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News Archive: June 2014

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6/24/14 - WBAI Facing Eviction from Transmission Facilities [link to this story]

The sordid situation of Pacifica Radio took another turn last week, when the owners of the Empire State Building—where WBAI's transmitter and antenna are located—threatened to pull the plug on the station. According to a report dated June 19th by Pacifica Foundation Interim Executive Director Bernard Duncan, rent payments from WBAI to the ESB for May and June were "returned indicating an imminent eviction."

WBAI has fallen several months behind on the rent for its transmission facilities. The curious language of Duncan's report suggests that perhaps Pacifica's checks to ESB may have bounced. It would not be the first time: just a year ago the station suffered a series of blows when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting suspended payments to Pacifica for "errors and shortcomings in its accounting and operations," leading WBAI to lay off most of its staff after failing to make payroll. It also ditched its pricey Wall Street digs after falling behind on rent there.

WBAI operations are now scattered throughout the city, with production facilities on two CUNY campuses and a business office in a shared space in Brooklyn. The station's also been trying to rent itself out, so far unsuccessfully.

The plan is to move WBAI's transmission facilities to 4 Times Square. While the cost to rent space there is dramatically lower than the Empire State Building (and should not result in any significant degradation of WBAI's coverage area), it's not clear just how Pacifica plans to cover those expenses. If the ESB landlords press the issue, Pacifica will need to pursue some sort of court action to prevent a switch-off. WBAI will also need to file for Special Temporary Authority with the FCC when it moves skyscrapers and/or goes silent.

WBAI is not the only Pacifica station with big problems: WPFW in Washington, D.C. is also seeking a new home, in hopes of lightening its own fiscal burdens, while KPFT in Houston is still operating at reduced power after a lightning strike damaged its transmitter in 2012 and has not been able to raise the money to buy a new one.

Less than three months into the job (which began with his predecessor occupying the offices in protest), Bernard Duncan announced he'll be stepping down from Pacifica's ED position on July 5th to move back to New Zealand. With no replacement on the horizon, nobody seems to know just how Pacifica will cope with its crises.

6/17/14 - New HD Radio Loophole: Royalty-Evasion? [link to this story]

For several years now, there's been a growing tension between broadcasters, online radio services, and the music industry over the issue of royalties. Current law requires streaming media services to pay performance royalties on the music they stream, while historically broadcasters have been exempt from these fees (everyone pays royalties to songwriters and publishers).

Performance royalties cost streaming music services a fraction of a penny for every song streamed to every listener—but when you add that up it's a huge financial burden, accounting for nearly half of large streaming services' revenues. Broadcasters also now pay performance royalties on their Internet streams, but not on over-the-air play.

Several strategies have been deployed to attempt to address the royalty-disjuncture. This includes legislative attempts to reconfigure how royalties are calculated across platforms and even direct licensing deals between broadcasters and/or streaming services and record labels.

Creative loophole-spelunking is also in full effect. Last year, Pandora announced it was purchasing a radio station in South Dakota in order to qualify as a broadcaster under existing music-licensing rules, thereby reducing its royalty-burden. The deal's been halted by the FCC until Pandora proves that the station will remain majority-owned by U.S. investors.

Largely seen as a publicity stunt, the move has apparently inspired other webcasters to explore the broadcast loophole, but this time, they're not looking to buy radio stations. Instead, they're looking to lease FM-HD multicast channels; the idea being that, as broadcasters, they too might see a reduction in royalties due.

The legal rationale behind this play is certainly questionable, as HD Radio subchannel listenership is positively miniscule. That said, broadcasters have never really committed in any organized fashion to cultivating new or more diverse programming in the HD multicast environment.

Instead, they've used HD-2 and -3 channels as clever conduits for feeding analog FM translators and marketing these as new, stand-alone stations. Some of these translators are already simulcasting webcasters. Other broadcasters, such as Entercom, have entirely outsourced the programming of their FM-HD multicasts, including any associated royalty payments.

At this stage in radio's digital transition, any efforts to meaningfully expand the diversity of programming available on FM-HD multicasts is welcome. Multicasting, to date, has been HD Radio's greatest missed opportunity. That webcasters regularly provide content for broadcasters is just one more sign of radio's identity morphing into something much different than it was during the medium's first hundred years. But ultimately, no technology succeeds or fails on the exploitation of loopholes alone.

6/10/14 - WKRP Reunion Highlights Innovation and Chemistry [link to this story]

Last week the Paley Center for Media hosted a reunion of cast and crew from WKRP in Cincinnati. The show aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982 with an 88-episode run and is still in syndication more than 30 years later. When it first aired, I was too young to appreciate the show, but I grooved on it as a teenager and have to admit that WKRP is partially responsible for my forays into radio.

The two-hour Paley Center program brought together the majority of the show's main characters, including Loni Anderson (Jennifer Marlowe), Howard Hesseman (DJ Dr. Johnny Fever), Tim Reid (DJ Venus Flytrap), and Jan Smithers (Bailey Quarters), as well as creator Hugh Wilson and directors Jay Sandrich and Assad Kelada. Gary Sandy (WKRP Program Director Andy Travis) called in during the discussion. Hopefully the Paley Center will put up an archive of the livestream (or at least some highlights) on its Screening Room and/or YouTube page.

In many respects WKRP in Cincinnati broke a lot of new ground in the world of TV sitcoms. The program addressed many social and political subjects long before they were considered appropriate to speak about. These included themes such as discrimination involving race, gender, and sexual orientation, and the moral quandaries soldiers faced during (and after) the Vietnam War. It also shone a spotlight on several of the radio industry's dark secrets, including payola and automation.

WKRP in Cincinnati also blazed new trails in music. The show's DJs actually picked the music that viewers heard in the original episodes, and these picks shaped both music sales and station playlists. Blondie credits WKRP for helping it break into the bigtime after Johnny Fever played "Heart of Glass" in an episode (the band gave the show a gold record to hang on-set), and Venus Flytrap's love of Bob Marley was instrumental in convincing actual program directors to give his music regular rotation.

The cast and crew believe WKRP in Cincinnati's success was directly attributable to the fact that there was a special chemistry between the actors, writers, directors, and producers. Unlike many sitcoms, where the writers are sequestered from the set, the creative process for WKRP was organic and extended beyond the studio, including booze-fueled parties out of which some of the show's greatest moments were born. Howard Hesseman said he had never seen such creative camaraderie on a sitcom before or since, and the rest of the reunion panel vehemently agreed.

Unfortunately, those who see WKRP episodes in syndication today are not getting the authentic experience. That's because the music licensing agreements for the songs used on the faux station have lapsed. Therefore, many WKRP episodes are heavily edited: actual songs have been replaced with generic session-tracks and related character dialogue has been overdubbed with sound-alike actors. In some cases, entire scenes involving copyrighted music have been removed.

This is why there's been no DVD release of WKRP in Cincinnati. 20th Century Fox did release a DVD collection of the show's first season in 2007, but these were music-sanitized episodes and thus did not sell well. However, the pop-culture archival company Shout Factory has now acquired the rights to WKRP, and word is they are confident they can secure the permission to restore the program's original music and release its entire corpus. Interestingly, the principals behind Shout Factory are also the founders of of Rhino Records, which is well-known for its compilations, remasterings, and reissues of older music and TV shows.

6/3/14 - Boston Media Lament Loss of Pirates [link to this story]

On those rare occasions when the FCC and Federal Marshals sweep a city for pirates, the media coverage follows a predictable narrative: law-and-order cleaning up the airwaves, in the protection of "public safety" and licensed-station profitability. The only outliers to this have been reactions to pirate-busts in San Francisco and Santa Cruz—two California communities with a long history of radical radio activism.

But Boston-area media outlets also broke the traditional mold in their coverage of an April sweep that netted three pirate stations. The first one to hit the headlines was TOUCH FM, an unlicensed broadcaster that was an anchor of Boston's black community. TOUCH's founder, Charles Clemons, is a high-profile figure who even recently ran for mayor.

The other two silenced stations (Radio Tele Boston and a still-unnamed outlet) primarily served the suburb of Brockton, and were no less integral to their communities than TOUCH was. The Boston Globe actually acknowledged this, as well as the larger (and still-active) pirate scene that exists in the metro area. It quotes Brockton City Councilor Moises Rodrigues, who says that "99 percent of the elected officials in this community have gone on those stations, including me. None of us connected or otherwise are proponents of illegality in any way, but there's a great need for information reaching into these bilingual communities."

The Globe also notes that, in many cases, these communities don't have reliable access to the Internet, and high rates of illiteracy means that pirate stations often end up being "the only source for information" available.

According to public broadcaster WBUR, the government's enforcement efforts may be doing more harm than good. In a story on the sweep, it spoke with a principal of Radio Bel Top, a Haitian pirate that's currently engaged in some cat-and-mouse with the FCC. Local pastor Keke Fleurissaint supports the cause: "Culturally, our people always get their news from radio," and without access to the airwaves it's nearly impossible to "communicate...important news to the people."

The story also quotes Michael Keith, a professor of broadcast history at Boston College who notes that the city's pirate scene vividly illustrates the limits of the FCC's LPFM radio service. Considering that there are no real open frequencies in Greater Boston, he suggests that the FCC should make "an attempt to evaluate what kind of a public service these pirate stations were providing on a case-to-case basis and then authorize them, that might be a positive thing instead of bumping heads eternally with" pirates.

Finally, a Wicked Local article notes that the Boston Police department estimates there are "at least 10" other active pirate stations in the area, and speaks extensively with Brockton City Councilor Dennis DeNapoli, who is crafting an ordinance that would ban rooftop antennas taller than five feet as a way of trying to get "control" over the proliferation of pirates. A proposed state law that would let licensed stations sue pirates in civil court appears to be stalled.

The most important lesson from this coverage is the recognition of a need for more communicative diversity in our media environment. In this context, unlicensed broadcasting is not the problem—it's a symptom of a much larger one that policy-efforts are not adequately addressing. So long as this exists, so will the pirate stations.