News Archive: June 2008
6/27/08 - Mother Nature, Meet Rainy-Day Fund [link to this story]
For the last few weeks my home community radio station, WEFT, has been hobbling along at reduced power, due to severe weather which fried our 20 year-old, 10,000-watt transmitter. Over the course of this time, the station's rented a 1,000-watt transmitter, bringing our effective radiated power up to about 1/5th of its licensed capacity.
Buying, shipping, and installing a 10,000-watt transmitter is not cheap (think approximately $60,000). Fortunately, because our old transmitter was insured and verifiably destroyed by an "act of God" (lightning/water damage), we should be receiving something around $27,000 in compensation. In conjunction with that, WEFT had a "rainy-day fund" set up shortly after we paid off the mortgage for our studio building more than 10 years ago. We paid off the mortgage early and saved the remainder. That fund has about $25,000 in it.
In a nutshell, it looks like WEFT will be back up to full-strength by July 4, sounding bigger and better than ever, without taking a huge fiscal hit in the process. However, this incident has been a wake-up call to the station to review and inspect the rest of its transmission airchain. This will be a multi-year project, and not without its own costs, but I hope we get cracking.
6/23/08 - Digital Radio Wobbles Around the World [link to this story]
Last month, I attended an exploratory workshop hosted by the European Science Foundation about the prospects of community media in a digitally-convergent communications environment. Not surprisingly, when one thinks "community media," radio first comes to mind, and we represented in full: most of the 30 invitees to this workshop were either involved in radio activism and/or regulation in their respective home countries.
My personal mission was to warn as many other countries away from casting their fates with iBiquity's HD Radio platform, as it not only carries a plethora of technical risks, but it may decimate community radio stations as we know them (draft, not for publication). Fortunately, this was an easy job: the Europeans can see through the snake-oil that is HD Radio, and the general consensus of the workshop was that HD should be opposed at every step.
However, this is not stopping iBiquity from trying to break into international markets: the company's received permission from the Mexican government to deploy HD-capable transmitters along the U.S. border (essentially for those Mexican stations that actually serve U.S. listeners); "experimental" FM-HD transmitters have been installed in France and The Philippines; and other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, have actually conducted in-depth field tests of the HD Radio protocol. This even though some of these countries have already adopted digital radio transition plans, all of which use a much different digital transmission protocol than iBiquity's proprietary system.
So why is HD seeing the light of day overseas? There are a few major reasons. The first is that many countries, such as the newest (and aspiring) members of the European Union, like Slovenia and Macedonia, do not yet have formal digital radio transition policies in effect. iBiquity sees these as ripe markets, where the "no-pain, some-gain" mantra of HD's biggest selling-point may sway the less-informed.
Secondly, iBiquity may attempt to leverage international trade law (which has been primarily to reflect U.S. interests) in order to force countries to consider and/or adopt the HD standard as part of the benefits of globalization. The decision on whether or not a country adopts a new digital broadcast standard is made essentially by government fiat. iBiquity, I believe, hopes to get its foot in the door in other countries in order to turn to those nations which have not yet committed to a digital radio transition and say, "Hey, you can't exclude our standard from consideration. If you do, we'll consider your transition-plan a violation of international 'free-trade' laws (presumably suggesting that the selection of a feasible, non-HD DAB infrastructure would constitute some sort of illegal 'government subsidy') and haul your ass in front of the World Trade Organization for damages."
Such a threat may be enough to entice developing countries to at least give iBiquity a hearing; it is certainly a possible way for iBiquity to raise the funds it desperately needs to stay in business, even if it doesn't further the technology's adoption. And it most definitely may be a tactic U.S. trade negotiators could consider: iBiquity is a wholly-owned U.S. corporate interest, and what's good for U.S. business is good for the country, after all.
But perhaps the most important thing I learned at the Budapest workshop is that many established countries, which settled upon digital radio transition plans many years before the U.S. did, are now rethinking their own initiatives. The problem is not inherent to any specific technology; it's due to the fact that no digital radio protocol exists which does things that citizen-consumers see as important enough to upgrade their receivers for. Although most "first-world" nations have already committed to a non-HD DAB rollout, many of them are finding it a tough go: DAB-compatible receiver sales are flat, and those who operate the DAB transmission networks in these countries are not providing a diversity and quality of programming which sets DAB apart from traditional analog radio services to entice listenership.
For example, many countries are reconsidering their entire DAB strategies; Germany, for one, has decided to abandon its original DAB technological platform and is now openly considering alternatives. And although HD is but one of several alternative DAB technologies now available, they all suffer from a common flaw.
That flaw is relatively simple: no digital radio technology has proven itself to be a worthy replacement to analog radio service. Every DAB proponent has promised increased program diversity and higher audio fidelity; these are promises that have not been fully borne out in practice. Every DAB transmission protocol has run into some real-world technical difficulties which inhibit its quality of service. In addition, digital-capable receivers remain much more expensive than analog-only models. And the promises of "new uses for radio," such as datacasting, are not catching fire as DAB proponents had hoped.
This raises two very important questions: is radio even ready to go digital? If so, what is the compelling reason? Broadcasters look at developments such as wireless broadband access, satellite radio, and portable music devices as the killers of their present business-models. If people can receive a larger range of more compelling audio content from services and devices other than their local radio stations, then what value do those stations actually have? And if radio stations begin to devote their spectral allocation to the provision of services other than freely-available audio content, have they forfeited their primary reason for being?
It's quite a conundrum. If radio stations go digital, do they stick with being audio providers, or do they branch out into the provision of other services? And if they choose the latter, should we still call them radio stations? In this context, radio's digitalization calls the entire medium's identity into question. And this is a global phenomenon, irrespective of the DAB technology at hand.
The ESF workshop organizers will be publishing a "scientific report" on our findings within the next month or so. It should make for interesting reading.
6/18/08 - FCC to Consider Raising FM-HD Power Levels [link to this story]
Documents were filed with the agency late last week by HD Radio's proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation, to allow FM-HD stations to increase the power of their digital sidebands by a factor of 10. The rationale behind this request is increasing field evidence which shows that the digital portion of FM-HD signals fails miserably at matching increasing analog signal coverage, and the existing power level does not allow digital signals to penetrate buildings very well.
This proposal does not come without risk; evidence of HD signals interfering with other stations is already well-known, especially on the AM side, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has completed a study that adds new information to the body of knowledge regarding FM-HD interference. Unfortunately, the results of this study have not yet been made public, though notably National Public Radio itself has not taken a position on whether or not increasing the digital output of FM stations is a good idea.
In the FM environment, increasing the power of digital sidebands contains two main risks: the first is increased interference to nearby stations on the FM dial, and the second is increased interference between the analog and digital signals of an HD-capable radio station.
Whereas a digital FM-HD signal broadcasts at just 1/100th the power of its parent analog station, the relative power differential of the potentially-interfering digital signal to adjacent stations is large enough that any interference is, for now, very localized and not very noticeable. Allowing stations to broadcast a digital signal at 1/10th the power of its analog counterpart is a very different matter.
For example, my community radio station, WEFT, typically broadcasts a 10,000-watt analog signal. Under current FCC rules, WEFT could broadcast a 100-watt digital signal in its sidebands. Under the proposed rule change, that digital signal's power could be increased to 1,000 watts. You can't get around the physics: if you increase output energy in the sidebands, you risk the potential to interfere at a greater magnitude to nearby stations. So far, this proposal to increase the FM-HD sideband power has only been tested in the lab, not the real world (sound familiar?).
Secondly, because the digital portion of an FM-HD signal, by design, encroaches on bandwidth reserved for analog broadcasting, increasing the power of the digital sidebands also contains the potential for increased interference between a station's analog and digital signals. This typically manifests itself as a "hissing noise" or "grunge" heard when listening to an FM-HD station's analog signal. Again, there is no real-world evidence to suggest that this potential parasitic interference will not increase if FM stations raise their digital sideband power levels.
Why would radio stations would take the risk of degrading the quality of their existing analog service in order to pimp a flawed technology which nobody's listening to? It's almost as if the strategy of the HD Radio Alliance is to degrade analog radio service in order to force digital adoption - kind of a variant on the "we had to destroy the village to save it" rationale.
Even though it supports this proposal, the National Association of Broadcasters is candid enough to admit that raising the power of FM-HD sidebands "may create new instances of interference in certain situations." In the same breath, however, the NAB says it's confident that the already-overworked FCC Enforcement Bureau can handle new interference complaints on a case-by-case basis as they arise, and concludes that "the benefits to be gained for FM broadcasters and FM listeners will far outweigh the limited additional interference predicted by iBiquity’s studies."
It's anyone's guess as to when the FCC will consider this proposal, but if the history of the entire HD Radio rulemaking is any indication, the power increase will be rubber-stamped, and we will suffer the consequences as they unfold.
6/13/08 - When Lightning Strikes [link to this story]
On Friday, May 30, my local community radio station, WEFT, suffered a lightning strike to its antenna tower. Although the tower's lightning protection system protected part of the airchain, it did not save it all: a critical piece of our 10,000-watt transmitter's innards got fried. Upon inspection, there also appeared to be water damage, with "debris" found inside the transmitter itself. Repairs have been unsuccessful.
Regionally, the Midwest is suffering from a particularly rough patch of severe weather; WEFT is but one of many casualties to Mother Nature this summer. Typically, the weather extremes is one of the things that makes living here fun.
For eight long days, WEFT was off the air. Thanks to some charity, the station is back - broadcasting with a borrowed 50-watt exciter. As a consequence, our 27 year-old community radio station is now broadcasting with half the power of its newer sibling across town.
This weekend, WEFT will install a rented 1-kilowatt transmitter. That will give the station 10% of its effective radiated power. Hopefully, at least, we'll be able to hear our air signal in the main studio again.
While the station is, in many respects, a community institution, it (like many other non-profit, volunteer-driven organizations) lives on the fiscal edge, just like the rest of America. Replacement of WEFT's transmitter was something we didn't budget for, and that expense is expected to be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Pledge drives are no picnic in a recessed economy, and they're 10 times more difficult when you're speaking at essentially 1/10th the volume.
Fortunately, we've got the Internets, but I doubt it will be enough. WEFT's engineering team and board of directors meet next week to figure out where we go from here.
6/11/08 - FCC Enforcement Focus Diversifying? [link to this story]
When it comes to unlicensed broadcasting, I only monitor the FCC's activity against pirate AM, FM and shortwave stations. And as far as those areas are concerned, the FCC is on relative track to meet its record-breaking enforcement effort of last year.
However, the devil is in the details. As you can see from the breakdown of enforcement activity at right, nearly 80% of all FCC enforcement actions fall into the categories of station-visits and warning letters.
Fiscal penalties - of which the Enforcement Bureau always manages to issue a few - are not being used any less, but other, less forceful, methods of enforcement are most definitely being used more.
Although the FCC is getting more diligent about reducing the time between finding out about a pirate and making contact with the station, there is no obvious correlation between a diminution of stations on the air as a result.
And although it is now official that the FCC does indeed use the Internet to conduct surveillance on suspected pirates, there exists no correlation of efficacy regarding its online pirate-reporting system.
At the same time, the FCC's field agents have been on quite a tear against unauthorized Citizen's Band radio and other two-way land mobile operation, and has even issued some warning letters to violators operating in unusual spectral territory, such as bands reserved for cellular telephony and satellite communications. There is even one $18,000 Notice of Apparent Liability pending against someone in west-central Florida ("John Doe [Name Redacted"] who sent out false maritime distress calls.
As a phenomenon, it would appear that unauthorized operation use is increasing, both in "violation-frequency" and across the spectrum. Barring a radical change in enforcement protocol (which appears unlikely), the only apparent result is an increase in field-agent paperwork. The real danger lies in whether or not the FCC lumps all pirates into the same category, making the illogical leap that because someone f*cks with CB or Coast Guard frequencies that somehow makes all FM pirates dangerous. As a tactic tried before, it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility.
6/9/08 - Comcastic Adventures: Spiking Your E-Mail [link to this story]
It should come as no surprise that my experience as a Comcast broadband subscriber is matching up with many others: extra-sh*tty. Comcast has been flogged extensively elsewhere about its draconian "bandwidth management" techniques - throttling some traffic, blocking others, and now testing new technologies in preparation for implementing this non-neutral network management practice nationwide. And Comcast is not alone in this trend.
My problem with Comcast, however, has had nothing to do with BitTorrent, Skype, Gnutella, or Lotus Notes. It has everything to do with the most important application for which I use the Internet - e-mail.
The problem began a couple of months ago, when those of us in Champaign-Urbana began to be assimilated into the larger Comcast network-borg. I expected an increase in intermittent service outages, but I did not expect my e-mail to stop coming in. But it did, and after two months of sleuthing with Comcast's evasive and mostly-impotent technical support, I think I have figured out the problem.
My main e-mail address - the one you can find all over this site - is not the e-mail address that I use to technically send and receive messages. Rather, it is a "transparent alias" - I've set up a single e-mail address on diymedia.net (mine), and that address is set to forward to whatever Internet service provider I have. Therefore, when I do things like, say, move, I don't have to send out mass-mails to everyone in my address book, asking them to update my contact information. As far as the world is concerned, I'm email@example.com, and I always will be.
Since I've set up this web site, I've moved three times and changed ISPs three times. Each time I got a new e-mail address, I simply went into diymedia.net's administrative controls and changed the ultimate forwarding destination for "phlegm." Then, I use a mail client (Mac Mail) to pull the messages off my ISP's POP server and send replies through their SMTP server. To the world, my return address never changes - but the network through which I send and receive e-mail does.
After Comcast informed us in Champaign that we were to set up our new comcast.net e-mail addresses,I followed the company's instructions, and made the forwarding change here. Everything worked fine for about a week - then, suddenly, I no longer received any e-mail. I have a backup (and very kludgy) webmail interface on diymedia.net (to check messages from the road, as I own no laptop), and I noticed that shortly after my mail stopped I began receiving bounce-back messages from mail.comcast.net. My public e-mail address had been "blocked for spam."
I can understand how an ISP may suspect this. Because I'm old-school and make my e-mail address not only publicly available, but clickable, it is both a magnet for spam address-harvesting bots and a victim of spam address-spoofing. On regular days, it's not uncommon for me to receive more than 100 messages, many of them spam. On bad days, I can be flooded with up to 2,000 e-mails in 24 hours, for as long as a week - many of them bounce-backs from a spammer who's appropriated my e-mail address as his/her "reply-to" contact info for hawking porn, dubious health remedies, and enticements to watch tantalizing celebrity videos that contain a link which actually opens dozens of pop-up advert-windows.
As much of a hassle as this can be, e-mail, relative to many other Internet communication protocols, is not bandwidth-intensive: 2,000 e-mails take up less bandwidth than a single, medium-quality MP3 file, and e-mail messages come in trickles and waves - it is not a constant-use application, file filesharing or streaming media. With prior ISPs, I simply filtered out all the junk locally (Mac Mail is really good at that). Any reasonable ISP has more than enough capacity to handle such detritus. The problem is, Comcast is not a reasonable ISP.
I've worked with Comcast tech support repeatedly, getting them to un-block the IP address from which diymedia.net originates (it's as simple as changing a single line in a text file in the spam-filter on Comcast's mail servers). Which has worked - but only temporarily. Depending on my inbox-flow at the time, Comcast automatically re-blocks messages from diymedia.net within a matter of hours or days. The problem is thus fixable - but it keeps coming back.
This leads me to one conclusion: Comcast has a metric for what it considers "appropriate use" of its e-mail addresses, and if you receive more than X amount of messages from a single external address in Y amount of time, incoming messages from that address become automatically blocked as spam. In a nutshell, the stream of messages from firstname.lastname@example.org to my Comcast address keeps tripping an auto spam-block rule in Comcast's mail system.
It is not a block driven by simple capacity - a single comcast.net e-mail address is allocated up to 250 megabytes of storage space, enough for hundreds of thousands of e-mail messages. I get nowhere near that particular limit.
Therefore, this is not a technical issue; it is one of network management policy. Unfortunately, it may simply be par for the course for Comcast. But it's a troublesome twist on the principle of network neutrality for two reasons. The first is that e-mail, as described above, is not a bandwidth-intensive use of network capacity. If Comcast can't handle, on average, a few hundred e-mails coming into a single inbox, then its network capacity is much more strained than any of us realize.
The second problem is that Comcast has set an arbitrarily low metric for what it considers to be "acceptable use" of its e-mail service. What if you're a real celebrity, the kind that has to employ people to answer your fan-mail? Obviously, Comcast is not for you (and on that, at least one of the company's tech-support folks and I agree).
I spent an hour and 17 minutes on the phone with Comcast one last time today to see if I could get an answer to my question about the metrics of their e-mail and spam-blocking policy. To no surprise, there is no answer. "The folks in the back are really busy," said the very helpful man I spoke with, who generated yet another trouble-ticket, this time with a note that someone involved in Comcast's mail network-management department should contact me to discuss this further.
I'm not holding my breath. Instead, I'm unfortunately considering switching back to the Death Star, as Comcast and AT&T are the only two ISPs in my market. AT&T may snoop on me, but since a majority of Internet traffic transits at least one AT&T router, it already does; at least it has the capacity to handle such a simple service.
6/4/08 - (Not Quite) Back From the Dead [link to this story]
It's been a long, difficult academic year, but it was successful: I'm now all-but-dissertation and have given myself two years to complete the research I came here to do. Over the next week I'll update the legacy projects on this site, and hopefully over the month I'll get back into the swing of regular analysis.
I have learned some important lessons this year.
The overarching one is that the media reform movement, as embodied by its main standard-bearer, Free Press, is dangerously toying with hubris. This is, unfortunately, best-exemplified by the behavior of two of the organization's most prominent members: founder and past-president Robert McChesney and executive director Josh Silver.
Bob had been my academic advisor. Although he professionally resides at the University of Illinois (albeit now in a different department than mine, for reasons that are too complicated to explain), he's for all intents and purposes not really here, except for the days when he has to be here. Bob's now living in Madison, Wisconsin, about 250 miles up the road. You may listen to his oft-enlightening weekly radio program, Media Matters, which originates from our university's public radio station. To the listener, the show sounds "live and local," but he's actually "phoning it in" over an ISDN line from his basement in Madison. The miracles of modern broadcast technology cut both ways.
In the context of being a doctoral student, when your advisor is not around, it complicates what is already a formidably stressful situation. Bob and I did most of our communication over e-mail, which was awkward, to put it mildly. Simply put, when it comes to advising graduate students, you can't just phone it in.
The formal inquisition of my doctoral studies to-date took place on May 6th. The weekend before, Bob e-mailed me with a concern about the manner in which I answered his preliminary exam question (in the process of answering it, I disputed its premise). After what I thought was a relatively benign exchange, the day before my defense I received an e-mail excoriating me for essentially questioning Bob's intellectual integrity. Without any rational explanation, other than that I had the audacity to challenge his frame of thinking about the subject on which he was testing me, he declared his intent to resign from my committee effective the minute my defense was complete. The matter was non-negotiable. He actually waited until the following day.
It could have been much worse. Bob could have torpedoed the entire process for my perceived intransigence, which would have effectively flunked me out of school, or forced me to start the entire prelim ordeal from scratch. But being dissed by one of the great minds in your field of study still stings, and I'm left to find a replacement member to fill out my dissertation committee.
That was the second important lesson learned. The transformation of activist scholarship into applied, practical movement-building use is not easy, and Bob McChesney is one of the lucky few to have been talented enough at the right time to create something special. We are, indeed, in the midst of a new critical juncture, which reaches far beyond our media environment. However, it still is a singular accomplishment in the context of a larger struggle. The fact that our work may have helped to create such an opportunity is not even half the battle.
That being said, professors have four major duties: research, teach, advise students, and participate in departmental/public service. The latter two are important because they help build and sustain a community in which scholarship may flourish and be made useful to the public at large. They are also no less important than the former two duties, which are the ones most publicly acknowledged. It may be technically tenable to shirk one duty by overcompensating in another, but it is not ethically so.
Whereas Bob and I parted on amicable terms, I have no love lost for Josh Silver, the executive director of Free Press. An acquaintance spent more than two years working for the organization, building and maintaining a multitude of valuable information resources. Last month, after weeks of mangled communication involving Free Press' exploding bureaucracy, Mr. Silver summarily terminated her.
This person has received nothing but glowing praise from the Free Press staffers she's worked with directly, yet Mr. Silver declared her work was of "average quality" and she "rarely demonstrated an 'I'll do whatever it takes to get it done' attitude, which is the driving M.O. for this organization." No evidence, no explanation. Also, a useful excuse - one that employment law generally defines as "wrongful dismissal."
But it didn't stop there. When concern was expressed to Mr. Silver about the way Free Press had handled the situation, he shot back quite the retort.
Translation: "F*ck with me, and you'll never work in this town again." Not the type of response you expect from the grinning, boyish, well-coiffed mug featured regularly in the Huffington Post. And definitely not the proper response from someone working to build a democratic, inclusive movement that is still fighting defensive actions and cannot afford to alienate its most natural allies. It is despicable.
Please allow me to be clear. This is not a blanket indictment of Free Press. There are some wonderfully talented, committed, and honest people working for the organization, which in and of itself continues to do good works. I use FP research and reportage in my classes, more often than Bob's own books. But the organization is growing at such a rate right now that the evidence of institutional expansion is being internally translated in its upper echelon as external power, and that's a premature assumption.
These are the primary reasons why I'm not attending this weekend's National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis. I realize I'm missing out on the chance to meet and learn from from some truly good-hearted people, engaged in real change for media democracy. I know I'll definitely be missing an A-list progressive love-fest of the highest order. But it's time to take a break from that scene.
I'm way past tired of the egos and the gold-digging. This is a lesson I already knew, but had painfully reinforced this academic year. Activism is not a career-choice, it's a vocation. You don't fight your battles to work your way up a ladder to secure stature, notoriety, and a place of power within the status quo. You fight your battles and hope that your knowledge, talent, and drive will sort out the rest to let you live to continue fighting. You may not ever see the change you seek, but there is value in the struggle.
Free Press and its ilk, while a necessary part of the process of reforming the U.S. media environment, do not represent the end-state. The media reform movement itself is just one larger aspect of contemporary life-struggle. Losing sight of these truths opens the door to mistakenly aligning your priorities to perpetuate the very problems you purport to seek change.