary tale: when ideology trumps science, bad things happen that have lasting effects on the health of a media system.

Workers Independent News v. FCC. Work continues to confront the FCC about its troublesome ruling on the validity of broadcast journalism. Multiple vectors are in play: the first is Congress, who has the power of the purse over the FCC and who may be able to persuade the agency to walk back their censorship of WIN with some targeted prodding. Members in both the House of Representatives and Senate are intrigued by this case and have agreed to sniff around.

If legislative entreaties fail, then it's time to lawyer up. I'm in discussions with two folks who specialize in media and labor issues and are preliminarily interested in taking our case; the recommendation at this time is to let the Congressional inquiries play themselves out first, as those could completely obviate the need for a legal battle. That is, if the FCC is willing to listen to reason.

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