News Archive: March 2013
3/28/13 - Checking the Pulse of Shortwave Piracy [link to this story]
Shortwave radio enthusiasts gathered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania earlier this month for the 26th annual Shortwave Listening Fest. The Fest is the longest-running conference of its kind in the United States, and several pirates actually broadcast from the event; the granddaddy of them all is the Voice of Pancho Villa, which has closed out the Fest every year with a special midnight broadcast.
Each Fest also features a pirate radio forum, where shortwave scenesters provide an overview of the state of the band. This year's forum was moderated by George Zeller, a long-time pirate radio enthusiast who's written several columns on the subject for a variety of radio publications.
Zeller got the 40-minute discussion going by calling the FCC a "malicious organization" (boos and hisses abounded), and ran through some of the most popular shortwave frequencies on which to find pirates. He categorized the scene as quite vibrant: "If I wanted to list all the pirates that were active last year, I would've had to bring a book!"
Greg Majewski, the editor of the shortwave-centric Free Radio Weekly, told attendees that there's been a "reduction of activity" in the number of listener reception reports to his publication, but he thinks the downturn is a function of migration to the Internet for reception reports and acknowledgements.
The online environment, said Majewski, has "revolutionized" the audience for shortwave pirate radio: listeners can share reception conditions and reports in real-time, and with streaming shortwave receivers positioned around the world, it's possible for listeners to hear broadcasts that they can't pull out of the ionospheric muck at their physical locations.
Majewski characterizes shortwave piracy as "a steady stream of activity," where most pirates "stay on for about an hour," limiting their time on air in hopes of complicating the FCC's impressive capabilities to triangulate shortwave transmissions.
Since the Fest, Chris Smolinski, the founder of HFUnderground.com, has conducted his own impressive analysis of shortwave piracy. Also based on listener reports, Smolinski found that dozens of stations were active over the course of 2012, making more than 130 transmissions every month.
The weekends are the most active time to find shortwave pirates on the air, though every day of the week there's something to listen to. The "busiest" month for shortwave piracy in 2012 was December, and the "slowest" month was May.
Ultimately, Smolinski believes there is "a very high level of activity" today, "as compared to what I remember from the 1980s and even the 1990s." Considering the FCC's relative lack of interest in shortwave pirate enforcement, it would seem that there's no better time than the present to scope the band and perhaps hike a mast.
3/20/13 - HD Radio: By the (Disputed) Numbers [link to this story]
The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has released its annual State of the Media report, and it does not have kind words for radio. It laments the decimation of radio journalism and documents how other digital audio platforms are gaining traction at the expense of broadcasters. It also minces no words about the state of HD Radio:
The entire mention of HD is just two paragraphs, and includes a graph illustrating the net decline in the number of HD stations on the air.
The technology's proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation, was quick to pounce on the "error" of Pew's analysis. iBiquity CEO Bob Struble claims there was a "net gain" of 16 HD stations in 2012.
As if this correction paints the state of HD adoption in a brighter light: with more than 15,000 full-power AM and FM stations currently on the air, HD's penetration rate leaped forward an astounding .12% last year. That's progress?
Both Pew and Struble claim that 2,048 stations were broadcasting in HD at the end of 2012. This is at odds with the FCC's own database, which returns a total of 2,038 HD stations. This includes 1,733 full-power FM stations, 299 AM stations, one LPFM station, two FM translators, and 3 FM boosters.
Of course, even these numbers don't accurately reflect the number of HD stations actually on the air. Although the FCC requires stations to notify when they commence HD broadcasts, they don't have to notify when they shut it off. Barry McLarnon has well-documented nearly 100 AM stations that have abandoned the protocol, and there's no way to quantify the number of FM stations that have ceased digital broadcasts.
Thus the number of HD stations on the air is actually lower than what the "conventional wisdom" suggests – fewer than 2,000 stations in all.
Struble provides unconfirmable figures about the number of FM-HD multicast streams available. He says that there are 1,446 HD-2, -3, and -4 streams on the air. This works out to about two-thirds of all FM-HD stations actually engaged in multicasting – by far the technology's most-adopted feature, but in the context of overall uptake not particularly impressive.
Furthermore, Struble suggests the growth in HD receiver sales demonstrates a "50% annual growth rate" in the adoption of HD by listeners. However, it's easy to claim explosive growth when you're starting from nothing. And this number doesn't quite add up, either.
In 2010, Struble told Radio World that just 200,000 HD receivers had been sold through mid-2008 (in the first six years of the technology's life in the wild). Between that point in time and June of 2010, the number of receivers sold rose to 2.5 million. In the rebuttal to Pew, iBiquity claims that 1.8 million receivers were sold in 2010, 2.2 million in 2011, and 3.9 million in 2012.
Adding these numbers up in the most generous light to iBiquity produces a total of 10.4 million receivers sold through last year – 1.6 million fewer than iBiquity's claim of 12 million sales in all.
Finally, Radio World's Leslie Stimson presumes to catch the Pew report in a contradiction when it claims that HD adoption in vehicles lags behind the adoption of streaming audio apps such as Pandora. Stimson notes that HD is available in some form across 29 automotive makes and models, while Pandora is available on just 20.
I suspect that Pew intended to use Pandora as an example of the inroads streaming audio is making in vehicles. For many other streaming apps (such as iHeartRadio and Spotify) also come pre-installed in automobiles; were one to add those in, how much larger might streaming's adoption actually be?
HD Radio (launched in 2002) had a three-year head start over Pandora (launched in 2005). Effectively, the two are neck-and-neck as far as adoptive penetration goes, but the rate of growth of streaming apps in vehicles is outpacing the adoptive trajectory of HD Radio.
It's interesting that a two-paragraph "analysis" in a much larger study was found worthy enough to merit a two-page rebuttal in the radio industry's leading trade publication. It's illustrative the tenuous and sensitive state of radio's digital transition in the United States.
Sidenote: Radio Ink publisher Eric Rhoads has issued a mea culpa about his recent article warning that radio was about to become extinct in automobiles. "My mistake is that I put something in quotes from my recollections...and my quote was inaccurate," he writes. "My editorial has caused many within the radio industry much grief and therefore, I feel it best to rescind my original quote and issue an official apology....I truly regret any confusion or misinformation that resulted, and I sincerely apologize for the error."
3/13/13 - Radio's Imminent Demise in the Dashboard? [link to this story]
Radio Ink publisher Eric Rhoads penned a frantic and strident report following the magazine's annual ConVergence Radio Conference earlier this month in which he warns of radio's impending extinction in vehicles.
You would think this would be big news...if it were true. But is it true?
The report itself is not the strongest piece of journalism Radio Ink's ever published. The dateline is wrong, none of the panelists' names are given, and none of the quotes are specifically attributed.
I asked for verification from Buzz Knight, Greater Media's Vice President for Program Development, via Twitter. He's the only person Rhoads mentions by name in his story.
Rhoads insinuates that General Motors (and Chevrolet in particular) are on the ditch-radio frontier – a statement Knight says is "not true." Although Radio Ink has posted conference highlights to its YouTube channel, there's nothing in those clips to substantiate this report.
So what do we really have here?
Radio Ink's worries about radio's loss of relevancy, especially in the car, are valid. It's a fact that streaming broadband is coming to vehicles – though it's really been there for as long as people could tether smartphones to the dashboard. That is fundamentally changing media consumption practices on the road. It is also true that automakers work on a multi-year development cycle, so decisions on what to include in new vehicles have already been made.
But just what do automakers gain by removing radio as an infotainment option? Relative to the cost of development and construction, radio is a cheap feature to add and does have some utility, especially in emergencies when wireless broadband networks fail and radio stations remain on the air.
Rhoads also suggests that if radio remains in the car, it will only be via HD: "Whether these same companies will still offer HD Radio needs to be addressed -- it may or may not be part of their plans. If it is, you'll be forced to upgrade to HD to reach people in new cars."
This won't happen. HD technology doesn't work that way. The HD receiver system is designed to work with both analog and digital radio signals. There's no margin – and no reason – to separate one from the other in the receiver system.
That said, it's not like HD is catching fire, in vehicles or elsewhere. Arbitron recently reported that FM-HD multicasts reach a whopping 3.6 million people per week, or 1.5% of the overall U.S. radio audience. If automakers were to ditch radio because they consider it unpopular, they wouldn't keep just HD.
Radio is likely to remain in the dashboard for the foreseeable future, though it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility for specific automotive models with specific option levels to go without. Whether radio remains a regularly-used infotainment option among the growing plethora of choices that now exist is a whole other matter.
3/7/13 - Boston Radio Pirate Runs for Mayor [link to this story]
The city of Boston, Massachusetts is gearing up for a mayoral election later this year, and among the folks throwing their hat into the ring is Charles Clemons.
A former Boston police and corrections officer, Clemons may be better known as the founder of Touch 106 FM, a microradio outlet busted by the FCC in 2007-08. Clemons received a $17,000 forfeiture for unlicensed broadcasting and refusing to allow FCC agents to inspect the station.
Following the FCC action, Clemons walked from Boston to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the Local Community Radio Act, which opened the door to an expansion of LPFM (though it still bars pirate broadcasters from a path to legality).
Despite the fine, Touch FM remains on the air today. There is no indication that Clemons has appealed or paid the fine...nor any evidence that the FCC is pursuing collection.
Clemons doesn't have much of a platform as of yet, and by all accounts he's a long-shot candidate. It will be interesting to see whether Touch FM takes a position in the race: FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from officially endorsing a particular candidate, but considering that Touch operates without a license, there's no reason for it to abide by such content-based regulation.