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Where does public radio rock—or even rule? And why?

To start answering those questions, I looked through Nielsen‘s radio station ratings, which are on the Radio Online site. I dug down through all the surveyed markets, from #1 (New York NY) through #269 (Las Cruces-Deming NM), and pulled out the top 31 markets for public radio (where the share was over 6.0 — all numbers are % of all listening within a geographic market). Here ya go:

  1. Santa Barbara CA (where KCLU is #1), 23.4
  2. Burlington VT (where WVPS is #1), 17.2
  3. Montpelier-Barre-Waterbury VT (where WVPS is #1), 17.0
  4. Asheville NC (where WCQS/WYQS is #2 with 11.8 and WNCW is #3 with 4.0)
  5. Ann Arbor, MI (where WUOM is #1 and WEMU is tied at #2), 15.1
  6. Cape Cod MA (where WCAI is #2), 14.6
  7. Portland OR (where KOPB is tied at #2), 12.6
  8. Denver-Boulder CO (where KCFR is #1), 12.3
  9. Austin TX (where KUT is #1), 11.3
  10. Eugene-Springfield (where KLCC is #2), 11.3
  11. Washington, DC (where WAMU is #2 and sometimes #1), 11.3
  12. San Francisco CA (where KQED has been #1 through the all the posted surveys), 11.0
  13. Seattle-Takoma WA (where KUOW has been #1 through the all the posted surveys), 10.9
  14. Raleigh-Durham NC (where WUNC is #4), 10.6
  15. Portland ME (where WMEA is #1), 10.5
  16. San Jose CA (where KQED is #3), 9.9
  17. Concord (Lakes Regions) NH (where WEVO is #1) 9.3
  18. Boston MA (where WBUR is #7), 8.9
  19. San Luis Obispo CA (where KCBX is #2), 8.9
  20. Columbia MO (where KBIA is #4), 8.6
  21. Tallahassee FL (where WFSU is #3), 8.6
  22. Washington DC (where WAMU is #2 and sometimes #1), 8.6
  23. Sarasota-Bradenton FL (where WUSF is #2 and WSMR is #3) 8.2
  24. Monterey CA (where KAZU was #2), 7.7
  25. Gainesville-Ocala FL (where WUFT is #4), 7.3
  26. New Haven CT (where WSHU is #6), 7.3
  27. Lafayette IN (where WBAA-AM is #1 and WBAA-FM is #3), 7.0
  28. Traverse City-Petoskey-Cadillac MI  (where WICA is #7), 6.7
  29. Hartford-New Britain CT (where WNPR is #9), 6.5
  30. Oxnard-Ventura CA (where KCLU is #4), 6.3
  31. Grand Junction CO (where KPRN is #5), 6.1

(Note: Totals above are of noncommercial stations with typical public radio formats: NPR-type news and programming, plus classical, jazz and alternative music. I didn’t include noncommercial religious stations†).

Of course I’m pleased to find my town, Santa Barbara, on top. Here’s how Nielsen breaks out station ratings within that 23.4 share number.

  1. KCLU-FM 7.8. This is KCLU’s 110-watt translator on 102.3, not the home station on 88.3 in Thousand Oaks, which barely gets into town. (Note that this signal is directional, meaning weaker in all directions other than straight into town. This number is remarkable for a translator. For more on that, see the map below.)
  2. KCLU-AM 2.6. This signal has the same audio as KCLU-FM, so the two together are 9.4, which makes KCLU #1, edging KTYD, the landmark local rock station, which gets a 9.2.
  3. KUSC 5.2. Though reported as KUSC, this is actually KDB/93.7, which carries the audio of KUSC from Los Angeles.
  4. KCRW 3.9. This is surely KDRW, which mostly identifies as KCRW, since most of the time KDRW carries the audio of KCRW, from Santa Monica/Los Angeles.
  5. KDRW 1.3. This is a case of one station reported two different ways. Together they total 5.2.
  6. KCBX 1.3. This is KSBX, a 50-watt repeater of KCBX from San Luis Obispo, which has no signal at all in town (being blocked by the 4000-foot Santa Ynez Mountain range).
  7. KPCC 1.3. This is the 10-watt translator of KPCC from Pasadena/Los Angeles. KPCC’s home signal doesn’t reach here.

So: why Santa Barbara? Here’s what I think:

  1. Demographics. Santa Barbara is an upscale university town with a bonus population of active older folks who are intellectually and culturally engaged. NPR, for example, tends to do well with that combination of crowds.
  2. Lots of signals. There is now a surfeit of public radio signals in Santa Barbara.The list above is unusually large for a town this size, and doesn’t include stations that serve the market but didn’t make the ratings, such as KPFK (Los Angeles most powerful FM station, which also has a local 10-watt translator) and UCSB’s college radio station, KZSB).
  3. Geographic isolation. Santa Barbara is far enough from big market signals to make them weak or absent. (Some do get in, and even show a bit in the ratings.) I think the same kind of thing can also be said for many of the other smaller markets where public radio does well.
  4. News coverage. There are three two steady sources of local news in Santa Barbara: local/regional TV (notably KEYT/3), local print (both online and off), and public radio—especially KCLU, which has won three Murrow Awards and six AP awards in the last two years. Of its news director, Lance Orozco, KCLU says, “Lance has won more than 200 journalism awards for KCLU, including more than 90 Golden Mikes, 20-plus regional Edward R. Murrow awards, a national Edward R. Murrow Award (an honor which came to David Letterman’s attention on “The Late Show.”), and a national Society Of Professional Journalists Award He has been AP’s small market reporter of the year in the western U.S. nine times.”
  5. Disasters. Santa Barbara has a long and almost steady record of wildfires, the largest of which was the Thomas Fire in December 2017, followed by massive debris flows during a storm in January 2018. Public Radio and other local media became indispensable during that time. I suspect it has stayed that way in a time when national news has become more partisan and less anchored to facts “on the ground,” as they say.

Montecito debris flow Montecito debris flow, January 2018. From KEYT/3.

I also think some other factors are in play here—factors with meaning that go far beyond Santa Barbara:

  1. Local and regional news lives on in public radio while it has been dying off on the commercial side. Old-fashioned “full service” local radio has been in retreat across the country. Stations categorized as “news” or “news/talk” in the ratings (and within the industry) are now mostly conduits for political talk. True full-time pure news stations thrive only in the largest markets, where the news operations can afford the reporters. Specifically those are New York (WCBS and WINS), Philadelphia (KYW), Washington (WTOP), Chicago (WBBM), Los Angeles (KNX) and San Francisco (KCBS). That’s it. (In fact one of L.A.’s two news stations, KFWB, dropped the format in 2014.)
  2. Public radio may be the only part of shared culture, other than sports, where the media center still holds. This too owes to being anchored in local culture, and reporting on local news, which by necessity tends to be less partisan than national news has become.
  3. Listener abandonment of over-the-air radio, especially for music. Music and talk listening has been shifting for years from over-the-air to streaming services, satellite radio and podcasts, leaving public radio with a higher percentage of listening to over-the-air broadcasts.
  4. Embrasure of streaming, satellite radio, podcasting, smart speakers and other new technologies. Public broadcasting has long been ahead of the technical curve, and in the last decade has done an excellent job of maximizing what can still be done with legacy over-the-air broadcasting (for example, buying up signals with low market value—as KCLU did with its AM in Santa Barbara—and planting translators and repeater stations all over the place), while also pioneering on the digital front. Noncommercial and religious broadcasters have both been highly resourceful and ahead of the curve on The Great Digital Shift.
  5. Turning localism into a big competitive advantage. Something that has long been a weakness of public radio, especially NPR—its fealty to stations, refusing to subordinate the network to those—is turning into an advantage, as local programming matters more and more. Even in the midst of The Great Digital Shift, we remain physical beings who live in the natural world, vote in local elections, drive in local traffic, care about local teams, deal with local emergencies, and depend on each other’s helping hands when and where it matters most. Public radio is especially compatible with all that. (Note: this was the subject of my TEDx talk in Santa Barbara last September.)
  6. Re-defining regionalities. What makes a region a region, or a market a market? I think public radio is playing a role in defining both, especially as commercially-supported news becomes more partisan and less well funded by advertising. Again, my case in point is KCLU, which started as a little Thousand Oaks/Ventura station, then became a South Coast station by adding two Santa Barbara signals. Now, by adding another full-size signal in Santa Maria (KCLM/89.7), plus a translator in San Luis Obispo, KCLU is almost as much a Central Coast station, at least in terms of geographic coverage. Still, I’m not sure that’s what they have in mind. They identify now as “NPR for the California Coast,” yet their vision is still “to inform, educate and promote dialogue among the citizens of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties on local, regional, national and global issues.” No mention of San Luis Obispo County; so I’m not sure how well that’s working yet.  KCBX, from San Luis Obispo, also didn’t become any less a Central Coast station when it added its South Coast signal in Santa Barbara. KCLU does talk up the Central Coast as much as it can, so maybe a shift is in the works. It’s worth noting that Santa Barbara–Santa Maria-San Luis Obispo is a Nielsen Designated Market Area (or DMA). Ventura and Thousand Oaks are part of the Los Angeles DMA.(DMAs are determined by what local TV stations are most watched. So, while what defines local and regional identity is an open question, it’s clear to me that public radio is playing a part in answering it.

I may add to those points as I take in reader feedback and think more on all of it. Meanwhile, let’s look a bit more closely to what has happened to public radio in Santa Barbara over in the current millennium.

When I moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, public radio was long on classical music and short on news and talk. The two classical stations were USC’s KQSC/88.7 with 12,000 watts and KDB/93.7 with 12,500 watts (that’s a lot), both on Gibraltar peak, overlooking town. KQSC was a repeater for KUSC in Los Angeles. On the talk (NPR, etc.) side, KCLU/88.3 had a 4-watt translator operating on 102.3 from Gibraltar Peak, overlooking town. It actually sounded pretty good if you were within sight of the transmitter, and may already have been a strong ratings contender. (I recall a Nielsen survey a few years ago that put it at #1 at the time.) To put this little translator’s size in perspective, the biggest station in town is KRUZ/103.3 KVYB/103.3, grandfathered with 105,000 watts and radiating from Broadcast Peak, which is over 4000 feet high. Here’s a pair of maps that shows the difference:

KVYB vs. KCLU

KCLU’s home signal from Thousand Oaks was weak and distant back then, and still is. So was, and is, KCRU/88.1, the Oxnard repeater for Santa Monica-based KCRW/89.9. KCRW also had a 10-watt translator on 106.9 serving Goleta (the next town west of Santa Barbara). Pacifica’s L.A. based KPFK/90.7 had a 10-watt translator on 98.7. UCSB had KCSB/91.9, its own non-NPR college station, radiating with 620 watts from Broadcast Peak, also on the Goleta side of town. I also loved that there was a local non-political full-service commercial news/talk station in town at the time: KEYT/1250am, featuring a good morning show hosted by John Palminteri.

Since then, all this happened:

  1. In 2002, KSBX/89.5 came on the air from Gibraltar Peak. It’s a 50-watt repeater for KCBX/90.1, the public radio voice of San Luis Obispo. On the same channel, KPBS from San Diego also pounds into town on warm days.
  2. In 2003, KEYT and KEYT-AM were sold, the AM station went to Spanish broadcaster, and John Palminteri spread his reporting talents across lots of other stations (including KCLU). Local news/talk was then gone until…
  3. In 2005, the Santa Barbara News-Press, owned by Wendy P. McCaw, got its own local AM station, now called KZSB/1290, and has been a local old-fashioned commercial ‘full service” news station ever since. The main personality there is “Baron” Ron Herron, who had been a local radio personality for many decades before then, and has persisted ever since. It’s basically his station.
  4. In 2008, KCLU bought a local station on the AM band. That’s now KCLU-AM/1340. Though only 650 watts, it does cover the populated South Coast pretty well.
  5. In 2014, a bunch of things happened at once:
    1. Public radio, which had never been a native thing in Santa Barbara, suddenly got saturated (as Matt Welsh put it in The Independent). Specifically…
    2. KPCC/89.3 in Pasadena/Los Angeles came on with a 10-watt Gibraltar Peak translator on 89.9. It covers the town well.
    3. Santa Monica Community College, which owns KCRW, bought KQSC from USC and made it KDRW, which has a local studio and does some local coverage, though most of the time it’s a repeater for KCRW. A big one, too.
    4. The University of Southern California bought KDB and moved KUSC’s classical programming over there from what had been KQSC (and is now KDRW).
    5. KCLU replaced its non-directional 4-watt signal on 102.3 with a new directional one that maxes at 115 watts toward downtown, but radiates as little as 5 watts in other directions. This is the signal that produces the small signal footprint in the maps above. And it rocks in the ratings.
    6. Along the way, local journalism flourished online as well. The Independent, a weekly, has remained a strong local institution. Edhat (founded and led by the late and still much-missed Peter Sklar) was born and became an exemplary “placeblog.” Bill MacFadyen’s Noozhawk also became a local news institution. And the News-Press didn’t die.

    If I had more time, I’d put all that stuff in a graphic.

    †Explanations, qualifications and cautions

    Shares, Nielsen explains, are “quarter hour rating (AQH) share of persons, ages 12+, Monday through Sunday in the Metro Survey Area. A share is the percentage of those listening to radio in the MSA who are listening to a particular radio station. Average Quarter-Hour Persons (AQH Persons) is the average number of persons listening to a particular station for at least five minutes during a 15-minute period. [AQH Persons to a Station / AQH Persons to All Stations] x 100 = Share (%)”

    The latest rating period differs by market. In big markets, surveys are monthly. The most recent for those are February 2019. Some are quarterly, or twice annually (Spring and Fall). The most recent of those are Fall 2018 in some cases (e.g. Hudson Valley, measured quarterly, and Santa Barbara, measured Spring and Fall), and Winter 2019 in other cases (e.g. Louisville, measured quarterly).

    Noncommercial stations are not listed for all markets, and not every time in all of those where they are surveyed. For example, the listings for Santa Barbara noncommercial stations say “N/A” for the three survey periods prior to the latest one (Fall 2018), while the current listings for Monterey-Salinas (Winter 2019) list noncommercial stations as “N/A” while showing them in Fall 2018. So for Monterey-Salinas, I used the Fall 2018 listing. (The 7.7 there was just one station: KAZU, which was also #2 overall.)

    In all markets there is lots of listening to radio stations not listed in the surveys. For example, all the listed shares for New York stations totaled 88.4, while Tampa-St. Petersburg stations totaled only 24.1. That means 11.8 of New York and 75.9% of Tampa-St. Pete listening is to stations not listed in the ratings. I am sure in many markets noncommercial listening is part of that dark matter, but there’s no way to tell.

    In some cases, the only stations appearing in a survey are those of one or two owners. The Grand Junction survey lists only seven stations, five owned by Townsquare Media and two by Public Broadcasting of Colorado. The total of those is only 28.7. The Monroe Louisiana survey lists only six stations, all owned by Holladay Broadcasting. Those total 50.6, which means half of the listening in that market is to unlisted stations, and (presumably), ones not owned by Holladay Broadcasting.

    Some stations’ online streams do make survey listings in some markets. I don’t know whether Nielsen counts listeners physically located outside a market, or how Nielsen deals with smart speakers. I do know that Nielsen cares about streaming, though, because their home page says so.

    Okay, I’ve already said too much, and I have much more I could say. But this post has been sitting half-written in my browser since I started digging online one sleepless night in early March, so I’ll call it done enough and put it up.

That was yesterday. Hard to tell from just looking at it, but that’s a 180° shot, panning from east to west across California’s South Coast, most of which is masked by smoke from the Thomas Fire.

We weren’t in the smoke then, but we are now, so there’s not much to shoot. Just something more to wear: a dust mask. Yesterday I picked up two of the few left at the nearest hardware store, and now I’m wearing one around the house. Since wildfire smoke is bad news for lungs, that seems like a good idea.

I’m also noticing dead air coming from radio stations whose transmitters have likely burned up. And websites that seem dead to the fire as well. Here’s a list of signals that I’m pretty sure is off the air right now. All their transmitters are within the Thomas Fire perimeter:

Some are on Red Mountain (on the west of Highway 33, which connects Ventura with Ojai); some are in the Ventura Hills; and some are on Sulphur Mountain, which is the high ridge on the south side of Ojai. One is on Santa Paula Mountain, with a backup on Red Mountain. (That’s KOCP. I don’t hear it, and normally do.)

In some cases I’m hearing a live signal but dead air. In others I’m hearing nothing at all. In still other cases I’m hearing something faint. And some signals are too small, directional or isolated for me to check from 30 miles (give or take) away. So, fact checking is welcome. There’s a chance some of these are on the air with lower power at temporary locations.

The links in the list above go to technical information for each station, including exact transmitter locations and facilities, rather than to the stations themselves. Here’s a short cut to those, from the great Radio-Locator.com.

Nearly all the Ventura area FM stations — KHAY, KRUZ, KFYV, KMLA, KCAQ , KMRO, KSSC and KOCP — have nothing about the fire on their websites. Kinda sad, that. I’ve only found only two local stations doing what they should be doing at times like this. One is KCLU/88.3, the public station in Thousand Oaks. KCLU also serves the South Coast with an AM and an FM signal in Santa Barbara. The other is KVTA/1590. The latter is almost inaudible here right now. I suppose that’s because of a power outage. Its transmitter, like those of the other two AM stations in town, is down in a flat area unlikely to burn.

KBBY, on Rincon Mountain (a bit west of Red Mountain, but in an evacuation area with reported spot fires), is still on the air. Its website also has no mention of the fire. Same with KHAY/100.7, on Red Mountain, which was off the air but is now back on. Likewise KMLA/103.7, licensed to El Rio but serving the Ventura area.

KXLM/102.9 which transmits from the flats, is on the air.

Other sources of fire coverage are KPCC, KCRW and KNX.

 

 

 

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Here’s what I wrote about pirate radio in New York, back in 2013 . I hoped to bait major media attention with that. Got zip.

Then I wrote this in 2015 (when I also took the screen shot, above, of a local pirate’s ID on my kitchen radio). I got a couple people interested, including one college student, but we couldn’t coordinate our schedules and the moments were lost.

Now comes news of pirate radio crackdowns by the FCC*, yet little of that news concerns the demand these stations supply. The default story is about FCC vs. Pirates, not how pirates address the inadequacies of FCC-licensed broadcast radio. (One good exception: this story in the Miami Herald about an FCC-fined pirate that programs for a population licensed radio doesn’t serve.)

To sample the situation, drive your car up Broadway north of 181st Street in Manhattan (above which the city gets very hilly, and there is maximal signal shadowing by big apartment buildings), or into the middle of the Bronx (same kind of setting), on any weekend evening. Then hit SCAN on your radio. Betcha a third of the stations you’ll hear are pirates, and the announcers will be speaking Spanish or Caribbean English. Some stations will have ads. Even if you only hear three or four signals (I’m on the wrong coast for checking on this), you’re tapping into something real happening which—far as I know—continues to attract approximately zero interest among popular media. (Could be it’s a thing on Twitter, but I don’t know.)

But there is a story here, about a marketplace of the literal sort. As I say in both those posts (at the top two links above), I wish I knew Spanish. For a reporter who does, there’s some great meat to chew on here. And it’s not just about the FCC playing a game of whack-a-mole. It’s about what licensed broadcasting alone can’t or won’t do.

Low power FM transmitters are cheap, by the way. The good ones are in low four figures. (One example.) The okay ones are in the two- and three-figure range. (Examples on Amazon and eBay.)

By the way, anything more than a small fraction of one watt is almost certainly in violation of Part 15 of the FCC rules, and therefore illegal. But hey, there’s a market for these things, so they sell.

By the way, is anyone visiting the topic of what will happen if Cumulus and/or iHeart can’t pay their debts? If either or both go down, a huge percentage of over-the-air radio in the U.S. goes with them.

The easy thing to blame is bad corporate decisions of one kind or another. The harder one is considering what the digital world is doing to undermine and replace the analog one.

If you’re wondering about why pirate radio is so big in New York yet relatively nowhere in Los Angeles (the next-largest broadcast market), here’s the main reason: New York FM stations are weak. The biggest sharing a master antenna atop the Empire State Building are only 6000 watts, at about 1300 feet up above the center of a metro with lots signal shadows and reflections caused by high-rise buildings, some taller than the Empire State Building.

In nearby New Jersey and the outer boroughs, you can put out a 10 or a 50 watt signal from a whip antenna on top of a house or a high-rise, on a channel right next to a licensed one, and cover a zip code or two with little trouble.

It’s hard to do that in most of Los Angeles, where stations radiate from mile-high Mt. Wilson at powers up to 110000 watts, and strong signals pack the dial from one end to the other. There are similar situations in Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Denver and San Francisco (though there are a few more terrain shadows for pirates to operate in). In flat places without thick clusters of high-rises in their outlying areas—Miami, New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit—there are few places for pirates to hide among the buildings. In those places it’s relatively easy for the FCC to locate and smack down a pirate, especially if the pirates operate in a wide open way (as was the Miami example).

Still, I think pirate radio won’t go away, for the simple reason that it’s too easy to operate a station, and too few existing stations serving small community interests.

docdaveMy given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.

Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)

As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 miles as the crow flies.)

As a commercial station, WDBS had to sell advertising. This proved so difficult that we made up ads for stuff that didn’t exist. That, in addition to selling ads, was my job. The announcer’s name I used for many of the ads, plus other humorous features, was Doctor Dave. It wasn’t a name I chose. Bob Conroy did that. I also had a humorous column under the same name for the station’s monthly arts guide, with the image above at the top of the page. That one was created by Ray Simone.

Ray and David Hodskins, another WDBS listener, later approached me with the idea of starting an ad agency, which we did: Hodskins Simone & Searls. Since we already had a David, everybody at the agency called me Doctor Dave, which quickly abbreviated to Doc. Since my social network in business far exceeded all my other ones, the name stuck. And there you have it.

esb-antenae

Before we start, let me explain that ATSC 1.0 is the HDTV standard, and defines what you get from HDTV stations over the air and cable. It dates from the last millennium. Resolution currently maxes out at 1080i, which fails to take advantage even the lowest-end HDTVs sold today, which are 1080p (better than 1080i).

Your new 4K TV or computer screen has 4x the resolution and “upscales” the ATSC picture it gets over the air or from cable. But actual 4k video looks better. Sources for that include satellite TV providers (DirectTV and Dish) and streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc.).

In other words, the TV broadcast industry is to 4K video what AM radio is to FM. (Or what both are to streaming.)

This is why our new FCC chairman is stepping up for broadcasters. In FCC’s Pai Proposes ATSC 3.0 Rollout, John Eggerton (@eggerton) of B&C (Broadcasting & Cable) begins,

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai signaled Thursday that he wants broadcasters to be able to start working on tomorrow’s TV today.

Pai, who has only been in the job since Jan. 20, wasted no time prioritizing that goal. He has already circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to the other commissioners that would allow TV stations to start rolling out the ATSC 3.0 advanced TV transmission standard on a voluntary basis. He hopes to issue final authorization for the new standard by the end of the year, he said in an op ed in B&C explaining the importance of the initiative.

“Next Gen TV matters because it will let broadcasters offer much better services in a variety of ways,” Pai wrote. “Picture quality will improve with 4K transmissions. Accurate sound localization and customizable sound mixes will produce an immersive audio experience. Broadcasters will be able to provide advanced emergency alerts with more information, more tailored to a viewer’s particular location. Enhanced personalization and interactivity will enable better audience measurement, which in turn will make for higher-quality advertising—ads relevant to you and that you actually might want to see. Perhaps most significantly, consumers will easily be able to watch over-the-air programming on mobile devices.”

Three questions here.

  1. Re: personalization, will broadcasters and advertisers agree to our terms rather than vice versa? Term #1: #NoStalking. So far, I doubt it. (Not that the streamers are ready either, but they’re more likely to listen.)
  2. How does this square with the Incentive Auction, which—if it succeeds—will get rid of most over the air TV?
  3. What will this do for (or against) cable, which is having a helluva time wedging too many channels into its available capacities already, and do it by compressing the crap out of everything, filling the screen with artifacts (those sections of skin or ball fields that look plaid or pixelated).

Personally, I think both over the air and cable TV are dead horses walking, and ATSC 3.0 won’t save them. We’ll still have cable, but will use it mostly to watch and interact with streams, most of which will come from producers and distributors that were Net-native in the first place.

But I could be wrong about any or all of this. Either way (or however), tell me how.

 

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Somebody in Quora asked “Which is the best FM radio?”

So far, mine is the only answer. It’s tops with a whopping 3 upvotes, out of 139 views. Not a lot of box office there. So I’ve decided to duplicate the answer here,, for whatever additional good it might do. I also added a bit, because I can’t stop doing that. So read on…

becker-europa

Here’s your rule of thumb: The best FM radios today are in cars. And, since most car radios use identical or similar chipsets, many of them are tied for the distinction. (Though there are a few dogs. I once met a Toyota RAV-4 with a truly sucky radio. Other Toyota radios have been fine.)

The best of the best are in slightly older cars that have a vertical outside whip antenna. FM waves resonate best with antennas about 30 inches long, give or take, which ideally will be removed as far as possible from metal that might obstruct received signals. For practical and fashion reasons, most radios in new cars are compromised by the lack of an outside whip antenna, instead using short stubby rubberized ones on the outside, or thin horizontal ones embedded in rear windows and disguised to look like part of the defrosting systems there. Engineers have found ways to make these perform almost as well as outside whip antennas, but they’re still not the real thing.

The best radio I have ever known was the one in my wife’s 1992 Infiniti Q45a, which featured a “diversity” antenna system: a very innovative approach that chooses or combines signals from more than one antenna. The radio in the Q45a used both a motorized retracting whip outside antenna and a horizontal one embedded in the rear window, and chose the best reception coming from either or both. AM reception was also outstanding on that radio, featuring C-QUAM, the then-current AM stereo technology. Even when stations stopped broadcasting with that method, the sound quality was outstanding for AM, because activating AM stereo listening also widened the bandwidth, which maximized sound quality for mono stations as well. (When that car died, my wife replaced it with a very similar one three years newer. Alas, that was after Nissan, Infiniti’s parent company, had “de-contented” out some features the company thought the owner wouldn’t notice. One was the AM stereo feature, and along with it the wider bandwidth. So that radio still pulls in signals (and retains the diversity antenna), but sounds like shit on AM. An automotive engineer at the time told me this move saved Nissan 5¢ on cars that cost upwards of $50k new. Little did Nissan know or care that one reason we chose that first car was the quality of the AM radio. The one we replaced it with was only $5k, so it was a helluva deal at the time.)

The best AM radio I ever heard was the Becker in the 1966 Volvo 122s that my parents brought in Belgium on their only trip to Europe. (It looked a lot like the one above.) The FM dial only went up to 104 in Europe back then, while the U.S. band went to 108, so the radio cutting out stations at the top end of the dial. The radio was also mono, with just one speaker that faced forward from the deck below the rear window. But reception was about as good as it gets on FM and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before or since on AM. In the daytime, when AM signals travel only along the ground, I could get WNBC/660 (now WFAN) and WABC/770 all the way past Richmond, Virginia, when I drove from New York to North Carolina. Even in Greensboro, I could still hear the faint signals of both stations. (Here’s a coverage map for WFAN. No radio today is getting much of a signal outside the farthest line there, at least in the daytime.) And at night I could get listenable signals, bouncing in off the sky, from KFI/640 from Los Angeles, KNBR/680 from San Francisco and KSL/1160 from Salt Lake City. A close second to that was the after-market Motorola AM radio my parents bought in 1965 for their 1963 Chevy Bel-Air. Motorola in those days was perhaps the world’s most advanced provider of radio gear for many mobile purposes, and it showed in their radios.

There are two reasons car radios tend to be better than ones you carry or leave plugged in at home. One is their wide range of required operating conditions: from streets in city canyons among signal-reflecting skyscrapers (some topped with FM transmitters that can overwhelm circuitry of nearby radios) to far rural hills, mountains, plains and valleys. The other is that most radio listening these days is in cars.

A problem for both stations and listeners today is that interest in radio has faded in recent years, as more and more listening has moved to computers and mobile devices, and from stations to streams and podcasts. Modern car radios are therefore now entertainment systems that subordinate radio with each new generation of electronics. AM radio is completely gone from some cars, including Teslas. To put it simply, over-the-air radio is slowly fading, if not dying outright.

Still, there are good radios that will help you enjoy what old-fashioned broadcasting still has to offer.

For home or portable radios, you’ll find good models from C.Crane, Sangean and Eton/Grundig. I have a Grundig Satellit 800, which has outstanding FM reception, plus an old Sangean (made for Radio Shack), and the C.Crane CC Pocket Radio (there on the left) which are both also outstanding. GE’s SupeRadio is also deservedly a legend. Here are some on eBay. All generations of the SupeRadio are good. I have two of them I bought new in the ’90s, and they still work fine.

Here in my kitchen I also have the Teac HD-1, which was billed as a clock radio, but really isn’t. Instead it’s an FM/AM radio that also features an outstanding HD FM tuner, and okay AM HD tuner. No longer made, it’s still available on the used market. (I know because I just bought my second one, on Amazon.)

HD produces better sound, plus additional channels. So a station may be two or three in one. For example, WNYC-FM in New York has WQXR (its classical sister station) on its HD-2 channel, and WNYC-AM on its HD-3 channel. More importantly, HD clears up the truly awful multipath interference that afflicts urban radio listening, especially in apartment buildings like mine, which are dwarfed by countless other larger buildings standing in every signals’ path while also degrading and reflecting countless “ghost” signals along the way. (That’s called “multipath” interference.) If you live in a city and FM sounds like crap on local stations, get an HD radio just to clear up the bad sound. (By the way, your wi-fi and cell phone systems use multipath to improve reception by finding additional paths over which to send and receive streams of data. Digital is hugely advanced over old-fashioned analog FM in that respect.)

For pure reception performance, the best non-car radios I have ever owned or used date from the 60s, and came from European manufacturers. The standout manufacturers were Tandberg, Nordmende and Grundig. I have also used but not owned the Sony ICF-2010, which is legendary and deserves to be. All those are billed as shortwave radios, but do great work on FM and AM.

Bonus links: Why music radio is dying, The Slow Sidelining of Over-the-air Radio, Approaching the end of radio’s antenna age.

horsdoeuvres

Yesterday morning, while I was making curtados in the kitchen, I was also trying to listen to the radio. The station was WNYC, New York’s main public radio station. The program at the time was This American Life. Since the espresso machine is noisy when extracting coffee or steaming milk, I kept looking for the pause button on the radio—out of habit. That’s because pausing is a feature present on the radio and podcasting apps on my phone and other mobile devices scattered around the house, all of which I tend to use for radio listening more than I use an actual radio.

So I decided to open TuneIn on my phone. TuneIn has been around for almost as long as we’ve had iPhones and Androids. It started as a way to play radio stations from all over the world, but has since broadened into “100,000+ live radio stations, plus on-demand content like podcasts & shows.” These are listed on its home screen in what I gather is something between a reverse chronological order list of stations I’ve listened to in the past, and the app’s best (yet wrong) guess of what I might want, or what that they want to promote… or I dunno. It’s hard to tell.

In other words, the app is now something of a pain, because if you want to listen to a radio station that’s not on its home page list, your easiest choice is to look it up, which takes time. Even if you “favorite” it, the best-guesswork (or whatever it is) system on the Home page buries what you want down the list somewhere among on-demand shows and podcasts (I’m guessing that’s what it is), none of which I have listened to once through the app.

Anyway, I found WNYC after awhile, and continued listening on the phone’s little speaker, hitting pause with my wet fingers while going through cutado-making routines.

While I was doing that, and thinking about how TuneIn is still the best of its breed (of tunes-every-station apps), and how all apps are works-in-progress, changing countless times over their life spans—and nearly all seem to be trying to do too much—this metaphor came to mind:

Mobile devices are just hors d’oeuvre trays, and apps are just hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, not dinner. And nobody knows how to make dinner yet. Or even a dining room table.

So the kitchen just keeps serving up variations on the same old things. With radio it’s a mix of live stations, shows on their own, “on demand” shows or segments, podcasts and appeals to subscribe to a premium service. Weather, transit, fitness, news, photography, social… most of them evolve along similar broadening paths, trying along the way to lock you into their system.

The competition is good to have, and lots of good things happen on the platforms (or we wouldn’t use them so much), but the whole mess is also getting stale. Walled-garden platforms and apps from garden-run stores are now the box nobody seems to be thinking outside of.

We need something else for dinner. We also need a table to set it on, and utensils to eat it with. And none of those, I sense, are more than barely implicit in the hors d’oeuvres we’re chowing down now, or the trays they come on.

Bonus link.

chevyradio

I’ve always loved AM radio. But it’s not a requited love. AM radios these days are harder to get, and tend to suck. The band is thick with electronic noise from things that compute (a sum of devices that rounds to everything). AM stations are falling like old trees all over the band, and all over the world, and most of those that remain spout one-sided talk or speak in foreign languages. Even sports programming, once a mainstay on AM, is migrating to FM.

To put it kindly, AM radio is the opposite of new. It’s the steam locomotive of broadcasting.

Case in point: you won’t find an AM radio in a Tesla Model X. You also won’t find it in other electric cars, such as the BMW i3. One reason is that AM reception is trashed by electric noise, and these are electric cars. Another is that the best AM reception requires a whip antenna outside the car: the longer the better. But these days car makers hide antennas in windows and little shark fins on the roof. Another is that car makers have been cheaping out on the chips used in their AM radios for years, and the ones in home and portable radios are even worse.

Demand for AM has been waning for decades anyway. AM doesn’t sound as good as FM or digital streams on laptops and mobile things. (Well, it can sound good with HD Radio, but that’s been a non-starter on both the transmitting and receiving sides for many years.) About the only formats left on AM that get ratings in the U.S. are sports and news. But, like I just said, sports is moving to FM too—even though signal coverage on FM in some markets, relatively speaking, sucks. (Compare WFAN/660am and 101.9fm, which simulcast.)

On the whole, AM stations barely show in the ratings. In Raleigh-Durham, WPTF/680 ruled the “the book” for decades, and is now the top of the bottom-feeders, with just a 1.0% share. KGO/810, which was #1 for a lifetime in the Bay Area, is now #19 with a 2.0% share. Much of KGO’s talent has been fired, and there’s a Facebook page for disgruntled fans. Not that it matters.

In Europe, AM is being clear-cut like a diseased forest. Norway ended AM broadcasting a while back, and will soon kill FM too. Germany killed all AM broadcasting at end of last year, just a few days ago. The American AFN (Armed Forces Network), which I used to love listening to over its 150,000-watt signal on 873Khz from Frankfurt, is also completely gone on AM in Germany. All transmitters are down. The legendary Marnach transmitter of Radio Luxembourg, “planet Earth’s biggest commercial radio station,” also shut down when 2016 arrived, and its towers will soon be down too.

Europe’s other AM band, LW or longwave, is also being abandoned. The advantage of longwave is coverage. Signals on longwave spread over enormous territories, and transmitters can run two million watts strong. But listening has gone steadily down, and longwave is even more vulnerable to electrical noise than AM/MW. And running megawatt transmitters is expensive. So now Germany’s monster signal at 153KHz is gone, and France’s at 162KHz (one of 2 million watt ones) is due to go down later this year. And this report says all that’s keeping BBC’s landmark Radio 4 signal going on 198KHz is a collection of giant vacuum tubes that are no longer made. Brazil is moving from AM to FM as well. For an almost daily report on the demise of AM broadcasting around the world, read MediumWave News.

FM isn’t safe either. The UK is slowly phasing out both AM and FM, while phasing in Digital Audio Broadasting. Norway is the DAB pioneer and will soon follow suit, and kill off FM. No other countries have announced the same plans, but the demographics of radio listening are shifting from FM to online anyway, just as they shifted from AM to FM in past decades. Not surprisingly, streaming stats are going up and up. So is podcasting. (Here are Pew’s stats from a year ago.)

Sure, there’s still plenty of over-the-air listening. But ask any college kid if he or she listens to over-the-air radio. Most (in my experience anyway) say no, or very little. They might listen in a car, but their primary device for listening — and watching video, which is radio with pictures — is their phone or tablet. So the Internet today is doing to FM what FM has been doing to AM for decades. Only faster.

Oh, and then there’s the real estate issue. AM/MW and LW transmission requires a lot of land. As stations lose value, the land under many transmitters is worth more. (We saw this last year with WMAL/630 in Washington, which I covered here.) FM and TV transmission requires height, which is why their transmitters crowd the tops of buildings and mountains. The FCC is also now auctioning off TV frequencies, since nearly everybody is now watching TV on cable, satellite or computing devices. At some point it simply becomes cheaper and easier for radio stations, groups and networks to operate servers than to pay electricity and rent for transmitters.

This doesn’t mean radio goes away. It just goes online, where it will stay. It’ll suck that you can’t get stations where there isn’t cellular or wi-fi coverage, but that matters less than this: there are many fewer limits to broadcasting and listening online, obsolescing the “station” metaphor, along with its need for channels and frequencies. Those are just URLs now.

On the Internet band, anybody can stream or podcast to the whole world. The only content limitations are those set by (or for) rights-holders to music and video content. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s very little music on podcasts (they’re almost all talk), it’s because “clearing rights” for popular — or any — recorded music for podcasting ranges from awful to impossible. Streaming is easier, but no bargain. To get a sense of how complex streaming is, copyright-wise, dig David Oxenford’s Broadcast Law Blog. If all you want to do is talk, however, feel free, because you are. (A rough rule: talk is cheap, music is expensive.)

The key thing is that radio will remain what it has been from the start: the most intimate broadcast medium ever created. And it might become even more intimate than ever, once it’s clear and easy to everyone that anyone can do it. So rock on.

Bonus links:

 

wmal-sites

A few months back I wrote a post with a headline in the form of a question: How will WMAL-AM survive losing its transmitter? Here was my best guess at the time:

To stay on the air, WMAL will need to find replacement acreage, somewhere that allows the signals … 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)…

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.

Now comes word that Cumulus plans to use the WSPZ/570 site. Here are the day and night signal applications to the FCC. The day power will be the same as at the current site: 10000 watts. But the night power will be only 2700 watts, rather than the current 5000 watts. As I expected, the signals both day and night are “tightened” to a headlight beam shining toward the District. The day signal is on the left and the night signal on the right. (Source: fccinfo.com)

wmalday

wmalnight

WSPZ has similar day and night patterns, at 5000 and 1000 watts, using the same four towers.

Here is how Radio-Locator.com sees WSPZ’s day and night patterns. Since the two stations are close in frequency (which greatly affects propagation: lower on the dial is better), expect WMAL’s coverage to be about the same as WSPZ’s.

 

 

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I can’t help but notice — since I follow these things — that the FCC has issued construction permits for three low power FM (LPFM) stations in Santa Barbara:

  • KGSB/92.3, with a 100-watt signal radiating from one of KZER-AM/1250’s two towers east of the airport, and licensed to ST. RAPHAEL SCHOOL, 160 St Joseph Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93111-2367
  • KZAA/96.5, with a 100-watt signal radiating from roughly the corner of Calle Cesar Chavez and Montecito Streets, and licensed to LA CASA DE LA RAZA, 601 E. Montecito St., Santa Barbara, CA 93103
  • KVSB/96.9, with a 100-watt signal radiating from a corner of Salinas and Lou Dillon Lane on the east side of town, and licensed to:SOUTH COAST COMMUNITY MEDIA ACCESS CENTER, 329 South Salinas Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93103

That’s a lot for a town this size. I’ll be interested to see how those go. Also the new FM translators for AM stations in the market:

This completes our test of interest by anybody, even those who live in Santa Barbara, in stuff like this.

Thank you for listening.

 

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