News Archive: March 2012
3/29/12 - Radio's Digital Dilemma: The Book [link to this story]
Routledge has made an offer to publish Radio's Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting in the 21st Century. It'll be in their Research in Media and Cultural Studies series and, with luck, will be out by the end of 2013.
The publisher's editorial description:
A warmed-over dissertation this will not be. A humongous amount of work is required to transform the blob of research I've got into a readable, useful monograph. The entire process has moved so quickly: less than a year ago, I was sitting in front of my committee defending this work. The manuscript is due to Routledge on June 1st of next year.
In related news, I've also accepted a faculty position in the Department of Television and Radio at Brooklyn College, to begin this fall. In addition to teaching, I'll also be the director of the department's Broadcast Journalism program and will oversee the Summer Broadcast News Institute. One of my primary aspirations is to encourage tomorrow's journalists to embrace a convergent media environment and the networked, collaborative practice of journalism that now flourishes among us.
As a Midwestern kid, just moving to NYC this summer will be an adventure, not to mention the stuff I'll be doing there.
3/22/12 - FCC Outlines LPFM Expansion [link to this story]
On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission announced further rules designed to expand the LPFM radio service. This is likely to be the last significant opportunity for budding community broadcasters to obtain an LPFM license. Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel has an overview of the FCC's action, while REC Networks Michi Eyre has written a thorough synopsis of its nuts and bolts.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the FCC's proposed handling of a flood of applications for FM translators. More than 6,000 applications for translators are pending from a 2003 filing window (when more than 13,000 applications were tendered). This run on translators has already scarfed up lots of FM spectrum that could have gone toward an LPFM expansion.
The FCC's decided to dismiss the majority of these applications, and will cap the number it will process from individual translator-mongers at 50. This is up from a proposed cap of 10 translator applications, and still represents a huge spectrum-grab. However, the FCC says it'll take care to make sure that open channels are preserved for LPFM in qualified major markets.
In making this decision, the agency issued a circumspect denouncement of the practice of translator-mongering: "While we recognize that high-volume filers did not violate our rules, these types of speculative filings are fundamentally at odds with core Commission broadcast licensing policies and contrary to the public interest.”
In addition, the FCC's proposing to create a 250-watt LPFM station class, designed to provide a larger coverage area in markets where such a power increase may be feasible. Were this to pass, LFPM stations would at least have parity with translators in terms of power, though LPFM stations still generally lack the flexibility afforded translators with regard to how close they may be sited on the dial to other stations.
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the ruling is a proposal to do away with the 10-watt LPFM station class. Although these stations have been part and parcel of the FCC's LPFM rules for more than a decade, the agency has never actually opened a filing window for them. Now it may never do so.
At the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters in Nashville last month, FCC Audio Division Chief Peter Doyle hinted that this was in the works. "LPFM groups are not satisfied with 100 watts, they want 250, not 10 watts," remarked Doyle to a question about the likelihood of LP-10 stations becoming a reality.
It would be too bad if LP-10 stations never made it on the air. Granted, their potential coverage areas are relatively miniscule, but in den sly-populated areas they would still have the potential to reach a sizeable number of listeners. There's also the probability that an LP-10 station might be licensed in some areas (especially the largest markets) where 100 or 250-watt stations either simply can't fit or are relegated to the suburbs.
The FCC is soliciting comment on the demise of the LP-10, as well as on a plethora of policy details related to the forthcoming LPFM expansion. Once it clears the translator backlog, the road will be open for filing windows from new stations.
The earliest this might happen would be September or October, and with thousands of LPFM license applications expected, the FCC will probably revive the process it used in 2000-2001, splitting the country into segments and opening a filing window for each segment. If the process works like it did in the first go-round, that means it'll take about a year for the application-process to run its course.
3/15/12 - Cumulus Acknowledges HD Malaise [link to this story]
That was then...this is now:
To my knowledge, this is the first time that a backer of HD Radio has been so forthright in a financial document about the tenuous nature of radio's digital transition.
Considering that Cumulus is the second-largest broadcast conglomerate in the United States (having purchased Citadel Broadcasting last year), this disclosure reads like a vote of little-to-no-confidence in the technology. One can only assume that Cumulus' slowdown in HD conversions applies to the Citadel stations it has acquired.
Cumulus is not alone in viewing HD technology with a jaundiced eye. Radio World reported in 2009 that an informal survey of executives in charge of capital expenditures at broadcast conglomerates found many planned to delay their digital conversion campaigns.
Beasley Broadcast Group chief technology officer Mike Cooney confirmed that his company was backing down on "HD conversions in the small markets and...putting money more in things that have a quicker return on investment for the capital money."
Transmitter-manufacturers have also been holding their cards close for years now. In 2009, Crown Broadcast reported that inquiries about HD-compatible equipment were virtually nonexistent. According to Tim Bealor, vice president of sales for Broadcast Electronics, "Unless we can figure out a way for broadcasters to make back their investment, [HD adoption] may be a futile effort."
These sentiments were echoed by Mike Troje, sales manager for Continental Electronics: "It’s a task to come up with what the right responses are for the industry when we don’t know what the end game is."
The end game remains fuzzy today. Although Cumulus' deal with iBiquity has been revised to reduce the number of stations it plans to convert to HD, it sounds like iBiquity saw little to no reduced revenue from the change. However, if other broadcasters have similarly downsized their transition-commitments, it does not bode well for HD Radio's long-term prospects.
Coupled with declining listener interest in the technology and anemic uptake by auto and electronics manufacturers, the overall state of radio's digital transition ain't pretty. The FCC's already put this ball firmly in the court of industry: the big question now is just how long broadcasters will nominally support HD Radio before something happens to force full-scale uptake or abandonment.
3/8/12 - Completing the Cycle of Translator Abuse: Hopping Madness [link to this story]
The abuse of FM translators continues unabated, and may be more insidious than anyone realizes - including (and especially) the FCC.
First there was Clark Parrish, the mastermind who swamped the FCC's license-application system during a 2003 filing window for new translators. He applied for thousands of stations under the guise of two shell corporations - Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting - with the intent of selling them off to other broadcasters so that he could build his own full-power religious radio empire with the proceeds.
The FCC, in response to outcry over such blatant sentimentalizing, froze a goodly portion of his translator applications in 2005. The entire mess remains unresolved today, though the FCC must untangle it before moving forward with an expansion of the LPFM radio service.
Since then, commercial and public broadcasters have also gotten creative with the use of translators. In 2009, AM broadcasters successfully lobbied for a rule change that allows them to rebroadcast their programming on up to five FM translators per AM station - all couched as a "tool" to provide "relief" from the increasingly RF-dirty AM band.
Since 2008, FM broadcasters have shredded the notion that FM translators provide a secondary broadcast service by employing them as outlets for FM-HD program streams. In this case, translators are effectively marketed as "new" stand-alone radio stations, since hardly anybody bothers to listen to an actual HD Radio signal.
Recently, a key tactic which enables such practices has come to light. It's called translator-hopping, and it works like this: a broadcast entrepreneur acquires a permit for an FM translator in some dinky radio market. He then files a series of minor modifications to its license with the FCC to move the translator closer/into a larger, more lucrative market.
The FCC classifies modifications to a broadcaster's license as major or minor. As a general rule, it is much more difficult to get the FCC to approve a major licensing change than it is a minor one. Thus, translator-hoppers file a series of minor changes to effect what is really a major change. This is a long-standing loophole - but with the massive proliferation of translators over the last ten years it, too, is getting stretched.
Location hops like these are incremental and transitory. In some cases, the FM translator isn't even properly constructed, just set up temporarily and on the air long enough to satisfy the deadline the FCC gives for stations to implement such license modifications. Another hop is then applied for (and granted), and before long the translator's reached its target destination, where it can serve market incumbents (like AM or FM-HD broadcasters) or as a "rimshot" station providing fractional (but fiscally attractive) coverage of the market for a new entrant.
Last month, the FCC opened up an investigation into Radio Power, Inc. directly related to the practice of translator-hopping. The case takes place in my own backyard, as the translator was initially established to "serve" my hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin. However, over a two-year period, applications were filed with the FCC to move the station six times (a distance of 69 miles, and nearly ten channels down the FM dial) into Milwaukee, the state's largest city.
The FCC's inquiry suggests that Radio Power may have never actually set up the translator at the sites it applied to operate from; at the very least, it suspects that the translator never operated for a meaningful amount of time at any of them until it got closer to its intended destination.
This particular instance of translator-hopping wouldn't have even tripped the FCC's trigger were it not for an interference complaint involving a Chicago-area station and some follow-up sleuthing by concerned constituencies in the Milwaukee radio market.
Radio Power, Inc., is owned by Tim Martz, the president of Martz Communications. Martz Communications owns full-power stations in New York and Pennsylvania. Radio Power, however, appears to have "satellite offices" scattered throughout the United States - FCC correspondence in this particular case is addressed to a dilapidated suite in Reno, Nevada.
Radio Power's primary business seems to be acquiring and moving FM translator stations for use as FM-HD program rebroadcasters, leasing access to its translators as analog outlets for digital programming. This is not the first time Radio Power has come to the FCC's attention regarding such dealings, either. Just last October, Martz et. al. were ordered to shut down an FM translator in a Detroit suburb for causing interference to a full-power station.
In both cases, Martz acquired his translators from none other than Clark Parrish. The Detroit-area station was sold to Martz by Radio Assist Ministry in 2009 for a cool $40,000, while the Wisconsin translator, first licensed to Edgewater Broadcasting in 2004, became a Radio Power property in 2010 in a deal worth $42,000. (In the same deal, Radio Power bought another translator from Edgewater, located in Mendota, Illinois for $36,000.)
A cursory search of the agency's databases turns up 10 FM translators licensed to Radio Power in eight states (Illinois; Michigan (2); Minnesota (2); Mississippi; Missouri; Pennsylvania; Texas; and Wisconsin).
Nine of these translators were purchased by Tim Martz (Radio Power) from Clark Parrish (Radio Assist Ministry/Edgewater Broadcasting) in deals cumulatively worth more than $225,000. Radio Power's tenth translator was acquired from Horizon Christian Fellowship, another notable trafficker, for $7,500 - with options to purchase another four stations.
Interestingly, four of Radio Power's 10 translators are listed as "silent," or not currently on the air. Martz may just be waiting for prospective users to come along; meanwhile, Radio Power will maneuver hops for them toward a profitable market where they are more likely to be leased.
Adding insult to injury, Radio Power had the gall to file comments in 2009 against the expansion of the LPFM service, claiming that such a move would "prevent the licensing of new FM translator stations in or the relocation of existing translator stations to urbanized areas, resulting in the denial of improved service to the public." Translation: expanding LPFM would interfere with Radio Power's business model, which involves abusing the FCC's translator rules for profit.
The decade-long growth in demand for FM translators has greatly inflated their value, creating a vibrant marketplace for such stations that has directly led to the sort of corruption-of-process that's so prevalent today. The transactional cycle is clear: a religious broadcaster speculating in FM translators sells them to a commercial broadcaster hoping to build a fleet of small rent-a-stations to serve beleaguered HD broadcasters. This most definitely warps the original intent of the FM translator service beyond recognition.
All of this is but one example of the FM translator market in action. It comes as no surprise that those who plumb FCC regulations for a living at the behest of the broadcast industry find nothing wrong with this state of affairs. Although the agency is poised to address some aspects of this abuse in its upcoming rulemaking on LPFM, it's unlikely to make changes substantive enough to put an end to it.