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News Archive: October 2010

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10/28/10 - Faster Facebook or Accurate Forecasts? [link to this story]

The Obama administration's hunger for wireless broadband spectrum reminds me of a junkie seeking their next fix - they'll do anything to get more.

In addition to freezing applications for rural low-power DTV stations and threatening to appropriate spectrum from the General Mobile Radio Service (think two-way radio applications, such as those used by industry and public safety agencies), a new proposal would trim the spectrum allocated to weather satellites.

Those of you living east of the Rockies this week got a taste of a "megastorm" which swept the country; the pressure-center of this continental weather-maker was "one of the deepest...ever observed in the continental U.S., outside of a hurricane." Fortunately, it transited a land mass; if it were over water, this weather system would have qualified as a Category 3 storm.

As a former meteorology major (who transferred because calculus proved impenetrable), the importance of satellite imagery is difficult to understate. Satellite-collected meteorological data has revolutionized the forecast business. Whereas surface observations and radar data can provide information to make forecasts measured in hours, satellite data allows meteorologists to forecast dangerous conditions days or weeks in advance, and monitor nationwide weather systems like the recent megastorm in real time.

Meteorology saves lives. Just because it's an easy-icon click away on your smartphone doesn't mean there isn't a lot of intelligence and technology that goes into your weather app.

The idea that we would downgrade the applied science of meteorology in a time of radical climate change for broadband capacity is myopic at best. Climate change is real; it is a national-security issue; and we won't be able to invest, consume, or tweet our way out of it.

Fortunately, the rest of the world seems to agree.

Arguably, the internet's major strength is its ability to be multimedia. Its most apparent weakness is a dearth of multimodal distribution. Most homes and businesses do not use wireless broadband; copper and cable in the ground still provides the vast majority of last-mile connections. Investing in upgrading our wired broadband infrastructure is just as necessary as finding more spectrum to expand the wireless vector.

Over-reliance on a single distribution mode for any important communications technology is dangerous, and the only reason why the nation's last-mile infrastructure languishes at a pre-fiber level is the oligopoly which controls the conduits. The technology is there: all that's missing is the political and economic will to build it.

And while you're at it, meteorologists could use some attention, too: while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just last month finished launching new satellites to replace dying ones, the doppler radars used by forecast offices nationwide is the flower of 1988 technology.

10/21/10 - Props Out of Nowhere [link to this story]

Community radio stations are strange animals. While they all have paper-missions to be inclusive, alternative, and oriented toward citizen access to the airwaves, the reality is that they often have poisonous internal politics, can get caught up in their own legacies to the detriment of their futures, and - like many volunteer-driven organizations (but ironic for a radio station) - don't necessarily communicate well amongst themselves.

My current home for radio-catharsis, WEFT, is not immune to this. I've served a year on the Board of Directors and came away completely frustrated. Fortunately, many community radio stations - if the volunteers are detached from the baggage, empowered with a sense of collective responsibility and left to do their thing - can almost run themselves. This applies to WEFT as well.

To be an airshifter on WEFT, you have to take on an extra volunteer commitment to the station. This is fair because there's only a finite number of shows in the week, and competition for some slots can occur. So, going on-air is a privilege, and if you're going to "represent" WEFT to the general listening community, you need to do more for the station than just spin music and talk on-air 2-4 hours per week.

It sounds onerous, but it's not: the volunteer commitment for my own show is to be in charge of all the electronic music that the station receives. (We have a whole Music Committee working to keep WEFT on the cutting-edge of all genres.)

It's not work, it's fun: every week I get new CDs to take home and sample, rip the tracks I'll use on my own show, then mark up the releases for rotation in our studio. After three months, new CDs rotate out of the studio and are filed in their respective section of our Great Hall music library.

In return, I e-mail music industry promoters once a week to let them know how their releases are doing and submit a top-10 electronic-music chart to the College Music Journal (the preeminent chart for college and community radio stations). No sweat: the most time-consuming part of the "work" is listening to the new releases.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out I was nominated for Specialty Music Director of the Year for the 2010 CMJ Radio Awards. Somebody has to nominate you (with a coherent rationale for why you deserve the recognition), and then there's a primary-vote to select the top five finalists. I made that cut, too.

Although I didn't win (big-ups to Maggie Overton at fellow community station WERU for taking the cake), it was a pleasant surprise get the recognition. I still don't know who nominated me or how I made the finalist-cut, but it's a real honor just to make it that far in the process. It shows that, simply by doing my job and being honest about it (honesty is a sometimes-thing in the music biz), the industry has a level of respect for me I never realized.

Even better, it's another fond memory (besides the show) to take away from WEFT when I finally pull up stakes from Champaign. It also demonstrates that, despite what sh*t one might experience from a community radio station's collective mood or structure, good things can still happen if you focus on the aspects you love.

10/13/10 - The People v. HD Radio [link to this story]

It's not quite going in that direction - yet - but another law firm has opened an inquiry into "defective" HD Radio receivers in high-end automobiles. The first firm on the scene, Keefe Bartels, is now soliciting consumer complaints about problems with HD Radio reception.

Details are few, but there's always the chance - if a lawsuit is filed - that the plaintiffs could push for class-action status. Both firms appear to be working in concert.

That would be a significant nail in iBiquity's coffin: receiver manufacturers, already unenthused with the product, will stay well away from the technology.

If the law firms' primary beef seems to be that "HD" has been implied to mean "High Definition" (which it has), they need to dig deeper; there are plenty of more substantive counts on which to indict the technology.

There's also the possibility that lawsuits could be filed between radio stations suffering interference from other stations that have deployed HD side-channels. Since the FCC is doing nothing with at least three pending complaints, the victim-stations suffering HD-induced interference may have no recourse but the courts.

Were any of these legal potentialities to be realized, "game-changer" is not strong enough to denote the consequences.

10/7/10 - Digital Radio Books of Note [link to this story]

There is now a mini-library of published books available on the subject of digital terrestrial radio broadcasting. Two are domestic and technical; the other two are more globally-oriented and critical. (I'm writing the domestic-critical book!)

First up is the oldest: The IBOC Handbook: Understanding HD Radio™ Technology is a must-read for any broadcast engineer saddled with the task of implementing HD on a broadcast station. Published by the National Association of Broadcasters and authored by David Maxson, the book is an excellent technical overview of the protocol as well as its potentials and pitfalls. (It's also the only one of the books I've actually read yet.)

HD Radio Implementation: The Field Guide for Facility Conversion was written by Thomas Ray III, WOR's chief engineer and (until recently) a very staunch proponent of HD Radio. If you're a broadcast engineer faced with HD, this is the second book you should read - Maxson's book explains the theory, while Ray's book looks at the issue from the applied angle - how to not only just install, adjust, and maintain an HD signal, but also how to optimize the entire station's air chain to accommodate it.

Looking outside the United States is where you find the critical analyses of digital radio technology more broadly. Just this month Grant Goddard published the most incisive of the two books available so far. D.A.B. Digital Radio: Licensed to Fail is a massive indictment of the United Kingdom's digital radio transition.

From the reviews and author's own overview, Goddard's uncovered what one might arguably call a conspiracy that led U.K broadcasters and regulators to adopt digital radio technology: "Mr Goddard uncovers a secret deal struck between the government and the UK commercial radio industry to force DAB radio upon the British public....However, while the radio industry was assuring the government of its commitment to DAB as 'the future of radio', Grant Goddard’s book reveals that the largest commercial radio group was quietly closing its digital radio stations and selling off its investments in DAB radio licences."

Grant says he's got two other books in-progress; one about U.K. pirate radio - a manuscript he says he's been kicking around "for 20 years" - and another DAB book, which he hopes to start working on next year.

The final book in the tetralogy is an edited volume by four scholars (two of whom I had the pleasure to meet in Budapest a couple of years ago). Digital Radio in Europe: Technologies, Industries and Cultures draws on "extensive cross-national research" and "offers the first comprehensive review of European digital radio, with details on the technologies, policies, and strategies to bring radio into the digital era - and highlights the successes and failures in implementation." It's also the book with the most historical context, which makes it one I'm very excited to read.

One of these days, a book will be written about the larger concept of digital radio itself - and why, regardless of the technology (and this, unfortunately, includes the newest kid on the block, Digital Radio Mondiale) uptake/adoption is essentially failing around the world, regardless of the protocol.

The key question remains unexplored: does radio have to be digital? "Convergence" is scaring all the traditional (analog) mass media into a grapple with digitalization; in radio's case, it makes sense to extend a station's presence by digital means, but actually digitizing a radio signal simply isn't working. Figuring out why may present a new future path for radio broadcasting. The medium isn't going anywhere anytime soon, but nobody's quite yet ready to discuss Plan Bs if the first iteration of digitalization fails. Given that this is happening now, it's already past time to start exploring that question.