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News Archive: December 2009

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12/29/09 - LPFM: Better Luck Next Year [link to this story]

The first session of the 111th Congress is now in the bag, and with it - temporarily - the hopes of a restoration of the FCC's low-power FM (LPFM) radio service to its original scale and scope as devised by the FCC in 2000.

The Local Community Radio Act passed the House, but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Fortunately, bills only die at the end of the Congressional year, not between sessions; meaning, theoretically, when the Senate reconvenes next month it could quickly hold a vote and send the bill to President Obama for signature.

At that point, it'll be up to the FCC to begin a new rulemaking to revise the technical rules of LPFM and open up application windows for new LPFM licensees. Relaxation of interference-protection rules for LPFM stations will not provide a mega-bounty of new station opportunities - unless and until the FCC makes room for LPFM stations of 10 watts or less (the "LP-10" station class, which already exists in the FCC's current rules but for which applications have never been allowed).

Although all the tea-leaves point to the notion that the FCC is poised to "fast-track" any LPFM "expansion," that regulatory process will still take several months at least.

Part of me is very satisfied to know that LPFM advocates are only two formal legislative steps away from expanding LPFM's potential. But a larger part of me realizes that a decade has passed since LPFM first became a hot-button issue, and a lot has changed since then: listener habits, spectral capacity, and the introduction of new technologies which are effectively redefining what we identify as "radio."

In a nutshell, LPFM has been subjected to the law of diminishing returns. Crumbs are still to be had, and we deserve those crumbs - but they're still crumbs, and an even smaller pile now than what was possible 10 years ago. In historical terms, the creation of the LPFM service itself really constituted the "victory" - Pyrrhic as it might have been; any "expansion," at this point, will not materially affect the U.S. media environment.

A new decade will see us (hopefully) rectify an injustice done in the last one; in the grand scheme of things, that's a bittersweet accomplishment.

12/21/09 - HD Radio Ends Year On Slide [link to this story]

Although the marketplace doesn't seem to have made up its mind on the fate of HD Radio just yet, the trends do not look positive. To wit:

1. "Smilin' Bob" Struble, CEO of iBiquity, has apparently stopped tweeting after his globe-trotting jaunt this fall.

2. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest staff cuts at iBiquity are deeper than publicly known. (This would not be surprising given iBiquity is still a private company.) If true, it is always troubling when a developing technology cuts its tech support before it has a coherent, stable user-base.

3. Within the last month, Clear Channel has registered a domain name for, and established, a mirror-site to iBiquity's main consumer portal. (Run a WHOIS search and note the difference.) There is no logical reason for this, unless one expects the main portal to "go away," for some unspecified reason. Given that Clear Channel is the primary sponsor of the HD Radio Alliance (the consortium of mega-broadcasters most-supportive of HD Radio), one may draw their own conclusions.
Intent to Listen More... 2006 2007 2009
HD Radio 47% 40% 37%
Internet Radio 38% 42% 46%
MP3 Players 39% 37% 33%
Satellite Radio 39% 37% 33%
Terrestrial [analog] Radio 15% 17% 20%

4. Perhaps most damning, Bridge Ratings released a report this month on listening trends for Americans across all mediums.

It notes that people reporting an intent to listen to more HD Radio has dropped (see table at right).

For 2009, only 1% of Bridge Ratings' survey sample (3,000 people, all age 13+) report listening to HD Radio on a daily basis. Note that expected listening trajectories for satellite radio and MP3 players are also falling, while the intent-to-listen figures for "terrestrial" [analog] radio listenership are trending higher.

2010 could very well be HD Radio (or, at the very least, iBiquity)'s make-or-break year. The implications remain hazy, yet tantalizing.

12/12/09 - Freak Radio Suffers Schism [link to this story]

It's always a bit depressing (and heart-wrenching) to hear about the dramaturgy of grassroots community media; I've been involved in enough Indymedia, community radio, and media reform work to recognize (and be bitten by) the scourge of infighting.

Such a convulsion took place this autumn at Freak Radio Santa Cruz. The details are convoluted (as they always are), but apparently involve disputes over programming, the race card, and resultant collective factionalization.

In response to the apparent shattering of consensus on some basic principles that have steered the station for nearly 15 years, a few of Freak Radio's founders have hung up the mic. Skidmark Bob produced his last FRSC-based PoP dEFECT RADIO program on October 13, and apparently others are scattering as well. Bob's posted the farewell show up on his blog - where episodes of POP dEFECT (and other projects) will continue. It is well worth a listen.

The show is half-collage of station history, and half-collage regarding the state of Freak Radio. Part 2 contains the material that both contextualizes the dispute and also gives some tribute. Reckless (a Freak Radio founder who later moved on to establish Free Radio Austin) calls in from Atlanta to movingly lament Bob's departure. Poignant comments are played from co-founder Phil Free, made on his own last broadcast the day before Bob's denouement, who seems to have summarized the fracas most succinctly:

"Never let it be said that Uncle Phil's a pacifist; there's just some fights that are stupid, and some fights that are not. And I don't want to be stupid. It always brings out the worst in me, and a great deal of stress for no reason."

Amen, brother. Been there, done that...and still wearing your t-shirt. The station lives on.

12/5/09 - Comcastic Adventures: Coming to Everyone? [link to this story]

It's difficult, even for me, to wrap my head around the scale and scope of the merger-in-progress between Comcast and NBC/Universal. I'll leave it to Harold Feld, who comprehensively (and in eminently-readable fashion) analyzes the implications of this deal.

Quoth Feld, "In ideological terms, it is rather like Vatican City joining the Arab League." Distinctively, it's the first merger where historical enemies in the Big Media marketplace are now combining. The implications are massive; Comcast's promises of the merger's benefits clearly ring hollow.

The corporate maneuverings to make the marriage happen have occurred so quickly that media-reformers in D.C. are playing a ferocious game of defense to put regulatory brakes on this deal.

As a Comcast customer, who supposedly stands to gain an enormous menu of (potentially exclusive) content out of the deal, I am not happy, but fearful. I've had my fill (and then some) of Comcast's terrible network management practices, shoddy customer service, and oligopolistic price increases.

What I envision happening is further restrictions on my Internet access and functionality (indeed, this is already in the works) and, if I want access to all of Comcast's content panoply, I won't be getting it over the Internet - I'll need to subscribe to digital cable (which I currently don't). I'm just a Comcast ISP customer and thus not fully committed to their full range of services. Therefore, I'm not a very profitable customer at that.

Much of this is about Comcast's push to achieve the vaunted "triple-play" - market dominance in cable television, Internet service provision, and telephony. This merger will do wonders for the TV prong of the business: Comcast will have the veritable authority to dictate prices to all other cable providers for carriage of major networks that they heavily rely on for their own subscriber-bases. If it so chooses, Comcast could use that leverage to buy up what's left of the cable industry by starving its competitors of content.

The merger will already increase Comcast's sizeable footprint within the existing television audience (with projected ownership of one of every seven cable TV channels); the next logical step in securing the triple play would be to corner the rest of the U.S. cable Internet service provision infrastructure through the strategy outlined above. That would be a nightmare.

Existing Comcast ISP customers, I suspect, will be experimented upon to see just how far the new media behemoth can take content and data discrimination for the sake of profit.

The simple idea of this deal in and of itself is bad enough. Hopefully there's enough sense in the heads of those with power to kill this monster, but at the moment I'm not hopeful.