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
     

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rapid technology growth must be controlled by...the government?

By Don Keith  N4KC

As many ponder rapid technological change--and especially those who cannot handle change of any kind very well--they often declare, "This is scary!  The government must get control of technology and make sure it is for the good of us all, not the power- and money-hungry."  That, of course, is the usual reaction to anything that has the potential to change culture as we know it, positively or negatively, whether it be the perceived greedy capitalists, robots threatening to revolt, or a hurricane on the Gulf Coast: the government has to take charge of this and fix it!

Well, I ran across a post today on the web site of The Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, on this very subject.  I'll reproduce it below but if you prefer to read it from their site, visit THIS LINK.

It makes perfect sense to me.

Technology and Government Shouldn't Mix

  • Robots and Guns
DECEMBER 17, 2015  Benjamin M. Wiegold
We live in a time like never before in human history. Our scientific knowledge and technological capabilities are rapidly advancing, affecting nearly every aspect of human life. Examples are rife, from smart phones and robotics, to thought-controlled prosthetics, wireless power, even force fields. Countless others that sounded like science fiction a few years ago don’t even deserve mention today as they have become so commonplace.
In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of the process we see at work, when (mostly) free market capitalism unshackled society’s productive imagination. The key was that it allowed individuals to reap the fruits of their labor, providing incentives for workers and entrepreneurs by allowing them to accumulate capital. Capital accumulation is the prerequisite for a prosperous society, without it there can be no sustainable investment or economic growth.

Privately-Owned Technology Is Not a Problem

Yet many are beginning to worry that our technology could soon turn on us and actually bring about our demise. The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking speculated earlier this year that robots will eventually take over the world, but has since revised his stance, now suggesting that capitalist-technology is a greater threat and will bring about unsustainable inequality and poverty as automated production techniques displace human labor. Such fears display an ignorance of history and economic science.
First, economists have for centuries pinpointed labor and land (i.e., natural resources) as permanent factors of production, with capital goods (in this case machines) being ultimately produced out of them. As Murray Rothbard explains in chapter 9 of Man, Economy, and State, there has always been a scarcity of labor, meaning that machines don’t make labor obsolete, but are rather labor-saving devices that make goods drastically cheaper for consumers, enable more leisure time for everyone, and simply redirect labor to other ends. Human labor is always required in some capacity for all production processes — such as the maintenance of machines — thus it’s inconceivable that every single industry could possibly be automated, not to mention the new industries that emerge as labor is freed up from its previous areas of employment. (For a complete demolition of this argument, see here.)
Second, the chilling irony of modern technology isn’t the menace of an AI takeover, where our creations turn against us in an apocalyptic scenario (although it’s impossible to completely rule this out). More to the point is that for all the ways technology is drastically improving the quality of life for people everywhere, the ability to inflict death, harm, and destruction is also unprecedented; and these technologies are being harnessed virtually entirely by states.

State Ownership of Technology Is a Problem

Coercive governments, for as long as they’ve existed, have been abusive of individual rights and the integrity of human beings everywhere, from the torture devices of Medieval Europe, to the cannons of the Civil War. However, the State in its proclivity to inflict violence upon humanity has always been restrained by the technology available to it, whether it was the axe, the sword, or the club in ancient times.
Yet as productive society has advanced in its ability to satisfy human needs and wants, the regimes of the day have used new technologies to expand their weaponry arsenals. The twentieth century will be remembered twofold: for its incredible increase in wealth and prosperity on the one hand, but also for its terrible wars. Indeed, more people were killed by state-governments in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteencombined.
Today in the twenty-first century, the world is embroiled in warfare and disaster wrought by the State, while the glories of the market economy surround us everywhere we turn. Market-societies build us up, while states tear us down.
Despite the sadistic few among us, there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of people prefer peace and prosperity and use technology as a means toward these ideals. On the other hand, it bears repeating that the primary culprit in turning technology toward nefarious purposes is the State.
So perhaps the most profound question of our time is, going forward, how we will use our increasingly powerful technology: as a progressive force to the benefit of humanity by relieving our ailments, extending our life spans, and increasing our worldly comforts beyond our wildest dreams — or as a retrogressive force that acts to our detriment by inflicting pain and suffering and death upon people everywhere?
(For more about Don Keith, visit www.donkeith.com.  If you follow this blog because you are an amateur radio operator, you might also enjoy Don's ham radio site, www.n4kc.com.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving AM broadcasting by killing it?

   
 
by Don Keith
 
 
I am on record as predicting that the AM commercial broadcast band will soon be scrapped and given to Amateur Radio operators.  The reason is simple: listenership to AM radio--and especially among that desireable young demographic--has dwindled to almost nothing.

There are reasons for that:

1) AM fidelity is simply not competitive with FM, CDs, MP3s, online and other means of listening to audio.

2) AM, by its nature, is prone to electrical interference, ranging from lightning to LED lighting to your neighbor's leaf blower.

3) AM waves propagate great distances when the sun goes down. This meant that from the beginning, and to crowbar in as many radio stations as possible, regulators made many stations use directional antenna arrays to protect each other as well as Canadian and Mexican stations.

4) Back then (mostly in the early 1950s), those directional stations with their bunches of towers (to get a directional signal) were built in places so their signals would cover the geography where most of their listeners lived.  Guess what.  Cities have grown in the past sixty years, suburbs have been built in areas where those stations can no longer be heard, and especially at night.  I just saw some stats that say that in many cities there is not a single AM station that covers its entire current city of license 24 hours a day.

5) Because of these factors, AM station owners have gone to mostly cheap (as well as bad and boring) nationally-syndicated programming or even cheaper ethnic formats serving small niches.  Those moves have chased most listeners to FM...or to the internet, Pandora, or phone apps.



Well, the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that regulates broadcasting in the USA, has been studying the problem for more than two years.  Finally last week they issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on what they believe will be the savior of AM radio.

Most of the things they have come up with are technical, relaxing some of the onerous restrictions on daytime-only and directional AMs to give them a bit more coverage.  One would be less restrictive on towers, which are the antennas for AM stations, because it has become so difficult to find real estate or zoning ordinances or willing neighbors that will allow those six or eight ugly old towers and the many acres on which they stand.  (As a programming consultant I once had to tell a station owner that the land on which his towers stood was worth far more than his AM station was or ever would be.  It was true.  Now, many AM stations are simply turning in their licenses and selling all that prime development land.)

All well and good, I say, but far too little far too late.  Most AM operators simply can't afford to move their transmitting facilities to some other place that will give them a tad more coverage.  And none of these things are going to send listeners gleefully swarming back to listen to AM radio. I fear that window of opportunity has long since passed.

The really big proposal in the FCC's rulemaking, and the one that has AM station owners dancing a jig, is that the FCC will make it easier for them to apply for FM translators and put their AM programming on a spot on the FM band.  Translators are very low-powered FM transmitters that use antennas at relatively low heights.  They were originally designed to allow FM broadcasters to fill in "holes" in areas in the markets to which they were licensed that might have weaker signals.  Those "holes" were typically caused by mountains or big buildings.

Things related to translators have gotten pretty confused.  People who don't even own a station have been able to apply for licenses for them and they promptly turn around and sell them for big bucks to existing licensees.  Why would they want them?  A translator allows those who already have a big FM station to put a different format on one of their alternate channels (FMs have the ability to transmit several more channels but only listeners equipped with so-called "HD radios" can hear them...unless that programming is also being re-transmitted on a translator.).  Those big operators also have some AMs, too, and they can put a music format, for example, on an AM but count on the rebroadcast of that format on the translator to make them money or block a competitor from adapting that format.  

You may have noticed that the FM dial in your town has filled up with new stations that you really can't get on your radio very well.  And they seem to be mostly music with the occasional disembodied voice and some commercials.  And when they do the station identification at the top of the hour it sounds like someone reading the contents of their bowl of vegetable soup: "W261FQ Nowheresville WAAA-AM Big Town, WFFM-FM HD2 Big Town," or similar.

So, the move that will save AM radio is to allow more AM operators to have a presence on the the FM dial.  Oh, that means they will have to keep that AM station on the air in order to allow them to keep the translator happily filled with stellar programming and information...and commercials for which they can charge more because they will be on FM, too!  But then where's the incentive for the AM owner to spend all the money to move the AM towers and transmitter so the station can be heard where people actually live in the 21st century?  

Actually, in smaller markets the answer might be, "Yes."  Daytime AM stations...and there are almost a thousand of those that have to go away when the sun goes down...that truly want to serve the needs of their city can do shows, play music, carry local high school football and the like on that sparkling new translator.  And so long as the town is not all that big or the area full of mountains and valleys they may be able to cover most of the people they need to reach.

On the other hand, it seems to me that allowing bigger market AMs to get a translator or two or three to give them an FM signal only assures that nobody will be left to listen to that AM programming.  Then, at what point does the FCC say, "Well, we tried but it didn't work.  So, Ham Radio, enjoy that wonderful new extension to the 160-meter Amateur Radio band."

By trying to save AM, they will have killed it.