News Archive: April 2011
4/27/11 - Public Files on the Chopping Block [link to this story]
Just in time for the start of the latest radio station license-renewal cycle, the FCC opens up for question the notion of abolishing the public file requirement for broadcasters.
This is not a self-imposed initiative: it is a consideration the agency is mandated to make, courtesy of the Paperwork Reduction Act. It requires regulatory agencies to periodically review their rules and justify their existence to the Office of Management and Budget.
A communications law attorney filed a Petition for Rulemaking directly with the FCC to do away with the public file five years ago. The Petition attracted less than three dozen comments, most of which came from broadcasters who supported killing it off. The FCC circular-filed the idea.
According to the D.C. telecom law firm of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, the local station public file requirement is essentially pointless:
Indeed, the FCC takes the public file requirement very seriously - having recently fined several stations thousands of dollars apiece for failing to maintain them properly.
However, the argument to abolish is circular. Public files of broadcast stations are seldom inspected because the public is largely unaware that they exist, and even less aware that it has the right to inspect them. Stations certainly don't go out of their way to inform the public of its rights in this regard, which further exacerbates the lack of utilization.
Couching advocacy for the banishment of the public file requirement as economically burdensome is also a cop-out. Given the consolidation the radio industry has experienced since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it's no surprise that stations are letting this important license requirement slip: there's no longer enough people employed at radio stations to properly maintain many public files.
The slashing of station personnel arguably has made public file maintenance more burdensome - but that's a consequence of prior bad broadcast policy, and no excuse for eliminating this rule.
In fact, one could argue that the public file requirement is the last meaningful remnant of the FCC's "commitment" to localism in broadcasting. Sure, the agency's Localism Task Force has studied the issue - even to the point of publishing a detailed Report and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2008, which would have promoted more use of the public file rules - but nothing has come of it.
On its face, I'd be willing to trade the public file requirement for localism regulations with more teeth, but that's a pipe-dream.
Public comments on this issue will be accepted through June 17. There is no formal FCC proceeding on the subject, but you can send feedback via e-mail to PRA@fcc.gov and Cathy.Williams@FCC.gov. There's a better-than-even chance that the FCC will recommend keeping the public file rule, but the OMB has final say. Giving the FCC fodder to strengthen its justification can't hurt.
4/20/11 - Nailed 'Em: Station Flaunts FCC in Pursuit of Partisan Politics [link to this story]
A lightly-edited version of this article was re-published on the Isthmus Daily Page.
The ongoing protests in Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker's plans to corporatize the state still resonate in Madison's media environment. Unsurprisingly, the active involvement of unions in an issue that directly affects their future relevancy has been fodder galore for right-wing media pundits.
One of those pundits is Vicki McKenna, the host of some shrill demagoguery on Clear Channel-owned WIBA-AM, Madison's bastion of reactionary talk radio. Last week, Vicki thought she had a sure thing in hand to punk organized labor - but it turns out she's the one more likely to get stung.
The controversy began with a February phone call made shortly after Governor Walker unveiled his "budget repair bill." One of McKenna's fans has a phone number which is one digit off from a Madison public school teacher; a misdial resulted in him receiving a voicemail message from another teacher encouraging the taking of sick leave in protest of the bill.
Earlier this month, the fan forwarded the voicemail to McKenna. On April 11, she played it on her radio show. McKenna also sent the recording to Isthmus blogger David Blaska, who published an "exposé" on the incident in conjunction with her broadcast. The next day, McKenna had Blaska on the program to hype the implications of what she called the "collusion of an illegal strike."
One small snag with this supposed "scoop": it is clearly against the law for radio broadcasters to play telephone calls without the consent of all involved. Specifically, 47 C.F.R. §73.1206 states that "a licensee shall inform any party to the call of the licensee's intention to broadcast the conversation."
The Federal Communications Commission has construed this rule expansively to prohibit the rebroadcast of recorded messages, including voicemails, in the pursuit of upholding "the legitimate expectations of privacy and dignity of individuals." Within the last three years, two radio stations have been fined $4,000 and $12,000 respectively for such violations.
In the context of media policy, although Vicki McKenna crossed the line, it's WIBA - and its parent company, Clear Channel Communications - that's liable for this abuse of the public airwaves. The audio evidence is undeniable. Furthermore, the station promotes the offending program in no uncertain terms ("Vicki plays the audio and takes your calls").
Clear Channel, being the radio monolith that it is, could conceivably try to claim ignorance of McKenna's actions, but the FCC won't buy it.
To top it all off, the woman who left the voicemail has been detrimentally affected by McKenna's and Blaska's polemicism. She's confirmed that she did not give WIBA consent to broadcast her misdirected message. Since the coordinated broadcast-bloggery was unleashed the woman has also received threats serious enough to contact the police about.
It's unclear whether she plans to contact the FCC over the incident. However, now that actionable information is in the public domain, anyone can file a complaint.
It's unfortunate that nobody but Clear Channel will likely be reprimanded for this, though it would be rich if the company docked McKenna's paycheck for the fine they both deserve.
4/13/11 - U.K. DAB Policy Goes Back to the Future [link to this story]
Grant Goddard, the go-to analyst on all things related to digital radio in the United Kingdom, penned a post this week about regulators' latest attempt to "understand" the deficiencies of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) in an ongoing effort to "correct" them.
Here's the kicker: this will require the intensive study of analog FM radio. The exercise's apparent goal is to provide some sort of benchmark-metric for explaining why DAB's proliferation has not lived up to expectations.
One of the main problems with all digital broadcast systems is the cliff effect. Unlike analog broadcasting - where if a signal weakens you still get it (albeit with some degradation in quality) - if a DAB signal falls below a specific receivable threshold it's simply not there at all. You can see this effect quite distinctly in the reception of digital television, with its dropouts, stuttering, and pixelation.
This has proven to be a significant problem for broadcasters and listeners. Reasons for the coverage deficiencies of DAB vary, but most are related to the layout of the DAB multiplex transmitter infrastructure. In many countries, policies governing the placement and power of DAB multiplexes were developed to essentially mirror the existing provision of FM radio.
Modeling the coverage aspects of a digital broadcast service on an analog radio system makes little sense. Overly-weak signals, including problems with building penetration, make DAB literally unlistenable in situations where analog radio can still be heard. Goddard estimates that in Manchester, a metropolitan area of more than two million people, listeners have "a one-in-three chance" today of missing out on DAB reception entirely; there is no "distant" or "fringe" coverage in the digital broadcast world.
The rationale behind multiplex layout (which took place in the U.K. more than a dozen years ago) had a lot to do with broadcaster and regulator anxiety about DAB's initial "disruptiveness" to existing analog broadcast business models and shifting strategic goals involving what DAB was actually designed to accomplish regarding the medium of radio itself.
Like HD Radio in the United States, the failure of DAB is due to a multiplicity of factors - and any effort that falls short of holistically addressing this dilemma is an exercise in futility. It doesn't mean that digital radio doesn't have a future - it's just not going to be anchored around one of the presently-available broadcast technologies.
Unfortunately, billions of dollars have been invested in the HD/DAB enterprises, and so such seat-reshuffling is the only option left short of a radical rethink of digital radio.
No communications regulator will go there: this is why Goddard calls Ofcom's latest DAB research project "[i]ntrinsically...redundant. If FM works well, why bother to analyse why it works? The answer is: because DAB radio does not work. In order to make DAB work, an understanding is deemed necessary of why the system it was intended to replace – FM radio – does work."
First, digital radio was heralded as a revolution in broadcasting, hyped to wipe analog service off the dial. Then, it became a hopeful supplement to analog radio, once the limitations of its signal coverage, audio quality and programming aspects were better understood. Most recently, digital broadcasting has been considered complementary to analog radio, with firm consensus developing around the notion that FM broadcasting would be the medium's dominant mode the foreseeable future.
Now - at least in the U.K. - regulators are reexamining the well-distinguished characteristics of a legacy broadcast mode in order to better understand the shortcomings of radio's supposed "future." Goddard gets the last word: "Madness? Yes. Self-defeating? Yes. Contempt for radio listeners? Totally."
4/6/11 - Certified "Expert" [link to this story]
Doctoral dissertation defense success!
Radio's Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting in the 21st Century represents the definitive chronicle of HD Radio's development and proliferation. It also attempts to unpack the apparent global failure of terrestrial digital broadcasting, and envision how "radio" will continue to evolve in a convergent digital media environment.
In quasi-celebration, there's now a page that aggregates DIYmedia coverage of digital radio over the last dozen years (and going forward). Honestly, it's more sparse than expected - but then again, most of my energy's gone into the preparation of a 400-page manuscript.
The end-goal is publication; more to come.