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News Archive: August 2009

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8/31/09 - L.A. Broadcast Media Dodges Flames [link to this story]

As you may have heard, parts of the state of California are in the midst of its yearly fire season. A nasty blaze is burning near Mt. Wilson, which just happens to be the primary location where most Los Angeles-market radio and television stations site their transmission equipment. As of this afternoon, the "Station Fire" was just a half-mile from the broadcast facilities and closing.

The last two times major media markets had a nearly spectrum-wide blackout was in 2001 (New York) and (2005) (New Orleans). In at least one of those situations, grassroots media played a particularly important role in keeping residents informed of the unfolding crisis, and in both cases, many major radio and television stations either went off the air for days (if not weeks or months), and when they returned they were from backup facilities, often providing less-than-normal coverage.

If the Mt. Wilson fire were to burn up all those transmitters and towers, how prepared is the broadcast industry for such a situation? Consolidation over the last decade-plus has hit the engineering-side of the business hard; where it used to be that one engineer was responsible for one or two transmission-sites, many conglomerates now contract out whole clusters. Those folks have got to be sweating it right now.

8/25/09 - HD Radio Increasing Format Diversity? [link to this story]

Dissertation research, phase two: explore and catalog interesting information about HD Radio from all available electronic resources except the FCC's actual, entire rulemaking (that's phase three). Initially, this involved exploring HD Radio's proponents and how they present themselves online. It's quite an extensive presence, involving two corporate portals, one consumer-marketing site, and a (user-restricted) site involving broadcaster and retailer education.

I just finished scouring the consumer-portal, where I re-stumbled upon a news release from March in which the HD Radio Alliance touted 1,000 FM stations now multicasting, and 100 receiver-models in production. The release includes two graphs.

The first one involves multicast broadcast-penetration, which is nothing to write home about. A relatively constant growth-line, extending from the first multicast going on the air around mid-July 2005 and hitting the 1,000 mark in March of 2009.

Note that seven years ago, when the FCC first conditionally approved the adoption of HD Radio, multicasting wasn't even in the feature-set. Crash-developed by NPR starting in 2003, which formally released it to the broadcast community (via iBiquity, following the FCC's nod) in 2006, it's no surprise the graph-line stays at zero in the beginning: the technology simply wasn't there yet.

It's the second graph, however, which caught my eye.

Just a cursory glance around the pie-chart (click for larger image) belies the claim that HD Radio increases program diversity: the only "new" formats I recognize are "Comedy" (2%), "Chill" (1%), "International" (1%), and "Other" (11%).

Through a jaundiced eye, that adds up to 15% of all HD multicast (i.e., digital-only) channels actually adding something substantive to the listener's aural palate.

According to the Alliance, "There are 1,923 stations in the US broadcasting 2,993 HD Radio channels, 204 more coming soon."

Working with the aggregate HD station total (2,127) and subtracting that from the number of existing "HD Radio channels" (2,993) leaves us with a figure of 866 multicast channels - a dubious conclusion, given the claim that more than 1,000 were on the air five months ago.

From there, we can derive that 15% - or a whopping 130 multicast channels - exist right now that might actually offer up something new to a listener lucky enough to be in that innovative market (and equipped with the proper receiver, which in itself is an interesting story), as opposed to a derivation on the same-old.

I snagged the HD Radio Alliance's complete station-guide and will run a more thorough analysis on the issue of format diversity, with special interest in actual geographic penetration (where is multicasting most prevalent) and for correlations in station ownership (who is most active in the multicasting sphere).

8/17/09 - Enforcement Action Update: Paper Still Beats Rock, Scissors [link to this story]

I caught up on the FCC's enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters this weekend. The summer's been kind of slow for field agents, though it doesn't mean they're not active: enforcement activity has been reported in 17 states this year, and stations both "new" and old are getting dimed.

As you can see from the graph at right, the majority of enforcement actions continue to be administrative: of all the enforcement activity conducted by the FCC against pirate broadcasters since 1997, fully 82% have led to nothing stronger than a visit or warning-via-certified letter.

This is not to mean that are aren't some bad apples out there: one rogue (whom I did not log because the case did not involve the broadcast bands) got hit with a warning for owning a cell-phone jamming device that interfered with police communications in Miami.

On the more apropos front, an FM pirate is in hot water for interfering with at least one approach-control frequency involving "runways in the Boston, MA area." (This is a case of spurious emission, not malice.)

Still and all, most enforcement actions begin with the traditional "we received a complaint" rationale.

The bottom line: as of now, a change of administration (and of Commissioners at the FCC) has produced no immediately discernible effects on how the agency enforces its prohibition on unlicensed broadcasting.

8/11/09 - HD Radio: Point/Counterpoint [link to this story]

Last month, the Prometheus Radio Project published a list of the "Top Ten Problems With HD Radio." While it's somewhat incomplete, it is probably the most coherent and concise plain-English critique published so far that best captures the deficiencies in the HD Radio protocol.

Apparently, this did not sit well with the radio industry which, in one of its trade publications, ran a feature "debunking" many of Prometheus' HD Radio criticisms.

Originally, I had planned to debunk the debunkers, but the time is simply not there. Instead, I encourage anyone interested in the subject to read both publications and decide which one is actually backed by fact, and which one is mostly rhetorical wiggling (it should be pretty obvious which is which).

Additionally, I've finished my dissertation outline, which is essentially a formal indictment of not just HD Radio but of all digital audio broadcast technologies currently in play. It's better than a debunking - it's the real history with no couching or frivolity. And there's a lot more to come: I expect the dissertation itself will most likely be ten times as long as this outline, but you'll get a gist of where I'm going, and it's better than any pedantic debunking of debunkers that I could gin up on the fly.

In the near future, I hope to consolidate all of my digital radio research and writing into a centralized location on the site; look for a new link in the left-hand sidebar when that goes down.

8/1/09 - Serving the Public Disinterest, Inconvenience, and Depravity [link to this story]

The old adage that Clear Channel represents the "Evil Empire" in terms of media conglomerates was getting a little stale. The windfall profits reaped from industry consolidation following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 have collapsed; the company went from private to public and back again; and, has been well noted by others, just about every major radio conglomerate is now in the same dire straits.

Clear Channel's ways of dissing the public interest to preserve a buck have been well-documented by Eric Klinenberg and Alec Foege, but lately the company's gone above and beyond many of its past transgressions.

First was the Grand Rapids, MI concert debacle in June, where Clear Channel scheduled an outdoor show in a floodplain and, well, without accurate weather information, the inevitable happened. (This is not an isolated incident - many "repeater radio" conglomerate-owned stations have reportedly missed a bevy of severe weather alerts this summer. This would be worth formally quantifying.) Instead of apologizing and making right by its listeners, Clear Channel turned its back on them.

But that's just a promotional event. Clear Channel just alienated the entire city of Philadelphia. The story: for some 30 years, the community holds an annual "Unity Day," of which Clear Channel has been a sponsor. This year, due to funding shortfalls, the company can't chip in a dime. But it's a community celebration, and so the show goes on, right?

Not so fast: Clear Channel claims to hold the trademark to "Unity Day" in Philadelphia, and has threatened to sue if the celebration goes forward. Shades of Kembrew McLeod's Freedom of Expression™ hijinks and Salem Communications' un-Christian "The Fish" pissing-match come to mind. But this is from a company that, just earlier this year, launched a new "commitment" to a "higher minimum level of service" in the communities in which its stations operate.

Clear Channel cares? Not when you're suing a community celebration devoted to "family values, pride and empowerment," and whose specific theme this year is "10,000 jobs for Philadelphia." Actions, as always, speak louder than words.

If I were the FCC, I'd be taking a close, systemic, and proactive look at broadcast localism, through its languishing proceeding examining just that. Big Radio is giving regulators all the ammo they need to at least threaten reform on a scale and scope potentially not seen since the days of the Blue Book.