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

200px-NetNeutrality_logo.svgThe DC circuit court struck a stinging blow to any thoughts about so called “Net Neutrality” when it overturned the FCC 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 nut shell, this means that companies like Comcast, ATT, 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 key strokes, 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 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 ISP’s to a common carrier status, something that would put the ISP’s 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 a shambles.  Their decision to place profit above all considerations, in spite of  the license being granted in the public trust, has decimated news rooms, reduced staffing, and relegated community involvement  to a minor paper work 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, 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 is at least one or two stations that come in.  People are used to radio, there is no learning curve, no subscriber fees, 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 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 quite 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 under represented because the PPM is unevenly distributed.

Ratings 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 accurate 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.

Radio Shark – Digital Audio Recording Device

Very similar to a TiVo, only works  with radios.   There are some very good radio shows out there, the kind that make you sit in the car long after you have reached your destination.  The kind that you might schedule your day around if possible.

A few of them are syndicated on NPR a few are locally produced, some are interesting talk, some are perspective, some are new music, etc.

Radio Shark Digital Audio Recording Device
Radio Shark Digital Audio Recording Device

Wouldn’t it be great if you could time shift those shows and listen to them when you wanted to?  Imagine this, you know that “This American Life” is airs on Saturday afternoon and it is a favorite.  However, this  Saturday you are busy working or what ever.  Go to the Radio Shark and program it to record your show, then listen to it later.  What a concept.

What this unit does:

  1. Plugs into PC or Mac USB port.
  2. Has AM and FM receivers built in.
  3. Can record programming and play back later, or pause programming and resume playback while recording.

What this unit does not do:

  1. Not very portable, unless the user want to lug a lap top around.
  2. Does not integrate into cars or other playback devices, such as I-pods, etc.
  3. Does not record internet sources directly, although there are a few links to shareware on the Radio Shark website that will do this.

This is a start, but what is really needed is something that is factory installed in cars.  Say the Digital Audio Recording Device (DARD) can be in installed in the car, or in the house, or both.  Then  each DARD has a flash drive that can be moved from one unit to another, but only played back in DARD units (to thwart pirating music). It can even be an I-pod app.

This is the type of new technology that will bring listeners to radio and make radio stations create good quality local content, stuff you can’t get anyplace else.

Why aren’t these being marketed?  Heck, radio stations should be giving them to listeners, I bet you could even get them manufactured with station logos.  Seems like an opportunity lost to embrace some meaningful, understandable, young technology.

Update: Okay, there are others out there as well.  What needs to happen is all these features tied together and offered in stock car radios.


The further we get into HD radio, Ibiquity‘s IBOC system, the weaker it looks.  Ibiquity has admitted that the digital signal lacks building penetration, calling indoor reception “impossible” and “non-existent” 10 miles from the transmitter site.   They have also stated the system has serious coverage problems during driving tests. Even with the proposed power increase from -20 dB to -14 dB, a 6 dB increase (squaring the power) showed some improvement, but still had significant signal problems.

Good thing all of those early adopters plunked down $25,000.00 in licensing fees to use it.  At least it provided “High Definition” radio, right?  Well, not exactly.  The HD in HD radio really doesn’t stand for anything, so says Ibiquity, it is just two letters they picked to name the system.  As far as the improved audio quality between the analog FM signal and the HD Radio signal goes, will the average listener care?  I doubt it very much.

Well then, what, exactly do stations get for implementing HD radio?  For a cut of the action, Ibiquity will allow stations to broadcast a second channel, which, isn’t that nice, especially since Ibiquity is paying all of those FCC spectrum use fees, right?  Wrong again, the station pays those fees every year and they can get quite hefty for class B radio stations in major markets.

Then there is the complete lack of public awareness, which, in light of the above problems, might be a good thing.  To date, only one car manufacturer, BMW, has installed stock HD radios in any car models.  If one where to go to a best buy and ask for a “digital radio,” they would likely show a radio with a digital readout on the tuner.  If one were to ask for a “HD Radio” they may or may not know what you are asking for.

Ibiquity’s answer to this is “Well, you guys are radio stations, right?  You should be able to market this system yourself.”  Okay, true enough.  If station WXYZ ran a HD radio awareness campaign, where would they send the bill?  That would be fair, after all, for using the station’s inventory to promote somebody else’s product.  Would Ibiquity take some money off the substantial licensing fee for this?  Somehow, I doubt it.

AM HD radio is is even more of a mess.  On AM HD Radio stations, analog signals are limited to 5 kHz, slightly better than telephone audio.  The digital signal washes out the first two adjacent channels on either side of the assigned carrier and can only be used during the day.  To me, last time I listened to it, it sounded strident and harsh, sort of like Sirius Satellite Radio, altogether another topic.

Then, there is the FCC mandating a proprietary codec for digital broadcasting.  I am not the only one who is being rubbed the wrong way by this, others have commented on it too.

If we are serrious about adopting a digital radio format in this country, all of the above issues need to be worked out.  It is time to sit down and take a long, hard, critical look at the IBOC system and evaluate it on its merits, not its marketing.  If indeed, an IBOC system is the best way to impliment digital radio, then the kinks need to be worked out now, else it will spell the end of part 73 broadcasting.