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.

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.