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News Archive: July 2011

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7/28/11 - Unholy Alliance [link to this story]

Clear Channel is the nation's largest commercial radio broadcaster. Educational Media Foundation is one of the nation's largest religious radio broadcasters. Both companies have an affinity for FM translators - and now, they're working together for mutual enrichment at the expense of others on the dial.

EMF operates the K-LOVE and AIR-1 Christian music networks. It owns several hundred FM translators around the country; during the Great Translator Invasion of 2003, when more than 13,000 new translator applications were filed, EMF tendered paperwork for 875 new translators.

Clear Channel owns more than 700 full-power radio stations, and over the last few years it has also acquired or leased FM translators to rebroadcast some of its "beleaguered" AM stations as well as to simulcast otherwise-unheard HD Radio programming in analog form.

Clear Channel has already demonstrated that it does not seem to care what harm its hunger for translators may cause. In New York City, for example, the company worked with an independent translator-owner and the FCC to get the translator moved into Manhattan so it could broadcast a country HD-2 stream as if it was a stand-alone station.

This did not sit will with a full-power country music broadcaster in New Jersey, who discovered that the translator interfered with its coverage of the New York metropolitan area. After complaining to regulators about the problem, the translator was forced to power down.

Now, Clear Channel and EMF have entered into agreements in several states whereby CC leases EMF translators for rebroadcasting purposes. Clear Channel gets additional radio outlets out of the deal through which it can broadcast AM and HD programming without needing to pay for the maintenance of additional transmission infrastructure. Such stations also don't count against local radio station ownership caps.

EMF gets rent money, as well as access to CC's HD subchannel programming, which "lets it more efficiently feed some translators."

In Texas, this "partnership" is causing interference to an LPFM station. EMF used similarly fancy footwork to move one of its translators to a prime spot in the capital city of Austin. Clear Channel has since leased this translator to rebroadcast one of its AM stations in the market.

Down the road is the town of Dripping Springs, home to KDRP, a vibrant LPFM station. KDRP and EMF's translator are on the same frequency - and ever since the translator was moved into Austin, it's caused interference to the LPFM outlet.

KDRP is not taking the situation lightly: it's filed a complaint with the FCC about the interference. While EMF has expressed concern over the allegation, Clear Channel is less conciliatory. "This is much ado about nothing," the company said. "Simply stated, KDRP-LP is seeking to claim rights to coverage which is outside their FCC protected area." This is an excuse KDRP flatly rejects.

It is ironic that an FM translator owned by a religious broadcaster is now being used to air sports-talk which is supported by commercials for "natural male enhancement" products and strip clubs. Although this disjuncture is curious, the real issue at hand is that commercial and religious radio behemoths are cornering the market on FM spectrum in a manner that detrimentally affects independent and community radio broadcasters.

Over the last 20 years, the FCC's FM translator rules have been warped so badly that such stations are no longer used as a secondary service. The agency could proactively address this problem by restricting the use of translators in a manner more closely aligned with the original intent of the service. Unfortunately, it would seem that the FCC's not really concerned with making any fundamental reforms to radio broadcast policy. As a result, practices such as the EMF/CC unholy alliance are likely to continue, and expand.

7/20/11 - U.K. to Refarm FM? [link to this story]

This appears to be a first: British broadcast regulator Ofcom is floating the idea of using FM radio spectrum to provide wireless broadband access in rural areas.

The United Kingdom is nearly 20 years into an attempted digital radio transition. It (and much of the rest of the developed world) has adopted a digital broadcast technology that uses spectrum outside the AM and FM bands. However, the development of digital radio is as stalled (or worse) in the U.K. at it is in the United States.

Despite this, Ofcom believes that other forms of digital communication could be employed in the "white spaces" of the FM dial - essentially unused spectrum in specific geographic locales. The FCC is considering the same refarming concept with television spectrum, which broadcasters have vowed to fight tooth and nail.

British regulators are careful to note that FM refarming is not designed to push existing FM radio broadcasters off the air - although they would still like to see the country commit to an analog/digital radio transition deadline sometime this decade.

Given the recalcitrance of broadcasters and listeners to embrace digital radio in the U.K., as well as broadcasters' inherent sensitivity about protecting the integrity of their extant analog signals, it'll probably take a while for this idea to progress beyond the trial-balloon stage.

7/14/11 - FCC Considers LPFM Expansion [link to this story]

This week the FCC released another Notice of Proposed Rulemaking designed to expand the LPFM service, with special emphasis on the placement of new LPFM stations in cities. The primary point of contention is how the agency should treat LPFM stations with regard to FM translators.

(A quick overview: LPFM stations broadcast with 100 watts or less and must be live and local, while FM translators can broadcast with up to 250 watts and may not originate their own programming.)

The spectral conflict between LPFM and translator stations is a big one. On purely technical grounds they are essentially equivalent services, but by rule translators may be sited closer to neighbors on the dial than LPFM stations can. In addition, since the first round of LPFMs were licensed a decade ago (of which 829 are on the air), several thousand FM translators have begun broadcasting in the intervening years.

The explosive growth of translators was sparked by religious broadcasters, although their most recent abusers are commercial stations. Some AM broadcasters have deployed more than 400 FM translators to "preserve" their coverage areas, while FM broadcasters have utilized translators over the last couple of years to simulcast their HD Radio programming on an analog outlet.

The latter two uses are most concerning, as they effectively allow commercial radio broadcasters to circumvent local station-ownership caps as well as hog spectrum to transmit "new" programming that nobody's otherwise listening to (given the anemic penetration of HD Radio nationwide).

Central to the FCC's latest LPFM NPRM is the notion of how the agency should divvy up remaining FM spectrum - especially in urban areas - to provide adequate opportunities for a meaningful expansion of the LPFM service.

The Broadcast Law Blog summarizes the key question quite succinctly:

Specifically, the FCC seeks comment on several options, including: 1.) Dismissing all pending FM translator applications and make plans for a new joint window for both LPFM and FM translators; 2.) Not dismissing any FM translator applications, but rather establish a priority for future LPFM applications; and 3.) Adopting a market-specific translator application dismissal processing policy to clear out pending FM translator applications in certain markets.

Of those options, number three seems to be the one that consensus is building around. Essentially, the FCC would establish a "market floor" which would preserve some spectrum availability for LPFM in cities.

Comment and reply-comment on this proposal will be solicited this summer/fall, and the FCC hopes to open up a new LPFM application window "no later than summer 2012."

Many LPFM advocates are pleased to see the FCC taking action. To its credit, the agency has implemented a limited freeze on the siting of new translators in major markets while it mulls further action on LPFM.

But it's clear that the rush of translator-construction has already claimed a lot of spectrum which will detrimentally affect the scope of any LPFM expansion. For example, according to the FCC, 290 LPFM stations exist in the nation's top 200 radio markets while 1,921 translators occupy the dials there.

In effect, this is the last chance for new LPFM stations to be built en masse. The service deserves more than crumbs.

7/6/11 - Goddard Writes Chronicle of KISS FM [link to this story]

Grant Goddard, the U.K.'s go-to analyst on all things digital radio, has just finished a substantial history of KISS FM - a London commercial radio station that began as a pirate more than 25 years ago.

KISS broke new ground on London's airwaves by giving airplay to what was once called "black music," now more popularly identified as soul, R&B, hip-hop and various elements of electronica.

The 500+ page tome paints a vivid picture of the dynamics of London's vibrant yet shadowy pirate radio scene, the sociopolitical struggles behind the station's legalization, and its effect on the evolution of commercial broadcasting in the U.K.

Goddard himself was involved with KISS from its pirate days, and was there during the station's transformative years. In this regard, the book is part station history, part market and regulatory analysis, and part autobiography.

One of the most interesting takeaways is the fact that regulators actually thought accommodating pirate stations by legitimizing them would work to marginalize those left unlicensed - an objective which utterly failed, as the U.K. (and London specifically) has one of the most vibrant pirate radio scenes in the world today.

This is Goddard's second book in a single year; the first wholly deconstructed the myth that digital radio represents the future of broadcasting. Both are recommended reading.