News Archive: October 2013
10/30/13 - FCC Anti-Pirate Efforts Focus on NYC [link to this story]
It was a pretty busy summer for the federales, who not only managed to roll out their own version of the Enforcement Action Database, but made moves against pirate radio broadcasters in nine states. Among them, New York saw the vast majority of this action.
In the month of July alone, FCC agents visited and sent warning letters to more than two dozen pirates in the city; one unlucky station op in Queens got two visits and warning letters within this time span.
The turnaround time between an FCC visit and a warning letter in New York is now measured within days, not weeks. Should this disproportionality of pirate activity and enforcement continue, NYC will displace the Miami metropolitan area as the all-around U.S. pirate hotspot within a matter of months.
Speaking of Florida, the FCC is notably absent there—just one enforcement action reported over the summer, and that a $15,000 Notice of Apparent Liability to a broadcaster raided and arrested by local cops in June. In that particular case, however, we get a good sense of how the FCC and local authorities work together in states where pirate radio has been criminalized: the FCC visited the pirate three times before bringing in the local cops to do the heavy-handedness. Then, four months later, the FCC adds insult to injury with the proposed fine.
I thought the entire point of Florida (and New York, and New Jersey, and perhaps Massachusetts) criminalizing pirate broadcasting was to free up FCC resources. But there's no evidence to suggest that things actually work that way.
Interestingly, the FCC's overall tally of field enforcement activity shows nothing after September 5th. This is long before the government shutdown (which did produce a noticeable uptick in pirate broadcast activity, at least on the shortwave bands), and suggests that either FCC enforcement as a whole simply fell of a cliff come the start of fall, or someone at the agency is slacking when it comes to updating their public information.
If the FCC's enforcement protocol is evolving to a point where field offices block out certain dates to focus on pirate-busting, we can expect to see a slew of NALs and actual forfeitures flow from the agency before the end of the year. This will certainly look good on paper, but in practice it's not a winning strategy. My own FM bandscan in Brooklyn finds pirates still on the air on nearly every frequency agents supposedly "cleared" this summer.
10/23/13 - Firming the Foundation for an All-Digital AM Mandate [link to this story]
The quiet collection of "evidence" on which to justify an all-digital HD Radio mandate for AM stations continues.
After some stealth experimentation on a CBS station in Charlotte, North Carolina late last year, there's word of two other AM stations in the state conducting all-digital broadcast-tests this summer. The guinea pigs were WBT, a 50,000-watt station owned by Greater Media (also in Charlotte) and WNCT, a 50,000-watt (day)/10,000-watt (night) Beasley Broadcast-owned AM station in Greenville.
WBT secured experimental authorization from the FCC to conduct these tests just two weeks before they took place; WNCT also asked for fast-track authority less than a month before its all-digital broadcasts.
There is no hard data available from these tests, and I would not expect much to surface in the near future. The CBS tests last year produced a paltry 11-page report that spent more time describing the testing regimen than any concrete findings. An unnamed engineer quoted by the Clear Channel-owned Inside Radio (the only trade outlet to publish something akin to substantive story about the recent tests) says the all-digital broadcasts on WNCT were "very promising," though the article is more circumspect about the WBT trials:
In many respects, this testing was stimulated by Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai's call for an "AM revitalization initiative" to open (hopefully) next year. This inquiry will consider a range of options to (hopefully) "improve" the overall sustainability of the AM dial. And you can tell a lot by the principals involved in these rounds of tests about what the industry's revitalization "priorities" will be.
CBS and Greater Media are founding companies in the HD Radio cartel. The core research and development behind the HD system began as a project under Westinghouse, back when it owned CBS outright. This makes CBS and iBiquity Digital Corporation, the proprietor of HD Radio, kindred corporations; it's easy to see how their priorities align.
In the IR piece, CBS Radio president/CEO Dan Mason advocates for an all-digital AM switchover. Glynn Walden, CBS Radio's senior vice president of engineering, was the first to suggest this radical course of action at the NAB Radio Show last fall—just before the first round of all-digital tests. Walden is one of the fathers of the HD Radio system: he was at Westinghouse back when HD Radio was but a concept, holds several patents on the technology, and has split his career between CBS and iBiquity.
Not only does it look good for Walden to have his boss' endorsement, but it signals that CBS will be doing much of the heavy lifting to push a digital AM transition campaign forward at the National Radio Systems Committee and FCC.
They'll have great help from Greater Media. Its VP of radio engineering, Milford Smith, had very kind words about the latest all-digital AM tests. As he should: Smith was chairman of the NRSC's digital radio task force during the tumultuous struggle to get the FCC to adopt HD at the turn of the century. The NRSC's work at critical times was laughable—incomplete and highly qualified, yet presented to all as Holy Writ, which made regulators comfortable enough to bless the rollout HD despite its detriments.
The third player in the recent round of tests, Beasley Broadcasting, is also a long-time investor in and proponent of HD Radio. Mike Cooney, Beasley's VP of engineering, currently chairs the NAB's own Radio Technology Committee.
Now, I'm not trying to disparage any of these men—just pointing out the long-term historical connections between them, their companies, and the important roles they all played to get HD Radio as far as it has over the last two decades. This history has led their parent companies to pour tens of millions of dollars into HD; of course they would be the principals in any push to mandate its use. (A "source" at the NAB says they're careful to call their push an "evolution" instead of a mandate. Of course they would.)
It's the push itself that should worry us. It's taking on the same shape as the campaign that led to HD Radio's adoption by the FCC 15 years ago. Back then, a coalition of broadcast conglomerates (large and small), along with iBiquity and the NAB, worked hard to convince the FCC that the radio industry wholeheartedly supported the HD system. The pitched battle that subsequently occurred at the FCC belied this harmony, as does the abysmal state of HD uptake by broadcasters since then. That same coalition is crystallizing again, using the same opaque engineering and testing behaviors that tortured HD's initial development.
The only constituent presently missing from the old mix is National Public Radio. NPR's support of HD was key in convincing the FCC that a "true" commercial/noncommercial broadcaster consensus existed on the technology in the first place. But since then, NPR hasn't been directly involved in the creation of facts on the ground to advance HD policy—today, NPR is a reluctant supporter of HD Radio, and you can expect the same in the push for a digital AM transition.
However, the stakes for this push are much higher this time. Mandating the adoption of HD Radio on the AM dial sets important policy precedent for requiring the same on the FM dial, where the technology at least has some semblance of functionality. HD's proponents are going after the weakest prey first, and if they can get a transition mandate locked in on the band where HD works worst, all-digital FM is a foregone conclusion. It's effectively a two-step strategy to move all stations to all-digital HD broadcasting.
Those in the trenches of corporate media policymaking play long-ball, biding their time and creating the optimum conditions to push through what would otherwise be questionable, or even irrational policies. When the FCC ultimately issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to explore AM's "revitalization," the groundwork for the band's forced transition to HD will have already been done, leaving policymakers and the public with the erroneous perception that 1) such a transition is the best possible outcome for AM radio, and 2) the radio industry supports this move.
Were HD proponents more forthright and transparent with their campaign, perhaps it would have a semblance of actual legitimacy. But the signs are clear that legitimacy will (again) be tactically sacrificed toward a larger goal with implications that are too massive to be conducted by clique. Do we really have to go down this road again?
10/16/13 - Here Comes the Hammer: Pacifica to Lease Out WBAI [link to this story]
Uh-oh, indeed. Pacifica's National Board is now soliciting bids to take over the programming and operations of its station in New York City. WBAI is prime real estate, transmitting with 4,300 watts of power from atop the Empire State Building on a choice frequency smack dab in the middle of the FM dial. The station's worth tens of millions of dollars were it ever to be sold.
This was a long time coming. WBAI, like many of Pacifica's radio stations, is caught in the jaws of a dilemma as old as community radio itself. Essentially, people can lose sight of the actual goal of running a successful and sustainable community radio station and instead use (and abuse) the station as a battlefield on which to act out some larger sociopolitical struggle. What the station stands for becomes more important than the station itself, and nobody wins. In Pacifica's case, they stand to lose it all.
The most fiscally advantageous route would be to sell the station, or swap it for a less-desirable signal in NYC plus a hefty infusion of cash. This would go a long way toward pulling Pacifica back from the brink of institutional oblivion while allowing it to maintain a presence in all five of its parent-markets. The next-most lucrative route would be to lease to a commercial broadcaster.
These options are presently off the table. Pacifica is pursuing a lease agreement that restricts WBAI to non-commercial programming, as befits its license. These sorts of agreements also stipulate that the licensee cannot make any more money off the station than what is required to pay for its operating expenses. In this regard, leasing out WBAI simply removes the station from Pacifica's balance sheets while doing nothing really proactive to stem the red tide there. It also says nothing about any potential rehabilitation and reclamation of WBAI by Pacifica in the long run.
That said, the market certainly isn't lacking for noncommercial candidates to take over WBAI. Pacifica hopes to find a broadcast-tenant who can relate to its progressive values, and one obvious candidate might be New York Public Radio. It has a classical music station that might benefit from a hefty, Manhattan-centric signal. Such cultural programming was, after all, something Lew Hill—Pacifica's founder—staunchly believed in.
Some market-watchers have suggested the station plumb its extensive alumni, many who've gone on to careers in broadcasting and the creative arts, and see if there's any new life to be found in old blood.
My personal dream would be for free-form station WFMU to step up from its scrappy 1,250-watt stick in Jersey City, New Jersey to prime-time in Manhattan. WFMU is listener-supported and volunteer-run just like WBAI, but it's found a sustainable niche (musical eclecticism) and turned it into something downright magical. That's why it's one of the most successful community radio stations in the country.
Don't discount the notion of a religious broadcaster swooping in and making an offer Pacifica can't refuse, either, especially if all other bidders bail (or none materialize).
Among WBAI's current ranks, there is (of course) a petition opposing any lease of the station, but no practical ideas to save it.
Potential bidders have until November 6th to submit lease proposals. Here's holding out for a miracle.
10/9/13 - Pirate Broadcasting in the Digital Age [link to this story]
In many parts of the world, radio is slowly transitioning to a digital transmission platform—but so far, this new frontier has not been plumbed by pirates. Part of this is due to the relatively immature state of radio's digital transition, but some of the systems have been around long enough that they're ripe for experimentation.
In very simple terms, the primary thing to keep in mind is that the heart of a digital radio transmission system is the software that controls the transmitter. The more freely-available the software, the more possible to play with. In global contention, there are three contending platforms of note, though their DIY-potential varies:
Digital Radio Mondiale. The newest of the digital radio transmission systems, it works on the AM, FM and Shortwave bands. It wholly displaces the analog signal on the channel, which requires listeners to have a DRM-compatible receiver. That said, the system is open-source, which means its code is publicly available to tinker with. SourceForge has a wiki with software to both encode (transmit) and decode (receive) DRM signals; this project has been under development for ten years now.
Eureka 147 DAB. The oldest of the digital radio transmission systems, it functions on "new" (i.e., non-traditional broadcast) spectrum, thus requiring unique transmitters and receivers. DAB signals propagate in a manner very similar to FM signals. Some of the key patents expired on the DAB system just last year, which means it, too, is now in the realm of the homebrew. Last year, British engineer Rashid Mustapha did just that, broadcasting experimentally for four months atop a tower block in Brighton.
In his report to Ofcom, the UK's broadcast regulator, Mustapha says available open-source software components to encode, multiplex (transmit) and decode DAB signals work well. More importantly, he highlighted the availability of spectrum for such small-scale operations: "it is likely that frequency blocks could be identified in many areas for transmitters radiating power levels in the order of 100 watts or so. In some locations it may be possible to re-use existing DAB frequencies, in coastal regions it may be possible to re-use the blocks of neighbouring countries and in others [sic] areas there could be [additional] options. . . ."
HD Radio. Designed for the AM and FM bands alone, the system involves adding digital sidebands adjacent to existing analog signals. Because of the need to coexist with analog transmissions, the digital signal is broadcast at a relatively weak power which means reception suffers. In addition, broadcasting both signals effectively fattens each radio channel, which raises the potential for interference between neighboring stations. Some pirates have enough problems keeping their analog signals clean—doubling or tripling a station's footprint on the dial is just inviting attention.
Although the software runs on the Linux operating system, HD's proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation, has smothered it in patents and other trade-secret chicanery that you must pay to play with it. David Maxson, who wrote the definitive engineering textbook on the HD Radio system, explains it this way: "In theory, a manufacturer could develop a product that is [HD] compliant but that has not earned the right to use the HD Radio name and logo. In practice, the manufacturer would find it necessary to license iBiquity patents to manufacture and sell its . . . product. While doing so, the manufacturer may be enticed . . . to take the next step and join the HD Radio family." Not many manufacturers have entered these waters, especially on the receiver-side.
If somebody were to decompile or reverse-engineer the HD system, or perhaps acquire an illicit copy of the transmission software from a licensed station (if that is even possible), it's a good bet that iBiquity would be all over them like a fat kid on cake. Cracking the "black box" that is the HD system would break iBiquity's business model, and in the HD universe that's unfortunately the paramount concern.
On the television side, my knowledge is much more scant. Outside of one unconfirmed report of a pirate digital television broadcast in California some years ago, there's been no real activity in this realm in the United States. Much of the rest of the world has adopted a different digital transmission standard, however, and there's a relatively sophisticated level of homebrewing: here's a guide for building a DTV transmission system capable of broadcasting up to four channel-streams. A long-time designer of quality low-power FM transmitters has also branched out into the DTV realm, but it'll cost you.
10/2/13 - Government Shutdown: Data Held Hostage [link to this story]
As a radical faction of the Republican Party holds the federal government hostage, many of its gears have ground to a halt. In the 21st century, this also apparently means the disappearance of government information online.
The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday morning that all of its electronic databases and filing systems are offline until the agency's funding is restored. On the meatspace tip, just 38 of the agency's 1,754 employees are on the job, basically minding the store and limited to "duties that are immediately necessary for the safety of life or the protection of property."
Now, disabling access to online systems that do the business of the agency is logical to a point. Why collect applications or other necessary documentation that nobody can process? But the blackout of databases that effectively serve as public archives of public information is just petty.
Here are two examples. The FCC's Consolidated Data Base System (CDBS) is, in simple terms, an archive of information about all the radio and television stations in the United States. It includes things like who owns them, where their studios and transmission facilities are located, basic technical information, and pertinent recent correspondence with the FCC. Similarly, the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) is the definitive record of all public comment on FCC rulemaking proceedings: a treasure-trove for policy researchers who seek to understand and illuminate the policy process. Were it not for the ECFS, there would be no Radio's Digital Dilemma.
Theoretically, it is a relatively uncomplicated procedure to disable the submission-function of databases but allow the extant archive to remain available (effectively making them "read-only"). A little bit of disclaimer-text on the homepage of these tools noting that they're frozen in time and voilà, you're done. And theoretically, servers can hum along on their racks with no human oversight: the FCC's uptime is pretty impressive and that's due in large part to the fact that the agency was the first to embrace the notion of e-government and make tools to conduct many of its core functions online. These systems don't go dark on weekends and holidays, so why now?
Then again, many of the agency's database tools were launched in the late 1990s—the creation of LPFM was the first real capacity-test of the Electronic Comment Filing System—and they have not really been overhauled or updated since then. If the back-ends of these systems are as aged as the front-ends, then perhaps the agency really does need a bevy of acolytes servicing them, as was the case with the first computers some 70 years ago. That would suggest that the federal government's commitment to e-services is more chimerical than practical.
This blackout of government information is apparently pervasive. The Internet Archive has created a page with links to its scrapes of more than a dozen federal agencies, including the Library of Congress, Census Bureau, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—all of which have massive (and passive) public repositories of data that people far beyond government rely on to do their own jobs every day, and in real terms require very little human intervention to make that happen. Unfortunately, the Internet Archive's facsimiles do not include these repositories.
If Republicans in the legislative branch have plunged the knife into the body politic, Democrats in the executive branch are twisting the knife to make sure that we all know how much these shenanigans can hurt. This is a dimension that is new and somewhat unsettling: it took just four hours for the FCC to wind down its operations, and with some keystrokes and mouse-clicks its brave new world of e-government disappeared. In that sense it really is like 1995-96 all over again.