News Archive: April 2014
4/29/14 - NextRadio: On the Move? [link to this story]
Perhaps the most interesting news on the digital radio front to come out of the NAB's annual convention this year was the progress report on NextRadio. The Emmis-developed app works as an analog FM radio tuner on selected Android smartphones and was initially rolled out on the Sprint network last year; radio stations can also subscribe to a companion service to push related content to mobile listeners.
As of this month, NextRadio reported that the app had been downloaded more than 400,000 times through Google Play and has a 32% retention rate (meaning one-third of those who downloaded NextRadio continued to use it after a month). Some T-Mobile users have also successfully reported installing the app, and its developers say more phones are forthcoming with NextRadio pre-installed.
Yet broadcasters are not participating en masse: while 35% have signed up enough to have the app display their station logo (free), only 3% offer any interactivity through the app ($).
In many respects, NextRadio is an elegant kludge, bringing radio capability to the fastest-growing media device in the marketplace, while using the data-conduit of wireless telephony to provide a semblance of interactivity in the broadcast radio space. On the station-side, minimal NextRadio adoption costs nothing, but most FM chips in phones can also decode Radio Data System (RDS) signals, a decades-old supplemental FM technology that can provide some datacasting overhead within the app itself.
Prior to the NAB convention, NextRadio got a hearty endorsement from the CEOs of National Public Radio and American Public Media (even though NPR's already invested heavily in the mobile space), and Sprint added NextRadio-equipped phones to its Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile service lines. Emmis also announced it's beta-testing "interactive advertising" inside the app with "national brand" advertisers.
At the show itself, NextRadio demonstrated an automotive version of its app, which integrates HD-received data into the NextRadio experience (first demoed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January), and generally basked in the glow of a feisty first year post-launch. Radio World reported that Sprint and NextRadio were also working to get the app onto selected tablet devices later this year, but it would seem that they still have to figure out just which tablets might have FM receiver chips onboard.
On the day the convention wrapped up, industry trade All Access enthusiastically endorsed NextRadio, pledging it "will do all it can to help spread the word...and the need [for the radio industry] to truly get behind [the app]." The NAB also plans to add its heft to an upcoming campaign to encourage broadcaster buy-in.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told NAB attendees that the agency was unlikely to mandate FM chips in mobile devices, though she does hope they "will agitate carriers a little" to at least enable the FM-reception capability many smartphones already have. Outside of some vague talk of outreach, there's no signs that other wireless carriers are rushing to board the NextRadio train. The radio industry soiled its relationship with mobile device-makers four years ago when it suggested going directly to Congress for such a mandate, and the idea hasn't aged well.
At this stage, this position is somewhat baffling, for in a saturated device-market you'd think additional functionality would be a desirable differentiator. Furthermore, since NextRadio uses the carriers' data networks to serve up all interactive elements, it's unlikely that FM radio listenership alone will materially trim someone's data usage.
All Access columnist Perry Michael Simon, who was underwhelmed by a NextRadio retail experience earlier this year, came away from NAB with renewed respect for the app—as well as a long list of suggested improvements. Among them are enhanced geolocation services, the ability to switch between a station's FM signal and its stream, and the ability to record and share content between listeners. He saves the last suggestion "for the industry":
It's important to keep in mind that for all the potential of NextRadio, it's far from an industry-wide solution. AM and HD reception simply does not exist on mobile devices, and there's no expectation for this to change. NextRadio might stand to unify the presentation of broadcasters on the glass dashboards of vehicles, provided this version makes it out of beta and automakers can be convinced to install it expeditiously.
I do not envy the long road NextRadio must travel before it might reach the near-ubiquity of other mobile services that are slowly redefining what "radio" itself is. Relative to those, the overall penetration of and engagement with the U.S. radio listening audience is infinitesimal, so in addition to coaxing broadcasters on board, mobile device manufacturers must be convinced to enable FM reception; every wireless carrier must be convinced to embrace the app; and the app itself needs to work across operating systems (Android-only won't cut it).
These are no small feats, and they will require a unity of purpose among broadcasters far beyond what's been mustered for prior digital projects. Even so, NextRadio may very well be radio's only ongoing digital play that promises some meaningful return-on-investment. Unlike HD Radio, for example, NextRadio does not require stations to invest in proprietary technologies or re-build their transmission systems. The two strategies are almost apples and oranges—save for the fact that they both are the products of an industry player looking to make a buck off their innovation from other industry players.
Emmis might make NextRadio more attractive by Mozilla-izing it: make it free to use in all respects and open it up to public development. Devote a percentage of advertising revenue sold through the app to sustaining the NextRadio Foundation (or whatever) as a stable development coordinator, system-maintainer, and evangelistic platform. Early rumblings about interactive advertising make me worry about what just where the industry's priorities are. "Putting FM on smartphones" is really just one small step into the convergent media environment of the twenty-first century. Part of this journey means letting go of the silly notion that you can wholly control your own destiny.
4/22/14 - Pirate Raids Offer Glimpse Into FCC Fieldwork [link to this story]
It's been a busy month for FCC field agents and Federal Marshals in the Northeast. Last week they raided and seized the equipment of three unlicensed radio stations in the Boston area, while two weeks prior they took down four pirate stations in New York City.
The Boston raids netted a long-time pirate who operated way out in the open. TOUCH FM, founded by long-time and well-respected community activist Charles Clemons, had been on the air for eight years. Clemons was also quite engaged in the movement to expand low-power FM radio and even ran for mayor of Boston last year. He's been on the FCC's radar since 2007, when he was first visited and warned; the agency followed up with a $17,000 fine in 2008, which was never paid.
The reverberations of TOUCH's bust were impressive. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick even attempted to intervene to stop the raid, but was unsuccessful. Many other state and local officials are pledging to do whatever they can to get TOUCH FM back on the air in a legal fashion, but the sad fact is there are no open LPFM frequencies in that area of Boston.
Little is known about the other two stations taken down in the Boston suburbs.
The raids in New York were the culmination of nearly two years of sleuthing. The four stations apparently operated in pairs; all broadcast a variety of Spanish-language music formats; most of them were not 24/7 operations, on-air primarily at night. The FCC believes that at least one (perhaps more) of the stations were part of a network of Latin music pirates operating throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
All four stations apparently transmitted out of the same high-rise apartment complex in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, while their studio facilities were located in the Bronx, using the Internet as a studio-to-transmitter link. At least one of them was the subject of a complaint about causing interference to an FM translator chain, possibly leading to the pirate's inadvertent rebroadcast.
What's particularly fascinating in the New York busts is the fact that the U.S. Attorney overseeing the seizures unsealed the investigation files, giving a rare glimpse into the tools and tactics field agents utilize in their work. The two documents contain 100+ pages of goodies about the scope and severity of serious pirate-hunts.
In addition to running down building owners, vehicle registrations, and website/social media profiles, agents take photos of their targets, make recordings of station programming, and subpoena records from phone companies (Vonage, in this case) in order to obtain identifying information on station operators.
In the field, they use a cluster of measurements to determine a pirate station's precise location and transmitting power, down to the tenth of a meter and tenth of a decibel respectively. Their field vehicles (the unsealed files include make and model of approved field-strength meters) integrate this information into a unified display (right) providing all the essentials necessary to start the enforcement protocol in earnest.
Only federal officials appear to be involved in both sweeps. This is interesting because the state of New York has its own anti-pirate law on the books, which makes unlicensed broadcasting a misdemeanor, and there's no word if the principals behind those stations will face further prosecution. The Massachusetts state legislature is currently debating a similar bill, which would impose stiff fines on pirates and allow licensed broadcasters to sue their pants off.
Radio Survivor's Paul Riismandel wonders if these actions are part of some coordinated effort "timed with the ongoing approval of LPFMs in order to demonstrate to the broadcast industry that the Commission isn't going light on enforcement, and that it isn't deaf to the industry's concerns." This could very well be true, though the most egregious violators are also the easiest pickings, and many of these cases have been pending for years.
With all this action, I updated the Enforcement Action Database to see if these sweeps have any nationwide implications. The answer is no: in fact, with activity reported in seven states so far this year, the aggregate rate of enforcement activity is actually running behind the norms of the last couple of years. It's almost as if mustering the energy to make high-profile busts in two of the nation's most notorious pirate hot-spots sapped it away from other areas of the country, or something.
Here on the Midwood/Flatbush border in Brooklyn, a cursory FM bandscan brings 16 pirate stations, the majority of which offer a smorgasbord of Caribbean music and religious programming. That's the most I've ever picked up at once, and pretty compelling evidence that the recent high-profile activity uptown has not reverberated at all just 15 miles away.
4/15/14 - Workers Independent News v. FCC: The FOIA Dance [link to this story]
Today I had a long conversation with two agency attorneys, who report that because my request was so broad (any correspondence related to the WLS case) there may well be more than 1,000 pages of documents involved. The majority of these are apparently e-mails between FCC staff.
In essence, the FCC attorneys were trying to convince me to narrow the scope of my FOIA request to save them work. This is a common tactic many state and federal agencies use to stymie such inquiries. Their rationales went something like this:
"This is a very old case, there's a ton of stuff here, so it will take us much longer to fulfill your request." Sorry to hear that, but I want everything you have on this case.
"You may not even get the information you seek, because certain types of e-mail correspondence is exempt from FOIA." That's fine, and sorry to make you redact the hell out of things, but even that information may be useful to me.
"Perhaps you could revise your FOIA request only to ask for correspondence relating to that aspect of the decision where Workers Independent News has been impugned." I'd love to do that, but the FCC's journalistic determination about WIN pervades the decision in many respects, so it's not possible for me to narrow my ask down to specific mentions in the Forfeiture Order against WLS ....especially since we don't know yet (and neither do they) if any such discussions about WIN's journalistic legitimacy even took place.
"This is going to cost you." As an academic who is also a member of the news media, I get the first 100 pages for free, and then it's 10 cents per page after that. If that's 1,000 pages, then I pay for 900; I can certainly afford $90 (or even more, if necessary).
"You know, you're not the only FOIA request we have. This one could take us hundreds of hours of time to work on." I totally understand that, but it's also not my fault that someone in the Enforcement Bureau (they do not believe an administrative law judge was involved in the decision) went so far off the reservation that it forced my hand. You made this bed, you lie in it.
Interesting sidenote: during the conversation, the FCC attorneys first claimed that they had not read the Forfeiture Order in the WLS case. Not 10 minutes later, they claimed to have read both the decision and "your Congressional thing." I feigned ignorance: "Congressional thing?" There was dead silence for a beat, and then they came back and said basically, "Whoops, our bad, different case." I don't believe that, which suggests that someone in Congress has reached out to the agency on this issue, and that also counts for something.
All the FCC has to do is rewrite its WLS forfeiture to remove the news value judgments the agency makes about Workers Independent News, and apologize to WIN for straying into making unconstitutional territory, and this would all go away. Obviously this is not something the FCC is prepared to consider at this point. No estimate yet on exactly how long it will take for the agency to comply with my FOIA request, either.
4/8/14 - Digital Developments in Vegas [link to this story]
A couple of weeks ago, Radio World's Leslie Stimson contacted me for some thoughts on HD Radio as part of a "status report" the newspaper was working on. That turned out to be a 35-page "e-book" in which the "skeptics" and "critics" got three pages sandwiched between some "sponsored content" from iBiquity and a piece from the company's director of broadcast sales singing the praises of the "HD Radio-On-Translator play."
While I'm glad that Radio World considers me a "responsible viewpoint" in the ongoing digital radio transition, it's a bit unnerving to be tossed into the "haters" camp so nonchalantly. So here's the entirety of what I wrote Stimson when she asked for comments:
The first four paragraphs are really just basic information; the last one is where my head is at. Broadcaster support for HD is essential for the viability of radio's digital transition, and one way to make that happen sooner rather than later is to make some major revisions to the technology's functionality, both technically and economically, all of which are within the realm of the realistically possible.
More than 90,000 people are in Las Vegas for the National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention, and there's already been some notable digital radio news, such as a summary of all-digital AM test broadcast results to-date and the release of a dashboard-variant of the NextRadio app that integrates HD-related content (HD has yet to penetrate mobile devices). HD proponents may also be setting the groundwork to ask for another power increase to make FM-HD broadcasts more reliable.
While I don't expect much vigorous debate over HD Radio in public at the NAB Show, what I'd give to be a fly on the wall in the suite-discussions. The real world is much more complicated, there's a lot of ground between perfection and failure, and the truth about HD Radio lies somewhere in between. Breaking the unproductive us-versus-them dichotomy is the first step to confronting radio's digital dilemma head-on.
4/1/14 - Book Report, etc. [link to this story]
Two weeks left to spring break in the CUNY system and everyone's struggling to maintain their sanity on the tail-end of what has been a grueling year. So a potpourri of sorts this week:
Radio's Digital Dilemma. 75 copies of the hardcover have been sold through mid-March, which is way more than I had expected by this point. (You or your local library can order direct through Routledge and receive 20% off by using code JRK96 at checkout. Amazon's Kindle version is similarly "cheaper.") Once 200 copies are sold, a sanely-priced paperback run will commence. Routledge gives 18 months to make this goal, which puts the drop-dead deadline for paperback release in June of 2015.
Last week, Routledge published a five-question interview with me about the book and where it came from. Long story short, the seeds for this project were planted well more than a decade ago, when I first became a refugee from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
I've also written a commentary related to the book for the European Journalism Observatory, a project of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. It emphasizes the primary cautionary tale: when ideology trumps science, bad things happen that have lasting effects on the health of a media system.
Workers Independent News v. FCC. Work continues to confront the FCC about its troublesome ruling on the validity of broadcast journalism. Multiple vectors are in play: the first is Congress, who has the power of the purse over the FCC and who may be able to persuade the agency to walk back their censorship of WIN with some targeted prodding. Members in both the House of Representatives and Senate are intrigued by this case and have agreed to sniff around.
If legislative entreaties fail, then it's time to lawyer up. I'm in discussions with two folks who specialize in media and labor issues and are preliminarily interested in taking our case; the recommendation at this time is to let the Congressional inquiries play themselves out first, as those could completely obviate the need for a legal battle. That is, if the FCC is willing to listen to reason.