The Relentless Drive to Consolidation

In this blog post about the NAB radio show, Paul McLane (Radio World editor) discusses the reduction of technical people in attendance at the conference.  Consolidation has brought about many changes in the broadcasting industry, engineering has not been immune to these changes.

Because of consolidation, engineering staffs have been reduced or completely replaced by contract engineering firms.  Since the Great Recession of 2008-09 this trend has picked up speed.  Expect it to continue to the point where large broadcasting companies employ one engineering staff administrator at the top, several regional engineering supervisors in the middle and the bulk of the work performed will be done by regional contract engineering firms.

There is no reason to expect the media consolidation process to stop any time soon.  It will continue in fits and starts depending on the congressional mood and the awareness or lack thereof of the general public.  The NAB itself seems bent on removing all ownership regulations and eventually, with enough money spent lobbying congress, they will get their way.   Thus, the majority of radio stations will be owned by one company, the majority of TV stations will be owned by another company and the majority of newspapers will be owned by a third.

There will be some exceptions to that scenario; public radio and TV, privately owned religious broadcasters and single station consolidation holdouts.  If funding for public radio and TV gets cut, which is very likely if the economy collapses further, they will be up for grabs too.

Cloud based network diagram
Cloud based network diagram

For the future of radio and radio engineering, I see the following trends developing:

  1. National formats will be introduced.  Clear Channel already does this somewhat with it’s talk radio formats.  Look for more standardization and national music formats for CHR, Country, Rock, Oldies, Nostalgia, etc.  These were previously called “Satellite Radio” formats but I am sure that somebody will dust of and repackage the idea as something else.  They will be somewhat like BBC Radio 1, where a single studio location is used with local markets having the ability to insert local commercials if needed.  Some “local” niche formats will still exist and major markets where the majority of the money is, will continue to have localized radio.
  2. Audio distribution will move further into the Audio Over IP realm using private WANs for larger facilities, public networks with VPN for smaller facilities.  AOIP consoles like the Wheatstone Vorsis and the Telos Axia will become the installation standard.  These consoles are remote controllable and interface directly with existing IP networks for audio distribution and control.  Satellite terminals will become backup distribution or become two way IP networked.
  3. Cloud based automation systems will evolve.  File and data storage will be moved to cloud base servers using a Content Distribution Network topology.  Peers and Nodes will be distributed around the country to facilitate backup and faster file serving.
  4. Continued movement of the technical operations into a corporate hierarchy.  Technical NOC (Network Operations Center) will include all facets of facility monitoring including transmitters, STL’s, automation systems, office file servers, and satellite receivers via IP networks.  The NOC operators will dispatch parts and technicians to the sites of equipment failures as needed.
  5. Regional contract engineering and maintenance firms will replace most staff engineers in all but the largest markets.  Existing regional engineering firms will continue to grow or consolidate as demands for services rise.  Those firms will employ one or two RF engineers, several computer/IT engineers and many low level technicians.
The most important skill set for broadcast engineers in the coming five to ten year period will be IP networking.  Everything is moving in that direction and those that want to keep up will either learn or be left behind.

More news talk migrates to the FM band

Once a bastion of the AM dial, News and or News/Talk format radio stations seem to be springing up on the FM band more and more often.  The original premise for creating talk radio on the AM band was the lower bandwidth and reduced (or perception of reduced) fidelity when compared to the FM band lent itself to non-music programming.  The reality is that receiver manufactures never carried through on the NRSC-2 technical improvements, and AM receivers reproduced thin, low quality audio.  I digress, the story goes, the FM band was great for music and the AM band did well with information and talk.

Of course, there were always a few exceptions to those general rules, but for the most part, that pattern held true until about 2009 or 10.  That is when AM station’s programming began to be simulcast again (everything old is new again) on FM stations and HD-2 subchannels.   It would be interesting to examine why this is so and what it means to the radio business as a whole.

The general trend in the music industry has also been down.  This is important because record labels and the radio business used to go hand in hand.  Record labels had the job of separating the wheat from the chaff.  Those groups or artist that had the talent would be given recording contracts and airplay.  With exposure, they would become more known, sell more recordings, record more songs, etc until they peaked and began to decline.  Radio stations prospered under this arrangement because they took on none of the risk while getting huge vast quantities of program material to playback, and charge advertising fees for spaces within that programming.

So far so good.

Then, two things happened:

  1. The communications act of 1996
  2. The internet

The communications act of 1996 forever changed the way the radio business was run in this country.  No longer were there several thousand individual stations, the most influential of which resided in markets #1 and #2.  Instead there were conglomerations of stations run out of Atlanta, Fort Worth and a dozen or so other medium sized cities.  No longer were stations competing head to head and trying to be the best and serve their respective audiences; rather, station A was positioned against station B to erode some of it’s audience so that station C could get better national buys from big ad agencies.  No longer would possible controversial artists like the Indigo Girls get airplay on some groups.  Songs were sanitized against possible FCC indecency sanctions, morning shows became bland and safe, and radio on the whole became a lot less edgy as big corporate attorneys put the clamps on anything that would invite unwanted exposure.

The last great musical genre was the Grunge/Seattle Sound of the early 1990’s.  Those bands somehow mixed heavy metal, obscure mumbled lyrics, flannel shirts and ripped jeans into something that the dissatisfied Gen Xers could understand and appreciate.  By 1996, this had morphed into “Modern Rock,” and carried on for several years after that, to fade out in the early 00’s.  Since that time, there has been no great musical innovations, at least on the creative side, other than the ubiquitous Apple computer and Pro Sound Tools software.

The internet greatly changed the way recording labels did business, mainly by eating into their bottom line.  This had the effect of circling the wagons and throwing up a protective barrier against almost all innovation.  The net result was fewer and fewer talented artists being able to record, which pushed those people into smaller, sometimes home based recording studios.  While those studios can put out good or sometimes even excellent material, often the recordings lack the professional touches that a highly trained recording engineer can add.  Add to this the mass input of the internet and no longer are bands or artists pre-screened.  Some may point to that as a good development with more variety available for the average person.  Perhaps, but the average person does not have time to go through and find good music to download from the iTunes store.  Thus, a break developed in the method of getting good, talented artists needed exposure.  Youtube has become one of the places to find new music, but it is still a chore to wade through all the selections.

Thus, when FM HD-2 channels came into being, there was little new programming to be put into play.  HD radio was left to broadcast existing material with reduced coverage and quality than that of analog FM.  That trend continues today where now analog FM channels are being used to broadcast the news/talk programming that used to reign on AM.

What will happen next?  If Tim Westergren has any say, the internet (namely Pandora) will take over and terrestrial radio will cease to exist.  Current trends point solidly in that direction, although I think Tim is a little ahead himself in his prediction.

News/Talk on the FM dial point not to an attempt to shift the wheezing, white, (C)onservative/(R)epublican programming to a younger demographic, who will, if I am any judge of history, remain unimpressed.  No, rather, they are running out of other source material, simulcasting syndicated talk radio is cheap, lean and a good way to make money without having to pay actual salaries.

Downgrading AM stations

One of the AM station around here that I am familiar with is considering a downgrade, which is to say reduce power and get rid of a directional antenna system in favor of a non-DA antenna.  In this particular case, it makes sense, as the station can co-locate with another AM that is closer to the COL by a good distance.  The coverage from the new site at reduced power looks to be a good fit.  If this can be arraigned, the AM station in question would loose a multi tower AM antenna system that is 50 years old and all the attendant headaches, expenses and labor that goes with it.

five tower directional AM tower array in a tidal swamp

Many AM stations that are DA-2 or even DA should consider downgrading to a lower power level and getting rid of their DA system.  Directional antenna systems on AM stations are maintenance nightmares.  Unfortunately, in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, it was often thought that adding power, extra towers to an AM station would give them great swaths of extra coverage.  Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it did not.  Often what happened was some area was added, but in areas that where nulls toward protected stations, signal strengths went down.  What the station ended up with was more towers, more maintenance, monitor points, a sample system, and more expense.

Taking an AM station in the other direction might actually make more sense.  Go back to one tower non-directional 1 KW or whatever power can be used in the daytime.  Time was when the FCC would only allow certain power levels; .5, 1, 5, 10 and 50 KW.  Those were what a new station had to work with.  No longer is that the case, any power level can be used so long as it meets interference contours and the city of license contour coverage requirements.

Presunrise authority is normally 500 watts and is available at 6 am, post sunset authority varies but often a PSA extends the on air time to 9 pm in the winter time.  For a local radio station, which is what all but the class A AM stations are destined to become, this will be adequate.   For a loosing station, it may be that, or turn in the license and sell the land to a developer.

Diplexing on another AM stations tower closer to town is also a good way to get out of maintaining an expensive antenna array with diminishing income.

Something to think about.

Communications infrastructure vulnerability

I was speaking with a friend of mine recently about some interference issues he was having at an FM transmitter site.  There were several cellular and PCS tenants at this site and something from the FM transmitter was interfering with the GPS receivers.  This one very small glitch was causing multiple carriers to go off line, basically shutting down the entire wireless infrastructure at this particular site.

GPS signals are used for syncing carrier frequencies and modulation timing for CDMA and TDMA that all cellular, PSC and 3G, 4G (or whatever G) wireless systems use to seamlessly hand off users from one site to another.  Without it, the entire system will shut down.

What would happen to communications in this country if all GPS were interrupted?  When I was in the military, we spoke often about high altitude nuclear detonations and the possible effects it would have on our communications circuits.  In fact, we drilled for such things.  Often.  What, if anything, are wireless carriers doing to keep their sites on line if, heaven forbid, somebody does something to disrupt GPS?  If terrestrial radio and television broadcasting is going to be replaced by 3G and 4G wireless networks, how redundant are they?  I know, for example, many cell sites do not have long term backup power.  They have battery banks, which in a power outage, may last 6-10 hours, but after that, the site is down.

Further, how about vulnerabilities getting the data to and from these sites?  Most cell sites rely on some type of TELCO circuit, usually a T-1 (DS-1) or multiple T-1’s to interface with the wired network.  This includes voice, text and data services.  If those circuits are down, then anything connected to them will be off line.

What about redundant transmitters, antennas, receivers, etc.  How much of the current wireless infrastructure is backed up with spares?  It causes me worry to think that someday traditional broadcasters will be going out of business due to poor financial planning, leaving us all to subscription based data services that may or may not be there in an emergency.  At least with many radio and TV stations, there are generators, backup transmitters, microwave systems and so forth.  Most good broadcasters have emergency plans for restoration of service during a disaster.  EAS may not be the greatest thing ever, but right now, it is the only emergency communications plan we have. Radio is still the best and most robust way to communicate vital information during emergencies.  Cell sites go off line along with whatever G wireless service, cable TV systems go off line due to power outages or damaged distribution networks, land line phones can be taken out due to power interruptions at the company office or damaged networks.

Why do I care? Why should you care?  Because, as I have eluded in previous posts, with the demise of local newspapers, the demise of local radio, the erosion of local TV news coverage and the general trivialization of our political apparatus on the local and national level, we are loosing our voice.  We will loose our democracy.  Right now, the US is on the verge of becoming an oligarchy or a corporatocracy.

What road are we traveling down when unrestricted free access to information is gone?  The internet is a great resource, but it is not free.  What will happen to the price of internet access when competing information and entertainment technologies such as radio, TV, and newspapers disappear?  Look to our transportation sector for an example.  Gone are the vast majority of passenger rail roads that criss crossed the country for nearly 100 years.  In many places, public transportation is laughable.  How do you get to work?  How do you get to the store?  How much will $5.00 per gallon gas effect your life?  More importantly, what can you do about it when the cost of fuel gets expensive? Nothing.  Most people are stuck in there suburban homes with not even a convenience store within walking distance.

What will happen when terrestrial radio goes away?  I shutter to think.