Voltair Controversy: The Seduction of Denial

Next month is the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual radio convention, to be held in Atlanta. I wish I could be a fly on the wall in some select panels and the local off-hours watering-holes. Fireworks are expected over an issue that’s been feistily percolating for more than a year — the integrity of the U.S. radio ratings system.

First, a quick primer about radio ratings in the United States. Administered by Nielsen, the ratings are collected by two primary means: listener diaries and Portable People Meters (PPM). The PPM system is a small pager-like device that selected listeners carry around with them; when exposed to a station’s broadcast, the meter logs the station and time spent listening. How? Stations that subscribe to the Nielsen ratings in PPM-enabled markets broadcast a special audio watermark that is inaudible to listeners, but that PPM devices can hear. The watermark is a 1000-3000 Hz tone; as a proprietary technology, the only way to work out how it really operates is by observing it in the wild or by examining its patents.

When the PPM system was introduced in 2007, it was touted as a new era for measuring radio ratings because listeners aren’t all that great about accurately and meticulously recording all the stations they’re exposed to. For example, radio often functions as background noise in places like restaurants, stores, and offices; when you’re at the dentist are you really paying attention to the smooth/lite pabulum oozing from the waiting room ceiling? Today, four dozen markets are measured using PPM technology. Read More

NextRadio Reaches Carrier Milestone

The radio industry’s efforts to carve out space for itself on mobile phones took some big strides foward this summer. In late July, AT&T announced that it would seek to enable FM reception capability in the Android devices it offers. This month, after a NextRadio-led Twitterstorm, T-Mobile declared it would do the same.

This is an important milestone for the NextRadio effort: three of the four major wireless providers in the United States have embraced the notion that terrestrial radio should be part of the media mix on mobile platforms. It will be interesting to see how long Verizon, the #1 carrier in the country, decides to hold out on offering FM radio as a feature in its phones. That it took until 2015 for this to happen is testament to the gatekeeping-power of the wireless oligopoly in the United States. Read More

Future Enforcement: Questions of Money and Will

The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology had members of the FCC in for three hours of grilling a couple of weeks ago under the rubric of “continued oversight,” which is a fancy way of saying “giving members a chance to grandstand on pet issues.”

Subjects like the FCC’s plans to repurpose DTV spectrum for wireless broadband, reform communications subsidy programs, and the protection of net neutrality got the most attention, but questions of the FCC’s enforcement capabilities and how pirate radio fits into the mix did arise. Read More

DAB: A Hacking Vector?

U.S. news media went bonkers a couple of weeks ago when information security researchers, in conjunction with a journalist from Wired, demonstrated how they could remotely access a Jeep Cherokee and take control of various functions, including its engine, steering, and braking. The hack exploits the fact that many cars and trucks today interface with the Internet in some fashion, either directly or via other devices that connect to them (like a smartphone).

That hack targets vehicles on a one-to-one basis, and it is not the first of its kind. But what if you could broadcast an exploit to multiple vehicles at once? Turns out this is possible, too. Researchers in the U.K. say they can transmit code within a DAB digital radio signal that provides control of critical vehicle systems. Read More

Prepping for a Pirate Crackdown

Even though the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is in the throes of a major downsizing – newly-released documents indicate the Bureau will cut 44 jobs, or more than 40% of its workforce – it’s also committed itself to do something about the proliferation of unlicensed broadcasting. That said, a before-and-after summary of personnel cuts doesn’t really show a lot of refocused muscle on the ground: for example, New York’s field office will see a net increase of one agent (from 4 to 5), while the “tiger teams” being created to backstop the field offices consist of no more than three or four.

Since pirate radio’s become a plaything of FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, and the broadcast lobby is chomping at the bit for a war on pirates, I would not be surprised if the agency, working in concert with groups like the NAB and New York State Broadcasters Association, attempt to sweep at least NYC this year in some “show of force.” Whatever the rhetoric may be, paper-tiger mode remains in full effect — and there’s a lot unlicensed broadcasters can do to prepare for whatever may come, both tactically and strategically. Read More