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News Archive: December 2011

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12/29/11 - FCC Bipartisanly Bad on Media Ownership [link to this story]

Last week the FCC promulgated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would allow for more media consolidation. Among many changes contemplated, the most significant would actively encourage the merger of print and broadcast media companies. The proposal also leaves the door open to loosening restrictions on the number of radio and television stations a single company can own in any given market.

These propositions sound awfully familiar, as they contain ideas floated by Democratic Chairman Julius Genachowski's two Republican predecessors, Kevin Martin and Michael Powell.

Powell attempted to do away with practically all media ownership restrictions on the basis of fundamentalist neoliberal principles alone, while Martin wanted to remove ownership limits on "legacy" media outlets (such as newspapers, radio, and TV stations) in order to "promote competition" between old media and new (i.e., Internet-based) outlets. Both efforts mostly failed.

Genachowski got his job primarily due to his business experience in Silicon Valley. Yet his tenure at the FCC has run hard aground against the sorry state of broadband in the United States, which hinders the Internet's potential as a system of democratic communication.

At the same time, the agency's 'net-centric policy focus has led to an astounding sense of indifference regarding the regulation of legacy media. In this regard, it comes as little surprise that Genachowski's proposal is reheated Bush-era hash.

Commissioner Michael Copps, who concludes his tenure at the FCC this week for the greener pastures of the lecture circuit, addressed this dilemma most succinctly:

[W]e have seen incredible growth in the broadband realm, ripe with exciting options and opportunities. What we have not witnessed is the breadth and depth online to replace what has been lost in "traditional" media. This becomes critically important when you look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that no longer flow into news operations, only a fraction of which has been replaced by Web newsgathering. [emphasis added]

Interestingly, Chairman Genachowski declined to articulate his own rationale for these rule changes. The FCC's Republican Commissioner, Robert McDowell, felt the Chairman did not go far enough, openly hoping that all media ownership caps be trashed eventually. And the FCC's most passive Democrat, Mignon Clyburn, made feeble gestures to notions of diversity in media ownership, yet assented to the Chairman's proposal in full.

Over the last decade, the general trend of promoting concentration in policies of media ownership has continued unabated, regardless of which political party controls the FCC. Is there any hope for a (non-judicial) reversal in the foreseeable future?

12/16/11 - HD Radio Scene Report: Hawaii [link to this story]

From the new-lows-in-translator-abuse-department: HHawaii Media, owner of nine stations throughout the island chain, has begun quadcasting in HD on its adult-contemporary station, KORL. The three additional subchannels are smooth jazz, Korean pop, and Japanese pop.

KORL owner George Hochman launched the multicasts exclusively for feeding analog FM translators, and each HD subchannel already has its own translator.

All of the analog relay stations signed on the air within the last year (one in May, two in September) and all broadcast at maximum power (250 watts).

KORL's a big stick: when moved its transmitting site five years ago, it displaced KXRG, the only low-power FM station in Honolulu. KXRG remained silent until April of 2010, when it returned to the air on a second-adjacent channel granted under a Special Temporary Authority waiver by the FCC.

LPFM stations can't (yet) be sited two clicks away on the dial from a full-power station, although FM translators can. This why KORL and its owners can dot Oahu with multiple translators, launching "new" radio stations that are nothing more than an analog repackagement of an HD signal nobody's listening to, while live-and-local niche radio such as KXRG must exist at the special pleasure of the FCC.

In a place where land is at a premium and the spectrum is already congested, this greedy proliferation of translators effectively makes any meaningful LPFM expansion impossible.

12/8/11 - Broadcast Conglomerates Consolidate in Cyberspace [link to this story]

This week, Clear Channel (#1 in national radio station ownership) and Cumulus (#2) inked an agreement intimately linking their online broadcast strategies.

Cumulus will integrate the webcasts from its ~560 radio stations under Clear Channel's iHeartRadio streaming platform, and will actively promote it on-air. In exchange, Clear Channel will cross-promote Cumulus' SweetJack service, a Groupon-style business the broadcaster is developing in markets where it has stations, both on-air and online.

Clear Channel's iHeartRadio platform is already a major aggregator of broadcaster-webcasts, with the Educational Media Foundation (and its K-LOVE and AIR-1 Christian music networks, heard on 400 stations), Spanish-language Univision (70 stations), and pubcaster WNYC already under its umbrella. Adding the #2 commercial broadcaster to this mix makes iHeartRadio the largest portal by far for radio stations that stream.

It's also important to remember that Cumulus is also in the process of assimilating Citadel Broadcasting, which will add more than 200 stations to its stable - and to the iHeartRadio platform.

Back around the turn of the century, when Clear Channel amassed control of some 1,200 radio stations, it incited the public enough to inspire the LPFM radio service and rekindled the nation's media reform movement. Matt Lasar has noted that Clear Channel and Cumulus already enjoy an effective duopoly on the radio advertising market in nearly all the metropolitan areas where they currently do business.

Perhaps more importantly, Clear Channel's well on the way to cornering the market for broadcast radio-streaming: the collective might of more than 2,100 stations are now on board with iHeartRadio.

Of course, the Internet is a much different media landscape than broadcast radio, where the regulatory paradigm limits the number of permissible outlets and imposes some (mostly symbolic) notion of "public interest" on those who broadcast.

But a leopard cannot change its spots: Clear Channel's ongoing prioritization of streaming over broadcasting illustrates its aspirations to dominate broadcasting's newest platform.

12/1/11 - Skids Greased for Further FM-HD Experimentation [link to this story]

The FCC's put a proposal by iBiquity, NPR, and NAB out for public comment that would allow FM-HD broadcasters more flexibility to increase the power levels of their digital sidebands independently. Called asymmetrical transmission, this flexibility conceivably allows more HD-enabled stations to pump up the power of their digital signals to make them reliably receivable in a station's primary coverage area.

All signs are that the comment/reply comment rigmarole in this instance is a formality. As at least one industry lawyer has noted, the fact that the FCC's scheduled the comment period for a short three weeks before Christmas - and a week for reply-comments to be filed between Christmas and the new year - means there is little likelihood that a robust record of public debate will be assembled over this latest wrinkle in the HD Radio saga.

This is a shame, because there's (still) no consensus among broadcasters about the net benefits and detriments of HD Radio. Nearly ten years of operation suggest little benefit, and while digital signal-related interference has occurred it has not been widespread enough to materially disrupt the industry. Boosting the power of FM-HD sidebands increases this risk: of course, proponents say there's little potential for harm, while the staunchest critics are quick to pounce.

The ongoing problems are manifold. As with the entire process of HD Radio's development and proliferation, there's been no independent analysis done of this tweak to the technology, which means the only data on which the FCC will base its decision comes from the technology's proprietors, who have not been averse to playing fast and loose with the science of digital broadcasting over the years. (The FCC gave up its scientific independence a long time ago.)

This is also but the first in two techniques proffered to re-engineer a more robust FM-HD signal. The second "improvement," the use of single-frequency booster networks, will eventually allow FM-HD broadcasters to build entirely new digital-only booster stations to increase reception quality. iBiquity and the NAB are well on their way building the case to convince the FCC to have their way on this as well.

There are no magic bullets for a digital broadcast technology which is flawed by design.