Broadcasting

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As a follow-up to what I wrote earlier today, here are my own favorite podcasts, in the order they currently appear in my phone’s podcast apps:

Note that I can’t help listening to the last two, because I host one and co-host the other.

There are others I’ll listen to on occasion as well, usually after hearing bits of them on live radio. These include Radiolab, This American Life, 99% Invisible, Snap Judgement, Freakonomics Radio, Hidden BrainInvisibilia, The Moth, Studio 360. Plus limited run podcasts, such as Serial, S-Town, Rabbit Hole and Floodlines.

Finally, there are others I intend to listen to at some point, such as Footnoting History, Philosophize This, The Infinite Monkey Cage, Stuff You Should Know, The Memory Palace, and Blind Spot.

And those are just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting.

Anyway, most of the time I’d rather listen to those than live radio—even though I am a devoted listener to a raft of public stations (especially KCLU, KPCC, KCRW, KQED, WNYC, WBUR and WGBH) and too many channels to mention on SiriusXM, starting with Howard Stern and the NBA channel.

 

KPCCNPR, which turned 50 yesterday, used to mean National Public Radio. It still does, at least legally; but they quit calling it that in 2010. The reason given was “…most of our audience — more than 27 million listeners to NPR member stations and millions more who experience our content on NPR.org and through mobile or tablet devices — identify us as NPR.” Translation: We’re not just radio any more.

And they aren’t. Television, newspapers and magazines also aren’t what they were. All of those are now experienced mostly on glowing rectangles connected to the Internet.

Put another way, the Internet is assimilating all of them. On the Internet, radio is also fracturing into new and largely (though not entirely) different spawn. The main two are streaming (for music, live news and events) and podcasting (for talk and news).

This sidelines the radio sources called stations. Think about it: how much these days do you ask yourself “What’s on?” And how much do you listen to an actual radio, or watch TV through an antenna? Do you even have a radio that’s not in a car or stored away in the garage?

If you value and manage your time, chances are you are using apps to store and forward your listening and viewing to later times, when you can easily speed up the program or skip over ads and other “content” you don’t want to “consume.” (I put those in quotes because only the supply side talks that way about what they produce and what you do with it.)

This does not match the legacy structure of radio stations. Especially technically.

See, the purpose of stations is to stand in one place radiating sound (called “programs”) on signals, in real time (called ‘live”), around the clock, for a limited geography: a city or a region. Key thing: they have to fill that time.

For this stations can get along without studios (like companies in our current plague have found ways to get along without offices). But they still need to maintain transmitters with antennas.

For AM, which was born in the 1920s, the waves are so long that whole towers, or collections of them, radiate the signals. In almost all cases these facilities take up acres of real estate—sometimes dozens of acres. For FM and TV, media born in the 1940s, the waves are short, but need to radiate from high places: atop towers, tall buildings or mountains.

Maintaining these facilities isn’t cheap. In the case of AM stations, it is now common for the land under towers to be worth far more than the stations themselves, which is why so many AM stations are now going off the air or moving off to share other stations’ facilities, usually at the cost of lost coverage.

This is why I am sure that most or all of these facilities will be as gone as horse-drawn carriages and steam engines, sometime in the next few years or decades. Also why I am documenting transmitters that still stand, photographically. You can see a collection of my transmitter and antenna photos here and here. (The image above is what radiates KPCC/89.3 from Mt. Wilson, which overlooks Los Angeles.)

It’s a safe bet, for a few more years at least, that stations will still be around, transmitting to people mostly on the Net. But at some point (probably many points) the transmitters will be gone, simply because they cost too much, don’t do enough—and in one significant way, do too much. Namely, fill the clock, 24/7, with “content.”

To help get our heads around this, consider this: the word station derives from the Latin station- and statio from stare, which means to stand. In a place.

In the terrestrial world, we needed stationary places for carriages, trains and busses to stop. On radio, we used to need what we called a “dial,” where radio stations could be found on stationary positions called channels or frequencies. Now those are numbers that appear in a read-out.

But even those were being obsolesced decades ago in Europe. There a car radio might say the name of a station, which might be received on any number of frequencies, transmitted by many facilities, spread across a region or a country. What makes this possible is a standard called RDS, which uses a function called alternative frequency (AF) to make a radio play a given station on whatever channel sounds best to the radio. This would be ideal for the CBC in Canada and for regional public stations such as WAMC, KPCC, KUER and KCRW, which all have many transmitters scattered around.

Alas, when this standard was being worked out in the ’80s and early ’90s, the North American folks couldn’t imagine one station on many frequencies and in many locations, so they deployed a lesser derivative standard called RDBS, which lacked the AF function.

But this is now, and on its 50th anniversary public radio—and NPR stations especially—are doing well.

In radio ratings for New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, San Diego, and dozens of other markets, the top news station is an NPR one. Here in Santa Barbara, about a quarter of all listening goes to non-commercial stations, led by KCLU, the most local of the NPR affiliates with transmitters here. (Best I can tell, Santa Barbara, which I wrote about here in 2019, is still the top market for public radio in the country. Number two is still Vermont.)

But I gotta wonder how long the station-based status quo will remain stationary in our listening habits. To the degree that I’m a one-person bellwether, the prospects aren’t good. Nearly all my listening these days is to podcasts or to streams on the Net. Some of those are from stations, but most are straight from producers, only one of which is NPR. And I listen to few of them live.

Still, it’s a good bet that NPR will do well for decades to come. Its main challenge will be to survive the end of station-based live broadcasting. Because that eventuality is starting to become visible.

On Quora, William Moser askedWould the KPIG radio format of Americana—Folk, Blugrass, Delta to modern Blues, Blues-rock, trad. & modern C&W, country & Southern Rock, jam-bands, singer/songwriters, some jazz, big-band & jazz-singers sell across markets in America?

I answered,

I’ve liked KPIG since its prior incarnation as KFAT.I’ve liked KPIG since its prior incarnation as KFAT.

It’s a great fit in the Santa Cruz-Salinas-Monterey market, anchored in Santa Cruz, which is a college/beach/hippie/artist kind of town.

Ratings have always been good, putting it in the top few. See here.

It has also done okay in San Luis Obispo, for similar reasons.

For what it’s worth, those are markets #91 and #171. Similar in a coastal California kind of way.

The station is also a throwback, with its commitment to being the institution it is, with real personalities who actually live there, aren’t leaving, and having a sense of humor about all of it. Also love. And listener participation. None of that is a formula.

Watch this and you’ll get what I mean. It’s what all of radio ought to be, in its own local ways, and way too little of it is.

William replied,

I have played tha brilliant ‘Ripple’ since it was released; the editing is spot-on.I have played tha brilliant ‘Ripple’ since it was released; the editing is spot-on.

With respect to DJ personalities, there are at least two that, in my fantasy of owning that station, would be gone before the ink was dry. (You might even have an idea of whom). Paradoxically, that’s probably part of what makes KPIG work.

It’s really the cross-country market appeal of the ‘Americana’ music format that is my question.

My response:

I think it’s a local thing. KPIG (and KFAT and KHIP before it) is a deeply rooted local institution. It’s not a formula, and without standing one up in some other region like it, and funding it long enough to see if it catches on, it’s hard to say.

All of radio is in decline now, as talk listening moves to podcasts and music listening moves to streaming. The idea that a city or a region needs things called “stations,” all with limited geographical coverage, and with live talent performing, and an obligation to stay on the “air” 24/7, designed to work through things called “radios,” which are no longer sold in stores and persist as secondary functions on car dashboards, is an anachronism at a time when damn near everything (including chat, telephony, video, photography, gaming, fitness tracking and you-name-it) is moving onto phones—which are the most persistently personal things people carry everywhere.

There are truly great alternative stations, however, that thrive in their markets: KESP in Seattle and WWOZ in New Orleans are two great examples. That KPIG manages to persist as a commercial station is especially remarkable in a time when people would rather hit a 30-second skip-forward button on their phone app than listen to an ad.

So I guess my answer is no. But if you want Americana, there are lots of stations that play or approximate it on the Internet. And all of them can be received on your phone or your computer.

That was a bit tough to write, because yesterday I was poised to enjoy Ron Phillips‘ long-standing Saturday morning show on WWOZ when I learned he had died suddenly of a heart attack. Ron has been a great friend since the 1970s, when he was a mainstay at WQDR in Raleigh, and I was a partner in its ad agency (while still being a funny guy at cross-market non-rival WDBS), and I had planned to give him a call after his show, to see how he was doing. (He’d had carpal tunnel surgery recently.)

Though WWOZ is alive and thriving, and there persist many radio stations that are vital institutions in their towns and regions, radio on the whole has been in decline. See here:

The slopes there are long, and a case can be made, on that low angle alone, that radio will persist forever, along with magazines and TV. But it’s clear that our media usage is moving, overall, to the Internet, where mobile devices are especially good at doing what radio, TV and magazines also do—and in some ways doing it better.

But back to William Moser’s question.

There are already many ways to stream Americana (aka American roots music) on the Internet, whether from stations, streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, or a channel or two on SiriusXM. But those are largely personality-free.

What KPIG has (once described to me as “mutant cowboy rock & roll”) isn’t a format. It’s an institution, like a favorite old tavern, music club, outdoor festival, or coffee shop—or all of those rolled into one. Can one replicate that with an Internet station, or a channel on some global service?

I think not, because those services are all global. You need to start with local roots. WWOZ has that, because it started as a radio station in New Orleans, a place that is itself deeply rooted. After years of living all over the place, Ron moved to New Orleans to be with those roots, and near its greatest radio voice.

Radio is geographical. All the stations I mentioned above, living and dead, are not the biggest ones in their towns. KPIG’s signal is almost notoriously minimal. So is KEXP’s in Seattle. They are local in the most basic sense.

I suppose that condition will persist for another decade or two. But it’s hard to say. Mobile devices are also evolving quickly, getting old within just a few years.

I’m not sure we’ll miss it much, the succession of generations being what it is. But we are losing something. And you can still hear it on KPIG.

In Winter, the cap of dark on half the Earth is cocked to the north. So, as the planet spins, places farther north get more night in the winter. In McGrath, Alaska, at close to sixty-three degrees north, most of the day is dark. This would be discouraging to most people, but to Paul B. Walker it’s a blessing. Because Paul is a DXer.

In the radio world, DX stands for for distance, and DXing is listening to distant radio stations. Thanks to that darkness, Paul listens to AM stations of all sizes, from Turkey to Tennessee, Thailand to Norway. And last night, New Zealand. Specifically, NewsTalk ZB‘s main AM signal at 1035 on the AM (what used to be the) dial. According to distancecalculator.net, the signal traveled 11886.34 km, or 7385.83 miles, across the face of the earth. In fact it flew much farther, since the signal needed to bounce up and down off the E layer of the ionosphere and the surface of the ocean multiple times between Wellington and McGrath. While that distance is no big deal on shortwave (which bounces off a higher layer) and no deal at all on the Internet (where we are all zero distance apart), for a DXer that’s like hauling in a fish the size of a boat.

In this sense alone, Paul and I are kindred souls. As a boy and a young man, I was a devout DXer too. I logged thousands of AM and FM stations, from my homes in New Jersey and North Carolina. (Here is a collection of QSL cards I got from stations to which I reported reception, in 1963, when I was a sophomore in high school.) More importantly, learning about all these distant stations sparked my interest in geography, electronics, geology, weather, astronomy, history and other adjacent fields. By the time I was a teen, I could draw all the states of the country, freehand, and name their capitals too. And that was on top of knowing on sight the likely purpose of every broadcast tower and antenna I saw. For example, I can tell you (and do in the mouse-over call-outs you’ll see if you click on the photo) what FM and TV station transmits from every antenna in this picture (of Mt. Wilson, above Los Angeles):

As a photographer, I’ve shot thousands of pictures of towers and antennas. (See here.) In fact, that’s how I met Paul, who created and runs a private Facebook group called (no kidding) “I Take Pictures of Transmitter Sites.” This is not a small group. It has 14,100 members, and is one of the most active and engaging groups I have ever joined.

One reason it’s so active is that many of the members (and perhaps most of them) are, or were, engineers at radio and TV stations, and their knowledge of many topics, individually and collectively, is massive.

There is so much you need to know about the world if you’re a broadcast engineer.

On AM you have to know about ground conductivity, directional arrays (required so stations don’t interfere with each other), skywave signals such as the ones Paul catches and the effects of tower length on the sizes and shapes of the signals they radiate.

On FM you need to know the relative and combined advantages of antenna height and power, how different numbers of stacked antennas concentrate signal strength toward and below the horizon, the shadowing effects of buildings and terrain, and how the capacitive properties of the earth’s troposphere can sometimes bend signals so they go much farther than they would normally.

On TV you used to care about roughly the same issues as FM (which, in North America is sandwiched between the two original TV bands). Now you need to know a raft of stuff about how digital transmission works as well.

And that’s just a small sampling of what needs to be known in all three forms of broadcasting. And the largest body of knowledge in all three domains is what actually happens to signals in the physical world—which differs enormously from place to place, and region to region.

All of this gives the engineer a profound sense of what comprises the physical world, and how it helps, limits, and otherwise interacts with the electronic one. Everyone in the business is like the fool on the Beatles’ hill, seeing the sun going down and the world spinning round. And, while it’s not a dying profession, it’s a shrinking one occupied by especially stalwart souls. And my hat’s off to them.

By the way, you can actually hear Paul Walker for yourself, in two places. One is as a guest on this Reality 2.0 podcast, which I did in January. The other is live on KSKO/89.5 in McGrath, where he’s the program director. You don’t need to be a DXer to enjoy either one.

Historic milestones don’t always line up with large round numbers on our calendars. For example, I suggest that the 1950s ended with the assassination of JFK in late 1963, and the rise of British Rock, led by the Beatles, in 1964. I also suggest that the 1960s didn’t end until Nixon resigned, and disco took off, in 1974.

It has likewise been suggested that the 20th century actually began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the start of WWI, in 1914. While that and my other claims might be arguable, you might at least agree that there’s no need for historic shifts to align with two or more zeros on a calendar—and that in most cases they don’t.

So I’m here to suggest that the 21st century began in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic and the fall of Donald Trump. (And I mean that literally. Social media platforms were Trump’s man’s stage, and the whole of them dropped him, as if through a trap door, on the occasion of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters on January 6, 2021. Whether you liked that or not is beside the facticity of it.)

Things are not the same now. For example, over the coming years, we may never hug, shake hands, or comfortably sit next to strangers again.

But I’m bringing this up for another reason: I think the future we wrote about in The Cluetrain Manifesto, in World of Ends, in The Intention Economy, and in other optimistic expressions during the first two decades of the 21st Century may finally be ready to arrive.

At least that’s the feeling I get when I listen to an interview I did with Christian Einfeldt (@einfeldt) at a San Diego tech conference in April, 2004—and that I just discovered recently in the Internet Archive. The interview was for a film to be called “Digital Tipping Point.” Here are its eleven parts, all just a few minutes long:

01 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
02 https://archive.org/details/e-dv039_doc_…
03 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
04 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
05 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
06 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
07 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
08 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
09 https://archive.org/details/e-dv038_doc_…
10 https://archive.org/details/e-dv039_doc_…
11 https://archive.org/details/e-dv039_doc_…

The title is a riff on Malcolm Gladwell‘s book The Tipping Point, which came out in 2000, same year as The Cluetrain Manifesto. The tipping point I sensed four years later was, I now believe, a foreshadow of now, and only suggested by the successes of the open source movement and independent personal publishing in the form of blogs, both of which I was high on at the time.

What followed in the decade after the interview were the rise of social networks, of smart mobile phones and of what we now call Big Tech. While I don’t expect those to end in 2021, I do expect that we will finally see  the rise of personal agency and of constructive social movements, which I felt swelling in 2004.

Of course, I could be wrong about that. But I am sure that we are now experiencing the millennial shift we expected when civilization’s odometer rolled past 2000.

For many decades, one of the landmark radio stations in Washington, DC was WMAL-AM (now re-branded WSPN), at 630 on (what in pre-digital times we called) the dial. As AM listening faded, so did WMAL, which moved its talk format to 105.9 FM in Woodbridge and its signal to a less ideal location, far out to the northwest of town.

They made the latter move because the 75 acres of land under the station’s four towers in Bethesda had become far more valuable than the signal. So, like many other station owners with valuable real estate under legacy transmitter sites, Cumulus Mediasold sold the old site for $74 million. Nice haul.

I’ve written at some length about this here and here in 2015, and here in 2016. I’ve also covered the whole topic of radio and its decline here and elsewhere.

I only bring the whole mess up today because it’s a five-year story that ended this morning, when WMAL’s towers were demolished. The Washington Post wrote about it here, and provided the video from which I pulled the screen-grab above. Pedestrians.org also has a much more complete video on YouTube, here. WRC-TV, channel 4, has a chopper view (best I’ve seen yet) here. Spake the Post,

When the four orange and white steel towers first soared over Bethesda in 1941, they stood in a field surrounded by sparse suburbs emerging just north of where the Capital Beltway didn’t yet exist. Reaching 400 feet, they beamed the voices of WMAL 630 AM talk radio across the nation’s capital for 77 years.

As the area grew, the 75 acres of open land surrounding the towers became a de facto park for runners, dog owners and generations of teenagers who recall sneaking smokes and beer at “field parties.”

Shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, the towers came down in four quick controlled explosions to make way for a new subdivision of 309 homes, taking with them a remarkably large piece of privately owned — but publicly accessible — green space. The developer, Toll Brothers, said construction is scheduled to begin in 2021.

Local radio buffs say the Washington region will lose a piece of history. Residents say they’ll lose a public play space that close-in suburbs have too little of.

After seeing those towers fall, I posted this to a private discussion among broadcast engineers (a role I once played, briefly and inexpertly, many years ago):

It’s like watching a public execution.

I’m sure that’s how many of who have spent our lives looking at and maintaining these things feel at a sight like this.

It doesn’t matter that the AM band is a century old, and that nearly all listening today is to other media. We know how these towers make waves that spread like ripples across the land and echo off invisible mirrors in the night sky. We know from experience how the inverse square law works, how nulls and lobes are formed, how oceans and prairie soils make small signals large and how rocky mountains and crappy soils are like mud to a strong signal’s wheels. We know how and why it is good to know these things, because we can see an invisible world where other people only hear songs, talk and noise.

We also know that, in time, all these towers are going away, or repurposed to hold up antennas sending and receiving radio frequencies better suited for carrying data.

We know that everything ends, and in that respect AM radio is no different than any other medium.

What matters isn’t whether it ends with a bang (such as here with WMAL’s classic towers) or with a whimper (as with so many other stations going dark or shrinking away in lesser facilities). It’s that there’s still some good work and fun in the time this old friend still has left.

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.”

Sell tickets to attend online through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Webex, GoToMeeting, Jitsi or whatever conferencing system can supply working tech to the NBA. Then mic everyone in the paying crowd, project them all on the walls (or sheets hanging from the ceiling), combine their audio, and run it through speakers so players can see and hear the cheering crowds.

The playoffs start on July 31. That’s not much time to prepare, but there’s money in it for the NBA and the companies it hires to pull this off. And hey, the Disney folk should be up for doing something that’s this creative and fun. (And think of all the games within games that might also be played here. Also all the other sports where this can also work.)

Since the conferencing systems of the world are already very competitive, sports reporters can cover service selection as the playoff before the playoff.

Obviously Zoom is the one to beat (since so many of us already use it), but Microsoft Teams just said a bunch of stuff that makes me think they could pull this one off. (I’d also like to thank them for the imagery I used in the photo above. Also Downtown. Hope ya’ll don’t mind.) Google has immensity to leverage. Jitsi has a hearty open source dev community. As for the others, here’s your chance to leapfrog the leaders. Or yourselves. The PR will be immense.

What matters is that this can be done. Hell, we’re talking about tech here. Anything can be done with tech.

So let’s do it. Get fans on the walls of the bubble.

And don’t tell me how it can’t be done. If it can be done with 17,572 singers in a choir, we can do it with any number of fans.

[Later (24 July)…] This apparently is being done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intention Economy chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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