Broadcasting

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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.

The tallest structure in Santa Barbara’s skyline is a (roughly) 200-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:

  • KZSB/1290, the all-local-news station affiliated with the Santa Barbara News-Press. Born as KACL in 1962.
  • KCLU/1340, the AM member of California Lutheran University‘s chain of popular public radio signals for the South and Central Coasts, the rest of which are on FM. Born as KIST in 1946.
  • KOSJ/1490, the call letters of which stand for Old School Jams. Like KCLU, it also radiates an FM signal from Gibraltar Peak, high on the mountainside above town. Born as KDB in 1926. The KDB call letters are still here, for a noncommercial classical music station on 93.7.

All three signals have changed call letters, ownership, formats and transmitter locations over the years. Near as I can tell, this pole stands on what was originally the KDB/1490 site, and the other two stations arrived in the early 90s: first 1290 and then 1340. (On AM, whole towers radiate signals, and in some cases more than one station shares a tower, or a set of towers. This is a rare case where three stations do the sharing.)

I bring this up because the tower is an attractive landmark, and I’m afraid we might lose it. That’s because (it says here) all three stations have construction permits for a new transmitting system on this same spot. See, the tower (called a “monopole”) as it stands is about 200 feet tall. The system specified by all three stations’ construction permits is about 130 feet tall. It  will also 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, by my estimate, about 11 feet out). For comparison’s sake, the pair of 200-foot towers of KZER/1250, which overlook Goleta Slough, the beach and the Airport, have umbrellas on them.

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, since the pole is bent. If you look close, you can see that the pole is pranged slightly to the east (left on this picture) above the bottom of the white section closest to the top.  I’m guessing that’s about 130 feet from the bottom.

Either way, the plan should be in some way to keep what has become a familiar landmark. And not to replace it with something functional but kinda ugly.

google vs bing

In search, Google has a 90%+ share worldwide. But I’m not sure that makes it a monopoly, as long as it has real competition. With Bing is does.

For example, recently I wanted to find a post Andrew Orlowski wrote for The Register in the early 00s. I remembered that it was about The Cluetrain Manifesto (which he called “Candide without the irony”—a great one-liner I can’t forget), and also mentioned John C. Dvorak, another Cluetrain non-fan. So I did this search on Google:

https://www.google.com/search?q=doc+searls+orlowski+register+cluetrain+candide+dvorak

I got one page of useless results.

So I went to Bing and did the same:

https://www.bing.com/search?q=doc+searls+orlowski+register+cluetrain+candide+dvorak

Bulls eye.

Credit where also due: I can find it as well in The Register‘s own search function. Hats off to all publications that keep their archives intact and searchable.

The difference between Google and Bing in this case is consistent with something I’ve noticed lately, which is that Google seems to be forgetting a lot of old stuff. Maybe it’s because the company is deprecating http in deference to https. Maybe there’s some other reason. I don’t know.

I also prefer Bing’s image search as well. It’s much less complicated than Google’s, and much easier to step through with the > arrow when paging through results. (Google piles up the already-viewed images in row after row above the current image, leaving the current image “below the fold,” and requiring extra work to locate again.)

And I love Bing’s Birds Eye views in Bing Maps. For an example of the latter, look here. That’s the top of the “candelabra” tower in Needham, Mass. It’s the site from which nearly all of Boston’s TV stations radiate. (Over-the-air broadcasting is very old hat, but I still care about it.) The closest Google can comes to that is here, where the 3D view only shows the base of the tower.

I can give lots of other examples, but I think I’ve made my  point:  Google isn’t a monopoly as long as there is a worthy competitor. And in several important ways, Bing is that.

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Here’s the latest satellite fire detection data, restricted to just the last twelve hours of the Thomas Fire, mapped on Google Earth Pro:That’s labeled 1830 Mountain Standard Time (MST), or 5:30pm Pacific, about half an hour ago as I write this.

And here are the evacuation areas:

Our home is in the orange Voluntary Evacuation area. So we made a round trip from LA to prepare the house as best we could, gather some stuff and go. Here’s a photo album of the trip, and one of the last sights we saw on our way out of town:

This, I believe, was a fire break created on the up-slope side of Toro Canyon. Whether purely preventive or not, it was very impressive.

And here is a view of the whole burn area, which stretches more than forty miles from west to east (or from Montecito to Fillmore):

Here you can see how there is no fresh fire activity near Lake Casitas and Carpinteria, which is cool (at least relatively). You can also see how Ojai and Carpinteria were saved, how Santa Barbara is threatened, and how there are at least five separate fires around the perimeter. Three of those are in the back country, and I suspect the idea is to let those burn until they hit natural fire breaks or the wind shifts and the fires get blown back on their own burned areas and fizzle out there.

The main area of concern is at the west end of the fire, above Santa Barbara, in what they call the front country: the slope on the ocean’s side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which run as a long and steep spine, rising close to 4000 feet high in the area we care about here. (It’s higher farther west.)

This afternoon I caught a community meeting on KEYT, Santa Barbara’s TV station, which has been very aggressive and responsible in reporting on the fire. I can’t find a recording of that meeting now on the station’s website, but I am watching the station’s live 6pm news broadcast now, devoted to a news conference at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. (Even though I’m currently at a house near Los Angeles, I can watch our TV set top box remotely through a system called Dish Anywhere. Hats off to Dish Network for providing that ability. In addition to being cool, it’s exceptionally handy for evacuated residents whose homes still have electricity and a good Internet connection. I thank Southern California Edison and Cox for those.)

On KEYT, Mark Brown of @Cal_Fire just spoke about Plans A, B and C, one or more of which will be chosen based on how the weather moves. Plan C is the scariest (and he called it that), because it involves setting fire lines close to homes, intentionally scorching several thousand acres to create an already-burned break, to stop the fire. “The vegetation will be removed before the fire has a chance to take it out, the way it wants to take it out,” he says.

Okay, that briefing just ended. I’ll leave it there.

So everybody reading this knows, we are fine, and don’t need to be at the house while this is going on. We also have great faith that 8000 fire fighting personnel and all their support systems will do the job and save our South Coast communities. What they’ve done so far has been nothing short of amazing, given the enormous geographical extent of this fire, the exceptionally rugged nature of the terrain, the record dryness of the vegetation, and other disadvantages. A huge hat tip to them.

 

 

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.

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