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News Archive: December 2013

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12/28/13 - FCC Develops its own Enforcement Action Database [link to this story]

It's been a busy year for the Federal Communications Commission: leadership changes, shutdowns and sequesters, and increased pressure from Congress and its core industry-constituents to "modernize" itself.

A goodly portion of the latter is happening on the agency's web site. With little fanfare earlier this year, the FCC rolled out a "Maps" section which visualizes various aspects of agency business, including FCC Enforcement Actions Against Pirate Radio By Location.

It's a pretty map, visualizing agency enforcement actions across the country, including breakdowns of several types of enforcement action (warning letters, Notices of Apparent Liability, and Forfeiture Notices). It also catalogs the dollar amount of fines issued by state, but there's no way to know if these numbers take into consideration the practice of decreasing or canceling fines upon demonstration of an inability to pay.

The FCC's map is also not as robust as our Enforcement Action Database: the agency's data only goes back to 2003 and does not contain more granular points, such as the number of visits field agents make to pirate stations.

Furthermore, the FCC's map includes all aspects of unlicensed radio operation, including CB, amateur radio, and marine/aviation frequencies, while my own database focuses explicitly on unlicensed broadcasting (AM, FM, and shortwave).

It's nice to see the FCC crunching some numbers on this front—and dabbling in data visualization more broadly—but even their snapshot doesn't necessarily connote any particular degree of efficacy.

12/19/13 - Radio's Digital Dilemma: Published! [link to this story]

Today, Radio's Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting in the Twenty-First Century was formally unleashed upon the world.

As I've said before, for the most part it's a work that chronicles an important constitutive moment in the history of U.S. radio broadcasting, and holds lessons about how our system of contemporary media policymaking works (or doesn't) more broadly. I approached it more like an act of muckraking, in the purest sense of the term, than anything else.

While I'm very relieved that this project is complete, the story of HD Radio itself is far from over. In fact, 2014 could bring some important new developments that will provide us with a clearer picture about the technology's future prospects.

There is some actual buzz about the book, and I've received kind words from former FCC officials, fellow media policy scholars/activists, and even other publishers. I'm hoping next year is a busy one with regard to spreading the word about the book and the issues it raises for legitimate (and long overdue) debate.

Routledge has confirmed that if 200 copies of the original hardcover and/or e-book are sold, this will trigger a paperback run.

I know (and do not like the fact) that the first-run price is steep: the best way to spread the word is to request that your local libraries order a copy. But if you are willing to plunk down, you can get Radio's Digital Dilemma at a discount. If you order through Routledge directly, use code JRK96 at checkout for an automatic 20% off; at Amazon, the Kindle version is also $25 cheaper. Think of it as investing in/helping to promote a very necessary discussion about the future of radio as we've known it.

12/12/13 - Congress Tries Intimidating FCC to Drop Information Needs Study [link to this story]

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was preparing to conduct a test of its protocol for a "multi-market study on critical information needs" in Columbia, South Carolina. The study proposal suggests a two-pronged approach: the first is a "media market census" which will look at broadcast, newspaper, and online news content in sample markets around the country. The second prong is a "community ecology study" in which surveys will be conducted to "measure community members' actual and perceived critical information needs." This will be coupled with "in-depth neighborhood interviews" involving actual citizens.

With studies like these, the devil is in the details. There's no clear definition of what "critical information needs" actually are, and while the proposal plans to focus on these needs from the perspective of "vulnerable/disadvantaged populations," these are also not clearly defined. Sample-size is also key: this particular study will look at six media markets—two large, two medium, and two small—and we still don't know what other five markets will be involved.

This is not the FCC's first foray into this sort of research. In 2011 the agency published a similar study which looked at the effect of broadband penetration (among many other factors) on citizens' ability to access reliable, meaningful information about the communities in which they live. Neither this study nor the proposed one have any particular regulatory proposal attached to them, which is fine—one of the jobs of expert regulatory agencies like the FCC is to do research like this. And while much of the agency's research is imperfect (poor methodology, faulty premises, and political meddling by FCC Chairpeople are primary culprits) it's a necessary evil in the crafting of anything resembling meaningful media policy.

But don't tell that to Congress. This week, 16 Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—the body in the House of Representatives with direct legislative oversight of the FCC—sent a letter to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler urging him to kill this research. They claim that the FCC is looking to institute a "Fairness Doctrine 2.0," which they believe violates journalists' First Amendment right to report.

The problem is, assessing the information needs of American citizens, especially those most impoverished or vulnerable, has nothing to do with requiring broadcasters to present multiple sides of controversial political issues. The Fairness Doctrine, which was effectively killed nearly 20 years ago (though not formally deleted until 2011), has long been a right-wing bugaboo. And like the thugs they are, House Republicans are using unsubstantiated fear to pressure Chairman Wheeler and the FCC into dropping this latest study.

They're also using a long-standing strategy to try and shape FCC policy through the power of the purse. Since Congress controls the funding of expert agencies like the FCC, the unspoken threat in this communiqué is one of, "cross us and we'll cut you."

This is not the first time the power of the purse has be exercised—and it certainly won't be the last. But the fact that it's being used in such a knee-jerk fashion, coupled with claims that have no basis in reality relative to what the FCC proposes to do, speaks volumes about the brokenness of Congress these days.

12/5/13 - RadioDiscussions Killed By Greed [link to this story]

It certainly hasn't been a kind year for online radio discussion sites.

For more than a decade, one of the most vibrant sites online to talk about U.S. broadcasting of all stripes was It began in the late 1990s when three radio enthusiasts merged their own bulletin boards into a common site called Radio-Info, providing an outlet for discussion about dozens of speficic radio markets, boards for every state, as well as specialty forums for things like community radio, digital radio, engineering, and FCC policy.

In 2005, one of the principals behind Radio-Info, Doug Fleming, died during a cycling trip; he was just 28 years old. Fleming's family took over the site, fired the two other co-founders and hired a bevy of moderators and writers to "popularize" the dialogue. A controversial move at the time, the vibrancy and quality of the discussions remained high, and things rolled along pretty smoothly until last year.

The Flemings finally decided to jettison their son's legacy, so they sold the site to the proprietors of Talkers magazine last year. As part of the change, the site was renamed from Radio-Info to RadioDiscussions. However, the sheer scope of the site pretty much overwhelmed the specialty publication, who sold RadioDiscussions to Florida-based Streamline Publishing this May.

Streamline is perhaps best known for two of the publications it produces: Radio Ink and Radio & Television Business Report. Both are B-grade outlets: no real reportage, more content-aggregation and fluff than anything else. Streamline's founder, Eric Rhoads, also has a reputation for hucksterism. He's perhaps best known for spending a lot of words and money trying to sell his own brand of HD Radio receivers, and earlier this year breathlessly (and erroneously) claimed that auto manufacturers were preparing to dump radios from new cars. Quality journalism, it's not: how could such a company handle maintaining one of the internet's largest broadcast-forums?

Turns out it couldn't. After implementing a disastrous site "upgrade/redesign" a few months ago, Streamline unceremoniously unplugged RadioDiscussions on Tuesday. According to some stoolie at the company, "This was an economic decision. Our intention was to offer Radio Discussions as an option to our advertisers but we found there was no interest and though we respect what Doug Fleming originally built it simply does not make sense to pour cash into something with no prospect of revenue."

That sounds familiar. It's the same mentality that has decimated the radio industry itself over the last 20-odd years. Profit uber alles: the notion of intangible goods and a meaningful duty to the public interest falls on the deaf ears of bean-counters. RadioDiscussions wasn't valuable for its eyeballs, it was valuable for its dialogue. Adding insult to injury, all of that dialogue—nearly 15 years' worth—has disappeared from the 'net just because some hackneyed mofos couldn't turn a dime on it.

If the folks at Streamline had any dignity, and any respect for the community it just squelched, they'd at the very least leave up a static read-only archive of the site. Folks looking for other forums might be inclined to check out RadioInsight (run by Radio-Info's two other co-founders), The Virtual Engineer, and the recently-launched boards over at Radio Survivor.