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News Archive: January 2006

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1/31/06 - Radio, TV Stations Could Be Seized in Emergency [link to this story]

President George W. Bush signed several standing orders following the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and D.C. that endowed the presidency with massive power in the event of a future national emergency. These orders created the Northern Command for National Defense, the military's first-ever command explicitly directed at "threats" on American soil. In an actual emergency, Northern Command, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency would largely become the functional executive branch of federal government, assuming direct responsibility for anything related to that now-familiar rubric, "national security."

One of these orders also reportedly makes possible the seizure of "radio and television stations and networks." If true, it is unprecedented, as well as somewhat redundant.

According to the rules of the national Emergency Alert System, in which all licensed radio/TV stations are required to participate, the transmission of national emergency messages is mandatory for all broadcasters. Once these have been conveyed, stations are supposed to either stay on the air and await further instructions or shut down (what each station does is dependent on its license class and place in the state/local EAS "chain").

The FCC's EAS Fact Sheet explains its primary function in clear language: "to provide the President with a means to address the American people in the event of a national emergency. Through the EAS, the President would have access to thousands of broadcast stations, cable systems and participating satellite programmers to transmit a message to the public."

The EAS Handbook for radio stations says that presidential messages are of the utmost priority and "must be carried live."

Some may quibble that Bush's orders derive from a national emergency management contingency portfolio initially drawn up during the Reagan administration. However, the provision directing physical seizure of radio and TV stations is a new addition, authored after 9/11.

When Stephen Dunifer first passed this along, he wrote, "build your transmitters now and stash them." That sounds like a prudent move. Although the FCC recently cracked down on the domestic sale and distribution of microradio equipment, plenty of other sources abound.

1/28/06 - Digital Multicasting Rollout Begins [link to this story]

The consortium of major broadcasters pushing digital radio are wasting no time deploying what they believe to be its "killer app," multicasting - the ability to split a single radio channel into multiple program streams. Earlier this month they announced the rollout of digital multicast signals in several dozen markets. The broadcasts introduce industry-coordinated secondary program channels featuring formats like "Classical Alternative," "Coffee House," "Female Talk," and "Extreme Hip-Hop," and some miscellaneous strangeness. For now, these channels will be offered without commercials.

My ongoing research into digital radio is dredging up lots of interesting information, much of which has a direct impact on the viability of multicasting.

1. The maximum bitrate of an HD Radio broadcast signal is 96 kilobits per second. This bitrate is achievable only on FM channels, and multicast streams must fit within this restriction (digital AM signals max out at 48 kbps and presently have no multicast capability). The way stations are deploying multicasting involves dividing a digital radio signal into one 64 kbps stream and one 32 kbps stream, or two 48 kbps streams.

The most elegant encoding algorithm in the world cannot produce "near-CD quality" sound with such limited bandwidth (considering uncompressed CD audio has a bitrate in excess of 1,400 kbps, HD Radio signals convey less than 10% of the original program audio data).

2. The HD Radio broadcast framework, called In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) digital audio broadcasting, was not even designed to accommodate multicasting until National Public Radio undertook crash development of the capability in 2002. Interestingly, up until that point NPR had been a somewhat reluctant participant in the HD Radio development process, having expressed concerns throughout the 1990s that the IBOC framework was too cumbersome, prone to interference, and bereft of the bandwidth necessary to provide robust digital signals.

NPR was an early backer of the digital radio broadcast framework adopted by most of the rest of the world. Had it actually put any actual effort behind support of this alternative, might it have found traction with the FCC? We'll never know: the FCC signaled early on that it would champion no standard, preferring instead to let broadcasters find their own. Commercial broadcasters then cooked up the scheme to plunk digital signals onto bandwidth divided up by analog rules, leading to the magic of today.

3. IBOC digital radio signals do not fit neatly into spectrum partitioned for analog use. They take advantage of the FCC's "spectral emission mask" rules to occupy up to twice as much spectrum as analog radio signals do. However, as the signal widens, FCC rules require that its relative power drop off by orders of magnitude.

An HD Radio signal is essentially a hybrid analog/digital signal. Its configuration keeps the analog portion of the signal nearest the center frequency and puts the digital data on "sidebands," which are broadcast at 1/100th the power of the analog signal. Thus listeners should expect the coverage area of multicast channels (especially new secondary channels) to be somewhat limited. (See figure at right; click for a larger version with explanation.)

4. There stands a good chance that digital radio broadcasts will be locked down with anti-copying technology. The National Association of Broadcasters and Recording Industry Association of America are corresponding over the idea, which would effectively end the long-standing ability to tape radio broadcasts for personal, noncommercial, fair-use purposes.

At a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on such "broadcast flag" copy-protection, which is already in the works for digital television, RIAA chief don Mitch Bainwol effectively admitted this under pointed questioning (:58, 902K) by Senator John Sununu (R-NH). Sununu uses XM in his example but the context of the larger discussion encompassed both terrestrial and satellite broadcasting.

While the NAB thinks the RIAA's worries about people cherry-picking digital copies of songs from the air is overblown (64 kbps copies? no thanks), it is amenable to doing something. That something won't be good.

A recent review of HD Radio in USA Today is mixed: the author tested a $500 HD clock radio (!) and found it "challenging" to receive digital signals at his home in Northern New Jersey. And don't forget that these extra channels will also cost broadcasters extra money, thanks to the proprietary nature of the IBOC framework itself.

1/26/06 - FCC's Top Cop Summarizes 2005 [link to this story]

The Federal Communications Commission held its monthly meeting (RealVideo required) last week. It was comprised of year-in-review summaries from the agency's bureaus. This included a presentation (PDF / PowerPoint) from Enforcement Bureau Chief Kris Monteith.

In her presentation (6:33, 6 MB), Monteith noted the Bureau's activity against unlicensed broadcasting as part of its effort "to ensure efficient and responsible use of the public airwaves." She claimed the Bureau "investigated more than 200 complaints regarding unauthorized pirate radio broadcasts" in 2005. While this claim seems inflated, it's likely closer to the truth than Monteith's predecessors.

Note the claimed figure represents "investigations," not actual enforcement actions taken.

1/23/06 - Guerrilla Marketing? [link to this story]

The fine folks at Clamor pointed out a BBC story about a Danish firm selling t-shirts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). According to the retailer, a portion of each sale goes to help the organizations obtain "new equipment for radio stations and graphics workshops."

The BBC notes that the FARC and PFLP are both considered "terrorist organizations" by the United States and European Union, which raises prickly questions about whether those that buy and sell such merchandise are in effect providing financial aid to terrorists. Given that the proceeds are explicitly designated to support media creation, though, adds a wrinkle to the consideration. However, as is increasingly the case, words and images can have as much or more power than any bomb or gun.

It has been previously suggested that microradio stations band together in a similar fashion to create a mutual-aid network to help stations in need. One potential option involved a "bust recovery fund," where raided stations could turn for assistance in obtaining replacement gear. Such a fund could begin with investments from participating stations and other interested parties, and grown with things like the sale of station t-shirts.

In 2003 Larry Flynt approached mainstream media reformers with an offer to donate to their growing cause; they politely refused in fear of what hay might be made from a pornographer's money. At the time I considered trying to track Flynt down to see if he'd be willing to assist other efforts, given his apparent support of electronic civil disobedience (in the tradition of all good hellraisers), but never followed through. No doubt in today's environment such a scheme would invite an involuntary extended stay at an undisclosed location of the government's choosing.

1/21/06 - DIYmedia in NYC [link to this story]

I've been invited to the NYC Grassroots Media Conference, going down February 11 at New School University. This is the third NYC GMC, which is a project of the Paper Tiger-sponsored NYC Grassroots Media Coalition.

I believe I'll be giving a workshop on microradio operations, similar to the one that went down at the Allied Media Conference last year. Lots of show-and-tell with emphasis on practical, tactical applications, tailored to this particular conference's goals. Hundreds of others will be similarly sharing knowledge, which should make for much fun. I haven't been to New York in more than a decade.

1/20/06 - Sirius Wants Stern Pirates Silenced [link to this story]

Ah, the exquisite irony of indecency fine-money levied against the "old" Howard Stern radio program paying the wages of FCC field agents as they investigate acts of unlicensed broadcasting involving relays of Stern's "new" show. Sirius has indeed petitioned the FCC to investigate the pirate rebroadcasters. The complaint reportedly only references the stations in New York and New Jersey, however, not those in the Midwest.

Patrick Reilly, Sirius flack, says: "Given the quality of Howard's show, listening to it on a pirate radio is no way to listen to it." I'd say the format fits the forum just fine, and I'm kind of surprised Stern's not at least leaving the underdog alone here. I guess $500 million will do that to you.

1/19/06 - Stern Pirates Proliferate [link to this story]

Listener reports from Minneapolis/St. Paul and Duluth, Minnesota suggest microradio stations there are simulcasting Howard Stern's new radio show on the Sirius satellite network. Last week unlicensed outlets in New York and New Jersey broadcast highlights from Stern's first week on Sirius.

Is there a meme in play here?

Part of me is heartened that people care enough about tits and farts to throw up an electronic middle finger to the FCC. Sirius cannot be happy that people are rebroadcasting a subscription-based service, but it is certainly not threatening to its bottom line (such as it is, hundreds of millions of dollars in the red - XM is similarly short of profitability).

This is not the first time a pirate has simulcast a satellite channel, either: sporadic stations have rebroadcast music channels from both XM and Sirius on occasion.

1/14/06 - New Jersey War on Microradio: Mobilizing the Troops [link to this story]

Reaction from the New Jersey Broadcasters Association, after acting governor Codey affixed his signature to legislation criminalizing unlicensed broadcasting: "Thanks, Florida."

However, instead of hitting up the cops first, the NJBA plans to deputize the audience directly, via "a series of Radio announcements alerting listeners to this new law, and what to do if a pirate station interferes with their favorite local station." These I've gotta hear.

The American Radio Relay League is apparently planning to amend its petition to the FCC seeking the nullification of both state laws. That petition is currently in the circular file of the agency's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

1/13/06 - Pirates Rebroadcast Howard Stern in NY, NJ [link to this story]

This week Howard Stern's empire evolved to a new level when he debuted his new program on the Sirius satellite radio network. Howard's departure from the realm of terrestrial broadcasting caused much consternation. Fear not, for pirate radio is keeping Stern alive on the airwaves: the New York Daily News reports that two pirate stations aired uncensored segments of "Howard 100" on FM frequencies in Brooklyn, New York and the Newark/Secaucus, New Jersey area.

Several pirates operate throughout the NYC metroplex; the article quotes a commercial station's program director on the subject: "You'd like to catch them, but it's like finding a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, they come and go."

According to David Fiske of the FCC, "Pirate broadcasting is something we take very seriously, although the content per se would be of no concern to us in the case of Howard Stern, since the FCC does not regulate satellite radio."

It appears that both stations were airing selected segments from Stern's debut week, not simulcasting the show live. Nor is there any evidence to suggest the stations were linked.

1/11/06 - rfb v. FCC In Stasis [link to this story]

When the FCC was denied an injunction against radio free brattleboro in March of 2004, Federal District Judge J. Garvan Murtha suggested the agency and station enter into talks to try to figure out a compromise whereby rfb might broadcast legally. Instead the FCC went to a Federal Magistrate and got a warrant to execute a station raid in June of 2005. Instead of playing ball with rfb, the FCC went and found a friendlier court. Justice in action?

This week radio free brattleboro's attorney formally announced the collapse of all dialogue, as civil actions still wend their way through two courts in Vermont.

Rooting through some tape at work this week I came upon Sara Longsmith's presentation on radio free brattleboro (13:54, 12.8 MB) at the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis last May. It's a fairly concise overview of the station and its mission up until a month before the FCC silenced it by force. The FCC has since granted an LPFM construction permit to another group in Brattleboro, one which Longsmith says has pledged to live up to the ideals of rfb.

1/10/06 - New Jersey Second State to Criminalize Pirate Radio [link to this story]

The New Jersey state Senate voted 38-0 Monday to make unlicensed broadcasting a fourth-degree felony. Conviction can result in 18 months prison time and $10,000 in fines. The state Assembly passed an identical bill last March; acting governor Richard Codey is expected to sign without comment.

Shortly after Florida criminalized pirate radio in 2004, the state broadcasters' association held special training for law enforcement officials on how to track and bust unlicensed stations. I guess we can expect a repeat performance in the Garden State.

Amateur radio enthusiasts in New Jersey are reportedly not happy with this development as they believe, like their colleagues in Florida, that the rightful and exclusive jurisdiction for regulation of the airwaves has been and should remain federal. Last February the American Radio Relay League formally petitioned the FCC to preempt Florida's law. The agency pigeonholed that request and is likely to remain unresponsive unless heightened political pressure is applied to resolve the incongruity.

That the agency can selectively ignore such affronts to its fundamental authority still amazes me. A clever lawyer will find this useful someday...

1/9/06 - Notes on the Enforcement Action Database [link to this story]

I've written a long-overdue overview of the Enforcement Action Database. It's a pretty simple explanation of what the numbers mean (which isn't much, really) and how they are collected and compiled. 2006 marks the tenth year of data collection, and yet the information remains so sketchy that the big picture is still pretty much inconclusive.

2005 was a record-setting year in terms of the raw number of enforcement actions, but that's partially because the FCC's become somewhat more transparent about its activity and now routinely makes the issuance of warning letters public (in hopes of having a deterrent effect). Additionally, field agents tend to be making multiple visits to stations before escalating the enforcement protocol.

For example, the FCC issued two $10,000 Notices of Apparent Liability in December. Both detail at least three visits made to each station before the decision was made to move ahead with a fine. Each visit, plus the NALs themselves, constitutes a data point. Thus the two stations account for at least eight entries in the Database. Throw in the fact that these enforcement cases stretched over two years (2004 and 2005) and you can see how things get complicated.

So while the FCC is undertaking a growing number of enforcement actions, are they touching more stations? I've never bothered to count that, but the answer is probably yes. Agents are spending more time in the field and they're following through more quickly on the warning steps of the enforcement protocol. But the number of NALs, forfeitures, and raids dropped precipitously in 2005 as compared to the year before, which seems to suggest that the agency's devoting more time and resources into making a show of force in the field than into escalating cases to levels with material consequences.

I like the fact that the number of states in which enforcement activity was reported increased. It's the clearest indicator of a spreading phenomenon.

1/5/06 - The Internet's Relative Impermanence [link to this story]

If there is one thing that still sucks about the online world is that it can be so transitory - data here today may disappear tomorrow. At least other info-storage formats degrade on scales measured in years. Whether it be due to site closure, redesign, or (blech) registration compulsion, it's always sad when I link-check this site and discover what's no longer there.

This particular run-through made me weep because some significant "primary source" material, especially relevant to the history of microradio, has given up the ghost: and its news archive;; all of the microradio briefs written by the National Lawyer's Guild Committee on Democratic Communications; and the UK info-trove Y2Kpirates.

Fortunately the Wayback Machine catches a lot of stuff, but can't be counted on to catalog depth. Projects like the Internet Archive exist for this very reason, yet very few take the trouble to preserve the information they create. It's frustrating when bits of the virtual world vanish.

1/3/06 - KBFR Airchecks Online [link to this story]

I am remiss in mentioning this, but the audio archives of KBFR, Boulder Free Radio, are going online via ClickCaster. The aim is to share much of the live, in-studio performances brought by the station over its four-year run. It's great the station can leave behind such a memorable record of the musical community it served and helped to sustain.

Relatedly, the old KBFR blog has morphed somewhat since the station's demise and still shows signs of life. This includes the posting of some KBFR documentary history, which is cool to read through.

1/2/06 - Public Radio Hacks On Florida Pirate [link to this story]

Paul the Mediageek notes National Public Radio's Morning Edition ran a piece on pirate radio in Florida last week that screams "lame." The reporter, WGCU news director Amy Tardif, only talked to a representative from Clear Channel (who whines about losing advertisers to a pirate), someone from the Florida Association of Broadcasters, and a cop on the hunt of a station. This makes her come off as a well-played, ignorant cracker. And the news hook is only a year and a half old. Possibly one of the worst pieces on the subject ever run on public broadcasting.

There was but one nugget of useful information. It came not from Tardif but the cop, who noted that it's common practice now for stations to use a streaming studio-to-transmitter (STL) link. Meaning that when they hit pirates they're primarily catching gear, not people. This explains why authorities are willing to prosecute those who rent space to pirates as if they were operating the stations themselves. Perhaps it's too much work to trace IPs or stake out stations...until the FAB funds the cops directly to set up a "task force" or something.

It also means that someone's developed a pretty replicable and reliable operational protocol that deserves to be documented and shared with others.