Why “New Media” is no replacement for “Old Media.”


The DC circuit court struck a stinging blow to any thoughts about so-called “Net Neutrality” when it overturned the FCC’s attempts to force Comcast the abide by its rules regarding internet access.  The three-judge panel ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to force Internet Service Providers (ISP) to give equal access to all its customers.  In a nutshell, this means that companies like Comcast, ATT, and Verizon, can filter search engine results and traffic, baning websites for no specific reasons.

So much for net neutrality.  Say I type something here that is critical of one of those companies, or any ISP for that matter.  With a few keystrokes, my site will disappear.  Gone.  Just like that.  For those that think the internet is this wonderful open global village thing that can spread the word and as a sort of modern-day check and balance system, think again.  In this day and age, when corporations have the same rights as people, look for the large ISPs to spend significant lobbying dollars to keep the laws tilted in their favor.  I would expect to also see quite a few campaign contributions to legislators that are friendly to large corporations.

There are several letter-writing campaigns, urging the FCC to change its classification of ISPs to a common carrier status, something that would put the ISPs squarely under the FCC’s control.   I look upon those with a jaundiced eye.  Perhaps the FCC can be convinced to change the rules, this time.  What will happen when a new FCC gets appointed?  Will those changes stay in effect?  The cynical side of me says no.

Independently run media outlets have traditionally acted as a backstop in our society.  There are fewer and fewer of those left these days.  I will readily acknowledge that the current crop of radio station owners, with some minor exceptions, have left the industry in shambles.  Their decision to place profit above all considerations, in spite of the license being granted in the public trust, has decimated newsrooms, reduced staffing, and relegated community involvement to a minor paperwork shuffle at license renewal time.  All of this and more have conspired to make radio dull and uninformative.   Bland canned formats created and programmed thousands of miles away have ruined local radio flavor.  No wonder why people spend money to download from Itunes.

Yet, radio listenership is still high.  Radio’s saving grace is it is nearly universal, everyone has a radio, and most households have four or five radios.  The technology is time-tested and it works well.  Almost every square mile of the US is covered by broadcast radio signals.  Some areas are sparse, but there are at least one or two stations that come in.  People are used to radio, there is no learning curve, no subscriber fees, and no censorship from a huge faceless mega-corporation.  Well, that last part is in theory, anyway.  It is almost too much of a coincidence that mega-corporations also own the majority of radio stations too.

Television as a medium is almost gone.  Very few people actually watch over-the-air TV, most people get their TV piped into their house via cable.  Once again, as those in the NY metropolitan area know, there is no guarantee that the local cable operator will carry a broadcast station, vis a vis the WABC-7 Cablevision dispute from last month.

Newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, even the once mighty New York Times has seen better days.

That leaves us with Radio to fill in the role of un-censored informer.  Can they?  Will they?  It would be a radical departure from the current course and only time will tell.

Arbitron PPM; engineering speak

We have a few stations that are currently encoded with the Arbitron PPM encoders.  I did a little research on the encoding method since it is not immediately apparent how they are transmitting their data.

Arbitron PPM encoders
Arbitron PPM encoders

According to Wikipedia, which can sometimes be relied upon, Arbitron used Martin Marietta to help develop the technology.  Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) is mostly known as a defense contractor, they have helped develop several complex military communications systems over the years.

There are no fewer than 39 US patents that cover the technology used in the PPM.  The most significant of these appears to be 7,316,025 which describes the psychoacoustic masking technique employed.

It really is pretty slick, using a sample rate of 8.192 kHz, it transmits 4 bits per second in the 300-3000 Hz range by hitting specific frequencies in that range at varying intervals, adapting to the audio levels to keep the encoding below the programming content.  4 BPS is very slow and thus very robust.  After all, I believe the only formation transmitted is a six-digit encoder serial number.   I did not read all 39 patents to see if anything else was changed in the encoding method, so it may be slightly different.

This type of system would have fairly low overhead, not adding to the station’s bandwidth which is a consideration for FM stations, and in the correct frequency range for most AM receivers on the market today.  Some people have said they have heard the encoding on one of our stations, most notably during silence or very quiet programming.  Perhaps, especially in a dead air situation, one might hear in nearly imperceptible low frequency slow fluttering sound.

If anything, the encoding is perhaps too robust.

Now for the deployment of the monitor technology, which has so many up in arms.  As with other Arbitron ratings methods, the main bone of contention seems to be the size and distribution of the sampling hardware.  Minority groups feel they are underrepresented because the PPM is unevenly distributed.

Rating samples always seem to skew one way or another.  The data samples themselves seem to be too small to accurately predict a station’s listenership.  One anomaly and the entire month or quarter can be thrown off.  The PPM seems to correct some if the issues with keeping an accurately written diary.  One problem with the PPM however, it can also pick up incidental background noise and count it as time spent listening (TSL).

Think of the cubical environment where somebody several cubes away might be listening to a radio station.  To the PPM wearer, it is unintelligible background noise, however, because of the perceptual encoding, the PPM picks it up and it counts as several hours of TSL.

A broader sample would dilute this with other more accurate representations of radio listening.  A broader sample would also alleviate some of the complaints from the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).  First-year physics students would recognize that not enough sample data can make results wildly inaccurate.  Or, as one emergency room doctor stated while washing my knee out with a liter of sterile water after a dirt bike accident, the solution to pollution is dilution.