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News Archive: January 2013

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1/31/13 - When the Internet Takes Over Radio Stations [link to this story]

This week, radio industry muckraker Jerry Del Colliano published a blog post announcing his acquisition of a "secret memo" from Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman to executive staff. The details of the memo itself are hidden behind Del Colliano's blog paywall, but the preview is worth a gander.

Reportedly, the memo is entitled "Expanding iHeartRadio onto the Terrestrial Platform" and outlines exactly how the broadcast conglomerate plans to do this. It is unclear from the preview just what the plans are, but it definitely signals that Clear Channel aims to use its iHeartRadio streaming platform as a primary content provider to some (if not most or all) of the company's radio stations. The Pittman plan also reportedly suggests that iHeartRadio will become the company's "main source of revenue" in the process.

If true, it's a huge step toward the evolution of terrestrial broadcasting in the U.S. away from live-and-local service into something where radio stations effectively become advertising, promotional and content-relay nodes that work in subservience to a broadcasters' streaming platform. The implications for what this means for the future identity and service goals of radio are profound – but Clear Channel's strategy in this regard has been developing for quite a while.

I first wrote about this more than a year ago, when Clear Channel conducted a mass-firing and began to heavily promote its radio stations under the iHeartRadio brand. Since then, the firings have continued, "Radio" has been removed from iHeartRadio's own URL (the word has also been dropped from CC's corporate name), and the service has developed Pandora-like customizable content "channels" for users.

This is all part of a larger struggle radio is having about how to leverage the internet usefully. A few broadcasters have turned over their stations to app-platforms which actually allow listeners to "program" them; one station in Tampa Bay, Florida now does this 24/7, with "DJs" only involved in maintaining the station's playlist and editing user-submitted commentary and shout-outs.

Mass firings in radio have been taking place for years, as heavily-indebted conglomerates (including Clear Channel) cut operating costs to the bone in order to compensate for the stations they swallowed in the post-1996 consolidation heyday, when station prices were wildly inflated in a buyer's bubble (sound familiar?).

Yet many broadcasters still continue to be wary of streaming itself and don't understand how to design and market their online presence. Lots of them (both commercial and noncommercial) have opted to not go it alone, preferring instead to become "affiliates" of Clear Channel's iHeartRadio – giving the company powerful leverage over the streaming profile and permissions of those broadcasters who sign onto it. The company's also made significant advances getting the iHeart app installed in many automakers' infotainment systems.

It's well-established that Clear Channel is a market-maker in many aspects of the radio industry, so it'll be interesting to see just how this nebulous new strategy affects the industry's relatively chaotic dance with online platforms. But if what Del Colliano insinuates is true, it's a major move toward the subsumption of a legacy media platform in homage to convergence.

1/24/13 - Do AM Blowtorches Really Need FM Translators? [link to this story]

In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission promulgated rules allowing AM radio stations to utilize FM translators to supplement their coverage areas. The original intent was to help "beleaguered" stations, like those that must dramatically reduce their power at night, or suffer from increased interference (from a variety of causes, including consumer electronics, traffic signals, and HD Radio sidebands).

As of today, many AM stations have taken advantage of this rule to supplement their signals with some 400 FM translator simulcasts.

But some broadcasters that are far from "beleaguered" have hopped on the translator bandwagon. These include WLW, a 50,000-watt station in Cincinnati owned by Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest broadcast conglomerate.

WLW's AM signal comfortably covers several states – yet the station is now also simulcast on a 99-watt FM translator which only reaches central Cincinnati.

Other 50,000-watt AM powerhouse stations around the country have also hooked up with micro-powered translators:

---WFLF-AM, a Clear Channel-owned station in Orlando, Florida, can also be heard on a 221-watt FM translator, acquired from a religious broadcaster with a history of translator speculation.

---KTCN-AM, another Clear Channel property in Minneapolis, Minnesota, simulcasts on a 175-watt translator.

---KEX-AM, a Clear Channel right-wing talker in Portland, Oregon, also touts a whopping 99 watts via translator.

---Anchorage, Alaska's KFQD-AM, owned by Morris Communications, can also be heard on a 250-watt translator.

There are undoubtedly more; these are just the fruits of a cursory search.

It's hard to classify these stations as "beleaguered," as they operate at the maximum power afforded AM stations. So why do the translator-dance?

One reason is that many AMs are simulcast on FM nowadays – though most of these arrangements involve full-power FM stations. Broadcasters like to trumpet the "crystal clear sound" of FM, which many younger listeners prefer. It's also an easy way to solidify a station's ratings with a simulcast.

Another (more likely) reason is due to broadcasters' push for HD and FM reception in cell phones. Considering that the hybrid analog/digital version of AM-HD causes more problems than opportunities, stations find a better return-on-investment by simulcasting on FM, even if it's at flea-power.

In addition, there are no concrete plans on the horizon to make cell phones AM reception-capable. This way at least people might be able to pick up the station's translator signal if they so desire (and have a handset that contains FM reception capability).

Still, it's hard to rectify the FCC's intent with this rule as practiced; another sorry case of good intentions gone awry.

1/17/13 - HD Radio's Multifaceted Search for Traction [link to this story]

We're going into HD Radio's 11th year on the air. So far, the technology's proliferation has been underwhelming, to put it mildly. However, proponents of HD are working on several projects which they hope will break it into the mainstream. They are:

1. Making the AM band all-digital. Of the various tactics in play, this is the one which HD proponents have the most potential control over. First they must convince the FCC to adopt all-digital HD broadcasting for use on the AM band; then they must convince stations to take the plunge.

iBiquity and the National Association of Broadcasters are currently in the midst of all-digital AM broadcast tests on a single station in North Carolina. Considering the vapidity of previous HD testing, it's quite unlikely that the technology's proponents will spend much time and effort on a more comprehensive regimen – making for a flimsy technical foundation on which the FCC will make any adoptive decisions.

Given HD Radio's proprietary nature, it's highly unlikely that the FCC will mandate that all AM stations convert to HD, though it could propose an incentive program to effectively re-allocate the AM band to viable HD outlets. This would most likely include some sort of incentive program for lower-power AM stations to turn in their licenses in exchange for an FM allocation, or perhaps a monetary payoff for stations that are willing to relinquish their licenses.

Any plan for the full-on digitalization of the AM band must involve some sort of band-reorganization. This won't be accomplished without a fight, though, but iBiquity et. al. are in this for the long haul – and if they can achieve such a beachhead on the AM dial, it may breathe new life into the technology. Although the number of AM-HD stations on the air continues to decline (with just about 200 of the 4,700 U.S. AM stations adopting it to-date, and less than 70 on the air in HD 24/7), the success of this particular effort is questionable – but not impossible. Expect major developments on this front in 2013.

2. Increasing HD receiver penetration in vehicles. Many automobile manufacturers now include HD in at least some of their products, but hardly any have committed to making it standard equipment across their entire fleets, and the driving public seems oblivious to the technology itself. iBiquity, the NAB, and Emmis Communications (now HD's primary innovator) are pursuing several avenues to get HD a foothold and demonstrate its value in vehicles. This includes pushes for manufacturers to implement the "Artist Experience" feature of the technology (i.e., radio with pictures) and to utilize the data capacity of FM-HD signals to deliver traffic information via navigation services either included in the car or purchased aftermarket.

Interestingly, none of these tactics emphasize what is currently radio's primary service – the broadcasting of noteworthy audio content. It's quite a stretch to assume that those who use HD for datacasting will "adopt" it as a listening platform, especially since it's abundantly clear that automakers are much more interested in expanding wireless internet access into vehicles for this purpose.

Yet you can expect any vehicle that utilizes any component of HD to be treated by proponents as an actual or potential HD listener, thereby perpetuating the notion that digital broadcasting has an interested and growth-oriented audience; this is disingenuous at best, but that's a trait which has plagued the development and promotion of HD technology from day one.

3. Increasing HD receiver penetration in smartphones. Broadcasters are working hard to get phone manufacturers and telecom companies to adopt FM reception technology. Although many models of smartphones already have the hardware onboard to receive analog FM radio signals, most don't have the firmware and software to utilize it. Hence Emmis' large push with NextRadio, which enables radio reception capability in phones that have the necessary chipset and provides a backchannel form of "interactivity" with broadcasts.

The proponents of HD technology hope to use acceptance of analog FM reception capability of smartphones as a trojan horse to eventually make HD reception capability possible as well. However, outside of one prototype smartphone with FM-HD capability, this potential remains in the realm of what Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel calls "vaporware."

Paul also thinks that any uptake of radio reception into phones is too little, too late: "One might think that I am that sort of consumer for whom it would be important. Yet, none of my smartphone choices over the last five years have been driven by FM radio inclusion....The FM radio is frosting, not the cake."

Radio consultant and futurist Mark Ramsey is similarly skeptical. "Technology is driving towards empowering consumers to take control of their own experiences and reflect their own tastes, but this technology – since it matches what’s currently on the radio precisely – is blind to who you are and deaf to what you want." He brings up the radical notion that perhaps radio stations would find more purchase in the convergent now if they focused on what they used to do best: "[D]on’t imagine that this substitutes for ever-better on-air content." AM radio is also completely absent from any of the industry's smartphone plans.

Yet any uptake of radio, HD or otherwise, into smartphones will help to keep the dream of HD alive. In vehicles, manufacturers have adopted HD as its relative cost and risk has decreased, not because it's a compelling technology. It's just another piece of bling to spice up the wholesale redesign of the dashboard infotainment space. Perhaps the same scenario will play out with smartphones – if so, any meaningful uptake may take several years.

4. Using secondary FM services to promote HD content. In all of the discussion about the uptake of HD, you don't hear a lot of talk about broadcasters. That's because HD Radio proliferation plateaued back in 2006 and has crawled along ever since, with just a handful of new stations adopting the technology in 2012.

The use of FM translators to rebroadcast analog versions of FM-HD subchannels has turned out to be the technology's only tangible "success story," though it does nothing to encourage actual HD listening. The proliferation of translators among AM stations also provides those broadcasters with an out should the AM band be re-allocated for all-digital use.

The increased use of FM booster stations is also part of the HD game-plan. For several years, iBiquity and NAB have tested the use of chains of boosters to increase the robustness of digital radio service. Furthermore, GeoBroadcast Solutions' proposed "ZoneCasting" system uses boosters to serve up hyperlocal content. These are both functions which HD itself needs to incorporate for survival. Since the FCC has already authorized the use of FM-HD on secondary FM services, perhaps there'll be a similar rush for booster permits in coming years as their creative utility increases.

The overall strategy on the HD front this year seems to be to simultaneously pursue many avenues of activity in the hopes that one will pay off. The lack of coordination regarding these efforts suggests that the industry as a whole still doesn't have much of a clue of what the inherent potentiality of HD Radio might actually be. For example, it's hard to see how the press for all-digital AM-HD adoption ties into the smartphone campaign.

But at this stage of the game, proponents are simply seeking signs of life which they can then parlay to regulators and other industry players as "evidence" that HD technology remains viable. The more I research this subject, the less hopeful I am that the industry and those who regulate it will ever be open to considering alternatives to HD – billions of dollars have been invested in the technology over the last two decades, and that's just too much money to write off.

1/10/13 - FCC Enforcement in 2012: Going Nowhere Fast [link to this story]

After plummeting in 2011, FCC enforcement against unlicensed broadcasting rebounded ever so slightly last year – but not in any meaningful fashion.

Enforcement Action DatabaseAbout 100 pirate radio stations in 19 states had contact with the federales in 2012, resulting in 245 specific enforcement actions. Interestingly, the vast majority of these happened in the first half of the year; for some reason, enforcement activity took a nosedive in July and never recovered.

FCC enforcement against radio pirates continues to be of an administrative nature, with visits and warning letters the preferred tools. Although the agency still seems to be ratcheting up its issuance of monetary penalties (cracking the $200,000 mark in unlicensed broadcast forfeitures for the first time, resulting in an average fine of approximately $13,700), there's no sign that any of this is having a deterrent effect.

Take, for example, the case of Fabrice Polynice. Arrested in 2006 under Florida's anti-pirate statute and sentenced to a year of community service, Fabrice got back on the air and played some serious cat-and-mouse with authorities last year.

Polynice's station, Radio Touche Douce, changed locations at least three times around North Miami until the FCC – who monitored his activity for at least six months – finally decided to serve him with a $25,000 Notice of Apparent Liability just last month. Remember that NALs are "pre-fines" – the FCC will formally serve him with a Forfeiture most likely this month or next, which allows them to put this coup toward its 2013 enforcement statistics, even though it's quite likely Polynice's been on the air for years. This vividly illustrates the relative toothlessness of state-level unlicensed broadcast enforcement.

$25,000 is also the maximum fiscal penalty doled out by the FCC to a pirate broadcaster in 2012: it served two other pirates – one in Florida (another repeat offender) and one in California – with similarly stiff notices. Of the 19 Notices of Apparent Liability issued in 2012, 14 (74%) went to pirates in Florida. Forfeiture Orders broke the same way: 15 of 19 (73%) went to Floridians, accounting for $132,200 of the $205,000 (64%) that the FCC hopes to collect.

Yet collection continues to be a chancy thing. Dexter Blake, first dinged by the FCC in 2008 and fined over the course of 2009 and 2010 for FM broadcasting in Mount Vernon, New York, successfully whittled his $10,000 penalty down to $1,700 this past December. That's nearly five years of effort on the part of the FCC to penalize a single pirate, and there's no guarantee that the agency will ever see a dime.

This may explain why even folks with FCC licenses are firing up undocumented boxes. Glen Rubash, otherwise known as amateur radio operator KC0GPV, got busted by the FCC this year for an unlicensed FM station run out of his Manhattan, Kansas home. Although he really should've known better – and the FCC swears that it comes down hard on those who should know better – Rubash received only the standard $10,000 Notice of Apparent Liability.

The bottom line remains that the FCC's campaign against unlicensed broadcasting is low-intensity and questionably effective. However, given the scope of unlicensed broadcasting to be found from coast to coast, the odds are still well in favor of the pirate who understands the relative risk at hand.