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.

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