For the Love of Radio

One of the guys I work with is a little bit crazy. Well… actually more than one, but this one person in particular has gone out of his way to fix up a summer camp radio station.  So, the background is this; in a remote region, far, far away from thing else, a summer camp had installed a license free (allegedly FCC Part 15) radio station to cover the camp compound.   Many summers later, said camp management had some questions and concerns about the operation.  This is where our protagonist comes into the story.

Not only did the camp owners have questions about their operation, they also had coverage issues.  Their installation consisted of a Ramsey five watt all in one FM transmitter feeding a horizontally polarized television antenna on the roof of the studio fed with RG-6 coax.  There were several coverage holes within the immediate camp complex and they were asking of a more powerful transmitter was needed.  In light of this, our man Pete did some engineering outreach.  Over the period of several months, Pete scraped together what would have been mostly back shelf backup gear, perhaps a few things destined for the dumpster and other miscellaneous items and built a small radio station for them.

Camp Radio Station equipment rack
Camp Radio Station equipment rack

What was once, no doubt, an illegal operation was brought substantially into compliance by replacing the Ramsey broadcast transmitter with a QEI 675 exciter modified by removing the power amp and connecting the IPA to the output filter.  Thus modified, it runs a maximum of 0.2 watts, which is not necessarily the output power. The antenna was changed to a home made vertically mounted dipole antenna.  The addition of a broadcast quality limiter ensures that the station is not over modulating.  A recently calibrated Belar FM modulation monitor confirms this.  Some Texar Audio Prisms juice up the sound a little bit.  A Urei console, a couple of Shure SM-58 microphones and a computer round out the operation.

Camp Radio Station console and computer
Camp Radio Station console and computer

Now, the camp radio station has the feel of a real radio station.  Kids that come here to do shows get a fairly authentic feel and appreciation for what it is like to be a DJ; selecting music, doing intros, information, weather, etc.  By looking at the sign up board, it seems that radio can still be very popular with teenagers:

Camp radio station sign up board
Camp radio station sign up board, very few openings

Thus the camp owner has perhaps saved himself some grief with the FCC.  A potential interference and intermodulation situation has been avoided.  The new equipment covers the entire camp compound and better still, does not go too far beyond the front gate, which is exactly 121.4 feet away from the antenna mast.  Best yet, a whole bunch of teenagers are interested in doing radio shows and learning about music.  There are very few venues or paths for potential new talent to enter this business and things like this should be encouraged.

Update: A few sentences were changed for clarity.

Radio? Not interested

With the pending LPFM filing window in October, I decided that perhaps I could spread the information to some local groups that might want to put a community radio station on the air where I live.  Back over a decade ago, there were a couple of local commercial AM and FM stations in the area, but they moved out of town to a larger city some 24 miles to the east.  If local legend is to be believed, the AM station was very popular, with its studios and offices over the local pharmacy.  That station is now running 24/7 comedy, which given the area, is ironic almost beyond words.  As it stands now, this is one of those rural areas that, on paper, looks well served by several different radio stations.  Truth is, there are radio signals receivable here, but there is no local radio.  The last time anyone from those previously local stations had a meaningful thought about the respective Cities of License was months if not years ago.

With all this in mind, I first approached a local community non-profit group.  They seemed mildly interested, but expressed doubt about finding a studio location.  Their basic take was, we can help, but we want others involved.  Seemed to be a lukewarm, but understandable and not totally unwarranted response.

I then approached the local school board.  The idea was to get the high school involved with the station broadcasting sports events and teaching kids how to do play by play and perhaps other types of radio shows.  They fainted interest at first, then decided that they didn’t have the staff to deal with a broadcast program and there were other excuses like “liability issues.”

I then approached the local governments (two different towns) who were almost openly hostile to the idea.  While they didn’t say as much to my face, they rather implied that it would be a waste of time and the town(s) were not interested.

I have approached other local groups, which don’t seem to be interested at all.

Has radio lost its mojo with the local population?  Are we who still remain in the radio business simply fooling ourselves into thinking that somehow this is important?  I don’t know.

The hazards of rural LPFM; large area, few people, generalized indifference.

My appologies for the lack of posts

Two reasons for this; first, I am deep into the IP networking curriculum and time is at a premium.  That being said, I am rather enjoying myself in school, which is always good.  Secondly, and related to the first part, I have not been spending too much time these days doing Broadcast Engineering work.  Thus, the subject matter and various topics have not been jumping out at me as they normally do.

My busy schedule not withstanding, there are some interesting things going on in the realm of Radio Engineering:

  1. On the LPFM front, the FCC has dismissed over 3,000 translator applications from the great translator invasion of 2003.  This is great news and now potential LPFM applicants can use the FCC LPFM search tool to get a good idea of what is available in their neck of the woods.  Other search tools include Recnet and Prometheus Radio project.  Filing window is October 15, 2013, apply now or forever hold  your peace.
  2. Chris Imlay has some good ideas on AM revitalization. His suggestion is to have the FCC enforce and strengthen its existing rules regarding electrical interference. I notice two letters are missing from his list, those would be “h” and “d.” While the ideas are technically sound, it seems unlikely that the FCC can or would be able to enforce stricter Part 18 rules.
  3. Lots of EAS shenanigans going on with zombie alerts and hijacked EAS systems.  Really people, default passwords?  Secure your equipment and networks or pay the price for complacency.  Nearly all new equipment has some sort of web interface, which can be a great time saver.  They can also be easily exploited if left vulnerable.  Fortunately, this was not as bad as it could have been.
  4. Something happened in NYC that hasn’t happened in quite a while.  Country music filled the air on a station that is generally receivable in the five boroughs.  This may not seem like big news to the rest of the country, but in market number one, it is big news.  Further, Cumulus has registered “NashFMxxxx.com” for every FM dial position.  National country channel in the works?  I’d bet yes.  A look at recent trends shows that Cumulus is standardizing formats on many of its AM and FM stations, making them, effectively, part of a nation network of over the air repeaters.
  5. Clear Channel has put more effort into iHeartradio, for seemly many of the same reasons as Cumulus’s standardized formats.

Where is this all going?  There are several trends evident including; AM will eventually be declared DOA and switched off, transition to national based music formats, an emphasis on IP (internet) based delivery systems, an eventual phase out of local programming, smaller staffs concentrated on local sales and little else.

The single bright spot could be LPFM.  Only time will tell if this new crop of LPFM licensees will keep the faith and tradition of local radio.  If one looks at the natural course of evolution, under times of extreme stress, species tend to get physically smaller in response.  The larger species cannot sustain themselves with the necessary energy intake and die off.  See also: Dinosaurs.  I certainly would call this prolonged, nearly dead economy stressful on the broadcasting business.  Perhaps, when all is said and done, it will be the small, volunteer LPFM still on the air and serving the community.

Opportunity

My son and daughter are playing ice hockey this winter. Which means that every Saturday morning I have to get up very early and haul them off to the rink for practice and a game.  It is actually a lot of fun because I love watching them play.  Having played a certain version of pond hockey in my youth, it brings back good memories.

In any case, last week, after they finished their game and changed out of their hockey gear, my son wanted to watch the older kids play.  Thus, we sat down in the bleachers for a few minutes to watch the 12-15 year olds play against a traveling team.   Most hockey leagues are mixed, that is to say girls and boys playing on the same team.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the girls can be decerned not only by their pony tails but also the pink stake laces or pink hockey gloves.  I also noticed that the girls seem to play a more cerebral version of the game, which is a joy to watch.

Not soon after we sat down, a fast break play developed at mid ice.  It was truly a thing of beauty.  A player from the home team intercepted a pass from the opposing team and took off down the ice.  She was followed closely by another player from her own team.  As they crossed the opposing red line, the other team closed in.  I watched the lead player move fast toward the goal then fake out the goalie, lifting her stick oh so much as she made the shot.  The goalie was completely fooled and dove for the non-existing puck, which was left on the ice for the following player, who neatly scooped it into the goal under the goalie’s leg.  It was over in a flash of white jerseys and pink laces.  I thought to myself; these are kids are great!  You do not have to watch an NHL game to see good hockey and sometimes the so called “professional” sports is overrated anyway.

Which got me to thinking about LPFM.  How many budding journalists, play by play announcers, DJs and presenters are out there waiting for an opportunity to show their stuff?  An opportunity that they may never get because most commercial and many public radio stations are locked into an increasing automation loop.  Locally originated programming is constantly being cut and replaced by satellite syndicated formats and or out of market voice tracking.  It is truly a shame, because the strongest leg that terrestrial radio can stand on is localism.

LPFM can be that opportunity to return radio to its community of license.  It will not be easy, clearly the rules were written to prevent LPFM from ever competing with commercial or even public radio stations.  Restrictive power levels, odious interference rules, and limited fund raising capability will keep all but the true believers and perhaps ignorant souls from attempting for a license.  It will be hard, but not impossible and the true believers will make a go of it.  The October 15th, 2013 filing window will very likely be the last opportunity for community organizations to establish a local radio station.  After that, the remaining spectrum crumbs will be divided between translator aggregators to create ever larger networks of mostly redundant content.

Terrestrial radio may well go through an evolutionary change.  As more and more broadcasters are finding out, once a license is owned, there is a great deal of expense in operating a station.  Things like employees and office supplies can be cut, however; towers need to be maintained, transmitters and antennas need to be replaced periodically, electricity bills must be paid, etc.  The larger the station, the more operating costs are involved.  Another serious economic downturn like 2008 and the crazy train will be off the rails.  The inexpensive to operate, volunteer run local LPFM may indeed be the last radio station(s) standing.  I have heard many decry this type of station as “amateurish” or “not professional.”  Here is what can happen if you give a bunch of amateurs a free hand:

Good stuff.  Big picture stuff.