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News Archive: March 2011

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3/30/11 - FCC Enforcement: Pirates Less a Pirority? [link to this story]

It's been a surprisingly slow year so far in the FCC's low-intensity war against unlicensed broadcasting.

After 2010's decline in year-over-year enforcement actions, it would seem that field agents' priorities are shifting.

Four people have been hit with a total of $75,000 in Notices of Apparent Liability (i.e., pre-fines) this year. However, three of those cases are carry-overs from 2010.

However, whereas field agents averaged some 35 enforcement actions per month last year against pirate broadcasters, there've been only 23 total actions for the first three months of 2011, affecting some dozen stations.

The Enforcement Bureau's apparently more concerned now about CB-related radio interference, the unauthorized use of cell-phone jammers in businesses and schools, and the questionable operation of licensed FM radio stations than it is about unlicensed broadcasting.

There is no stated rationale for the apparent shift in enforcement activity; let's hope it's a trend.

3/26/11 - Hardening the Oligopoly in Wireless Broadband [link to this story]

Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge has some incredibly insightful analysis on the proposed purchase of T-Mobile by of AT&T.

The $39 billion deal would effectively reduce the number of national wireless broadband service providers to three (AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint - and as a Sprint customer, why do I have a feeling this development will f*ck me, too?).

Brodsky's piece catalogs the immense amount of backstage preparation AT&T accomplished to sow the seeds of government approval for the buyout. However, he also touches on one implication of this deal that deserves more attention: it's "the one issue that never seems to go away - Net Neutrality."

Last December, the FCC adopted new "rules" that were (ostensibly) designed to (weakly) address the threat of data discrimination by those who own our broadband "pipes" (to quote a former AT&T executive).

The rules created an artificial distinction between wired and wireless broadband provision: wireless broadband was "exempted" from net neutrality "rules" in order to engender more "competition" in this arena. With oligopolistic behavior on the increase in the wireless world, this is unlikely to actually happen.

Which is a shame: smartphones and tablets are nice, but they are not yet direct replacements for the "traditional" computer - and fiber-optic connectivity still tops all other broadband vectors in speed and capacity. Unfortunately, since fiber is "wired" broadband, and subject to tepid "regulation," telecom companies are investing in spectrum - where the profit potential of broadband provision appears much greater, and where there's no meaningful restrictions on data discrimination.

"In a rational world," writes Brodsky, "there is no way this deal should go through. But don’t bet against AT&T to pull it off. This is not a rational world."

3/24/11 - More Lumps for HD Radio [link to this story]

2011 has not started out well for advocates of HD Radio. Last week, Microsoft announced it would discontinue production of the Zune portable media player - one of only two portable devices that had built-in HD reception capability. Earlier in the year, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, HD Radio's presence was pretty underwhelming. Not good indicators for increasing uptake by listeners.

In addition, the political campaign to defund federal support of public broadcasting has HD squarely in its sights. Over the last decade or so, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has invested more than $50 million in HD Radio, through infrastructure "upgrade" subsidies to CPB-funded stations and support of National Public Radio's in-house research division, NPR Labs.

Unbeknownst to many, NPR has been the key innovator when it comes to HD technology. It developed (in full or in part) such features as multicasting, conditional access, "personalized radio," and revised FM-HD power levels for regulatory purposes. The majority of funding for NPR Labs comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This month also saw a radio merger: Cumulus Media announced its purchase of Citadel Broadcasting, creating the second largest radio conglomerate in the country (behind Clear Channel). Citadel and iBiquity had an ongoing program whereby broadcasters could pay for their stations' "upgrade" to HD through the bartering of advertising inventory.

The deal was unclear about just how much Citadel was prepared to invest in HD station upgrades and how iBiquity would actually get paid. It's similarly unclear whether Cumulus will continue the program.

Finally, overall broadcaster sentiment is worse than lukewarm about the prospects of HD Radio. At the annual Country Radio Seminar, held earlier this month, the technology was openly criticized. Marc Chase, a former executive at Clear Channel and the Tribune Company, told the gathering that the industry's poured "billions" of dollars into HD, with little to show for the investment. Broadcaster discontent has publicly intensified over the last year.

All of these developments further call into question just how it is that iBiquity Digital Corporation, HD's proprietor, remains in business, and whether or not the technology has a viable future.

3/16/11 - Radio Station License Renewals Ahoy [link to this story]

This spring sees the beginning of the FCC's license-renewal cycle for radio stations. Stations in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia must begin running license-renewal announcements next month, and file their formal paperwork to renew station licenses by June. (Other states will follow in batches through the next three years - find out the license-renewal deadlines for radio stations in your state in this FCC document.).

Although the license-renewal process has long been pretty much a pro forma exercise, it does provide an opportunity for the listening public to examine and critique the performance of their local radio stations.

The FCC is loathe to revoke a station's license due to public complaints, but that hasn't stopped many media reform organizations from challenging stations' commitments to public service and using the opportunity to educate the public at large about what stations could be doing to serve the public that they are not.

If you are interested in providing the FCC with feedback on how your local stations have served (or disserved) your community during the license renewal period, the first place to start is by inspecting a station's public file. This file must be publicly accessible during business hours and includes several documents relating to the station's technical operation, employment, and programming.

Over the last year, an average of one broadcaster per month has been fined for either failing to allow inspection of a station's public file or for maintaining incomplete records.

Given that the license-renewal process only comes around every eight years, every opportunity the public has to provide feedback on the performance of broadcasters is important. Although the license-renewal process is supposed to be short and superficial, it never hurts to remind stations that listeners mean more than ratings numbers.

3/9/11 - Norway: New Vanguard of Digital Radio? [link to this story]

Last month, the Norwegian Culture Ministry published a report calling for the turnoff of all analog radio broadcast services in the country by 2017.

Domestic boosters of the plan claim that the switch to the Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) protocol represents "a tool for democratization and a vast increase in choice." Although DMB is a different technology than HD Radio, the U.S. digital radio broadcasting standard, both suffer from a technologically-agnostic failure to provide qualitative improvements to existing analog radio service.

There is nothing in the Norwegian report to suggest the turnoff will occur on time. Indeed, it is filled with caveats. It says the DMB transmission infrastructure must be built out so that it reaches 90% of Norwegians (100% for the state broadcaster, NRK) by 2015.

DMB service must also provide "additional value" to Norwegian radio listeners, interpreted as an increase in available radio programs and rudimentary datacasting services. Furthermore, digital radio listenership must account for at least half of all radio listenership in the country by mid-decade; this includes "inexpensive and technically satisfactory solutions for radio reception in cars."

If none of these criteria are met, the transition will be postponed at least two years, until 2019.

To claim that Norway is the "first to decide to switch off analogue radio" is disingenuous. A few years ago, the government of the United Kingdom proposed turning off analog radio broadcasts by 2015.

Given the utter lack of enthusiasm for digital radio technology among both broadcasters and listeners, and a diminishing listening trend in digital radio programming since the service was first launched there more than 10 years ago, actually effecting this 2015 transition is a pipe dream.

The U.K. is portrayed in Europe as a leader in any digital radio transition, having been the first country to establish regular digital radio service and responsible for the most detailed policymaking on the subject to-date. Yet it is not the only European country to back away from an analog radio switchoff.

Germany also proposed terminating analog radio service in 2015; this has now slipped to 2020. France proposed building out a digital radio infrastructure in 2009 that would cover 99% of the population by 2013, and planned to phase out its analog stations by that date. Today, the trade lobby for France's commercial broadcasters opposes any digital radio transition and there is no government movement to actualize it.

Truth be told, Norway's history with digital radio is actually quite checkered. The number of analog radio receivers sold there outpaces digital receivers by a factor of eight. Last year, sales of Internet-capable radio receivers surpassed the sale of digital radios. The Norwegian Electronics Industry Association estimates that there are somewhere between 12 and 15 million analog FM radios in regular use, compared to 290,000 digital radio receivers (a penetration rate of 2%).

Norway's adoption of DMB actually represents the country's second attempt to digitize radio, having failed with an earlier protocol. It is notable, however, because it consolidates the digitization of all broadcast media into a single bitstream - of which existing radio services are only a part.

At last week's annual conference of the Association for European Radios (the pan-European equivalent of the NAB), the European Union's Digital Agenda Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, lamented the fact that no country seems willing to part with their analog radio service.

"How can radio best participate in convergence?," she asked the assembled broadcasters. "What incentives would encourage user[s] and manufacturers to shift to the digital format?"

That's a very open question.

3/2/11 - Being the Media: Covering Wisconsin's Uprising [link to this story]

Last Thursday night, when I heard of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's plans to forcibly evict those who have occupied the state Capitol building for nearly two weeks, I couldn't not go home.

I ended up in Madison not just to add my voice to the hundreds of thousands who rallied in protest last weekend of the corporatization of Wisconsin, but to help my friend at the Isthmus, Kristian Knutsen, who has nearly-singlehandedly held down the alt-weekly's real-time online coverage of the massively fluid events.

It felt nice to put the journalistic shoes on again. During the threat of a "forcible evacuation" of the Capitol building on Sunday afternoon, I perched my netbook on the marble railing on the building's second floor in the Rotunda and hunkered down, with thousands of my newly-found best friends. The police, who are working people, too, made no move and the Capitol remains occupied today.

The experience provided some important insights into the role of media during a sustained protest event. Ten years ago, I was very active in the Indymedia movement; citizen journalism has evolved far beyond that paradigm.

Local media is alive and well. The national media got "event fatigue" after the first week of the protests in Madison, when more than 70,000 people rallied. This past weekend that number doubled, but you wouldn't have known it from the networks. The real story of what is happening on the ground is essentially going unreported to the rest of the nation.

The right-wing bias of Fox News is blatantly clear, for those who might not have already noticed. As Sunday afternoon's civil disobdeients thinned out once the Capitol Police agreed to allow people to stay overnight again, a Fox News cameraman darted in and took closeups of "trash" (i.e., protest signs) on the floor.

That evening, Bill O'Reilly had the audacity to use footage from elsewhere to portray events in Madison (hint: it's Wisconsin, we do have snow, and don't have palm trees). Inside the Capitol, as Fox claimed "civil unrest" and the "trashing" of the Capitol was underway, the occupiers hi-fived and thanked the floor polisher.

I am biased to the coverage of the Isthmus, having worked with them. However, Madison's community radio station, WORT, continues to do amazing work. And even local corporate media coverage, such as that produced by the Wisconsin State Journal, Wisconsin Radio Network, and the local CBS TV affiliate, has been exemplary.

Even so, the personal decimation of newsrooms that has taken place over the last decade was painfully clear. No news outlet in Madison has the capacity to provide 24-hour news coverage. Those on the ground are running ragged. This hasn't diminished the amount or quality of local journalism, but it makes for superhuman working conditions.

I've been assisting from afar now by running down leads to story-threads that those on the ground simply don't have the time to cover in real-time. More work like this is essential to deepen coverage of the event and take some of the stress off overwhelmed colleagues.

Social media tools go beyond the social. Facebook has been an a key organizing mechanism for the protests, rallies, and Capitol occupation. But it is not a news source. Capitol occupiers are blogging themselves, and those outside - who want in but can't get in, and are sleeping overnight in sub-freezing weather in "Walkerville" (a play on the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression) - have their own Twitter feed.

Twitter itself is useful, but only to a point. The Isthmus uses a tool called CoverItLive to provide real-time coverage of every day's events. The tool essentially aggregates individual Twitter accounts and directly-submitted live reports to provide a minute-by-minute news flow of each day.

While CoverItLive is an imperfect tool (extremely kludgy back-end interface for editing the content-stream), it significantly increased the signal-to-noise ratio during breaking news threads, which became invaluale. By the second weekend of the uprising, the number of Twitter hashtags for the events in Wisconsin had exploded from one to more than a dozen. Most contained little original information not already found on the "primary" hashtag (#wiunion), and when you added in the retweets a cacophony ensued.

I did not subscribe to Twitter for the events, preferring to report for the Isthmus directly (but others retweeted the coverage). However, when the public wi-fi node inside the Capitol was intentionally disabled by the state Department of Administration Sunday evening, I was sh*t out of luck.

Smartphones have also been surprisingly useful. Although they're not ideal for getting out cogent tweet-style coverage (some minute-by-minute reports require more than 140 characters, and a tactile keyboard makes a huge difference), when the Capitol wireless was killed some guy with a smartphone streamed live video to an audience upwards of 80,000 Sunday night.

"Old media" still have value. One of the most impressive aspects of the uprising has been the transformation of the Capitol building. It is blanketed with signs, the overwhelming of them homemade and strikingly individual. Services like Flickr and YouTube are turning into an invaluable tool for archiving this ongoing event.

More importantly, the epicenter of the uprising has been a micro-manifestation of the public sphere: a "people's microphone" stands at the center of the Capitol Rotunda since its occupation began on February 14. It is open to anyone, regardless of their politics, and the thousands who listen are respectful. Over the course of two weeks, the sound system for this space has evolved from bullhorn to megaphone to portable speakers to a fully-powered sound system.

Made of granite and marble, the building is incredibly acoustically lively. To clearly hear the people's microphone, you had to be inside the Rotunda, either on the ground or second floors. The building, however, is much larger than that.

A low-power FM radio station would have amplified and clarified the collective voice of the protest; placing receivers throughout the outer hallways would have allowed those at the people's mic to be heard by everyone inside and added a whole new experiential dynamic to those who just came to witness history being made.

In a nutshell, the experience was transformative, both as a citizen and journalist. The plethora of tools available to provide authentic journalism from such a large and fast-moving event have made coverage of it more immediate and accurate than ever before. The full story is both analog and digital - always has been, always will be.