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News Archive: August 2011

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8/31/11 - Pirate Radio: A Natural Part of the Airwaves Since 1912 [link to this story]

There's a running debate taking place between the collaborative blog Radio Survivor and the industry trade newspaper Radio World about the "merits" of pirate radio. You'd think, after 20+ years of organized unlicensed broadcasting (and the resultant creation of an LPFM service), that this argument would have been settled long ago.

It all began in July with a tongue-in-cheek piece penned by Matthew Lasar. In mockery of a National Association of Broadcasters "analysis" which attempted to (inflatedly) quantify the importance of the radio industry to the national economy, Lasar conducted a "guesstimate study" which suggested that pirate radio generates some $576 million annually in jobs and services.

Radio World editor Paul McLane took Lasar's piece a bit too seriously and filed commentary asserting the premise that any positive implication of pirate radio - economic or otherwise - was simply illegitimate.

Some see pirate radio as a form of civil disobedience and convince themselves they’re “sticking it to the corporate fat cats” by flipping that transmitter switch. But doing so ultimately is a selfish act. It says, “I know better than the larger community, including those who create our laws, how best to use this resource.”...

If you want to “participate” in this community, respect its rules. If you don’t like that system, work to change it, just as LPFM advocates have done.

Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel responded to the editorial by reminding McLane of the history from which LPFM evolved.

We would not have LPFM if it were not for the pirates and microbroadcasters who forced the FCC’s hand. They demonstrated that there was room on the dial for low-powered community stations not through lobbying and engineering studies, but simply by showing their communities that it could be done, and without interference or harm. This could only have been done without a license, the FCC would have endorsed no exception or trial.

Today, McLane closed out Round Two by invoking some tired arguments - spectrum scarcity and the specter of anarchy - to belabor his point.

The [FCC] was not forced into change by illegal broadcasts, any more than it is forced into change now by the many continuing illegal broadcasts that intrude on licensed operations in New York, Florida and elsewhere....Micro stations may have added some external pressure, but those illegal broadcasts felt mostly like an annoyance rather than a significant factor in the political equation....

Our broadcast spectrum is a resource that must be managed if it is to be useful. The system created to manage it may be flawed but it remains the only one we have.

When any individual is free to decide that he or she can ignore rules managing the system - even for well-intended reasons - the system will break down.

I respect all parties involved in this discourse, but McLane's perspective is surprisingly unsophisticated for someone so involved in several facets of broadcasting for so many years.

It is a fact that pirate radio has been recognized by the FCC one of the factors which precipitated the creation of LPFM. Such direct action inspired the authors of the original LPFM proposal, and it's why the notion of amnesty for microbroadcasters was even entertained (an FCC olive branch that Congress revoked when it passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act).

Chairman William Kennard settled the matter in an LPFM documentary produced by the United Church of Christ in the very early 00's.

Many, many people around the country helped to inspire the idea of low-power FM radio. Churches, community groups, and even some organizations that were broadcasting illegally – so-called "pirate radio" operators. Clearly there’s a need out there for people who want to use the airwaves for democracy, to speak to their communities, to provide information and entertainment to their communities that are not being met by the commercial broadcast industry.

It should come as little surprise that many of those pirates who took to the airwaves in the 1980s and 1990s as an explicitly political act shifted their efforts to growing the LPFM service. This is a natural evolution that takes place anytime revolutionary sentiments are channeled into an effective reformist campaign.

But there are pirate stations that pre-date LPFM and remain on the air today because they never opted into the appeasement of LPFM as the practical end-state of community radio expansion in the United States. They continue to demonstrate the real art of the possible.

Furthermore, many of the pirate stations on the air today are located in places where the FCC has failed to create any room for an LPFM station. They often serve marginalized communities and are commercial because there's an unmet market need for such voices on the air. Put simply, today's microbroadcasters developed after the initial opportunity of LPFM had been exhausted.

The very fact that Florida, New Jersey, and New York now have their own state-level laws against unlicensed broadcasting - passed post-LPFM - speaks volumes for the FCC's ability to effectively police the airwaves against interlopers.

This historical inefficacy also blows holes in the argument that unlicensed broadcasting opens up the potential for chaos on the airwaves. Given the documented growth of pirate broadcasting in the United States over the last decade and a half, by McLane's logic the FM dial should be awash with noise.

This is obviously not the case. Both McLane and I were in San Francisco in 2000 during a media democracy protest targeting the National Association of Broadcasters. Microbroadcasters and LPFM advocates were but two of many constituencies that came together to make the case that people in their own communities do "know better than the larger community, including those who create our laws, how best to use this resource."

I was also in Seattle in 2002, when dozens of microradio activists from around the country descended on that year's NAB Radio Show and built pirate stations on 11 FM frequencies in the metro area. One of the goals of the "Mosquito Fleet" was to demonstrate just how much open space there is on the FM dial beyond LPFM; the Fleet's very existence belies the assertion that radio piracy equals chaos.

Throughout the history of U.S. broadcast regulation, precepts of localism have been reduced to lip service. This has led to "extreme circumstances - when severe societal wrongs are not resolved by legal means." Nobody can honestly argue that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has been good for fostering democracy on the radio dial.

Situations like these are exactly when "civil disobedience is appropriate," and the modern microradio movement is nothing more than one of many forms of media activism that exist today.

The bottom line is that the manifestation of resistance to the broadcast status quo has its roots in the construction of the status quo itself. Radio pirates predate the era of broadcasting. Their inspirations may have shifted over time, but their significance cannot be denied.

8/24/11 - HD Radio Still Awaiting Breakthrough [link to this story]

It's still a mystery just how iBiquity Digital Corporation remains in business as its proprietary HD Radio standard continues to go nowhere fast.

According to the FCC, less than 20% of radio stations in in the United States have adopted the HD protocol, nearly nine years after its proliferation was sanctioned; some have since turned it off. The technology has failed to crack any significant international markets. iBiquity and its mostly-conglomerate backers have tried various tweaks to the system in hopes of improving its robustness, but none show any potential to be a game-changer.

The HD Radio Alliance, a consortium of proponents who have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of airtime to promoting HD Radio, also appear to be slacking on that support in favor of investments in other digital technologies which don't directly involve over-the-air broadcasting.

Two-thirds of the respondents to an informal Radio Business Report poll say they have no plans to adopt HD. This seems to accurately reflect an increasing disdain within the industry about the system and its prospects. (The only exception to this seems to be Radio World commentator "Guy Wire," but it's hard to take a nom de plume seriously and even he seems to be wavering).

These are just the quandaries facing the transmission side of HD adoption. Receivers remain scarce; some manufacturers and retailers have abandoned the technology and those who have invested in an HD-capable radio are underwhelmed by the system's performance in the real world. There's no evidence to show that listener demand for HD Radio is improving from its anemic condition, either.

Proponents of the technology cite the fact that more vehicle manufacturers are implementing HD Radio into their dashboards, but this is not a viable sign of its popularity.

Last decade, when the notion of tethering smartphones into the car and/or directly implementing in-vehicle wireless Internet access was more idea than reality, automakers resisted the implementation of HD Radio because of its proprietary nature (with associated costs) and lack of qualitative usefulness. In a nutshell, they did not see the value in adding HD functionality to their entertainment systems because it didn't provide enough return on investment.

Now the auto industry is enthusiastically embracing the "glass dashboard," in which HD Radio is just one functionality - and a subsidiary one at that - among many new features. Now it's become economically inconsequential for vehicle manufacturers to add HD compatibility in the midst of undertaking such a significant investment in the promulgation of other, newer mobile communication and entertainment technologies. In this context, HD Radio is a dull piece of bling in the galaxy of dashboard convergence.

iBiquity has responded in scattershot fashion to try and wake the patient from its coma. The company slashed its licensing fees, offered generous financial assistance to encourage broadcaster adoption, and most recently, implemented a weak "contest" with cash prizes in an attempt to inspire local radio sales staffs to pitch FM-HD's multicasting feature more pointedly.

CEO Bob Struble recently penned a column in which he predicted the success of HD Radio would rest on the datacasting element it brings to the radio experience. But even he's sounding a bit desperate: "[W]e need to get on it, now, because fully featured devices are being sold, now, and consumer impressions are being made, now. Most folks understand the upgrade process will be gradual, but the industry needs to show consistent progress."

Therein lies the dilemma: how does a company with no independent revenue entice broadcasters to adopt a digital radio technology with net detriments, and how can it possibly convince receiver-makers and listeners to care in the face of such a feeble situation? There's no credible answer to these questions, and so long as that remains the case it's difficult to see how HD Radio can honestly claim title to broadcasting's digital future.

8/18/11 - Democracy Convention is Radioactive [link to this story]

Not a month back in Madison, and already in the thick of it.

Next weekend, the city plays host to the inaugural Democracy Convention, designed to build on this year's popular uprising in Wisconsin and foster collaboration among like-minded folks nationwide. (That should be just about anyone: it is hard to hate on democracy.)

The Convention will be a meta-conference of sorts. One of its tracks is devoted to media democracy and there are two workshops scheduled that will focus explicitly on the use of radio for radical activism.

Microbroadcasting, LPFM, and full-power community radio stations will be fully represented here. All have important roles to play in the inspiration, sustenance, and success of social movements, and each station comes with its own unique set of potentials and pitfalls.

Convention attendees will definitely go away well-schooled in the steps necessary to reclaim the airwaves. There are reportedly plans to stream the events, but the details aren't set in stone yet.

8/11/11 - FCC Enforcement: Old and New [link to this story]

A much-overdue update to the Enforcement Action Database is done. So far in 2011, the FCC has conducted less than 100 enforcement actions - way down from this time last year, when 359 were already on the books.

The major changes to this year's enforcement trends include an apparent stiffening of fiscal penalties and a diversification of enforcement across all broadcast bands. On the first point, the FCC seems to be increasing fines from the base-penalty of $10,000. Not that this actually works as a deterrent: in cases where an unlicensed broadcaster demonstrates an inability to pay, fines must be radically reduced.

On the second point, FCC enforcement is not just for FM anymore. There has been an uptick in enforcement against shortwave broadcasters - the most recent activity saw field agents scope out a broadcast location twice before they dispatched a warning letter. (There is quite a saga in the shortwave pirate community regarding the rise in shortwave policing, which can be found here in all its sordid glory.)

In addition, the FCC has visited/warned several unlicensed AM broadcasters, most of whom have been broadcasting in the expanded band. I'm not sure if this trend is related to an increasing accessibility of home-brew AM transmission equipment, or due to the fact that pirates see the growing desolation of the AM band as fertile ground.

However, the the most notable enforcement action of the year (so far) happened on the FM dial. The FCC visited Mbanna Kantako, founder of Human Rights Radio, at his home in Springfield, Illinois this June.

Kantako, widely considered the godfather of the modern U.S. microradio movement (which helped launch LPFM), has already been through the FCC's wringer since he first put his radio station on the air nearly 24 years ago. He's been the subject of fines, station raids and equipment seizures, and even a court injunction.

That has not stopped Kantako from hounding back in his own inimitable style - daring arrest by firing up his transmitter from the steps of Springfield's city hall and following field agents through his home during a raid in 2000 with a tape recorder.

In the main, while the raw amount of unlicensed broadcast enforcement the FCC is engaged in has declined, the agency seems to be broadening its horizons vis-à-vis policing the broadcast spectrum as a whole. That said, given that enforcement activity is in a net decline, it's hard to make the case that pirate radio is any more of an enforcement priority than it has been over the last decade - and, perhaps, even less now than in recent years.

8/4/11 - Squeezing Blood From the FM-HD Stone [link to this story]

It has long been understood that HD Radio signals do not play well with others. The digital sidebands of an HD transmission have the potential to cause interference to nearby radio stations. The problem is most notable on AM, but there've been issues with FM-HD as well.

Initially, digital FM sidebands were broadcast at 1/100th the power of their analog "host" signal. The weakness of the digital signal caused all kinds of reception difficulties. After years of wrangling, the FCC approved a ten-fold increase in digital sideband power in an attempt to make the signals more robust.

However, this "fix" cannot be applied uniformly to all HD broadcasters. Those in spectrally-congested areas of the country risk causing increased interference to their neighbors on the dial, and many stations simply don't have the overhead to feed the necessary power into their transmission systems.

Thus, HD Radio's proponents have been experimenting with more nuanced ways to improve reception of an FM-HD signal.

The first involves raising the HD broadcast power of a station asymmetrically: boosting the power on only one of a station's two digital sidebands. The idea is that, in areas where adjacent-channel interference may be a problem, a station could raise the power on the sideband furthest away from its closest neighbor on the dial.

NPR Labs, on contract to transmitter manufacturer Nautel, released a report in June that suggests asymmetrical digital power increases can improve the reception of FM-HD signals, and that such tweaking causes "little or no measurable impact on the performance of analog test receivers."

But the sting is in the report's final paragraph: "In sum, broadcasters are
best off maintaining symmetrical sideband levels, but coverage improvements are possible with an increase of only one sideband." In the end, stations that elect to increase their FM-HD power will pay for it either way. An asymmetrical power increase may be a neighborly gesture in congested broadcast markets, but it's no magic bullet for improving digital FM reception.

The other option for beefing up an FM-HD signal involves the deployment of Single Frequency Networks (SFN). This is a fancy name for a digital booster station. HD proprietor iBiquity, with funding from the NAB and assistance from broadcast-investor Greater Media, set up two SFNs in Baltimore and Boston, each located about 20 miles away from their parent radio stations.

Last month, iBiquity reported that SFNs could "provide broadcasters with the ability to selectively extend digital coverage...without compromising the existing HD Radio digital service area." However, it also conceded that SFNs had the potential to degrade the reception of a station's analog signal, especially as one got within a mile of the SFN transmitting site.

The deployment of digital boosters raises some uncomfortable questions. Are FM radio stations willing to sacrifice any portion of their analog coverage area to beef up reception of their HD signal? More importantly, are they willing to build new broadcast infrastructure to reach the pittance of listeners who actually have HD receivers?

On balance, the potential "improvement" to FM-HD through either of these techniques is marginal. This is precisely why broadcasters who have adopted the technology now use questionable analog means to try and recoup their investment.