Trends in Terrestrial Broadcasting

I thought I’d take a few moments 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-1990s), 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, and local anything.  With greater commitments to 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 systems.  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 the 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 were licensed and installed under 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 (McDonald’s Corporation), which lead to the Steve Inskeep/Morning Edition story about how great it was to work at Mcdonald’s.  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, which 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 a 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 talking 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 staff, centralized NOCs (Network Operations Centers), and more emphasis on computer/IT skill sets versus 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 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 staff 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 troubleshoot a tube amplifier and replace their transmitters with newer solid-state units.  Manufacturers, if they are on the ball, will want to offer some type of monitoring service for those types of 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.

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17 thoughts on “Trends in Terrestrial Broadcasting”

  1. Amen, Paul. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the future of radio won’t be OTA. Not like the FM band is a huge chunk of spectrum, but it does have attractive properties for wireless broadband.

    If CCU et. al. are also becoming increasingly convinced that the future of radio is IP-based, it would be nice if they’d relinquish the spectrum so those that still care about the medium could try and resuscitate it. Dreaming, I know….

  2. One day ,not in the far future,we shall just have one corporate media giant called illumicorp relayed via implanted microchip in our brain connected to our audio visual cortex that we cannot turn off if we choose . EAS tests shall be frequent and we shall all halt in our tracks when our glorious leader graces us with a speech . What wonderful times these will be.

  3. @John, I think they would rather burn it to the ground then give up anything to people who will make it work again.
    @Doc John, There will be blood in the streets long before that happens. In any case, I’ll work on my tin foil hat designs, perhaps do up some drawings and post them.

  4. In any case, I’ll work on my tin foil hat designs, perhaps do up some drawings and post them.

    You’ll need at least two drawings for each design, shiny side in and shiny side out. Just sayin…

  5. “I thought the shiny side was always out”

    Depends on whether you’re trying to prevent the CIYT (chip in your tookus) from transmitting or receiving.

  6. Don’t you have any laws over there to deal with too few people having too much stake in the media or is that seen as a divine right in the US?

  7. Paul, this isn’t just a debate in the broadcast world. In public safety communications, we’re going through the same changes. Fewer and fewer RF engineers and radio technicians, more and more “IT” people. Problem is many of those in HR departments think all communications are IT related and they aren’t. It’s pretty scary to think that people who have no background in the RF propagation, signal generation, modulation sciences, circuit theory and design, are put in charge of large radio communications systems. They can certainly tell you the IP address of any controller gateway, but if it isn’t WIFI or 4G they go blind, deaf and dumb to the RF infrastructure side.

    Ultimately, as in broadcast, that work is now farmed out to vendors and independent contractors. I guess it’s good for those of us who know how to do this stuff. I would welcome to teach others, but many of the typical “IT guys” are just in it for the paycheck and could care less about learning both the art and science of RF. Guess that’s why we’ll have job security so long as SOMETHING is radiating RF.

  8. @Rob, there are rules about media ownership, they have been “relaxed” since the 1996 Communications Act allowing one or two big companies to own most of the TV/Radio stations in any market. As those companies have deep pockets, they tend to drive down revenue in any given area forcing the other stations there to adopt their operating practices or perish. The NAB is looking for further deregulation, which may in fact happen depending on the outcome of the next election.
    @Erik, that is interesting, knew that cellular carriers were going through a similar shift but was not aware that public safety radio was as well. I suppose that all sectors are “adjusting” there work forces. As far as the job security, I am pessimistic (my wife says cynical). When you talk to the managers in broadcasting anyway, they seem unconcerned about the dwindling pool of engineers. Their attitude is that somebody will come and fix this stuff at the level of pay we want to pay them.

  9. “Their attitude is that somebody will come and fix this stuff at the level of pay we want to pay them.”

    I so agree with that. That and the fact that IP broadcast will soon be the norm. Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket.

  10. Found this clip of Sines Portugal signing off
    Longest Night
    Found the message quite universally spoken and deserves a link from the history section of this site? I try to photograph any of the Steam Radio at sites now before its too late.

  11. It is sad to see all those transmitters dark, unfortunately, it seems to be a growing trend with government shortwave. As I am typing this, I am listening to Radio Australia on 9580, which is my morning news from the Pacific Rim. Shortwave is a good medium, however with the drive toward BPL, it may not be listenable in most of this country, which is a shame. In any case, what happens to sites like Sines is soon the mice and rats will move in, eventually the roof will leak, etc. If they have any notion of turning those transmitters back on, it will require lots of work, otherwise they are just so many tons of scrap metal.

  12. Austerity. That’s what the future looks like, and not just in radio broadcast. Control of whatever real wealth remains will most likely be concentrated within the “one percent”. That’s what the worldwide demonstrations are all about. We have lived though a wonderful period of peak everything, and it’s a long way back down the mountain.

  13. Cumulus-Citadel merger: another bad idea. Just heard one of my longtime favorite jazz stations (WMAL HD2 in Washington, DC) announce tonight “Starting December 1, the ONLY WAY to get Smooth Jazz 105.9 is on HD Radio”

    Great minds hard at work at the Cloud Company! So let me understand this, you are axing the future of radio, online streaming, which reaches anywhere you can get an IP address, for some already has-been half-ass digital format that only reaches say, 50 percent of your coverage contour? I guess it doesn’t matter anyway, even if I did own an HD radio, it would take a good tropo or meteor scatter to hear it, as I’m about 700 miles outside their transmitter’s contour.

    Oh well, thanks WMAL aka WJZW HD2. You’ve provided some great listening through the last couple of years via my Verizon Wireless phone. I guess Verizon will be happy as I’m no longer burning through 4GB of data a month. Most recently I took a trip through the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina, and your station provided an awesome soundtrack via my VZW Iphone. (Amazing plug for Verizon, who’s CDMA 3G network had solid coverage all through the forest. Must have some mega mountain top cells. AT&T work phone read NO SERVICE)

    Too bad there aren’t any well programmed FM stations in Atlanta that play anything other than the same five rock songs, hip hop, country, or right wing rhetoric.

    and they wonder why radio is dying? sounds more like a suicide mission to me.

  14. “With the repeal of the Smith-Mundt act, does this open the door for some form of domestic shortwave service?”

    Domestic shortwave service from whom? VOA?

    The Broadcasting Board of Governors wishes to curtail shortwave wherever it can, the valuable youth market knows nothing of shortwave, and shortwave has nothing to do with “mobile broadband” which is the current hobbyhorse like the “National Information Infrastructure” was just a few years ago.

    Or perhaps you mean a domestic shortwave service from private stations. FCC Rule 73.788 prohibits purely domestic shortwave broadcasting. Private shortwave stations must design, build and operate their stations for foreign audiences.

    The rule could and should be changed, but who has the appetite and competence to campaign for it effectively?

  15. The VOA has stated that it wants out of HF broadcasting in favor of an IP distribution system, so no. Private stations would have to petition the FCC for a change in 73.788, which would be to their advantage, if nothing else than to reduce the power bills. There are a certain number of private shortwave stations that broadcast programming primarily destined for domestic audiences already.

  16. I am looking for an audio engineer for a CHHA 1610 AM, community radio station. Please, can you contact me trough my email or phone. (redacted)
    With deep gratitude,
    Father Hernan Astudillo.

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