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News of the Moment

8/19/14 - FM Translator Market in Bubble Mode [link to this story]

The market for FM translators reached a new peak recently when a two-watt translator sited on the Willis Tower in Chicago sold for $4.6 million. Who made the killing? Calvary Radio Network, the de facto Midwest representative of the Calvary Chapel godcast franchise.

The new owner of W264BF, Elroy Smith, has FCC authorization to jack the translator's power up to 10 whole watts if he chooses. Broadcasting from what once was the world's tallest building will make for great coverage. But at $460,000 per watt? Valuations that crazy haven't been seen since the post-Telecom Act consolidation frenzy. Rarely do full-power AM radio stations sell for that much.

There could be another injection of energy into the translator marketplace before the end of the year. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has been making noise about his AM Revitalization Initiative and wants to see the FCC do something on that front sooner rather than later. Thus we may see an application window for new FM translators as soon as the agency has sorted the latest wave of LPFM licensees.

In many respects, this may be the last gasp for speculative profiteering in FM broadcast spectrum...at least until FM gets repurposed for a use other than broadcasting.

8/12/14 - The Polarization of NextRadio [link to this story]

As industry forces continue to grapple with radio's digital transition, the medium's push for renewed portability got a bit more complicated this summer. Not much of a surprise that the discourse surrounding the NextRadio app mimics similar forays into the new: lovers and haters lining up with little air to breathe between them.

The latest developments began with the launch last month of Free Radio On My Phone, a public-awareness campaign for enabling FM reception in smartphones. The campaign is a joint project of NextRadio, the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio, American Public Radio, and the Educational Media Foundation—all heavy-hitters in commercial, public, and religious broadcasting. EMF has also agreed to sign its entire station-roster up for enhanced NextRadio services.

The Free Radio argument is simple: greedy wireless carriers would rather you pay to stream music than to get it for free via broadcast radio. Also, radio is the go-to medium in times of emergencies, so having access to radio on your phone makes you safer.

The campaign provides links through which consumers can contact their wireless provider, phone manufacturer, Congress, and the FCC. The reach of the participating organizations means listeners will hear a lot about radio on phones over the next several months, but will they be motivated to take action?

NextRadio seems to think they will. Its parent company, Emmis Communications, and the NAB funded a two-part "study" of NextRadio whose results were released just after the launch of the Free Radio On My Phone campaign. Phase one of the "research" was conducting one-on-one interviews with smartphone users about the potential benefits of having radio on your phone.

The most interesting takeaway is that most folks under 40 don't even think of radio as a portable medium: for most of their lives radio is something that has lived in the car. They don't have or desire a stand-alone radio receiver, and the mp3 players they grew up with never had one.

Phase two was an online survey administered to 800 respondents about the attractiveness of NextRadio itself. Surprise: after watching an introductory promotional video about the app, more than 80% said they were interested in learning more and could see the benefits of having FM radio on their phones.

"Study" and "research" are in quotes here because the project doesn't really resemble anything worthy of those words. The funders got the results they paid for, as the two phases were basically just suggestive conversations. First you put a phone with NextRadio in the hands of some folks, let them play with it, and then ask them nice leading questions about it. Then, screen a promo video and inquire as to whether the NextRadio app is "really cool" (this was actually a survey question, to which 92% of respondents agreed).

Broadcast consultant Mark Ramsey has rightfully savaged this information for its lack of integrity, calling it a "silly publicity stunt" and "junk science." He also savages the app itself as a wasteful diversion from radio doing convergence right (whatever that is). Using data provided by NextRadio, Ramsey estimates that the app is only being used by 100 people at any given time. "Your own radio station’s web stream is likely serving more listeners right now than the entire NextRadio platform at the same time," he writes. "The best that can be said is that usage is growing (almost) every month. Modestly."

Meanwhile, NextRadio has since trumpeted the "research" results. In addition, Cumulus subsidiary Westwood One has stepped up to take some of the burden off Emmis' back for keeping Sprint on the NextRadio team, by agreeing to handle the ad inventory the industry owes to Sprint for turning FM chips on in selected mobile devices. At the same time, there's no guarantee that the next generation of domestic Android and Apple devices will have all the necessary hardware and firmware to universalize FM reception.

In many respects, the frames of this debate are shaping up to be HD Radio all over again: focus on the technology du jour and create a perception of momentum around it, then declare victory and congratulate yourselves while the world passes you by. Critics default to the most radical position possible, and thus go mostly ignored. Radio's already late to the app game, and while the coalition of broadcasters who have affiliated with NextRadio is impressive, their commitment to full-on interactivity (which comes at a price) is less so. [No place for HD Radio in smartphones, so no need to worry about that here.]

If it only it were that simple. Radio is a medium whose technological underpinnings are undergoing major flux. As an industry, there's a lot of initiatives in play and each one is attempting to paint itself as the magic bullet that will bring radio broadcasting fully into the digital present. That's not a constructive paradigm, though Mark Ramsey's base critique—it's the content, stupid, not the delivery system—is spot-on. It's also a critique that transcends any particular radio platform.

8/5/14 - Pop-Up Station Pays Homage to TOUCH FM [link to this story]

When the FCC raided TOUCH FM in Boston this spring, many lamented its demise. But its frequency didn't stay silent for long: less than two months after the FCC's sweep of the city, a pop-up station temporarily reoccupied 106.1 FM.

Noises Over Norwell broadcast from a two-story home in Dorchester currently under the receivership of Fannie Mae. Its former owners moved back in with the assistance of City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting economic injustice in Boston. The station was a cornucopia of information, discussion, and creativity about the state of the economy and the surrounding neighborhood; when "dormant," you simply heard the ambient sounds of a lived-in home.

TOUCH FM founder Charles Clemons appeared on Noises Over Norwell to wholeheartedly endorse its mission and the notion of radio as a medium for change. The station itself was organized by John Hulsey, an artist and Harvard graduate student who recognizes the symbiosis between pirate radio and social movements. "The same communities that are being pushed out of their homes are being shunted out of the media landscape," Hulsey told Marisa Mazria Katz.

"From a broader view, we can see both shelter and public discourse as basic public goods. If we don’t affirm and protect these as foundational building blocks of civil society, we begin to move in a dangerous direction."

But the magic only lasted three days, until the Boston Police raided the house and put couple that had lived there back out on the street. Nobody lost any other possessions—including the station, whose gear is now packed away for another day. Noises Over Norwell flew completely under the FCC's radar.

Hulsey says mission accomplished: "One day there was an empty house on a street where most people are struggling to pay rent and regularly face eviction; the next day there was a big group of people occupying that house and celebrating one another’s presence with broad public support. It’s important right now just to remember that we have the power to do that."

Noises Over Norwell is a direct echo of the origin-story of modern microradio in the United States. Mbanna Kantako inspired the movement nearly 30 years ago by launching WTRA—a station to protest the closure of public housing in Springfield, Illinois. Despite eviction and repeated FCC enforcement actions, Kantako and his station (now named Human Rights Radio) remain on the air today.

Stephen Dunifer, the founder of Free Radio Berkeley, has long advocated pop-up microbroadcasting as an effective means of electronic civil disobedience. He told me in 2000 that "if you're concerned about the FCC coming knocking at your door, go out and set up your transmitter up at your local flea market, at a concert, or a rally, or whatever. Because the FCC, in the history of [microradio], has yet to hassle people doing it as a one-up event. First of all, they don't even know it's there, and secondly, there's a huge crowd, and we've found the FCC...prefer to work in the dark, so to speak. That is, they don't like to be exposed publicly for what they're doing."

Not only do pop-up stations amplify the impact of every event they're associated with, they also "educate people in the community [about microbroadcasting] and it tends to demystify the whole process....There's lots of creative ways to use this." I can personally vouch for that, having helped organize or participated in several event-broadcasts, ranging from house parties to disaster triage to mass airwave occupations of major metro markets.

Stations like Noises Over Norwell are the essence of tactical broadcasting. Let thousands more like it bloom.

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