Book Review: Fighting for Air

fighting for airI just finished reading Fighting for Air by Eric Klinenberg.  It is a good book and a great discription of what has happened to radio since the major consolidations occured in 1999 and 2000.  Depressing.  Just damn depressing is what it is.

The book chronicles the evolution of the Prophet System and how that system was used to replace entire radio station air staffs.  It discusses the various failures that radio has produced as a result of automated programming, the complete lack of originality, public safety issues and how major media companies have stripped the heart and soul out of radio.

Something that the book points out that I never really considered, every one of these unoriginal canned music stations diminishes all radio by some increment.  For those that think the Clear Channels, Cumulus and Citadels are only harming themselves, think again.  People who get fed up with radio and buy an I-pod are excluding all radio stations from then on.  That is another degree of audience lost to a competing medium.

Having worked for one of the smaller group owners since 1999, one that rarely if ever appears on anyone’s radar, I can say I have seen some minor shades of what has happened with Clear Channel in the company I work for.  I think everyone who works in radio has seen some of this in one form or another no matter who they work for.

Radio has never been the most stable of employers.  Even in the early days, people moved in and out of radio stations, sometimes taking a job with the competitor across town and sometimes moving across country.  It was understood that sometimes changes needed to be made, sometimes people had to be let go.  It was a part of the landscape.  The difference is in the post consolidation radio environment, people are leaving radio altogether, replaced by a mindless computer programmed from afar.

During my time as a radio engineer, I have installed a few of these computer automation systems.  I think the first one was in 1993 on an AM station doing all news.  We used it for the overnight hours, replacing some minimum wage board operators.  The general manager was shocked and a little bit in awe of how well the system worked.

This trend continued in 1994, when I installed a BE Audiovault system at an AM/FM combo.  There again, the system replaced an overnight board operator on the AM station.  Later, the FM station did a sort of mini-mation where the overnight news guy checked on it every 45-50 minutes.  Those stations are now completely voice tracked and or satellite syndicated.

Through the 90’s, I installed first generation computer based automation systems mostly on AM stations.  Things like Digilink, DCS, ENCO, etc.

In other markets, an automation system was used to resurrect a couple of FM stations, starting out voice tracked, then adding live bodies to fill in day parts, usually having the 6 pm to 6 am time slot voice tracked.  Having three day parts live is better than none I suppose.

The AM stations in my market cluster now are running some awful syndicated satellite news/talk programming.  Why are these stations even on the air?  They should be sold to someone who will operate them locally, or turn their licenses in.

For whatever roll I have played in ruining radio, I am sorry for it.

It is a good book, I recommend anybody that works in the radio business read it.

T-1 outage

One of our stations relies on a T-1 (DS-1) to relay audio from the studio to the transmitter site (STL).  This station started as a piece of paper, no format, no staff, no real estate, no studio equipment.  There was a transmitter and an antenna installed on a leased tower site.

That being said, corners were forcibly cut.  Instead of installing a microwave STL system, a T-1 was ordered because we had a T-1 multiplexor.  Fast forward several years… The station is now successful, making a decent amount of money and having a popular format.

The station has two T-1 circuits on different cables with an automatic switcher.   Yesterday afternoon, the inevitable happened, both T-1s went out, along with most of the other TELCO circuits in the surrounding area.  A construction crew cut two 3600 pair cables a mile down the road.  The TELCO is racing to restore the service to all of the tenants on that tower by rigging a temporary aerial cable.

TELCO trucks, courtesy of <a href=Now the mad scramble ensues with conflicting requirements from the wacky program director.  Screw it, I grabbed one of the AudioVault express machines and took it to the transmitter site.  They are back on the air with a radio station in a box playing music until the T-1 gets fixed.

This site has had numerous problems since we have owned it.  In the 5 years since we launched the format, there have been six T-1 outages longer than 24 hours.  For back up, we have tried an ISDN line, a 3G wireless card in a computer, and a second T-1 circuit.  None of these have proved reliable as most circuit outages involved a cable cut, and multiple circuits were effected.

The real solution is a microwave STL, either a conventional 950 mHz system, or a 2.4 or 5.8 gHz last mile system.  Either would work better than what we have now.  Station ownership, they don’t want to hear it.

Update: This took until Friday, September 4th to repair, for a total outage of 9 days, 2 hours and 26 minutes.  During that time, the station remained on the air with the AudioVault server at the transmitter site and the program director updating it twice per day with voice tracks and commercials.

Lightning strikes

For about 4 years, I lived in a house next to a four hundred foot radio tower.  Although I never actually saw lightning strike the tower, I heard it several times.  Like everything else, after a while, you get used to it.

This is a video of lightning hitting the WSIX STL tower in Nashville, TN. The camera work is a little unsteady, the strike occurs around the 1:36 mark:

Yep, that is what it is like.

Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147/S 592)

I sent off a letter to my Senators and Congressman this morning regarding HR 1147/S 592 AKA Local Community Radio Act.  Basically I am against this.  Not that I don’t appreciate what it is trying to accomplish.  I believe the technical degradation of the FM band is a higher concern.  After all, if we turn the FM band into what the AM band has become, nobody will listen to radio.

Radio is too important to ruin.  Here is what I wrote:

I strongly urge you NOT to support the bipartisan Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147/ S. 592) sponsored by Reps. Mike Doyle and Lee Terry and Sens. Maria Cantwell and John McCain.

In spite of what many have said, Low Power FM (LPFM) contributes to the technical degradation of the FM service.  By adding more and more signals covering every possible spot in the FM spectrum, the noise floor is raised causing many FM receivers to “picket fence” which is annoying to most listeners.

Radio has suffered enough degradation over the last few decades.  AM radio is now so fraught with interference, especially at night, most people do not even consider listening to it.  Packing the FM dial with thousands of low power operators will create the same problems and cause most people to abandon radio altogether.

I am a strong proponent of 1st amendment rights.  I believe the sponsors of this bill are well intentioned, however misinformed. I believe that the deregulation of commercial radio allowing one company to own 1,200 radio licenses has created most of the problems we see today.

Clear Channel, in particular, has removed almost all localism from radio, creating bland canned music channels.  Their modus operandi was to buy a group of radio stations in a market, combine the stations under one roof, get rid of most of the staff, and drop the advertising rates so other local stations could not compete.  Non-Clear Channel stations were then forced to make cuts in there advertising rates and or expenses to stay in business.

The answer is not to create a bigger mess.  Instead:

1.  Push the FCC to tighten ownership rules.  In some ways the horse is already out of the barn, but it would prevent another Clear Channel from forming in the future.
2.  If major radio groups go bankrupt and are broken up, allow it to happen, do not intervene.  This will allow real radio broadcasters to pick up the pieces and put something together.  Perhaps investigate supporting small radio owners by waiving FCC fees and limited tax breaks for a period of time.
3.  Push the FCC to continue with the localism hearings they were conducting.
4.  Push the FCC to update the EAS and make a workable Emergency Alert System in the US.

Radio is too important a resource to have it ruined.  Of all the media outlets, radio is the most robust.  During an emergency often times the utility grid is down.  Many radio stations have backup power generators and can provide vital information when the internet, phone system, cable TV network, cellphone system, e-mail, etc are down.

Radio can provide local government important mass access to their constituents during elections and at other important times.  Radio is free, there are no subscription fees, no service providers, etc.  Almost everyone owns a radio, most people own several.

Small savvy radio owners can make a go of it, provided the deck is not stacked against them.

Please DO NOT support the Local Community Radio Act. Thank you.

If you want to get involved, you can go the the Free Press website, there you will find a link to a “Take Action” page (not sure that link will work).  Again, I am not opposed to Free Press, or even Free Radio.  Packing the FM spectrum with LPFM, translators and the like will only create reception problems.  This is just become another reason for people not to listen to radio.