News of the Moment
12/5/13 - RadioDiscussions Killed By Greed [link to this story]
It certainly hasn't been a kind year for online radio discussion sites.
For more than a decade, one of the most vibrant sites online to talk about U.S. broadcasting of all stripes was RadioDiscussions.com. It began in the late 1990s when three radio enthusiasts merged their own bulletin boards into a common site called Radio-Info, providing an outlet for discussion about dozens of speficic radio markets, boards for every state, as well as specialty forums for things like community radio, digital radio, engineering, and FCC policy.
In 2005, one of the principals behind Radio-Info, Doug Fleming, died during a cycling trip; he was just 28 years old. Fleming's family took over the site, fired the two other co-founders and hired a bevy of moderators and writers to "popularize" the dialogue. A controversial move at the time, the vibrancy and quality of the discussions remained high, and things rolled along pretty smoothly until last year.
The Flemings finally decided to jettison their son's legacy, so they sold the site to the proprietors of Talkers magazine last year. As part of the change, the site was renamed from Radio-Info to RadioDiscussions. However, the sheer scope of the site pretty much overwhelmed the specialty publication, who sold RadioDiscussions to Florida-based Streamline Publishing this May.
Streamline is perhaps best known for two of the publications it produces: Radio Ink and Radio & Television Business Report. Both are B-grade outlets: no real reportage, more content-aggregation and fluff than anything else. Streamline's founder, Eric Rhoads, also has a reputation for hucksterism. He's perhaps best known for spending a lot of words and money trying to sell his own brand of HD Radio receivers, and earlier this year breathlessly (and erroneously) claimed that auto manufacturers were preparing to dump radios from new cars. Quality journalism, it's not: how could such a company handle maintaining one of the internet's largest broadcast-forums?
Turns out it couldn't. After implementing a disastrous site "upgrade/redesign" a few months ago, Streamline unceremoniously unplugged RadioDiscussions on Tuesday. According to some stoolie at the company, "This was an economic decision. Our intention was to offer Radio Discussions as an option to our advertisers but we found there was no interest and though we respect what Doug Fleming originally built it simply does not make sense to pour cash into something with no prospect of revenue."
That sounds familiar. It's the same mentality that has decimated the radio industry itself over the last 20-odd years. Profit uber alles: the notion of intangible goods and a meaningful duty to the public interest falls on the deaf ears of bean-counters. RadioDiscussions wasn't valuable for its eyeballs, it was valuable for its dialogue. Adding insult to injury, all of that dialogue—nearly 15 years' worth—has disappeared from the 'net just because some hackneyed mofos couldn't turn a dime on it.
If the folks at Streamline had any dignity, and any respect for the community it just squelched, they'd at the very least leave up a static read-only archive of the site. Folks looking for other forums might be inclined to check out RadioInsight (run by Radio-Info's two other co-founders), The Virtual Engineer, and the recently-launched boards over at Radio Survivor.
11/27/13 - HD Radio Gets Trolled [link to this story]
HD Radio finds itself under attack in the courts from an unlikely agitator: the patent troll.
What is a patent troll? In a nutshell, they are scumbag bottom-feeders in the land of intellectual property law. Patent troll companies have no real business; they buy up existing patents and then launch campaigns of lawsuits against others that are using "their" technology, claiming that the defendants have violated "their" intellectual property rights.
The idea is to intimidate defendants into making quick settlements, avoiding a potentially costly lawsuit. Even though their claims often have no legal merit—or the patent itself is so vague as to be difficult to define—companies targeted by patent trolls will often settle just to get the nuisance out of their hair. While this might be tactically acceptable, it sets a terrible strategic legal precedent, as it gives a patent troll more courage to continue and expand their campaigns.
Legal scholars have estimated that patent trolls raked in some $29 billion from their nefarious activities in 2011. That same year, WBEZ's This American Life produced an excellent episode that breaks down patent trolls and their modus operandi. The top five patent trolls in the country have collectively sued several thousand companies large and small over the last five years.
In the case of HD Radio, earlier this month a Delaware-based patent troll named Wyncomm, LLC, representing its "subsidiary," Delaware Radio Technologies (for all intents and purposes, both are shells established for the purposes of patent-trolling), sued several broadcasters using HD Radio. The primary patent at issue was initially awarded to AT&T in 1996 and covers "side channel communications in simultaneous voice and data transmission." The patent itself vaguely refers to telephony and wireless data services.
Broadcasters are just the latest in a long line of targets for Wyncomm et al.: earlier this year the troll sued several computer and electronics manufacturers, including Apple, alleging infringement of the same patent. Wyncomm upped the ante tin the spring by going after a larger set of targets, focusing more on the wireless phone market, including France Telecom, HTC, LG, Motorola, NEC, Nokia, and Panasonic, among many others.
Then just this week, Wyncomm et al. added automobile manufacturers who've adopted HD Radio to its growing list of defendants. In total, more than 100 companies are in the sights of Wyncomm in the HD case.
Interestingly, these trolls have not targeted HD Radio's actual proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation, in any of these lawsuits. If HD Radio is iBiquity's baby, why not just go straight to the primary patent violator? The answer lies in the practices of patent trolls: play the odds and sue as many folks as possible, in hopes that some will pay out—multiple settlements stand to make more money than one. Had iBiquity actually been in violation of Wyncomm's patent, the company could have conceivably been on the hook in a big way—but the fact that iBiquity dodged this bullet is telling about the actual merits of the case.
However, there are some delicious ironies to all of this, for iBiquity itself is subverting patent law to keep its technology perpetually proprietary. Although the HD Radio system is covered by several patents, and these will expire in 20 years' time (or less), a crucial component of the system—the algorithm used to encode and decode HD Radio audio itself—has gone undocumented. Look at the National Radio Systems Committee's standards-documents for HD Radio and you will find no normative or informative references to this codec (dubbed HDC). Effectively, HDC is a black box that cannot be pierced by any means.
This creates a conundrum best described by Jonathan Hardis, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and long-time HD Radio watcher who fought a lonely battle during the system's formative policy-years, trying to warn the FCC and the public about the intellectual property distortions of iBiquity. He recently summarized the dilemma in a very effective way:
Any threat to the adoptive attractiveness of HD Radio, especially as it relates to broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers, is an existential threat to the technology. For the good of HD's future, anyone targeted by Wyncomm et al. should vigorously dispute this trolling, lest it chill the already cold reception HD has among these constituencies critical to its success.
But if settlements start happening, that's the other irony: a parasite on iBiquity's system stands to make more money off of it than iBiquity itself has.
11/19/13 - Radio's Digital Dilemma On the Road [link to this story]
Been a busy month so far: I started out in San Francisco at the Union for Democratic Communications annual conference, where I got to give a preview of my new book and its gory details. It was well-received, especially among policy scholars who hunger for some good old-fashioned muckraking.
Then I was in Australia last week for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia's annual conference. I was the Saturday keynote, and compared to Australia's digital transition, the U.S. looks positively retarded. The talk itself was recorded, but no word on when it will be online.
A trade publication printed a short story about my talk, which makes me come across as much harsher on HD Radio than I really am. So to any of those who wish to tar me with the hater-brush, let me be clear: I believe in the future of radio broadcasting. I even believe that HD Radio may still provide an important component of radio's digital transition—but it's abundantly clear that the system has some fundamental detriments which, exacerbated by a regulatory regime wholly enamored with money over science, threatens to marginalize radio as we've known it without some sort of radical rethink.
I don't know just what that rethink might be, but I firmly believe that the longer HD's malaise continues, the harder it will be for radio as we've known it to find a firm place in our convergent modern media environment. I'm not out to throw stones, but identify problems and seek solutions. The first step to addressing any problem, however, is admitting there is one, and I do believe I've proven that beyond a reasonable doubt.
To that end, I'll be in Washington, D.C. later this week speaking about the research that went into Radio's Digital Dilemma, and how historiographers more generally can find useful purchase in the present in ways that can constructively affect the future. If we wait too long to study the past, then it becomes an archival exercise, which helps nobody but historians.
I've also developed some interesting industry contacts who are surprisingly open-minded about my research and also seek to constructively change the status quo. So I'm heading to the National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention in Las Vegas next April to meet with them and see where potential points of common ground may be found. I've also tendered a request to be a part of any formalized discussion the NAB may be hosting on radio's digital transition, but I don't hold out much hope that there's open-mindedness to be found within the NAB itself.
Radio's Digital Dilemma is now available for pre-order directly from Routledge (use the code JRK96 at checkout for a 20% discount) or from Amazon. The hardcover is obscenely overpriced, and yes, this pisses me off to no end. There will also be a companion e-book version, which I'm hoping will be more sanely figured. If enough copies of the first run are sold, a paperback version will follow, and that may actually be rationally-priced.
In the last month, I've developed a lot of respect for what touring artists go through. And this is all before the book itself is even out. Here's to a fruitful 2014: if you're interested in learning more or having me around to tell the story of radio's troubled digital transition, just drop a line.