Al Jazeera America Done in by Team Cable, Cheap Oil

Seemingly out of nowhere: last Wednesday the executives at the award-winning cable news channel Al Jazeera America called an all-hands meeting and announced they would be closing down at the end of April. More than 700 people are expected to lose their jobs. AJAM first launched on 2013 and has struggled mightily to achieve a meaningful audience and generate advertising revenue.

Many of the preemptive post-mortems of AJAM assert that the problem with the channel was its journalism. Al Jazeera more broadly has a reputation for doing the style of reporting that curries no favor with the powerful, making for a fresh perspective in the U.S. cable news world. It also attracted a substantial roster of solid journalists from both commercial and public television.

The focus on AJAM’s content is misguided, for in many respects the network had the deck stacked against it before it ever took to the air. For this, you can primarily blame Team Cable: Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, Charter, et al., the de facto oligopoly which functions as a gatekeeper to the cable television platform itself. Read More

HD Radio’s High Hopes for 2016

2015 was a potentially pivotal year for HD Radio, if only for a changing of the guard in the system’s ownership. In September, audio technology company DTS Inc. announced the acquisition of iBiquity Digital Corporation, the proprietor of the HD Radio Standard, for $172 million. Last month, DTS’ chairman and CEO, Jon Kirchner, penned a paean to the technology in an industry trade.

Calling HD “the biggest advancement in terrestrial radio broadcasting since the advent of FM radio,” Kirchner is obviously very upbeat on the technology’s prospects. His biggest hope is pinned to using HD Radio as a pipeline for “wider adoption of HD Radio and various DTS technologies,” supposedly working in concert, primarily in the automotive space. This, Kirchner believes, will foster an “independent and neutral [digital radio] platform for the radio industry.”

Two weeks after penning this missive, DTS announced a management shakeup at iBiquity. Founding CEO Bob Struble has been set aside (to become a “special advisor” to Kirchner) while iBiquity chief operating officer Jeff Jury was promoted to a new managerial-level position within DTS responsible for both “Automotive” and HD Radio. Read More

Extinction-Level Event For Small Commercial U.S. Webcasters?

Right before the holidays, and with little fanfare, the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board released its revised rate-structure for the music royalties streaming audio services must pay. Not surprisingly, large “pure-play” services like Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music saw their rates per-song/per-listener increase (though they say they can weather the increased cost), while terrestrial AM/FM radio broadcasters actually caught a break. No change for noncommercial webcasters, who play a flat yearly fee up until they hit a certain song/listener threshold (which the vast majority never do).

However, the CRB rates do not include special carve-outs for small, indepdendent, commercial webcasters, who (since 2008-9) typically pay a percentage of their revenue to satisfy the royalty gods. In the past, these deals have been negotiated between this constituency and SoundExchange, the music industry’s streaming royalty-clearinghouse in charge of collecting and disbursing royalty payments, and then codified into the CRB’s rate structure. Read More

eBay for Translators Has Limited Launch

For the last dozen years, a vibrant marketplace has been brewing in the speculation and sale of FM spectrum through the acquisition of translators. FM translator stations have historically been low-power repeater stations that serve to supplement the coverage area of a full-power parent station. Today, translators often operate as wholly stand-alone operations; while they are still fed programming from a parent-station, that parent can be in a completely different market, or running a completely different format on its full-power analog frequency.

The evolution of translators from a secondary to a quasi-primary service has exploded the asking price of translators in markets large and small. The majority of translators (built or unbuilt, with just an FCC construction-permit in hand) regularly sell for five to six figures, and in major markets they can fetch millions of dollars. Translator prices only seem to increase as the amount of fallow FM spectrum in any given market gets more scarce. Read More

Radio Stocks on the Dollar Menu

Many industry-watchers have been fixated on the travails of Cumulus Media, which ousted its founding family earlier this year and replaced them with new management backed by the private-capital firms that now control the company. It hasn’t yet resulted in a massive turnaround for Cumulus stock, which is up about ten cents or so from its lowest low earlier this fall. Still, that values the country’s second largest radio conglomerate at a paltry $82 million and change — you can now pick up a few shares of Cumulus for a dollar and still have change left over for a gumball.

But Cumulus is not the only company now trading under a buck. There’s also Emmis Communications — the primary driver behind the NextRadio application and a major innovator in the HD Radio space — whose shares are now trading at just 62 cents, triggering a delisting warning from NASDAQ. Just three months ago, Emmis stock was worth $1.42 per share; a decade ago, the stock was worth 100 times more than it is today. Read More