News Archive: February 2006
2/28/06 - Florida War on Pirates: Going Nowhere? [link to this story]
Last November, state officials got a conviction involving a used-car dealer that rented out space on a tower to two pirate stations. Accused initially of felonious unlicensed broadcasting, but he ultimately copped to a lesser charge.
But what about the cases of Marquis McDonald and Rasheem O'Riley, two men arrested last July who were held up then as being "test cases" for the new law? They were directly involved in the operation of stations and one even admitted to owning some of the radio gear police seized.
An unconfirmed report from Florida suggests their cases have been quietly dropped. I can find no record of this anywhere online. One of those charged has apparently confirmed the dismissal (both are reportedly back on the air).
2/27/06 - Hams In Decline [link to this story]
According to this handy web site, which tracks the amateur radio licensing statistics of the FCC, the number of licensed hams has been in a steady decline for the better part of three years. The numbers (as of January 2006) show that there are just over 660,000 amateur radio license-holders in the United States, a decline of nearly 28,000 since mid-2003 (in chart form, since 1997).
On average, between 1,000 and 2,000 new amateur licenses are issued every month, although a larger number expire. By decade, amateur radio licenses have been in a net growth pattern until the year 2000; for this decade the aggregate growth number is negative. Interestingly, less than half of all hams are members of the American Radio Relay League.
This has sparked some debate within the amateur radio community. Many believe the decline is due to age, as amateur radio most likely holds more attraction to those that grew up without the internet and those folks are dying off (a death is called a "silent key" in ham parlance). However, one comment stood out to me quite prominently:
Radio pirates have popularly belittled hams for the "law and order" mentality, but such stereotypes diminish the integral value hams have played in the proliferation of pirate radio. I've heard more than once from older hams who initially tinkered with radio as kids, sometimes throwing up "bootleg" AM stations to mess around with the technology. There have been cases of unlicensed operation where the perpetrator also held an amateur license. And, yes, there are hams who "hunt" pirates for the sake of curiosity and are not averse to providing helpful advice along the way.
It would still be cool to see the trends of licensing represented graphically over time.
2/23/06 - Don Rumsfeld, A Father of FOIA? [link to this story]
In a recent appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remarked that he was a cosponsor of the Freedom of Information Act during his 1960s stint in the House of Representatives. This is a claim made, as it was here, to parry a critical question about the Pentagon's penchant for unjustifiable secrecy.
It was, however, the first time I had actually heard it leave his mouth. Given the other things to come out of there, I was compelled to verify for my own peace of mind. Indeed, S. 1160 was co-sponsored by then-congressman Rumsfeld, who hailed from west-suburban Chicago. He sat on the House's Committee on Government Operations, through which the bill was unanimously endorsed on its way to a full vote. He also spoke on the House floor in support of it.
During the floor debate on the FOIA, Harold Gross (R-Iowa), formerly a print and radio journalist, remarked that it would be imperative "to see to it that the agencies of government conform to this mandate of Congress. It will be meaningless unless Congress does do a thorough oversight job, and I have in mind the attempt already being made to destroy the effectiveness of the General Accounting Office as well as the efforts of the Defense Department to hide the facts," making reference to the Vietnam imbroglio. Rumsfeld replied:
As the debate wound down, Rumsfeld made three more important points, two of which were his own.
Compared to the Rumsfeld of today, his closing was remarkably cogent.
The Freedom of Information Act was approved 308-0 (there were 125 non-voters). President Lyndon Johnson reluctantly signed it into law on July 4, 1966, with several caveats, one of which was that it "in no way impairs the President's power under our Constitution to provide for confidentiality when the national interest so requires." Government agencies devised ways to circumvent FOIA, like charging exorbitant search and copying fees and purposely mixing confidential and non-confidential information.
Donald Rumsfeld didn't take long to start eating his words. In 1974, when Congress sought to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act following Watergate, then-Department of Justice Chief Legal Counsel Antonin Scalia mobilized executive branch opposition to the bill. Gerald Ford ultimately vetoed the amended FOIA, a move which Rumsfeld, Ford's Chief of Staff, supported. It took just a month for the Congress to override it.
Rumsfeld would become Secretary of Defense for the first time a year later. What a difference 40 years makes, through which a supposedly ardent supporter of transparent governance becomes a purveyor of secrecy and propaganda against people both foreign and domestic.
2/21/06 - Tracing Media Industry Sock-Puppetry [link to this story]
Last October, Clear Channel CEO Mark Mays proclaimed at a luncheon of the Progress & Freedom Foundation that his company was at a competitive disadvantage to satellite radio, comparing the ~150 nationwide channels each satellite service offers to the eight frequencies Clear Channel may occupy in a single market (lest we forget Clear Channel owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide). This, coupled with other whoppers, constituted a call for the FCC to relax its radio ownership rules. Specifically,
This month, congresscritter Fred Upton (R-MI), an influential member of the House Commerce Committee - through which all telecommunications-related legislation flows - sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin demanding the relaxation of the radio ownership rules. Speaking at a luncheon hosted by the Media Institute, another coin-operated think tank, Upton justified the change this way:
So what specific change would Upton like to see? It sounds familiar:
Three days before Upton's remarks, the executives running the Media Instutute scored an op-ed in a trade publication calling this particular proposal "a reasonable and even conservative adjustment" to the radio ownership rules.
According to opensecrets.org, the "TV/Movies/Music" industry (of which broadcasting is considered a part) is Upton's #1 donor in this midterm election cycle, giving him nearly twice as much campaign cash as any other sector of corporate America. I'm sure the $14,500 in direct donations and the $10,250 in contributions to Upton's PAC this cycle from the NAB (Upton's third-largest overall financial supporter) and Clear Channel also reduced the discomfort of Mark Mays' hand going far enough up Upton's ass to work his mouth.
2/20/06 - Stern Pirates Go Coast-to-Coast [link to this story]
Last month FM microbroadcasters in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Minnesota began rebroadcasting the subscription-only Howard Stern show from Sirius satellite radio. Sirius got so pissed that they fired off complaints to the FCC about the NY/NJ stations and threatened to sue any online-streamers into oblivion.
They couldn't have been happy with the report this month that Pirate Cat Radio, a station well-known for wearing its defiance on its sleeve, began carrying Stern over San Francisco. Pirate Cat's founder, Monkey Man, told a local tee-vee station that the show would go on unless Howard himself intervenes. As for the FCC: "They can come and talk, and if they'd like to I'll fix a pot of coffee and have my wife make 'em some cookies."
Another Stern FM radio relay has been reported in Los Angeles; although Pirate Cat boasts a simulcast here, the frequency reported is different from the one PC advertises.
2/19/06 - Dave Rabbit Reappears [link to this story]
The Vietnam-era GI pirate station Radio First Termer has long been a legend. DJ "Dave Rabbit" and friends played rock music and talked openly about sex, drugs, and the f*cked up nature of the U.S. military's presence in-country. Scant audio evidence of the station has survived, and the last few decades have seen lots of speculation over whether the station and its personalities actually existed.
That speculation can now be laid to rest. A shortwave pirate sent me this PDF of a document reportedly written by Dave Rabbit himself. In it he gives details about how the station was put together (from military-grade broadcast gear courtesy of the U.S. Air Force's "Midnight Supply"); where it broadcast from (the back room of a whorehouse in Saigon); and how long it remained on the air (a short three weeks).
Rabbit first felt the performance bug while playing in a high school band, and got into radio while helping out with a military broadcast during his first tour in Vietnam. But the desire to go pirate seemed to be explicitly political:
Interestingly, to announce Radio First Termer's inaugural broadcast, friendly techs hijacked the "official" AFVN signal to encourage people to tune in.
Dave Rabbit is now 57 years old, happily married with four kids, self-employed, and an avid scuba diver. Another site has acquired several photos of Rabbit in Vietnam, and he's been interviewed for a documentary about GI resistance to the war, which will be released on DVD this spring.
2/16/06 - Copyright Criminals Remix Contest Extended; PoP dEFECT's Digital Dangers [link to this story]
The killer sampling documentary Copyright Criminals is nearing the final cut (view a 10-minute trailer). In the run-up to its release there's been a remix contest utilizing samples from the documentary as well as from the musicians featured in it. The deadline for submissions has been extended to March 14.
The winning remix will be used in the final release of the documentary and 11 runners-up will be featured on a companion compilation CD. Kembrew McLeod, scholar/prankster extraordinaire, is one of Copyright Criminals' producers - anyone working as hard as him to put the "ass" back into assistant professor is okay by me.
Also this week Skidmark Bob released a new episode of PoP dEFECT RADIO. "Digital Dangers" covers similar ground in a half-hour of well-woven audio, featuring tracks from The Droplift Project, Animals Within Animals, Negativland, Le Tigre, and much more subjected to Bob's sonic blender treatment.
2/15/06 - DTV Spectrum Appropriated For Non-DTV Uses [link to this story]
You may have heard, as part of the sales pitch for transitioning broadcast television from analog to digital, about the capability of a single DTV channel to carry as many as six distinct program streams. DTV would thus be good for the consumer because it would result in an expansion of viewing choices.
Think again: meet MovieBeam. The service, developed by Disney, uses "unused portions of [DTV] signals" to deliver movies on demand to subscribers. Users pay a fee for the special set-top box used to receive and decode "rented" movies, and then pay between $2-4 per movie. Users have 24 hours to watch their chosen flick before it is automatically deleted from their box.
MovieBeam was rolled out on DTV stations in 29 markets this week. Participating stations include Disney's ABC-owned affiliates as well as "National Datacast's Network of PBS stations." National Datacast is a curious company: it has contracts with some 300 television stations to use a portion of their DTV signals to deliver a variety of services, including music, movies, and software on demand.
The big lie here is that there is no "unused portion" of a DTV channel, if stations actually planned to offer up to six channels on a single signal. Dedicating a portion of a DTV channel to purposes other than TV programming reduces the amount of bandwidth available for multiple (free) channels.
Others are also cashing in on their access to DTV spectrum to provide services other than broadcasting. iBlast, whose backers include the Tribune Company, Gannett Company, Cox Broadcasting, The Washington Post Company, The McGraw-Hill Companies, The New York Times, Emmis Communications, Bonneville International, and Journal Broadcast Group, among many others, offers a similar service to MovieBeam.
U.S. Digital Television, a business founded by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and the Hearst-Argyle TV station chain, offers 12 encrypted basic cable channels over DTV spectrum for $12.95 a month. A few years back, Clear Channel experimented with offering a semi-broadband ISP service to subscribers using DTV spectrum on the stations it owns.
Depending on your perspective, you can call this convergence-in-progress or a broken promise, or both.
2/14/06 - HDradio.com Launched [link to this story]
The HD Digital Radio Alliance has launched its own web site, HDradio.com, which is being marketed as "the new epicenter of consumers’ digital radio lifestyle." The site's main press contacts, Kim Holt and Michele Clarke, work for Brainerd Communicators, a PR firm that deals with "corporate & executive positioning," "media management," "issue & crisis management," and "consumer & viral marketing," among other specialties.
The site has lots of content but no real substantive information. Even so, a couple of interesting aspects can be found. There's a section of audio samples that purport to compare traditional analog AM and FM radio to the new HD sound. The analog samples often include demonstrable interference artifacts, like bits of static and fading, as if the recordings were made near a station's fringe-coverage area or the receivers were slightly mistuned. The HD radio clips, of course, are interference free.
There is no mention on the site about HD radio's "blend to analog" function, which is what receivers will do when the digital signal dies in areas of interference. However, "specific features have been designed into HD radio-supported receivers to improve the existing analog reception."
It also claims these "HD2 channels" will be commercial-free "for the next few years" when the industry commitment is actually an 18-month advert moratorium.
2/9/06 - FCC Seeks $302.5 Million For Fiscal Year 2007 [link to this story]
The '07 budget figures represent about a 4% increase over the FCC's actual budget for fiscal year 2006 (which ends in the fall), though it is less than what was initially requested for FY '06.
The agency's news release notes that some of its request (just over $1 million) will be designated toward "replac[ing] Mobile Digital Direction Finding (MDDF) vehicles that are used to support public safety entities (e.g., emergency responders, police, fire departments) in the resolution of harmful interference to their communications systems."
According to the budget proposal itself (see the document linked as "FY 2007 Performance Budget"), the FCC maintains a fleet of 76 MDDF vehicles.
There are no proposed staff increases in the Enforcement Bureau, which presently houses 333 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions. Of these, less than one-third are dedicated to performing duties related to "Public Safety/Homeland Security," under which the task of unlicensed broadcast enforcement falls. 12% of the agency's total budget - or about $35 million - is devoted to the "public safety" mission across bureaus and offices.
In fact, the only areas of the agency where increased staffing is requested are the Wireline Competition Bureau, Office of Inspector General, and Office of Managing Director. Interestingly, the OIG seeks the largest personnel increase, from 14 to 26 FTEs.
The FCC also seeks an increase in travel funds, although it claims to do so "to help reduce the reliance on outside funding sources for travel costs," which I believe refers to the once-rampant practice of Commissioners and staff taking junkets paid for by the industries they regulate.
2/8/06 - FM Translator Speculators Become Millionaires [link to this story]
It's a sickening benchmark to behold, and yet it represents only a fraction of an overall speculation and trafficking marketplace in-progress for FM spectrum ostensibly for noncommercial use.
Here is where our story left off last: Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting (which are actually one and the same) filed more than 4,000 FM translator construction permit applications during a 2003 FCC filing window for new FM translator stations. In less than two years RAM/EB booked more than $800,000 in revenue by selling batches of translator construction permits to evangelistic mega-churches in the South and West (although a host of smaller transactions also took place).
These churches, in effect, bought permission to build state-wide or regional networks through speculators who snapped up the permits en masse, just for this very purpose.
Now, RAM/EB is billing well into the seven figures after booking several new deals with its biggest clients. According to REC Networks' Traffick Report:
1. On August 2, 2005 the FCC approved the sale of an FM translator construction permit to serve Dunnellon, Florida from Edgewater Broadcasting to Reach Communications (otherwise known as Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale) for $6,000.
This is on top of more than $325,000 worth of FM spectrum throughout Florida that Reach Communications had previously purchased from RAM/EB. Cumulatively, RAM/EB has done more than $650,000 in business with Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale alone.
On January 10 of this year, two more notable deals went down:
1. Edgewater Broadcasting closed on the sale of four translator permits to Horizon Christian Fellowship of San Diego, California. Horizon is a variant of the Calvary Chapel "brand" of evangelist Christianity and represents RAM/EB's second biggest customer: Horizon purchased $219,000 worth of FM spectrum in California and Washington state in 2004. These new construction permits are also for towns in Washington. Cumulative sale price: $24,000.
In total, RAM/EB's two biggest customers have dropped more than $917,000 for FM spectrum. These transactions, coupled with the flurry of the aforementioned minor deals, means RAM/EB has now booked combined revenues of more than $1.1 million. Not too shabby for permits that cost nothing to apply for.
Interestingly, some of these latest acquisitions will not be a part of their parent churches' fledgling media empires. For example, five of Reach Communications' new stations will actually rebroadcast programming from WAY-FM, another evangelistic translator network-monger. And all of Horizon Christian Fellowship's latest purchases will relay something different, including several other religious broadcasters as well as the Seattle Public Schools and Spokane Public Radio.
I wonder if, just as they diluted the actual translator applications and transfers between each other, religious broadcasters are now diluting the chain of ownership of their networks themselves - growing them while simultaneously making it (at least on first listen) more difficult to know just who owns what station.
REC's Traffick Report clearly shows how established evangelist godcasters and spectrum-speculators are trading construction permits so as to strategically target new growth territory and consolidate preexisting coverage areas. Since translators cover just a fraction of the area that a full-power station can, you need many translators to cover the same service area as a single full-power station. Making agreements to rebroadcast one another's programming is simply the next step in solidifying these broadcasters' well-entrenched beachhead on the FM dial while diffusing any scrutiny.
Please also keep in mind that this particular chicanery is just one plank in a much larger plan by a scary streak of zealots to transform America into a theocracy. If that sounds nuts, might I direct you to these links, where you can get some learn on. The level of finely-tuned organization and money behind the translator invasion is but one part of a larger and very real crusade that is getting little to no coverage. And my attempts to dig into it have only scratched the surface of this particular aspect.
2/7/06 - Slice and Dice the State of the Union [link to this story]
Better yet, Scooter's transcribed and time-stamped the entire text of the speech. This makes dicing Bush easier (and less painful) than ever.
Copy and paste Scooter's transcript into a text file and save it. Then simply use your word processor's "find" function to focus on the words and phrases you're interested in. Voilà: you are taken directly to the portion of the speech where these words exist, and Scooter's handy stamps tell you where in the audio file to find them.
The last GWB SOTU to be translated in such fashion was his 2003 spiel.
2/6/06 - CBC @ NYC GMC [link to this story]
Next weekend is the New York City Grassroots Media Conference. There's a massive lineup of panels and workshops now, one of which will involve a tactical discussion on microradio. This has piqued the interest of a producer from Dimanche (Sunday) Magazine, which is aired on the CBC's Première chaîne.
She's putting together a feature on microradio and is interested in speaking with anyone who might be attending the NYC GMC and has microradio experience. Chantal Francoeur is also no snitch: she's willing to conduct interviews in any manner which will best preserve the subject's anonymity, if this is desirable. E-mail her directly if you might be willing to share thoughts on what microradio means to you.
2/5/06 - Homelessness Marathon Seeks Rebroadcasters [link to this story]
The ninth annual Homelessness Marathon takes place overnight from Wednesday, February 15th to Thursday, February 16th. This 14-hour broadcast explores the plight of homelessness around the United States in no uncertain terms, and gives some of those who are homeless a chance to directly break the silence which all too often surrounds the condition.
Homelessness Marathon founder/producer Jeremy Alderson describes the broadcast as a "consciousness-raising, not a fund-raising broadcast. There are no on-air solicitations. While we certainly encourage 'haves' to give generously to 'have- nots,' we believe that solving the problem of homelessness requires not just volunteerism but also fundamental changes in the way our nation's priorities are structured."
Every year the marathon is hosted by a different community radio station around the country; the third (2000) broadcast from out front the local (full-power) community radio station, WEFT. This year it'll come from Radio Free Georgia. The Marathon is available to interested rebroadcasters via two satellite channels as well as online thanks the support of the Pacifica network (check here for details). This year there's also a blog dedicated to the event and its primary subject. As many as 90 licensed stations - and a host of microradio outlets - carried the broadcast in 2005.
2/2/06 - NPR Punts on Godcaster Proliferation [link to this story]
This week NPR's All Things Considered aired a story on the plight of WAVM, a 10-watt FM radio station run by the local high school in Maynard, Massachusetts. The station stands to be forced off the air by Living Proof, Inc., an evangelical broadcast outlet based in California. WAVM is the only local radio station available in Maynard and enjoys wide community support.
NPR's Andrea Shea got totally hoodwinked about the interloper kicking WAVM off the dial.
Shea set up WAVM's vulnerable situation by mentioning the demise of the 10-watt Class D FM station license, calling WAVM one of the "predecessors of today's low power FM stations." She says the FCC did away with Class D licenses in the 1970s the after the FM band "became crowded."
The truth is that Class D licenses were done away with at the behest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. The overwhelming majority of Class D licenses were held by schools and universities - the very locations public broadcasters hoped to use as sites for their affiliate stations. CPB/NPR argued that 10-watt stations were too weak to serve as effective affiliates for a nationwide public radio system.
Furthermore, Class D stations were typically student-run, utilized as on-air laboratories of sorts where broadcasters-in-training could practice the craft. As a result their programming did not meet the quality standards CPB/NPR had set for programming on the new network.
Based on these notions, CPB/NPR asserted that Class D stations were inefficient users of FM spectrum. The FCC agreed, promulgating a rule to phase out the Class D license in 1978. It gave stations until 1980 to upgrade their power or be left vulnerable to regulatory usurpation by a competing broadcaster, which is what is now happening to WAVM. To be fair, WAVM was granted the opportunity to upgrade its power and preserve its space on the dial but let it lapse.
Then comes Living Proof, Inc., which Shea characterizes as a "small" outfit, owning "four stations in the West." Living Proof's character in the story is Harry Martin, an "attorney" who "represents the religious broadcaster."
This is the first red flag: Harry Martin was instrumental in facilitating the Great Translator Invasion of 2003. He represented several of the religious broadcast outlets that hoped to corner the market on thousands of FM station construction permits and, in some cases, sell them for large profits. He's also the immediate past president of the Federal Communications Bar Association (FCBA), the trade group representing lawyers who specialize in communications law.
FCC records show Living Proof, Inc. actually holds more than 50 FM station licenses and construction permits, of which 29 have been assigned call letters. This includes seven stations in Massachusetts.
Shea then reported that most of Living Proof's programming in Massachusetts will be syndicated; to illustrate, she played an excerpt from a broadcast originated at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, California. As previously noted, Calvary Chapel churches have been heavily involved in the hoarding of FM spectrum (of various flavors, including LPFM stations). The Calvary Satellite Network, co-founded by the Calvary Chapels of Costa Mesa and Twin Falls, ID, is one of the three largest FM translator-mongers in the country.
Living Proof, Inc. has also sold spectrum for profit. In California it sold two noncommercial station construction permits - one for a full-power FM station and one for a translator - to Horizon Christian Fellowship, a variant of the Calvary Chapel "brand," for a cool $150,000. Horizon was a major client of those most egregiously involved in spectrum speculation and trafficking over the last 2+ years. Living Proof also "donated" one FM translator construction permit to Calvary Chapel of Running Springs, CA. Harry Martin filed the FCC paperwork on these deals.
These are just the transactions that can be conclusively documented. At one time Living Proof held scores of station construction permits - more than 100 to its name. Since then it has whittled down its holdings to just the few dozen it has today. Living Proof's beneficiaries have, in many cases, been other Calvary Chapel churches.
For example, according to REC's records, in 2000 Living Proof applied for and received permission to construct a 100,000-watt FM station in Florida. The construction permit was subsequently transferred two and a half years later to Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, which actually built the station. In 2003, Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale bought the rights to build a statewide network of FM translators to extend the reach of its flagship station throughout the state. That transaction was conducted through other spectrum speculators. Cost for the translator permits: $326,500. Yet Living Proof, Inc. gave away the rights to build the flagship?
One might surmise material ties between the Calvary Chapel octopus and Living Proof. Is the latter an intermediary, helping to facilitate the construction of turnkey broadcast networks on the cheap by snapping up permits to build stations for future use by the like-minded? The documentary trail is messy, and many of the puzzle-pieces are in disarray, but there's smoke for sure.
And so, even though she had nearly eight minutes to explore WAVM's plight and the spectrum-grab that put its existence in jeopardy, Andrea Shea noodled off on some scandal involving WAVM's advisor and allegations of sexual assault, oblivious to who the players in her narrative actually were. The much larger story wisped enticingly under her nose and she got nary a whiff, oblivious, thanks to her framing of the instant conundrum as the novelty it is not.
Next up with a treatment of this admittedly complicated story is the Columbia Journalism Review, which has been digging for the last few months and will supposedly be publishing something soon. While the folks at CJR seem quite disciplined and much more thorough, I still worry whether the dots will get connected properly. Every time I explore this mess further I discover something which leads me to believe the collusion at play here is even more extensive and sophisticated than I realize.