News Archive: June 2006
6/29/06 - Radio Convergence: The Next Step [link to this story]
The definition of "radio" just got more complicated. Walk into any big-box electronics store and ask for "digital radio," and they'll (more likely than not) point you to XM and Sirius satellite receivers - much to the consternation of terrestrial radio broadcasters, who want their "HD" technology to be synonymous with "digital." Receiver manufacturers are also blurring this boundary - one will soon roll out a receiver which is both XM and HD-compatible.
Now, XM has filed for a patent on the process of taking an XM satellite radio signal and rebroadcasting it as one of the channels on an HD-equipped FM radio station. This is actually somewhat easier than it might sound, because the audio encoding algorithms used by HD radio and satellite radio are related - they're products of Lucent Technologies. Lucent has not only licensed its codec technology to XM and Sirius, but it's a partial-owner of iBiquity Corporation, the company that owns the HD radio technology.
In fact, during HD's development, Lucent foisted the codec it licenses for satellite use onto the iBiquity platform, so as to force such lucrative cross-compatibility. But it degraded the audio (on AM broadcasts especially) to an unacceptable degree, which led Lucent to develop a variant of its codec specifically for AM/FM digital broadcasting.
It's typically easier to convert between two related encoding algorithms than it is to convert between two that are unrelated. You are much less likely to lose data in the conversion process as well. The maximum bitrates of satellite signals is not much more than what's capable on an HD-enabled FM station.
As an added bonus, since Lucent is involved in the proprietary technology on both ends of the process, XM might not have to pay heftily to engender this sort of compatibility.
Major radio broadcasters, who are the primary investors in iBiquity, win twice. They're given access to an incredible array of content to carry on their new multi-channel digital signals, which are otherwise not much to write home about. More importantly, one of the radio industry's two largest competitive threats now holds potential as a revenue stream. XM wins by exposing a larger audience to its wares; though an HD side-channel can (at this point) only carry one satellite channel, perhaps the taste may entice new subscriptions to XM's full 170-channel spread.
Then again, why restrict satellite to secondary status on the AM or FM bands? Imagine a strategic alliance between XM and Clear Channel. Perhaps a stock-swap, or something, whereby Clear Channel becomes a holding company for stations that are wholly programmed by XM, and receives a cut of all subscriptions generated via over-the-air listening. If a single FM station can broadcast up to four digital program streams, and a single company can own eight stations in a market, there's a lot of potential to bring much satellite programming down to earth. Implications worth considering.
6/22/06 - Pirate Radio USA Premieres [link to this story]
The latest feature-length film on the U.S. microradio movement got good reviews at the Bermuda International Film Festival, which called Pirate Radio USA "a fun, clever documentary that challenges the belief that Americans have freedom of speech." One review called it "wicked funny"; another made a positive comparison to Pump Up the Volume. Large Bloody Marys were also consumed, a near-guarantee of fun for all involved.
The trailer seems to tie microradio into larger struggles against corporate globalization; the execution of this connection, I think, will say much about the overall cinematic effort, though it's natural coming from two long-time Seattle microradio activists.
The trailer also seems to suggest that the filmmakers actually operated one or more pirate stations as a part of the production process, a pretty smooth move in and of itself.
Once I've seen the DVD I'll do up a review similar to previous documentary projects. Pirate Radio USA debuts domestically at the Woods Hole Film Festival (July 29-August 5). It'll also be screened at the Wine Country Film Festival on August 19.
6/20/06 - Crashing Propaganda: Miami Redux [link to this story]
The standard line, "pirate stations interfere with airplanes," has been quickly assimilated into the TV news groupthink of Miami. Earlier this month CBS 4 ran a relatively long story on the busting of "Radio Energy," a Haitian station in North Miami. The actual video report is pretty sick.
Although reporter Ileana Varela explicitly states more than once that the particular station serving as the hook of her story was not alleged to have interfered with anything, Varela kicks off her report with the threat unlicensed stations pose to air traffic communications, something the anchor-banter leading into the story calls "a problem police say is growing and as a result putting the community at risk." Placement of information is a key element of reportage, especially in a medium as time-constrained and punchy as television news.
Later, Varela cleverly manipulates audio to suggest that viewers are listening to actual pirate radio interference to aircraft communications. At approximately 2:10 into the story, underneath Variela's narration, you hear the typical clipped two-way radio dialogue of an air traffic control channel, while b-roll of a plane landing at MIA rolls on-screen. After she references an incident from earlier this spring involving a pirate station and aircraft communications, the background sound is brought to the fore and switches to hip-hop music, as played through a tinny speaker - as how Variela imagines FM-related interference to an aircraft communication channel might sound.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement says of the nine stations they've busted so far under Florida's anti-pirate statute, two are alleged to have interfered with non-broadcast radio channels.
6/19/06 - Translator-Monger Runs Afoul of Piracy [link to this story]
Earlier this month the FCC issued three Notices of Apparent Liability to a "Best Media, Inc.," whose primary business model involves throwing up FM translator stations and then leasing them out to interested broadcasters. It would seem that Best Media is relatively new to this game: the licenses of three of the translators it received permits to operate in 2003 expired in 2004, and the company forgot to renew them for more than a year.
When the FCC twigged to the problem and opened an inquiry, Best Media sheepishly filed for license renewals. Not quick enough to avoid $21,000 in judgments - of which $9k is for muffing the paperwork and the balance for technically running pirate translators. Operating three unlicensed translator stations, therefore, is somewhat less egregious than running a single live-and-local pirate station, for which the FCC's base fine begins at $10,000.
6/18/06 - Common Frequency's Ambitious Outreach [link to this story]
I've recently received a couple of e-mails from people who have been contacted by the "Common Frequency Project" soliciting assistance in building new full-power FM community radio stations. Common queries include, "what is this about?" and "is it legit?"
Common Frequency has a web site which explains quite a bit. Most of its founders hail from Davis, California, where they've been involved with multiple community radio projects, including building LPFM stations. Common Frequency's goals include identifying and preparing non-profit groups for an upcoming application window for full-power non-commercial FM radio station construction permits.
The window itself has not been formally announced, but Common Frequency wants people to be prepared for it. The concern is that once the window comes to pass, the FCC will be flooded by submissions from godcasters, much like what happened when the FCC solicited applications for new FM translator stations in 2003. If this happens, the godcasters will most likely snap up the vast majority of available channels.
Common Frequency's goal is a laudable one, but those who might join in this particular project need to be keenly aware of what sorts of burdens they'll be taking on. Applying for, constructing, and operating a full-power FM radio station is expensive, much more so than running an LPFM station. Not only does the basic transmission infrastructure cost more, but the administrative costs - what is required in the license application process, and the rules full-power FM stations must conform to (from which LPFM stations are exempted) - are significantly higher. In cases where multiple applicants compete for a single available frequency, these costs multiply.
Taking on such a project is not for your average non-profit living on a shoestring budget. It's best accomplished by an organization specifically set up for the sole mission of building and running a radio station, with flexible fiscal muscle and the willingness to spend years on the task. Anyone interested in undertaking such an effort needs to do a lot of pre-planning. It's not clear just how much Common Frequency will help in this regard, but the more it does the lower applicants' initial burdens will be. Raising awareness of this unique opportunity to expand community radio is just the first step.
6/14/06 - Translator Hijack Involves Howard Stern Show [link to this story]
The most interesting tidbit of information to be found in the pending FM translator petition is not even about the proposal itself. It comes from the owner of a translator station in New Jersey which rebroadcasts an in-state gospel-caster. According to these comments, the "capture and substitution" of the FM translator station's regular programming with Howard Stern's uncensored Sirius radio show is a "daily occurrence." One day Howard's broadcast overrode the gospel music uninterrupted "for over twenty minutes."
There have been several reports of this phenomenon, but they involve the interruption of mobile radio reception, as a Sirius customer with an in-car receiver-adapter cruises by. [For those just tuning in, these receiver-adapters work by rebroadcasting the take from a satellite radio on an FM frequency at an ultra-low power - typically unlistenable beyond dozens of feet, but far enough that the satellite-equipped car might interfere with other nearby vehicles, should their occupants be tuned to the same FM frequency.]
The commenter in this instance similarly attributes his experiences to overpowered satellite receiver-adapters in vehicles, but such interference is usually incredibly short-lived because the offending vehicle is moving. Non-stop Howard for nearly a half-hour would suggest a more intentional interruption of the translator station itself. Such tactics, combined with the spate of actual pirate stations that have hopped the Howard bandwagon, further propagate vibrator-riding to the masses.
6/13/06 - Translator Petition Attracts Scant Comment [link to this story]
A couple dozen folks filed comments in the FCC's proposed rulemaking to allow FM translator stations to originate their own programming. Several of the commenters are long-time LPFM activists, and many of them support the proposal provided that a translator's license status is not used to bump LPFM stations off the air, and that the FCC be diligent enough to prevent this type of abuse, especially in light of the speculation and trafficking in translator station construction permits that's gone on in recent years. (Conspicuously missing from the initial comment round is LPFM's largest institutional proponent, the Prometheus Radio Project.)
Other supporters of the proposal include local owners of single translator stations, who believe they could be used to replace full-power stations in smaller communities that have since been bought out by broadcast conglomerates and moved closer to larger markets ("rimshot" stations).
The National Association of Broadcasters is opposed to changing the translator rules on somewhat hypocritical grounds. It believes too much localism can be a bad thing: "While an argument can be made that more local programming is always better, when balanced against the effect that a new program origination rule would have on full power stations, the balance is not in its favor. Introducing a new class of broadcast stations would undercut the localism efforts of full power broadcasters," though it does not explain how.
The opposition also includes Saga Communications and a few mom-and-pop stations, who fear localizing translator programming will open up a whole new tier of competition that might drive them out of business. Some LPFM proponents, like REC Networks, also wish to see the FCC deny this petition out of concern that it might open the door to commercial low-power radio - something the FCC explicitly decided against when it promulgated the LPFM service in 2000.
Ironically, many opponents claim that allowing translators to originate their own programming is unnecessary because it simply duplicates the LPFM service. But given that translator stations can be twice as powerful as LPFMs and can be placed on frequencies otherwise declared off-limits to LPFM stations, that's a specious argument. It's a bit disconcerting to see such a line taken by some LPFM supporters who really know better.
You can browse the comment record at this ECFS link; reply comments are due in early July.
6/9/06 - FCC Enforcement: The Paper Tiger Howls [link to this story]
April and May were very busy months for FCC field agents, as they tagged unlicensed FM stations in 11 states. In doing so, the total number of enforcement actions for the first half of the year is very likely to surpass the total for all of 2005. You'd think the FCC was on the warpath against pirates, and in one sense, it is. But it's not as serious as it may seem.
It is true that the FCC is making contact with more stations. In most cases, this is most likely due to increased complaints from licensed stations who are being more diligent about scanning their local dials for signals which "don't belong." However, the contact is generally going no further than station visits and follow-up warning letters. In fact, the FCC now issues multiple warning letters to multiple parties involved in a single station. Three separate people received warning letters for the operation of the Portland Radio Authority; three entities have been tagged in an ongoing investigation into RadioActive San Diego; four people in the Pirate Cat Radio case.
Each one of these contacts counts as an enforcement action, which subsequently inflates the FCC's enforcement activity level as illustrated by our Database. If you strip away these duplicates, the FCC's still maintaining a higher pace of enforcement activity as compared to previous years, but this perspective reorientation should hopefully ratchet down the level of alarm.
Additionally, the FCC's enforcement this year is almost wholly confined to intimidation. Less than 1% of its enforcement activities go beyond the visit or letter-writing stage. In fact, the FCC hasn't even fined anybody yet in 2006 (though it has issued two "we're going to fine you" letters, both involving cases that were first opened in 2005). This may be because the agency knows it doesn't have the time and resources to collect all of the fines it might issue.
Then there is the FCC's apparent inability to follow through on those cases it opens. For example, just recently field agents traced and warned a pirate station operating in New York operated by Moises and Juan Cabrera. The warning letter, issued April 18, makes note of a visit agents made to the station's location in March. But it mentions nothing about earlier FCC run-ins with the duo: just last year, the FCC went through the same motions, so far as to issue a $10,000 Notice of Apparent Liability against the Cabreras. Not only do this year's enforcement actions fail to reference the earlier "punishment," the FCC has made no moves to turn its earlier threat of a fine into an actual forfeiture. It is almost as if the agents in New York are just going through the motions.
Finally, it is important to note the "Florida effect" on the Database. Florida and New Jersey both have state laws on the books that criminalize unlicensed broadcasting. So far, only Florida has actually put its law to use. State officials have raided several stations over the last year and have even arrested a few folks for running pirate stations (though nobody's yet been directly convicted under the state anti-pirate statute). These enforcement actions are catalogued even though the FCC may only be tangentially involved, and as a result they inflate the apparent application of the more serious end of the enforcement continuum (station raids and criminal prosecutions) but do not represent enforcement strategy on a national level.
If the FCC still counts each warning letter or station visit as a successful pirate silencing, it stands to start bragging in short order. As always, be very careful, but don't believe the hype.
6/6/06 - Drive-Time for Schoolkids [link to this story]
As if Channel One, which force-feeds kids adverts masquerading as infotainment over a closed-circuit TV system hard-wired into schools, wasn't bad enough. BusRadio hits the children up with ad-patter on their way to and from school. And since the kids most likely to be found on a school bus skew younger than Channel One's target demographic, one might say BusRadio softens students up for later Channel One exposure (the companies are not linked in any way that I can tell, except for the exploitation fetish, born from BusRadio founders' earlier success in this regard).
Details on the BusRadio web site are scant - there's no explanation of just how it will beam its programming into school buses. Part of the business model apparently revolves around driving kids to web sites where marketing research under the guise of "interactive entertainment" will be conducted.
BusRadio says it will launch in Massachusetts later this year and should initially reach more than 100,000 kids in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Within 12 months it expects a nationwide "captive audience" ten times the size.