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News Archive: February 2012

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2/29/12 - The Fine Print of iHeartRadio [link to this story]

Clear Channel's had a lot of success enticing broadcasters into its iHeartRadio service. On the surface, it looks like a nice turnkey solution for radio stations which have neither the time, technical knowledge, or money to go it alone on the Internet. Just sign up for distribution through iHeartRadio and set up enough gear to send a source-stream to the aggregator.

From there, Clear Channel does the rest, providing all the front-end bandwidth necessary for your listener base and leveraging its economies of scale to put stations' streams in front of as large of a potential audience as possible. The iHeartRadio application is a default install on a variety of smartphones, gaming consoles, and vehicle infotainment systems.

But the deal looks a lot less attractive now that we know Clear Channel requires an exclusivity agreement from the radio stations it doesn't own to stream on its platform. Being an iHeartRadio "affiliate" means opting out of other broadcast stream aggregators - though in some special instances (like those involving select noncommercial broadcasters) this rule is bent a bit.

Although iHeartRadio's status as a prime mover in the world of streaming is debatable, it does cast a wide shadow, and one could see how a station might take the course of least resistance to set up a stable, reliable presence online.

But it's Clear Channel who wins in the end, with exclusive rights to a station's online content and the ability to leverage that content into revenue via aggregation. It's at the core of the company's effort to move away from radio as a distinctive medium.

Interestingly, Clear Channel does not seem to actively solicit broadcast affiliates online, much less provide information on the terms of such deals. Many open questions remain: how negotiable is the exclusivity clause? Will revenue generated by the eventual introduction of advertising on iHeartRadio be shared with affiliates? If an affiliate wants to leave the aggregator, how can they do that?

Not knowing the fine print of the relationship between Clear Channel and the stations it doesn't own seems to make affiliation with iHeartRadio a dicey proposition.

2/23/12 - FCC Budget: Enforcement Bureau to Get Some New Gear [link to this story]

The Federal Communications Commission has tendered its budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2013. It's asking for $346.8 million - a $7 million increase from FY 2012. The trades have highlighted the agency's request for $2.5 million to replace and upgrade "direction finding and wireless monitoring equipment," of which $1.1 million will be spent on eight custom field enforcement vehicles.

The Clear Channel-owned publication Inside Radio dubbed this an investment in "pirate-fighting funds." Such sentiments have no basis in fact.

The Enforcement Bureau's proposed budget is $52.1 million, or 15% of the FCC's total budget. It is the second-largest departmental line item in the agency (its chief administrative arm, the Office of Managing Director, takes the cake with an ask of just over $100 million). The $2.5 million request for new field enforcement gear represents just .7% of the agency's total budget request.

$1.1 million will be used to purchase eight new field vehicles, which are "very specialized and include industrial computers, touch screen monitors, custom designed antennas, FCC-designed electronics, visual spectrum displays, and radio receivers." The budget mentions that the vehicles are used to hunt pirate broadcasters, but it is not their primary function.

The FCC says these purchases "will replace existing [vehicles] that will be past their practical lifetime in FY 2013." It made a similar request three years ago. The agency characterizes much of the gear currently used in the field to analyze and track radio signals as "obsolete," and while field offices "have obtained the highest priority equipment using allocated equipment funds...those funds have not compensated for the continued aging equipment, equipment that is no longer repairable and the fast-changing emerging technologies" which field agents need to do their jobs.

Ancillary data does not support any move on the FCC's part to increase its pirate-hunting efforts. The Enforcement Bureau's halfway through a two-year process of hiring some two dozen new employees, bringing its total workforce up to 299 (of which the vast majority work at headquarters). There's long been concern about the aging of field staff, so some of this hiring is designed to bring in young blood - not a net growth of the field inspectorate.

Under the budget proposal's performance goals, there is no specific mention of anti-pirate enforcement activities; the agency simply pledges to "[c]ontinue an aggressive program of inspections and investigations by agents in the field to help maximize compliance with the Commission’s licensing and technical requirements."

In a nutshell, these are not unreasonable requests. Over the last few years, field enforcement activity has increasingly focused on finding and shutting down cell phone jammers and bi-directional amplifiers, cutting into the already busy schedule kept by field agents dealing with ersatz two-way radio systems run by the private sector, leaky cable TV networks, and the inspection of licensed broadcasters.

Relative to these efforts, pirate-hunting has been and will continue to be a low-priority item, as far as the FCC's field resources are concerned. It's been a slow 2012 so far - not as slow as last year, when unlicensed broadcast enforcement efforts plummeted, but certainly far off the pace of previous years.

2/17/12 - FCC Speech Restrictions Not Appropriate in Real Life [link to this story]

Five Republican state senators in Arizona have introduced a bill that attempts to limit free speech in the classroom. SB 1467 would make it an offense for teachers to "engage in speech or conduct that would violate the standards adopted by the Federal Communications Commission concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio."

The prohibition would encompass both teachers' speech and the curriculum they may choose. Running afoul of the proposed law could result in suspension or termination. The bill is written so broadly that it would even censor teachers in their private lives.

On many levels, this is a terrible idea. But what makes it especially silly is its misguided reliance on the FCC's indecency policy as a benchmark for what constitutes "bad" speech.

The only reason broadcast indecency/profanity regulation exists is because, once upon a time, radio and television broadcasts were considered so pervasive that the average citizen had no "reasonable protection" from "harmful" language delivered over the airwaves. (Obscenity is defined at the local level, outside the FCC's purview.)

In today's media environment, such a perspective seems downright anachronistic - which is why major broadcast networks have appealed to the Supreme Court to do away with the FCC's indecency regulations. There is a decent chance that it may do just that. And if that comes to pass, what legal "foundation" will the noobs in Arizona turn to next?

Attempts to make legislate morality are often tinged with idiocy, but this one really shoots itself in the foot.

2/8/12 - Regulatory Innuendo as Stalking Horse? [link to this story]

Never before has an FCC enforcement action hit so close to home.

This week, the agency issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for $44,000 to Chicago radio station WLS-AM. The proposed penalty stems from a complaint filed by a listener regarding news programming aired by WLS that originated with the Madison-based Workers Independent News (WIN) service. The FCC accuses WLS of violating its rules by failing to disclose that it was paid for running WIN newscasts.

(Disclosure: I was one of WIN's founding producers, helping to develop and launch the service between 2001-2004.)

WIN is the longest-running daily radio news program in the United States that explicitly focuses on economic news from the perspective of working people - as opposed to the perspective of corporations, their stockholders, and the rest of us as consumers, which is the dominant paradigm for what passes as economic news in the United States.

WIN's core product is a daily headline newscast, which it offers to commercial and noncommercial stations. Commercial radio stations rarely pay for programming anymore, so WIN negotiates barter arrangements with such stations for airplay.

Barter arrangements, in a nutshell, work like this: WIN approaches a commercial broadcaster with a request to air its program. The station and WIN negotiate a price for the airtime. In the case of WLS, this was airtime for the broadcast of a daily 90-second newscast featuring one or two stories.

In doing so, WLS makes money by selling airtime to WIN. WIN makes no money off such transitions (and oftentimes actually loses money on them). The goal here is the exposure of news and issues important to working Americans to as broad of a radio audience as possible; the support that keeps the service going comes from donations and grants from foundations, individual contributors, and groups affiliated with organized labor.

It was not easy to crack the commercial radio market with such "radical" programming, and it's been a surprisingly uphill battle to get labor groups to recognize the importance of having such news on the nation's airwaves (they still don't quite get it) - but WIN celebrates its 11th birthday in 2012, which is pretty impressive for a syndicated program in these times.

WLS aired several dozen WIN newscasts in 2009. In all but 11 of these broadcasts, WLS properly disclosed that the programming was paid for by WIN itself. This is a requirement of 47 CFR 73.1212, which mandates that broadcasters inform listeners when they air programming for which they have been paid.

This particular rule is designed to crack down on the deceptive use of paid advertisements that masquerade as news or other forms of programming. Common types of content that fall into this category include audio and video news releases - where a corporation, trade group, or lobbying association wraps an attempt at persuasion or public relations in something that resembles journalism, which is then incorporated directly into a station's news programming - or payola - where such entities pay outright for such programming, and non-disclosure is part of the value of the transaction.

There is an important distinction to make between "fake news," payola, and Workers Independent News. WIN does not promote a product or service, nor does it produce news at the behest of those who fiscally support it. A solid firewall between editorial decision making and fundraising is key to creating credible journalism, as any person with a sense of media literacy understands.

I and my co-producer (who left WIN for Democracy Now!) would not have been involved otherwise. This firewall has been maintained by those who have since replaced us - both of whom are credentialed journalists with impressive backgrounds in the broadcast and online arenas.

Whereas the entities that produce payola or "fake news" hope to see monetary gain from the airing of their materials under deceptive guises, WIN does not: it purchases airtime on commercial radio stations simply because the sorry state of commercial radio journalism - and of the commercial radio industry more generally - does not afford any opportunities for news organizations like WIN to get airtime unless it's willing to pay for it.

This is actually similar to the exposure-model Rush Limbaugh used in his early days, when his syndicator effectively paid radio stations for multi-hour blocks to establish a foothold in the world of talk radio.

As a content provider to broadcasters, the role of WIN is to promote the wider dissemination of news which receives little or no airplay in the world of broadcast journalism, commercially or noncommercially. But since WIN pays commercial radio stations to play its material, it's the ultimate responsibility of the broadcaster to disclose to its listeners that WIN is a self-sponsored program.

WLS did this by adding a sponsorship identification announcement at the beginning of all but the 11 disputed newscasts, and even ran them within the station's own commercial breaks. Because it failed to do so in those specific instances, the FCC proposes to fine the station $4,000 for each act of non-disclosure, which is how we get to the intimidating sum of $44,000.

What's really troubling about the FCC's action is the sour implication it makes about Workers Independent News. Although the FCC is prohibited by statute from making subjective determinations about the content of broadcast programming, the NAL disputes the notion that WIN is an "objective news program rather than an attempt at persuasion."

Upon reading the transcript of one of the newscasts involved in this controversy - cited in its entirety in the NAL - there is clearly no "attempt at persuasion" to be found. The story is about a state proposal to tap into federal stimulus money for the funding of infrastructure improvement projects in the city of Chicago. The story explains the proposal and incorporates soundbites from its legislative sponsor. As it does not make an explicit value judgment or propose any form of advocacy on the subject at hand, it is difficult to see just how such a story could qualify as "fake news" or payola.

WIN uncomfortably shares regulatory classification with such content, in the FCC's mind, solely because it, too, purchases the airtime for its broadcasts. Yet the FCC's rationale makes no distinction between a bona fide news organization which must pay for carriage and the odious practice of advertisements or advocacy masquerading as news. This is not to say that disclosure isn't warranted in all cases - it absolutely is - but the FCC's determination seems to indirectly call into question the inherent validity of WIN as a news organization, especially among those who are ignorant of the regulatory nuance at hand.

Even more scary is the unknown impetus behind the complaint filed against WLS. Why did it target WIN programming specifically? In all, the newscasts at issue occupied a whopping 16.5 minutes of WLS' airtime over the course of a two and a half month period. Because the matter is ongoing, the FCC will not release details of the complaint itself.

The right wing in the United States is well-organized: so-called "conservatives" have a bevy of "media watchdog" groups which doggedly "document" instances of "liberal media bias" on the airwaves and have made a cottage industry out of filing such complaints as these.

Is it so intimidating that a news organization that places the plight of ordinary working Americans in a place of primacy - and which is forced to buy the airtime to get these stories out - found traction in the third-largest radio market in the country? More importantly, does this indicate a nationwide effort of intimidation against stations for airing WIN material?

One prominent broadcast law firm in Washington, D.C. commented that the FCC's action should make broadcasters more circumspect about airing "paid programming dealing with controversial issues." Is telling the stories of working America really that controversial?

The long-term risk here is not to WLS, which can afford a potential $44,000 fine for fluking on a technicality, but to WIN, whose public perception of legitimacy stands to be impugned by association with a mistake WLS made. That may have been the objective of this particular FCC action all along. This incident serves as a parable about the sordid state of what constitutes the realm of acceptable discourse in the modern U.S. media environment - and the scope of the struggle required to expand it.

2/2/12 - Rest in Peace, Radio First Termer [link to this story]

Clyde David DeLay died last week of acute respiratory distress, just months after having significant heart surgery. He was 63.

DeLay was better known to the world as "Dave Rabbit," the slick-tongued DJ behind Radio First Termer, a pirate radio station he ran from a Saigon whorehouse during the Vietnam War.

DeLay later explained that RFT was born out of a rocket attack on the air base at which he was stationed; the attack killed a close friend and made DeLay hyper-aware of his own mortality, as well as the folly of the conflict in Vietnam. The broadcasts were DeLay's way of paying tribute to his friend and all the "front line" soldiers who risked death every day for a questionable purpose.

With gear purloined from the Air Force and the informal protection of military police, the three-hour broadcasts originally debuted on January 1, 1971 on both the AM and FM bands. The studio-space was padded with blankets and mattresses to dampen the sex-noise from the brothel in which it was located, and "rent" to the madam came in the form of supplies pilfered from the base exchange.

Radio First Termer's format was "hard acid rock" - music that the Armed Forces Vietnam Network had censored from its playlist, but a perennial favorite of the troops. DeLay regaled listeners with dirty commentary straight from the walls of military latrines and tips on how to avoid bad batches of drugs in Saigon. Shows were also chock full of clever spleen-venting at the stupidity of military higher-ups and the Vietnam War itself. In many ways, RFT provided the first quasi-public media outlet for the troops, by the troops, through which they could express their explosive disdain with the war.

Unfortunately, Radio First Termer would only broadcast for 21 consecutive nights. After wrapping up the show on January 21, 1971, DeLay and his co-conspirators got word that unsympathetic military administrators were close to unmasking the station and jailing its principals.

That was the end of the show, but not of the legend: Radio First Termer tapes would continue to circulate, especially in military circles, for decades. Almost 35 years to the day after RFT left the air, DeLay conducted an Internet search for media related to the Vietnam War. To his surprise, he found several sites and articles dedicated to his Saigon station, and discovered that his legacy was still alive.

That sparked a Radio First Termer revival. DeLay and a production crew traveled to Baghdad, Iraq in 2006 to resurrect the station in a one-off broadcast from an "undisclosed location." DeLay also podcast weekly until a month before his death, and did several more shows this way for troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In today's media environment, where soldiers blog, tweet, and can otherwise communicate with the outside world somewhat regularly (though not without some risk of discipline), there will never be another voice that captures soldiers' dissent with unjust wars quite like Radio First Termer.