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Radio Mayak: Real Russia

I have been following a video blog called “Real Russia” which has the stated goal of portraying life in Russia “as is, no BS.” This is a quick video of Radio Mayak, a state owned/run radio network in Russia. The network originates from Moscow but has a local morning show in various cities. This video was taken in Ufa (Уфа), which is the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. It is a little beyond this blog post to describe the political divisions of Russia, if interested, one can wander around in Wikipedia and figure it out.

According to video host Sergey Baklykov, Radio Mayak has been on the air since the USSR days, which explains the very cool (and retro) interval music played at the end of the video.

My take away; radio is radio. Morning show personalities appear to be universal.  Radio studios have missing ceiling tiles and wiring hanging down no matter what country they are in (excepting perhaps Germany, but maybe there too).  Except for the language spoken, this could have been any radio station in any city in the country.

On the radio, somewhere today…

Friday funnies:

From xkcd

Freedom Radio AFN Iraq, signing off

Armed Forces Radio Iraq

Armed Forces Radio Iraq

With US forces slowly withdrawing from Iraq, the country’s only English broadcast radio service signs off for the last time on Friday night (9/23).  At one point, AFN Iraq covered the entire country on several FM frequencies with transmitters of 250 to 1,000 watts.  Beginning in December of 2003, the station signed on with Paul McCartney’s “Freedom,” which morphed into the stations unofficial moniker “Freedom Radio.”

Similar to other AFRS/AFRTS broadcast operations that went before it, AFN Iraq radio was programmed with a combination of news, information, and music as a moral builder for the troops.  The local Iraqi population also appreciated the radio station, posting several items on the station’s Facebook page (disappears Monday 9/26, alternate here) asking them to stay, requesting songs, or expressing gratitude or sadness.

In the end, Freedom Radio signed off with Porky Pigs “Th, th, th, th, th, ethea, etha, that’s all folks.”

The average age of a member of the US armed forces in 19 years old.

When Radio is relevant and provides good programming, information and entertainment, it continues to reign king, even among the iPod generation.  To all those proponents of new media services like Pandora, Slacker, Last.fm, etc, your product is winning because the opponent has left the field.

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.

Everything we do is destined for one place.

I give you, The Human Ear:

Anatomy of the human ear

Anatomy of the Human Ear, courtesy of Wikipedia

All of the programming elements, all of the engineering equipment and practices, all of the creative process, the music, the talk, the commercials, everything that goes out over the air should reach as many ears as possible.  That is the business of radio.  The quality of the sound and the listening experience is often lost in the process.

Unfortunately, a large segment of the population has been conditioned to accept the relatively low quality of .mp3 and other digital files delivered via computers and smart phones.  There is some hope however; when exposed to good sounding audio, most people respond favorably, or are in fact, amazed that music can sound that good.

There are few fundamentals as important as sounding good.  Buying the latest Frank Foti creation and hitting preset #10 is all well and good, but what is it that you are really doing?

Time was when the FCC required a full audio proof every years.  That meant dragging the audio test equipment out and running a full sweep of tones through the entire transmission system, usually late at night.  It was a great pain, however, it was also a good exercise in basic physics.  Understanding pre-emphasis and de-emphasis curves, how an STL system can add distortion and overshoot, how clean (distortion wise) the output of the console is, how clean the transmitter modulator is, how to correct for base frequency tilt and high frequency ringing, all of those are basic tenants of broadcast engineering.  Mostly today, those things are taken for granted or ignored.

Audio frequency vs. wavelength chart

Audio frequency vs. wavelength chart

Every ear is different and responds to sound slightly differently.  The frequencies and SPL’s given here are averages, some people have hearing that can go far above or below average, however, they are an anomaly.

An understanding audio is a good start.  Audio is also known as sound pressure waves.  A speaker system generates areas or waves of lower and high pressure in the atmosphere.  The size of these waves depends on the frequency of vibration and the energy behind the vibrations.  Like radio, audio travels in a wave outward from it’s source, decreasing in density as a function of area covered.  It is a logarithmic decay.

The human ear is optimized for hearing in the mid range band around 3 KHz, slightly higher for women and lower for men.  This is because the ear canal is a 1/4 wave length resonant at those frequencies.  Mid range is most associated with the human voice and the perceived loudness of program material.

Base frequencies contain a lot of energy due to the longer wave lengths.  This energy is often transmitted into structural members without adding too much to the listening experience due to a sharp roll off starting around 100 Hz.  Too much base energy in radio programming can sap loudness by reducing the midrange and high frequency energy from the modulated product.

High frequencies offer directivity, as in left right stereo separation.  Too much high frequency sounds shrill and can adversely effect female listeners, as they are more sensitive to high end audio because of smaller ear canals and tympanic membranes.

Processing programming material is a highly subjective matter.  I am a minimalist, I think that too much processing is self defeating.  I have listened to a few radio stations that have given me a headache after 10 minutes or so.  Overly processed audio sounds splashy, contrived and fake with unnatural sounds and separation.  A good idea is to understand each station’s processing goals.  A hip-hop or CHR stations obviously is looking for something different than a clasical music station.

For the non-engineer, there are three main effects of processing;  equalization, compression (AKA gain reduction), expansion.  Then there are other things like phase rotation, pre-emphasis or de-emphasis, limiting, clipping and harmonics.

EQ is a matter of taste, although it can be used to overcome some non-uniformity in STL paths.  Compression is a way to bring up quite passages and increase the sound density or loudness.  Multi band compression is all the rage, it allows each of the four bands to react differently to program material, which can really make things sound differently then they were recorded. Miss adjusting a multi band compressor can make audio really sound bad.  Compression is dictated not only by the amount of gain reduction, but also by the ratio, attack and release times.  Limiting is a relative to compression, but acts only on the highest peaks.  A certain amount of limiting is good as it acts to keep programming levels constant.  Clipping is a last resort method for keeping errant peaks from effecting modulations levels.  Expansion is often used on microphones and is a poor substitute for a well built quite studio.  Expansion often adds swishing effects to microphones.

I may break down the effects of compression and EQ in a separate post.  The effects of odd and even order audio harmonics could easily fill a book.

Listening to the Radio like doing Cocaine

Well now, this explains a few things.  Always interested in carrying science forward, I read with interest the article on Gawker which cites a study from McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  The gist of the article states that we seek out music we enjoy because of a chemical reaction in our brains:

If music-induced emotional states can lead to dopamine release, as our findings indicate, it may begin to explain why musical experiences are so valued. These results further speak to why music can be effectively used in rituals, marketing or film to manipulate hedonistic states. Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.

By extension, radio has previously been the venue for most new music discovery.  Although this continues today, it is being supplanted by “new media” sources such as youtube.  As a point of reference, studies on cocaine addiction show that dopamine levels increase by about 22% during use.  When a listener is exposed to what is perceived as good music (a subjective term), average dopamine levels increased by about 21%.

Risk taking behavior like computer file sharing, when known consequences are large, could enhance that by adding an element of danger.  The Gawker article lists Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which I always found somewhat depressing.  Something more like this a little more fun:

You can disregard the T-shirt pitch at the end if you want.

So there you are you erstwhile program directors, now you know why your job is important; you are to make us addicts, or not, depending…

Simulcasting: The sound of broadcasters running out of ideas

There seems to be a growing trend lately;  Stations that had previously separate programming being simulcast. There are two big ones around here: WGY and WHRL and WPLJ and WXLM.

Lets begin with the first one: WGY, now WGY AM/FM.

WGY (Clear Channel Communications) has been the regional power house since it’s inception in 1922.  It consistently ranks in the top 5 arbitron ratings for Albany/Schenectady/Troy NY and is well received in the community.  It carries the standardized Clear Channel talk radio format of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, etc.  As of September 20th, WHRL 103.1, class A licensed to Albany changed it’s call sign to WGY-FM and began simulcasting WGY 100%.  103.1’s 60 dBU contour is entirely within WGY 2.5 MV/M contour.

It would seem that radios, even bad radios, would have no problems picking up WGY’s signal within the 103.1 listening area.  According to Clear Channel Management:

The decision to simulcast our 24-hour news/talk format on the FM will open up our content to an even wider audience. Despite the huge audience we currently enjoy, the fact is a significant portion of the Capital Region audience never thinks to visit the AM dial.

There is some small amount of truth to that statement; the younger segment of the population generally never listens to AM. Yes.  The reasons, however, are not just because it is AM and they are prejudice.  More likely, there is nothing on the AM dial that interests them.  Satellite syndicated talk is not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak.

The other side of the coin is the former WHRL had an alternative rock format, which never did all that great (I have a theory on why Alternative Rock, AAA and other such formats never get good ratings, but not right now).  They also had a station staff, which by the time they pulled the switch, was down to one person.   The Capital District Business Review notes:

According to BIA/Kelsey, a media research firm in Chantilly, Va., WGY did about $2.8 million in revenue in 2009. WHRL took in about $875,000.

Which is really not bad for a class A FM in market #63, during a recession.  Apparently, not good enough however.

The second example in our little story is that of WPLJ and WXLM.  WPLJ 95.5 (Citadel Broadcasting) is of course one of the heritage FM stations in Market #1. WXLM 104.7, now known as WELJ broadcast from the far eastern end of Long Island (Market #18), so the respective coverage areas do not over lap.  Prior to September 24th, that station was doing a News/Talk format.

That end of Long Island is pretty affluent, a local (unique) station might even prosper.  In fact, up until 2003 it did quite well for itself, then known as “The Beach.”  However, nothing lasts forever and in 2003 Citadel Broadcasting purchased the station.

It has gone through a number of changes since then, most recently a syndicated news talk format.  Unless I am missing it completely, the last ratings period, this station did not even show up in the book.  As of September 21, it began to simulcast the co-owned out of market AC station, likely for the drive by PPM listeners in it.  Again, no word on the fate of the former radio station’s staff (if there was one).

So what gives?  Consolidators have already cut staff levels to the bone with voice tracking, syndication and automation.  Even a voice tracked syndicated station still need some staff members; the occasional morning show, somebody to do promotions, some form of program direction do to things like music logs and other such behind the scenes work.  Staff require salaries and salaries are expensive.  Anyone that has ever looked at a companies P&L can tell you, salaries are the number one expense.  If, however, the entire format is blown out, and something can be plugged in to fill the void that costs nothing and has no overhead and no staffing, well, now they are really saving money.  That money from reduced expense is much better (far easier) than actually earning more money and it goes right to the bottom line.

This never ending drive to reduce expenses at the expense of everything else drives programming quality and thus entertainment value down.  Who wants to listen to radio and be bored?  Not I.  This continuing trend is what will ultimately spell the end of terrestrial radio.

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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