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News Archive: February 2010

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2/28/10 - A Survey on Community Media [link to this story]

The folks over at Free Press are looking for perspectives and opinions on the state of community/independent media in the United States. It's part of the organization's "New Public Media" initiative, which is a long-term campaign to reform the existing public broadcasting structure in the U.S. and, in so doing, perhaps put some of the "public" into public media.

It's a lofty and ambitious goal - one of those I fear not seeing in my lifetime - but at least someone's taking the time to take the pulse of domestic independent media. You can provide as much or as little information as you'd like, and your info won't be used for any nefarious purposes.

The survey seems geared toward existing independent media-makers, but I'm betting all input would be thanked (especially for you who'd like to do community/independent media but unfortunately live in a spot where few, if any, exists). In fact, since one of the largest - and most invisible - cohorts of "independent media" makers are individuals (see, for example, remix culture), if you fit the bill I'd strongly urge to make yourself (and your own opinions) known.

The results of said survey (whose duration I do not know) should make for some interesting reading.

2/20/10 - Striking Back At The Empire? [link to this story]

From the inestimable Jerry Del Colliano: a former employee of Cumulus Media is pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the company (common share stock price as of today: $2.55) alleging several violations of employment law. The suit is in the very preliminary stages now, but if any of Jerry's other informants inside Cumulus (and other large radio conglomerates) can back up their "believe it or not" horror-stories, the company - and perhaps the entire industry - is in for some serious trouble.

A quick history recap: after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the radio industry went on a station-buying binge. This led to massively inflated prices for stations across the nation. Flush with cash from investment banks, radio companies bought other radio companies, leading to a situation where less ten major broadcast conglomerates controlled some two-thirds of the industry's total revenue.

While profits were phenomenal for a while, all that revenue was not enough to offset the massive debt incurred in the process of consolidation. Much like the housing bubble, when it began to set in that station valuations were simply untenable, radio companies had to write down their assets in a major way. Now their mortgages, so to speak, were underwater: to slash operating expenses, stations accelerated the trends of clustering, automation, voice-tracking, cuts in on-site engineering staff, and regional programming as a method to run more radio stations with less people.

This, obviously, has not worked out well. Clear Channel's gone from private to public and back again, chucking more than 30% of its stations in the process; Viacom ditched Infinity Broadcasting, which is now CBS Radio; and Disney divested itself of the ABC Radio network and stations to Citadel, just to name a few examples. Those left holding the bag have turned to desperate measures to make a dime, as Del Colliano has been chronicling for some time now.

According to Jerry, "If this Cumulus class action suit gets legs, it could put a noose around the necks of consolidators who mishandled their human resources and ran afoul of employment laws." Just how rampant these violations were/are might now be the real billion-dollar question.

Consolidation in the radio industry is already unwinding; many pundits thought the banks would make the most sweeping moves by calling in their paper. Perhaps the courts will do it instead, via the voices and stories of those the "consolidators" tossed aside and/or stepped on in their dash to first make mad bucks, and then save their skins.

That would be some justice.

2/14/10 - iBiquity Licensing: Now 50% Off! [link to this story]

So it has come to this: iBiquity Digital Corporation, the proprietors of HD Radio, have slashed their licensing fees in half.

According to iBiquity's initial licensing agreement (circa 2005), early-adopters of the HD Radio technology paid a one-time licensing fee of $5,000 to utilize the software to run their transmitters. By 2008, that fee had increased to $25,000.

However, in the wake of the FCC's approval of a power increase for FM-HD stations, iBiquity has announced that "new licensees" can take advantage of their swanky software for a low, low one-time licensing fee ranging between $10,500 and $12,500 (depending on your payment plan).

To recap: iBiquity charged early-adopters of HD Radio $5K to transmit in HD. Two years ago, not-quite-early adopters had to cough up $25k. But now, if you want to jump on the bandwagon, it's only $12.5K to get in on the game.

One can't help feel sorry for the not-quite-early adopters, who paid full freight for access for a technology that's now half-price. Unlike Microsoft, from which iBiquity borrowed its business model, it's usually not a positive sign when a software company lowers the price on its operating system.

Is this a sign of desperation? Given iBiquity's apparent fiscal stagnation, it's hard not to wonder.

2/6/10 - Unlicensed Broadcasting OK in Oklahoma? [link to this story]

Not quite...but it's an interesting sidebar nonetheless.

A bill called the "Communications Freedom Act" would restrict the FCC's authority in the Sooner State to license and/or otherwise regulate broadcast stations whose signals do not leave the state, effective November first of this year. The bill was introduced late last month and referred to the Oklahoma House's Economic Development and Financial Services Committee.

According to the bill's sponsor, Republican State Rep. Charles Key, "The federal government is out of control. It’s violated it’s role in regards to the Constitution. The government has become a predator of sorts and it’s become a law until itself." And thus, low-power radio should be allowed to flourish where stations' signals do not cross state lines.

There is just one problem with this: a 76-year old judicial precedent set in Oklahoma's southern neighbor, the state of Texas. The case, U.S. v. Gregg et. al. (5 F. Supp. 848 (S.D. Tex. 1934)), first went to court when the Federal Radio Commission moved to silence “The Voice of Labor,” a very small AM radio station broadcasting from a hotel in downtown Houston, Texas.

The three men behind the operation admitted they had no license to broadcast but argued they didn’t need one because they were not engaged in interstate commerce: their signal was so weak that it could not be heard outside the state. Even though this may have been true, the court reasoned the station still had the potential to interfere with the reception of other licensed stations broadcasting into Texas from elsewhere, and thus fell under federal regulation.

According to the ruling, the Voice of Labor’s potential effect on licensees engaged in interstate commerce empowered the FRC to shut it down: “That it is reasonable will be seen by reflecting that a sufficient number of unlicensed and unregulated intrastate radio broadcasting stations, such as is defendants’, broadcasting on different frequencies in each community, could and would not only interfere with, but destroy, all interstate broadcasting" (emphasis in original).

If Oklahoma's proposed bill becomes law (there is no companion legislation in the state Senate yet), you can bet that case will play a central role in the FCC's appeal for its repeal. (Not that the idea hasn't been floated around inside the agency before, however.)

But how, you may ask, does this differ from anti-pirate state laws passed in Florida and New Jersey? Do not those abrogate the FCC's jurisdictional authority over broadcast licensing? Not in the least: both Florida and New Jersey's laws simply criminalize the act of unlicensed broadcasting under state statutes, and empower state law enforcement to hunt pirate radio stations.

When Florida passed the first anti-pirate law in 2004, FCC enforcement authorities in the state were careful to tacitly acknowledge it; overworked and understaffed, the FCC actually welcomed state aid in two pirate radio hot spots. That these laws have produced no substantive reduction in unlicensed broadcasting in either state speaks to the priority FL and NJ cops actually put on pirate-hunting. But those laws supplement the FCC's enforcement authority, not restrict it. Oklahoma's proposed bill would do exactly the reverse; that will not make the agency happy.

I can't help but be sentimentally supportive of those who think outside the box, but there's more effective ways to stymie the FCC's enforcement authority. Probably one of the most effective (at least in slowing the process down) is to simply get your local/county/state police on your side before the Federales show up. Many local cops do not like it when their jurisdiction is stepped on, especially without their consent.

Such tactics are not guaranteed (see the case of San Francisco Liberation Radio), but they force the FCC to commit greater resources on a case-by-case level, where its enforcement authority is weakest and the relative success of resistance is greatest.