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News Archive: May 2003

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5/30/03 - Perceptions of Reality on the Eve of Disaster [link to this story]

Three days from now the FCC is expected in a series of 3-2 votes to approve changes to media ownership rules allowing further consolidation. Where radio saw its near-destruction as a useful information source following the Telecom Act's passage and the consolidation that followed, we have not learned from this mistake, and now much of the same damage will be done to other media outlets.

If you're inclined to watch the mess as it unfolds, the FCC streams video of its meetings online. I hope to have choice cuts of each Commissioner's comments available for download in MP3 format later in the day on Monday.

As we stand on the eve of what is likely to be a big step backward in the fight for media democracy, it's important not to give up hope, especially when the evidence continues to mount that this fight was long rigged in favor of corporate interests. It was heartening to see some evidence this week - from the corporate media itself - that paints a brighter view of the future.

The first bit of news came from Reuters, who interviewed Powell as he stumped in support of media consolidation. In Mikey's world of media, the state of radio has only gotten better since 1996. Quoting Powell:

"The radio industry was dying," he said. "When there was a proper amount of consolidation permitted, a lot of it restored health to the radio industry."

Later Powell states his belief that increased consolidation and cross-ownership between newspapers and TV stations will lead to "the promotion of additional news content."

Contrast that with a story published the same day in that paragon of fifth-grade level journalism, USA Today, which reported that only one in three Americans completely trust the news they receive from the mainstream media. Unlike Powell, it would seem that the public recognizes "additional" news content - provided most recently by the proliferation of cable TV news networks and even this wonderworld of the internet - does not necessarily mean "better" content.

I have never been one for polls, but I believe the notion that two out of three Americans have issues with the media. As we have seen in the swell of opposition that coalesced late in the FCC game, issues of corporate power over the media cut across political lines.

If mass discontent exists, then change is almost certain. Congress and the courts will be the next battlefields for reformers, and there's always a need for more independent media.

It is disheartening to see the spate of last-minute advertising campaigns against the FCC's pending decision, as the money spent on them only goes to feed and strengthen the enemy. They are also unlikely to change the minds of the Commissioners themselves, much less provoke last-minute Congressional intervention. It could have been much better spent on actual education and outreach efforts, like media literacy and grassroots journalism training, or even on the support of alternative media outlets.

Changing the rules is just one facet of the drive to improve the media environment. Any time one advocates for change, skeptics and supporters of the status quo will always pull out the standard (and sometimes quite effective) rejoinder, "What's your alternative?" If this newly-intensified drive for media reform doesn't spend adequate time and energy to build and demonstrate alternatives, can it honestly answer that question?

Two critical factors for making this happen involve education. First, we must work harder to dispel the myth that a commercial media system is the only "true" way to disseminate news and information in a "free" society.

Second, Americans need to be empowered to look at themselves as more than just consumers of news and entertainment. Decades have gone into the creation of a passive audience. It has not always been this way, and it does not have to continue to be so. Signs like the aforementioned poll show that the public is waking up to this fact; the time is ripe to further open the eyes.

Achieving these goals take a lot more effort than lobbying campaigns ever will. As things head from bad to worse let's hope that our new-found friends on both the right and left commit to this fight over the long haul.

5/23/03 - NRA Fusillade Felt at FCC; May Amendment One Online [link to this story]

The National Rifle Association's "urgent bulletin" to its membership on the FCC's upcoming media ownership rules revision unleashed a flood of petitions and complaints to the agency, at last count topping 100,000 - five or six times the number of public comments filed during the course of the rulemaking itself. The NRA's bulletin is now online if you'd like to read the full pitch.

Don Schellhardt's latest installment of Amendment One is also up, adding his voice to the still-growing chorus calling for Congressional involvement to stop Mikey Powell's grand designs. Updates to the Schnazz (in a day or so) will have links to lots more information on the subject.

There has been some political maneuvering in Washington among Congresscritters speaking in opposition to more media consolidation, including the introduction of a bill to pre-empt/override any relaxation of the ownership cap on television stations, but it remains to be seen whether all this last-minute lobbying has any lasting momentum.

What got the state of the media to where it is today is in so many ways directly related to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I find it hard to believe that Washington can address the structural problems with the media regulatory system without taking up the fundamental issue of reforming or repealing the Act itself. That's like treating the symptoms and not the disease. And as things stand now, the political will to take that on doesn't exist - Congress is still Big Media's bitch.

5/21/03 - Bump in the Road to Digital Radio [link to this story]

Guess what? The sound quality of the new "HD Radio" system sucks! That's the verdict of none other than the National Radio Systems Committee, the industry-sponsored group that develops radio broadcast standards in the U.S.

In an internal memo dated May 14 (.pdf, 94K), Milford Smith, chairman of the NRSC subcommittee on digital radio, announced it is "temporarily suspending its IBOC-DAB standards-setting process." This is due in part to the results of recent on-air tests and a private demonstration held at the Washington, D.C. studios of National Public Radio. The evidence mostly involves the AM side of the iBiquity-engineered digital radio system.

Upon actually hearing the system work on the air, esteemed members of the DAB Subcommittee "do not consider the audio quality demonstrated by the iBiquity 36 kbps[!] PAC technology to be suitable for broadcast." It seems that iBiquity originally demonstrated the IBOC system using a different, possibly non-proprietary audio encoding algorithm (codec). The "PAC" encoder being rolled out on IBOC-equipped radio stations around the country, however, is an in-house build, and of an inferior sound quality. One might call that a bait-and-switch....

The NRSC says there is a concern with IBOC-FM as well, due to the fact that "the poor performance of the PAC codec at low bit rates raises concerns of performance at intermediate rates." The IBOC-FM system is designed to provide a 96 kbps-quality signal over the air, although the memo hints that the ending bit rate of most FM broadcasts will definitely be 64 kbps, as "ancillary data providers and secondary audio providers" want at least one-third of the bandwidth.

FM signals synthesized in the lab and tested on the air so far have been at the full 96 kbps - but if 64 becomes the default "sound," NRSC wants to make sure that FM-IBOC won't sound like sh*t, either.

This is a bump in the road because it does not raise any problems with how the digital radio signals are produced, just how the audio is encoded before transmission. Although there is evidence to suggest that the IBOC signal itself will cause interference problems on both the AM and FM bands, regardless of the codec used, this temporary pause in the standards-setting process has nothing to do with that problem.

Working out a problem that large would require redesigning from scratch, something iBiquity (and, by extension, the radio industry) is not willing to do, although at least one alternative AM digital radio system has recently been developed and awaits testing.

5/19/03 - Preach On, Brother Bob [link to this story]

We are at the two-week point from the FCC's further decimation of American media. Last week a communiqué of sorts came in from media scholar and author Bob McChesney: "Please spread this article around on the Internet. Thanks."

While that one is good, if you had to pick only one article on media ownership to forward around in a last-minute flurry of activist email, I'd pick McChesney's "The FCC's Big Grab," which is the most succinct yet complete synopsis available on the FCC's pending action and its disastrous implications for media democracy.

5/16/03 - Super Bowl Pirates Fined $12,000 [link to this story]

Most pirates in the United States operate on sporadic schedules. The 24/7 in-your-face operations may be the best-known and most-heralded, but the vast majority of unlicensed broadcasting is done on the sly in the hopes of staying under the FCC's radar.

The rules are different, however, if the broadcast piracy involves professional sports. A nebulous outfit called Global Radio, Inc. operated pirate stations on multiple frequencies during this year's Super Bowl and got away with it with a slap on the wrist compared to what most busted microradio stations receive.

Global Radio reportedly specializes in "event broadcast services" and applied to the FCC for six "experimental" FM licenses for use inside San Diego, CA's Qualcomm Stadium. These temporary stations would give fans in the stands their choice of play-by-play announcer teams to listen to. Game details would be broadcast to the surrounding parking lot and little radios were even set up in the stadium's bathrooms, so fans wouldn't have to miss a second of the action on the field.

The FCC authorized Global Radio to use two frequencies for its Super Bowl broadcasts: 93.7 and 96.9 MHz. Use of the other four channels was denied on the grounds that they were too close to existing local FM stations and might interfere with them.

A massive frequency coordination plan had been forged prior to the Super Bowl due to the huge influx of wireless traffic that would besiege the stadium. Conducting one remote broadcast is hard enough, but several dozen radio and television networks and stations, law enforcement agencies, event staff, and stadium crew all needed their own interference-free communication networks for game day. Wireless communication even takes place between coaches and players, via specially encrypted two-way helmet radios. Very specific slices of spectrum were assigned to everyone, from the walkie-talkies used by concessions vendors to the video feeds transmitted from the blimps that would fly overhead.

No one was permitted to stray outside their allotted territory, and game-day interference problems were quickly pounced upon and corrected by a bevy of broadcast engineers. FCC personnel from the San Diego field office were also on-site. The tightly-controlled system worked well: for example, a San Diego Police Department helicopter patrolling overhead was found to be using an unauthorized frequency that interfered with channels previously slated to serve NBC camera feeds coming from the blimps. The chopper ended up moving channels to accommodate the corporate media traffic and the hundreds of millions who watched the game from home noticed nothing.

In full view (and earshot) of everyone present at the Super Bowl, Global Radio, Inc. commenced FM broadcasts on six frequencies within Qualcomm Stadium. Two of them had been licensed - the other four were not. Five stations used three-watt transmitters and one used 1/2 watt, but all clearly violated the FCC's unlicensed broadcasting rules. Agents at the stadium made no moves to shut the pirate frequencies down during the game, although Global Radio has since been slapped with a $12,000 Notice of Apparent Liability for its broadcasts on three of the four verboten channels. There were no reports of interference.

This punishment works out to $3,000 per pirate station. Most individual microradio operators are regularly socked with $10,000 fines for appropriating a single frequency. In those cases, the FCC tacks on the extra $7,000 as a way to send a message about how serious it takes the pirate radio problem. Just this week a Florida man was sentenced to nine months in prison for broadcasting without a license.

By the usual standards it would seem that Global Radio is getting off easy. The FCC claims it will deal harshly on pirates when there's proof of "willful and repeated violation" of its rules; operating on four frequencies simultaneously from the Super Bowl after having been denied licenses for them certainly meets this criteria.

It is also not the first time the FCC has given the velvet glove treatment to corporate pirate radio operators. Last year a speedway running a 1-watt FM station got its fine reduced from $10,000 to $8,000 by pleading ignorance and economic necessity; a speedway in Texas successfully called on its congressman in 1999 to keep the FCC from shutting down its pirate TV operation; and in 2002 the FCC fined Enron a measly $7,500 for operating several illegal radio communications systems, some for as long as five years license-free.

5/15/03 - Dutch Pirate Police Launch Major Crackdown; FCC Enforcement Stats Skew Toward Thuggery [link to this story]

The Netherlands is a small country: about 13,000 square miles, not quite twice the size of the state of New Jersey. But within its borders the Netherlands boasts one of the most vibrant pirate radio scenes in Europe, behind Italy and the United Kingdom. Literally hundreds of Dutch FM pirates are on the air, some running power levels measured in the kilowatts. There is also a thriving shortwave scene.

Until recently the Dutch government's radiocommunications enforcement agency, Agentschap Telecom (AT), played lots of cat-and-mouse with pirate broadcasters. Most only got pressure to shut down if they were causing interference, although sporadic enforcement offensives have occurred over the last few years.

This has all changed with "Project Etherflits," AT's year-long pirate-hunting spree that kicked off in March. So far nearly 80 stations have been nabbed, including one simultaneous raid on 10 stations last month. Project Etherflits has led to the confiscation of gear galore and fines to station operators ranging between $1,200-$2,600 apiece. The pirates are reportedly organizing public protests in hopes of convincing lawmakers to rein in the hounds.

Meanwhile, back in the States, the FCC has conducted 25 enforcement actions against some 20 microradio stations to date this year. They have mostly concentrated in chronic hot-spots of pirate activity in New York and Florida. From the snapshot it would seem that the agency is getting tougher on pirates - turning forfeiture warnings into fines in four months is speedy work compared to previous FCC efforts, and it means some pirates in our Database are listed more than once in short order.

Criminal convictions for unlicensed broadcasting are up, which is disturbing, but again his tactic is being applied most often to known trouble spots around the country, not as a nationwide policy (yet). It also makes sense in these times of tight budgets for government agencies to crank out more fines to generate more revenue, but the FCC's collection track record remains unproven. For 2003, every documented enforcement action nets the FCC around $5,700, which is definitely up from the running six-year average of $831.

Historically-speaking (for lack of a better term), FCC field offices seem to collect unlicensed broadcasting complaints and then handle them in batches, leading to flurries of activity at various times of the year in various parts of the country. If the FCC is truly getting serious on a national scale about cracking down on pirate radio, we could likely see a more steady stream of enforcement actions, representing a reactive agency slipping back into the 1998 thug-style behavior. It will be interesting to see how the summer unfolds.

5/12/03 - Verbal Skirmish w/FCC in San Diego [link to this story]

Free Radio San Diego got a visit from the FCC on Friday; part of the encounter was caught on tape.

Listen to the encounter (MP3, 1:56, 912K)

The FRSD folk seem pretty feisty!

One of the agents is nearly unintelligible, but at the very end you can hear him say something like, "Shut down, or we'll make you." Fortunately, they did not assert their immunity from the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, which according to the FCC Enforcement Bureau fact sheet is standard policy.

5/8/03 - National Rifle Association Mobilizes for Media Democracy? [link to this story]

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. The NRA has sent out a "Urgent Bulletin" to its members on a "Media Monopoly" in the making:

"...the nation's most powerful media companies are trying to force the FCC to do away with these rules and pave the way for a tiny handful of corporations to gain total control over the news and information that Americans are allowed to read, see, and hear. If that happens, your NRA would face a disastrous situation where - in a political crisis - a small group of media executives could literally silence your NRA and prevent us from communicating with your fellow Americans by refusing to sell us television, radio, or newspaper advertising at any price."

In this case, I'll leave the myth of the liberal media well enough alone, as the NRA's clout could be handy in the eventual Congressional fight to reform the Telecom Act.

5/7/03 - Translator Crusades Update [link to this story]

The final total on the number of FM translator station applications filed in March is 13,345. Of those, nearly one-third were tendered by just two groups - Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting, Inc. - who filed more than 4,200 translator applications between them.

Other known abusers of the translator service are also in on this, like the Educational Media Foundation (875) and the Calvary Chapel syndicate, who applied for 385 stations under at least two names (Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls and CSN International).

REC Networks was kind enough to make a list of the top 15 translator applicants. From their own examination of the records it appears that at least some of these applications were filled willy-nilly-style, meaning they have a good chance of being tossed by the FCC on technical or procedural grounds.

Even so, the number of new translators approved from this en masse filing will still boggle the mind. If only 10% of the applications lead to new translators going on the air, that's another 1,300 radio signals - or a 10% increase in the number of total radio stations in America - from this one filing alone: a coup by just about any standard.