Once, in the early ’80s, on a trip from Durham to some beach in North Carolina, we stopped to use the toilets at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. In the stall where I sat was a long conversation, in writing, between two squatters debating some major issue of the time. Think of the best back-and-forth you’ve ever read in a comment thread and you’ll get a rough picture of what this was like.
So I sat there, becoming engrossed and amazed at the high quality of the dialog — and the unlikelihood of it happening where it was.
Until I got to the bottom. There, ending the conversation, were the penultimate and ultimate summaries, posed as a question and answer:
Q: Why do people feel compelled to settle their differences on bathroom walls?
A. Because you suck my dick.
That story became legendary in our family and social network, to such a degree that my then-teenage daughter and her girlfriends developed a convention of saying “Because you suck my dick” whenever an argument went on too long and wasn’t going anywhere. This was roughly the same as dropping a cow: a way to end a conversation with an absurdity.
Even though Fort Lee and Manhattan are only a mile apart, it has always been a toll call between the two over a landline. Even today. (Here, look it up.) That’s why, when I was growing up not far away, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the Hudson, we almost never called over there. It was “long distance,” and that cost money.
There were no area codes back then, so if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed 0 (“Oh”) for an operator. She (it was always a she) would then call the number you wanted and patch it through, often by plugging a cable between two holes in a “switchboard.”
Toll-free calls could be made only to a few dozen local exchanges listed in the front of your phone book. Calls to distant states were even more expensive, and tended to sound awful. Calls outside the country required an “overseas operator,” were barely audible, and cost more than a brake job.
That’s why, to communicate with our distant friends and relatives, we sent letters. From 1932 to 1958, regular (“first class”) letters required a 3¢ stamp. This booked passage for the letter to anywhere in the country, though speeds varied with distance, since letters traveled most of the way in canvas bags on trains that shuttled between sorting centers. So a letter from New Jersey to North Carolina took three or four days, while one to California took a week or more. If you wanted to make letters travel faster, you bought “air mail” stamps and put them on special envelopes trimmed with diagonal red and blue stripes. Those were twice the price of first class stamps.
The high cost of distance for telephony and mail made sense. Farther was harder. We knew this in our bodies, in our vehicles, and through our radios and TVs. There were limits to how far or fast we could run, or yell, or throw a ball. Driving any distance took a sum of time. Even if you drove fast, farther took longer. Signals from radio stations faded as you drove out of town, or out of state. Even the biggest stations — the ones on “clear” channels, like WSM from Nashville, KFI from Los Angeles and WBZ from Boston — would travel hundreds of miles by bouncing off the sky at night. But the quality of those signals declined over distance, and all were gone when the sun came up. Good TV required antennas on roofs. The biggest and highest antennas worked best, but it was rare to get good signals from more than a few dozen miles away.
All our senses of distance are rooted in our experience of space and time in the physical world. So, even though telephony, shipping and broadcasting were modern graces most of our ancestors could hardly imagine, old rules still applied. We knew in our bones that costs ought to vary with the labors and resources required. Calls requiring operators should cost more than ones that didn’t. Heavier packages should cost more to ship. Bigger signals should require bigger transmitters that suck more watts off the grid.
A world without distance
Everything I just talked about — telephony, mail, radio and TV — are in the midst of being undermined by the Internet, subsumed by it, or both. If we want to talk about how, we’ll have nothing but arguments and explanations. So let’s go instead to the main effect: distance goes away.
On the Net you can have a live voice conversation with anybody anywhere, at no cost or close enough. There is no “long distance.”
On the Net you can exchange email with anybody anywhere, instantly. No postage required.
On the Net anybody can broadcast to the whole world. You don’t need to be a “station” to do it. There is no “range” or “coverage.” You don’t need antennas, beyond the unseen circuits in wireless devices.
I’ve been wondering for a long time about how we ought to conceive the non-thing over which this all happens, and so far I have found no improvements on what I got from Craig Burton in an interview published in the August 2000 issue of Linux Journal:
Doc: How do you conceive the Net? What’s its conceptual architecture?
Craig: I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It’s growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That’s the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That’s its virtue: it’s empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There’s a word I like for what’s going on here: terraform. It’s the verb for creating a world. That’s what we’re making here: a new world.
A world with no distance. A Giant Zero.
Of course there are many forms of actual distance at the technical and economic levels: latencies, bandwidth limits, service fees, censors. But our experience is above those levels, where we interact with other people and things. And the main experience there is of absent distance.
We never had that experience before the Internet showed up in its current form, about twenty years ago. By now we have come to depend on absent distance, in countless ways that are becoming more numerous by the minute. The Giant Zero is a genie that is not going back in the old bottle, and also won’t stop granting wishes.
Not all wishes the Giant Zero grants are good ones. Some are very bad. What matters is that we need to make the most of the good ones and the least of the bad. And we can’t do either until we understand this new world, and start making the best of it on its own terms.
The main problem is that we don’t have those terms yet. Worse, our rhetorical toolbox is almost entirely native to the physical world and misleading in the virtual one. Let me explain.
Distance is embedded in everything we talk about, and how we do the talking. For instance, take prepositions: locators in time and space. There are only a few dozen of them in the English language. (Check ‘em out.) Try to get along without over, under, around, through, beside, along, within, on, off, between, inside, outside, up, down, without, toward, into or near. We can’t. Yet here on the Giant Zero, everything is either present or not, here or not-here.
Sure, we are often aware of where sites are in the physical world, or where they appear to be. But where they are, physically, mostly doesn’t matter. In the twenty years I’ve worked for Linux Journal, its Web server has been in Seattle, Amsterdam, somewhere in Costa Rica and various places in Texas. My own home server started at my house in the Bay Area, and then moved to various Rackspace racks in San Antonio, Vienna (Virginia) and Dallas.
While it is possible for governments, or providers of various services, to look at the IP address you appear to be using and either let you in or keep you out, doing so violates the spirit of the Net’s base protocols, which made a point in the first place of not caring to exclude anybody or anything. Whether or not that was what its creators had in mind, the effect was to subordinate the parochial interests (and businesses) of all the networks that agreed to participate in the Internet and pass data between end points.
The result was, and remains, a World of Ends that cannot be fully understood in terms of anything else, even though we can’t help doing that anyway. Like the universe, the Internet has no other examples.
This is a problem, because all our speech is metaphorical by design, meaning we are always speaking and thinking in terms of something else. According to cognitive linguistics, every “something else” is a frame. And all frames are unconscious nearly all the time, meaning we are utterly unaware of using them.
For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That’s why we “save,” “waste,” “spend,” “lose,” “throw away” and “invest” time. Another example is life. When we say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure,” careers are “paths” and choices are “crossroads,” we are thinking and speaking about life in terms of travel. In fact it is nearly impossible to avoid raiding the vocabularies of money and travel when talking about time and life. And doing it all unconsciously.
These unconscious frames are formed by our experience as creatures in the physical world. You know why we say happy is “up” and sad is “down”? Or why we compare knowledge with “light” and ignorance with “dark”? It’s because we are daytime animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they would say good is dark and bad is light.
Metaphorical frames are not only unconscious, but complicated and often mixed. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that ideas are framed in all the following ways: fashion (“old hat,” “in style,” “in vogue”), money (“wealth,” “two cents worth, “treasure trove”), resources (“mined a vein,” “pool,” “ran out of”), products (“produced,” “turning out,” “generated”), plants (“came to fruition,” “in flower,” “budding”), and people (“gave birth to,” “brainchild,” “died off”).
Yet none of those frames is as essential to ideas as what Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor. When we say we need to “get an idea across,” or “that sentence carries little meaning,” we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.
So let’s look at the metaphorical frames we use, so far, to make sense of the Internet.
When we call the Internet a “medium” through which “content” can “delivered” via “packets” we “uploaded,” “downloaded” between “producers” and “consumers” through “pipes,” we are using a transport frame.
When we talk about “sites” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “construct” for “visitors” and “traffic” in “world” or a “space: with an “environment,” we are using a real estate frame.
When we talk about “pages” and other “documents” that we “write,” “author,” “edit,” “put up,” “post” and “syndicate,” we are using a publishing frame.
When we talk about “performing” for an “audience” that has an “experience: in a “venue,” we are using a theater frame.
And when we talk about “writing a script for delivering a better experience on a site,” we are using all four frames at the same time.
Yet none can make full sense of the Giant Zero. All of them mislead us into thinking the Giant Zero is other than what it is: a place without distance, and lots of challenges and opportunities that arise from its lack of distance.
Terraforming The Giant Zero
William Gibson famously said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Since The Giant Zero has only been around for a couple decades so far, we still have a lot of terraforming to do. Most of it, I’d say.
So here is a punch list of terraforming jobs, some of which (I suspect) can’t be done in the physical world we know almost too well.
Cooperation. Getting to know and understand other people over distances was has always been hard. But on The Giant Zero we don’t have distance as an excuse for doing nothing, or for not getting to know and work together with others. How can we use The Giant Zero’s instant proximity to overcome (and take advantage) of our differences, and stop hating The Other, whoever they may be?
Privacy. The Giant Zero doesn’t come with privacy. Nor does the physical world. But distance alone gives some measure of privacy in the physical world. We also invented clothing and shelter as privacy technologies thousands of years ago, and we have well developed manners for respecting personal boundaries. On The Giant Zero we barely have any of that, which shouldn’t be surprising, because we haven’t had much time to develop them yet. In the absence of clothing, shelter and boundaries, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone or anything to spy our browsings and emailings. (See Privacy is an Inside Job for more on that, and what we can do about it.)
Personal agency. The original meaning of agency (derived from the Latin word agere, meaning “to do”), is the power to act with full effect in the world. We lost a lot of that when Industry won the Industrial Revolution. We still lose a little bit every time we click “accept” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. We also lose power every time we acquiesce to marketers who call us “assets” they “target,” “capture,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” as if we were slaves or cattle. In The Giant Zero, however, we can come to the market as equals, in full control of our data and able to bring far more intelligence to the market’s table than companies can ever get through data gathered by surveillance and fed into guesswork mills that: a) stupidly assume that we are always buying something and b) still guess wrong at rates that round to 100% of the time. All we need to do is prove that free customers are more valuable than captive ones — to the whole economy. Which we can if we build our own tools for both independence and engagement. (Which we are.)
Politics and governance. Elections in democratic countries have always been about sports: the horse race, the boxing ring, the knockout punch. The Internet changes all that in many ways we already know and more we don’t. But what about governance? What about direct connections between citizens and the systems that serve them? The Giant Zero exists in all local, state, national and global government contexts, waiting to be discovered and used. And how should we start thinking about laws addressing an entirely new world we’ve hardly built and are years away from understanding fully (if we ever will)? In a new world being terraformed constantly, we risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with laws and regulations that will last for generations — especially when we might find a technical solution next Tuesday to last Thursday‘s problems.
Economics. What does The Giant Zero in our midst mean for money, accounting and everything in Econ 101, 102 and beyond? Today we already have Bitcoin and its distributed ledger, the block chain. Both are only a few years old, and already huge bets are being made on their successes and failures. International monetary systems, credit payment and settlement mechanisms are also challenged by digital systems of many kinds that are zero-based in several different meanings of the expression. How do we create economies that are both native to The Giant Zero and respectful of the physical world it cohabits?
The physical world. We live in an epoch that geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, because it differs from all that preceded it in one significant way: it is altered countless ways by human activity. At the very least, it is beyond dispute that our species is, from the perspective of the planet itself, a pestilence. We raid it of irreplaceable substances deposited by life forms (e.g. banded iron) and asteroid impacts (gold, silver, uranium and other heavy metals) billions of years ago, and of the irreplaceable combustible remains of plants and animals cooked in the ground for dozens to hundreds of millions of years. We fill the planet’s air and seas with durable and harmful wastes. We wipe out species beyond counting, with impunity. We have littered space with hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting crap flying at speeds ten times faster than bullets. The Giant Zero can’t reverse the damage we’ve caused, or reduce our ravenous appetites for more of everything our species selfishly calls a “resource.” But it puts us in the best possible position to understand and deal with the problems we’re causing.
I could go on, but I’d rather put another question to those of you who have made it to the end of this post: Should The Giant Zero be a book? I’m convinced of the need for it and have a pile of material already. Studying all this has also been my focus for a decade as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB. But I still have a long way to go.
If pressing on is a good idea, I could use some help thinking it through and pulling materials together. If you’re interested, let me know. No long distance charges apply.
This piece is copied over from this one in Medium, and is my first experiment in publishing first there and second here. Both are expanded and updated from a piece published at publius.cc on May 16, 2008. The drawing of the Internet is by Hugh McLeod. Other images are from Wikimedia Commons.
At the uptown end of the 59th Street/Columbus Circle subway platform there hangs from the ceiling a box with three disks on fat stalks, connected by thick black cables that run to something unseen in the downtown direction. Knowing a few things about radio and how it works, I saw that and thought, Hmm… That has to be a cell. I wonder whose? So I looked at my phone and saw my T-Mobile connection had five dots (that’s iPhone for bars), and said LTE as well. So I ran @Ookla‘s Speedtest app and got the results above.
Pretty good, no?
Sure, you’re not going to binge-watch anything there, or upload piles of pictures to some cloud, but you can at tug on your e-tether to everywhere for a few minutes. Nice to have.
So I’m wondering, @TMobile… Are those speeds the max one should expect from LTE when your local cell is almost as close as your hat?
And how long before you put these along the rest of the A/B/C/D Train routes? (The only other one I know is at 72nd, a B/C stop.) Or the rest of the subway system? In Boston too? BART? (Gotta hit all my cities.)
Meanwhile, thanks for taking care of my Main Stop in midtown.
As you see, no places are identified there. One in particular, however, is of extremely special interest to me: Harbin Hot Springs. That’s where I met my wife and made more friends than I can count. It is, or was, one of the most lovely places on Earth, inhabited and lovingly maintained by wonderful people.
I just matched up a section of the map above with Google Maps’ Earth view, and see that Harbin and its neighborhood are in the perimeter:
I took that screen shot at the excellent Oakleaf restaurant in Pittsboro, NC a few days ago. Note the zero bars (or dots) of telephone service, and the very respectable (tested!) data service. To confirm what the hollow dots said, I tried to make a call. Didn’t work.
This seems to be a new thing for T-Mobile in North Carolina, where I spent much of this summer — or at least in the parts of it where I visited.
The company’s mobile phone coverage is pretty lousy to begin with, on the whole: great on highways and in the larger towns; but spotty when you head into the suburbs and countryside. What changed is the sudden near-disappearance of voice phone coverage in some places where it had worked before, and the improvement at the same time of data coverage.
At my sister’s house, near a major interstate highway, I could use my phone on the porch or in the yard, but not indoors, where I’d see the most dreaded two words in mobile telephony: “no service.” Or at least that was the case in July and early August.
Then something strange happened. I started getting data service indoors at her house, and in other places where before there was nothing. But all I got was data, identified by that little “LTE.” Telephony was five empty dots. At my sister’s place I also couldn’t make or get a call out in the yard, on the street, or anywhere in the neighborhood. But the data service was now terrific.
So I’m wondering if this is just me, or if T-Mobile is lately favoring data over telephony in some places. Anybody know? (I note that T-Mobile’s coverage maps only seem to deal with data, not telephony. But maybe I’m missing something.)
By the way, I should add that I wouldn’t trade T-Mobile for any other carrier right now, because I travel a lot outside the country. In addition to fine coverage in New York, Boston, and all the places I tend to go in California, T-Mobile gives me free data roaming and texting everywhere I go, and 20¢/minute on the phone. Yes, the data rates tend to be 2G rather than 3G or 4G/LTE. But it tends to be good enough most of the time. It also makes me tolerant of a less-than-ideal coverage footprint here in the U.S.
This is not the propagandist’s aim. For him the validity of an image must be measured not by the degree of its fidelity, but by the response it may evoke. If it will induce the action he wishes, its fidelity is high; if not, low. … The standard that he uses in choosing the images to be disseminated — his “truths” — would be a scale based on the range of possible human responses to an image. His criterion thus is established on the basis of overt action.
At first this made me think about journalism, and how it might fit Choukas’ definition of propaganda. Then it made me think about how we might confine the study of propaganda to a harmless subset of human story-telling. That’s when sports jumped to mind.
Sports are almost entirely narrative. They also have, as social phenomena go, less importance outside themselves than such highly fraught concerns as politics, religion and business. To the cynic, sports are Kurt Vonnegut‘s foma: “harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls…Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
Yes, sports are more than that, but my soul at its simplest is a fan of the Mets. (And, less simply, a fan of the Red Sox.) Likewise, some of my least productive time is spent listening to sports talk radio — unless I count as valuable the communing of my simplest self with the souls of others who share the same mostly-harmless affections. (Hi, @MichaelSHolley.)
But how much more productive is the time I spend listening to NPR, or reading The New York Times? Some, I would say. So, I am sure, would sports fans who favor getting their news from Fox and The Wall Street Journal.
To see where I’m going here, lets unpack “harmless untruths” into a 2×2:
Foma are in the lower right corner. Whether the subject is sports or something else, that seems like a good corner in which to study propaganda.
Sports journalism, like all breeds of the discipline, escapes the foma classification by being about Truth, or at least about facts. But that’s beside my point, which is that interests, talk and reporting about sports all moves toward effects, which happen to be harmless but interesting.
So, speaking of bait, consider the three words uttered constantly by assignment editors everywhere: What’s the story?
Stories, I was taught, are the main format of human interest; and all of them have just three elements:
A protagonist, or character. This might be a person, a team, a cause or some other entity the reader, listener or viewer cares about. This character need only be interesting. Likability is a secondary matter. (Example: I hate Christian Laettner, an ESPN film.)
A problem or challenge, This needs to be a situation that keeps the reader interested: tuned in or turning pages. (Classic edtorial instruction: “No story starts with ‘happily ever after.'”) In fact, it helps if the situation gets worse, so long as we have…
Movement toward a resolution. If the war is over, or the home team is up or down by forty points with three minutes left, the challenge vanishes. If you’re at the game, your problem is beating traffic out of the parking lot.
If you’re missing one of those elements, you don’t have a story.
Case in point: Cambodia’s killing fields. The first I heard about them was in a story read by Hughes Rudd on a CBS newscast in the mid-1970s. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. On hearing this, I was appalled, because it came, in an “Oh by the way” manner, after stories about the Super Bowl and Patty Hearst (whose developing story sucked huge amounts of oxygen out of nearly every newsroom at the time).
The slaughter happening in Cambodia mattered far more than either the Super Bowl or Patty Hearst; but it wasn’t a story, because it was missing all three of those elements. There was no protagonist, other than a population with a statistic. The problem, while immense, was not ours, and also not moving toward resolution. In fact years would pass before the killing stopped.
For us here in the U.S., the killing fields story didn’t get real until The New York Times ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” by Sydney Shanberg, in the Sunday Magazine. That gave us a character, and made Cambodia’s plight real and compelling. (The story also grew, naturally, into a movie.)
Sports is always focused on those three elements. Is that because sports is always about propaganda? Or is it the case that all stories are, by their narrative nature, propaganda of a sort?
Stories are at least tendentious in the sense that the author needs a point of view — even if that point is what Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere. (That’s pretty much where CBS stood when it first reported on Cambodia’s many dead.)
Look at the photos that accompany a sports story. If a team wins, the star player is shown making a great kick, throw, shot or whatever. Or maybe just smiling. If the same team loses, the picture shows the same player messing up or frowning. Never mind that the game was close, or that the photo is of one moment among zillions of others. The entire meaning of the photo is narrative. Its entire purpose is effect, which is both to serve and drive the interests of the reader, the viewer, the listener. What’s that say about journalism as a whole?
Has anybody studied sports or journalism as propaganda? At least one inquiring mind wants to know.
Here’s a hunk of what one set (aka Album) in my Flickr stream looks like:
And here are what my stats on Flickr looked like earlier today (or yesterday, since Flickr is on GMT and it’s tomorrow there):
I ended up with 32,954 views, with no one of my 49,000+ photos getting more than 56 views. More than 95% of those views arrived via Flickr itself. The stats there are spread across 87 pages of results. Pages 1 to 63 go from 395 views (#1) down to 2. From page 64 to 87, all the results are for 1 view.
This is about AM radio stations being worth less than the ground they stand on. Case in point: WMAL-AM in Washington, DC. You can see the problem with this Google Map:
The heart-shaped patch of green between the legs of I-495 and the I-270 spur is populated by four towers radiating the signal of WMAL, a landmark on Washington’s radio dial (at 630am) since 1925. The station’s 75-acre transmitter site is nearly as big as the nearby Bethesda Country Club golf course and the Westfield Montgomery Mall. It also sits deep in the suburbs, surrounded by trees and highways, most of which appeared long after WMAL erected the towers on cheap open land, far from the bustling Capitol, many decades ago. That land is worth a lot more now.
So it’s no surprise to read news (via The Sentinel) that Cumulus Media, which owns WMAL-AM & FM, has put the land up for sale. Says the report, “Local real estate experts estimate the property could be worth hundreds of millions.” I don’t know what WMAL-AM is worth, but I’m guessing it would be a few million, tops. So it makes financial sense to sell off the land.
But what about the signal? Many AM stations have already “gone dark” (as they say in the business). Will WMAL do the same? In the first comment below, Jon Elbaz, who wrote the Sentinel piece, says Cumulus intends to keep WMAL-AM on the air somehow. But a question is raised: how long can any AM station on desirable land stay on the air? And by what means?
Back in radio’s golden age — when AM ruled the waves — the stations battling for the top of Washington, DC’s ratings heap were WTOP and WMAL. WTOP peaked when it went all-news in the 1960s, and has stayed at the top ever since. It did that by doing great work, and by wisely moving to FM a few years back, taking over the channel (103.5) long occupied by classical WGMS-FM, whose owners by then had unloaded its original 570am signal, which is still on the air as WSPZ. (More about that below.) WMAL also has an FM signal, on 105.9. That one is #9 in Nielsen’s latest figures, while WTOP is #1. WMAL-AM doesn’t show at all.
So I have to wonder about Cumulus commitment to keeping the signal on the air. Finding a new transmitter site is not a cheap undertaking. To explain, I’ll need to get technical.
To transmit, AM radio stations require a substantial sum of real estate. AM waves are hundreds of feet long, and require long radiating antennas. These take the form of towers. If a station has a directional signal, more than one tower is required to create the signal’s pattern. WMAL has two different asymmetrical patterns for use in the day and night. Here is how the four towers are arranged, and the patterns they produce:
Each tower is a quarter wavelength high, which at 630am makes them about 400 feet tall. Surrounding them is also a “ground system” of buried conductors running hundreds of feet in all directions from the towers. This is why WMAL needs those 75 acres. To stay on the air, WMAL will need to find replacement acreage, somewhere that allows the signals you see above (or slightly modified versions of them) to cross as much of the Metro area as possible, meaning it will have to be northwest of town. For that Cumulus will need to either buy land out that way, or co-site with some other station already operating there.
The only two stations with transmitters out there are WTEM (“ESPN 980”) and WSPZ, both sports stations (on 980 and 570 respectively) and owned by Red Zebra Broadcasting (in which the main stakeholders are also those of the Washington Redskins). (Here are aerial views, via Bing, of the WTEM and WSPZ sites.)
Of those, WSPZ’s site looks like it has more room. It’s in Germantown, about 22 miles from downtown Washington, more than twice the distance from downtown Washington as WMAL’s current site. I suspect the signal patterns could be “tightened” to concentrate energy toward Washington, though, and that might help. But ground conductivity — which matters hugely for AM signals — is poor in Maryland and Virginia, which is one reason AM stations there tend to suck in the ratings. (For evidence of how much ground conductivity matters, compare three AM stations, all 5,000 watts, and all on 570am: WSPZ in Washington, WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota and KLIF in Dallas. The latter two cover enormous territories, while WSPZ basically covers the District and bits of adjacent Maryland and Virginia. Ground conductivity in the middle of the country is about 15x better than the area served by WSPZ.)
In fact WSPZ is way out of town today because its owners a few years back did exactly what Cumulus is doing with WMAL today: they sold the land out from under the towers. This topo map shows where the WSPZ towers used to be, when it was still WGMS: a site in Potomac, across the Beltway about three miles from WMAL’s site. Believe me, the old signal from the old site covered the metro a helluva lot better than the new signal from the new site. Expect the same results if WMAL moves there.
So again, why keep WMAL-AM on the air at all?
One argument is that the WMAL-FM signal isn’t a great one. While it’s licensed for 28000 watts, it only hits that max to the northwest and southwest of its transmitter in Merrifield, outside the Beltway on the southwest side of town. Toward the district (northeast of the site) its signal has a huge dent, down to around 1/4 of what it puts out in the other directions:
So getting a bit of help on the AM side might still be worth the trouble.
Still, one wonders… How much time will pass before the land under WSPZ becomes far more valuable than the station — or even WSPZ and WMAL put together?
This kind of question sits in front of many AM station owners’ minds right now. I expect what we’ll have in the long run are AM stations standing on land with little or no market value. The rest will disappear along with their real estate.
[Later…] I also wonder about Cumulus’ commitment to saving the signal. In 2011 it acquired (by merger) KAAY/1090am in Little Rock, Arkansas — a 50,000 watt giant with richhistory and a night signal that stretches from Cuba to Canada. Or used to. Wikipedia:
Unfortunately, owners of KAAY in later years allowed the stations famed transmission facilities in Wrightsville, AR to fall into disrepair. Copper thieves stole a large amount of transmission line, degrading the stations signal significantly. Roof damage allowed water to enter the 50,000 watt transmitter – knocking it off the air. Currently, KAAY has reestablished 50000 watt service during the day, but has yet to rebuild the 3 tower directional array, so nighttime service remains under an STA at 1250 watts non directional.
KAAY is the biggest AM station in Arkansas. If Cumulus cared, it would restore the station to full capacity. But the format is “brokered/Christian,” which is tends to be low-cost dial-filler. Only one AM station makes the published ratings for Little Rock, and it’s Cumulus’ KARN/920 “The Sports Animal.” Not KAAY. KARN is also at the bottom of the heap. Higher rated are four other Cumulus stations, all FMs.
So the Company isn’t suffering there. Its portfolio of stations does fine, and that’s what matters, right? If the market won’t miss WMAL-AM, why bother keeping it?
[Later again…] This story features an offer sheet on the property, and says offers need to be in by March 12. I also found this older story, about Cumulus’ plan to sell the land under KABC’s transmitter. I can find no evidence that the land has been sold, or is still on the market. KABC also has no construction permits to move to a new location.
When the towers are torn down, it will not affect WMAL, said Cumulus spokesman Collin Jones. Jones said the company would lease transmission facilities elsewhere after the sale closed.
“Listeners will literally have no idea that it happened,” Jones said.
Well, some listeners. Others will. There is no way WMAL can move to another site without compromising the signal in some directions.
[May 5…] A buyer for the land has been found, stories in Bethesda Magazine and Radio World report. In a search on FCCInfo.com, however, I see no applications or construction permits at a new site, but perhaps Cumulus is still in negotiations for leasing space at other locations.
[August 2016…] WMAL is indeed moving to the WSPZ site, with 10kw by day and 2.7kw by night. The patterns will be very similar to WSPZ’s. So expect similar coverage.
By this time next year, Kansas City-style jazz might be bebopping out of a new radio station near you.
The Mutual Musicians Foundation in the 18th and Vine jazz district announced this week it’s been granted a construction permit for a noncommercial, low-power FM radio station. The foundation is hoping the KC jazz station, at 104.7 FM, will be on the air by next January.
In fact there is a jazz station called KOJH already — a streaming one in Oklahoma. Though it’s not a licensed radio station, it may have inherited those call letters from one. (I’ve looked, but haven’t been able to tell. Maybe the lazyweb knows.)
Worse, most of Kansas City’s big FM stations have effective radiated powers (what’s concentrated toward the horizon, or populations) of 100,000 watts, and transmit from a collection of towers over 1000 feet tall, just a short distance east of downtown. One of those is KBEQ on 104.3, just two notches down the dial from KOJH. This means you will need a good radio to keep KBEQ from blasting KOJH sideways. Today’s car radios are good enough to keep that from happening. (And will likely get KOJH up to a dozen or more miles away.) Recent-vintage portable and home radios will have a hard time, unless they’re very close to the KOJH transmitter.
So it is good to know KOJH plans to stream online, because that’s the future of radio.
But there are other stepping stones.
For example, something the Mutual Musicians Foundation might consider doing, while they get underway with KOJH, is buying an AM station that’s dropped out of the ratings. Some possibles, going up the dial:
KCCV/760. 6000 watts day, 200 watts night.
WHB/810. 50000 watts day, 5000 watts night.
KBMZ/980. 5000 watts day and night.
KCWJ/1030. 5000 watts day, 500 watts night.
KCTO/1160. 5000 watts day, 230 watts night.
KYYS/1250. 25000 watts day, 3700 watts night.
KDTD/1340. 1000 watts, day and night.
KCNW/1380. 2500 watts day, 300 watts night.
KKLO/1410. 5000 watts day, 500 watts night.
KCZZ/1480. 1000 watts day, 500 watts night.
KWOD/1660. 10000 watts day, 1000 watts night.
(Note that wattage is just one variable. Location of the transmitter, efficiency of the towers, directionality of the signal, ground conductivity and frequency all matter too. For example, the lower the station’s frequency, the longer the wavelength, and the better its signal travels along the ground.)
Only three AM stations show up in Kansas City’s latest ratings: KCSP, a sports station at 610am, KCMO, a right-wing talk station at 710am, and KPRT, a gospel music station at 1590am. (With 1000 watts by day and just 50 watts at night, I’m amazed KPRT makes the ratings at all.)
All the un-rated stations listed above put signals across all of KOJH’s coverage area, and then some. Some, such as WHB (a legendary station and signal), may never be for sale. But I’ll bet some others are on the market today, and will only get cheaper.
Music sounds awful on AM, unless the station radiates HD radio encoding. Most engineers I know in broadcasting dislike HD radio and consider it a gimmick. But it does sound quite good on both AM and FM. The difference it makes on AM is amazing.
Loyal listeners of a format will do the work required to get a signal. I’m sure that’s the case with KPRT’s gospel listeners, for example. Now, after stumbling for years, HD radio is picking up with manufacturers. There is a nice list on the HD Radio site. Meanwhile, the market value of AM radio stations, especially ones with no ratings, is crashing to the point where the cost of operating them exceeds their income. (An AM station sucks about twice the wattage off the grid as it radiates from its transmitter.) In coming years many of them will sell for a song.
So those changes — the rise of HD Rado and the decline of also-ran AM station prices — are factors the KOJH folks might want to keep in mind as they fire up their LP signal on FM. Think local, but think big too.
Here is how New York looked through my front window yesterday at 3:51am, when I was packing to fly and drive from JFK to LAX to Santa Barbara:
I shoveled a path to the street four times: the first three through light and fluffy snow, and the fourth through rain, slush and a ridge of myucch scraped in front of the driveway by a plow. By the time we got to JFK, all the pretty snow was thick gray slush. It was a good time to get the hell out. Fortunately, @United got us onto the first flight of the day to LAX . (We had been booked on a later flight. To see the crunch we missed, run the FlightAware MiseryMap for JFK, and watch 2 February.)
The flight to LAX was quick for a westbound one (which flies against the wind): a little over five hours. For half the country, the scene below was mostly white. This one…
… of the ridge country between Beaver Dam Lake and Columbus, Wisconsin, said far more about snow than the white alone suggested. Those corrugated hills are grooves scraped onto the the landscape by the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, during which a local lobe of the Laurentide ice sheet crept steadily northeast to southwest, finally melting into lakes and rivers only about ten thousand years ago — a mere blink in geologic time.
A few minutes later came the snow-covered Mississippi, skirting Prairie du Chein, on the Wisconsin-Iowa border:
Then, a couple hours later, we flew straight across the Grand Canyon, which has a horizontal immensity one tends to miss when gawking at the canyon’s scenic climaxes from the ground. One of my favorite features there is the Uinkaret Volcanic Field, which poured a syrup of lava over the Canyon’s layer cake of 290-1700-year old rock. That happened about 70,000 years ago, and still looks fresh:
(BTW, two of the three pictures at that last link, in Wikipedia, are ones I shot on earlier trips. The third is by NASA.)
Gliding into LAX, we got a nice view of downtown…
… where the temperature was 76°.
When we got home to Santa Barbara it was about 70° and looked like this, out my home office door:
It wasn’t the prettiest sunset we’ve had here (this one I shot on 22 January was spectacular), but I’ve rarely seen a more welcome scenic bookend for a cross-country trip.