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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The tallest structure in Santa Barbara’s skyline is a 195-foot pole painted red and white. It stands in a city equipment yard, not far from the ocean and the city’s famous Wharf. You can see it in the photo above, with the Wharf behind it.

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

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

All three have changed call letters, ownership, formats and transmitter locations many times over the years. Near as I can tell, this was originally the 1490 site, and the other two arrived in the early 90s: first 1290 and then 1340.

I bring this up because I’m worried that we might lose this landmark. That’s because (says here) KCLU and KOSJ have construction permits for a new transmitting system on this same spot that involves a tower or pole that’s a good bit shorter—and KZSB has an application for the same.

The tower specified by all three stations is about 130 feet tall. It will also be “top-loaded,” which means that either it will get some extra wires extending away from the tower, or a new “umbrella” on top (extending about 11 feet out).

So I’m hoping one or more of the engineers involved can let us know what the plan is. I do hope they’ll keep the whole pole; but I’ll understand if they can’t. Either way, it should in some way keep what has become a familiar landmark.

Radio.Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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
  32. San Diego, CA (where KPBS is a near-constant #1). It is 6.3 in December 2019, as I’m adding it, after a reader spotted my oversight in leaving San Diego out of this list.

(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 shadowed by the 4000-foot Santa Ynez Mountain range). Also, though reported as KCBX, the listening might be to KPBS in San Diego, a public radio station on the same channel that pounds into Santa Barbara much of the time.
  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.

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