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News Archive: January 2012

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1/26/12 - HD Radio: Listeners Still Missing in Action [link to this story]

The slow-motion struggle that is HD Radio proliferation in the United States continues to bobble along with no meaningful developments in traction. This is exemplified by the results of a recent survey which shows that consumer awareness of what HD Radio is is stagnant at best. A bit more than half of those surveyed have "heard of" HD Radio - but of those knowledgeable folks, one in three don't have any clear idea what it actually is.

This consumer perspective on the technology is essentially unchanged from similar surveys done over the last few years - and in some key categories, like brand-awareness and basic functionality, the number of listeners familiar with HD Radio has actually declined.

None of this bodes well for broadcaster uptake (less than one in four U.S. radio stations broadcast in HD) or the fiscal viability of the technology's proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation. Furthermore, at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, HD Radio was a relatively low-profile player as the promotion of new in-vehicle "infotainment" systems featuring streaming media platforms stole the spotlight.

This development is in direct response to the desires of drivers, the youngest of whom consider Internet access to be the most important aspect of any in-vehicle infotainment system. There's no substantive signs that the indifference of radio listeners to HD technology will change anytime soon.

It is well past time for U.S. broadcasters to think seriously and critically about alternatives to digitizing the airwaves.

1/19/12 - Leaving the Ground? Shut It Down [link to this story]

This story flew under my radar, probably because it was published in USA Today, which is not necessarily known for its in-depth investigative journalism.

The bottom line: f*cking with your smartphone on an airplane has a clear potential for danger. The report uncovered nearly three dozen incidents of interference from onboard passenger electronic devices last year. The interference affected communications and navigational systems; though none resulted in an accident, critical flight-management systems were compromised.

When you're hurtling through the air several miles off the ground in a pressurized aluminum tube, a margin of safety is a relative thing. Individually, portable electronic devices may pose little danger, but when dozens or hundreds of them are in operation on a single plane, you can see how the risk of interference can rise. (Interference itself is not cumulative in such a situation - it's a question of the proliferation of potentially interfering sources.)

Last decade, the FCC considered removing its own regulations that prohibit the use of portable electronic devices on airplanes, but decided to keep the prohibitions in place because "the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient." Granted, the FCC's concern is focused on the potential for interference from an aircraft to ground-based communications systems, but when you're dealing with an aviation situation, isn't it best to err on the side of caution?

What's worse, there are ample penalties available to exercise against scofflaws, but they are very rarely utilized. These range from fines to suspension of wireless service and even arrest. However, in today's aviation environment, where cost and convenience trump all and the flight experience is something that one endures more than they enjoy, I get the sense that passengers and cabin crew alike simply can't be bothered to enforce compliance.

Facebook, Twitter, and all of the folks in your address book will still be there when you land. Give it a rest.

1/12/12 - FCC: LPFM a Tiny Fish in Big Pond [link to this story]

The FCC has released its long-awaited economic assessment of the LPFM radio service. Although the need for such a study was initially dismissed as unnecessary more than eight years ago, the commercial broadcast lobby forced the agency to conduct the research as part of the compromise which allowed for the passage of the Local Community Radio Act last year.

Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel has a good overview of the report and its findings. More detail below on salient points:

Snapshot of the LPFM service. The majority of the 835 active LPFM stations identified by the FCC were built in 2004 and 2005. (In contrast, the average full-power commercial FM station is 30 years old.) The average power of an LPFM station is 75 watts, and average antenna height is 21 meters (the maximum power allowed is 100 watts, and max antenna height is 30 meters). The two most popular programming formats for LPFM stations are Religion (49.4%) and Miscellaneous (32.9%).

LPFM listenership is infinitesimal. The FCC's examination of 2009 Arbitron ratings "revealed that LPFM stations are listened to by less than 0.2 percent of the radio-listening population and that LPFM listening represents less than 0.1 percent of total radio listening." More than half of all LPFM stations are located outside of the ~300 Arbitron-ranked markets, in "mostly rural areas covering only 19.2 percent of the U.S. population."

Of those LPFMs in radio markets measured by Arbitron, more than two-thirds have a listenership too small to be accurately measured. On average, "13 LPFM stations would need to enter both the Arbitron Metro and contour of [a] full-service commercial FM station before the effect on [the commercial station's] Arbitron ratings would become discernible."

The "LPFM Industry" is a marginal one. The FCC concluded that "LPFM stations do not currently have, and in the future are unlikely to have, a demonstrable economic impact on full-service commercial FM radio stations." LPFM stations "operate with very small budgets, rely on mostly part-time and volunteer staff, do not have measurable ratings, have limited population reach, and do not generate significant underwriting earnings."

Interference hurts the little guy. The geographic coverage of a full-time commercial station is about 55 times larger than an LPFM station. As part of the study, the FCC conducted in-depth interviews with eight LPFM station mangers: "All but one...stated that the low power of the station poses a significant problem and that they would like to operate at a higher power." Many "were concerned about problems with reception in their existing coverage areas. Some...emphasized in-home reception issues, noting that LPFM...signals often are unable to penetrate the walls of a home." LPFM station managers "also expressed frustration with interference from full-service commercial FM stations, especially in unfavorable weather conditions."

If anything, this report definitively debunks the hype and propaganda commercial and public broadcasters used so effectively to stymie the promulgation of a meaningful LFPM service in the first place. The next - and most likely last - opportunity to apply for new LPFM station licenses may occur by this fall.

1/5/12 - Anti-Pirate Enforcement Plummets in 2011 [link to this story]

The austerity gripping the United States caught up with the FCC's Enforcement Bureau last year, as field activity against unlicensed broadcasters dropped dramatically - to a level not seen in six years.

From a record high of 447 enforcement actions clocked in 2009 and 2010, field agents executed just 184 in 2011, against fewer than 100 stations total. Massive drops were seen in the number of station-visits and warning letters issued.

Although the 2011 stats will rise slightly after the FCC discloses its activity for the last two weeks of the year, the activity-crash is unmistakable.

On the fiscal penalty front, the FCC issued 18 Notices of Apparent Liability and nine Forfeiture Orders in 2011, ringing up $168,400 in actual fines handed out. This actually represents an uptick from previous years; the agency hasn't been this fiscally punitive since 2005 - the year its field enforcement "surge" began.

Whether these fines are actually collected is another matter entirely. In addition, plumbing the numbers reveals interesting subtleties, such as the fact that the FCC resolved nearly half of its fiscal attacks last year for a pittance. In Florida alone, a $20,000 NAL was knocked down to $500; a $15k NAL settled for $300; and two $10,000 NALs were squabbled to $250 and $350 respectively.

Geographically speaking, the perennial hotbeds of unlicensed broadcasting were well-represented, though California stole the #2 spot from New York - extremely illustrative of the collapse in field activity. The FCC made contact with pirate radio stations in two dozen states and Puerto Rico.

What the FCC failed to make up for in quantity it slightly redeemed in quality. This year's enforcement activity touched many long-standing members of the microradio movement. Stations that have been on the air for more than a decade, such as Free Radio Olympia, Berkeley Liberation Radio, Free Radio Santa Cruz, and Mbanna Kantako's Human Rights Radio, received pesky visits and letters from FCC agents, though all shrugged them off.

Enforcement against AM and shortwave broadcasters is also on the rise - this is most likely due to an increase in activity on these bands rather than a change in FCC priorities regarding unlicensed broadcasting. Nearly 10% of 2011's field enforcement activity was directed at AM and shortwave pirates - the highest yearly percentage in the Enforcement Action Database's 15-year history. In perspective, however, the relative risk remains small on those bands: just eight AM/SW stations were harassed last year, the majority of them on the expanded AM band.

It's been ten years since the FCC first promulgated the LPFM service, and eight since the first LPFM station took to the airwaves. For most of this period, the agency's enforcement strategy against pirate broadcasters has been administratively heavy, with field agents often taking a day-trip (or two) every month (or two) to track down radio pirates for the purposes of scaring them with paperwork. But the paper tiger obviously has better things to do, and what power it could bring to bear on the "pirate problem" seems to be in decline.