Digital Radio: Norway and U.S. Pursue Different Paths, Yet Share Uncertainties

There’ve been some interesting developments in the digital radio realm over the last couple of months. The one that’s gotten the most press is Norway’s decision to begin shutting down its FM radio stations in favor of its DAB/DAB+ digital radio network. This has been a long time in coming, first proposed in 2015 by the Norwegian government and with buy-in from the country’s national broadcasters. That’s an important point, because the FM-shutdown, as reported in various press outlets, insinuates that all FM broadcasting in Norway is being silenced immediately.

Not true: the shutdown of stations that began this month, and continues incrementally throughout this year, only affects the country’s national broadcasters; local FM stations have at least another five years on the air before they, too, may be asked to cede the analog airwaves. A lot can happen in those years…at present, the popular sentiment in Norway about the FM shutdown is running 2-to-1 against it, especially as the analog stations disappear, their coverage areas are not served by DAB/DAB+ to the same extent as they were with plain ol’ FM, and Norwegians find themselves forced to buy digital receivers to stay engaged with radio.

It comes as no surprise that American journalists, seeing themselves at the center of the universe, would pose the question: could such an analog/digital shutdown happen here? If they were more knowledgeable about the digital radio technologies that exist they’d know the answer is no, as the U.S. has elected to use its own homegrown and proprietary digital radio technology, whose adoption is entirely voluntary. There’s also the fact that Norway only has a population of five million people — equivalent to the state of Wisconsin – and navigating a shutdown in a nation with 64 times the residents means an entirely different transition-mechanmism, which hasn’t even been seriously consered by any constituency here. Read More

HD Radio’s Next Bling Things

The closure of Tessera Technologies’ purchase of DTS Inc., the owners of iBiquity’s HD Radio system for just one short year, is set for sometime in December, and the combined companies will adopt a new name and stock symbol on NASDAQ in the new year. But just how much did the HD system itself drive its sale twice in 14 months, and what are the prospects for its future development?

Turns out, not very much on both counts: buried at the bottom of a story published by iHeartMedia-owned Inside Radio in early November was this gem: “DTS had been in sale mode since June 2014 when it was first approached with a $29-$32 per share buyout offer that proved to be too low for the board’s approval. But it set into motion the process that ultimately led financial advisors to shop the company. Tessera first appeared on the radar in August 2015 — two months before DTS bought the HD Radio business from iBiquity — and those discussions continued for months [emphasis added].”

In other words, DTS had put itself up for sale before negotiations began to acquire the United States’ troubled digital radio broadcast platform. And in fact, two months before DTS actually bought iBiquity and the HD system, it had already received acquisition-inquiries from Tessera. At the time, DTS’ board of directors considered the sale-price per-share too low…but what better way to bump that up to a more lucrative level then to acquire some additional intellectual property for the corporate portfolio? Read More

Translators Now Constitute the Largest Number of U.S. Radio Stations

Revisiting a subject from three years ago: the health of U.S. radio by the FCC’s broadcast station totals. Published quarterly, these figures over time show the relative growth of station-classes, and trends especially over the last couple of years are quite eye-opening.

What sparked my interest was a celebratory missive from FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake released last week. Having completed two filing-windows this year allowing AM radio stations to acquire FM translators, Lake says they’ve been a “resounding success” – nearly 1,100 translators changed hands, and the FCC has already signed off on the vast majority of these deals.

FCC Broadcast Station Totals, 1992-2016

The chart above tells the tale, tracking station-counts over the last 25 years. As of this year, FM translator and booster stations now comprise the largest segment of licensed radio stations in the country, both in raw numbers and percentage. Read More

HD Radio: Sold…Again

It came as a surprise to attendees of last week’s NAB Radio Show in Nashville: just a day before the CEO of DTS, the company who bought HD Radio proprietor iBiquity just last year, was to be a featured guest at a convention luncheon, his company was acquired by Tessera Technologies in an $850 million deal.

Who is Tessera? Founded in New York back in 1990, the company initially began as a designer and manufacturer of semiconductor chipsets, including memory modules. It went public on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 2003; five years later it acquired FotoNation, a company devoted to image analysis. Read More

Thanks to Translator-Mongering, AM Broadcasters Now Openly Advocating Band’s Abandonment

It’s still more than two months away, but in late November Americans will sit down with their families/friends and gorge themselves on food, then satedly lounge around giving thanks for their bounty. The U.S. radio industry’s going through that process presently, having spent most of the year scarfing up and then trading around FM translator stations.

In quick summary: FM translators are a class of radio station limited to a broadcast power of 250 watts but unlimited in antenna height (the key factor for good FM coverage). They are considered secondary services, in that they must rebroadcast another radio station. For decades, translators have been used as stand-in broadcast nodes by interests who wanted to build out radio networks on the cheap — by and large, these have been religious and public broadcasters who pipe in programming via satellite to air on a translator. Translators don’t require any staff and since they don’t originate their own programming all they need is a shack for the RF-boxes and a tower nearby.

This all began to change last decade when, after a multi-year freeze on new translator stations in order to implement the LPFM radio service, the FCC opened a filing window for new translators in 2003. Several cunning parties were well-prepared for this opportunity, flooding the agency with tens of thousands of translator applications — a 250-watt FM spectrum gold rush. Out of these came thousands of new translator stations, which in the intervening years have been fodder for speculative development of the FM dial around the country. Read More