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News Archive: November 2011

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11/24/11 - Monkey's Last Stand [link to this story]

There seems to be some controversy over the FCC's move to fine Pirate Cat Radio founder Daniel "Monkey Man" Roberts. The forfeiture notice, issued last month, details the FCC's investigation of the station since 2009 and cites the significant amount of leg-work done in the case.

Roberts has engaged the services of an attorney, who is arguing that since the FCC has no evidence of him actually operating the transmitter, there's no credible grounds for a forfeiture. The agency disagrees, noting Roberts' extensive work as Pirate Cat station manager, fundraiser, DJ, and all-around public face, as well as his prior (and dubious) claim that unlicensed broadcasting is exempt from licensure under certain extenuating circumstances.

Roberts and his attorney claim that the FCC's expansion of what is considered "operation" of an unlicensed radio station sets a dangerous precedent that could expand the pool of liability when it comes to pirate broadcasting more generally. This is conceivable, but the agency's in no material condition to ramp up its enforcement efforts even if it had the authority to cast a wider net, so it's not a very credible threat.

I respect the resistance Roberts is putting up in fighting the fine, but it's unlikely to amount to much. It's axiomatic that publicity can bite a pirate in the ass, and Roberts has had more than his fair share of it.

Pirate Cat Radio was launched in Roberts' bedroom in 1997 and later moved to San Francisco. He's been quite the media-seeker for his activity over the years, featured repeatedly in newspapers and on television, and proudly claims to have received more than 120 warning notices from the FCC over the course of the station's operation. At one time, the Pirate Cat enterprise even included a rare pirate TV station.

Roberts has also parlayed his experiences with Pirate Cat elsewhere in the world of community radio. In 2010, he maneuvered himself into a position of control at a licensed community radio station in Pescadero, California. Details are not completely clear, but an attempt to "merge" the resources of Pirate Cat and KPDO, as well as a fundraising campaign ostensibly dedicated to purchasing FM frequencies in the Bay area, went down in flames, leading to the ouster of Roberts from both stations (Pirate Cat has since renamed itself Mutiny Radio and continues to this day).

In the midst of this, Roberts left the country for the UK on family business, and while there has reportedly been active in underground broadcasting.

I'm sorry that the FCC finally caught up with Roberts, but he still has a good chance of getting off the hook in the end, considering the FCC's abysmal success rate at collecting on pirate fines. In all, it's been a good run - most pirates can't claim 14 years of quality operation.

11/16/11 - DAB Defections Continue [link to this story]

Media Corporation of Singapore, one of the country's largest commercial radio and television broadcasters, has announced it will end its digital radio broadcast service on December 1.

MediaCorp was the first broadcaster in southeast Asia to launch DAB service (1999). It was also quite blunt about the rationale to end it: "[T]the growth in listenership...has remained stagnant. On the other hand, the rapid growth in the number of listeners through online streaming and phone app[s]...has shown that these platforms are serving the listeners more effectively than the DAB platform."

This company was the exclusive purveyor of DAB in Singapore.

Singapore is just the latest in a growing list of countries who are ditching the digitalization of radio broadcasting. Finland discontinued its DAB service in 2005, the same year Sweden halted further investment in its digital radio infrastructure. Canadian broadcasters began phasing out DAB transmissions last year. Germany, having discontinued funding for its DAB infrastructure in 2009, re-launched the service with an improved variant of the technology (DAB+) this summer, but does not have high hopes for it. Portugal turned off its network this year, and Spain has drastically reduced its commitment to DAB. France, one of the countries that helped develop DAB technology, continues to postpone its launch.

In the United Kingdom - the first country to launch a DAB service some 15 years ago - only 14 million DAB receivers have been sold. That's less than a million per year, not accounting for replacements. The U.K. has set a target goal for phasing out its analog radio broadcast service in 2015, but Culture, Communications and Creative Industries minister Ed Vaizey recently commented that this deadline is far from set in stone.

Singapore's move is of note because their broadcasters are the first to openly bet upon the Internet as radio's primary digital platform of the future. Other broadcasters are hinting in this direction, but nobody's willing to say it out loud for fear of endangering their spectrum subsidy. Is the dirty little secret about radio's digital future the fact that dedicated spectrum may no longer be necessary?

11/10/11 - If This Had Been An Actual Emergency, Find Info Elsewhere [link to this story]

With great fanfare, radio/TV broadcasters and cable television systems conducted the first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System yesterday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was responsible for initiating the test, apparently did not properly engineer its outgoing feed to broadcasters, leading to an on-air mess when test-time came.

Here in Wisconsin, radio stations broadcast 30 seconds of garbled audio that effectively degenerated into static. Similar results have been reported in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and Kentucky. In parts of California and South Carolina, the EAS message was apparently cued more than once, leading to a loop/echo effect.

In parts of Texas and Ohio, there was simply silence between the alert and end-of-message tones. Elsewhere in Texas, as well as in parts of Oregon, Alabama, Connecticut and Georgia, broadcasters never got the alert at all.

On the TV side, instead of seeing the EAS test, many Time Warner Cable subscribers found their televisions force-tuned to QVC, while some DirecTV subscribers heard Lady Gaga instead of the test message.

The Emergency Alert System works pretty well at the local and state level, used regularly for events like weather warnings and missing child alerts. But for a nationwide emergency, it's obviously another story.

EAS replaced the Emergency Broadcast System more than a decade ago. EAS itself is in the process of being upgraded; a new emergency alert protocol is being developed that will disseminate emergency information across more of the information infrastructure, most notably wireless phone networks.

11/3/11 - Killing the Human Element [link to this story]

Clear Channel-owned radio stations in small to medium-sized markets were decimated last week as the company laid off dozens - if not hundreds - of on-air talent. This means that, at some Clear Channel station-clusters, there is literally no local presence on the airwaves anymore.

Clear Channel says it'll take remaining talent and syndicate their shows across markets, using "custom breaks" and "localized content" to provide a patina of localism on affected stations - a practice otherwise known as voice tracking. The company has also appointed two dozen "Brand Managers" to oversee 11 national station formats.

This is nothing new for a company that made its mark on radio history through massive consolidation and homogenization; Matthew Lasar notes that, as heads roll, Clear Channel is still lobbying the FCC to relax radio station ownership limits.

Meanwhile, Clear Channel's radio revenues rose by 7% last quarter, to $1.58 billion.

This does not mean that the blood-letting is over at Clear Channel: learned word from inside the radio industry suggests that a round of firings in major markets is in the works.

You can thank Bob Pittman for many of these changes. Pittman joined the company last year and was made Chief Executive Officer just last month.

Pittman has an interesting history: widely known as the "father of MTV," he's had a long career spanning several media empires and has specialized in "digital innovation." It is not coincidental that Clear Channel's investments in its streaming operations rose while its attention to HD Radio dropped shortly after Pittman's entrance into the company.

Pittman explained the layoffs as necessary to cement the company's realization that "the world is different in 2011." What does this mean? "Any company started before the Internet is almost by definition outmoded in terms of its operational structure," he opined. Clear Channel has come to understand that smaller radio markets "don’t have an economic structure that allows them to do the same quality of programming as the big markets."

It is difficult to see how this strategy shares the same head-space with a perspective that proclaimed "radio isn't dying" just last year. Of course the world is much different in 2011 than it was in 1996 - you can blame the Internet for part of that, but in the specific case of radio much more blame falls on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which effectively spawned the likes of Clear Channel and led to the very practices which bled smaller markets dry and destroyed the "economic structure that allow[ed] them to do the same quality of programming as the big markets."

It was a smart move for Clear Channel to create an online portal where all of the streams of its radio stations could be accessed in one convenient location - iHeartRadio regularly places high in the ratings for streaming radio listening. But by obliterating the uniqueness of its stations, does that not diminish the overall value of the portal? If the programming in New York is the same as in Nacogdoches, save for differences in the weather and traffic reports, what incentive do I, as a radio listener, have for exploring 800+ streams if they're all derivatives of a dozen master formats?

It may have been the radio business that helped catapult Clear Channel into the realm of media titans, but it's becoming increasingly clear that what Clear Channel sees as radio's future is moving further away from traditional broadcasting. The company's using its AM and FM properties as a way to drive interest toward its online platform, and the diminution of live and local talent is a large step in that direction.