News Archive: June 2009
6/30/09 - FCC: AM Stations Get FM Translators [link to this story]
Yesterday the FCC issued a Report and Order formally allowing AM radio stations to use FM translators to rebroadcast their signals.
The idea was first proposed nearly three years ago, and over the last 18 months or so the FCC's quietly been allowing AM stations to apply for translators to "fill in" existing gaps in their coverage areas. These gaps have been caused by the general degradation of the AM band, due to electromagnetic or radio-frequency interference (RFI) from a growing myriad of electronic devices and skywave signals from stronger co- or adjacent-channel stations.
I vehemently opposed this proposal, noting that the inherent noise-problems of the AM band will not be fixed by cramming more FM translators onto a separate (and unaffected) portion of the broadcast spectrum. Perhaps the FCC should first work to proactively minimize RFI on the AM dial, as it already has the statutory authority to do?
The Audio Division of the Media Bureau fundamentally disagreed, calling this ruling a part of its strategic plan to bring "relief" to AM broadcasters (something that's been in the works for more than a decade). While I find its justification somewhat tortuous, I am relieved to know somebody at the agency takes dissenting opinions seriously (I got stomped in the footnotes like never before).
In a nutshell, the FCC gave AM stations the ability to utilize as many translators as they need to effectively serve their primary coverage areas. However, it compromised on a very important point: as of now, only existing FM translators may be used (specifically defined as "those translator stations with licenses or permits in effect as of May 1, 2009"). This means that AM stations will not be allowed to mass-apply for new FM translator permits to effectively duplicate their AM service areas.
This is bad news for any AM broadcaster who didn't get in on the "Special Temporary Authority" gravy-train for new FM translators which had previously been in effect. But it's good news for owners of translators who are looking for buyers or lessors, and good news for aspiring LPFM broadcasters, in that some FM spectrum may still be available if the FCC ever opens its long-promised filing window for LP-10 (10-watt) LPFM stations.
Incidentally, Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell was the only one to issue a statement on the ruling, praising this "deregulatory action" in a most curious manner:
Truth be told, it's not like the AM band is completely unusable at this point. The number of LPAM stations is growing, both of the legal (Part 15) variety and illicit (unlicensed) kind. The FCC's ruling is basically a mixed bag, neither a slam-dunk nor total loss; the kind of thing that makes media policy intriguingly infuriating.
6/28/09 - The Next Best Thing Since Pump Up The Volume? [link to this story]
There haven't been that many big-screen films made about pirate radio. The only ones that come to mind, except for the slew of documentaries produced in the last decade or so, are On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (1979 - extra-cheese, please!), Sir! No Sir! (2005 - more of a documentary about internal military resistance to Vietnam, it highlights the role of Dave Rabbit and Radio First Termer quite prominently), and, probably the best-known of the bunch, Pump Up the Volume (1990 - a cult classic).
None of the above movies (save for the documentaries) are big on facts; to wit, the FCC does not chase people around broadcasting from Jeeps in big orange bread trucks with "F.C.C." stenciled on the side of them.
So I guess much the same can be expected from The Boat That Rocked (2009), which is now in rolling-release (first in the United Kingdom in April and finally in the U.S. two months from today). What makes it notable is its writer/director (Richard Curtis) and its relatively star-studded cast (Kenneth Branagh, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans). In addition, to my knowledge, The Boat That Rocked is the first feature film about the heady days of 1960's European offshore pirate radio.
Reportedly loosely based around the exploits of Radio Caroline, the trailers for the film seem to focus more on the wackiness of the on-ship atmosphere than the actual reasons for why folks risked their lives to bring rock and roll to western Europe. Reviews of the film are mixed, although its release has given journalists the impetus to go back and explore that unique period in radio history and talk to some of the actual people involved in the offshore pirate phenomenon. (They, too, give the movie mixed reviews.)
So far, The Boat That Rocked has pulled in between $20-30 million, which is about half the cost of its production. Not likely to be a summer blockbuster, I'll still shell out the cost of admission, just because flicks like these are so few and far between.
6/15/09 - GM Loses A Potential Customer [link to this story]
I know that one of the prime adages of the media reform movement goes something like that if your first issue-of-interest is not "fixing the media," then it should be your second. Can that sometimes work the other way around? With respect to recent developments in the auto industry, I would argue yes.
Since 1997, the year I started writing online, I've been the (somewhat) proud owner of a Saturn SC2. Not the most perfectly-built car (at least it looks fast). I just flipped the 108,000 mile-mark on it this weekend; I drove it off the lot with just 215. It's the first and, perhaps, the only brand-new car I'll ever own. Now, General Motors has gone into bankruptcy, and as a part of this move it's spun Saturn off to a third party (so at least I'll still get parts and service). That's nice. It's the rest of GM I worry about.
The down-and-out, once-king of Detroit announced last week that its new Chairman and Chief Executive Officer would be an old friend: Ed Whitacre, Jr. Remember him? Former CEO of AT&T? Not ringing any bells yet?
Whitacre's major achievement during his 17-year tenure at AT&T was to rebuild Ma Bell, first starting off with SBC, then acquiring Pacific Bell, Ameritech, BellSouth, Cingular, and, finally, the AT&T brand itself. AT&T is now the largest Internet Service Provider in the country; basically, nobody's data doesn't flow through the AT&T network at some point. We all found that out the hard way when it was disclosed that the company secretly let the U.S. government mass-wiretap its citizenry in the name of "national security." Currently, it has the iPhone nicely locked down.
It was only after creating a virtual oligopoly in the telecommunications (and especially ISP) market that Whitacre could boldly stand up and make the claim that nobody would use "these pipes" for free - even when we were (and still are) paying for them already (some of us twice, like me, both as an online content producer and consumer). It was Whitacre who flew the trial balloon for the notion of tiered/metered bandwidth consumption, content discrimination, and all that jazz.
To be perfectly clear: Whitacre and his ilk underinvested in his industry's infrastructure to create artificial scarcity in the marketplace in order to increase revenue and profits. When he left AT&T in 2007, he left behind a telecommunications industry that, relative to global indicators, was (and is) still stuck in the late 20th century.
In taking the wheel at General Motors, Whitacre admitted that he knows nothing about cars: "I guess I'll have to learn something about cars, other than how to drive them." (Then again, he's openly admitted to not knowing much about computers, either.) But not to worry: "A business is a business, and I think I can learn about cars. I'm not that old, and I think the business principles are the same."
If by "business" you mean mergers and acquisitions, well, sure, he knows how to do that. It's how he built his fame and fortune. But the auto industry? No built-in quasi-monopoly on the product to start with? What will Whitacre's GM gobble to fix its problems? Toyota? It is difficult to envision Ed and friends buying their way out of GM's predicament.
However, it's not completely insane: he was appointed by the Treasury Department, which is overseeing GM's bankruptcy-purgatory and now owns a controlling share of stock. Heaven knows just how much taxpayer subsidy Whitacre may wring out of the government as he "rebuilds" GM; he was chosen in part, after all, because of his well-connectedness in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps it's because he'll work on the cheap? While his new position's compensation has not been disclosed, Ed Whitacre left AT&T with a platinum-threaded, diamond-encrusted parachute worth north of $150 million (the total really depends on how long he lives - he still gets a minimum of $5.5 mil a year from AT&T in pension, plus all benefits and perks from the old gig, for life - and most of it tax-free), while AT&T's workers got screwed. This does not count the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars he's already cashed out on in selling AT&T stock.
Given Ed Whitacre's track record at AT&T, this decision doesn't seem to make much business sense, and definitely shakes my faith in "change we can believe in." Those of us who lived through the Whitacre years in telecom definitely need to drop some knowledge on somebody in power about what we might expect of the "new" General Motors. So long as that guy's in charge, I'll never buy another GM vehicle again.
6/8/09 - LPFM: Offensive and Defensive Victories [link to this story]
Late last week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the National Association of Broadcasters' appeal to have FCC-tweaks made over the years to the LPFM service thrown away. In a nutshell, the NAB claimed that the FCC's moves to make LPFM stations more equal to others on the dial, and to provide remedial efforts in the case where an LPFM's existence is in jeopardy by another (larger) station, overstepped the statutory bounds of the LPFM service as dictated by Congress in 2001.
In an 18-page ruling, the D.C. Circuit basically tells the NAB to stuff it: "Congress did not intend to restrain the Commission’s authority to respond to new circumstances potentially threatening LPFM stations other than with respect to third-adjacent channel minimum separation requirements." Administratively, the Court could find no grounds to back the NAB's objections. Radio World says the trade organization "is studying the decision and its options," but the smart money is this horse is dead.
Why? Because the momentum is growing to pass a bill to expand LPFM anyway, and do away with most (but not all) of the restrictions placed on the service by Congressional fiat eight years ago. Recently, the Prometheus Radio Project scheduled a hybrid street-theatre/lobbying day in D.C., of which they made this cool video. The scuttlebutt is that the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet may vote soon to move the Local Community Radio Act up for full House Commerce Committee consideration. One of its sponsors, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) told the Prometheus-organized policy briefing that "once we get this through the committee and onto the floor, I think we'll just sail it through the House."
The NAB is not the well-connected political juggernaut that it was close to a decade ago. If it has any sense it'll save its legal ammo in an attempt to try and challenge the LCRA if it becomes law (what's happening in the Senate with the bill is still a bit murky; the House version has 54 cosponsors, the Senate's version six). Not like that will be a fruitful challenge, but hell, it will fight what is basically no threat to its constituents' existence out principle. The NAB is just like that.