News Archive: April 2013
4/24/13 - What is Radio? Answers Debated in Portland [link to this story]
This weekend the University of Oregon's George S. Turnbull Portland Center will play host to the What is Radio? conference. (Last year, it held a similar event focused on television.) The idea is to explore ideas related to "the changing nature of radio."
Things begin Thursday night with an opening reception and the Johnston Lecture delivered by Charles Jaco, a long-time broadcast news correspondent perhaps best-known (career-wise) for his work with CNN during the first Gulf War, and who more recently made headlines as the interviewer to whom former Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin made his infamous "legitimate rape" comment.
This kicks off two full days of plenaries and panel discussions covering a wide range of radio-related issues. I'm particularly looking forward to Christopher Terry's overview of changes in media ownership regulations since the passage of the Telecommunications Act; Lawrie Hallett's presentation on pirate radio enforcement issues in the United Kingdom; Ivy Glennon's examination of "canned" radio; Marko Ala-Fossi, Per Jauert, and Stephen Lax's update on the status of Europe's digital radio transition; and the variety of presentations addressing the morphing identity of "radio" from on-air to online and points in-between, just to name a few.
Radio Survivor's Matt Lasar and Jennifer Waits will also be in attendance, making presentations on the new ways DJs communicate with listeners and the "secret history" of Haverford College's radio station, respectively.
I'll be presenting my first-ever book talk (forthcoming from Routledge) during the last round of panels on Saturday, providing a comprehensive and critical overview of radio's digital transition in the United States. It's hard to boil down ~250 pages covering >20 years into 20 minutes, and in a very real sense, this is the coming-out party for Radio's Digital Dilemma, so I'm both excited and terrified of this coming weekend.
4/18/13 - DigitalPower Radio Dispute: The Downside of Closed Systems [link to this story]
There's been an interesting story playing itself out over the last month involving a company's claims of discovering a way to dramatically improve reception of HD Radio signals.
Florida-based DigitalPower Radio announced in late March that it has developed a computational method that allows radio receivers a stronger lock on AM- and FM-HD signals, especially in areas where there might be analog-to-digital interference. Challenging conditions such as these have been detrimental to the robustness of HD signals more generally, for which the (FM) power increase implemented by some stations a couple of years ago only partially helped.
This improvement might be especially helpful in portable and mobile devices, as the change is made on a chip in the HD receiver, not on the transmission side.
DigitalPower Radio is not an outsider to the HD world. Its principal scientist, Brana Vojcic, has prior development experience with HD Radio technology. The Beasley Broadcast Group (a long-time HD proponent) is an investor, and DPR has brought on former FCC Chairman Mark ("TV is nothing but a toaster with pictures") Fowler as a manager.
Fowler told Radio World that their projected improvement looks promising in computer simulations, and now they're ready to try some real-world experiments.
However, iBiquity Digital Corporation – the company that controls all of HD Radio's intellectual property – is dismissing the potential innovation outright. According to iBiquity chief scientist Brian Kroeger, DigitalPower Radio's experiments were based on "faulty assumptions" about HD's current working characteristics. In effect, Kroeger submits that DPR made its analysis using an outdated version of HD technology, and the most current one already utilizes many of DPR's proposed reception tweaks.
At the recently-concluded annual conference of the National Association of Broadcasters, both sides met with trade industry reps for further discussion. The dispute could be easily settled if iBiquity would allow an examination of its HD receiver source code, to make independent verification or debunking of DPR's claims possible. However, iBiquity is apparently not willing to consider this.
This is very demonstrative of the tyranny of closed technological systems, where innovation is constrained to the whims of the primary developer. It's the old Microsoft model, which iBiquity has been dedicated to pursuing since it was founded more than 12 years ago. The proprietary nature of the HD Radio system is its most glaring fundamental detriment.
It's also why innovation in the HD Radio space comes in fits and starts. The primary developer doesn't have the financial wherewithal to innovate on its own, and the only other parties allowed to innovate must either have direct buy-in to HD Radio or are willing to pretty much give away their work to iBiquity.
CBS and the NAB have been the primary facilitators of technical improvements to the HD standard. Multicasting, arguably the technology's most notable feature, was developed by National Public Radio. Clear Channel handled the early efforts to market and promote the technology. And Emmis Communications is spearheading the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium as well as the industry's primary efforts to get both analog and digital radio into mobile devices.
It is also not the first time that a digital radio innovator may get stymied by the nature of a closed HD system. Around the turn of the century, a company called Digital Radio Express unveiled a technology that allowed the transmission of digital FM signals as subcarriers to – not sidebands of – existing analog FM signals. This was initially perceived as a direct competitor to HD Radio.
In a turn of events that's not completely clear, iBiquity acquired a share of Digital Radio Express and suddenly the company stopped marketing its technology as a bona-fide digital radio standard. Instead, it now positions itself as a supplementary datacasting system named VuCast.
Any end-game to the DigitalPower Radio dispute must involve iBiquity's participation. If DPR's technology does demonstrate some advantage, you can expect iBiquity to try and acquire it somehow, as that's absolutely necessary to keep a firm lock on the entirety of HD's fundamental intellectual property.
It's a hell of a way to run a railroad.
4/11/13 - Greasing the Skids for AM's Digital Transition [link to this story]
The National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention just wrapped up in Las Vegas, and HD Radio proponents used the event to begin the push to make the AM dial all-digital.
At a panel on "AM Band Revitalization" moderated by Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai – the first Commissioner to moderate a panel at the NAB Show – CBS Radio Senior Vice President of Engineering Glynn Walden told attendees that there was no sustainable future for analog AM broadcasting and that the FCC should set a date for an "for a digital AM sunrise and for an analog AM sunset."
Walden has been one of the broadcast industry's point-people on HD Radio from the very beginning. He helped develop the system's core technical design and specifications, co-founded the company from which iBiquity Digital Corporation was born, and was instrumental in lobbying the FCC to approve HD as the U.S. digital radio standard. With three HD patents to his name, Walden would like nothing more than to see his baby actually fly after languishing all these years.
As Walden floated this notion, Commissioner Pai was taking notes.
The implications of this proposition resonate far beyond the AM dial: it is an audacious gamble to secure HD Radio a strong foundation on which to become the undisputed and permanent standard for all radio broadcasters. Between the AM and FM bands, AM has the fewest stations and suffers from the most technical and fiscal distress. Forcing all AM stations to go digital is being cast as a move to deal with a crisis – but the strategic significance of such a move will make it easier to force FM stations (of which there are more, and more money at stake) to adopt HD eventually.
This is how fundamental transformations to media policy are made. First, the proponents of change launch a test-balloon to see if the initial reaction is positive or negative. If positive, then research is conducted to justify the change (this has been dubbed "the creation of facts on the ground"), and in many cases where the impetus for change comes from industry this work is not peer-reviewed or independently verified. Then the formal process of crafting and implementing the new policy begins. Once step 3 is reached, the inertia for making the change is already well-established.
I've been covering the process of walking through steps 1 and 2 for the past year, and broadcast engineer Paul Thurst recently wrote an illuminating four-part series about the NAB et al.'s creation of facts on the ground involving the all-digital AM-HD tests carried out so far (more are in the works).
Glynn Walden's declaration that the FCC needs to make AM digital conversion mandatory means that step 3 will shortly begin. The fact that it happened during Commissioner Pai's panel on "AM's revitalization" at the broadcast industry's largest gathering signals in no uncertain terms that the FCC will take such a proposal very seriously. And because regulators remain willfully ignorant about HD Radio's inherent viability (coupled with the fact that they have a history of giving its proponents nearly everything they want), they are already predisposed to do the same here.
(By the way, this formula for change works across various media systems and policies: step 1 is currently underway on the notion of fundamentally revising copyright law.)
The kicker will be how HD Radio's proponents address the proprietary nature of iBiquity's system. When the FCC authorized HD's rollout in 2002, it did not make radio's digital transition mandatory for this very reason. "[T]he endorsement of [HD Radio] does not compel any broadcaster to initiate digital transmissions....Those broadcasters choosing not to initiate such digital operations will not be materially affected," claimed the Commission back then.
In 2007, the FCC reaffirmed this stance. "Commenters generally support a marketplace transition to digital audio broadcasting," said the agency. "Stations may decide if, and when, they will provide digital service to the public....Moreover, there is no evidence in the record that marketplace forces cannot propel the [digital radio] conversion forward, and effective markets tend to provide better solutions than regulatory schemes.
"When [HD] receiver penetration has reached a critical mass and most, if not all, radio stations broadcast in a hybrid digital format, we will begin to explore the technical and policy issues germane to an all-digital radio environment."
Letting the marketplace decide digital radio's fate explains the push to force the issue now, because the marketplace is not working in favor of HD proponents. Only 15% of all broadcast stations use HD (among AM stations, just 4% do, of which only 1% use the hybrid HD system 24 hours a day). Just 2% of U.S. radio receivers are HD-compatible. And HD broadcasts account for just 2% of all radio listening.
To fix this state of affairs, you force government intervention. In a U.S. media policy environment steeped in the tenets of neoliberalism, it reeks of hypocrisy. Start small, on the dial where it will involve the "least disruption" and the "most opportunity," and use that as precedent to mandate a wholesale conversion.
The FCC could make moves on this front by as early as next year, and if the impending AM campaign succeeds there's no reason why a full-on digital radio transition deadline couldn't be set before the end of the decade.
There are a lot of moving parts to this story. But the likelihood of meaningfully intervening in the process while there's still time is short, and any meaningful intervention will require the work of a diverse constituency of independent broadcasters, honest broadcast engineers, and an activated public. The end game is all the marbles: will those who seek a better digital future for radio come out to play?
4/4/13 - ZoneCasting Technology and Costs Detailed [link to this story]
It first seemed to come out of nowhere: a Texas-based company announced last year that it had developed a system it calls "ZoneCasting," which would allow FM radio stations to subdivide their primary coverage area into specific locales using FM booster stations. Each "zone" would serve up geo-targeted advertising.
An initial proposal to the FCC from ZoneCasting's proprietor, Geo-Broadcast Solutions, asking for a rule-change governing FM boosters (to allow them to originate programming) attracted hardly any comment from within the radio industry. Many broadcast engineers initially seemed skeptical that ZoneCasting could work in a real-world environment.
Things have changed significantly over the course of a year. Transmitter-manufacturer Harris (who developed the means to use FM boosters in sync) has signed onto the ZoneCasting system, and NPR Labs has endorsed it – so much so that it's committed to further testing of the technology.
In an interview with Radio World in February, Geo-Broadcast's CEO Peter Handy emphasized the advertising windfall its system might provide broadcasters. "FM radio stations will have more inventory to sell while delivering the same amount of non-commercial content," said Handy. "The potential for the overall radio industry is exceptional. Stations that implement the ZoneCasting system could grow their top line revenue by 20 percent or more per year."
Rich Redmond, Harris' VP of strategy and product management, says ZoneCasting works by using "a combination of advanced technology for transmission of a signal and careful network design to ensure the desired area of coverage is achieved while at the same time mitigating any undesired interference to the primary station or others." Redmond also noted that not all booster-stations in a ZoneCasting setup will broadcast full-time: some "only operate during the times of local content insertion to cover a certain area with the local content, and then turn off once that content is completed."
NPR Labs' senior technologist John Kean says they're bringing their extensive experience in signal propagation-modeling to the table, as well as conducting listener experiments to investigate just how much potential interference there might be between a full-power FM station's primary transmitter and its fleet of booster-nodes.
These won't be tiny stations, though: Kean expects boosters employed for ZoneCasting to operate at an effective radiated power between 500 to 5000 watts. Booster antennas may be "highly directive," and will be sited "typically only 25 to 40 meters above ground, to control the coverage of each node and avoid spilling signal across distant nodes or into areas to be served by the primary transmitter." Spacing between nodes "may range from one to five kilometers, depending on terrain and building density," and each zone within a station's subdivided coverage area "may require from five to 20 nodes" to provide adequate service.
GBS' attorney, Aaron Shainis, hopes that the FCC will convene a rulemaking on modifying FM booster rules to allow them to originate programming "sometime during the first half of 2013."
Ultimately, the big questions remaining to be resolved revolve around radio-frequency physics and economics – with the money-angle perhaps being the deciding factor. Provided that the ZoneCasting system can be proven to work reliably in a variety of terrain and networked configurations, it's going to come down to return-on-investment.
Harris' Redmond estimates that it would cost between $39,000 to $55,000 to set up each booster-node. Considering that each "zone" in a ZoneCasting system will require between five and 20 nodes, that's an estimated capital cost of $195,000 to $1.1 million per zone. Multiply that figure-range for each additional zone that a broadcaster may want to create.
These costs do not include "an upfront licensing fee that will vary by market size" which broadcasters will need to pay to use the ZoneCasting system, nor does it include residual costs to run each booster-node, such as tower rental, power, and the data-network necessary to program each node. It also doesn't take into consideration the additional labor necessary to produce the commercial inventory that each zone will require.
The radio industry as a whole is suffering from a revenue-plateau, with little significant growth expected in the near future. Capital expenditures by broadcasters have been slashed in recent years. Subdividing a station's coverage area in order to increase the amount of advertising it can offer feels like an attempt to squeeze every possible penny out of a market afflicted by malaise. But is the effort worth the expense, both from a financial perspective and with regard to spectrum-integrity?
The bottom line may very well be the bottom line – provided the FCC eventually allows the use of FM boosters to be transformed in a manner eerily similar to what has happened with FM translators over the last two decades.