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Trends in Terrestrial Broadcasting, II

Things seem to be relatively quite these days, no earth shattering developments, no big news stories, etc.  My work load consists of mostly driving to one location and cleaning things up, then driving to another location and cleaning more things up.  Nothing really new to write about.  However, industry wide, there have been some developments of note:

  1. More AM HD radio only testing out in Seattle.  We hear that these tests are phenomenal but have yet to see any data.  The HD Radio proponents keep pushing for an all digital transition.  To that I say good, let those stations (AM and FM) that want to transition to all digital do so, provided they conform to the analog channel bandwidths and do not cause interference to analog stations.  It should also be an either/or decision: Either transmit in all digital format or revert to analog only format, no more interference causing hybrid analog digital.
  2. BMW depreciates AM radio in some models.  It seems the all electric car generates too much electric noise to facilitate AM reception.  My question; are these mobile noise generators going to cause reception problems for other vehicles too?  What if I want to hear the traffic on 880 or 1010 and one of these things roles by?  There are larger implications here and the FCC should be concerned with this.
  3. General Motors pauses the HD Radio uptake in some models.  No real reasons given, but more emphasis on LTE in the dashboard is noted.  We are reassured by iBquity that this trend is only temporary.
  4. Anxiously awaiting this year’s engineering salary survey.  For science, of course.  Here is last year’s survey.
  5. Clear Channel is no more!  They have gone out of business and a new company, iHeart Media, has taken over.  Things will be much better now, I can feel it.
  6. John Anderson finds a chilly reception at the last NAB confab: An Unwelcome Guest at the NAB radio show. This is not surprising but kind of sad. John has been a reasonable critic of IBOC and wrote a book titled: Radio’s Digital Dilemma.
  7. Not too much going on with the AM revitalization.  Tom King of Kintronics notes that the fault is in our receivers.
  8. Government shortwave broadcasters continue to sign off permanently.  Radio Exterior de Espana ceases operations.
  9. European long wave and medium wave stations are also throwing the big switch; Atlantic 252 (long wave), as well as German long wave stations on 153, 177,  and 207 KHz, medium wave stations 549, 756, 1269, and 1422 KHz also are signing off.  Those 9 KHz channel spacings look strange don’t they.  What fate awaits US AM radio stations?
  10. I am reading Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide.  I knew this, you should know it too.

 

Trends in Terrestrial Broadcasting

I thought I’d take a few moment to explore the current trends and development in Terrestrial Broadcasting, AKA AM, FM, TV and Shortwave.

Clear Channel Communications RIFs employees

We are all aware of the “reduction in force” or RIF (a term used by the US armed forces in the mid 1990’s), as it is called by Clear Channel Broadcasting.  One could also call it the iUnheartEmployees program.  Small and medium market stations bore the brunt of these reductions, although major markets were not immune either.  According to Clear Channel, this will  “deliver a much better product to listeners than we have in the past.”  Also, they plan to “generate higher ratings for our advertisers and marketing partners and give our best people bigger roles.”  Of course, the definition of “much better product,” is subjective and depends on one’s point of view.

In addition to that, the Brand Management Teams indicate the inception of nationwide network radio or at least nationwide radio format standardization, which is almost the same thing.  This trend will further eliminate the need for local program directors, local news, local anything.  With greater commitments to the iHeartRadio and the hiring of Bob Pittman as CEO, expect more in the way of new media, internet distribution and so on, possibly at the expense of terrestrial radio transmission.

Clear Channel owns approximately 850 of the nation’s 11,293 commercial AM and FM radio stations.

Cumulus-Citadel merger

We are also aware of the Cumulus-Citadel deal, which leaves one less large company on the field and greatly improves Cumulus’s major market presence.  In addition to several radio stations, Cumulus also acquires what used to be ABC radio networks and satellite distribution system.  Prior to the merger, Citadel had several satellite radio formats ranging from Top 40/CHR to 24/7 Comedy.  There is no word on how the merger will change those formats and what Cumulus plans to do with them.  I would speculate that similar to Clear Channel, national type formats are in the works for Cumulus as well.

Cumulus Media owns approximately 570 of the nation’s commercial AM and FM radio stations.

National Public Radio NPR

The third large group of radio stations is more like a collective than commonly owned group.  Stations or groups of stations are owned by regional group owners and form mini-networks, for example, Northeast Public Radio.  The flagship station for Northeast Public Radio is WAMC, however, they own 11 radio stations and 12 translators.  This is fairly typical of NPR affiliates.

NPR stations act in concert with the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and NPR to form a powerful media presence.  Most stations carry some local programming, however, NPR staples such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition are almost universally heard on every NPR affiliate.

Technically speaking, NPR stations make up the single biggest block of HD Radio users, almost all of which where licensed and installed under by grants from the CPB.  NPR labs has done extensive work testing and attempting to improve HD Radio, taking over for iBquity’s own in house engineers.  NPR is also exploring ways to use new media distribution networks, moving towards a more IP based distribution model over terrestrial radio.

NPR is funded by member stations, the CPB and by corporate sponsorships.  The largest ever was from the estate of Joan Krock (McDonalds Corporation), which lead to the Steve Inskeep/Morning Edition story about how great it was to work at McDonalds.  There is/have been several efforts to defund the CPB in recent years.  With the economy going the way it is and all, the congressional moves to defund may win, which would be a crippling blow to NPR.

NPR affiliates number approximately 850 of the 3,572 non-commercial FM radio stations and about 50 AM stations in the US.

Other broadcast groups such as CBS, Entercom, Emmis, etc

Those companies will likely follow whatever Clear Channel and Cumulus are doing, as those companies are driving marketplace trends and competition, or lack thereof.

Voice of America, US government

In a somewhat surprising development, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who oversees the operations of the Voice of America would like to repeal some parts (.pdf) of the 1948 Smith-Mundt act, which prohibits them from broadcasting domestically.  Does this mean that the VOA will become a government broadcaster like the BBC and CBC?  I don’t rightly know.  The BBG is also proposing to greatly curtail HF (AKA Shortwave) transmissions, favoring a combination of Satellite to FM and IP network delivery methods.  The BBG is also proposing defederalizing the VOA (AKA privatization).  Perhaps one of the current large broadcasters, e.g. Clear Channel or Cumulus will be interested in purchasing the VOA brand name.

With the repeal of the Smith-Mundt act, does this open the door for some form of domestic shortwave service?  I have commented several times on the ability of HF radio to cover large distances with moderate power levels.  The 1,000 watt non-directional CFRX on 6070 KHz is good example of this.  Most hours of the day, it is listenable at my location, some 300 miles distant from the transmitter.  I enjoy listening to Toronto news and talk as much as any other.  Lower frequencies and moderate power levels would be an interesting experiment.

What does the future hold for broadcast technical people?

RF vs IP distribution

RF vs IP distribution

All of this points to more consolidation of engineering staffs, centralized NOCs (Network Operations Centers) and more emphasis on computer/IT skill sets verses the legacy AM/FM transmitter and analog audio skill sets most broadcast engineers have.  The old days of the RF guru are coming to a close.

Most new transmitters have some sort of web interface, which allows complete remote monitoring and supervision.  If a transmitter does not have that, remote control units can be web enabled.  These transmitters are modular, with the modules being removed and returned to the factory for repair.  That innovation greatly reduces the amount of training and experience required to maintain transmitters, almost anyone can remove a module and ship it somewhere.  That, in turn, leads to a more consolidated technical staff with field engineers being dispatched to specific sites to take care of outages as needed, which is the model that the cellphone companies and wireless service providers use.

Further, as evidenced in this discussion on the radio-info board, many of the older engineers are becoming tired of underfunded, neglected physical plants.  The idea that a contract engineer is someone you call only when you go off the air has been around for quite some time.  As time goes on, fewer and fewer are willing to accept that type of work.

The future looks like radio station technical staffs will be mostly computer related technicians and engineers that take care of problems remotely from a NOC.  If a physical presence is needed, a field technician can be dispatched.  These people will most likely be contractors.

Smaller groups and the mom and pops that are left will have to get on board with the reality that fewer and fewer contractors will be willing or able to trouble shoot a tube amplifier and replace there transmitters with newer solid state units.  Manufacturers, if they are on the ball, will want to offer some type of monitoring service for those type customers, again, dispatching a field technician as needed to effect repairs.

Either way, computer and networking skills are a good thing to have and are transportable to other sectors, should one find oneself an unemployed broadcast engineer.

Axiom


A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19

...radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
~Alan Weiner

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