Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Why your FM radio dial will soon be a cacophony

 
by Don Keith

A couple of items have my blood pressure elevated today, both related to the continued surrender of broadcast radio station operators who seem clueless in how to take rapid technological change and make their medium even more relevant and powerful.  Instead, they appear to be more interested in sucking it dry and leaving its desiccated carcass to rot in the summer sun.

First is a leaked memo from the brilliant minds who run SBS Broadcasting, a large group of mostly Spanish-language stations and primarily located in large markets.  They have declared that they will no longer pay a talent fee to their employees who do remote broadcasts or for on-air endorsement commercials or recorded spots.  I have three words for these dim bulbs:  Ustedes estan loco.  

I will admit, though, that I didn’t even know anyone still paid talent fees for remotes or recorded spots.  Or that most stations still had local talent hanging around to compensate even if they did such tasks. (You do know that the nice, pleasant voices you hear on your radio, saying all those clever things between songs, are most likely in some faraway city and they pre-recorded their patter a day or so ago, right?) 

Last radio "remote broadcast" I actually witnessed, a scruffy dude pulled up in a station van--which was badly in need of washing and could have used new tires--turned on the yellow lights, and sat inside the van for two hours talking on his cell phone.  As far as I could tell, he never even went inside the business.  The “talent” had pre-recorded the "live" breaks and they were just slotted in during the voice-tracked show on the air.  (And by the way, when I used to get talent fees for remotes, live endorsements, or spots I recorded, it was because it was a line item on the invoice to the advertiser.  I wonder if SBS will continue to charge advertisers a talent fee and just keep it for the greater good of the corporation and its shareholders.)

I’m telling you, the only way some of these guys can cut expenses any deeper is to sign off at midnight to save on the power bill - unless they can convince their electric company to trade juice for commercials.  Why will this affect your access to the FM band or broadcast radio?  Because talent is the lowest rung on the ladder yet it is what makes radio entertaining and informative and gives listeners the one thing they most seek...companionship.  When radio is only streamed music or syndicated talk show hosts, the stations will be even less worth listening to, advertisers will dessert the medium in even greater numbers, and it will go away.

Another harbinger of the mess that your FM dial is becoming:  I was out in a small town over Memorial Day, a little burgh that is about fifty miles from my own much bigger city.  While there, I drove past the little local radio station, an AM on the high end of the dial, one I used to admire for its dedication to the community.  I was aware of some of their recent troubled history, similar to most other AMs and especially small market ones. They got smart and leased an FM translator a few years ago from some church that was licensed to go on a hill near the middle of the town and was designed to cover only the local area.  Allegedly without bothering to check with anybody, they put the transmitter instead on a tower on the tallest mountain in the county. with the intent of putting a good signal over the entire county, making it possible to sell commercials to a broader market.  When one of the big group owners in the nearest big town kicked up a ruckus because it was wiping out their perfectly legal translator on the same frequency, the small-town guys relented…until they could get permission from the FCC to move to another frequency and put it back up on the big mountain.  Which they did.  Apparently, all was now on the up-and-up, and they do cover most of the county.

Well, in the meantime, the tower for the AM – the station they were supposed to be “translating” on FM, running only the programming of the AM – fell down.  I mean it literally fell because it had not been painted or maintained, apparently, in thirty years.  They reportedly decided to not put it back up but instead hooked up a wire dipole, just enough to get a tiny bit of power out, and got back on the air with the AM in order to legally supply programming for the FM translator and "serve their city of license."  Then that make-do antenna must have failed or they decided it was not worth the effort and they allegedly simply turned off the AM.  They apparently have still not even bothered to put the tower back up or even transmit an AM signal on a consistent basis. I don't know if all this is true or not, or if they have somehow gotten special dispensation from the FCC to remain off the air with the AM while programming and selling commercials on the FM translator, but I can testify to one fact.  

I passed within a hundred feet of the station yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, and there was NO signal being transmitted on their assigned AM frequency.  Others I know can confirm that this is always the case, not an anomaly.  However, the FM translator was rocking right along, playing the best of the 80s, 90s and today, commercials, promos, and voice-tracked deejay goodness, and including a legal station identification that was for both the AM and the translator call signs. Oh, and by the way, there is no mention whatsoever of the AM station on their web site or Facebook page. If this is all as it appears, and if there is no permission for the AM to remain off the air, then having the AM off the air most of the time while the translator is "translating" ain’t even close to legal. 

Okay, so why should we care? A county that has only one licensed AM and one licensed FM translator (so far) now has a signal that can reach most of the area with news and information. The old AM hardly covered its city of license when it was on the air.  It is daytime only, too.  If there is a tornado warning at night, the station can now let the entire area know about it on FM...assuming there is a live body there or close enough to get to the station before it all blows over.  It appears to be a thriving business now with lots of commercials on that translator FM and a coverage map that is downright impressive.

Here is why you should care.  Apparently the FCC, the governmental agency that regulates broadcasting, either doesn’t care or does not have the manpower to do anything about it.  And the broadcasters know it.  

There will soon be chaos on the FM dial.  With all the unregulated translators, the AM guys putting all that stellar programming on other translators that have been shoehorned in and, in some cases, put on the air with too much power or in an unapproved location, and with the stampede of low-power stations similarly crammed into every crevice of spectrum and programmed by “non-profit” entities, and with the abysmal lack of technical maintenance and engineering people to keep the signals legal and clean, you will soon not be able to hear your favorite station, even if you wanted to.  And that’s before you even factor in spectrum pollution spewed out by everything from plasma TVs to marijuana “grow lights!”

You may not care if over-the-air radio broadcasting goes away.  But I assure you that you will miss it when it is gone.

I already do because the best parts--the human parts that made radio a special medium--are disappearing rapidly.
   
   



Saturday, May 28, 2016

Some thoughts on Memorial Day

 

 
By Don Keith
 
It's Memorial Day weekend again, a time for family, barbecue, mattress sales, and, maybe, paying homage to those who have given their lives for their countries. As I was reflecting on all that, it occurred to me that some of those we honor may have died for what we might consider the wrong causes.  

A friend of mine, Michael Stamps, got me thinking when he recently sent out an interesting missive on the subject.  Michael writes: "We must honor our fallen, never forgetting their sacrifice. This is what we must do; this is what is required of the living. We oftentimes remember when they died and at times we are reminded of how. But more often than not, we minimize the reason why they died, simply accepting the words, "to keep us free," without thinking about what words such as these really mean. The concept of freedom means different things to different persons."



How true that is!  I recently wrote the biography (“Mattie C.’s Boy”) of a truly remarkable man who overcame unimaginable cruelty—from family as well as strangers, from black as well as white, though he is African-American—to become a much honored and very successful communicator and businessman. Shelley Stewart hates the term “civil rights.” He straightened me out quickly when I idly used it as most of us do.

“Legally, we all have civil rights and have for a long time. Everybody does. What we have to fight for is human rights. If we recognize and accept everyone as human, it’s hard for even the biggest bigot to argue that all humans don’t deserve the same rights.”

I know wars are fought and men die for wrong or misunderstood causes. That is especially true, I’m afraid, in a time of uninformed people who base their understanding on Twitter posts and Internet postings. Smart marketers disguised as statesmen can convince followers to jump off a cliff in the name of what may or may not be a just fight.  It’s sometimes discouraging to me that we live in a time when information is more easily available than ever before in history yet so many people accept the first point of view they see or are so easily mislead by slick promises and manufactured “truth.”

Are we just overwhelmed by the volume of information and opinion?  Or are we too lazy to seek out truths so we make the right decisions on everything from which potato chip to buy for our Memorial Day cookout to which presidential candidate to vote for to which country we bomb into oblivion?


I just hope as we honor those who have died on our behalf--for our freedom to learn and choose--that we also take a vow to honor them in a new and far more practical way.  Become better educated, truly listen to all sides of an issue before making up our minds, and to make decisions that may cost people their lives based on more than a snap decision or the well-crafted words of a seductive tyrant.  Or even something a friend posted on Facebook.
   
   
   

Monday, April 4, 2016

Better hang onto your horse and buggy

 
by Don Keith N4KC

There continues to be a rabid land rush among AM broadcasters to file for the newly available FM translator channels (very low-power transmitters on relatively low towers designed to re-broadcast the signal of an AM station on the current FM commercial broadcast band).  This get-'em-while-you-can free-for-all is a ploy by the FCC (the government agency that regulates over-the-air broadcasting) to try to save the quickly dying AM broadcast band.

Read a few of my other posts below to see what I think of allowing AM station owners to "move" to FM in order to "save" AM.

In today's online broadcast trade journal INSIDE RADIO there appears an interesting--and uncharacteristically candid--article about some of the negative aspects of such a shift.  Read it HERE.

I understand the thought process behind allowing this mass creation of interference, poor signals, marginal formats and stations that will likely not be promoted or supported by either advertising or technical maintenance. How many of us really believe AM-only operators are going to spend money on promotions, research, personalities, a sales staff and more for a hundred-watt dim-bulb station getting clobbered from all sides by much more powerful signals?  I don't.  Not when their chances of gaining any sizeable audience with such a marginal signal is so very, very low.

I also understand that the FCC has little else they can do to help struggling AM outlets. About the only other thing they are doing or considering involves relaxation of some arcane technical rules that will not make a bit of difference in the real world.  A real world in which even those 100,000-watt well-researched FM stations are losing audience to all the other audio choices available to today's listeners.

The one result of this whole thing so far?  It will make AM stations have at least some value.  So if you are an AM station owner, you may want to hold onto it so you have an excuse to lease out your low-power FMs to the big operators to put on the air to help further clutter up the band.



To me, it's like the government telling you that you can only put a car on the highway if you have a horse and buggy locked away in a barn somewhere.  And the regulators don't have the money or personnel to make sure you feed the horse and grease the wheels on the buggy.



Thursday, March 17, 2016

This man sure asks a lot of questions!

 

 
By Don Keith N4KC
 
Regular readers of this bloviation are aware that I often refer to blog posts by media consultant/researcher Mark Ramsey.  His latest post features a whole bunch of really, really hard questions.  Questions such as:

So what does it mean when the radio industry headlines lead with debt-burdened iHeartMedia and this: iHeartMedia Battles Angry Creditors as Bankruptcy Looms.
What does it mean when the next headline is about Cumulus, and this quotation: “Q4 and 2015 results dismal as radio’s decline shows no signs of stabilization.”
What does it mean when CBS announces their plan to spin all of their radio assets while at the same time vowing to boost revenue $3.75 Billion by 2020 based on everything except radio: Retransmission fees, OTT, international projects, and more?
What does it mean when Pandora, with more than 80 million users, grows revenue by 25% year-over-year but, thanks to onerous royalties, still can’t cover its expenses amid swirling rumors that the company is for sale?
What does it mean when Spotify tops 30 million subscribers, but while revenue grows, so do losses.
Number three above--the one about the announcement yesterday (March 16, 2016)--really has the radio broadcasters ducking for cover.  CBS practically invented over-the-air radio broadcasting.  Theirs has long been the model for how to properly run radio stations, both for maximum public service and for huge audiences and profits.  Now they're dumping them.  Do they see something that others don't?  Or that others refuse to see?

Or is this the best opportunity for some truly far-sighted bunch of folks to get a foot in the door, put into practice some really unique and daring processes--in programming, sales, and multi-media distribution--that can set the path for other like-minded visionaries to save "radio?"

Okay, so I felt like it was my turn to ask a truly difficult question!

Read the full post by Mark Ramsey HERE.  And note that Mark's opinion is that the "radio" business will soon cease to exist.  And even if it ever existed, the "audio" business is just as dead.  Rapid technological change has assured that.

It's all about giving customers what they want when and where they want it.  But isn't that always the answer to a successful business?

And that last one is not a hard question at all.
 
 
 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Meanderings...

 
by Don Keith

A couple of items to pass along today:

1 - The Federal Communications Commission was inundated by applications for FM translator licenses on the first day of the filing window for AM operators to grab them.  More than 400 applications were accepted with still more coming in on days two and three.  This is all part of the FCC's initiative to "save" AM radio.  This particular move allows AM licensees to get relief by grabbing FM translators, ostensibly to help stations with weak AM signals, restrictive directional patterns, and especially daytime-only stations.

As noted in previous posts, this seems to me to be an odd way to "save" AM radio...by allowing them to duplicate their programming on FM.  That, I believe, only gives the AM signal an excuse to stay on the air while most listeners will hear the programming over on FM.  That is already the case with many AM broadcast stations.  Groups have been either buying or leasing dog AMs just to be able to get an FM signal...weak as it might be since translators are very low-power and typically have their antennas much lower on towers.  (Never mind how all these new signals are ruining reception on an already-crowded slice of broadcast spectrum.  Or how many of those "excuse" AM stations often manage to be off the air or operating at far below authorized power while their associated FM translators are pumping out the classic rock or the hits of yesterday and today.)

Next, the FCC will likely relax some technical rules that won't amount to a hill of beans, all in the name of saving a broadcast band that is already, for all intents and purposes, d - e - a - d.  And it is a damn shame!

2 - Lots of talk these days about "cord-cutters" and their more radical brethren "never-cords."  These are folks who cancel cable or satellite TV and get their video entertainment and information via the Internet. Or those who start their adult lives without ever subscribing to Dish or cable. Traditional cable and broadcasters are at a loss to figure out how to stop such a trend.

I may be totally off base, but seems to me the answer is to put programming on their channels that people want to watch and charge what the market will bear to access it.  I'm stuck because I primarily watch live sports on TV.  Until I can get all I want to see via web sites, I'll have to write a check every month to DirecTV.  But networks and cable channels are greedy.  They cut deals to send their precious programming right on over to Hulu, Apple TV, Netflix and the like in order to make more money than they'll ever get from commercials.

I subscribed to HBO for one thing: "The Sopranos."  I'm not into "Game of Thrones" so when Tony and the boys went away, so did my HBO subscription.  I picked up Netflix to watch "House of Cards."  Now I keep it for that show as well as for shows like "Making of a Murderer."

I suspect there are plenty like me who will either cut the cord or keep a limited version of it, depending on what they simply must watch.  So get ready for another term: "a la carte."  Cable/satellite providers will one day be forced to allow you to pick and choose channels or content providers at a reasonable price rather than those so-called "tiers."

If they don't, somebody else will.  And content makers will go with whoever pays them the most money...by attracting the most viewers/subscribers.

Oh, and commercial advertising will play a smaller and smaller part in this equation.  There are no commercials in "House of Cards."

3 - Speaking of "cord cutters," many forget that there is plenty of free TV available, just for the taking.  It is the old-fashioned over-the-air TV stations!  Most have multiple channels of programming since the digital age arrived.  Much of that additional programming is bad, bad, bad, but some might appeal to you.  All you need is your current TV set, assuming you own one, and some kind of antenna.

Well, a friend of mine, Mark Higginbotham, has developed a simple, do-it-yourself outside TV antenna that does a good job of grabbing those free signals and is not an eyesore that might attract the attention of your homeowners' association.  It's called the Pennyloop digital antenna and Mark is selling the plans online at a very reasonable price.

You can learn more at Mark's web site.

Now, where did I put my wire-cutters?
 
 
 



Friday, January 8, 2016

Everything old is new again

By Don Keith


The largest convention in Las Vegas each year is the CES...the Consumer Electronics Show.  As of this writing, this year's meet is just now wrapping up and there is a perplexed look on many of the faces of the 176,000 folks who trudged from booth to booth to see what technology is new and exciting and can't-miss.



Perplexed because there really wasn't much new.  Same old drones, 4K TVs, smaller and smaller ear buds and digital storage devices, and the like, but all those things were there last year, too.  But even more perplexing to attendees was what was hot and what "new" technology attracted lots of attention.  It was...well...ancient technology.

Ancient technology like record turntables, speakers, high end audio amps, and even a Kodak video camera.  See an article HERE for the surprising story.



I do this blog to keep an eye on rapidly advancing technology and how it affects media, society, and even--occasionally--my favorite hobby of Amateur Radio.  But I confess that I rue the day when people started thinking that listening to music was best on a tiny ear bud that reproduces a frequency range that is so narrow most of it sounds like a mouse caught in a blender and those low bass notes are non-existent.

Maybe people accept this travesty because some of today's music (and I am showing my curmudgeonly nature here) actually sounds best when you can't hear most of it.  But for the real experience you need to not just hear the full range but to be able to FEEL it, too.  Terms like distortion and dynamic range mean something.  And I do dislike some of the digital brittleness found in much music reproduction, brought on by having to compress and modify in order to change everything to 1s and zeroes to cram the music onto web sites, digital storage media, and fit such a wide range of potential playback devices out there.




It is a fact that music from well-mastered vinyl sounds better and warmer than a digital download or CD, especially if reproduced on a quality turntable with a good stylus, amplified with minimal distortion by a nice amp and fed into well-designed speakers.

What's my reaction to the new old stuff attracting so much attention at CES?

Hallelujah!  And you can play that back loud and proud.
 
 
 
de N4KC
 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What do TV remotes, passwords and cash money have in common?

 
 
By Don Keith

Rapid technological change guarantees that some things we take for granted will be replaced by things and technology most of us can't even imagine.  I still get a kick out of those web sites that offer up sounds you simply don't hear anymore...like the squeaks and squawks of dial-up Internet service, the cheery "You've got mail!" alert from AOL, or the clicks of the old manual typewriter.

Well, here is a list of five things that one article claims will be gone in a mere five years.  I can't say I disagree with any of them.  I rarely use cash to pay for anything anymore.  I've probably electronically signed a dozen documents in the past month.  And when I visited a friend recently, we giggled over the astonishing number of remote controls he had strewn around his living room.  But we talked about how he would soon either use his phone to replace all of them or use some other kind of magical wand that employed wi-fi to do the work of all those battery hogs.


Yeah, I admit I am slow on some things.  Though I have storage for data out there in the cloud (an author really does get paranoid about losing a book manuscript seconds before typing "The End."), I still can't resist backing up onto a thumb drive as well as an external hard drive.

Still, whether it is five years or not, the time will come when we all get over that attachment to something we can see and feel and take advantage of all that space out there in the ether.  And then, bye bye thumb drive.
 
 
de N4KC