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News Archive: May 2013

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5/30/13 - Clear Channel: Give Us More Translators Before Expanding LPFM [link to this story]

Kudos to Matthew Lasar for unearthing an ex parte gem from the FCC files. Clear Channel's top engineering executive and chief lobbyist had a sit-down with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai earlier this month in which they covered a wide range of issues related to the state of AM broadcasting. Pai is pushing for an "AM Revitalization Initiative" at the FCC, which would consider several ideas related to finding sustainability for the nation's oldest broadcast band.

On the notion of an all-digital AM transition, Clear Channel's Jeff Littlejohn – who is also a member of iBiquity Digital Corporation's Board of Directors – was not enthusiastic, calling it "challenging" to set a date for an analog/digital switchover given the lack of listener enthusiasm for HD Radio and the massive amount of money it would cost all broadcasters to adopt the technology.

However, Clear Channel's stated position on AM's "migration" to FM is of greater concern. Clear Channel supports the idea of re-appropriating analog TV channels 5 and 6 for FM broadcasting, which would provide an opportunity for AM stations to exchange their licenses for FM ones. In the interim,

Mr. Littlejohn noted Clear Channel's endorsement of opportunities for AM stations to apply for new FM translators, both during an AM licensee-only filing window prior to an LPFM window and on an on-going AM stations transition to digital broadcasts and/or other spectrum.

It's unseemly for a company the likes of Clear Channel, which already owns 850 full-power radio stations, to ask for another bite at what FM spectrum remains before LPFM gets a chance to expand – an struggle that took 10 years to achieve. The company's already amassed several dozen translators under its belt over the last decade.

LPFM proponents would be wise to keep a wary eye on the FCC between now and October, when the next LPFM filing window is expected to open.

In an interview with Radio Ink last month, Pai said the timeline for actually making his AM initiative happen may be slipping. "Being the currently junior-most Commissioner at the FCC, I don't get to set the agenda....In the meantime, the best we can do is try to persuade our colleagues to keep working with folks on the outside." With only three sitting Commissioners at present, there's little chance of anything substantive taking place until those open seats are filled, which is expected to happen later this summer.

5/23/13 - Translator Market Comes Out of the Shadows [link to this story]

Playing end-of semester catchup: the Clear Channel-owned trade publication Inside Radio recently published an article quoting a station-appraiser who likens the booming market for FM translators to the birth of the Internet. Documents for more than three dozen translator sales have been filed with the FCC this year, compared to just three at this time in 2012.

Single translator stations are now regularly sold for tens of thousands of dollars, and can fetch even more if they're within spitting distance of major markets. This results in a market for FM translator spectrum potentially worth millions of dollars per year. (Clear Channel itself is quite invested in the translator market, especially when it comes to simulcasting its AM stations.)

The market for translators will only grow once the FCC approves "substantially more" than 1,000 new-station applications still pending from the Great Translator Invasion of 2003. To put the growth of this market into perspective, keep in mind that the FCC's station totals report more than 5,000 FM translators on the air, compared to 802 LPFM stations. The majority of those translators care less than 10 years old

The product of rampant speculation on the part of (mostly) religious broadcasters, the FM translator market is finally out of the shadows, and all signs point to the FCC modifying the service's rules to encourage its growth.

5/16/13 - The Limits of "Authorized" Innovation: Settling the DPR Dilemma [link to this story]

Last month's stalemate between iBiquity Digital Corporation, the proprietor of HD Radio, and upstart-innovator DigitalPower Radio appears to have been broken.

For those just tuning in: DPR claims to have invented a process that can make HD receivers much more sensitive, allowing for better reception of digital radio signals. iBiquity asserts that DPR's method is outdated and meaningless. Since iBiquity owns all aspects of HD Radio, it also controls the code necessary to verify or debunk DPR's claims.

At the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters last month, the NAB's Chief Technology Officer served as an intermediary to get iBiquity and DPR talking. Since then, iBiquity has softened its stance, inviting DPR's principals to its Maryland headquarters "sometime in May."

This is not the first time iBiquity has had outside innovators over for a chat. Radio World reports that "The company frequently vets ideas to improve the system, both from inside and outside the company....Typically what's proposed is not cost-effective, won't work with its technology or both."

In a nutshell, that explains the lack of consistent and sustained innovation in the HD Radio space. You've gotta pay to play, and even then the system developer has final say about whether or not your innovation is "viable." That determination pretty much comes down to how easily iBiquity can assimilate your intellectual property into its own. Since its business model depends on keeping full control over HD Radio's source code, outsiders like DPR represent the worst kind of trouble.

In many cases like these, when an outside innovator's work seems really promising, they'll be acquired outright by a system's proprietor. That's unlikely in the case of DPR. iBiquity doesn't have the financial wherewithal to acquire other companies, and DPR's technology has multiple potential uses across different wireless networks; why limit its market to radio broadcasting by assimilation into iBiquity?

At this point, iBiquity is committed to seeing DPR's claims through. That's the reason for the meeting at company HQ: loath to disclose any of HD Radio's source code, iBiquity will administer DPR's testing regime. If the results are positive, that puts iBiquity in a difficult position where the "black box" around HD technology may need to be breached in order to make a substantive improvement in it. That may be especially problematic for iBiquity because it involves the receiver-side of its business – the licensing of which right now accounts for nearly all of the company's revenue.

Given the tenuous state of HD Radio's proliferation, it seems silly to dally on such potential. But it's pretty much par for the course for a technology born of fear and hubris.

5/9/13 - What is Radio? Still an Open Question [link to this story]

It was an intense two days at the What is Radio? conference in Portland. The range of ideas presented at the event was amazing: deep discussions on aesthetics, history, organization, place-making, "voice" (defined many ways), law and policy, science and technology – and that just begins to scratch the surface. We did not collectively answer the conference's question...because there's no simple answer to be had.

Radio Survivor was there in force, and has provided some in-depth coverage of specific panels and plenaries: check Matthew Lasar's reports on the keynote event and the state of classical radio in NYC as well as Jennifer Waits' reportback on the world of prison radio. Both also presented their own research: Lasar offered perhaps the closest thing to a definition for "radio" to be found all weekend, while Waits detailed the ~90-year history of her alma mater's radio station. (She was also there on assignment for Radio World, so expect some coverage there as well.)

In addition, the conference organizers recorded short interviews with several participants, which allowed many to give an overview of what they brought to the event. Some of my favorites include Michael Marcotte's near-plea for public radio to invest more in local news; the work that Monica de la Torre has done to illustrate the DIY-roots of Spanish-language radio in the U.S.; Ivy Glennon's scathing indictment of the state of women in radio; and Jeff Jacoby's perspective on what it means to "teach radio" in the 21st century.

They were also nice enough also gave me the opportunity to riff a bit on the troubles of radio's digital transition in the United States. What is Radio? was the first opportunity I had to give a bona-fide book-talk – the room was packed for our panel, which delved into the future of radio in a digital media environment.

The feedback I've received from the conference has been uplifting, providing some much-needed inspiration to finish the manuscript. David Ossman, a founder of the Firesign Theatre, joined our panel via Skype (sans video, which was perfect for a gathering like this) and repeatedly called my research "terrifying" – which I hope to use as a future blurb, because that's pretty much what the story of HD Radio is.

There's more to come, too. Conference organizers are planning an edited volume with companion web site.

5/1/13 - Initial AM-HD All-Digital Test Results [link to this story]

An 11-page report, co-authored primarily by representatives of iBiquity, the NAB, and CBS, provides an overview of the methodology and preliminary results of a set of experimental all-digital HD broadcasts on WBCN-AM in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was the first test of the all-digital AM-HD system in more than ten years.

The authors believe the test broadcasts served as "an opportunity to begin developing a contemporary...record that would help educate the industry as to the capabilities of all-digital operation, develop all-digital operational parameters, and provide information which could be eventually submitted to the FCC for the purposes of obtaining permanent authorization for all-digital service."

Interestingly, the report suggests that the tipping-point for radio's digital transition will be when HD receiver penetration reaches 85%. With a current penetration rate of 1.7%, this suggests an all-digital transition remains several years away – unless HD proponents are able to redefine what "receiver penetration" means, which is not outside the realm of possibility in coming years.

WBCN operates on the expanded AM band at 1660 kHz, with 10,000 watts of power during the day and 1,000 watts at night, utilizing a non-directional signal pattern. It has been broadcasting in hybrid analog/HD mode since June of 2007.

The tests took place over "three weekends in late November and December 2012," encompassing about 30 total hours of broadcasts. Reception was measured in both mobile and indoor environments: eight test-drive routes were plotted and indoor reception was measured on an Insignia Narrator receiver in 15 locations encompassing "a variety of building types."

In the car, WBCN's all-digital signal could be heard relatively clearly during the day anywhere between 25 to 45 miles from the transmitter, and at night for 10 to 15 miles. Indoors, all-digital reception was possible at two-thirds of the test locations, all of which were within 13 miles (daytime) and 7 miles (nighttime) of the transmitter.

Inside Radio's report on the tests touts the results as promising, but it's important to note that WBCN represents a best-case experimental platform. Expanded-band AM stations are less susceptible to interference from other stations (because there are fewer stations located on expanded-band channels), and WBCN's antenna system is a straightforward design already optimized for HD broadcasts.

Under "Future Activities," it is noted that NAB Labs will coordinate further testing of the all-digital AM-HD protocol to "fully develop a performance record of operation in this mode." How extensive this record will be remains to be seen; in the interim, hopefully a more detailed analysis of the 2012 tests is forthcoming.