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

So far, mine is the only answers. 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

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 electrical noise, which computing things constantly cause. Another is that the best AM reception requires a whip antenna outside the car: the longer the better. 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 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, and sports is moving to FM too, even though coverage on FM in some markets, relatively speaking, sucks. (Compare WFAN/660am and 101.9fm, which simulcast.)

AM stations are back in the pack at best 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. 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. 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 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. 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 appears to be slowly phasing out both AM and FM, while phasing in Digital Audio Broadasting. Norway is following suit, and killing 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. Streaming stats are only 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, often the land under their 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 now auctioning off TV frequencies, since nearly everybody is now watching TV on cable, satellite or computing devices. And at some point it 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, obsoleting 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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ice-floes-off-greenland(Cross posted from this at Facebook)

In Snow on the Water I wrote about the ‘low threshold of death” for what media folks call “content” — which always seemed to me like another word for packing material. But its common parlance now.

For example, a couple days ago I heard a guy on WEEI, my fave sports station in Boston, yell “Coming up! Twenty-five straight minutes of content!”

Still, it’s all gone like snow on the water, melting at the speed of short term memory decay. Unless it’s in a podcast. And then, even if it’s saved, it’ll still get flushed or 404’d in the fullness of time.

So I think about content death a lot.

Back around the turn of the millennium, John Perry Barlow said “I didn’t start hearing the word ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” Same here. But the container business now looks more like plumbing than freight forwarding. Everything flows. But to where?

My Facebook timeline, standing in the vertical, looks like a core sample of glacier ice, drilled back to 1947, the year I showed up. Memory, while it lasts, is of old stuff which in the physical world would rot, dry, disintegrate, vanish or lithify from the bottom up.

But here we are on the Web, which was designed as a way to share documents, not to save them. It presumed a directory structure, inherited from Unix (e.g. domain.something/folder/folder/file.html). Amazingly, it’s still there. Whatever longevity “content” enjoys on the Web is largely owed to that structure, I believe.

But in practice most of what we pile onto the top of the Web is packed into silos such as Facebook. What happens to everything we put there if Facebook goes away? Bear in mind that Facebook isn’t even yet a decade old. It may be huge, but it’s no more permanent than a sand dune. Nothing on the Web is.

Everything on the Web, silo’d or not, flows outward from its sources like icebergs from glaciers, melting at rates of their own.

The one exception to that rule is the Internet Archive, which catches as much as it can of all that flow. Huge thanks to Brewster Kahle and friends for giving us that.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts on digital mortality this morning.

As you were. Or weren’t. Or will be. Or not.

Bonus link: Locking the Web open.

Right now every FM and TV station in Santa Barbara and San Diego can be heard in both places. Between them lays more than 200 miles of ocean across a curved earth. I’m not there right now, but I see what’s happening remotely over my TV set top box. (Thank you, SlingBox.) But, more importantly, John Harder‘s tropo map tells me so:

sb-sd-tropo

Tropo is tropospheric refraction of radio waves across a distance. Atmosphere has refractive properties that don’t matter most of the time. But we can see changes, for example, with mirages ahead of us above a hot road, which causes the air above to refract light at a low angle, essentially reflecting the sky, other cars and landscapes on the horizon. Something like this also happens over land and water.

I see by the map above that tropo is happening in other parts of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. I also see that it’s starting to happen here in north central North Carolina, where I can already pick up stations in South Carolina:

nc-sc-tropo

On 88.1fm, for example, I’m getting WRJA from Sumter, South Carolina, atop WKNC in Raleigh. WRJA is about 160 miles away while WKNC is only 40 miles away. But WRJA is 100,000 watts atop a thousand-foot tower, while WKNC is 25,000 watts on a 260 foot tower. (It’s actually as little as 35% of full power in most directions from the transmitter at NC State. They have a construction permit to change that a bit.) So they’re making a hash of each other here.

Back when I lived in the woods north of Chapel Hill, long before the Internet showed up and made all of this stuff irrelevant for listeners (who can get the same stations on the Net, anywhere), I had a directional Finco FM-5 antenna and a Channel Master Crossfire 3610 antenna (both salvaged from abandoned structures) on a pole next to my 1-story house. I rotated them by hand. If I had the same rig here I could point at either WRJA or WKNC and “null out” the other. I did this on hot summer mornings for fun back then, and eventually logged nearly every FM station from Pennsylvania to Georgia. (It’s a summer thing, and coincidental with heat waves over large areas.)

Here is a whole-country map that shows tropo happening pretty much everywhere:

wholecountry-tropo

I would love to have had this kind of resource back in those days. Now that I do, it’s hardly worth the trouble, since nearly all my radio listening is over the Net.

Anyway, if you’re wondering why your local station is being obliterated by a signal coming from a state or two away, or why you’re suddenly getting far-away stations where none were before, tropo is the most likely reason.

The second most likely one is Sporadic E skip, which brings in stations from distances of 800-1200 miles or so away. In that case the E layer of the ionosphere turns into something like a hot road surface, reflecting distant signals, but only at a certain angle. I’ll cover those in a later post when the phenomenon is actually happening. It’s not right now.

Meanwhile, if any of this intrigues you at all, check out William Hepburn’s amazing Worldwide Tropo Forecast Maps. Great eye and brain candy, because it exposes a real-world view of the world that isn’t what you see with your eyes.

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[Update, 4 June 2016—I’m attempting to listen right now to WFAN/101.9 and it’s obliterated by signals flanking it on 101.7 and 102.1. Maybe my tweet about it here will finally get some journalists interested in the topic.]

The radio dial here IMG_8116in “upstate” Manhattan and the Bronx is packed with pirate radio signals. Many are smack next to New York’s licensed landmarks. Here’s what I’m getting right now on our kitchen radio…

  • 88.1 “Romantica New York” Spanish announcers, music in English and Spanish. Right next to WBGO (@wbgo), New York’s jazz station (licensed to Newark).
  • 89.3 Spanish. Right next to WFDU and WNYU (@wnyu), the Fairleigh Dickenson and NYU stations that share time on 89.1.
  • 89.7 Spanish. Talk. Call-ins. Right next to WKCR (@wkcrfm), the Columbia University station on 89.9.
  • 91.3 Spanish, as I recall. It just popped off the air. Right next to WNYE on 91.5.
  • 92.1 Spanish, currently playing traditional Mexican (e.g. Mariachi) music and talking up a Mexican restaurant. Right next to 92.3 WBMP “Amp radio” (@923amp) in New York.
  • 94.3 Spanish talk. Not next to any local station, but two notches removed from 94.7 WNSH “Nash” (@nashfm947ny) in New York (licensed to Newark).
  • 95.3 Spanish music. Right next to 95.5 WPLJ (@955plj) in New York. (Note that in the screen shot above, of my kitchen radio, it lights up the ST (stereo) indicator.)
  • 98.9 Spanish talk and music. Right next to 98.7 WEPN-FM (@espnny98_7), ESPN’s flagship station on 98.7.
  • 99.3 Spanish talk. Right next to 99.5 WBAI in New York.
  • 101.7 Spanish music. Right next to 101.9 WFAN-FM (@wfan660) in New York.
  • 102.5 English talk, with a Caribbean accent. Just heard ads for businesses in The Bronx (nail salon) and New Jersey (dentist), massage therapy (50 fremont ave, East Orange, NJ), a reggae music concert, 708-282-8741. Right next to 102.7 WWFS, “Fresh 102.7” (@fresh1027ny) in New York.
  • 102.9 English talk and music, with a Jamaican accent. I believe this was the same station that earlier today was rebroadcasting a Kingston station, no doubt picked up off the Net. Also right next to WWFS.
  • 105.5 Some kind of Christian pop, I think. It’s not WDHA in Dover, NJ. I just checked that station’s stream online. Totally different.
  • 105.7 Music in English right now. Right next to 105.9 WQXR (@WQXR) in New York.
  • 106.1 English. Reggae dance. Ads: Mizama Apparel Plus, 4735 white plains road. Kings Electronics, 4372 White Plains Road. Jumbo concert in Mt. Vernon… Also right next to WQXR on the dial. All but blows QXR away, in fact. (QXR’s signal radiates from the same master antenna as most other New York stations, on the Empire State Building, but is just 610 watts, while most of the rest are 6000 watts.)
  • 106.9 English music. Caribbean accent. Right next to 106.7 WLTW “Lite FM” (@1067litefm) in New York.

This is a nearly completely different list of pirates than the one I compiled last fall from this same location, in the 10040 area code. (There were pirate signals on 89.3 and 89.7 then, but I’m not sure if these are the same.), None of the pirate signals match anything on this list of all the legitimate licensed signals radiating within 100km (60 miles) of here.

Man, I wish I knew Spanish. If I did, I would dig into as many of these as I could.

All of them, I am sure, are coming from the northern end of Manhattan and the Bronx, though 102.5 has so many ads for New Jersey places that I wonder if it’s actually over there somewhere.

All of them serve some kind of marketplace, I assume. And even though I don’t understand most of what they’re talking about (when they do talk), I’m fascinated by them.

At the same time they are all illegal, and to varying degrees interfere with legitimate licensed stations. If I were any of the legitimate stations listed above, I’d be concerned. Weaker stations (e.g. WKCR, WBGO and WQXR) especially.

There are a few New York pirate radio stories out there (here, here and here, for example); but they’re all thin, stale or old.

This is a real phenomenon with a lot of meat for an enterprising journalist — especially one who speaks Spanish. Any takers?

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:

wmal-from-space

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:

towerimage

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:

wmalfm

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 rich history 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.

[Later again…] Well, apparently they do think it’s worth the bother. Jonathan O’Connell reported this in a February 13 story in The Washington Post:

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.

Bonus link.

 

 

 

 

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mutualmusiciansSo I just learned that a Kansas City Jazz station is headed toward existence. If you love any of these musicians, this should be very good news.

The story begins,

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.

It will be called KOJH-LP. LP stands for low power, or what the FCC calls LPFM. Here’s the application for what’s now a granted CP, or Construction Permit.

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.)

Here’s the station’s mission, filed with the FCC.

KOJH will broadcast from the Arts Asylum at Harrison and E. 9th Street. A new tower will go on the building. From there they will radiate a whopping 22 watts at 207 feet above the average terrain, at 104.7fm. It’s a tiny signal that will won’t reach far out of downtown.

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.

(Many manufacturers quit caring decades ago. And now Radio Shack has filed for bankruptcy. Even CEO Can’t Figure Out How RadioShack Still In Business, which ran in The Onion in 2007, has proven prophetic.)

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.

Bonus link.

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