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News Archive: May 2006

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5/30/06 - FCC To Investigate Fake TV News [link to this story]

Sometimes enough well-documented bitching does produce results. A month and a half after the Center for Media and Democracy released their study of stealth PR on local TV newscasts, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin ordered the Enforcement Bureau onto the case.

Fines for violations (of which CMD documented several dozen) start at $32,500 and can be multiplied by up to a factor of ten. So far, the excuses offered up by those stations caught passing off video news releases as some sort of "journalism" have been quite underwhelming. Perhaps this will make the radio/TV station license renewal process more meaningful. One can always dream.

5/27/06 - New SF Station Preemptively Called Out [link to this story]

This is a first: someone posts to an Indymedia site warning about the impending presence of a microradio station. The concern is that "Radio X"'s dial position - second adjacent to a hybrid community/public radio station - might cause interference, and bring the FCC into town on a city-wide sweep. It seems as if the posting was made to deter the station's operation.

Interference is unlikely, so long as the station's transmitter is stable and well-maintained. In addition, the FCC's Western Region headquarters office is located just outside San Francisco (over the hills in Pleasanton), so it's not like field agents aren't already in the vicinity.

Though the situation on the ground doesn't reflect that reality: "Radio X" will be the sixth or seventh microradio station for the Bay area, though there could very well be more we haven't heard of/from.

5/26/06 - RF-Hacking Target Ahoy [link to this story]

Sprint releases a new mobile phone called the "Fusic." Wouldn't otherwise be noteworthy except this is the first mobile phone able to both transmit and receive signals on the FM dial.

Is the transmitter frequency-agile? How much power does it run? Can it be modified? (This review says it broadcasts in stereo with a range of "up to 10 feet.")

Could a group of Fusic-armed people with phones synchronized to a single frequency effectively saturate a given area?

5/25/06 - Droplift, the Sequel? [link to this story]

While doing some much-needed dead link-weeding recently I checked in at the home base of The Droplift Project. The top of the page reads, "Droplift II is in the works! Coming soon!" It would be great to know more: a quickie search turned up this web site whose links produce nothing but blank pages and a variety of error messages. More probing brought this artist-listing, along with the observation that Droplift II will be a combo audio-video extravaganza.

The forthcoming work is arguably the third in the Droplift series, the second being Free Speech for Sale. However, this has apparently been a controversial perspective among the collagists that conspire on this stuff - as they do not want the actual eye and ear candy to be overshadowed by its method of delivery.

5/20/06 - Glass Houses, Etc. [link to this story]

Major-league bad blood is now gushing over at the Calvary Satellite Network, the Clear Channel of godcasting. A couple of months ago a civil suit surfaced, filed by Michael Kestler, pastor of Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls, Idaho, against Jeff Smith - son of Chuck Smith, founder of the Calvary Chapel fellowship itself. Kestler accused Smith and several anonymous accomplices of siphoning money from CSN to finance other projects, like Chuck Smith's syndicated radio program, The Word for Today.

Smith et al. have now responded - big time. In a 112-page counter-complaint, it is as if Kestler's accusations are thrown back at him, amplified. Before getting into the dirty details, though, a bit of back-story is required.

The Calvary Satellite Network began around 1996, when Michael Kestler and Jeff Smith hatched a plan to utilize FM translator stations to build a national bible-teaching network. According to a development agreement signed by both men that lays out the basics of the CSN collaboration, Kestler and Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls would be responsible for building and maintaining the CSN network infrastructure. They would hold the licenses to the network's translator stations; the Smiths, via Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa (the "mother church"), bankrolled the network's actual construction and would be responsible for the network's finances (including the collection of listener donations). The Smiths provided the initial seed money to launch the project.

CSN would be overseen by a two-man board of directors - Jeff Smith and Michael Kestler. The agreement would expire in five years unless replaced with a new one.

By the time 2001 came along, CSN had exploded onto the godcasting scene, with nearly 400 rebroadcasting nodes around the country. However, in the intervening five years there had been a falling out between Jeff Smith and Michael Kestler - so much so that the development agreement was not renewed. According to the counter-complaint, Smith then made a play to assume full control of CSN, but was blocked by Kestler, who still asserted his authority as a CSN board member and as the man with technical control of the network infrastructure.

Between then and now, according to Smith's counterclaim, Kestler and a group of accomplices (including his wife and brother-in-law) essentially pillaged CSN for their own personal gain. Allegations include:

1. Siphoning off so much money from CSN that the network became insolvent, forcing it to sell 19 of its radio stations to avoid collapse, and skimming at least $3 million from those transactions.

2. Using CSN money to finance other businesses: it seems Kestler owns a stable of television stations in Idaho and has launched another godcast radio network, Effect Radio, which can be heard on some 50 stations in 15 states. Kestler also owns an automotive restoration business ("Mike's Automotive") on which, it is alleged, CSN funds were also spent.

3. Taking payola - cash and/or merchandise in exchange for program airplay. The counterclaim does not name the programs involved, nor does it detail what sort of payola may have been involved. If true, I believe this may be the first payola scandal ever reported in religious broadcasting.

4. Mismanaging the CSN network infrastructure to a point where several of its stations (both full-power and translator) now operate beyond the bounds of accepted FCC engineering regulations. The counterclaim references "ongoing violations at various CSN broadcast stations," and asserts that were the FCC to inspect any of these stations it would "likely" shut them down immediately.

5. Falsifying or otherwise modifying license information on file with the FCC for CSN stations, like changing contact information from an address in Costa Mesa to one in Twin Falls. It is also alleged that Kestler et al. intentionally delayed or spiked CSN applications for full-power stations in certain markets so that Twin Falls-controlled translators could be placed there instead.

Of course, no religious media scandal would be complete without the sex. There's plenty of that in the mix here as well: according to Jeff Smith and his attorneys, Kestler frequently engaged in "illicit ungodly relationships" with women who were not his wife. In this context, CSN money got spent on things designed to facilitate the ungodliness, like "charges at Victoria's Secret, evenings of romantic dinner/drinks, vacation/travel expenses, car parts, gas, airline tickets, food and lodging," and "at least one gun."

Kestler is the defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit in Idaho; Chuck Smith himself has publicly spoken on this issue (8:06, 3.8 MB). Chuck has also reportedly revoked Kestler's right to use the Calvary Chapel "brand," thus making his entire church a renegade.

In all, the Smith suit values CSN's assets in the "hundreds of millions" of dollars, while it accuses Kestler of diverting "tens of millions" for various purposes. It seeks full ownership and control of the Calvary Satellite Network and mega-damages against Kestler and his crew.

This is only the latest volley in an all-out legal war taking place between Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls and Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, in which CSN is the richest prize. Decoding rightful ownership will likely be a mess because, during the course of their failed collaboration, the two parties "became inextricably entangled at some broadcast locations, leaving CSN owning equipment and other resources, on TWIN FALLS owned and/or leased tower sites, and at broadcast stations and translators licensed in the name of TWIN FALLS, while those broadcasting assets that were in dominion and control of TWIN FALLS, were actually paid for by CSN monies."

The Phoenix Preacher blog has watched the war pretty closely since it erupted late last year and has much of the relevant legal correspondence online, including The Word for Today's million-dollar claim against Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls (2/14/06 - note fax header information) and CCTF's response (3/16/06), as well as Michael Kestler's two responses to the sexual harassment litigation (1/31/06 and 2/2/06).

For what it's worth, Phoenix Preacher's nutshell take is, "A pox on both houses." Calvary Chapel's organizational structure and leadership certainly leave a lot to be desired: the shepherd-centric focus of the brand seems to breed dynasty-building and quasi-dictatorial tendencies. This means there really is no morally definitive side to take on this scandal. If any of it goes to trial, we'll be able to see the lust, greed, envy, and pride involved in radio empire-building on full display.

5/18/06 - Summer Radio Camps Back in Session [link to this story]

Free Radio Berkeley is again conducting four-day Summer Radio Camps, in which participants get immersively indoctrinated into the technicalities of radio by assembling their own microradio transmitters and antennas. The first one goes down on Memorial Day weekend; the last happens in September. With plans to be in the SF Bay area during the start of August's Camp, it would be neat to pop in and see how these things are done.

Also duly noted: FRB has translated Micropower Broadcasting: A Technical Primer into Spanish, and has made available a complete, scanned-page version of the "radio comic book" A Popular Guide to Building a Community FM Broadcast Station.

5/16/06 - LPFM Station Honored for Post-Katrina Broadcasts [link to this story]

Congratulations to WQRZ-LP in Kiln, Mississippi, honored last week for its heroic efforts following the area's ravaging by Hurricane Katrina. WQRZ can be heard in Waveland, where temporary autonomous microradio also helped out during the storm's immediate aftermath.

During that time the FCC authorized WQRZ to bump up its power from 100 to 1,300 watts in order to better serve the area as one of only four stations that could be reliably received. And in a strange twist of fate, while local officials in Houston prevented Katrina-related emergency broadcasts from being heard, FEMA actually gave away radios to facilitate the tuning in of WQRZ.

WQRZ-LP is first LPFM station to be licensed directly to an amateur radio group.

5/14/06 - Irish Government Warns Church Pirates [link to this story]

Last week, an unexpectedly large underground segment of the Irish pirate radio community was exposed when Ireland's spectrum police, ComReg, made contact with churches around the country warning them to stop their buccaneering ways. It seems that lots of churches have the habit of conducting hit-and-run broadcasts of their masses over local open FM channels, as a service to shut-ins and others in their parishes who can't physically make it to the church. Some have been at it for five or six years.

This story was the subject of an interesting segment (22:25, 10.3 MB) on RTE Radio 1's Liveline afternoon chat program. Several pirate priests called in, as well as parishioners who lamented the loss of the service. At least one priest who called in admitted that he knew the practice was illegal, but was adamant in his belief that the benefits of the service his church-station provided outweighed the licensing regulations which prevent such stations from existing.

5/13/06 - LPAM Handbook Bequeathed to Creative Commons [link to this story]

Kyle Drake, LPAM engineer and evangelist extraordinaire, last year put together a comprehensive guide to building and operating LPAM stations. Originally, only hard copies were available, and then for a small fee. Now, Kyle's released his LPAM handbook in PDF format (2.3 MB) under a Creative Commons license.

This manual is amazing: 100+ pages detailed information on how to get the most out of medium wave. There is no other resource like it. It is essential reading and reference for anyone serious about LPAM broadcasting.

5/12/06 - FCC Seeks Comment on Translator Petition [link to this story]

A recently-filed petition for rulemaking asking the FCC to change the rules governing FM translator stations in order to allow them to originate local programming has been formally accepted for public comment.

Comments on the petition can be filed via the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System, and will be accepted through June 9; use the Proceeding number RM-11331. It'll be interesting to see who chimes in on the idea.

5/9/06 - Public Broadcasters Want Digital Interference Examined [link to this story]

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting seeks proposals to conduct a study of digital radio interference - both existing and projected - in 75 radio markets around the country, including the top 50. According to the RFP announcement, "CPB is concerned with the disenfranchisement of listeners due to the loss of services public radio currently provides to them and the underperformance or lack of HD service...when the conversion of public radio stations to HD is complete."

The document itself notes, "CPB has received reports that existing analog listeners have lost reception of their favorite public radio station when new HD signals have gone on the air."

This is one of HD Radio's dirty little secrets. In order to accommodate the simultaneous broadcast of both an analog and digital signal, all radio stations will effectively double their spectral footprints (AM stations triple their bandwidth when they broadcast in hybrid mode). Fattening the signals of every radio station is bound to cause interference between stations located near each other on the dial.

Indeed, this problem was prevalent in the technical studies HD Radio's developer, iBiquity Digital, and the National Radio Systems Committee submitted to the FCC for certification of the technology. Members of the public reported hearing the interference themselves. However, the increased potential for interference was dismissed by HD Radio's cheerleaders as the price of going digital, and well worth it.

Now, as more radio stations put HD signals on the air, the potential for interference between them all increases. iBiquity's technical studies were by no means comprehensive on this issue, by which I mean they did not investigate the interference problem much beyond acknowledging it, running some lab simulations, and checking to see if their test stations, the lone HD signals in their markets at the time, raised any new noise. The CPB proposal expects that the interference problem will get worse as more stations go digital.

Most alarmingly, this is already resulting in a loss of existing analog service to real people - a decrease in diversity on their local radio dial. iBiquity estimated there would be less than a 1% chance of this happening. Maybe it got carried away with decimal placement.

It's too late to put this genie back in the bottle. Listeners who lose their favorite stations due to digital interference can either fork out the three-digit sum for an HD radio receiver (which won't bring back reception of the station they want, but at least they'll be able to enjoy the bells and whistles of those they can still get) - or they can suck it.

The FCC's not likely to intervene: it's already endorsed the HD Radio framework as the "de facto standard" for digital audio broadcasting in the United States, and requires only informal notice from stations who desire to throw up hybrid signals. In fact, the FCC never independently tested the in-band, on-channel (IBOC) framework that HD Radio is built upon, and never expressed any willingness to.

The FCC also set HD Radio's bar for adoption criminally low, decreeing that it only had to be "superior to analog" in order to receive the rubber-stamp. That obviated the need for a comparative analysis between the many different DAB protocols that exist in the world. The broadcast industry got a proprietary DAB system it makes money from just by using; the listener, that "public" in "the public interest," gets "buzz saw" noises on FM and "frying bacon effect" hash on AM.

To its credit, National Public Radio has long been a skeptic of HD Radio technology, and developed the multicasting functionality which is now being used as HD Radio's major selling point. It will be interesting to see what the CPB-sponsored study discovers. But it'll be awhile: applications from interested contractors are due on May 23, and once CPB awards the project it expects the study to take at least a year to complete.

5/8/06 - Radio Free Brattleboro Decision Analysis [link to this story]

The 12-page ruling that came down earlier this spring, forbidding the station from taking to the air ever again, was only written after U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha extended rfb and the FCC a chance to negotiate some sort of amicable settlement. rfb proposed powering down in exchange for the FCC giving Vermont Earthworks expedited consideration of its LPFM application. The FCC refused (though the organization was awarded the right to build WVEW-LP anyway) and went to another federal court for a warrant to raid the station.

With a settlement thus impossible, Murtha had to make a ruling. So he did, and it pretty much tracked with my initial suspicions. He noted that rfb was statutorily barred from receiving an LPFM license; he employed the "jurisdictional wiggle"* to sidestep and otherwise ignore rfb's constitutional challenges to the FCC licensing regime. He also denied rfb's call for sanctions against the FCC for double-dipping the legal system in order to take the station off the air. The station had been fairly warned that a raid might be in the cards, and there's no rule that limits the number of enforcement tools the FCC can employ at any given time. In these respects the decision falls on the unremarkable pile.

What is most interesting is what's left unsaid. Murtha remarks in one place that the station had asserted, in prior correspondence with the FCC, a "license of support from a substantial majority of the people of Brattleboro, referring to a town referendum vote," (internal quotation marks omitted), but does not address this plank of its defense at all in his discussion on matters of law.

This is interesting because one of rfb's main rationales for defying the FCC was that it had mustered an alternate authority to broadcast from its local community, to make up for the shortcomings of the federal licensing system. The whole radical notion was a even subject of some discussion at the case's main hearing.

Since Judge Murtha declined to make precedent on rfb's most unique defense, other stations remain free to test their luck with it. That had to be a conscious omission, and was probably the best thing Murtha could do to demonstrate support for rfb under the circumstances.

* - A number of decisions have been made in the area of microradio case law which hold that constitutional challenges and other direct attacks on FCC statutory authority can only be heard in federal Courts of Appeal; some have gone so far as to reserve such disputes exclusively to the D.C. Circuit. It's by no means a unanimous judicial sentiment, but it's convenient for jurists who would rather duck the fundamental issues.

5/5/06 - Unleashing Translators for Local Programming? [link to this story]

A small-town broadcast concern in Illinois has filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC asking it to allow FM translator stations to originate local programming. The only substantive difference between a translator and an LPFM station is that the former can be up to two and a half times more powerful than the latter, though it is required to rebroadcast another source or station; LPFM stations are explicitly encouraged to be live and local.

The petition, filed by the Miller Media Group of Taylorville, IL, owner of seven full-power AM and FM stations, would allow FM translators to broadcast original programming from any point located within 25 miles of its transmitter. It notes the "thousands of FM translator stations authorized, and many more thousands of translator applications awaiting FCC action. [These] could be used for a variety of different programming but for the restrictive FM translator rules now in effect."

To the petition are attached several letters from various civic and business leaders in and around Taylorville that support turning translators into a new class of LPFM station. The letters adhere to a boilerplate message which charges that allowing local programming on translator stations "will enhance our town and its economic growth."

Apparently, Miller Media bought a 38-watt FM translator construction permit for $4,000 from a regional godcaster and would like to use it as a stand-alone outlet. It's not the first time this idea has come about, and it raises some interesting implications for the possible proliferation of LPFM-style radio, though it's bound to be politically controversial. Incumbent full-power broadcasters would hate to be faced with a potential crop of new competition to undermine their existing market share. Perhaps that's why the FCC's filed the Miller petition in its cyber circular-file for now.

5/3/06 - DIYmedia in San Francisco [link to this story]

Just found out I'll be making at least one presentation at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference in San Francisco, August 2-5. I am not particularly comfortable in conference environments (especially academic ones), though Lawrence Lessig is keynoting, which should be cool.

Save for a day-trip a few years ago, I haven't been to SF since the NAB Meets Media Democracy protests in 2000. This time around there's friends actually living there. Maybe there's a way to sneak in a station tour (or two) as well. Anything to avoid the schmooze.

5/1/06 - LPAM Petition for Rulemaking Amended [link to this story]

Last October, a coalition of aspiring low-power AM broadcasters and citizens filed a petition for rulemaking at the FCC to create a licensed LPAM service. The comment and reply-comment period came and went, attracting a smattering of public input, including some predictable opposition from most established (commercial) broadcasters. The FCC's done nothing with it since.

Rumor has it that FCC staff may be more inclined to explore the idea of legal LPAM were the petition streamlined to outline a technically and politically simple service to administer. Otherwise, went the rumor, "come back in a few years" to try again.

Consequently a revised LPAM petition was filed late last week in RM-11287. This one is as simple as they come: its technical parameters are lifted straight from the FCC's existing AM Travelers' Information Station (TIS) service rules. This would allow for maximum power levels of 10 watts, a maximum antenna height of 15 meters, and 24-hour operation. LPAM stations would initially be sited only in the expanded band (north of 1600 kHz), the least-congested area of the dial.

Interestingly, the new proposal calls for no national ownership cap on LPAM stations, though it does limit ownership at the market-level. Now to see if the revisions breathe new life into the neglected proceeding.