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News Archive: July 2013

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7/31/13 - Radio's Digital Dilemma Out the Door [link to this story]

Today I sent Routledge the manuscript for Radio's Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting in the 21st Century. 81,221 words over eight chapters, 285 typescript pages in all. The publisher's new synopsis:

Radio’s Digital Dilemma is the first comprehensive analysis of the United States’ digital radio transition, chronicling the technological and policy development of the HD Radio broadcast standard. A story laced with anxiety, ignorance, and hubris, the evolution of HD Radio pitted the nation’s largest commercial and public broadcasters against the rest of the radio industry and the listening public in a pitched battle over defining the digital future of the medium. In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission elected to put its faith in “marketplace forces” to govern radio’s digital transition, but this has not been a winning strategy: a dozen years on from its rollout, the state of HD Radio is one of dangerous malaise, especially as newer digital audio distribution technologies fundamentally redefine the public identity of “radio” itself.

Ultimately, Radio’s Digital Dilemma is a cautionary tale about the overarching influence of economics on contemporary media policymaking, to the detriment of notions such as public ownership and access to the airwaves—and a call for media scholars and reformers to engage in the continuing struggle of radio’s digital transition in hopes of reclaiming these important principles.

Routledge says the publication process takes 5-6 months from submission, so that would put actual release around the new year.

At first, Radio's Digital Dilemma will be published in hardcover and e-book editions. Because Routledge targets the library market, these won't be cheap—and for the record, that positively sucks. However, if demand is good (in the world of academic publishing, "good" means selling several dozen copies) there will be a paperback run. It certainly wouldn't hurt to ask your local libraries to acquire a copy, both to guarantee the book a place in our common body of knowledge and to help make the paperback edition come true.

The reception by those who've heard me speak on the book, or have read draft chapters, has been pretty gratifying. My favorite comment has been, "it's the first explanation of HD Radio that makes any sense." But it's also a story about the worst aspects of contemporary media policymaking—and unlike many histories, it's not one that's set in stone.

I've learned an immense amount over the last five years of putting this project together, and the next time around (I'm already sketching out ideas) I know there are many things I'll do differently. But as far as first books goes, this process was surprisingly painless.

Now, let's hope that it does some good.

7/24/13 - The Free Radio Network: 1993-2013? [link to this story]

It's been quite a ride for the Free Radio Network, an historic online hot-spot for discussion of pirate radio in the United States. The FRN was launched in 1993 as a dial-up bulletin board system (BBS) administered by shortwave pirate enthusiasts John Cruzan and Kirk Trummel.

After transitioning to the Internet, the FRN expanded far beyond its message boards, though those remained a primary draw. In the early days of the World Wide Web, The Free Radio Network was one of the few places online where pirate broadcasters and allies could have frank discussions about their activity and its implications. It's also been a primary collection-point for reception reports involving shortwave pirate stations.

I first discovered the FRN in 1997, when I began covering unlicensed broadcasting as a part of my vocation. There were so many FM pirates congregated there that the FCC's chief enforcement officer at the time, Richard Lee, visited regularly under the handle of "TopCop." This led to some interesting back-channel discussions and eventually Lee's (friendly) appearance at a Philadelphia microbroadcasting conference in 1998.

Following the promulgation of LPFM, most microbroadcasters abandoned the FRN, while the site's core shortwave community thrived. However, Kirk Trummel died of pancreatic cancer in 2001, after which Cruzan also gradually stepped away from the site.

The Free Radio Network's new caretakers were not cut from the same cloth as its founders. Updates to the site, save for the message boards, effectively ceased. In the last few years, the content of the message boards significantly declined in quantity and quality, as an apparent tiff between some active members morphed into an all-out civil war that threatened to consume the U.S. shortwave pirate community. Partisans used their administrative access on the FRN to perpetuate the vitriol, which led to a mass-defection from the site.

What seems to have killed the Free Radio Network, however, is a lack of server administration. It became kind of a running joke when the site's domain would expire every year, because it would take days for someone to renew the registry. When the site disappeared again earlier this spring, I assumed that was the culprit, but queries to now simply time out – the domain is active, but the site itself is AWOL.

Every time the FRN had a hiccup, it seemed like its community shrunk a little bit. Now, most of that community exists on places like HF Underground and the Free Radio Cafe, as well as the Internet Relay Chat channel #pirateradio, where shortwave pirates and their listeners often trade reception-reports in real-time.

That said, I hope the Free Radio Network is not gone for good, because it represents an important archive of material related to the modern history of pirate radio in the United States, which deserves to be preserved.

7/17/13 - Massachusetts Mulls Anti-Pirate Law [link to this story]

Lawmakers in Massachusetts are hard at work trying to outlaw unlicensed broadcasting. H.1679 was introduced in the state House of Representatives in January and got a hearing in the legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary just last week. Floor votes are expected before the end of the year.

If approved, Massachusetts would become the fourth state in the country to pass an anti-pirate radio law.

Florida was first in 2004, making unlicensed broadcasting a third-degree felony. (Interestingly, interfering with government radio systems is only a first-degree misdemeanor.) New Jersey and New York followed in 2006 and 2011 respectively. Pirates snagged under New Jersey's law face a fourth-degree felony charge.

In New York, "unauthorized transmission" is currently class A misdemeanor – though a bill is wending its way through the legislature to stiffen the penalty to a class D felony.

Interestingly, Massachusetts' proposal does not make unlicensed broadcasting a criminal offense. Instead, the bill would empower the state Attorney General to initiate legal action against a pirate broadcaster, which could result in an injunction, monetary forfeiture ($5,000 on first blush, $10,000 if a pirate violates an injunction), and seizure of equipment. It would also allow licensed broadcasters to sue pirate stations in civil court for similar relief.

This effort is being spearheaded by House Representatives Steven Walsh (D-Lynn) and Robert Fennell (D-Lynn), at the behest of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association. The MBA claims the bill is necessary because "several" broadcasters have complained that pirate stations are "impeding their signals."

The Boston metropolitan area has long been a national hot-spot for pirate broadcasting, on both the AM and FM dials, and the FCC has already raided two stations there this year. However, one station in particular – Touch 106.1 – has had such a long run and high profile that many local media outlets don't even call it a pirate station anymore. Touch FM's founder, Charles Clemons, is currently running for mayor of Boston, and the station just acquired the services of Jimmy Myers, a long-time sportscaster and talk-show host.

Clemons is not unknown to the FCC: it fined him $17,000 for unlicensed broadcasting in 2008 – a forfeiture that technically expired in May of this year. It's highly unlikely that this state law was specifically tailored to attack Clemons and Touch, but if it passes you can bet they'll be one of its first test cases.

7/10/13 - Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Saved from Eviction [link to this story]

Good news from Madison: Governor Scott Walker used his line-item veto power for good late last month and struck a provision that would have evicted the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW-Madison campus and prohibited journalism faculty from working with it.

Slipped into the state budget in the dead of night by an anonymous Republican lawmaker and the subject of national controversy, Walker killed the item because he didn't feel it was appropriate to single out one particular group in such a way. Instead, he is asking the UW Board of Regents to review its policies on campus facilities-sharing with outside groups.

There's little chance that the Regents will overhaul these policies in any radical fashion, much less oust the Center. Executive director Andy Hall was pleased with the outcome: "Some in power are unhappy with our nonpartisan efforts, which aim to protect the vulnerable, expose wrongdoing and seek solutions," he wrote. "Their actions tell us we are doing something right and need to do more of it."

Greg Downey, director of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has penned an excellent retrospective about weathering the crisis. "In the end," however, "I worry that we still have a situation where one or more unnamed, unaccountable legislators can try to nullify a university project of research, teaching, and service at any time, for no reason, with no notification and with no public debate," writes Downey.

Between the legislative approval of the state budget and Walker's veto, some contingency planning examined the notion of a court challenge, which would have gotten complicated in a hurry. How does a state agency sue the state itself? Who, exactly, would the plaintiff be: the Center, School, campus, or System? On what grounds?

Fortunately, common sense kicked in before such a campaign was necessary. But Downey does worry that this ordeal may nonetheless have "a 'chilling effect,' making us less bold, less innovative, less creative, and more risk-averse in our research, teaching, and service than we might otherwise be. That’s what is really at stake in battles like these. And that is why we must be ready for the next one."

7/3/13 - Pirate-Hunting: FCC Plods While Local Scenes Bubble [link to this story]

Halfway through 2013, and the FCC's pace of unlicensed broadcast enforcement shows no real change from 2012: 106 enforcement actions in all, targeting more than three dozen stations, with the majority of this activity wholly administrative in nature. Pirate stations who appear on the FCC's radar can now expect a warning letter to arrive via certified mail 1-6 weeks after an initial visit. Ignore those, and the agency may start asking for money.

To date, the FCC has handed out $60,000 in Notices of Apparent Liability and $125,000 in actual forfeitures. However, not all of these penalties are new: in February, the FCC socked Whisler Fleurinor with a $25,000 fine for unlicensed operation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is actually Fleurinor's second go-round – he was first busted in 2010 and given a $20,000 forfeiture in 2011, which was later reduced to $500. It's much the same story for Gary Feldman, who was first busted in 2004 for pirate broadcasting in Miami. He was caught again last year and fined $25,000 this year. Moreno's 2004 forfeiture ($10,000) was never paid.

Several other forfeitures this year involve reductions on previous penalties. For example, Bernabe Moreno (NJ) saw a 2011 fine reduced from $10,000 to $1,000; Michael Gregory (FL) whittled a $10,000 forfeiture issued last year down to $750 this year; and Recardo Mill word (NY) caught a $16,000 break on appeal of a 2011 NAL.

Despite the FCC's best efforts, pirate radio remains a coast-to-coast phenomenon, with enforcement actions reported so far this year in 18 states and the District of Columbia. That said, the FCC is definitely doing more legwork on some cases and seems to be working more closely with local law enforcement agencies.

In the process of tagging Fabrice Polynice with a $25,000 fine for unlicensed broadcasting in Miami, the FCC tracked the movement of the station to three different locations over the course of six months. Elsewhere in Miami, the FCC did some IP tracing to tie Bernard Veargis to a pirate station; that setup was dirty, throwing a spur onto one of Miami International Airport's departure frequencies, which made shutting him down a high priority. Similar interference was reported at Boston's Logan International Airport, which led to a March raid on a station in Brockton, Massachusetts. (The FCC had known about this station since 2010.)

Although raids and seizures remain more the exception than rule, there've already been five this year. Victims include WSQT Direct Action Radio in Washington, D.C., an insurgent voice on the FM dial of the nation's capital for more than six years. The U.S. Park Police confiscated the station's remote transmitter setup in April. Fortunately, WSQT's operator remains at large and is already constructing replacement gear.

Others have not been so lucky. Two men were arrested last month in Summerfield, Florida for running commercial station "Fuego 97" from a trailer-home; both have been charged under Florida's own anti-pirate law, which makes unlicensed broadcasting a third-class felony. According to news reports, an engineer from Clear Channel did the hunting and then handed the case off to the cops and FCC.

Two men were also arrested in Brooklyn, New York last month for pirate broadcasting – a class A misdemeanor according to a state statute enacted last year. Several NYC stations complained that an illicit competitor was "infringing on their business," and NYPD detectives went so far as to buy commercial time from the broadcaster. But when they raided his station in April, they actually found two stations in operation there. These arrests are believed to be the first ever under New York's anti-pirate law. (Florida, New Jersey, and New York are the only states where pirate radio has been locally criminalized.)

Lest this activity makes one think that it's really dangerous to be a radio pirate, keep in mind that I once pulled in 11 unlicensed FM stations from my home in Brooklyn earlier this spring. Meanwhile, in Reno, this news report makes it sound like the Nevada Broadcasters Association is negotiating with a religious pirate to shut down. And in Boston, a long-time sportscaster and talk show host has signed up to do a show on Touch FM – an unlicensed station so out in the open that its founder is running for mayor.

Looking at pirate radio enforcement efforts is an indirect way to measure actual pirate radio activity. But even so, it's clear that the scene is as vibrant as ever.