News Archive: June 2010
6/26/10 - Scene Report: California [link to this story]
Skidmark Bob e-mailed recently to let me know that Freak Radio Santa Cruz is hunting for a new broadcast-home (yet again). The FCC dropped a warning-letter on the owner of the property hosting the station's transmitter (a common tactic that's gained popularity in recent years), who was duly unnerved and prompted the box to travel.
In spite of last year's schism, the station appears to be on strong footing and Bob's confident they'll have a spot post-haste. Given that Freak Radio long separated its studio from transmitter, the comfy digs remain intact, and the station's still streaming online.
Elsewhere, the news is more about pirates going legit, or pirates only taking to the air in step two of their plans to create a free-culture space. Radio Survivor broke both these stories: the first involves Pirate Cat Radio taking over the operations of a licensed FM station in Pescadero. This is a mixed bag: good on for Daniel Roberts (aka "Monkey") and his compatriots for fighting the good fight for so long (and so transparently).
However, KPDO is not exactly providing coverage to San Francisco; Pescadero is located halfway between SF and Santa Cruz, and as anyone who's been on both sides of the coin knows, it's much easier (and more fun) to run a pirate station than a licensed one. Best of luck to 'em, though.
Secondly, it's not like San Francisco is bereft of pirate stations; including the ubiquitous Berkeley Liberation Radio, there's plenty of others who keep much lower profiles. Stations come alive all the time. The next to do so, apparently, will be Radio Valencia, whose proprietor spun off from an existing pirate station to begin the re-construction of one of San Francisco's cultural spaces, the Valencia Restaurant.
Radio Valencia has deep connections throughout SF's vibrant arts scene, so the programming can be expected to be eclectic and creative. According to Radio Survivor, Radio Valencia already has 30 airshifters lined up to do 24 shows on the station. It, like Freak Radio, will stream from its studio to a transmitter at an undisclosed location, on an as-yet undisclosed frequency.
6/20/10 - Translators: The Back Up Plan to HD? [link to this story]
Pity the poor FM translator: a book could be written about the way it has been used - and abused - over the years. Primarily just in this last decade. First, there was the religious broadcaster-led Great Translator Invasion; then, AM broadcasters asked for (and received) permission from the FCC to operate their own FM translator stations. Finally, some full-power FM stations that also happen to be running HD multicast streams are finding the analog translator a lucrative outlet for its previously digital-only content.
It is the latter two developments which concern us here, because both are direct offshoots of HD Radio. AM stations petitioned the FCC (via the NAB) to allow them to assemble clusters, if necessary, of FM translators to at least replicate their primary (protected) service coverage areas. Among the reasons given for this was the increasing level of interference on the AM band, part of which has been caused by the implementation of HD Radio.
In fact, in a hypothetical future where AM-HD adoption was widespread, the plethora of noise would essentially confine all AM stations to their primary service areas anyway. FM translators not only serve as redundancy, but allow them to continue service at night, when AM-HD interference can be especially fierce.
On to the FM convolution. As early as 2008, FM radio station owners have been applying for (or buying existing) translators and feeding them with their "HD2/3" multicast streams, which - until the intervention of the translator - were only available to those that have HD-capable receivers. The practice has been applied in markets in Pennsylvania, Michigan (student-run station), New York, Georgia, Missouri, and Illinois (public radio). There are undoubtedly more - these are the ones uncovered with a cursory Google search. Most are marketed to the listening public as stand-alone stations.
In the case of FM translators being used to replicate AM broadcasters, HD is at fault partly because of the interference it generates on the AM band. But simulcasting FM-HD content on an analog FM transmitter is a case of circuitous idiocy.
Here goes the apparent business model: first, launch a technology capable of multicasting, but prone to listening problems. When listeners don't adopt said technology in droves, take the content you made for that platform and put it on the old analog medium to maximize your investment in the technology.
Note the end result is not a net benefit for the proliferation of HD Radio. Instead, it's more stress put on the FM spectrum through everybody's favorite pet loophole, the translator. Translators, as a class of radio station, were never designed to be a primary broadcast provider, but more and more the industry seems to be treating them like they are.
In a technical working paper on a completely different policy issue (the recycling of spectrum for wireless broadband), the FCC somberly described the the task it faced with these words: "Spectrum policy is not easy. Technology changes. Consumer preferences and habits change. Business models change. Allocation priorities change. And this change can be daunting."
It is amazing that, in the case of spectrum-regulation work being done in a different division or bureau within the same agency, that the FCC can talk with such apparent seriousness and then, in the case of broadcast radio, act with such carelessness. And the fact that a growing number of radio stations (both AM and FM) appear to be flocking to the use of FM translators as a form of refuge (although their practices are legal) should be ringing some bells in the heads of FCC staff tasked to monitor HD Radio's vitality.
6/13/10 - Industry HD Uncertainty Flares in Trade Press [link to this story]
For the most part, radio industry trades have not given much substantive thought or analysis to the debacle that is HD Radio. However, some recent developments seem to signal that the winds of sycophancy may be changing.
It's all happened in the Radio and Business Report. First, the publication let loose an article, whose sources are "some highly accredited/respected Bay Area engineers," full of complaints and criticisms of HD Radio and its proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation. The complaints raised against iBiquity are numerous and significant.
In addition to reporting that one San Francisco-based AM station has turned off its HD sidebands, the article reports dissatisfaction among iBiquity customers, due to the fact that "iBiquity is not providing the promised updates to its software to repair the 'bugs' that have developed in the AM codec. The bugs require reboots of the HD encoders, sometimes daily."
But the most damning "factoid" is that CBS Radio "has quietly told all of its Chief Engineers that CBS will NOT be proceeding with 6-dB power increases for any of its FM stations in any market, at least at this time." This despite earlier reports from CBS that at least one of its FM-HD stations has increased the power of its digital sidebands, and more would follow.
If this last point is true, it would represent a fundamental shift in the constituency that backs the deployment of HD Radio. CBS Radio is descended from Westinghouse, where USA Digital Radio (i.e., the company that developed the HD Radio system we now have, later to be merged into iBiquity) was founded and, under CBS, once resided.
Those at the top of CBS's engineering hierarchy should know HD Radio better than anyone else - not only were they around during the technology's development phase, but they've held powerful positions within the National Radio Systems Committee, the intra-industry body that rubber-stamped HD Radio for FCC approval.
Two days later, iBiquity CEO "Smilin' Bob" Struble responded in RBR to the criticisms. With regard to the software bugs, Struble claims it isn't iBiquity's fault, but rather a problem with transmitter manufacturers, and the software causing the problem is not iBiquity's. This makes little sense because the entire digitization of an analog radio signal takes place within a technological architecture singularly controlled by iBiquity.
With regard to the CBS "announcement," Struble stated that "we believe these rumors to be untrue. I think you should call CBS directly and ask them." If RBR has tried to get in touch with CBS, nobody's answering the phone.
A week later, RBR published a guest commentary by Bob Savage, owner of WYSL-AM in Avon, New York, unabashedly calling for the wipeout of AM-HD entirely. Savage should know: he's had a running battle with a high-power CBS station in the area that's been running AM-HD and, subsequently, has caused interference to WYSL. The right sidebar of Savage's article contains links to all FCC filings made in WYSL's case - and CBS's response - so that the reader does not have to take his polemic at face value.
But what a polemic it is:
To this story, neither Smilin' Bob Struble nor CBS has responded. But the main fact of the matter is this: only once in a blue moon has any radio industry trade publication allowed such incisive criticism of HD Radio or its proponents. The fact that these stories are coming to light at all is a good indicator of HD Radio's declining prospects among broadcasters.
Last time I checked the statistics, the number of HD Radio stations on the air has been basically stagnant. This was a primary reason behind the FCC's decision to allow FM-HD stations to raise their power levels.
Editorially-speaking, radio industry trade publications have been supporters of HD, primarily because their advertisers are broadcasters, broadcast equipment manufacturers, and broadcast content providers (syndicators). I believe the lack of sustained, substantive criticism over the years in these publications can be traced back to the financial ties they have with their advertisers. This is no conspiracy: it's simply good business sense not to bite the hand that feeds you (however repugnant those of us outside the trade press think that may be).
But when the hand that feeds you begins drawing blood on your readers (i.e., radio station owners, managers, and engineers) you do have a duty to notice the carnage. Perhaps this may begin in earnest now, but somehow I doubt it.
6/6/10 - FCC Field Enforcement: Fourth Amendment Still Rules, Apparently [link to this story]
Last year, in response to coverage that the FCC felt it had the authority to conduct warrantless searches of private property in its objective to clear the airwaves of unauthorized activity, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the agency. It asked the FCC to somehow rectify the quandary between its self-stated authority and the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects the public from "unreasonable" (i.e., unwarranted) searches and seizures.
Last month, the FCC responded to the EFF's FOIA request, releasing a small cache of well-redacted documents related to the agency's field investigation techniques. In a document entitled "Basic Investigation Techniques - On-Scene Overview," the Commission seems to make its position clear: "Agents should never trespass on private property. You do have legal authority to inspect any radio station (broadcast, land mobile, amateur, etc.) at any time; however, you should contact the property owner to gain access." In a later chapter, properly entitled "Limits of Authority," the prohibition against trespassing is further articulated and specifies that FCC field agents may be held criminally liable if break this law.
Several documents give unprecedented insight into how FCC field agents do their work; it's mostly a lot of calling and letter-writing, but it also includes information on possible stakeouts related to enforcement activity.
One record contains information on a heretofore-unknown FCC "Violators File" maintained by the Enforcement Bureau, which includes information on every person or entity "who have been subjects of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) field enforcement actions (monitoring, inspection, and/or investigation) for violations of radio law, FCC Rules and Regulations, or International Treaties...and Licensees, applicants, and unlicensed persons...about whom there are questions of compliance with [U.S. communications law]."
Categories of records in the "Violators File" include "[i]nspection reports, complaints, monitoring reports, investigative cases, referral memos, correspondence, discrepancy notifications, warning notices, and forfeiture actions." The Violator's File is maintained both physically and electronically, "in file folders and stored in a secure area. Access to files is limited to approved personnel. The electronic records are maintained in computer databases, which are secured through controlled access and passwords. The databases are backed-up routinely."
Most notably, none of the data in the Violator's File is amended or removed for any reason "until a disposal schedule is approved by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)," which the document suggests has not yet taken place.
Yet none of the released documents gives the impression that the FCC thinks itself above the Fourth Amendment; in fact, this question itself is not directly addressed in the data unveiled. Thus the rhetorical battle will continue in the field, with field agents left to bluster that they have the power to search-at-will, with penalties for those who do not comply. On the other side, rights-conscious members of the public can claim (correctly, at least for now) that even the FCC must bow down to a higher authority.
The bottom line for unlicensed broadcasters is: the FCC does not have carte blanche to invade your space, regardless of whether or not you're doing something that runs afoul of agency regulations. The FCC may retaliate later on in your case by citing any refusal to inspect as a factor in determining the size of any monetary penalty received. However, such punitive enforcement tactics have still not been adequately addressed by litigation, and the agency's own enforcement statutes require it to adjust a monetary penalty downward upon the demonstration of a person or entity's inability to pay.
Such "muscle" remains more a threat than an effective tool, much like the FCC's overall enforcement activity.