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News Archive: March 2006

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3/29/06 - IBOC Reception and Politics Panned [link to this story]

Interesting hubbub in the trades surrounding the first digital radio-compatible receiver to hit the U.S. market, the Boston Acoustics Recepter HD. For $299 it promises to "receive and seamlessly play" HD Radio signals, including the new multicast channels some HD-equipped stations have begun broadcasting. But when a New York-based broadcast veteran plunked down the cash and got the box home, he found it didn't work as advertised.

I went to the Ibiquity Web site to find that there were at least 13 stations broadcasting in HD in New York. One by one I tried to tune them in, and one by one I was met with frustration. Constant fiddling with the antenna yielded part-time successes. I managed to get Z100’s second channel for about three seconds, then three seconds of dead air, then on, then off....

I took the radio upstairs to the bedroom. This time I had some success...But mind you, every time I changed the channel, I’d need to go fiddle and reposition the antenna. Sometimes, as the digital signal faded in and out, a phasing sound would occur. On the AM side, continuous play with the antenna yielded a promising digital WNYC AM, but WOR’s digital signal amounted to a great big hum.

Sh*tty reception with this particular receiver has been such a problem that National Public Radio dropped "a testy note" to Boston Acoustics suggesting an antenna upgrade to the Recepter, and the company will apparently comply.

In more wonkish news, J.H. Snider of the New America Foundation just published a short paper critical of the U.S. digital radio standard-setting process. Snider likens the new-found ability for radio stations to multicast to the spectrum windfall TV broadcasters got as part of the digital television transition, although he considers the radio transition to be even more sickly genius.

I think Snider plays a little loose with the technical facts and history of the IBOC standard and thus overstates the implications of the effective doubling of every radio station's spectral footprint, as well as the multicast function of IBOC itself. He does, however, propose some interesting public interest obligations policymakers might be wise to consider before they formally rubber-stamp the new digital standard. It's great to see other critical research on the issue.

3/27/06 - FCC Still MIA on State Law Preemption [link to this story]

Jesse Walker recently wrote a nice treatise on the anti-pirate laws in Florida and New Jersey (albeit in dubious trappings, but you can read around that). Inspired, I decided to drop a line to the two Democrat FCC commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, both of whom are supposedly somewhat accessible via e-mail. They got this:

Since 2004 the state of Florida has asserted jurisdiction over the broadcast airwaves, something the FCC has historically worked very hard to keep within its exclusive domain. Last year, the state of New Jersey followed suit. Both states have essentially criminalized the act of unlicensed broadcasting, punishable as a felony involving jail sentences and multi-thousand dollar fines.

Both state laws are so loosely-written and poorly-worded so as to potentially snag anyone who creates interference to a licensed radio facility. This has particularly alarmed amateur radio operators, who fear they may find themselves unwittingly caught up as violators of the laws for intermittent and/or unintentional interference to a neighbor's radio or television set.

Perspectives differ on the actual harm unlicensed broadcasters may cause in the interference context. Personally, I feel these potential risks are far outweighed by the service these stations provide to underserved communities. Their existence is also partially due to the FCC's overly-restrictive allocational rules.

Irrespective of these points, the FCC has historically been very adamant about maintaining exclusive jurisdiction over the broadcast airwaves. Just because an anemic field presence cannot cope with the number of unlicensed stations on the air in a particular state does not mean the FCC should cede its jurisdiction there. To me it would seem that allowing this to continue opens up the potential for fundamental challenge to your jurisdiction in other contexts. Is the compromise worth the implications?

On February 25, 2005, the American Radio Relay League filed a Request for Declaratory Ruling asking the FCC to reassert its exclusive jurisdiction over the radiofrequency spectrum and thus preempt the new state laws. The Request was assigned to the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, where it has not been heard from since.

Might you be able to inquire on the status of this important issue?

I'll let you know if I hear anything.

3/22/06 - FCC Does Homeland Security, Promises IBOC Action [link to this story]

Last week the FCC voted to create a new Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. It sounds like organizational bloat related to the "war on terror," but there are a couple of notable responsibilities the new bureau will assume.

The first is to be lead facilitator between the FCC and state and local law enforcement. That could portend bad things in places like Florida and New Jersey, though the Enforcement Bureau will still represent the FCC's troops in the field. The second is the assumption of control over the High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) network. HFDF monitoring stations are used, among other things, to provide rough triangulation on shortwave pirates, though nobody's been busted on those bands in nearly eight years.

Following the Commission's monthly meeting, Chairman Kevin Martin held his first news conference and talked a bit about digital radio. Kev expects the FCC to anoint IBOC as the U.S. digital broadcast standard "fairly soon," irrespective of the problems with the technology.

3/21/06 - Crashing Propaganda: The Miami Model [link to this story]

I'd been fixing to generally ignore this story but it's been syndicated far and wide. When my mom said she read it on page two of the hometown daily the extent really sunk in. It's a propaganda coup for the broadcast industry.

The main thrust, that pirate radio stations interfere with airplanes, gets hammered home quite nicely. In this particular case, involving a station in Miami that squats two FM frequencies, it should come as little surprise. In fact, with 20+ pirate stations operating in the Miami area alone, you are bound to encounter some problems with interference, in-band or otherwise.

This is not to condone sloppy operation. Retards like those running "Da Streetz" give everyone a bad name. It has happened before in Florida and elsewhere. But it is important to weigh the sensational nature of this story against the relative risk of the problem it describes.

Interference to aviation radio channels from an FM station is usually caused by spurious emissions generated within the transmitter itself. If these emissions are amplified, the problem gets worse. Thus full-power stations broadcasting with thousands or tens of thousands of watts are much more likely to cause this type of interference than a pirate broadcasting with a fraction of that power.

Aircraft flying closest to the offending transmitter have the greatest chance of encountering interference, but it is by no means universal, as a Federal Aviation Administration spoke admits is the case in Miami. She also claims the agency has investigated some 30 complaints involving pirates and aviation-related interference over the last decade. It would be helpful to know how many complaints the FAA received about full-power licensed stations over the same period, so as to put the pirate problem in proper perspective.

When interference occurs to an aviation radio channel, pilots and air traffic controllers will switch to an alternate frequency. Aviation radio communications are redundant like that. Broadcasters solve spurious emission problems by replacing their transmitter and/or installing a low-pass filter to attenuate the problem spur(s). Responsible broadcasters, licensed or otherwise, run filtered signals by default.

This places broadcast radio interference relatively low on the scale of actual danger to aircraft. High-risk emissions are those that interfere with an aircraft or airport's radio-navigation and instrument flight control systems. These are typically not redundant; losing them, especially in inclement weather or at night, has the potential to create a real mess. To my knowledge pirates have never been accused of interfering with such systems, but commercial stations have.

The worst potential interference to aircraft actually comes from within the plane. Analysis of the RF environment inside airliners notes several common electronic devices cause interference to critical flight control systems: cell phones, laptop computers, and portable DVD/game consoles.

Even so, the FCC plans to move ahead this year with an initiative to allow the deployment of cellular and wireless internet access on aircraft. So, who's the hypocrite?

3/20/06 - Inadvertently Going Mobile [link to this story]

Like much general-interest journalism that deals with science and technology, sometimes the important details can get a bit fuzzy as the journalist tries to put the facts in "language readers can understand."

According to this particular story, some improperly-installed in-vehicle satellite radio receivers can transmit whatever programming their owners are listening to via the vehicle's antenna. Some satellite receivers work by rebroadcasting the satellite feed using an onboard ultra-low power FM transmitter, which typically can't be heard more than a few dozen feet away in optimal conditions. Drivers then simply tune their radio to whatever frequency the satellite receiver is broadcasting on to listen.

Reportedly, extreme cases of botched installations somehow amplify these signals, which can then be heard "a quarter-mile or more." As many of these satellite receivers are automatically tuned to broadcast somewhere on the lower-end of the FM dial, potential interference concerns crop up among two niches in particular: religious and public broadcasters.

Reference is made to Howard Stern listeners inadvertently blotting out godcaster-stations owned by Salem Communications, the Christian Clear Channel. Kinda makes the errant microbroadcast relays of late sound somewhat tame.

3/16/06 - Kulpsville Pirate Retrospective; N$X Demo Available [link to this story]

Thanks to Ragnar for recording a session from this year's Winterfest gathering called the "Year in Pirate Radio" (1:01:48, 21.3 MB). After a somewhat sparse summary of 2005 activity on the AM, FM and shortwave bands, Allan Weiner commandeers the mic and takes questions from the audience. He offers up some interesting observations on the FCC, his offshore pirate escapades, and what it's like to run a 50,000-watt shortwave station.

In Florida, Rayon Payne aka N$X has established a new web site which includes a complete copy of his demo CD called "Unfinished Bizness," which intersperses interview clips with material from the pirate days of yore. He's still on the hunt for an open mic on this side of the law, and he's still thinking big.

3/15/06 - Moving Onto the Airwaves [link to this story]

Stephen Dunifer sent along this slick document: a four-page primer on why the airwaves are ripe for repossession and how to make it happen in your town. You get a concise overview of what the risks are and some basic tactical information. There's a plug for Free Radio Berkeley's more detailed graphic guide near the end. A good conversation-starter among activist-gatherings.

3/13/06 - IBOC Update: HD Radio in the Media, Court [link to this story]

The issue of interference involving digital radio broadcasting on the AM band using the IBOC protocol has made it into the corporate media. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece earlier this month on the problem. However, smoothes it over as an "unexpected consequence," which is false: the interference is due in part to the very design of the HD Radio system. Digital-related interference also affects FM transmissions, though not nearly as severely.

The article does note that Leonard Kahn, inventor of the CAM-D AM digital broadcasting protocol, has filed suit against iBiquity on antitrust grounds. As iBiquity's backers are essentially the major broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers, Kahn accuses the "cartel" of imposing a proprietary digital radio standard on the country before the FCC's had a chance to evaluate competitor technologies like his.

The problem is Kahn hasn't yet released any substantive technical information about the CAM-D system - just a recording of a station purported to be testing CAM-D, which gives the FCC nothing to evaluate.

Meanwhile, 721 of the nation's 13,000+ radio stations are now broadcasting hybrid analog/digital signals, and of those less than 200 have taken advantage of IBOC's multicast capability to add new content. National Public Radio runs webcasters as "filler" on many of its multicast channels. iBiquity blames Detroit for the slow rollout: you can get satellite radio receivers in new vehicles but there's been no real commitment to add HD-compatible gear to the dash.

I found an interesting webcast the other day: a 16-hour online version of the NAB's "HD Radio Workshop," as conducted over the course of its radio convention in 2004. The range of material covered looks impressive. It's a shame the NAB wants $50 to watch it.

3/10/06 - FCC Watch: Enforcement Tempo Quickens [link to this story]

The New York office has been spending a lot of time in New Jersey, perhaps in response to the state's attempt to assert enforcement jurisdiction over the airwaves. (Meanwhile, in Florida, the FCC's busy busting construction crane operators cursing on two-way radio frequencies licensed to a hospital.)

Out west, Berkeley Liberation Radio got another visit and the Portland Radio Authority is off the air after same. Free Radio Santa Cruz's Skidmark Bob did a long interview with BLR volunteer Gerald Smith, where the connection between the current station its evolution from roots in Free Radio Berkeley is vividly described. Field agents have also paid respects to stations in Nevada and New Mexico.

For the year, there have already been 52 documented enforcement actions against more than two dozen stations - well ahead of pace to surpass last year's record-setting numbers. However, the increased action is purely administrative at this point: visits and warning letters. It's enough to scare some off the air, but not everybody.

Folks like DJ Johnny Silver of Iron Action Radio seem wholly unconcerned with a smackdown. Although his station is the talk of the town, and he's starred in three mini-films wildly dramatizing a confrontational scenario, Silver says he's prepared for enforcement action. He says he'll take the station "to the next level," as defined by the cult favorite Pump Up The Volume.

I surmise this means going mobile, possibly in a Jeep with a foxy lady beside him, and orange breadtrucks with "F.C.C." stenciled on the side in hot pursuit.

3/8/06 - Calvary Satellite Network Lawsuit Schism [link to this story]

Very interesting dirty laundry now flaps in the wind.

Until about two years ago, the translator station-mongering Calvary Satellite Network (CSN) was apparently run by a two-person board of directors. Now, one director is suing the other, alleging all manner of fiscal and managerial impropriety, among other misdeeds.

The accused is one Jeff Smith - son of Chuck Smith, founder of the Calvary Chapel brand of megachurch and media empire.

The summons in a nutshell: CSN International has two headquarters. Its financial base is in California and is run by Jeff Smith; its programming uplink originates from Twin Falls, Idaho, where the plaintiff in this tussle, Michael Kestler, oversaw operations. CSN owns 40 full-power FM stations and 389 translators. It generates approximately $6 million per year in direct donations.

Kestler accuses Smith and "Does 1 through 10" of using the finances of CSN for uses unrelated to the network. Specifically, allegations are made that Jeff Smith took money for himself and also to help finance The Word For Today, his father's syndicated bible-study program.

It is also claimed Smith utilized CSN's reach to solicit funds for the Calvary Radio Network, an unaffiliated yet budding godcaster constructing a chain of stations throughout Illinois and Indiana (primarily around exurban Chicagoland). If this particular allegation is true that would constitute a violation of FCC regulations surrounding non-commercial broadcasting and might jeopardize CSN's not-for-profit tax status.

Additionally, Smith is accused of attempting to hijack CSN programming by installing bypass facilities that switched control of CSN's full-power stations (each which feed their own fleets of translators) from Idaho to California.

CSN's books are apparently in such a state today that "certified financial statements cannot be obtained."

These are just the most serious of the 16 slings in the suit. More sinful backstory can be found at Metafilter, of all places. Clark Parrish suddenly comes out smelling like a rose.

3/5/06 - CJR On Godcasting Invasion [link to this story]

The Columbia Journalism Review has just published "Out of Thin Air," which is without a doubt the most comprehensive treatment done by a mainstream media outlet to date on the on the speculation and trafficking of FM translator stations. The 3,600-word piece does an admirable job of unpacking some of the technically-challenging aspects of this complicated story.

However, it is not without its share of mistakes, some of which are big enough to somewhat obscure the real nature of the story at hand. I've written a detailed critique of the story so as to both emphasize the good reportage and point out its pitfalls. All told, a little more light shed on this subject is better than no light at all.

3/2/06 - NAB Finesses Lobbying Strategy [link to this story]

The boss who oversaw the National Association of Broadcasters' evisceration of the FCC's low-power FM radio service, Eddie Fritts, stepped aside as president last year, and considers the squelching of LPFM one of his greatest accomplishments. The new NAB chieftain is David K. Rehr, former chairman of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

NAB President David Rehr, GOP Palm-Greaser ExtraordinaireWhen Rehr was selected to replace Fritts, the NAB pointed to his significant and unabashed lobbying and fundraising skills - Rehr made the NBWA political action fund one of the ten biggest spenders in Washington and currently doles out more than twice as much cash as does the NAB. Rehr was also a "Bush Pioneer" in 2004, raising more than $100,000 for his second campaign, and has extremely close ties to Republican congressional leadership and the K Street Project.

The NAB State Leadership Conference took place this week in Washington. Rehr mobilized the troops: broadcast executives received "color-coded issue (and corresponding talking-point) cheat sheets" and "what is in effect an issue order form so that they can record their lobbying progress on key issues, with places to check off the legislator’s response." The NAB has recently added staff to its in-house lobbying crew as well.

Eddie Fritts made broadcasters one of the most powerful special interests in D.C. by leveraging his membership's control of the airwaves to influence politics. The airwaves remain a potent weapon, but Rehr's an expert in the accumulation of cash. Couple the two and the result can't be healthy.