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News Archive: July 2012

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7/26/12 - Dearth of Broadcast Engineers Felt Beyond Station-Level [link to this story]

Radio World has followed up on a report released this spring by the Society of Broadcast Engineers that examined the aging nature of the profession.

The article explores several explanations for why young folks aren't going into the technical side of radio and television: in addition to consolidation and automation, employment-competition from industries such as information technology and wireless telecommunications has also had an impact. Especially when jobs in those fields generally pay (much) better and offer a stronger sense of job security.

It would seem, however, that there's no consensus on whether or not this trend is actually a problem. SBE executive director John Poray predicts a "more severe shortage" of broadcast engineers "is probably coming in the next 10 years, if not sooner." On the other end of the spectrum is Fred Baumgartner, the director of broadcast operations at Harris Corporation, who considers it a "self-curing problem" which market forces will sort out naturally.

(Ironically, Harris itself is exiting the broadcast engineering business.)

Further reaction to this debate suggests a majority of engineers hold Poray's perspective. Several believe that pay is the problem; others think the educational system's weak treatment of science may be to blame. And then there's consulting engineer David Schaberg, who faults "Washington and the FCC, which doesn't value engineers and small operations."

Schaberg may be onto something. Michael Marcus, a brilliant engineer who worked at the FCC for nearly 25 years, recently lamented the haphazard and tight-fisted manner by which the agency hires its technical staff. "Bureau chiefs who employ engineers are interested in their near term problems which are generally processing delays for various types of licenses and view entry level engineers as 'cannon fodder' to fight such processing battles," says Marcus. "The concept of development of staff engineers for future work in policy areas is not on their mind."

He contrasts that with the FCC's hiring practices for lawyers, which is well-organized and -funded; from this, you get a good sense of just where the agency's regulatory priorities lie. But even a law degree doesn't make for good policy these days: Harold Feld, legal director and senior vice president of Public Knowledge, once remarked that the study of economics drives the FCC's decision making process. That's a reflection of the neoliberal bent to modern policymaking more generally.

7/19/12 - Documentaries Give Props to Pirate Radio [link to this story]

My pal Paul Riismandel over at Radio Survivor recently wrote about a new pirate radio-based mockumentary that's airing on the BBC. People Just Do Nothing profiles the principals behind "Kurupt FM," a fictitious Garage-format pirate station in the London area.

People Just Do Nothing found its roots in (and lampoons) another pirate radio documentary, Tower Block Dreams. Aired in 2004 on BBC Three, this flick profiled the booming pirate scene in the London area, with special attention on how pirate radio stations helped disenfranchised youth do something more creative with their lives than "thieving and grass dealing."

People Just Do Nothing's main characters, MC Sniper and DJ Beats, are spot-on caricatures of the folks found in Tower Block Dreams. Relatively accurate with regard to the conditions under which pirate radio stations operate, the funny comes when you realize that Sniper and Beats have no real idea what the f*ck they're doing. It's a send-up that really drives home the differences between the U.K. and U.S. pirate scenes.

In related news, I finally had a chance to watch Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. One of Roger Ebert's top five documentaries of 2011, the film revolves around two people - one with an obsession for spreading a curious message of human salvation, and the other with trying to find out who this messenger is. Toynbee tiles have appeared in multiple cities around North and South America, and Resurrect Dead slowly but compellingly unravels who the (likely) culprit is.

The tiles were only one way the culprit tried to get his message out to the world. Another involved running a shortwave pirate station from his car. He was not only heard from afar but also interfered with television sets in the Philadelphia area.

Resurrect Dead isn't just a mystery - it's also a revealing look into one man's creative use of culture jamming and street art, and raises some interesting questions about the fine line between genius and insanity.

On top of this, there's yet another pirate radio documentary in the works. Produced by Wayne Hepler, a professor of mass communications at Harford Community College, it features interviews with Dutch and British pirates from the offshore days, as well as profiles and perspectives of shortwave broadcasters in the United States.

Unfortunately-titled The Pirate Radio Documentary, it will nonetheless constitute the first work of its kind to pay homage to the U.S. shortwave pirate scene. Not much else is known yet about its master narrative, though. Post-production is underway and the Documentary will be complete in time for a screening at the North American Shortwave Listening Association's 2013 Winter Fest in March.

In the last ten years there's been nearly a dozen documentaries produced on pirate radio. That's a surprisingly high number given the phenomenon's mercurial nature.

7/5/12 - All-Digital AM-HD Testing Planned [link to this story]

From the doubling-down department: the National Association of Broadcasters is recruiting candidates to test iBiquity Digital Corporation's all-digital AM-HD Radio system.

So far, Beasley Broadcast Group has offered the use of one of its AM stations for the purposes of experimentation, and reportedly two other broadcast companies are also on board. When the tests will be conducted, and which specific stations will be involved, remains to be determined.

Proponents' rationales for this experiment are curious. They believe that small to medium-market AM stations - many of which are in significant financial distress - may find economic salvation by going fully digital.

One small problem: small to medium-market AM stations have not invested in HD Radio technology over the last 10 years, precisely because they operate on slim-to-no margins. The primary drivers for the proliferation of HD have been the country's largest broadcast conglomerates, who've invested in iBiquity and thus have a real stake in its success or failure.

(On the FM side, HD proliferation has trickled down into some smaller markets, but in a piecemeal fashion and without any real fanfare. In fact, the number of FM-HD stations may actually be on the decline.)

"Upgrading" any station for HD broadcasting also requires a significant up-front investment. In addition to the license fees iBiquity requires from broadcasters, many radio stations have to make significant improvements to their airchain in order to pass through the best-quality digital signal they can.

When all the costs are combined, a radio station will spend anywhere between $50-250,000 just to implement the technology. Given the complexity of AM antenna systems, these costs can be higher for AM stations than FM stations. Where are beleagured AM broadcasters supposed to find that kind of money?

Furthermore, the national HD Radio receiver penetration rate stands at a paltry 1%, nearly 10 years after the technology was first authorized for use by the FCC. None of these receivers can decode a fully-digital HD Radio signal - they were all designed to work with the "interim" hybrid analog/digital broadcast configuration on the air today. Repeated surveys of radio listeners report little to no interest in the technology, either. Is it realistic for a beleaguered AM broadcaster to forsake their (dwindling) analog audience for a (non-existent) digital one?

From a technical perspective, HD proponents tout the fact that adoption of all-digital transmission will reduce an AM station's spectral footprint (from 30 to 20 kHz). While true, the fully-digital signal still occupies twice the space of a purely analog AM signal (10 kHz).

Adjacent-channel interference, especially at night, has been a significant problem with AM-HD, and many early-adopters of the technology have backed away from or abandoned it precisely because of this problem. All-digital AM-HD reduces the interference induced by design but does not eliminate it - a relative, not absolute, "improvement."

This testing, if it occurs, will be interesting, but does not portend some sort of imminent radical change to the use of the AM band. When it first authorized the use of HD technology, the FCC explicitly noted that radio's digital transition would be governed by marketplace forces, not regulatory mandate.

Marketplace forces have instead led AM broadcasters to invest heavily in chains of analog FM translators to improve their coverage, not into HD Radio. Any test, "successful" or otherwise, of the all-digital AM-HD mode is unlikely to move the FCC away from its noninterventionist position.

Rather, this experiment is more for the benefit of the NAB's task force on the future of AM broadcasting, which is considering a plethora of options to rejuvenate or repurpose the band for the 21st century.