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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.

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To answer the question Where are SiriusXM radio stations broadcasted from?, I replied,

If you’re wondering where they transmit from, it’s a mix.

SiriusXM transmits primarily from a number of satellites placed in geostationary orbit, 35,786 kilometres or 22,236 miles above the equator. From Earth they appear to be stationary. Two of the XM satellites, for example, are at 82° and 115° West. That’s roughly aligned with Cincinnati and Las Vegas, though the satellites are actually directly above points along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. To appear stationary in the sky, they must travel in orbit around the Earth at speeds that look like this:

  • 3.07 kilometres or 1.91 miles per second
  • 110,52 kilometres or 6,876 miles per hour
  • 265,248 kilometres or 165,025 miles per day

Earlier Sirius satellites flew long elliptical geosynchronous orbits on the “tundra“ model, taking turns diving low across North America and out into space again.

Satellites are also supplemented by ground repeaters. If you are in or near a site with repeaters, your Sirius or XM radio may be tuned to either or both a transmitter in space or one on the ground nearby. See DogstarRadio.com’s Satellite and Repeater Map to see if there is one near you.

In addition, SiriusXM also streams over the Internet. You can subscribe to radio, streaming or both.

As for studios, those are in central corporate locations; but these days, thanks to COVID-19, many shows are produced at hosts’ homes. Such is the case, for example, with SiriusXM’s popular Howard Stern show.

So, to sum up, you might say SiriusXM’s channels and shows are broadcast from everywhere.

I should add that I’ve been a SiriusXM subscriber almost from the start (with Sirius), and have owned two Sirius radios. The last one I used only once, in August of 2017, when my son and I drove a rental minivan from Santa Barbara to Love Ranch in central Wyoming, where we watched the solar eclipse. After that it went into a box. I still listen a lot to SiriusXM, almost entirely on the phone app. The rest of my listening is over the Web, logged in through a browser.

Item: a few days ago I discovered that a large bill from SiriusXM was due to a subscription for both the radio and the Internet stream. So I called in and canceled the radio. The subscription got a lot cheaper.

I bring this up because I think SiriusXM is a single example of a transition going on within the infrastructure of what we still call radio, but instead we would call streaming if we started from scratch today. We would call it streaming because that’s how broadcasting looks like on the Internet. And the Internet is subsuming and gradually replacing over-the-air radio with what for most purposes is a better system. When it’s done, most or all of over-the-air radio will be gone.

In The Intention Economy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), I saw this future for what we wouldn’t call television if we started that one from scratch today (or even when this was published, eight years ago):

Intention Economy chart

Today we’d put Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube TV and Apple TV in the upper left (along with legacy premium cable staples, such as HBO and Showtime). We’d put PBS stations there too, since those became subscription services after the digital transition in 2008 and subsequent spectrum sales, which reduced over-the-air TV to a way for stations to maintain their must-carry status on cable systems. (Multiple “repacks” of TV stations on new non-auctioned channels have required frequent “re-scans” of signals on TVs of people who still want to watch TV the old-fashioned way and hook up an antenna.)

While over-the-air radio has been terminal for years, its death has been less hastened by regulatory changes to satisfy the need for more data-friendly frequencies (which TV has, and radio doesn’t). Here’s the diagnosis I published in 2016. I’ve also been keeping a photographic chronicle of radio in hospice, over on my Flickr account for Infrastructure. A touching example of one station’s demise is Abandoned America’s post on the forgotten but (then) still extant studios of WFBR (1924-1990) in Baltimore.

The main difference with radio is that it still wants to be free.

Want to have some fun with that? Go to RadioGarden and look around the globe at free streams from everywhere. My own current fave is little CJUC in Whitehorse, Yukon. (I list others here.) All of those are what we say is “on” the Internet. But where is that?

We can pinpoint sources in the physical world, as RadioGarden does, on a globe; but the Internet defies prepositions, because there is no “there” there. There is only here, where we are now, in this non-place with no distance and no gravity because its nature is to defy both, leaving those up to the individual. I’m in Santa Barbara right now, but could be anywhere. So could you.

On the Internet, over-the-air TV and radio are anachronisms, though charming ones. Like right now, as I’m listening to Capricorn FM from Polokwane, South Africa. (“Crazy up-tempo hip-hop” is the fare.) But I’m not listening on a radio, which would require tuning to 89.9fm somewhere within range of the station’s transmitter. I’m here, on (or in, or through, or pick-your-preposition) the Internet.

A few years ago my then-15-year-old son asked me what the point of “range” and “coverage” was for radio stations. Why, he wondered, were those features rather than bugs? Meaning why is it okay for a station to fade away as you drive out of town?

His frame of reference, of course, was the Internet. Not the terrestrial world where distance and the inverse square law apply.

Of course, we will always live in the terrestrial world. The Internet may go away, or get fractured into regions so telecom companies can bill for crossing borders and governments can limit what’s accessible within those borders. But the Internet is also an infrastructural genie that is not going back in the bottle. And it is granting many wishes, all in a new here. It exists in the manner of a natural law, such as we have with gravity in the physical world.

And I submit that we are still only starting to understand it. (For how we’re only starting, see here.)


This post first appeared in a sister blog, Trunk Line.

Audio blog #2

 

Yesterday’s audio blog post (again, not a podcast—I already do two of those) had 81 visits during that day and another couple dozen this morning. It also got one response on Facebook, a few on Twitter and a couple by email and other channels. Two responses were to the substance of the post, and one addressed the issue of recording while walking. Which I admit was an issue. Two people walking together can tolerate the other one panting a bit, but on headphones (or even speakers) it’s a chore to listen.

But the response I got was sufficiently encouraging for me to do one more.

I recorded this one last night while walking, before I got the feedback this morning about problems with doing that. So this time, in addition to converting the file to .mp3, I went through it and cut out as much panting as I could. If I continue doing this, I’ll do it while sitting or standing still.

Again, this is an experiment in communication. At issue is whether it’s more worthwhile to talk to people or to write to them. The subjects of yesterday’s post and today’s are topics I’ve written about already. I’m not linking to them here because I want to see if talking in some way outperforms writing. If it does, I’ll keep it up. If not, I’ll keep talking anyway, most mostly not here. And, of course, I’ll keep writing as well, because that’s what I do. So here ya go.

I’m trying something new here, speaking instead of writing. Here it is:

[Note: this didn’t work at first on iPhones, so I changed the file type to .mp3. Should work now.]

I recorded it last night while walking twelve thousand steps, briskly, on the deck of my house.

Think of it as a kind of voice mail to readers.

The topic I cover is one I’ve written about here; but I’m not going to provide any links—at least not yet.

That’s because I want to see if what I’m trying to say comes across better in speaking than in writing. Also because I think it matters, and it’s worth the effort.

If I’m encouraged by the response, I’ll keep it up.

 

The tallest structure in Santa Barbara’s skyline is a (roughly) 200-foot pole painted red and white. It stands in a city equipment yard, not far from the ocean and the city’s famous Wharf. You can see it in the photo above, with the Wharf behind it.

As landmarks go it’s not much, but I like its looks and its legacy.

On the looks side, I dig the simplicity of its structure and the red and white colors. On the legacy side, I’m a connoisseur of radio transmitters (see here) who digs the fact that this pole radiates the broadcast signals of three AM stations at once, which is a rare thing. Since Santa Barbara has only five AM stations, the majority of them are right here. Scanning up (what used to be) the dial, those are:

  • KZSB/1290, the all-local-news station affiliated with the Santa Barbara News-Press. Born as KACL in 1962.
  • KCLU/1340, the AM member of California Lutheran University‘s chain of popular public radio signals for the South and Central Coasts, the rest of which are on FM. Born as KIST in 1946.
  • KOSJ/1490, the call letters of which stand for Old School Jams. Like KCLU, it also radiates an FM signal from Gibraltar Peak, high on the mountainside above town. Born as KDB in 1926. The KDB call letters are still here, for a noncommercial classical music station on 93.7.

All three signals have changed call letters, ownership, formats and transmitter locations over the years. Near as I can tell, this pole stands on what was originally the KDB/1490 site, and the other two stations arrived in the early 90s: first 1290 and then 1340. (On AM, whole towers radiate signals, and in some cases more than one station shares a tower, or a set of towers. This is a rare case where three stations do the sharing.)

I bring this up because the tower is an attractive landmark, and I’m afraid we might lose it. That’s because (it says here) all three stations have construction permits for a new transmitting system on this same spot. See, the tower (called a “monopole”) as it stands is about 200 feet tall. The system specified by all three stations’ construction permits is about 130 feet tall. It  will also also be “top-loaded,” which means that either it will get some extra wires extending away from the tower, or a new “umbrella” on top (extending, by my estimate, about 11 feet out). For comparison’s sake, the pair of 200-foot towers of KZER/1250, which overlook Goleta Slough, the beach and the Airport, have umbrellas on them.

So I’m hoping one or more of the engineers involved can let us know what the plan is. I do hope they’ll keep the whole pole; but I’ll understand if they can’t, since the pole is bent. If you look close, you can see that the pole is pranged slightly to the east (left on this picture) above the bottom of the white section closest to the top.  I’m guessing that’s about 130 feet from the bottom.

Either way, the plan should be in some way to keep what has become a familiar landmark. And not to replace it with something functional but kinda ugly.

Radio.Garden

Radio.garden is an amazing and fun discovery, perfect for infinite distraction during life in quarantine. (James Vincent in The Verge calls it “Google Earth for Radio.”) Here’s a list of just some discoveries I’ve made while mining that Earth with Shazam open on my phone:

  1. CIAU/103.1 in … not sure where this is, except in the vast nowhere east of Hudson Bay. Just played Rock’n Me, by Steve Miller. Now it’s Light my fire by the Doors.
  2. Chanso Du Berceau, by Georg Gabler on (can’t say, it’s in Cyrillic), in Plotina, Russia.
  3. Magic, by One Direction, on FM Trölli, somewhere in Iceland.
  4. No More sad Songs, by Little Mix Feat. Machine Gun Kelly on Ice FM, Nuuk, Greenland.
  5. Espère, by Joe Bel, on CFRT/107.3 in Iqaluit, Nunavuk.
  6. Everything played on CJUC/92.5, Community Radio in Whitehorse, Yukon. My fave by far. Just put it on my Sonos.
  7. If I can’t Have You, by Etta James, and now Got My Mojo Working, by Muddy Waters on kohala Radio.
  8. KNKR/96.1 on the Big Island somewhere. Also liking Kaua’i Community Radio KKCR/90.9 in Hanalei. Alas, Shazam knows nothing they play, it seems.
  9. Another thing Shazam doesn’t know, on Radio Kiribati AM 1440 in Tarawa.
  10. Walking on a Dream, by Empire of the Sun, on Cruize FM 105.2 in New Plymouth, New Zealand.
  11. Some kind of bottleneck slide guitar, with a guy playing “My baby says she loves me.” On Spellbound Radio FM 106.8 in Gisbourne, NZ. Followed by Ry Cooder’s One Meatball.
  12. And, if you want to sleep, dig SleepRadio. Sounds a lot like Hearts of Space.
  13. One Fine Day, by the Chiffons on 101.5 Moreton Bay’s Own, Moreton Bay, Australia.
  14. Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree by Dawn, followed by Woo Hoo, by the Rock-aTeens, on 88.9 Richmond Valley Radio, Far North Coast, New South Wales, Australia.
  15. You Got To Me, by the Wolfe Brothers, on Ten FM in Tenterfield, Australia
  16. Liar Cry, by Pigram Brothers on 2Cuz FM 107.7 in Bourke, running 99fm, in Brisbane I think.
  17. Winds of Change by Airborne, on The Lounge FM 106.3 in Port Douglas, Australia.
  18. Adies Meres Adies Nihtes, by Christina Maragozi, on Radio Vereniki 89.5 lerapetra, Crete.
  19. Per Tu (Joan), by Amadeu Casas, on Formentera Ràdio, El Pilar de la Mola, Spain.
  20. Eu Gosto De Ti, by Elas, on Rádio Graciosa FM 107.9, Santa Cruz Da Graciosa, Azores.
  21. Hm. I had some from South America and then WWOZ in New Orleans, but those disappeared. Grr.
  22. Souly Creole, by Joe Sample, on The Jazz Groove in San Francisco.
  23. Nothing Else Mattrs, by Metallica, on Radio 1 100.0 in Papa’ete, Tahiti.
  24. Some Girls, b Racey, on 88 FM in Avarua Distrct, Cook Islands. The voices are clearly from Australia.
  25. I know you, by Craig David Feat. Basille, on Отличное Радио in Birobidzhan, Russia.
  26. I remember, by Claude Diniel, from Radio Trassa, Blagoveshchensk, Russia.
  27. So Good to Me (Extended Mix), by Chris Malinchak, on Radio STV in Yatusk, Russia.
  28. Tusi Sam, by Mari Kraymbreri, on Radio Sigma in Novy Urengoy, Russia
  29. Одинокая Луна by Артём Качер on Sever FM in Naryan-Mar, Russia. Followed by If I’m Lucky, by Jeson Derulo.
  30. I wanna Sex You Up, by Color Me Badd, on SAMS in Jamestown, Saint Helena.
  31. I Go Alone, by Stephen clair and the Pushbacks, on Jive Radio KJIV Madras Oregon.
  32. Jungle Love, by the Stever Miller Band, on WOYS FM 100.5 Oyster Radio, Apalachicola FL, United States (This follows a very long invitation to please not visit “the forgotten coast” now, because everything is closed.)
  33. Angie McMahon on KMXT-FM 100.1, Kodiak AK, United States, playing NPR’s World Café

Everything through #21 was on Monday, April 13, during which I learned some things, such as copying and pasting station names and locations from the lower right panel there. The rest were listed today, a few minutes before I posted this.

Most of the stations here are in very very outlying places, which are easiest to find and grab.

I could go on (it’s very tempting… for example noting now much English-language music is all over extremely rural Russian radio). I could also go back and stick some links in there. But I’ll leave the rest up to you. Have fun.

And big thanks to @ccarfi, who turned me on to this thing.

 

Sometimes you get what you pay for.

In this case, a good microphone in a bluetooth headset.

Specifically, the Bose Soundsport Wireless:

I’ve had these a day so far, and I love them. But not just because they sound good. Lots of earphones do that. I love them because the mic in the thing is good. This is surprisingly rare.

Let’s start with the humble Apple EarPods that are overpriced at $29 but come free with every new Apple i-thing and for that reason are probably the most widely used earphones on Earth:

No, their sound isn’t great. But get this: in conversation they sound good to ears at the other end. Better, in my judgement than the fancy new AirPods. (Though according to Phil Windley in the comments below, they are good at suppressing ambient noise.) The AirPods are also better than lots of other earphones I’ve used: ones from Beats, SkullCandy, Sennheiser and plenty of other brands. (I lose and destroy earphones and headphones constantly.) In all my experience, I have have not heard any earphones or headphones that sound better than plain old EarPods. In fact I sometimes ask, when somebody sounds especially good over a voice connection, if they’re using EarPods. Very often the answer is yes. “How’d you guess?” they ask. “Because you sound unusually good.”

So, when a refurbished iPhone 7 Plus arrived to replace my failing iPhone 5s two days ago, and it came with no headphone hole (bad, but I can live), I finally decided to get some wireless earphones. So I went to Consumer Reports on the Web, printed out their ratings for Wireless Portable Stereo Headphones (alas, behind a subscription wall), went to the local Staples, and picked up a JBL E25BT for $49 against a $60 list price. I chose that one because Consumer Reports gives it a rating of 71 out of 100 (which isn’t bad, considering that 76 is the top rating for any of the 50 models on the list)—and they called it a “best buy” as well.

I was satisfied until I talked to my wife over the JBL on my new phone. “You’re muffled,” she said. Then I called somebody else. “What?” they said. “I can’t hear you.” I adjusted the mic so it was closer to my mouth. “What?” they said again. I switched to the phone itself. “That’s better.” I then plugged the old EarPods into Apple’s Lightning dongle, which I also bought at Staples for $9. “Much better.”

So the next day I decided to visit an Apple Store to see what they had, and recommended. I mean, I figured they’d have a fair chance of knowing.

“I want a good mic more than I want good sound,” I said to the guy.  “Oh,” he replied. “I shouldn’t say this because we don’t sell them; but you need a Bose. They care about mics and theirs are the best. Go to the Best Buy down the street and see what they’ve got.” So I went.

At Best Buy the guy said, “The best mic is in the Bose Soundsport Wireless.” I pulled my six-page Consumer Reports list of rated earphones out of my back pocket. There at the top of the ratings was the Soundsport. So I bought a blue one. Today I was on two long calls and both parties at the other ends said “You sound great.” One added, “Yeah, really good.” So there ya go.

I’m sure there are other models with good mics; but I’m done looking, and I just want to share what I’ve found so far—and to implore all the outfits that rate earphones and headphones with mics to rate the mics too. It’s a kindness to the people at the other end of every call.

Remember: conversations are two-way, and the person speaking has almost no idea how good they’re sounding to the other person over a mobile phone. So give the mics some weight.

And thanks, Bose. Good product.