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News Archive: December 2010

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12/29/10 - Free Speech Radio News Gets Reprieve [link to this story]

In less than three weeks, Free Speech Radio News has raised more than $75,000, saving itself from the brink of silence...for now.

This is enough to keep the newscast operation floating until the end of January, but nowhere near the amount necessary to offset existing incurred costs and secure the future of this vital decade-old journalistic endeavor.

FSRN is working hard on a strategic plan with the hope of lining up at least one other major sustaining funder, further weaning itself from the troubled Pacifica teat. Leading progressive media voices such as Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, and Bob McChesney have given impassioned endorsements of the newscast and are actively engaged in survival-assistance.

Said Scahill, "[FSRN] is really where a place where I grew up as a reporter....In this era where we have, you know, mindless actors posing as journalists on television and pundits that don't travel the world, that only speak from their armchair warrior positions, how refreshing is it to have a broadcast like this, where you have people - reporters - reporting on on their own country about struggles for social justice; about foreign policy issues that are life-and-death.

"There's nothing like Free Speech Radio News. And it's a place where so many young reporters have had an opportunity to learn journalism, and to become active fighters in the social justice journalism movement around the world....I'd just put it simply like this: I wouldn't be doing what I was doing today had I not had the experience of working with and for Free Speech Radio News."

Although the instant crisis has been averted, the long-term viability of Free Speech Radio News remains in uncomfortable flux. A democratic society simply cannot exist without voices like FSRN in the mix. Keep spreading the word, and spare a dime if you can.

12/21/10 - LPFM's Second Wave [link to this story]

Congratulations to everyone who worked tirelessly - both over the last 10 years and the last two weeks - to convince Congress to finally approve the Local Community Radio Act. Given the recent changes in the political winds of D.C., this was most likely the very last chance to fundamentally expand the LPFM radio service.

Things literally came down to the wire: after locking the bill in stasis for months with secret holds from industry-friendly Senators, last-minute negotiations between LPFM proponents and the National Association of Broadcasters, combined with a multi-faceted grassroots lobbying blitz, ended up in a hasty rewrite of the actual legislation, which the House quickly approved on Friday and the Senate blessed on Saturday. President Obama's signature is a given.

The technicalities of the bill are short but significant. The major accomplishment of the LCRA is to remove the third-adjacent channel restriction on the service that crippled LPFM stations from gaining traction in urban areas (eight years ago Jonathan Jay devised a simple barstool analogy that explains what adjacent-channel rules mean).

The relaxation of this restriction was key: it now will allow hundreds of new LPFM stations to be built in areas where they were previously prohibited. This goes a long way to restoring the technical scope of LPFM as first intended by the FCC 10 years ago.

However, to get the National Association of Broadcasters to remove its deathly opposition to the bill, extra "interference-protection" restrictions will be implemented on LPFM stations that prevent the restoration of the full scope of the FCC's initial proposal.

In addition, LPFM and translator stations often find themselves in competition for a frequency. Both station-classes are secondary to full-power FM stations, but translators retain the flexibility to site themselves closer to full-power stations than LPFM stations can.

To wit: translators can use open frequencies just two clicks away on the dial from a local full-power station, while LPFMs are limited to staying three clicks away (down from four, thanks to the LCRA). Thus, a regulatory bias for the proliferation of translators over LPFMs remains.

However, when a proposed LPFM or translator are in competition for the same frequency in a given location, the LCRA requires the FCC to take the "needs of the local community" into consideration - a key metric that LPFMs do best - to break such applicant-ties.

Full-power stations gained increased leverage to complain to the FCC about any LPFM-related interference, and the FCC is mandated to act expeditiously to "remediate" these "complaints." This could cause headaches for LPFM stations in communities with hostile broadcast-neighbors, but should not be a widespread, significant issue in the service's expansion.

Finally, the FCC is required to conduct an economic analysis of LPFM's impact on full-power stations. This study must be completed within a year. For what it's worth, this type of analysis was originally dismissed as unnecessary by the first Congressionally-mandated LPFM-impact report in 2003 - but the FCC does not have to wait to open new LPFM application-windows until the study is done.

As a result, given the agency's prior promises, it should open a new LPFM license-application window sometime in 2011.

Given the increasingly tenuous democratic nature of our media environment (see network neutrality, the merger of Comcast with NBC, overzealous Internet crackdowns in the name of intellectual property, the aggressive persecution of WikiLeaks, the fast-developing field of cyberwar, etc.), the unleashing of a second wave of LPFM stations 10 years after the service's creation is small potatoes relative to the situation that exists today. Still, any light in dark times is heartening and welcome - and if you believe, like I do, that real change happens from the bottom up, the coming new wave of LPFM stations represent the planting of more seeds.

As an historical accomplishment, the passage of the LCRA marks the capstone of a 70-year movement to create and sustain real community radio in the United States. Pragmatically, it marks the formal end of a tenacious legislative campaign to broaden LPFM's proliferation, which will allow intrepid folks like the Prometheus Radio Project to devote their resources to building radio stations.

The NAB can afford to appear magnanimous now. After bottling the bill until the last possible moment, and engineering its passage on the Saturday before Christmas (in conjunction with the Senate's deliberation of more newsworthy legislation), it's minimized the public's awareness of this important marker that represents the art of the possible in the poisonous world of media policy.

Strategically, the NAB's playing for higher stakes to define the next decade of terrestrial radio as we know it, and expending the political capital to deny an amicable resolution to the LPFM issue simply wasn't worth it anymore. That's why the trade association is inviting LPFM advocates to a party at NAB HQ sometime after the new year.

What began as a contemporary movement of electronic civil disobedience has ended with a renewed opportunity to (legally) expand community radio in this country. There's still much work to do to exploit this potential, but that's in good hands.

12/15/10 - FCC Enforcement Plateau Ahoy? [link to this story]

The FCC's trend of hunting unlicensed broadcasters may be slowing down.

The number of enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters fell off dramatically during 2010 - from a record single-month high of 75 in April to just 9 (known so far) in November. May and June represented pivotal months in this decline.

Barring a massive run of enforcement actions over the next two weeks, 2010 will represent the first cumulative decrease in the FCC's pirate-hunting efforts after four consecutive record-breaking years.

There's been a definite uptick in unlicensed AM stations on the dial - more than double the year before, although they still count for a tiny minority (5%) of broadcasters noticed by the FCC. LPAM stations have been reported in six states this year, the majority residing on the expanded AM band.

With regard to enforcement effectiveness, the cumulative statistics on the type of "bust"-activity tell the tale. 94% of all actions documented in the Database are wholly administrative (visits/warning letters/monetary forfeitures). Of those, 90% carry no material harm.

In 2010, just 4% of enforcement actions reported to date are Notices of Apparent Liability or Forfeiture. The FCC has not precipitated any raid on its own this year (it assisted in a Florida takedown spearheaded by local cops).

In Florida, where a state anti-pirate radio law went on the books in 2004, a whopping 28 arrests have been arrested in six years. If there are convictions, it appears that most cop to a lesser plea, making actual criminal convictions achieved under the anti-pirate law almost nil. Florida remains the most active state in the country for unlicensed broadcasting, with New York a close second.

Part of me believes this is an effect of the economy and belt-tightening within the FCC, coupled with a growing concern about other forms of unlicensed radio enforcement (like consumer electronics devices that harm various forms of wireless communication services). It is not likely a politically-driven change in enforcement strategy.

That is, of course, good news for the hundreds of unlicensed microbroadcasters on the air, whose numbers are constantly replenished as the FCC tries unsuccessfully to prohibit direct citizen access to the airwaves. Not all radio pirates are good eggs, but the overwhelming majority of them are, motivated by some sort of unmet need in the communities they serve.

Recently, while watching this, I remembered seeing this 12 years ago. The difference between the two strikingly illustrates the schism that occurred during the formation of LPFM between its advocates and those engaged in electronic civil disobedience.

That has turned out to be an unfortunate legacy, because the aggregate number of unlicensed microbroadcasters on the air is probably larger now than it was back then, but they're by no means organized around a movement paradigm. The pirates aren't marching on D.C. anymore; they're too busy broadcasting with near impunity.

12/8/10 - The Unfortunate Death Watch of FSRN [link to this story]

Barring significant divine fiscal intervention, the United States' only collectively-produced progressive daily radio news program, Free Speech Radio News, will suspend production on December 20.

FSRN has been an amazing accomplishment of independent journalism. Founded in the ashes of the Pacifica Radio network's self-immolation of the late 1990s (which also led to the independence of Pacifica's primary nationally-syndicated show, Democracy Now!), FSRN runs on the efforts of community radio stations and grassroots journalists from around the world, and airs on more than 100 stations domestically.

Putting together a half-hour of hard news five days out of seven is not easy; covering the silent stories only adds to the challenge. FSRN's editorial staff and stringer-army did it well, ultimately replacing the Pacifica News Network in its entirety.

Unfortunately, FSRN's days appear to be numbered. The problem is simple: unlike DN!, FSRN has not been able to cultivate an independent revenue stream and thus still relies on Pacifica for approximately three-quarters of its operational funds.

These funds go to pay for core editorial staff but, by and large, are paid to the stringers on the ground doing the reporting. In many respects, FSRN's stringer-payments are generous relative to other radio news networks. I've known people who've made a short-term living feeding good stories regularly to FSRN. This is as it should be: if you want good journalism, you should properly compensate those doing the work, and good radio news never lets on just how much work goes into the story.

However, yesterday FSRN declared it "cannot in good conscience continue to commission new stories from our freelance reporters. Neither can we continue to keep the same number of people on payroll." The problem is Pacifica, which owes FSRN more than $150,000 in back-payments for operational support.

Given the current dire straits of Pacifica itself, it looks like FSRN may end up as collateral damage from Pacifica's long-running dysfunction.

This would be a shame. Having been there and done that, I know it's extremely difficult to start a syndicated radio news service from scratch. In both cases, I had the luxury of a sponsoring organization which was willing to fund the operations, as well as a physical newsroom. But FSRN's collaborative operation cuts both ways, since diversifying the news production process adds to its complexity. Staying on the air for 10 years demonstrates the passion and dedication those made FSRN what it is for solid, investigative radio journalism.

If FSRN suspends production, the fear is that its stringer-army will slowly melt away, and reorganizing that to its previous depth and caliber may prove impossible. That said, it's not too late yet, and every little bit helps.

12/1/10 - "Persona Radio": FASTROAD to Nowhere [link to this story]

This is rich: the latest "feature" under development for the HD Radio protocol. Called "Persona Radio," the scheme utilizes radical changes to the broadcast and reception infrastructure to allow for the conceptual distribution of "personalized" radio content. In theory, a listener "registers" with a station, inputting information like age, gender, location, and "mood," and then the HD station offers them a menu of "personalized" content, including time-shifted audio, still images, text information, and (oh boy!) personalized coupons.

Some important qualifications have to be made about the "Persona Radio" project and its documentation so far:

1. This is a theoretical project - a prototype. Much like auto manufacturers display "concept cars" at conventions and shows. The notion is to give other industry members and the public at a sneak-peek of what such a car may look like - but they're just a shell, not even drivable. Such is the case here.

Although iBiquity and the NAB Flexible Advanced Services for Television & Radio On All Devices (FASTROAD) program has produced a 60-page document on the concept, there are no significant indicators of just how this "feature" would be implemented. For example: does it work on both AM and FM? (My guess is FM-only, for reasons listed below.) How will stations conduct the "interactive" component of personalizing an individual listener's radio experience? (The document hints that it can be done actively - by listeners registering on their favorite stations' web sites or by listening to an HD-enabled station for at least one continuous hour.) What, exactly, are the benefits listeners will get, and how will stations accommodate each listener?

2. "Persona Radio" may be just a way to integrate the function of conditional access into all HD-enabled devices. Conditional access is at the heart of the (theoretically) functional process to personalize the listener experience. In the past, broadcasters have sold conditional access as a way to "protect" specialized radio services (like reading services for the blind) or as a way to offer "pay-per-listen" streaming (of things like live concerts, or, in the case of public broadcasters, pledge-free programming). Thus, the operative concept behind "Persona Radio" is centered around an older feature which has yet to find any meaningful traction in the HD Radio space.

3. The bandwidth capacity of "Persona Radio" puts it in the same boat as all of the rest, such as datacasting and multicasting. According to the iBiquity/NAB study, personalized audio content will max out at a fidelity of 48 kilobits per second (the default assumed by "Persona Radio" is actually half that), plus 8 kilobits reserved for the transmission of images and a paltry 1 kbps for text. Including "encapsulation" overhead, this results in a "payload" per HD station of between 30-69 kbps to operate the function. Users can expect a whopping 12 minutes a day of time-shifted, push-driven audio programming.

Given that this eats up more than half of an FM-HD station's digital carrying capacity, "Persona Radio" will restrict stations' ability to do things like multicasting. How far are stations willing to degrade digital audio fidelity in order to offer this? Are they willing to sacrifice multicast streams to accommodate it? Theoretically, even with "Persona Radio," an FM-HD station could still broadcast two audio streams, but at what cost?

4. Key to making this feature work is the complicity of receiver manufacturers. "Persona Radio" is not backward-compatible with any HD receiver on the market today. Given the sorry sales record of existing receivers, how willing are manufacturers to invest in an "upgraded" receiver with this functionality? And what will be its initial cost?

So many things are working against HD Radio at this time that it's difficult to see "Persona Radio" changing the game, except symbolically. It represents an effort by broadcasters to engage in interactivity, and while the prose is substantive the substance is missing. Like all concepts, "Persona Radio" is just an idea - the question is whether broadcasters or listeners even care enough now to adopt something that seems complicated, antithetical to the notion of "broadcasting" as it has been known...and, oh, can already be done much more easily through other content distribution mechanisms and digital devices (like the internet and smartphones, respectively).