VOA to end HF broadcasting

Several places have reported that The Voice of America will sunset it’s shortwave broadcasts in the not too distant future. Boing Boing reported yesterday, based on a paper titled “Broadcast Board of Governors 2010-2012 BBG Technology Strategic Plan and BBG Technology Update – 2009” received via FOIA last January.

The 2009 study notes that the weekly audience for radio is 101.9 million listeners, TV is 81.5 million and the Internet 2.4 million weekly listeners.  I don’t know how much that has changed in the last two years, but I’d imagine some shift towards the internet has taken place in light of recent shortwave transmitter site closings.

There are several interesting aspects of this report, notably the disparity between what is termed “Classic Engineering” and “Classic IT” fields.  This is the concept that radio engineers toil on RF and transmitters, while the IT guys work with computers.

As the dependence on shortwave continues to wane and the distribution focus shifts to third party operations, satellite and other direct-to-consumer methodologies, the skill sets of some engineering personnel become less and less relevant to the agency.

This issue is further compounded by the relatively difficult transition from a traditional RF, antenna, transmitter design, and maintenance knowledge base to the technologies involved in digital satellite and IP-based networking systems.

Perhaps that is how it is done in government circles, but I have found in private sector, most radio engineers know at least the computer automation systems that run the stations.  Of course, everyone has preferences and we tend to gravitate toward things we like to do, especially in a field as diverse as broadcast engineering.  When I was in the military, somebody posted the “Eleven Rules of Success.”  The only one that I can remember now is this: “Pick the thing that you hate and become proficient at it.”

In order to stay relevant, broadcast engineers have to keep up with the technology while remaining proficient with RF and audio skills.  Computers and automation programs are not terribly hard to understand, but each one is different and operates differently.  Most, if not all automation companies offer some type of training, which is fine.  Nothing can beat hands on installation and trouble shooting for learning the important details, however.

The report also mentions that morale is an issue for several reasons.  First, it is noted that:

Despite several recent high profile station closings, the organization continues to employ shortwave as the most important transmission mechanism to many of the target areas around the globe. Often surge activities are enabled byvadditional shortwave transmissions that end up as an integral part of the ongoing schedule. Effectively, this diminution of transmission resources accompanied by no reduction or even an increase of reliance on this transmission methodology creates overburdened schedules and often the deployment of less than optimal assets for transmission into target areas.

This additional operational burden likely extends to other disciplines within the agency where programming staff must expend substantial additional effort to produce or adapt content for a multiplicity of transmission methods.

In essence, the decision process for station closing does not appear to follow an overt decision and stated plan to reduce shortwave usage.

That is known as the “more with less” paradox.  In the private sector, more with less has been going great guns since the first loosening of the FCC’s ownership rules in 1994.  For those that are used to working in optimum conditions, anything less is a shock to the system.

The issue of low morale is palpable and often present in conversations that address historical perspectives on a particular station closing, transfer of technologies around the network and any other such topics. Precipitated by the long periods of employment that are relatively standard in the Engineering area and perfectly understandable, this grieving process is a natural consequence of the pride involved in creating a state-of-the-art technical facility only to see it being dissected piece by piece as technology continues its relentless creative destruction.

An interesting statement and it shines a light on several things heretofore unsaid in broadcast engineering.  We love our transmitters, as strange as that may seem.  We love our towers and antennas.  Parting with something that has become an integral part of our working environment is difficult to say the least.  Watching something be signed off for the last time and then hauled to the scrap heap is very disheartening, especially if there is no replacement.

On the IT side, things are not so good either.  The main concern is the infrastructure of the IT backbone.  Several deficiencies are noted in the cabling and router; the cabling is in serious disarray and there is only one router for the facility.  There is also other problems noted with personnel and lack of project management experience and/or IT department goals.

Overall, moving into new media fields makes sense.  There are, however, many places where new media is unknown or at best, mostly unavailable.  Moving content delivery from over the air broadcast to IP based distribution may be far less expensive to operate, that is true.  It is also far more susceptible to being disrupted by accident or design.  In those areas where the internet is spotty, shortwave radios are abundant and relied upon.  If the VOA is not on the air, then some other station will be.

TuneIn Radio

I posted previously about how to listen to radio station streams on an Android phone. In the time between then and now, somebody has come up with a much better way to do it.  TuneIn Radio is both a website for streaming and a mobile application for Android and iPhone users alike.

I have found that every local radio station that has a web stream is listed.  The major overseas broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, Radio Netherlands, and so on as well as all of the non-government US owned shortwave stations are listed.  As their website states:

With over 30,000 FM and AM radio stations from across the globe, TuneIn Radio makes radio local, no matter how far from home you might be.

Far easier than what I posted before. Further, this is exactly the type of service that terrestrial broadcasters needed the most; a concise consolidated listing broken down by genre and locality, to compete with Pandora, Slacker, Last.fm,  et. al.

In order to download TuneIn Radio, point your mobile web browser to http://tunein.com and it will automatically direct you to the proper download source.  Or one could search through the Apple store or Android Market to find the app.

Egypt demonstrates why the Internet is unreliable

On Thursday, January 27th at 22:34 UTC (about 4:30 PM, NY time) Egypt cut off outside access to the internet.  According to Renesys:

At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt’s service providers.

Go and read the entire article.  Notice how the government asked and the ISP corporations complied.  This is in response to massive riots and uprisings in Cairo and other cities which may topple the government.   Think that the internet and new media alone can keep our government honest and doing the people’s work?  Think again.  Net Neutrality is a pipe dream and would do nothing to stop this type of censorship regardless.

Free press is one of the critical legs of our democracy.  The traditional broadcasting and media has been decimated in the last 15 years.  They are not without fault, cutting staff, politically slanted reporting, profit taking have done there part.  Fortunately, while staffs have disappeared, the infrastructure (networks, transmitters, printing presses) remain in place.  They need to be revitalized and utilized.  There is a trend that I and others have noticed where small operators, perhaps one or two stations at most, are providing excellent service to their respective communities and running circles around other, group owned stations in the same market.

Radio Industry Technology Study

Wheatstone, Inc has sponsored a radio industry future technology study which brings into focus some of the connections between technology and radio business models.   It appears to be very thorough, polling radio professionals on all aspects of technology development and management.

According to Josh Gordon:

While it is hard to predict which of the radio industry’s newest business models will succeed in generating new revenues, we can better anticipate the winners by measuring how fast the technologies that enable them are being adopted.

To find out, we surveyed the radio professionals involved in all aspects of technology management (engineers, and operations and technical management). The results reported in this study can serve as a benchmark for managers to evaluate their own organizations’ progress.

The first graph is telling:

Wheatstone Technology Survey Results
Wheatstone Technology Survey Results

Almost everyone believes that the internet will play a greater role in radio (and all media).  This goes against the “radio with its head in the sand” idea that can be found in some corners of the internet (I’d provide a link, but the site has turned on a paywall).

The question is, what are management type people doing about it.  Some have good ideas on how to bridge the gap between making money the old fashioned way; selling spots, to making money the new way; brand imaging,  media promotion and personal contact through new media.  While it is generally agreed that radio stations should stream their audio, many, if not most, make little or no money on this.  If radio is going to make some revenue on internet applications, obviously some new ideas are needed.

Unique local content seems to be the most sought after, things like local news podcasts, or new music, e.g. studio sessions with up and coming band and musicians, locally produced shows that are area specific, etc. Put a 10 second sponsorship in front of those and people will get the message.  Other things like value added contests that can only be heard on the internet.  Interactive radio station apps that have streaming, now playing, recently heard features that link to a .mp3 store for iPhone and Android operating systems.  Text link adds on radio station web pages, etc.

On the flip side of this, huge, great amounts of bandwidth will be required if the internet streaming is going approach the same number of off the air listeners.  Depending on the how the radio station has the stream set up, anywhere from 20 to 64 kbps of data transfer is needed for each listener.  For a station in a large metropolitan area, multiply that by 500,000 to 4,000,000 listeners at any one time and data gridlock ensues.

On the in house side, the red hot, cutting edge thing these days is AOIP (Audio over IP), which Wheatstone is heavily invested in with its E console series.  While some might not think of AOIP as a traditional internet application, it none the less uses the same transport protocols as other internet applications.   AOIP offers some great advantages over other routing systems, as both private (internal) and public (wide area) networking can be used to transfer audio in real time.  Of course, this is not as easy as plugging the new computer into an ethernet jack, it takes more planning than that.

Wheatstone has published an excellent white paper on Network Design for Ethernet Audio.  Well worth the read.

As AOIP technology develops more, web streams could come directly from the console and be customizable according to destination.  Further, IP logging can create stream user profiles and customizable greetings, listening preferences and so on.  This would require that the web streaming server be in house and the studio facility have enough bandwidth to handle all of the outgoing streams and other content.

Certainly an in house IT/Web developer will be needed to manage and maintain such a system.

You can download and read the entire studio at Alethea/Wheatstone Radio Survey.  The cliff notes summary is this:

Finding #1: Almost all radio tech people believe the Internet will play a bigger part in the future of radio.

Finding #2:Of the new revenue generating technologies, streaming a station’s signal has the biggest earning potential.

Finding #3: Technologies that require little or no capital investment are being deployed at similar frequencies by both stand-alone and group owned stations.

Finding #4: A technology gap is emerging as stand-alone stations deploy revenue generating technologies requiring investment at only half the frequency as group owned stations.

Finding #5: The revenue generating technology that most group owned stations plan on deploying next is a mobile app, while for stand-alone stations, it is broadcasting in HD Radio, with mobile apps coming in a close second.

Finding #6: There is a big divide between radio stations that are now, or will soon be, making money from streaming their signal over the Internet, and those who likely never will.

Finding #7: The day will come slowly, but in 15 years a majority of radio stations expect they will have more online listeners than RF listeners.

Finding #8: Despite the expected decline in over the air listeners, few stations expect to turn off their transmitters.

Finding #9: Three years from now, radio station technology will be more IT centric with more automation, as well as more networking between stations, IT networks, and office and audio networks.

Finding #10: Three years from now, the stability of each radio station network will be more important, as will networks with no single point of failure.

Finding #11: Three years from now, more audio consoles will be networked together. Also, the bandwidth of those networks will be required to increase.

Finding #12: The top reason group owned stations bought an AoIP network was to reduce maintenance costs. The top reason for stand-alone stations: to share talent.

Finding #13: At stations that have installed an AoIP network, more than a third of stand-alone stations found installing it harder than anticipated, while only 16.7% of group owned stations found installation harder than anticipated.

Finding #14: At stations with an AoIP network, more than one in four stand-alone stations and one in three group owned stations report latency problems.

The study is a good indication of where technical managers see growth.  One thing that internet sites like Pandora have shown, radio broadcasters cannot sit back and be content with the status quo.  Without technical innovation and some outside of the lines thinking, radio will be bypassed by newer more interactive media services.

Something to ponder.