This was last night:

And this was just before sunset tonight:

From the Mt. Wilson Observatory website:

Mount Wilson Observatory Status

Angeles National Forest is CLOSED due to the extreme fire hazard conditions. To see how the Observatory is faring during the ongoing Bobcat fire, check our Facebook linkTwitter link, or go to the HPWREN Tower Cam and click on the second frame from the left at the top, which looks east towards the fire (also check the south-facing cam and the recently archived timelapse movies below which offer a good look at the latest events in 3-hour segments. Note to media: These images can be used with credit to HPWREN). For the latest updates on the Bobcat fire from U.S. Forest Service, please check out their Twitter page.

Last night the firefighters set a strategic backfire to make a barrier to the fire on our southern flank. To many of us who did not know what was happening it looked like the end. Click here to watch the timelapse. The 12 ground crews up there have now declared us safe. They will remain to make sure nothing gets by as the fires tend to linger in the canyons below. They are our heroes and we owe them our existence. They are true professionals, artists with those backfires, and willing to put themselves at considerable risk to protect us. We thank them!!!!

There will be plenty of stories about how the Observatory and the many broadcast transmitters nearby were saved from the Bobcat Fire. For the curious, start with these links:

I’ll add some more soon.

On fire

The white mess in the image above is the Bobcat Fire, spreading now in the San Gabriel Mountains, against which Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl (that’s it, on the right) reaches its limits of advance to the north. It makes no sense to build very far up or into these mountains, for two good reasons. One is fire, which happens often and awfully. The other is that the mountains are geologically new, and falling down almost as fast as they are rising up. At the mouths of valleys emptying into the sprawl are vast empty reservoirs—catch basins—ready to be filled with rocks, soil and mud “downwasting,” as geologists say, from a range as big as the Smokies, twice as high, ready to burn and shed.

Outside of its northern rain forests and snow-capped mountains, California has just two seasons: fire and rain. Right now we’re in the midst of fire season. Rain is called Winter, and it has been dry since the last one. If the Bobcat fire burns down to the edge of Monrovia, or Altadena, or any of the towns at the base of the mountains, heavy winter rains will cause downwasting in a form John McPhee describes in Los Angeles Against the Mountains:

The water was now spreading over the street. It descended in heavy sheets. As the young Genofiles and their mother glimpsed it in the all but total darkness, the scene was suddenly illuminated by a blue electrical flash. In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie’s words, “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.

In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins. On its way down Pine Cone Road, it plucked up cars from driveways and the street. When it crashed into the Genofiles’ house, the shattering of safety glass made terrific explosive sounds. A door burst open. Mud and boulders poured into the hall. We’re going to go, Jackie thought. Oh, my God, what a hell of a way for the four of us to die together.

Three rains ago we had debris flows in Montecito, the next zip code over from our home in Santa Barbara. I wrote about it in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. The flows, which destroyed much of the town and killed about two dozen people, were caused by heavy rains following the Thomas Fire, which at 281,893 acres was biggest fire in California history at the time. The Camp Fire, a few months later, burned a bit less land but killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, including whole towns. This year we already have two fires bigger than the Thomas, and at least three more growing fast enough to take the lead. You can see the whole updated list on the Los Angeles Times California Wildfires Map.

For a good high-altitude picture of what’s going on, I recommend NASA’s FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System). It’s a highly interactive map that lets you mix input from satellite photographs and fire detection by orbiting MODIS and VIIRS systems. MODIS is onboard the Terra and Aqua satellites; and VIIRS is onboard the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) spacecraft. (It’s actually more complicated than that. If you’re interested, dig into those links.) Here’s how the FIRMS map shows the active West Coast fires and the smoke they’re producing:

That’s a lot of cremated forest and wildlife right there.

I just put those two images and a bunch of others up on Flickr, here. Most are of MODIS fire detections superimposed on 3-D Google Earth maps. The main thing I want to get across with these is how large and anomalous these fires are.

True: fire is essential to many of the West’s wild ecosystems. It’s no accident that the California state tree, the Coast Redwood, grows so tall and lives so long: it’s adapted to fire. (One can also make a case that the state flower, the California Poppy, which thrives amidst fresh rocks and soil, is adapted to earthquakes.) But what’s going on here is something much bigger. Explain it any way you like, including strange luck.

Whatever you conclude, it’s a hell of a show. And vice versa.

I just got this email today:

Which tells me, from a sample of one (after another, after another) that Zoom is to video conferencing in 2020 what Microsoft Windows was to personal computing in 1999. Back then one business after another said they would only work with Windows and what was left of DOS: Microsoft’s two operating systems for PCs.

What saved the personal computing world from being absorbed into Microsoft was the Internet—and the Web, running on the Internet. The Internet, based on a profoundly generative protocol, supported all kinds of hardware and software at an infinitude of end points. And the Web, based on an equally generative protocol, manifested on browsers that ran on Mac and Linux computers, as well as Windows ones.

But video conferencing is different. Yes, all the popular video conferencing systems run in apps that work on multiple operating systems, and on the two main mobile device OSes as well. And yes, they are substitutable. You don’t have to use Zoom (unless, in cases like mine, where talking to my doctors requires it). There’s still Skype, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and the rest.

But all of them have a critical dependency through their codecs. Those are the ways they code and decode audio and video. While there are some open source codecs, all the systems I just named use proprietary (patent-based) codecs. The big winner among those is H.264, aka AVC-1, which Wikipedia says “is by far the most commonly used format for the recording, compression, and distribution of video content, used by 91% of video industry developers as of September 2019.” Also,

H.264 is perhaps best known as being the most commonly used video encoding format on Blu-ray Discs. It is also widely used by streaming Internet sources, such as videos from NetflixHuluPrime VideoVimeoYouTube, and the iTunes Store, Web software such as the Adobe Flash Player and Microsoft Silverlight, and also various HDTV broadcasts over terrestrial (ATSCISDB-TDVB-T or DVB-T2), cable (DVB-C), and satellite (DVB-S and DVB-S2) systems.

H.264 is protected by patents owned by various parties. A license covering most (but not all) patents essential to H.264 is administered by a patent pool administered by MPEG LA.[9]

The commercial use of patented H.264 technologies requires the payment of royalties to MPEG LA and other patent owners. MPEG LA has allowed the free use of H.264 technologies for streaming Internet video that is free to end users, and Cisco Systems pays royalties to MPEG LA on behalf of the users of binaries for its open source H.264 encoder.

This is generative, clearly, but not as generative as the Internet and the Web, which are both end-to-end by design. .

More importantly, AVC-1 in effect slides the Internet and the Web into the orbit of companies that have taken over what used to be telephony and television, which are now mooshed together. In the Columbia Doctors example, Zoom the new PBX. The new classroom is every teacher and kid on her or his own rectangle, “zooming” with each other through the new telephony. The new TV is Netflix, Disney, Comcast, Spectrum, Apple, Amazon and many others, all competing for wedges our Internet access and entertainment budgets.

In this new ecosystem, you are less the producer than you were, or would have been, in the early days of the Net and the Web. You are the end user, the consumer, the audience, the customer. Not the producer, the performer. Sure, you can audition for those roles, and play them on YouTube and TikTok, but those are somebody else’s walled gardens. You operate within them at their grace. You are not truly free.

And maybe none of us ever were, in those early days of the Net and the Web. But it sure seemed that way. And it does seem that we have lost something.

Or maybe just that we are slowly losing it, in the manner of boiling frogs.

Do we have to? I mean, it’s still early.

The digital world is how old? Decades, at most.

And how long will it last? At the very least, more than that. Centuries or millennia, probably.

So there’s hope.

[Later…] For some of that, dig OBS—Open Broadcaster Software’s OBS StudioFree and open source software for video recording and live streaming. HT: Joel Grossman (@jgro).

Also, though unrelated, why is Columbia Doctors’ Telehealth leaking patient data to advertisers? See here.

In New Digital Realities; New Oversight SolutionsTom Wheeler, Phil Verveer and Gene Kimmelman suggest that “the problems in dealing with digital platform companies” strip the gears of antitrust and other industrial era regulatory machines, and that what we need instead is “a new approach to regulation that replaces industrial era regulation with a new more agile regulatory model better suited for the dynamism of the digital era.” For that they suggest “a new Digital Platform Agency should be created with a new, agile approach to oversight built on risk management rather than micromanagement.” They provide lots of good reasons for this, which you can read in depth here.

I’m on a list where this is being argued. One of those participating is Richard Shockey, who often cites his eponymous law, which says, “The answer is money. What is the question?” I bring that up as background for my own post on the list, which I’ll share here:

The Digital Platform Agency proposal seems to obey a law like Shockey’s that instead says, “The answer is policy. What is the question?”

I think it will help, before we apply that law, to look at modern platforms as something newer than new. Nascent. Larval. Embryonic. Primitive. Epiphenomenal.

It’s not hard to think of them that way if we take a long view on digital life.

Start with this question: is digital tech ever going away?

Whether yes or no, how long will digital tech be with us, mothering boundless inventions and necessities? Centuries? Millenia?

And how long have we had it so far? A few decades? Hell, Facebook and Twitter have only been with us since the late ’00s.

So why start to regulate what can be done with those companies from now on, right now?

I mean, what if platforms are just castles—headquarters of modern duchies and principalities?

Remember when we thought IBM, AT&T and the PTTs in Europe would own and run the world forever?

Remember when the BUNCH was around, and we called IBM “the environment?” Remember EBCDIC?

Remember when Microsoft ruled the world, and we thought they had to be broken up?

Remember when Kodak owned photography, and thought their enemy was Fuji?

Remember when recorded music had to be played by rolls of paper, lengths of tape, or on spinning discs and disks?

Remember when “social media” was a thing, and all the world’s gossip happened on Facebook and Twitter?

Then consider the possibility that all the dominant platforms of today are mortally vulnerable to obsolescence, to collapse under their own weight, or both.

Nay, the certainty.

Every now is a future then, every is a was. And trees don’t grow to the sky.

It’s an easy bet that every platform today is as sure to be succeeded as were stone tablets by paper, scribes by movable type, letterpress by offset, and all of it by xerography, ink jet, laser printing and whatever comes next.

Sure, we do need regulation. But we also need faith in the mortality of every technology that dominates the world at any moment in history, and in the march of progress and obsolescence.

Another thought: if the only answer is policy, the problem is the question.

This suggests yet another another law (really an aphorism, but whatever): “The answer is obsolescence. What is the question?”

As it happens, I wrote about Facebook’s odds for obsolescence two years ago here. An excerpt:

How easy do you think it is for Facebook to change: to respond positively to market and regulatory pressures?

Consider this possibility: it can’t.

One reason is structural. Facebook is comprised of many data centers, each the size of a Walmart or few, scattered around the world and costing many $billions to build and maintain. Those data centers maintain a vast and closed habitat where more than two billion human beings share all kinds of revealing personal shit about themselves and each other, while providing countless ways for anybody on Earth, at any budget level, to micro-target ads at highly characterized human targets, using up to millions of different combinations of targeting characteristics (including ones provided by parties outside Facebook, such as Cambridge Analytica, which have deep psychological profiles of millions of Facebook members). Hey, what could go wrong?

In three words, the whole thing.

The other reason is operational. We can see that in how Facebook has handed fixing what’s wrong with it over to thousands of human beings, all hired to do what The Wall Street Journal calls “The Worst Job in Technology: Staring at Human Depravity to Keep It Off Facebook.” Note that this is not the job of robots, AI, ML or any of the other forms of computing magic you’d like to think Facebook would be good at. Alas, even Facebook is still a long way from teaching machines to know what’s unconscionable. And can’t in the long run, because machines don’t have a conscience, much less an able one.

You know Goethe’s (or hell, Disney’s) story of The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Look it up. It’ll help. Because Mark Zuckerberg is both the the sorcerer and the apprentice in the Facebook version of the story. Worse, Zuck doesn’t have the mastery level of either one.

Nobody, not even Zuck, has enough power to control the evil spirits released by giant machines designed to violate personal privacy, produce echo chambers beyond counting, amplify tribal prejudices (including genocidal ones) and produce many $billions for itself in an advertising business that depends on all of that—while also trying to correct, while they are doing what they were designed to do, the massively complex and settled infrastructural systems that make all if it work.

I’m not saying regulators should do nothing. I am saying that gravity still works, the mighty still fall, and these are facts of nature it will help regulators to take into account.

What you see there is a flammagenitus cloud rising to the north above Ranch 2, a wildfire about fifteen miles east of here in the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Asuza (one of too many towns to remember, in greater Los Angeles). If the video works, you’ll see how how the clouds give shape to the heat from the fire, even as smoke (darker and with a gray/magenta color) stopping at a lower elevation, spreads northward in the same direction.

The fire was caused by arson, says the guy who confessed to starting it.

It’s interesting to see how much reporting on fires has changed in the time I’ve been following stories like this in Southern California. Inciweb, the canonical close-to-live running catalog of wildfires in the U.S. has moved from the .org where it started to NCWG.gov, the National Coordinating Wildfire Group. When I first wrote about Inciweb, back in ’06, I didn’t mention that it was entirely the heroic work of one Linux hacker at the Forest Service who didn’t wish to be identified.

Anyway, if you want to catch up on the Ranch2, one of too many wildfires clouding the western skies right now, here’s the Twitter search for the latest.

 

Is this the way you want your brand to look?

Digital advertising needs to sniff its own stench, instead of everybody’s digital butts.

A sample of that stench is wafting through the interwebs from  the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media, an ad industry bullphemism for yet another way to excuse the urge to keep tracking people against their wishes (and simple good manners) all over the digital world.

This new thing is a granfalloon conjured by the Association of National Advertisers (aka the ANA) and announced today in the faux-news style of the press release (which it no doubt also is) at the first link above. It begins,

AD INDUSTRY LAUNCHES “PARTNERSHIP FOR RESPONSIBLE ADDRESSABLE MEDIA” TO ENSURE FUTURE OF DIGITAL MEDIA FOR BUSINESSES & CONSUMERS
Governing Group of Industry Leaders Includes 4A’s, ANA, IAB, IAB Tech Lab, NAI, WFA, P&G, Unilever, Ford, GM, IBM, NBCUniversal, IPG, Publicis, Adobe, LiveRamp, MediaMath, The Trade Desk

NEW YORK (August 4, 2020) — Leading trade associations and companies representing every sector of the global advertising industry today joined together to launch the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media, an initiative to advance and protect critical functionalities like customization and analytics for digital media and advertising, while safeguarding privacy and improving the consumer experience. The governing group of the Partnership will include the most influential organizations in advertising.

I learned about this from @WendyDavis, who wrote this piece in MediaPostNiemanLab summarizes what she reports with a tweet that reads, “A new ad-industry group will lobby Google and Apple to let them track users just a wee bit more, please and thank you.”

Writes Wendy,

The group will soon reach out to browser developers and platforms, in hopes of convincing them to rethink recent decisions that will limit tracking, according to Venable attorney Stu Ingis, who will head the legal and policy working group.

“These companies are taking huge positions that impact the entire economy — the entire media ecosystem — with no real input from the media ecosystem,” Ingis says.

As if the “entire media ecosystem” doesn’t contain the billions of humans being tracked.

Well, here’s a fact: ad blocking, which was already the biggest boycott in world history five years ago, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Even though ad blockers had been available since 2004, use of them didn’t hockey-stick until 2012-13, exactly when adtech and its dependents in publishing gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was nothing more than a polite request, expressed by a browser, for some damn privacy while we go about our lives online. See this in Harvard Business Review:

Here’s another fact: the browser makers actually care about their users, some of whom are paying customers (for example with Apple and Microsoft). They know what we want and need, and are giving it to us. Demand and supply at work.

The GDPR and the CCPA also didn’t happen in a vacuum. Both laws were made to protect citizens from exactly what adtech (tracking based advertising) does. And, naturally, the ad biz has been working mightily to obey the letter of those laws while violating their spirit. Why else would we be urged by cookie notices everywhere to “accept” exactly what we’ve made very clear that we don’t want?

So here are some helpful questions from the world’s billions to the brands now paying to have us followed like marked animals:

Have you noticed that not a single brand known to the world has been created by tracking people and aiming ads at them—even after spending a $trillion or two on doing that?

Have you noticed that nearly all the world’s major brands became known through advertising that not only didn’t track people, but sponsored journalism as well?

Have you noticed that tracking people and directing personalized messages at them—through “addressable media”—is in fact direct marketing, which we used to call junk mail?

Didn’t think so.

Time to get the clues, ad biz. Brands too.

Start with The Cluetrain Manifesto, which says, if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings — and our reach exceeds your grasp.
deal with it.

That year was 1999.

If advertising and marketing had bothered to listen back then, they might not be dealing today with the GDPR, the CCPA, and the earned dislike of billions.

Next, please learn (or re-learn) the difference between real advertising and the junk message business. Find that lesson in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff. An excerpt:

See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.

So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.

Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

That’s what had happened to the ANA in 2018, when it acquired what had been the Direct Marketing Association (aka DMA) and which by then called itself the Data & Marketing Association.

The Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media speaks in the voice of advertising’s alien replica. It does not “safeguard essential values in advertising as a positive economic force.” Instead it wants to keep using “addressable” advertising as the primary instrument of surveillance capitalism.

Maybe it’s too late to save advertising from its alien self. But perhaps not, if what’s left of advertising’s soul takes the writings of Bob Hoffman (@AdContrarian) to heart. That’s the only way I know for advertising to clean up its act.

 

 

Radio is moving from these to servers of streams and podcasts.

Public Radio: What is the best NPR station in the country? That’s a question on Quora I thought needed answering. So I did, with this:

Here’s a quantitative answer to your qualitative question: WVPS of Vermont Public Radio. Because, in Nielsen’s Audio Ratings, it scores a 12.6 in its home market of Burlington, and a 16.2 in its neighbor market of Montpelier-Waterbury. Far as I know, those are tops among all the country’s NPR-affiliated stations.

Honorable mentions go to WUOM in Ann Arbor with a 13.0, KCLU in Santa Barbara with a 10.2—plus others you’ll find if you follow the links in Where Public Radio Rocks, which I published in April of last year. All the numbers I sourced have changed since then, but they’re easy to find at the links I provided.

In the long run, however, “best” will come to mean which stations, producers and distributors are best at streaming and podcasting. Because that’s where listening is headed. Vermont Public Radio makes that clear on their own website, which appends “#stream/0” to its URL when you go there—and does its best, on the site, to encourage listening over-the-net rather than just over-the-air.

At this point in history, nearly all radio stations already stream, for a good reason: in the digital world, where every one of us with a smartphone and a data plan has the best radio ever made, antique broadcast virtues such as “range” and “coverage” have become bugs. This is why, when my family drove around Spain in a rental car last summer, we listened to KCLU from our home town of Santa Barbara, piped from one of our phones through the car’s entertainment system (which is no longer called a “radio”). It’s also why, when I’m up early on the West Coast, I often listen to WBUR from Boston or WNYC from New York, my other home towns. (I get around—or at least I did before the plague.)

The streaming numbers in Nielsen’s ratings are still low, but they are growing, and in many markets exceed the numbers for nearly all the remaining AM stations. For example, in the latest ratings for Washington, DC, 36 stations are listed: 33 FM, 2 streams and 2 AM. Those are drawn from a roster of 52 FM and 35 AM stations with listenable signals in Washington (according to radio-locator.com)—and 6 of those FM signals are translators for AM stations, including the two AMs that show in the ratings (which means that even the ratings for AM stations were likely for those stations’ FM signals).

Also, while streaming is the big trend for stations, podcasting is the big trend for programming, aka “content.” Podcasting is exploding now, and earning ever-larger slices of the listening pie, which is a finite sum of people’s time. Podcasting wins at this because it has far more optionality than live over-the-air radio. You can listen when you like, slide forward and backward through a show, jump past ads or skip over topics you’d rather miss, and listen at 1.5x or 2x the normal speed. Those are huge advantages.

It’s also not for nothing that SiriusXM just paid $325 for Stitcher (says Variety), and not long before that Spotify paid $100 million for Joe Rogan’s podcast and (according to Business Insider) nearly $200 million for The Ringer and “nearly $400 million in recent purchases of Gimlet Media, Anchor, and Parcast.”

For that kind of money you could buy every AM and FM station in New York or Los Angeles.

Noncommercial players are also looking pretty good in the podcasting world as well. According to Podtrac, NPR is the #1 podcast publisher and PRX is #5. Also showing well are WNYC Studios, This American Life/Serial and American Public Media. NPR also has 9 of the top 20 podcasts. In fact the majority (11) of those top 20 are from public radio sources.

Off the top of my head, the public stations with head starts in podcast production are WBEZ in Chicago, WBUR in Boston, WNYC in New York, KQED in San Francisco, KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles and others you’ll hear credited when they open or close a show.

But it’s early. Expect lots of change in the coming months and years as many podcast creators, producers and distributors jockey for positions in two races. One is the free public one, syndicated by RSS on the open Internet and ready to hear on any browser, app or device. The other is the private subscription one, available only through the owner’s services. This is clearly where SiriusXM and Spotify are both going. SiriusXM is audible only by subscription, while Spotify remains $free (for now) but exclusive. (For example, Michelle Obama’s new podcast is available only on Spotify.) This split, between free/open and paid/closed, will be a big story over the coming years.

So, in the meantime, hats off to Vermont Public Radio for being the top public radio operation in the country—at least in its markets’ ratings. And stay tuned for the fights among players in streaming and podcasting.

I expect VPR will continue being the alpha broadcasting, streaming and podcasting service in its home state, both because it does a great job and because Vermont is very much a collection of communities that have come to depend on it.

And, if you want to know why I think journalism of the fully non-fake kind has a last (or first) refuge in the most local forms, dig The story isn’t the whole story, my TEDx talk about that.

Tags: ,

The choice above is one I pose at the end of a 20-minute audioblog I recorded for today, here it is in .mp4:

And, if that fails, here it is in .mp3:

The graphic represents the metaphor I use to frame that choice.

Across almost 73 laps around the Sun, I’ve seen six notable comets. The fifth was Hale-Bopp, which I blogged about here, along with details on the previous four, in 1997. The sixth is NEOWISE, and that’s it, above, shot with my iPhone 11. There are a couple other shots in that same album, taken with my Canon 5D Mark III. Those are sharper, but this one shows off better.

Hey, if the comet looks this good over the lights of Los Angeles, you might have a chance to see it wherever you are tonight. It’ll be under the Big Dipper in the western sky.

Every night it will be a bit dimmer and farther away, so catch it soon. Best view is starting about an hour after sunset.

 

 

Tags: ,

These are among the since-demolished towers of the once-mighty WMEX/1510 radio in Boston.

The question on Quora was How long does a radio station last on average? Here is my answer, which also addresses the bigger question of what will happen to radio itself.


Radio station licenses will last as long as they have value to the owners—or that regulators allow them to persist. Call signs (aka call letters) come and go, as do fashions around them.* But licenses are the broadcasting equivalent of real estate. Their value is holding up, but it won’t forever.

Arguing for persistence is the simple fact that many thousands of radio station licenses have been issued since the 1920s, and the vast majority of those are still in use.

Arguing for their mortality, however, are signs of rot, especially on the AM band, where many stations are shrinking—literally, with smaller signals and coverage areas—and some are dying. Four reasons for that:

  1. FM and digital media sound much better. Electrical (and especially computer) noise also infects all but the strongest signals. It also doesn’t help that the AM radios in most new cars sound like the speakers are talking through a pillow.
  2. Syndicated national programming is crowding out the local kind. This is due to consolidation of ownership in the hands of a few large companies (e.g. Entercom, Cumulus, iHeart) and to the shift of advertising money away from local radio. The independent local AM (and even FM) station is in the same economic pickle as the independent local newspaper.
  3. AM transmission tends to come from towers, or collections of them, on many acres of land. Now, as suburbs spread and the value of real estate goes up, the land under many AM transmitters exceeds the value of the stations themselves. A typical example is KDWN/720 in Las Vegas. Since it was born in 1975, KDWN has been 50,000 watts day and night (the legal max), with a night signal that blanketed the whole West Coast. But, in the last year, the station moved a site where it can share another station’s towers, downscaling the signal to just 25,000 watts by day and 7,500 watts by night. Here is a 2019 Google StreetView of the old site, with a For Sale sign. Also note also that KDWN now identifies as “101.5 FM / 720 AM – The Talk of Las Vegas .” The 101.5 is its 250-watt translator (signal repeater), known legally as K268CS. From its perch atop The Strat (formerly the Stratosphpere) on The Strip, the translator puts out a good-enough FM signal to cover the heart of the Las Vegas metro. Today many AM stations exist only as an excuse to operate FM translators like this one. Even fully successful AM stations play this new game. WBBM/780, the legacy all-news station that (rarely among AMs) is still ranked #1 in the Nielsen Ratings for Chicago, sold the land under its old towers and now shares the towers of another station, where it radiates with less power.
  4. In the Battle of the Bands, FM won. For evidence, look at the Nielsen Audio Ratings for the Washington DC region. Only two AMs show, and they’re at the bottom. One is WBQH/1050, a regional Mexican formatted station with an 0.2% share of listening and a signal that is only 44 watts at night. And most of the listening likely owes to the station’s 180-watt translator on 93.5fm. (Both only cover a few northside suburbs and the northern tip of DC.) The other station is WSBN/630am, a sports station with an 0.1% share: a number that couldn’t be lower without disappearing. That license was once WMAL, which sold off the land under its towers a few years ago, moving far out of town to “diplex” on the towers of yet another station that long ago sold the land under its original towers. That other station is now called WWRC/570. It’s a religious/conservative talker with no ratings that was once WGMS, famous in its glory years as a landmark classical station.

Despite this, the number of AM licenses in the U.S persist in the thousands, while the number of abandoned AM licenses number in the dozens. (The FCC’s Silent AM Broadcast Stations List is 83 stations long. The Silent FM Broadcast Stations List is longer, but includes a lot of translators and LPFMs—low-power stations meant to serve a few zip codes at most. Also, neither list includes licenses that have been revoked or abandoned in the distant past, such as the once-legendary KISN in Portland, Oregon.)

What I’ve reported so far applies only to the U.S. AM band, which is called MW (for mediumwave) in most of the rest of the world. In a lot of that world, AM/MW is being regulated away: abandoned by decree. That’s why it is gone, or close to it, in some European countries. Canada has also scaled back on AM, with the CBC  moving in many places exclusively to FM.

The news is less bad for FM, which has thrived since the 1970s, and now accounts for most over-the-air radio listening. The FCC has also done its best to expand the number of stations and signals on the FM band, especially in recent years through translators and LPFMs. In Radio-Locator’s list of stations you’ll recieve in Las Vegas, 16 of the 59 listed signals are for translators and LPFMs. Meanwhile only 18 stations have listenable signals on AM, and some of those signals (such as KDWN’s) are smaller than they used to be.

Still, the effects of streaming and podcasting through the Internet will only increase. This is why so many stations, personalities, programming sources and station owners are rushing to put out as many streams and podcasts as possible. Today, every phone, pad and laptop is a receiver for every station with digital content of any kind, and there are many more entities competing for this “band” than radio stations alone.

While it’s possible that decades will pass before AM and FM are retired completely, it’s not hard to read the tea leaves. AM and FM are both gone now in Norway, which has switched to Digital Audio Broadcasting, or DAB, as has much of the rest of Europe. (We don’t have DAB in the U.S., and thus far there is very little interest in it.)

Still, I don’t doubt that many of entities we call “stations” will persist without signals. Last summer we listened to local radio from Santa Barbara (mostly KCLU) while driving around Spain, just by jacking a phone into the dashboard and listening to Internet streams through the cellular data system. Even after all their transmitters get turned off, sometime in the far future, I’m sure KCLU will still be KCLU.

The process at work here is what the great media scholars Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric  (in Laws of Media: The New Science) call retrieval. What they mean is that every new medium retrieves the content of what it obsolesces. So, much as print retrieved writing and TV retrieved radio, the Internet retrieves damn near everything it obsolesces, including TV, radio, print, speech and you-name-it.

In most cases the old medium doesn’t go away. But broadcasting might be different, because it exists by grace of regulation, meaning governments can make them disappear. The FCC has already done that to much of the UHF TV band, auctioning off the best channels to cellular systems. This is why, for example, T-Mobile can brag about their new long-range “5G” coverage. They’re getting that coverage that over what used to be UHF TV channels that stations auctioned away. It’s also why, for example, when you watch KLCS, channel 58 in Los Angeles, you’re actually watching channel 28, which the station shares with KCET, using the same site and transmitter. The Los Angeles Unified School District collected a cool $130,510,880 in a spectrum auction for channel 58.

So, when listening to the AM and FM bands drops sufficiently, don’t assume the FCC won’t say, “Hey, all the stations that matter are streaming and podcasting on the Internet, so we’re going to follow the path of Norway.” When that happens, your AM and FM radios will be as useful as the heavy old TVs you hauled out to the curb a decade ago.

Additional reading: The slow sidelining of over-the-air radio  and AM radio declared dead by BMW and Disney.


*In the ‘1970s, the hot thing in music radio was using high-value scrabble letters: Z, Q and J. Also combining those with “dial” positions, e.g. “Z-100.”

« Older entries