Fewer owners means more diversity!

Alternate title: Less is more (and other non-sense)!

The NAB has come out with their latest interesting opinion on radio station ownership in comments to the FCC regarding the 2014 Quadrennial Regulatory Review.  They state that “Retaining the local radio ownership rule unchanged would be arbitrary and capricious” because the audio market place has changed radically over the last ten years.  The introduction of online listening via Pandora seems to have created competition that can only be adequately dealt with by further consolidation, it seems.  Also, the Commission cannot demonstrate that the current rules promote localism or viewpoint diversity.  That last sentence is a fair statement.  What the NAB does not say is that there is no evidence that further consolidation will promote localism or viewpoint diversity either.

The comment then goes into a lot of information and statistics on smart phone usage; who has them, what they are using them for et cetera.  It is very interesting to note that there is no reason given for the sudden and alarming upswing in mobile online listening.  But, let us examine a few interesting data points first:

  • Mobile data is not free.  There are very few unlimited mobile data plans out there anymore, most everyone now has some sort of data cap.  Extra data can be purchased, but it is expensive
  • On line listening uses data at a fast rate.  According to Pandora, they stream at 64 kbps, or 0.480 megabytes per minute or 29 mega bytes per hour.   Spotify uses quite a bit more, 54 megabytes per hour.

Let us assume that the average commute to work these days is one hour.  That would mean two hours per day of driving and mobile listening.  That adds up to 1.16 GB of data per month just in on line listening.  Assuming that the smart phone functions as more than just a radio and will be used for email, maps, news, web browsing and other downloads, a fairly hefty data plan would be required of the smart phone user to accommodate all this data.  Why would somebody pay considerably extra per month just to listen to online radio?

Do you get where I am going with this?  Good, compelling programming is what people are searching for.  If they cannot find it on the radio, they will go elsewhere.  Nature abhors a vacuum.  Want to compete against Pandora, Spotify, XM or whoever?  Offer up something good to listen to.  These days, competition seems to be a dirty word.  Yes, competition requires work, but it, in and of itself, is not bad.

The NAB seems to be saying that relaxing ownership rules and thus, presumably, allowing more consolidation will promote diversity.  In my twenty five years of broadcasting, I can say that I have never seen this to be the case.   Some of the most diverse radio stations to be heard are often single stations, sometimes an AM/FM combo, just out there doing their thing.  Stations like WDST, WHVW, WKZE, WHDD, WJFF, WTBQ, WSBS, WNAW… I am sure that I am forgetting a few.

You can read the entirety of the NAB’s comments here.

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 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.