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Pai says “No fighting!”

In the putsch to revitalize AM, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai advises that it would be best if we did not argue about solutions.  Actually what was said was this:

On the other hand, if too many broadcasters allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good, our efforts could be doomed by infighting.

That is well and good, so long as the proposed solution does not make things worse.  I would posit that worse is already the enemy of the good, so any proposal that would make things worse should be protested vigorously.

I have written quite a bit about AM, its relevance and possible revitalization.  There is no one sized fits all solution to the problems facing AM broadcasters.  In the final equation, stations should be judged on their viability as a business and service to the community.  Those that fail to measure up should turn in their licenses.

Update: And so it begins. The narrative is already being shaped, as Darryl Parks (original post has been removed) has found out.  After posting in his blog a few comments on the FCC’s revitalization efforts, he was excoriated by several high profile broadcasters calling his comments “Beyond not helpful.”  For those not versed in double speak, that means it is harmful.  While Parks may not have gotten all the technical jargon exactly right, his points are valid and are in agreement with the widely accepted laws of physics.  I know, I know, quoting science is dull and boring, something that conspiracy theorists are well practiced with.

Now, SHUT UP AND GET BACK IN LINE

Stay sharp, do not be fooled

I am wondering what is going on with the HD Radio roll out these days. Particularly the all digital AM conversion scheme being bantered about so often last spring. Not much is being discussed publicly about that or the AM revitalization.  I have found FCC Commissioner Clyburn’s remarks at this week’s NAB Confab interesting.  HD Radio is paid lip service here:

There are hurdles: if broadcasters do not broadly embrace the HD technology and the multicasting and other enhancements that it makes possible, listeners will have few incentives to buy digital receivers. Likewise, if no consumers own digital receivers, then there is no reason to broadcast in digital.
But I’m not worried. More than 15 million digital receivers have been sold so far, and that number will only rise. Thirty-three auto manufacturers include or plan to include digital receivers in their cars, and those receivers are standard equipment in over 80 models. This will dramatically increase the number of digital receivers in the coming years.

But in the solutions for AM broadcasters, HD Radio is not mentioned at all.  What is put forward as a six (actually five) step plan to revitalize AM radio turns out to be some rearranging of the deck chairs and little more. Cliff notes version for the FCC’s AM revitalization:

  1. Open a one time filing window for AM license holders to acquire an FM translator
  2. Relaxing community coverage rules for AM licensing allowing greater flexibility for transmitter siting
  3. Eliminating the “Ratchet Rule” used in night time allocation studies for new facilities
  4. Permitting more widespread use of MCDL technologies by eliminating STA requirements
  5. Reducing minimum field strength requirements by twenty five percent allowing the use of shorter towers

While those options may save an AM license holder some money, none of them do anything to improve the technical quality of AM broadcasting.  Several of them (#2, 4 and 5) will, in fact if widely implemented, reduce signal levels over cities of license, making electrical noise and interference problems more prevalent. This is a step in the wrong direction.

These points are basically a rehash of some to the MMTC’s (Minority Media Telecommunication Council) ideas for a radio rescue first bantered about in 2009.

This demonstrates that the NAB and the FCC are not at all serious about revitalizing the AM band but merely marking time and making it look good until the final transmitter is switched off.

AM licensees are on their own, but all is not lost.  I have noticed several successful stand alone AM station that are not only surviving but thriving.  The common thread in these station is good local programming.  On the technical side of things; a well maintained plant with good quality audio feeding a properly operating transmitter and antenna array will go a long way to providing good service to the city of license.

The FCC: Spectrum management in the public interest

Alternative title: Who will really benefit from all digital AM HD Radio™?

Remember when, at license renewal time, radio and TV stations played this announcement:

On (date of the last renewal grant), (station’s call letters) was granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until (license expiration date)…

Emphasis mine.

There seems to be a disassociation between those words and the actions of certain broadcasters who view their licenses as a matter of fact and have little regard for the public interest.  The FCC exacerbates the situation with the attitude that everything, including the entire radio frequency spectrum, is for sale to the highest bidder.  John Anderson (DIY Media) has a great article on how big business interests game federal regulators into doing what they want.  This happens in all sectors; banking, agriculture, energy, health care, media, military and so on.   There are many examples of shoddy regulators and big business gone wild over the last ten years to fully prove this theory.  If you don’t believe me, do a little research.  There is no reason to think that the FCC is different from any other federal regulatory agency.

The vast majority of mass media outlets in the US are owned by just six major corporations (see below).  Radio remains the only piece of the mass media system that has not been completely rolled up in consolidation.  Currently, there is a small number corporate radio owners who own a combined ~2,300 stations and one public broadcasting network that accounts for another ~900 stations. I include public radio here because the majority of those station’s upgrades were footed by the taxpayer though grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That leaves a majority of the approximately 8,500 radio stations that are still owned by a diversified collection of medium and small groups and individuals.

Forcing radio stations to adopt the proprietary, all digital HD Radio™ as the broadcasting standard would, in effect, drive many of those small owners and individuals out of business because of the exorbitant costs for equipment upgrades, antenna modifications, and licensing fees.  This would create a new wave of consolidation as smaller groups and single station owners sold out.  Any remaining small station owners will not have the legal wherewithal to fight against the coming waves of digital interference on both the AM (medium frequency) and FM (VHF) bands.

Therefore, the short answer to the question; who benefits from an all conversion to all digital HD Radio™ is iBquity and its investors, many of whom are found in the list of consolidated media corporations below.  Who looses? Just about everyone else; small and medium group owners, independent radio owners, listeners, communities of license, radio employees, advertisers etc. For those sitting on the fence, thinking “I’ll just do my job any everything will be just fine.”  Full implementation of HD Radio™ will destroy what is left of broadcasting in this country.  Radio is already on shaky ground as a result of product dilution, staff cuts, mediocre programing and competing media systems.  One more step backward, such as adopting a technically flawed digital system that works worse than its analog counterpart, and the remaining listeners may just say “screw this,” and abandon radio altogether.  When the last radio station is turned off, what do you think will happen to your job then?

At the big NAB Las Vegas confab, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai and to a lesser extent, Commissioner Rosenworcel, encouraged people to write or email them with their ideas on how to revitalize AM radio.  I suggest we take advantage of that invitation and tell them what HD Radio™ really is.  There is a shrinking window of opportunity to join the discourse and be heard, now is the time.

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. ~John Stuart Mill

What is at stake?  The future of diversified media and radio broadcasting in the US.

Sidebar: Mass Media Consolidation

Can the public trust a mass media that is owned mostly by six mega corporations to honestly and without bias report news, current events, investigate corruption, and be a government watch dog?  History says no.

Who owns the media?

Time Warner

  • Home Box Office (HBO)
  • Time Inc.
  • Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
  • Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
  • CW Network (partial ownership)
  • TMZ
  • New Line Cinema
  • Time Warner Cable (spun off in 2009)
  • Cinemax
  • Cartoon Network
  • TBS
  • TNT
  • CNN
  • HLN
  • MapQuest
  • Moviefone
  • Castle Rock
  • Sports Illustrated
  • Fortune
  • Marie Claire
  • People Magazine

Walt Disney

  • ABC Television Network (8 stations owned, 200 affiliates)
  • Disney Publishing
  • ESPN Inc.
  • Disney Channel
  • Radio Disney (31 stations, 2 affiliates)
  • SOAPnet
  • A&E
  • Lifetime
  • Buena Vista Home Entertainment
  • Buena Vista Theatrical Productions
  • Buena Vista Records
  • Disney Records
  • Hollywood Records
  • Miramax Films
  • Touchstone Pictures
  • Walt Disney Pictures
  • Pixar Animation Studios
  • Buena Vista Games
  • Hyperion Books

Viacom

  • Paramount Pictures
  • Paramount Home Entertainment
  • Black Entertainment Television (BET)
  • Comedy Central
  • Country Music Television (CMT)
  • Logo
  • MTV
  • MTV Canada
  • MTV2
  • Nick Magazine
  • Nick at Nite
  • Nick Jr.
  • Nickelodeon
  • Noggin
  • Spike TV
  • The Movie Channel
  • TV Land
  • VH1

News Corporation

  • Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
  • Fox Television Stations (25 stations)
  • The New York Post
  • Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • Beliefnet
  • Fox Business Network
  • Fox Kids Europe
  • Fox News Channel
  • Fox News Radio
  • Fox Sports Net
  • Fox Television Network (175 affiliates)
  • FX
  • My Network TV
  • MySpace
  • News Limited News
  • Phoenix InfoNews Channel
  • Phoenix Movies Channel
  • Sky PerfecTV
  • Speed Channel
  • STAR TV India
  • STAR TV Taiwan
  • STAR World
  • Times Higher Education Supplement Magazine
  • Times Literary Supplement Magazine
  • Times of London
  • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
  • 20th Century Fox International
  • 20th Century Fox Studios
  • 20th Century Fox Television
  • BSkyB
  • DIRECTV
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • Fox Broadcasting Company
  • Fox Interactive Media
  • FOXTEL
  • HarperCollins Publishers
  • The National Geographic Channel
  • National Rugby League
  • News Interactive
  • News Outdoor
  • Radio Veronica
  • ReganBooks
  • Sky Italia
  • Sky Radio Denmark
  • Sky Radio Germany
  • Sky Radio Netherlands
  • STAR
  • Zondervan

CBS Corporation

  • CBS News
  • CBS Sports
  • CBS Television Network (16 stations owned, 200 affiliates)
  • CNET
  • Showtime
  • TV.com
  • CBS Radio Inc. (130 stations)
  • CBS Consumer Products
  • CBS Outdoor
  • CW Network (50% ownership)
  • Simon & Schuster (Pocket Books, Scribner)

NBC Universal

  • Bravo
  • CNBC
  • NBC News
  • MSNBC
  • NBC Sports
  • NBC Television Network (10 stations owned, 200 affiliates)
  • Oxygen
  • SciFi Magazine
  • Syfy (Sci Fi Channel)
  • Telemundo
  • USA Network
  • Weather Channel
  • Focus Features
  • NBC Universal Television Distribution
  • NBC Universal Television Studio
  • Paxson Communications (partial ownership)
  • Trio
  • Universal Parks & Resorts
  • Universal Pictures
  • Universal Studio Home Video

Large and medium group radio owners:

Bain Capital Partners, LLC Thomas H Lee Partners, LLC

  • Clear Channel Outdoor
  • Clear Channel Broadcasting (800 stations)
  • Premier Radio Networks
  • Radio Computer Services (RCS)

Cumulus Media (public)

  • Cumulus Broadcasting (550 stations)
  • Cumulus networks (formerly ABC Radio networks)
  • Broadcast Software International

Townsquare Media (220 stations)

Entercom (109 stations)

Salem Communications (97 stations)

Saga Communications (88 stations)

Univision (69 radio, 42 television stations)

Radio one (69 stations)

Family Broadcasting (63 stations)

Beasley Broadcast Group (47 stations)

Moody Radio (36 stations)

 

WBCN All digital field test results

When I said the WBCN test data may not see the light of day, perhaps I spoke too soon.  For your viewing pleasure, here are the results of the WBCN all digital HD Radio tests:

WBCN All-digital AM IBOC Field Test Project (link has been broken, this may have been released by accident)

Well, that will teach me, won’t it.

I have given it a summary read and my first impressions were correct; from a technical standpoint (antenna, ATU)  this is a very favorable test configuration.  The results look pretty good on the surface, although they appear to have had some night time interference problems, go figure.  I’ll update this post when I have time to fully read the whole paper.

Update: The link I provided earlier has been taken down.  It may be that the information was not supposed to be released to the general public.  Several people have asked me to up load the report to my own server so that they can download it and read it themselves.  This leaves me in a bit of a quandary; the report itself is important information and its implications on the future of broadcasting are huge.  On the other hand, it is the work of a private organization and not public domain, thus if released by accident, then it should not be shared.

This story from Inside Radio is more or less accurate as to what report contains, although it paints a somewhat favorable picture.  There appears to be some issues meeting the NRSC5C mask for the MA3 (all digital) mode.  That seems to be fine, however, as the NRSC5C mask can be modified to meet field conditions.  How convenient is that?  The information about the number of AM HD Radio station seems a bit off, latest I have is 207 AM day time, 66 AM night time stations out of 4,659 transmitting hybrid digital analog HD Radio, or 4% daytime and 1% nighttime respectively.

When I have time, I will do some more analysis and post my own conclusions.

 

The AM HD all digital test, part IV

Continued from part III

Profile of a successful AM radio station, March 2013: WSBS, Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Great Barrington is a either a large village or medium sized town with a population of approximately 7,100.  There are many listenable FM and AM radio stations from Albany, NY, Pittsfield, Springfield and Poughkeepsie, NY markets.  There are also a few local stations; WBCR-LP, WMAQ (WAMC repeater) and W254AU (WFCR repeater).  While the competition is not fierce, citizens have a variety of stations to choose from.

WSBS is a class D AM station on 860 KHz with 2,700 watts daytime power, 250 watts critical hours and 3.9 watts night time power.

WSBS approximate daytime coverage area

WSBS AM 860 KHz approximate daytime coverage area

This is the approximate daytime coverage area for WSBS AM.  I could not find any good coverage maps on line, so I made this one myself.  When I am driving, I get the station reliably to Kingston, NY, however, indoor listening may be a different matter.  With 3.9 watts ERP, night time coverage does not include much of the city of license.

They have a translator on 94.1 MHz, W231AK.  This is an example of when an FM translator on an AM station is a benefit to the community of license.  W231AK has recently been moved from the top of the roof of the Fairview Hospital to the WSBS AM tower.  During this move, the ERP was increased from 35 watts to 250 watts and the highly directional antenna was replaced in favor of a 2 bay half wave spaced circularly polarized Shively 6812.

W231AK old service contour

W231AK old service contour

W231AK new service contour

W231AK new service contour

Not only did the move increase the translator’s coverage area, it also reduced operating expenses for the radio station, as they no longer have to pay rent or TELCO charges.

WSBS Harris SX2.5 transmitter, courtesy of NECRAT

WSBS 860 KHz Harris SX2.5 transmitter, courtesy of NECRAT

The main transmitter for the AM station is a Harris SX2.5 .  It transmits from a 79 degree tower, the tower and antenna field are well maintained.

WSBS 860 KHz, Great Barrington, MA tower base and ATU

WSBS 860 KHz, Great Barrington, MA tower base and ATU

The studio has a new Audioarts Air4 console, which we just finished installing last December.

WSBS Great Barrington, MA control room

WSBS Great Barrington, MA control room

More pictures available at NECRAT.

The station has an AC music format, which is quite popular.  As the FM translator’s coverage has been quite limited until recently and there have been issues with the telephone company circuit taking the translator off the air, the majority of listeners are tuned to the AM signal.  There is a live morning show and afternoon show, the rest of the day is voice tracked with music on hard drive.  They have frequent contests and give aways.  They also do local sports, community events, news and things like live election night coverage.  In short, the station serves its community and, as demonstrated by a recent Chamber Business event at the station’s studio, the community appreciates its radio station.

There is nothing magic here; no gimmicks, IBOC, or other technical wizardry.  This facility is at best, technically average, albeit well maintained.  There is an older Orban Optimod processor, an older AM transmitter and the original, electrically short tower.  The station also has a working emergency generator.  The only new tech is the web stream, which all radio stations should have.

The station is successful because of its programming, period.  People love local radio.  Making connections with listeners imparts a shared sense of community.  Being on the air with a local presence during storms, even when the power is out, is a big deal.  When it comes to relevance within the community and local businesses; in 2013 all radio stations need to earn that.

Conclusion:

I do not suffer from technophobia; when digital radio was first proposed, I welcomed the idea.  It was not until I began looking at the technical proposals and iBiquity’s proprietary system that I became concerned.  After hearing the initial implementation of AM HD radio on WOR in NYC, I was not impressed with either it’s audio quality or the side band interference that the analog/digital hybrid AM HD system created.  What is of an even greater concern is the propensity for government regulatory agencies to rubber stamp technical proposals by lobbying associations without testing or even fact checking.

Digital modulation methods at medium frequencies presents a unique challenge where the ratio of signal bandwidth to available frequency spectrum becomes too great to be practical.  This is exacerbated at the lower end of the band where side band symmetry is difficult to achieve at ±15 KHz required by the all digital and the analog/digital hybrid version of AM HD radio.

Clearly, AM radio needs a technical revamping.  Can it be saved?  Yes.  Is it worth saving? Yes.  Is a yet unproven proprietary digital modulation scheme the way to do it? No.

And that is all I have to say on the matter.

The AM HD all digital test, part III

Continued from part II:

Can the AM broadcast service be revitalized and returned to relevancy?  If so, how?  The previous post demonstrated that AM radio services problems are multigenerational and multifaceted.  There is no one solution that will make everything better.  Pushing an all digital solution will not solve electrical noise issues or the overcrowding issues on the AM band.  It will not address the paucity of local, unique programming that is the bread and butter of successful AM operators.  Because the issues that face AM operators cover many different areas of broadcasting, any proposed solution must address every aspect.  Any proposal that simply addresses the poor fidelity, for example, will simply be another band-aid (no pun intended), placed on top of numerous others which have been previously ineffective.

The FCC is looking for deregulatory solutions to the AM problem.  Deregulation and the FCC’s lasissez-faire attitude is exactly why the AM broadcast band is in the condition it is today.  Relaxed technical standards have allowed the creeping crud to take over like Kudzu.  Further deregulation will only exacerbate the problems.

In broad categories, AM radio’s problems are:

  • Noise and interference
  • Low fidelity
  • Lack of ratings
  • Low profitability

Electrical Noise on AM broadcast band

In order for any solution to be effective, this problem must be addressed first.  Noise and interference are at the heart of the technical issues confronting the typical AM radio listener.  These problems come from multiple sources, but the worst of which are electrical devices such as CFL’s and other fluorescent lights, LED lamps, street lights, utility company wires, computers, computer monitors, TVs, power line communication, appliances and other intentional emitters.  The FCC has, within it current powers, the ability to address at least some of these noise generators.  Devices like CFL’s, LED lamps, computers and others are regulated under Part 15 and 18 of the FCC rules.  While there is little that can be done with fluorescent lights (they work using an internal electrical arc), other emission standards can be tightened and better, more specific warning labels can be implemented on packaging.

Station to station interference on the AM broadcast band

Another aspect of this problem is mutual interference on the AM broadcast band.  In short, too many stations are licensed to a small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.  The increasingly poor condition of many directional antenna systems ensures that there is a cacophony of interference at night.  While this is a politically sticky situation, some tough love is needed to solve these problems.  There are many under performing AM stations on the air that are junkyards of last ditch formats that have little or no hope of success.  These stations are often technical disasters that pollute the spectrum with interfering signals.  Compounding this issue is the transmission of IBOC at night.  The current iteration of IBOC (HD radio) intentionally transmits on adjacent channels creating more problems than it solves.

Confronting any of these issues is almost certain to be a non-starter and that is a shame because real, meaningful steps can be taken here.

One scenario would be a one time test, applied during the next license renewal cycle, that allows station owners to assess their operations.  Those that do not pass the test would be able surrender their license for a tax credit.  This type of culling is not unprecedented, as the FRC did something very similar during the early days of broadcasting when the AM band became a free for all.  The test should have three areas of consideration; technical operations, programming and business profitability.  Something like this would be a reasonable example of a re-licensing test:

Technical operations
Test Points
Does station have its own studio 1
Are DA parameters or base current as specified on license 2
Is antenna array being maintained, field mowed, trees cut, tower fences secure, signage posted, catwalks or access roadways maintained 1
Does station have a working backup transmitter 1
Does station have a working backup STL 1
Does station have a working emergency generator 1
Does station have a current transmitter maintenance log 1
Are NRSC measurements up to date 1
Are monitor points measured at least biannually 1
Minimum score to pass technical operations: 5 points
Programming
Test Points
Does station originate local programing 1 point per average weekly hour
Does station have local news 1 point per average weekly quarter hour
Does station appear in market ratings survey 1 point per survey period (or 4 points for continuous survey markets)
Minimum score to pass programming test: 5 points
Business
Is the station profitable ¼ point for every profitable quarter during last license period
Minimum score to pass business test: 3.5 points
Minimum overall score for all three tests combined: 16 points

This is a fairly low bar to get over. I generally do not advocated more government regulations and regulatory burden. However, this is one case where relaxed regulations lead to the problems currently being encountered. Perhaps a one time re-regulation would be warranted in the public interest.

Audio quality and other technical improvements

There are several areas where new technology can be used to improve AM stations technical quality.  There is a common misconception that AM broadcasting has low fidelity due to inferior bandwidth.  Truth be told, AM broadcasting can pass 15-20 KHz audio.  It is restricted to less than 10 KHz because of the aforementioned band congestion problems.  Since the NAB and the FCC has made exceptions to the NRSC-1 requirement in order to transmit HD radio, perhaps other wide bandwidth uses can be considered.  One possibility would be to allow transmission of 15 KHz audio during daytime hours, switching back to NRSC-1 standard after dark.  This may not work on local (class C) channels but for regional and what remains of cleared channels, it may offer some improvement.  Also, turning off IBOC hybrid analog/digital transmissions after dark should be examined regardless of whether an all digital solution is sought.  Hybrid IBOC is a part of the night time noise problem and not a viable solution, particularly troublesome are class A skywave signals.

Also, much benefit could be derived from requiring that all AM stations sync their carriers to GPS.  If all of the stations on the same channel are on exactly the same frequency, it will eliminate carrier squeals, growls and whines.  This is something that can be done very easily and inexpensively, especially with newer transmitters.

Double sideband AM is wasteful, as both lower and upper sidebands contain the same information.  Suppressing the lower sideband and transmitting just the carrier and upper sideband would free up quite a bid of bandwidth and reduce adjacent channel interference.  Most simple diode detectors demodulate the upper sideband anyway.

A concerted effort must be made to restore all of the technically deficient antenna systems.  Not only fixing out of tolerance DAs but also addressing bandwidth issues, general maintenance, ground systems, clearing away brush and undergrowth can all have noticeable positive effects on signal performance.

At the same time, better receivers are making their way into the market place.  Receivers that have auto variable IF bandwidth based on signal strength could greatly improve audio quality.  The auto bandwidth function could be overridden by user selected bandwidth, if desired.  I know that wider IF bandwidths are in the current chipset because of IBOC and DRM, I do not know to what extent they can be adjusted, but it is something that receiver manufactures should consider.

None of these solutions are Earth shattering, nor would they require great sums of money to implement.

AM to FM Translators

The current thought process is that using FM translators for AM stations is a fantastically great development.  For a class D AM station with little or no night time power, an FM translator is a good way to maintain service to the community.  For class C or some class B AM stations where night time interference greatly degrades the station’s service area, an FM translator is a good way to maintain service to the community.  Does a 50 KW blow torch really need a 250 watt (or less) FM translator to aide with reception in its city of license?  No.  Yet, this is how the AM to FM translator service will be rolled out, those that already have sound technical operations will be given FM authorizations.  This does nothing to actually fix AM broadcasting technical issues, it is a well meaning measure that will be incorrectly applied by the broadcasters that need it least.

Programming

All of the technology and gadgets will not solve the problem of poor programming.  This is an area where the FCC should not tread, however, broadcasting associations can assist their members with local programming issues.  Broadcasters need to understand that good local programming that is unique will attract listeners, worthless junk will not.

Continued in part IV

The AM HD all digital test, part II

Continued from part I:

In order to get to the root problems of AM (aka Medium Wave, or Medium Frequency) broadcasting, a bit of history is required.  For the sake of brevity, here is the cliff notes version:

  • Early broadcasting services were entirely AM and heavily regulated by the FRC and later FCC
  • FM broadcasting was introduced in the late 1930’s experimentally, then commercially circa 1947
  • In 1946 the FCC relaxed its regulations allowing many more AM stations to be licensed as both class II (currently class B regional) and class II-D, II-S, and III-S (currently class D) stations.  Between 1946 and 1953 the number of AM stations more than doubled from 961 to 2,333
  • In spite of FM’s technical superiority, AM remained dominant until approximately the mid to late 1970’s when the FCC forced FM stations to end simulcasting with co-owned AM stations
  • Broadcast deregulation came in small waves at first; programming rules, business rules, some technical rules, operator license requirements were done away with, enforcement of other rules became more selective
  • Deteriorating antenna systems, splatter, modulation wars, declining technical resources and increased electrical noise created interference issues
  • The electrical noise floor gradually increases as more electrical appliances, street lights, fluorescent lights, and other intentional emitters increase
  • Radio manufactures responded to consumer complaints by greatly reducing the audio bandwidth of their AM receivers
  • Broadcast deregulation greatly increased in the 1980’s
  • The FCC voted in 1980 to limit skywave protection of clear channel (class I or A) stations to within 750 miles of transmitter site allowing former daytime only stations to stay on at night which increased interference
  • AM Stereo is implemented in 1982 to improve quality and compete with FM broadcasting.  Competing systems are proposed, FCC does not mandate a standard, lets the market decide, the technology dies off
  • The National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC) is formed and comes up with a standard (NRSC-1) that restricts AM broadcast audio to 10 KHz or less, mandates yearly measurements
  • Ownership rules are loosened somewhat in 1994, then greatly in 1996
  • The expanded AM band (1,610 to 1,700 KHz) is opened up in 1997 to existing AM broadcasters.  Once stations are licensed to operate in the expanded band, they are supposed to surrender their former licenses, few do
  • The great radio consolidation takes place; 1997-2004.  Synergy is the word of the day, stations are overvalued in multiple transactions which created a debt bubble
  • Skywave listening is mostly depreciated as an acceptable communications method by the industry
  • The introduction of IBOC hybrid analog/digital broadcasting in 2002 greatly increased the adjacent channel interference issues.  Sidebands out to ±10-15 KHz of carrier are introduced with power levels of -16dBc.  For a 50 KW station, this equals approximately 2,500 watts power transmitted on each of the adjacent channels.  Analog audio of stations transmitting AM IBOC is restricted to 5 KHz, background digital noise is often present in analog audio, further degrading the quality
  • Inside electrical noise greatly increases as compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and LED lamps become popular energy saving measures
  • Night time operation of HD radio permitted in 2007 creating greater interference problems to distant adjacent channel stations
  • There are 4,738 AM stations licensed, 89 are silent, approximately 210 transmit HD radio, approximately 66 (mostly class A and B stations), transmit HD radio at night

There is not any one development that can be singled out as the smoking gun that killed the AM broadcast band, it is rather, a death from a thousand cuts.  Because of heavy debt loads, technical, programming, promotional and personnel resources are directed away from AM stations (and FM stations too).  After staffs were reduced and news departments eliminated, AM stations became a dumping ground for mediocre satellite syndicated talk programming.  Eventually many also became a technical nightmare due to deferred maintenance.

There can be little doubt, AM broadcasting is a tough business to be in.  In spite of all of that, however, there are several AM stations that are not merely surviving but thriving.  What does it take to be a successful AM broadcaster in 2013?  There seems to be several common threads, but the two most common are a good technical operations and local programming.

Continued in Part III

The AM HD all digital test, Part I

After reading this article in Radio World it seems the all digital AM testing completed last December was “nearly flawless.” This comes as no surprise considering that WBCN is owned by CBS, also an iBiquity investor.  Could there really be another result?  I think not.  But let us examine the technical aspects of the WBCN test itself.

WBCN is on 1,660 KHz in the expanded part of the AM band.  According to the FCC database, it transmits from a single 90.7 degree tower.  As such, the tower is likely either broad banded already or easily modified to be.  Also according to the FCC database, there are eight other stations licensed to 1,660 KHz, all of which transmit with a power of 1 KW at night.  This eliminates much of the interference issues found on the rest of the AM band.  It can be further noted, the problem with electrical noise is most prevalent below 1,000 KHz.  There is little wonder in the nearly flawless results.

From a technical standpoint, this is about as favorable a testing configuration as can be conceived for AM IBOC.  If AM HD radio did not work under these test conditions, then it would never work at all.  The actual data from the tests has yet to see the light of day and it may never be released.  This is likely due to the same reason the NAB will not release its technical improvement study on AM; we simply won’t understand it.

Near the end of the article someone (it is not exactly clear who) asks the NAB, “why the opacity?” For which the answer given is “to get stuff done.”  There is a fair bit of hubris in that statement.  Is the NAB now the technology decider for the rest of us?  I think not.  Shutting out everyone but a very select few rightly causes suspicion, something that the Radio World article acknowledges.

Accurate, real world testing involves more than using one technically favorable test subject.  In fact, the tests should be run in the most technically challenged environment to present meaningful data points in real world conditions.  Stations like a six tower directional on 580 KHz, or a 190 degree tower with a folded unipole on 810 KHz, or pretty much any class C AM station at night time.  These types of test will represent at least a few of the existing antenna systems and stations.  Will that happen?  It depends on whether the FCC will hold somebody’s feet to the fire and demand meaningful testing.

Much ink has already been spilled by various trade publications debating the future of AM broadcasting.  Most take the position that there are several technical issues which makes AM broadcasting problematic if not downright untenable.  There are indeed some technical issues with AM when compared with FM or IP based audio distribution.  There are also several ways that AM broadcasting is superior to both FM and IP based audio distribution.  The truth is that AM broadcasting’s issues are complex and involve technical, regulatory and operational considerations.

These can be broken down as follows:

  • AM is prone to electrical noise interference
  • AM is prone to co-channel and adjacent channel interference
  • AM has inferior bandwidth and thus audio quality
  • AM has poor signal quality
  • AM has low or no market share

All of these problems conspire to make AM broadcasting unprofitable, or so the narrative goes.  Does all digital AM HD radio really solve any of these problems?  From the WBCN test alone, results are inconclusive.

Transmitting a signal in digital format does not make it immune to noise or interference.  It simply masks the interference until the noise floor becomes too high causing excessive bit errors, at which time the receiver mutes.  Thus, with AM HD radio in a noisy environment, the listener will not hear static, that much is true, they may not hear anything at all.  Is this all or nothing reception an improvement?

AM broadcasting audio bandwidth problems are mostly self inflicted.  AM stations created loudness wars in the 60’s and 70’s, causing splatter and adjacent channel interference on older, cheap diode detector type receivers.  Receiver manufactures responded by limiting IF bandwidths to 3-4 KHz, slightly better than telephone quality.  The industry came up with the NRSC-1 standard which limited AM bandwidth to 10 KHz or less.  For a long while, AM radio receivers remained very poor.  This appears to be changing with newer receivers that are both more selective and more sensitive.  My Toyota has a Pioneer radio which has good bandwidth on AM.  Is it as good as FM?  No, but it is certainly listenable, especially if no other station is playing that style music.

That brings me to programming, which is the real crux of the issue.  Continued in part II.

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.

Brazil: The place where they test tech before it is implemented

After extensive testing of Both HD Radio and DRM, the Secretary of the Ministry of Communications Electronic Communications, Genildo Lins, said the tests of the two technologies have had poor results, especially high power FM . The testing demonstrated the digital signal coverage is approximately 70% of the current analog signal. “The future of radio is digital, but that future is not yet. We are unable to make a decision on these results.”  A polite way of saying “This is not the digital radio we were hoping for.”

These are just a few brief excerpts of the FM HD Radio test reports from Sao Paulo.  The method of testing:

The transmission system was located in the center of the city of São Paulo. The signal HD Radio digital broadcast was extended hybrid mode combined with the analog signal in the air, with separation of 163.8 kHz from the carrier’s analog FM signal and the carriers of HD Radio digital signal in sub-upper and lower sidebands. The power used in transmitter for the analog signal was 27 kW, and for the digital signal of 1 kW. Attaching the FM and HD Radio systems in their respective transmission antennas, the power Isotropic Effectively Irradiated (EIRP) of the analog signal was 112.3 kW and the digital signal of 1.12 kW. Thus, the protection ratio (EIRP power ratio between the analog and digital signals) was 20 dB (sic). During the measurement campaign, two commercial FM receivers were used analysis of analog reception, both to verify their potential impacts on receiving due the introduction of the digital signal, as to assist in verifying the coverage area of the signal analog.

The results of this testing:

Checking the results on each route, the route R1 radial (southeast direction), the stretch P1 to P2, that extends to 10.88 km (7.3 miles) of distance from the transmitter, the audio decoding was 71.6% of the digital audio frames received, and in the remaining sections of the route were little digital coverage.

In radial route R2 (southwest direction) was decoding of digital audio throughout the stretch to P1 P2, which extends up to 10.7 km (6.6 miles) of distance from the transmitter. In the following passage (P2 P3), the first blend was 17 km (10.5 miles) from the station. Following the passage P3 to P4, 26.4 to 44.9 km (27.9 miles), there was only 21.8% decoding of digital audio frames received within that stretch. In the last section (P4 to P5), from 44.9 km, there was almost no coverage digital.

In R4 route (northwest), there was decoding of digital audio throughout the stretch P1 to P2, extending up to 11.8 km (7.3 miles) of distance from the transmitter. In the following passage (P2 P3), from 11.8 to 24.9 km, was 62.5% of decoding digital audio frames received within that stretch. Following the stretch from 24.9 to 47.5 km (29.5 miles), (P3 to P4) the percentage was 24.3%. In the last stretch, from 47.5 to 61.7 km (P4 to P5), no digital coverage.

In route R6 (northeast direction), the stretch up to 9.8 km (6 miles), (P1 to P2) was 74.7% decoding of audio frames. In the passage P2 to P3 from 9.8 km to 29.8 km (18 miles) of the station, there was audio decoding 100% of the received frames. Following the stretch from 29.8 to 45.3 km (28.1 miles) (P3 to P4), the percentage was 87.2%, and in the last stretch, from 45.3 to 60.9 km (P4 to P5), the percentage was 47.9%.

Routes shown on a map:

Sao-Paulo-HD-test-routes

Using unbiased real world testing, HD Radio does not look so hot. One caveat; the digital carrier level is -20dBc. That being duly noted, results show a 112 KW EIRP analog station with a 1.12 KW digital carrier that is unusable 6 miles from the transmitter site in some areas.  It is almost hard to believe.  Original documents can be found on the Government of Brazil Ministry of Communications website (in Portuguese).  They are interesting reading, although you may need to parse them through the Google translator.

AM HD Radio (no surprise) and DRM have similar or worse results.

Thus the myth “Digital is better,” is called to question. I am not opposed to new technology, provided it works better than the technology it is replacing.

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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