News Archive: September 2013
9/24/13 - The Long Goodbye of Free Speech Radio News [link to this story]
In a nutshell, the problem is money, and the writing's been on the wall for a while. Free Speech Radio News has been hurting in that department since the fall of 2010, when it first raised the spectre of going dark. Saved by a last-minute crowdfunding campaign, FSRN's been teetering on the brink ever since, held together by creative management, another emergency fund drive, and the passion of its crowdsourced production base. That can only take you so far, it would seem.
The distributed nature of FSRN's production made the program uniquely diverse in several ways. There was no central "newsroom," just a handful of coordinators who lined up stories and segments and provided refreshingly stringent editing oversight. Segments were produced in the field and/or at a variety of community radio stations around the world, then stitched together in the United States for air. FSRN had an amazingly wide range of contributors from all around the globe, many of whom are front-line in every sense—mobile, fearless and drawn to stories that befit the program's mission.
Free Speech Radio News grew out of a community radio affiliate-strike against Pacifica in 2000—one of the many tumults for that particular organization (more on that in a moment). Adopting the ad-hoc production model was a stroke of necessity: how to build a functional, half-hour network news program on the fly, without access to the traditional infrastructure? FSRN's move to embrace the internet, still in its relative infancy, as a platform for collective newsgathering and distribution turned out to be ahead of its time.
FSRN did this all on less than $500,000 a year—more a single-thread budget than a shoestring one. To put that in perspective, NPR pulls the equivalent in grants and donations every couple of days, and Clear Channel Communications makes that much money every 90 minutes. A half-hour is a lot of news to produce for radio every day, and FSRN's consistency and quality has been remarkable.
Shortly, it will be gone, and for this you can ultimately blame Pacifica. As a condition of ending the affiliates-strike in 2002, Free Speech Radio News completely replaced Pacifica's own network newscast. Pacifica is obligated to pay FSRN to help cover its costs, but over the last few years—as Pacifica began what may be its own terminal slide—that support has withered away. Affiliate and listener contributions can't cover the bills, and foundations and angel-funders have all but abandoned the medium of noncommercial radio (save for NPR).
Free Speech Radio News is the first notable collateral damage from the ongoing implosion of Pacifica, and I can't help but wonder just how far its fallout will spread. It's a shame it had to end this way, and here's hoping something good can be made of this horrible loss to the world of independent media.
9/18/13 - Deceptive Advertising: Translators as "Metro Stations" [link to this story]
More evidence that the market in FM translator stations is maturing quickly.
Saga Communications, a radio conglomerate that specializes in mid-market acquisitions, owns 91 stations across the country. Of these, some three dozen are FM translators: second-class radio stations limited to a power of 250 watts or less that rebroadcast the signals of other stations.
Saga is an aggressive player in the practice of using FM-HD Radio signals to feed programming to analog translators. Since very few people actually listen to HD Radio, these mini-signals appear to be "new" stations, though in most cases they're completely canned programming of a format that wouldn't otherwise be profitable on a real full-power FM station.
The giveaway of an FM translator is its weak signal, resulting in a smaller broadcast range and some increased difficulty penetrating into buildings.
This practice of treating second-class stations as primary services completely warps the intent of the translator service itself, and allows conglomerates to gain "new" stations that aren't counted against FCC media ownership limitations. It has also led to a massive market bubble for translators that has been developing for more than ten years. We're now seeing the results, where these weak rebroadcast-sticks are leased or sold for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.
Saga's latest yearly SEC filing notes that 87% of the company's gross revenue comes from local advertising, so you can see how adding FM translators to the mix has the potential to turn a buck or two. Over the years, Saga's become adept at branding translators as "new" stations: browse the company's stations list and look for the stations marked -HD2 or -HD3. These all have their own analog translator outlets now.
Obviously, the broadcasters engaging in this practice have to figure out a way to market these stations to advertisers–and it's best to try and play down their second-class nature. How best to do that? Lie.
A corporate directive to Saga's ad sales staff says translators should be sold to clients as "metro signals." As Saga CEO Ed Christian explained to the Clear Channel-owned trade publication Inside Radio, "It improves their reception [to clients] and makes them sound more legitimate."
9/11/13 - Radio's Digital Dilemma: The Proto-Book Tour [link to this story]
It's been less than two months since I turned in the manuscript to Routledge, but there's already some interest in what's coming. I'll be speaking on Radio's Digital Dilemma in a variety of places around the globe this fall:
Brooklyn College Media Nights, New York, October 15. Consider this a dress-rehearsal of the book-talk, which I first tested on unsuspecting radio scholars this spring in Portland, to some shock and no heckling. This is part of a two-day event organized by my work-home, BC's Department of Television and Radio, and will feature a variety of speakers on pressing topics regarding media and journalism more broadly. Tickets to Media Nights are free, but you do have to reserve them. For more details on the event, follow me on Twitter.
Union for Democratic Communications, San Francisco, November 1-3. This is an awesome annual conference for critical communications scholars, and this year it's being co-hosted by Project Censored, the folks who track the failings of journalism on major stories every year. I think the story of radio's digital transition in the United States fits this bill, and hope for a lot of constructive feedback about how we might go about working to change its trajectory.
Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, Sydney, November 14-17. I'm giving a keynote address at the CBAA's annual conference, which brings together community broadcasters from across the continent. The story of radio's digital transition in Australia is worlds apart from the U.S. model—or the rest of the world, for that matter.
Community radio is actually enshrined in Australian communications law as a defined segment of the broadcasting environment, and thus receives a level of public support that in many respects is envious. More than 380 community radio and TV stations are on the air there, relying on the work of more than 22,000 volunteers. A quarter of Australian radio listeners tune into community radio stations at least weekly.
However, Australia is also struggling with the imposition of austerity politics and policies, and significant threats to public subsidies for community broadcasting are imminent. Furthermore, the country has adopted a dual-technology digital radio transition: the DAB+ standard is being deployed in the cities and Digital Radio Mondiale in the rural areas. In the latter, 34% of all local programming is provided by community radio stations. However, community broadcasters are not guaranteed any real purchase on either of these platforms, and this is a real threat. In some respects, I think my story may give them some levity and hope: things could be much, much worse.
National Communication Association, Washington, D.C., November 22. This is part of the NCA annual conference, by far the largest gathering of communications scholars in the U.S. I'm one of several thousand players, but I'll be talking about how useful historiographical research is in contemporary media policy issues. Many believe that "history" is the analysis of things that have already happened, but I believe that historical research actually has the potential to help us shape the future...if we are responsive enough to write it before there's no chance of changing it.
In many respects, the U.S. digital radio transition is approaching a critical juncture, at which point broadcasters will have to choose between forcibly adopting HD Radio en masse or thinking of a better way. If we don't lay the groundwork to intervene in this debate, we'll have missed any chance to reclaim some of the principles which have made radio broadcasting such a unique and effective medium for the last 100 years.
As for the book itself, we'll be doing the pre-proof copyedit this month, with indexing to take place in October-November. This should make for a release in January/February of 2014. You can pre-order a copy on Amazon at 8% off the list-price, which knocks it down from "You're kidding, right?" to "Obscenely expensive." Routledge has promised an e-book version...but no details yet on whether its pricing will be more sane.
As I've mentioned before, there will be a follow-up paperback run if initial demand is good—and for an academic publisher like Routledge, "good" means a couple hundred copies. That's why I'm advocating that folks contact their local libraries and have them order a copy, so the cost can be spread around. I'd also suggest contacting Routledge directly to let them know that their pricing is insane, and actually inhibits the flow of useful knowledge...but it is such a sprawling company (part of a larger publishing conglomerate) that I don't even know who to complain to myself.
I'm working to set up more opportunities next year to tell the story of Radio's Digital Dilemma, so if you're interested in having me, I'm interested in coming—just drop a line.