News Archive: June 2013
6/27/13 - The Wait for a Full FCC [link to this story]
Future FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler had his first sit-down with the United States Senate last week. The Benton Foundation has assembled an excellent compendium of coverage from the hearing, focused especially on Wheeler's qualifications and his potential agenda for the agency.
For decades, Wheeler was the chief lobbyist for the wireless phone and cable industries. He also raised more than a million dollars for President Barack Obama's elections in 2008 and 2012. Currently, Wheeler's a venture capitalist.
This is a far cry from Obama's election promise in 2007 that he would clean up the revolving door between government agencies and special interests. At his Senate hearing, Wheeler deflected this criticism by noting that in his days as a lobbyist, "I was an advocate for specific points of view, and I hope I was a pretty good advocate. If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, my client will be the American public, and I hope I can be as effective an advocate for them as humanly possible.”
If only politics worked that way; can a leopard really change its spots?
Once confirmed as the new Chair, a Wheeler FCC is likely to continue the trend of regulatory dismissiveness toward broadcasters more generally. Most of his top priorities involve expanding access to broadband and creating an interoperable, nationwide public safety communications network. Broadcasters are tangentially involved in the former because the FCC is currently designing the terms for an incentive auction that may see many TV broadcasters sell back their over-the-air channels, which would then be repurposed for wireless broadband services.
(Initially, broadcasters vowed to fight efforts to repurpose DTV spectrum; now, a coalition of more than 70 stations is negotiating behind the scenes with the FCC to get the most favorable terms possible for the public airwaves they claim as their own. The coalition is led by Disney's former D.C. strategist.)
Wheeler will fill one of two open seats on the Commission; the other will be a Republican nominee. The selection-process seems to be moving more slowly on this front: although no official short-list exists for the open seat, the only names that have been thrown around so far are staffers to key GOP members of Congress.
In sum, the process to bring the FCC back to its full five-member condition is not casting its search any further than the Beltway, and may drag on for months. Once it's concluded, the "change" will be imperceptible: the agency will continue on its dastardly neoliberal trajectory for the foreseeable future, making further mockery of the notion of regulating in the "public interest, convenience, and necessity."
In the interim, Mignon Clyburn sits at the helm of the FCC – the first woman ever to do so. The conventional wisdom is that acting FCC Chairpeople don't rock the boat. But the conventional wisdom sucks, and Clyburn could make even more telecom policy history if she chose to.
The FCC Chair has an impressive amount of power: they set the agency's policy agenda, have significant ability to commission research inquiries and other exploratory projects, and can wield significant discretionary authority over agency operations more generally. Clyburn has diverse policy interests, such as reigning in the prison phone oligopoly and exploring the expansion of the FM dial, under which substantive progress might be made using the Chair's prerogative alone. What good is sitting in the driver's seat without going somewhere?
6/21/13 - Date Set for LPFM's Second Coming [link to this story]
Mark your calendars: the FCC has scheduled a two-week filing window for LPFM station licenses to begin on October 15, 2013. More than a decade since the first (and only) LPFM filing window, this may very well be the last chance to build a wave of new community radio stations in the United States.
The application process is not simple, and there are 130 days to master it. It is crunch-time.
The best place to look for LPFM channel availability is via REC Networks' myLPFM channel search, which allows for both general and specific queries, as well as an impressive array of tools by which to massage the channel-hunting data.
The Prometheus Radio Project has committed to providing "intensive support" to 60 groups around the country "to ensure that their application is the best it can be and that their station will be both viable and sustainable for lasting community impact." They estimate this effort will cost $120,000 (or $2,000 per group).
Prometheus is also producing regular webinars that explain the basics of starting an LPFM station and is staffing a phone help desk for potential applicants. All of this is on top of the extensive online resources they already offer.
Broadcast attorney David Oxenford notes that "Groups thinking about opportunities in [large] markets need to be prepared to face competition for the few channels that may be available and to be realistic - as there will be many places where no channels will be available to serve a particular part of a metropolitan area." That said, the filing window is expected to attract thousands of applications for more than 1,000 stations.
Due to the expected crush of applicants, fellow D.C. counsel Harry Cole cautions that the FCC plans to dismiss LPFM applications that are not "letter perfect" en masse; those that are "incomplete" or "patently defective" will be tossed out as soon as the filing window closes on October 29th. So make sure to get the application right the first time – or file early enough in the window so that you can make amendments before it closes.
The last time around, more than 1,300 LPFM station licenses were granted, of which some 40% were subsequently cancelled or expired, leaving just shy of 800 on the air. This window will be much bigger – and with nearly 15 years of effort culminating in this opportunity, hopes are very high.
6/13/13 - Wisconsin's Attack on Truthtelling [link to this story]
The present practices of drafting a state budget in Wisconsin is like an inverse Christmas: a drunken anti-Santa stumbles through the people's house at the dead of night and leaves flaming bags of poo for the citizenry to unhappily discover the next morning. These come in the form of non-fiscal matters attached to the budget itself; the riders typically advance some inane personal/political cause of individual lawmakers.
A recent sad example of this practice is a budget provision which would expel the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW-Madison campus and prohibit UW faculty and staff from working with it in a professional capacity.
-- Not only does the Center do award-winning work and its investigative crosshairs are robustly bipartisan, but the Center's collaboration with the UW's School of Journalism and Mass Communication (my master's alma mater) provides valuable and meaningful experience for journalism students. Opportunities like these are few and far between in the world of journalism education today.
-- The Center makes its reportage free to any news outlet who wishes to carry it. And many do: hundreds of commercial and noncommercial news outlets, reaching a total of some 25 million people since 2009.
-- The Center receives no direct funding from the University of Wisconsin. It has two small offices in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, but is otherwise completely independently funded – this includes the salaries of its paid j-school interns. In many respects the Center gives back to the University much more than it receives in the use of University space.
To its credit, the University of Wisconsin was quick to pan the budget item. both Gary Sandefeur, dean of the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science, and Greg Downey, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, called it "a direct assault on our academic freedom."
This is not the first time Republicans in Wisconsin's legislature have attacked journalism programs on the UW-Madison campus. During my time there in graduate school, I co-founded Workers Independent News, the first daily radio headline news program devoted to labor issues to launch in the U.S. in more than 50 years. At first, the program was incubated by the UW-Extension's School for Workers, an institution with more than 80 years of history to the state and its citizenry.
After two solid years of growth WIN became self-sustaining and moved its operations off-campus. This did not stop Republicans in the Legislature with ideological axes to grind from breathing down WIN's neck: in 2006, one launched an investigation into WIN's founder, an emeritus professor, for alleged "inappropriate use" of University e-mail (nothing found). In 2012, the School for Workers bowed to GOP lawmaker pressure and cancelled an exhibit devoted to citizen art inspired by the 2011 occupation of the Capitol.
One of WIN's long-time detractors, Republican Assembly member Robin Vos, is also justifying the attack of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. "Members in our caucus [have] concerns about the propriety of having a news gathering organization, right, left, center, whatever" on campus, he explained.
If this is true, then it's time to shut down public broadcasting in Wisconsin (housed in the UW-Extension), both of UW-Madison's student newspapers, the campus radio station, and a host of other programs that both collect and report "news," however Vos et al. might define it.
Not only does this hit close to home personally, but it especially embodies a direct attack on two things that have made the University of Wisconsin system so unique and successful. The first is the Wisconsin Idea, which defines a core mission of the University to provide service to all of Wisconsin, beyond campus boundaries. The second is the concept of critical inquiry which was articulated by the University's Board of Regents in 1894 and is today enshrined on a plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, UW-Madison's administrative nexus:
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism essentially embodies all that's good about the University and its mission, without any direct cost to the University itself. This would seem to be one of those "win-win" situations of public/private partnership that Wisconsin GOP lawmakers are all about these days. Of course, that assumes said politicians actually care about the principles and values that once made Wisconsin a uniquely great state.
James Madison, after which the state capital is named, once observed that "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a face, or a tragedy, or perhaps both." Tragedy and farce are unfortunately in full effect today.
6/6/13 - Expanding the Options for Digital AM [link to this story]
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently spoke at the the Missouri Association of Broadcasters' annual convention, where he repeated his call for the FCC to undertake an "AM Revitalization Initiative." Telling the assembled broadcasters that "you've got a friend in me," he again listed off the possible policy options to help the beleaguered band, one of which includes its complete digitalization.
If Pai is truly a friend of broadcasters and the public interest, and seriously considers digitalization a viable option for AM, he should open the inquiry to alternatives to HD Radio, such as Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM).
Founded in 1998 by a consortium representing interests in more than 30 countries, Digital Radio Mondiale works on the AM, FM, and shortwave bands. It represents a true qualitative improvement over analog broadcasting, both in terms of sound quality and service extensibility. DRM allows multicasting and datacasting on all bands and, perhaps most importantly, is an open standard, unencumbered by a restrictive licensing regime. (Of all of HD Radio's fundamental detriments, its proprietary nature is the one that's done the most to hinder its adoption.)
During the last decade, DRM has been considered an also-ran among digital radio technologies, primarily because it was the last to be launched, years behind behind HD Radio and Eureka 147-based DAB. However, this has allowed the proponents of DRM to watch and learn from the developmental and adoptive mistakes of its predecessors, and they often position the system as complementary to other technologies. Consider the case of Australia: DAB+ multiplex systems are online in the country's major metropolitan areas, but it's impractical to provide nationwide DAB coverage over an entire continent, so DRM may fill in as a regional service.
In recent years, commitments to Digital Radio Mondiale have been on the increase, at a pace that makes HD Radio look like it's standing still. Several countries now broadcast extensively using DRM on shortwave (it's the only digital radio technology that works on that band) and others are developing plans to deploy it on AM as well. For example, public service broadcaster All India Radio – "the country's dominant radio service" – will migrate to DRM over the next three years.
Receiver availability remains an issue for Digital Radio Mondiale just as it is for other digital radio technologies, but considering the commitments to DRM from countries such as China, India, and Russia, it's unlikely that consumer electronics manufacturers will ignore the potential marketplace for long. Furthermore, a Dutch-based semiconductor company has recently unveiled a multi-standard digital radio chip, which opens up the possibility of a future all-in-one digital radio receiver. In the meantime, people have been building their own DRM receivers using open source software and a modified analog radio.
Any serious FCC-led "AM Revitalization Initiative" should be amenable to considering digital standards for the band other than HD Radio. The biggest hurdle to this would be industry resistance to the idea of jettisoning its investments in HD. It would also require the FCC to rescind its 2002 declaration to patently ignore alternative technologies – a decision made before Digital Radio Mondiale was fully cooked.
HD's adoption is in a state of malaise because the technology simply doesn't work well; this is especially true on AM. Representatives of Clear Channel recently told Commissioner Pai that the nation's largest broadcaster considered an AM-HD transition "challenging" due to the amount of money it would cost broadcasters to make the switchover. However, relative to the industry's total investment in HD, abandoning the protocol on AM would be an almost negligible writeoff, and at least two U.S. transmitter manufacturers already produce gear that is both HD and DRM compatible.
We really can't say for sure what the potential for DRM is until there a proper stateside analysis of the technology, or even better yet, a comparative study of DRM and HD Radio.
I'm of the mind that there is no magic bullet regarding radio's digital transition, but so long as radio broadcasters are committed to the notion of maintaining an independent infrastructure (read: keeping their spectrum) as part of the process, they will have to find a viable digital radio standard. Considering the state of AM, perhaps it's not that radical of an idea to consider alternative standards. Were Commissioner Pai to suggest this out loud, he may be surprised and intrigued by the reaction.