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News Archive: May 2011

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5/25/11 - "Studying" the Implicatons of LPFM's Expansion [link to this story]

As part of the compromises made to pass the Local Community Radio Act through Congress, a provision was inserted which requires the Federal Communications Commission to examine the "economic impact" LPFM stations have on full-power FM stations.

Comments on the proposed ground-rules of the "study" are due to the FCC in a month, and the study itself is supposed to be tendered to Congress early next year.

The FCC must probe two questions: what effects will an LPFM expansion have on the advertising revenue and audience-share of full-power radio stations?

On its face, the "study" is nothing more than a make-work exercise for the FCC, arguably designed to slow down the expansion of the LPFM service. Its primary questions are absurd - and pretty simply answered.

What effect will LPFM stations have on the advertising revenue of full-power radio stations? Little to none. Since LPFM is a purely noncommercial broadcast service, it's prohibited by law from soliciting commercials as a funding source. The FCC already acknowledges this; that's half the question right there.

Underwriting and station-sponsored fundraising announcements are allowed, but it's quite a stretch to legitimately argue that the amount of money those draw from any local community materially affects the revenue-pie of the local radio market.

You can operate an LPFM station for a year on the amount of money a few weeks' worth of spots would buy you on any commercial radio station. If an LPFM is "taking" money from a commercial broadcaster, it's hardly enough for them to notice, much less be able to document.

Unless the LPFM station is so awesome and its commercial "competitors" are so sh*tty that audiences mass-defect to the newcomer. Which leads to the next question.

What effect will LPFM stations have on the audience ratings of full-power radio stations? Because LPFM stations are severely restricted in their coverage areas, it's silly to try and suggest that any diminution of a full-power station's audience can be directly attributed to a new LPFM outlet. Like the first question, the necessary data simply doesn't exist from which to build this sand-castle.

Furthermore, why is this even an appropriate question to ask? The addition of extra radio signals in a market increases choice among radio listeners, and some of them may very well drop an incumbent station from their radio presets in favor of the LPFM. That's the "free market" at work, and the FCC's all about the "free market" these days. Slam-dunk this question simply by invoking the controlling neoliberal ideology of communications policy more generally.

The irony of it all lies in the fact that these questions were asked and answered in an LPFM "study" Congress forced the FCC complete following the service's legislative evisceration more than ten years ago. The "MITRE Report," as it has become known, was much wider-ranging than than what Congress has required this go-round.

Publicly released in 2003, the MITRE Report primarily focused on the potential of LPFM stations to interfere with their full-power neighbors (finding: extremely unrealistic). In fact, it determined that the idea of studying the economic implications of the LPFM service on the larger world of radio broadcasting was superfluous; the subject did not "warrant the additional expense that [it] would entail."

Eight years later, here we are: politics is the art of the compromise.

In that regard, the LCRA also explicitly states that the FCC's "study" of these issues does not inhibit the agency's ability to open filing windows for new LPFM station applications. That hasn't happened yet, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for the FCC to justify further delay.

To that end, the Prometheus Radio Project is gearing up for "Radio Summer," a loose tour of the country designed to teach interested applicants the skills to file for an LPFM station license and how to build and operate one. Having participated in one of the first of these tours back in 2000, I highly recommend it as a fast way to get schooled on the possibilities that lie ahead.

For those less inclined to wait for the FCC, Free Radio Berkeley is hosting a series of four-day Summer Radio Camps during which participants will build their own unlicensed FM transmitters. Either way you slice it, it's way past due for an expansion of microradio in this country.

5/18/11 - FM Translator Abuse Creates Ownership Loophole [link to this story]

Nearly a year ago it came to light that radio broadcasters were using FM translator stations as a sort of "back door" to provide more exposure for their HD Radio signals.

Ironically, these translators do not broadcast in digital; rather, many HD-capable radio stations are rebroadcasting their digital-only ("multicast") programming via analog translator as a way to recoup their investment in a technology which has no meaningful audience.

Some radio conglomerates have purchased or signed lease agreements with FM translator owners to create ostensibly "new" stations in markets around the country in this manner. The practice has caused difficulty for independent broadcasters.

Recently, Clear Channel signed a lease agreement with a translator-owner in New York City to rebroadcast a country music format Clear Channel was running as an HD-2 adjunct to another of its NYC stations. The translator caused major interference to "Thunder 106," a country-format full-power FM station owned by Press Communications. Thunder 106 is located in New Jersey but covers a goodly portion of the NYC metropolitan area.

You can see how Clear Channel would think this a bright idea: there is no country music station based directly in Market #1, and by plopping a flea-power FM translator in downtown Manhattan the company could dominate an underserved format while recycling unprofitable HD-only content on the cheap.

Press Communications did not take this move lying down. It contacted the FCC which directed the translator to leave the air while the interference claims are investigated.

These shenanigans are only the tip of the iceberg. Cumulus Media has parlayed several FM translators into "new" stand-alone stations in several radio markets around the country. Considering that Cumulus is now attempting to buy Citadel Broadcasting - a deal that rivals Clear Channel in the ownership-consolidation dimension - this behavior deserves further scrutiny.

It's bad enough that major broadcasters are wasting spectrum through the implementation of HD Radio. But purchasing or leasing the use of translators to expand a conglomerate's holdings in a market where they already own the maximum number of full-power stations allows them to effectively flout the FCC's local radio station ownership caps.

Neither translators nor HD Radio were intended for such chicanery, and it speaks volumes about the FCC's engagement with radio broadcasting more generally that such behavior is taking place.

5/11/11 - A Sneak Peek at Clandestine [link to this story]

Clandestine, a documentary about numbers stations completed last year, is screening at various festivals but has not yet been publicly released. The producers say they're holding it close in order to cross-promote it with another project still in the works, but they were nice enough to send me a digital copy to peruse.

The short film has two interweaving threads: a relatively straightforward plot about numbers stations' ties to the practice of espionage, and a biopic narrative about a man's father and his unhealthy obsession with listening to these broadcasts.

The latter provides the producers with a unique perspective from which to explore the world of numbers station activity, and also demonstrates a sincere curiosity about clandestine radio that is well-reflected in its contemporary espionage-vignettes.

These firmly demonstrate that radio is still an active and useful tool in the practice of international spycraft. Government excuses for the mercurial nature of the broadcasts are downright humorous: numbers stations broadcast lottery results? Though the transmissions may be directed toward a single individual, the fact that anyone with a shortwave receiver can hear them kind of defeats the purpose of such silly secrecy.

In the main, Clandestine is both both a short history of numbers stations' activity over the last 30-odd years, and a personal homage to those who are drawn to listen to them. It's a good vehicle by which to introduce the scene to the world at large and will leave the hardcore wishing for more. Hopefully a general release is forthcoming soon.

5/4/11 - FCC Enforcement: Shortwave on Radar? [link to this story]

The Enforcement Action Database continues to show a relatively lackadaisical year of pirate-hunting shaping up: just 35 actions through mid-April.

Should the trend continue, enforcement activity against unlicensed broadcasters may approach levels not seen since 2005-06, the start of the FCC's post-LPFM station-hunting campaign. This would signify a significant shift and could be indicative of strategic revisions involving the agency's spectrum enforcement priorities more generally.

However, some of the FCC's divided attention seems to be turning in an unexpected direction - shortwave pirates. Booming for years, the last time the agency conducted organized enforcement on the shortwave bands was more than a dozen years ago.

According to Ragnar Daneskjold, producer of the PiratesWeek podcast, station WEAK was taken off the air in February by Douglas Miller, Director of the Atlanta District Field Office.

PiratesWeek played a clip of WEAK's visit and shutdown (clip begins at 8:20). Mr. Miller announced his visit on-the-air and then killed the transmitter. He has since confirmed by e-mail that the incident occurred.

This would not be the first time an FCC agent has announced the bust of a pirate over its own airwaves. Former FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Richard Lee did the same thing when he silenced Philadelphia's Radio Mutiny (the progenitor of the Prometheus Radio Project) in 1998.

Mr. Miller himself is not unknown to radio pirates: he participated in the infamous FM enforcement sweep of 1998, hauling off gear from the studios of Free Radio Memphis.

Ragnar comments that three shortwave stations have been investigated and/or contacted by the FCC over the last "several months." Intriguingly, the agency has not published any formal notification of these activities, strongly deviating from its FM anti-pirate protocol, where a Notice of Unlicensed Operation is almost always issued.

There has been little public discussion of this among shortwave pirate enthusiasts, but if I were a broadcaster I'd want to know about FCC enforcement activity so that I could properly assess my relative risk of being on the air.