News Archive: August 2013
8/28/13 - iBiquity CEO: The Future of Digital Radio is Analog [link to this story]
Every so often, iBiquity Digital Corporation CEO Robert Struble pens a column on iBiquity's corporate website. His latest missive actually (and unintentionally) puts a very fine point on the malaise that is the U.S. digital radio transition.
"The one constant for all successful media transitions has been the passage of time, and that patient strategy is working for HD Radio Technology as well," writes Struble. He claims that HD receiver penetration is on a strong upward trend, with a new digital radio sold "every six seconds."
As I've written before, such claims are specious: iBiquity will not provide raw data on receiver sales, so there's no way to fact-check them. According to Struble's latest column, there are more than 13 million HD receivers in circulation—most of them found in new cars and trucks that include HD compatibility as standard equipment. This passive uptake tells us nothing about actual listener engagement. According to Arbitron's most recent radio-listening overview, 5.4 million people listen to an HD Radio station weekly. So less than half of all HD receivers sold are actually used: that speaks volumes.
But Struble's big news is his discovery of the "innovative" use of analog FM translators to relay HD programming. "In effect, it's like getting another unique analog FM signal for a tiny fraction of the cost of a new station," he writes. "Get that translator's antenna up high enough, and it's basically a new [station] for the cost of the HD Radio upgrade."
There are two fatal flaws to this logic. The first is Struble's apparent misunderstanding of what FM translator stations actually are. Simply put, translators are an extremely finite resource. While there has been an explosion of new translator stations in the last 10 years—part of which has been fueled by HD-adopters seeking some sort of return-on-investment—this boom is now drawing to a close. The FCC only accepts applications for new translators during designated filing windows (the last of which was in 2003) and there is no new window on the horizon.
Thus the vast majority of available translator stations for this scheme are already in play, and it costs a pretty penny to play—a point Struble acknowledges by referencing the "large and small local and national operators who own multiple translators (think religious broadcasters) that have been willing to sell or lease them"—for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. That's remarkable considering that FM translator stations are a secondary service in the eyes of the FCC: they must accept interference from neighboring full-power FM stations and can even be bumped off the air by them. It doesn't happen often, but this risk should be factored into any translator investment.
The second flaw is the belief that putting digital-only programming on analog translators entices anyone to migrate over to HD Radio itself. Struble brags that, over the last two years, two-thirds of all new HD station-implementations "have involved an HD Radio-on-Translator initiative." If the prime selling point for adopting FM-HD technology is to feed programming to an analog outlet, that does not say much about the merits of HD itself as radio's future end-state.
In the end, Struble thinks of the HD-on-translator strategy as "training wheels that allow a seamless transition from analog to digital while bringing listeners along for the ride." He believes it will help solve HD Radio's perennial chicken/egg problem, in which broadcasters are reticent to go digital because nobody's listening.
As a broadcast strategy, it's a clever loophole to acquire additional analog stations in saturated markets or provide a niche format that would be unprofitable on a real, full-power FM station. It's also a pretty convoluted way to try and turn a dime, and does nothing to advance the inherent utility of HD Radio itself. I understand that Struble's position requires him to be a glass-half-full kind of guy, and he has invested nearly 20 years of his career in the HD system—but I do have to wonder just what's in the glass these days.
8/21/13 - 55 Days and Counting: Informative Events for LPFM Applicants [link to this story]
The Federal Communications Commission is busy preparing for an onslaught of applications for new low-power FM (LPFM) stations: the filing window opens on October 15th and closes on the 29th. Interested applicants should already be hard at work preparing, because building a radio station from scratch is not a simple process.
But there have been and will be some important info-dumps that can help demystify the issues. In chronological order:
1. WGXC's "Saturday Afternoon Show" on LPFM. On Saturday, August 17, community radio station WGXC (Hudson/Catskill/Acra, NY) aired a two-hour special on LPFM, which included interviews with FCC officials, aspiring LPFM applicants and active stations, and lots of context about how the LPFM service came about and what its future may hold.
2. FCC LPFM Webinar. On Tuesday, August 20, the FCC held an online gathering to explain the LPFM service and the steps required to apply for a new station. This webinar has been archived here—the agency plans to hold another one in early October.
3. Radio Survivor Twitter Chat. Tomorrow (Thursday, August 22) the principals behind Radio Survivor will facilitate a discussion on Twitter about the coming LPFM filing window. It'll be focused on how colleges and other student/school organizations can take advantage of the LPFM opportunity, but it's open for anyone to participate. The fun begins at 10 AM Pacific time. Follow the hashtag #LPFM for all the action (or to peruse the discussion after the fact).
4. Prometheus Radio Project Webinars. The fine folks at the Prometheus Radio Project have scheduled a series of webinars over the next month covering many aspects of building an LPFM station, from the application process itself to finding a transmitter-site to producing and acquiring programming (and much more). These webinars will be archived as well.
5. Common Frequency Webinar. Common Frequency, a non-profit facilitator of community radio projects since 2006, is also hosting a webinar on the LPFM application process. It takes place next Wednesday, August 28th starting at 1 PM (Eastern time) and (free) registration is required to participate. Visit Common Frequency's companion-site, LPFM Now! for more details on the application process and how they might be able to help you.
Ten years ago—during the first LPFM filing window—there was but a fraction of this kind of support available to community groups looking for bona-fide public access to the airwaves. As a result, nearly half of all LPFM licenses went to well-prepared churches and other religious groups more interested in proselytizing than empowerment. These sorts of resources will hopefully make for a more balanced distribution this time around.
8/14/13 - The Health of Radio: By the Numbers [link to this story]
With what seems like increasing frequency, media-pundits are dropping rhetorical bombs riffing on the notion that radio is dying. This inevitably sets off a tizzy within the radio industry itself. But there are still strong signs of life, especially if one steps back and looks at the big picture.
Every quarter, the Federal Communications Commission issues a report on the number of licensed broadcast radio stations in the United States. The graph at right compiles the last 21 years of these reports (from 1992 to 2013). Clicking on the graph will spawn a new window showing a larger, more detailed version.
These FCC reports are available here. I used the agency's mid-year totals, released every June 30th, for year-to-year consistency. (2000 and 2007 are asterisked because there was no June 30th report archived for those years; these figures come from the FCC's third quarter (September 30th) report.)
Although the oldest available report is from 1968, there are no archived totals covering 1971 to 1989. I started with 1992 because that's the first year for which June 30th reports are available.
The numbers speak for themselves: more than 9,000 new radio stations took to the air over the last 21 years. This includes 1,923 new full-power commercial FM stations and 2,409 full-power noncommercial FM stations.
Only two classes of radio station exhibit any decline: AM and LPFM stations. On the AM side, there's been a net loss of 237 AM stations (about 5%) over the last 21 years. Note that this has not been a consistently downward trend, either, with small upticks around the turn of the century, most likely due to the FCC's expansion of the AM band in the 1990s.
Because the FCC's broadcast station totals only count fully-licensed stations (not stations under construction), LPFM stations don't appear on the books until 2005. The number of licensed LPFMs peaked at 864 in 2010 and has fallen to 797 this year (a decline of about 8%). With the coming of a new LPFM filing window this fall, there will be a surge in the number of these stations over the next few years.
What's most remarkable is the growth of FM translator and booster stations. The majority of these stations are translators, and you can see how they exploded following the Great Translator Invasion a decade ago—nearly reaching numerical parity with commercial FM stations in the 2008-09 time frame. Although their numbers have dwindled (by about 100) since then, more than 1,000 new translator construction permits will be issued soon, so expect a positive swing in this trajectory as well.
It's also quite illustrative of the extremely vibrant marketplace for FM translators that now exists. A cursory overview of just those transactions noted in Tom Taylor's daily industry newsletter over the last month alone turns up some 20 translators that changed hands in 12 states for nearly $2 million—or an average of $99,914 per station. The actual sale price of stations ranged from $17,000 (for a 250-watt translator in Iowa) to $350,000 (for a 225-watt translator in Florida). Of the 17 transactions covering these translators, six of them were for more than $100,000, and all but five of them were for more than $50,000.
The fact that the net number of radio stations continues to rise—and in the case of FM translators, so much money is chasing so few watts—does seem to suggest that the demise of radio is grossly exaggerated. That said, it doesn't mean that concerns about the medium's future have no merit. In concrete terms, the inherent value of legacy radio broadcasting lies in the spectrum it occupies, and with a growing hunger for wireless broadband there is the possibility that in the future, radio might very well abdicate its exclusive patch of the airwaves.
In 2011, Radio World asked National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith whether there was "any immediate threat" to the radio spectrum; he replied, "Not immediate, but if they can do it to your neighbor [broadcast TV], they can do it to you eventually." A straight-up cynic might see the growth of radio as claim-staking for this eventuality, but there's still too much money to be made in the status quo...even if it may very well not be inherently sustainable.
8/7/13 - CBS Radio Shills for Fracking in Pennsylvania [link to this story]
From the bullsh*t propaganda department: on August 15th, CBS Radio's Pittsburgh cluster (KDKA-AM, KDKA-FM, WDSY-FM, and WBZZ-FM) will "host" the Marcellus Shale Festival at an outdoor music venue in town.
This is an event wholly designed to put a happy face on the practice of hydraulic fracturing: the messy process of harvesting natural gas that's spreading throughout the country. The Marcellus Shale Formation extends throughout seven states and is currently one of the most active areas of hydraulic fracturing in the continental United States. In many respects, Pennsylvania has been the ground zero of Marcellus fracking, where wells have been operating since 2005.
The day-long event features "exhibits" such as a screening of FrackNation, a polemical "documentary" from folks with strong ties to climate-change deniers. FrackNation was produced pretty much explicitly to try and impugn two damning actual documentaries about hydraulic fracturing: Gasland and Gasland 2.
There will also be a "town hall" hosted by KDKA-AM midday host Mike Pintek—the reporter who first broke the Three Mile Island meltdown story in 1979—featuring a fracking industry executive who's admitted using "psychological operations" against opponents (also a regular guest on KDKA's own frack-pimping show, The Marcellus Shale Hour) and many of the politicians the industry's already bought and paid for.
The entire shebang closes out with live country music from The Stickers and Phil Vassar, who may be blissfully unaware of their roles in this charade. The list of sponsors for the "festival" reads like a who's who of companies involved in fracking the Marcellus Shale to oblivion.
Make no mistake, there's a long history of coziness between the corporate media and political-economic elites. A decade ago, Clear Channel held "rallies for America" to promote the invasion of Iraq. More contemporarily, witness the dissonance that is MSNBC, where the programming often digs into the cravenly exploitative nature of corporate malfeasants—all sandwiched between barrages of advertising from the natural gas industry and Wal-Mart. It makes for a dizzy viewing experience that sorely compromises the power of the channel's reportage.
But the "Marcellus Shale Festival" is downright nauseating. CBS, which owns four of the top eight ranked stations in the Pittsburgh market, has effectively organized a day-long propaganda exercise for industrial polluters. Regardless, you can bet that CBS will (in policymaking proceedings and industry press) tout this event as one of its many efforts to "give back" to the communities it "serves."
This may ring somewhat true in cases where broadcasters cosponsor bona-fide community or charity events. But this boondoggle doesn't even pass that simple smell test. If you're okay with putting a beneficent face on flammable water and cancer clusters, then I guess this is "festival" for you.
But one thing is crystal clear in Pittsburgh: CBS' broadcast properties are straight-up shills working in direct contradiction to the public interest, convenience, and necessity.