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News Archive: October 2011

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10/27/11 - Cracking the Lid on Pandora's Box [link to this story]

They make their bread and butter on access to the public airwaves, and for decades they have agitated against newcomers and ne'er-do-wells vying for a piece of the dial. But a skirmish between two commercial broadcasters over interference caused by an FM translator suggests that some radio broadcasters see over-the-air transmission slipping in importance as the primary conduit for their content.

Fortunately, the FCC does not.

The case involved a full-power FM radio station in Toledo, Ohio being interfered with by a translator licensed to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. The Toledo rock station, owned by Clear Channel, received numerous complaints from Detroit-area listeners when the translator took to the air with a smooth jazz format. Clear Channel then complained to the FCC.

Martz Communications, the translator's owner, got creative with the way it "remediated" the interference. It offered each complainant a smartphone with Clear Channel's iHeartRadio application pre-installed. Why listen to the actual radio dial anymore when you can get your favorite stations online?

The FCC's Audio Division did not see the equivalency, and suggested that such an approach "will inevitably lead the Commission into a quagmire of novel issues," none of which it was willing to examine for the sake of an FM translator simulcasting an HD subchannel. The translator was ordered to cease broadcasting.

Historically speaking, maintaining spectrum integrity has been at the center of broadcast incumbents' political agenda. It was the rationale used to eviscerate the LPFM service, and television broadcasters are fighting madly against the repurposement of some DTV channels for wireless broadband.

Then again, considering the willful degradation of the radio dial that broadcast incumbents have caused or consented to over the last decade (noise pollution on the AM band, HD Radio, and the mad proliferation of FM translators), perhaps it was only a matter of time before the Internet would become a suggested panacea for intra-industry squabbles.

It would seem that Martz Communications is big on recycling HD Radio content as stand-alone analog stations. Its full-power FM in Detroit runs two HD subchannels - both of which had their own FM translator outlets until the FCC ordered one of them shut down. This kind of spectrum-hoggery - creating "new" radio stations on the cheap using what should be a secondary broadcast service - makes the company's attempt to vilify Clear Channel in this case a bit hypocritical.

This is the first time (that I know of) that a U.S. broadcaster has openly suggested that the Internet could replace over-the-air transmission as a viable way of maintaining listenership in the medium. However, if contemporary radio industry business and engineering practices continue to whittle away at spectrum integrity, one wonders if this perspective will remain so "novel."

10/20/11 - Justice Takes A While [link to this story]

Exactly six months ago, I filed a complaint with the FCC regarding Madison right-wing radio harpy Vicki McKenna's violation of broadcast law by playing a recorded phone call without the permission of the caller. Since then, McKenna's employer, the Clear Channel-owned WIBA-AM, pulled McKenna's podcasts from the station web site and McKenna claimed that she and her employer were being unjustly persecuted. (Her podcasts have been restored during the last month - including the show that landed her in hot water in the first place.)

Nothing could be further from the truth: the more speech the better, but use of the public airwaves comes with some responsibilities. So I called the FCC's consumer help-line to inquire about the status of my "case."

Surprisingly, I got an actual human being after spending less than five minutes on hold. She told me that the Enforcement Bureau is actively investigating the complaint, and that the agency won't make any comments about it until it is resolved. How long could that take? "Months, even a year."

The FCC's complaint investigation process is not completely linear (the linked graph refers to indecency/obscenity complaints, but the process effectively works the same way for every complaint).

Given the suggested time-frame for resolution of this complaint, I suspect the FCC has requested information from Clear Channel about the substance of the violation and the company's engaged its stable of lawyers to respond in a manner which seeks to mitigate any potential fine.

Once the FCC reaches the decision to formally penalize a broadcaster, there are more rounds of correspondence between the agency and the accused - a form of haggling ensues over just how stiff the penalty should be.

Considering that I have not been contacted to provide more information about the allegation, it's safe to assume that the FCC has all the evidence it needs to slap Vicki McKenna's (and Clear Channel's) wrist. The company's reaction to the complaint was similarly unambiguous.

You'd think in a world of ever-speedier communication that the FCC would move more quickly on such business, but if slow and steady wins the race I'm certainly okay with that.

10/6/11 - Occupy the Airwaves [link to this story]

Two decades ago, thousands of people took to the air without permission from the FCC to protest the agency's draconian policies regarding access to the airwaves. The microradio movement conducted a campaign of electronic civil disobedience, demonstrating that there was plenty of space on the dial for community radio while illustrating just how enriching local access to the airwaves can be. The end result of this campaign was the creation of the LPFM service.

Today, more than 10 years on from LPFM's inception, unlicensed broadcasting remains alive and well, although the act is not as explicitly politicized as it once was.

This could change.

Last week, the Occupy Wall Street encampment established a microradio station at 107.1 FM. The station simulcasts the 24/7 live stream which provides coverage of life inside Zuccotti Park, as well as street-level reportage of daily protest actions in New York City's financial district. The growth of the occupation has been impressive, and the establishment of a microradio station is another step in the action's evolution.

One idea that's been batted around involves integrating broadcasting into the occupation's General Assembly, which functions as its governing body. City ordinances forbid the use of amplified sound systems in the park, which has resulted in the development of a "human microphone" system - speakers talk in sentence-fragments, which are repeated by the crowd so all can hear the dialogue. While it's a very participatory method of group communication, it's slow going and not necessarily scalable as the Assemblies grow.

In this instance, microradio could be employed to provide a non-amplified public address system - simply plug the speaker's mic into a transmitter. Radios are cheap, and many smartphones have built-in FM reception capability. Some involved in the NYC action are brainstorming along these lines.

As more occupations are launched around the nation, their organizers have taken notes on how Occupy Wall Street has grown. Adding microradio to the tactical media mix makes lots of sense.

Radio still remains one of the most powerful tools of mass media available; one need look no further than the right-wing bastion of talk radio which has done so much to sully political discourse in this country. Microradio is easily accessible to a large audience and relatively uncomplicated to deploy. Unlike most other tools of protest-media, the critical infrastructure that makes radio work is pretty much self-contained, which adds to its reliability.

Microradio is also extremely useful as an outreach tool. The station in Zuccotti Park broadcasts to the occupation and immediate neighbors, which can be useful in the maintenance of good community relations. Microradio stations have been deployed in similar situations, such as festivals, farmer's markets and picket lines, to extend the reach and impact of such events beyond their physical presence. In addition, opening up access to the airwaves in such a public manner helps to demystify the act of broadcasting and introduce folks to the notion that the airwaves, too, are a public space.

This leads to the final rationale for incorporating microradio into occupations - it's an occupation of its own kind. One of the grievances expressed by Occupy Wall Street directly addresses corporate control of the media. There is no better way to address that grievance than by becoming the media directly, and unlicensed broadcasting has a long and storied history in the United States. Nothing signifies independent media quite like a microradio station.

Microradio is no more or less civilly disobedient than taking over and transforming a public space. Considering that the airwaves are ostensibly public property, they should be no less off limits in this context than a park or public right-of-way. Provided they do not interfere with other broadcasters, the addition of new signals to a local radio dial is materially non disruptive; what's more, the FCC does not have police powers (and they also abhor confrontation).

Occupy Wall Street's media team has been integral to sustaining the encampment, spreading the word, and inspiring others. New and future occupations are learning much from what's happening in New York, where they're heavily engaged in multi-platform citizen journalism, utilizing everything from the newest of new media forms to publishing their own newspaper and, of course, the human microphone. Microradio falls comfortably within this continuum and can help bootstrap more intensive media efforts.