HD Fan Base

The Bay Area seems to have a number of “engaged” engineer types who are not buying the extreme hype accompanying HD radio — the ballyhoo bought into by the business types running our public radio stations. (What place has local music and culture when there’s a manifest destiny to fulfill?) One Bay Area google group featured this exchange with John Higdon, a small-market engineer there whose stations have not bought into IBOC.

> There’s some serious backlash starting to be voiced these days. Barry
> McLarnon’s recent article in Radio World does an excellent job of
> detailing many of the flaws in the system, and he does it without any of
> the hypocrisy that’s coming from the proponents. One can only hope that
> this stuff goes away before it completely destroys radio.

There is some real noise starting to come out of the conglomerate-owned groups now, as well. The IBOC power increase, jammed through the FCC with no regard for the consequences by iBiquity and which was supposed to be the savior of “HD Radio” (which was itself supposed to be the savior of broadcasting), will end up being a multi-year process, even for the few stations that have committed to participate. For the rest of the industry, it is a wait-and-see approach to determine if it is all worth it.

Interesting that now, over eight years after the rollout of this scheme, the big stations are actually looking at the cost/benefit aspects . . . something they should have been doing all along. I’m now hearing, from deep inside the industry, commentary that reflects what I have been saying for years about this mess. The unravelling has begun, and it is entirely possible that the anticipated IBOC power increase may never gain any traction at all. For many stations, the cost of upping the power is high, and on top of money these stations have already dumped down the drain. This is money that could be used to acquire top talent and creative people, and the light is beginning to dawn among station owners.

I’m hearing “it had better go away before it completely destroys radio” almost routinely now, and I’m hearing it from people who were almost fanatical in support of “HD Radio.”

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HD = SD: Another Sh*tty Deal

There’s an amazing post on the Engineering Radio blog about CEO Dr. Alan Chartock of Northeast Public Radio (based in Albany, serving parts of seven states), entitled “Chief Executive Officer of Northeast Public Radio gets it wrong,” and it speaks to the heart of this site’s raison d’être. As the author notes, the CEO doesn’t have a clue about the HD radio technology he so firmly embraced. He comments:

He began by saying that most broadcasters were rushing to install IBOC (HD radio®) equipment. According to the FCC.gov web site, there are currently 1,542 FM stations out of 9,630 total FM stations broadcasting in IBOC. That represents approximately sixteen percent, which is a rather low number. Further, many of those stations are National Public Radio member stations which received very generous grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (e.g., your tax dollars) to purchase and install the said digital radio equipment from the sole manufacture and licensor of IBOC radio in the US, Ibiquity. Incidentally, there are 292 out of 4,790 AM stations currently broadcasting in IBOC, or roughly six percent. Those numbers have been relatively static over the last several years. It could hardly be called a rush to install.

He then quoted from the first bullet point on our home page, agreeing that there’s something inherently wrong with tax dollars subsidizing a monopoly like iBiquity through CPB grants — not to mention the additional community dollars that are sucked up by HD channels. And, as he points out, this is indeed a substandard system we’re bankrolling (noted too on Radio Survivor, posted here):

Secondly, Alan stated that there is no analog radio anymore, “It’s all digital.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I suspect that Dr. Chartock is simply ignorant of the technology in spite of his title as CEO. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with IBOC technology. No one in a position of authority seems to understand what it is all about. While the technical spec looks better for main channel IBOC vs. analog FM if one is considering total frequency response only. Unfortunately, to attain that 20 kHz spec, some very aggressive bit reduction is required to make the digital signal conform with the allotted bandwidth. A well designed and maintained analog FM station will sound as good as any IBOC signal out there. Add to that, the difficulty receiving the IBOC signal in mobile environments or lack of building penetration of the IBOC signal, and the digital carrier is far inferior to the analog stereo system that has been in use since 1961.

Then, reverting to a bit of engineer speak, he continues:

If the main channels use aggressive bit reduction schemes, the second and third channel use bit reduction butchery. If the audio quality of Sirius Satellite radio sounded bad, this sounds worse. The quality of such secondary data streams is so low, . . . I would think that organizations such as NPR and CPB, both of which pride them selves on the quality of their product, would not want to degrade it thus.

But NPR and the CPB have bought into it, hook, line, and sinker — with your money — and dragged along a bunch of equipment manufacturers and carmakers as well. And they’re all acting like this is the second coming, parroting the iBiquity company line: “NOW’S THE TIME TO UPGRADE!” Only on the techie sites will you find the naysayers, with posts like this from the Zune forum:

Is it possible to disable the HD radio on the Zune? I can’t tell you how may times I am listening to a radio station in HD that keeps fading in and out, stopping and etc. And this exact same station plays fine in regular FM mode. How can I disable HD Radio?

So you’ve got a substandard system foisted off on the public, paid for by the public, at the bid of CEOs that don’t have any idea what they’re doing . . . Compound that with the information noted in a Radio World article, posted here, detailing how NPR adroitly fudged the data when initially testing the IBOC technology so it passed muster, lending its imprimatur to the scam and very conveniently helping its new partner — iBiquity. Small world, isn’t it? NPR needed to shore up its sagging bottom line by selling its canned product to fill the new HD channels that would soon blossom, manured by taxpayer dollars.

Techies in the blogosphere have long argued that this is a fraud being pawned off on taxpayers. David Downs, writing on the East Bay Express website back in 2007, put it this way:

But after an investigation of HD Radio units, the stations playing HD, and the company that owns the technology; and some interviews with the wonks in DC, it looks like HD Radio is a high-level corporate scam, a huge carny shill. Do not tune in until your unit comes standard on that used Honda Civic you buy in 2015.

Between the high prices, poor listening options, homogenized content, and a decade and a half of FCC dealings that went into this monopoly, critics are calling the move to digital radio a “catastrophe” and a “complete giveaway” to behemoths such as CBS. Moreover, HD is pretty much a done deal.

Not quite a done deal, as now they’re coming back for more money to fund the power increase for HD radio (those with any money left, that is). But it is, to taxpayers and local supporting communities, Another Sh*tty Deal.

The point can be made that Dr. Chartock is not an engineer. So why should he be bothered by all the little details? That, in fact, is precisely the point. When these CEOs make game-changing decisions — blithely sacrificing local station employees, local shows, and local sentiments — they’d better have the whole story, rather than relying upon the assurances of an unholy alliance with vested interests in the outcome.

Foundering in Florida

In Florida, the tide may be turning, according to an article on the Gainesville Sun web page. A petition drive protesting the new format at WUFT sports 2,600 signatures now, and pledges dropped by 37 percent after the change. The article noted:

Last spring, General Manager Larry Dankner announced in the Gainesville Sun that WUFT-FM had found a “way to meet the wants of our community and provide a cutting-edge educational experience for our students while remaining fiscally responsible.” He explained that the new talk programs, which are far less expensive when run on HD, can be run on the HD2 stream, while the mixed Classic 89 format, with its inexpensive music programming and news/talk, should remain on the main (analog) station. In this way, Dankner explained, the station would save over $145,000

Astonishingly, a few months later, the decision was made to take the very route that Dankner had so sensibly avoided — the talk programs were moved to the main (analog) station. The costs of programming have, as predicted, skyrocketed.

The author, Sue Yelton, proposed turning it around:

An excellent solution would be to move the all-talk format back to HD2, while reinstating a news/music mix to the high-powered analog station. With community input, a decision could be made whether or not to add one or two of the most desired new talk shows to the mixed format.

R.I.P. KUT

To: Stuart Vanderwilt, KUT General Manager
Hawk Mendenhall, KUT Programming Director
Sylvia Carson, KUT Marketing and Development Director
Roderick Hart, Dean of School of Communications, UT-Austin
From: Julia Kveton Apodaca, former contributor to KUT

Date: April 21, 2010

Re: Why I no longer contribute

How stupid do you think we are?  Just because you keep repeating the line about coming to us for funding only twice a year, do you think we haven’t noticed that you come to us every hour of every day for funding? I admire some of the well-known personalities who have recorded support spots for KUT, but when they describe what they love about the station, it sounds like they’re speaking about the good old KUT before it was transformed from the treasure it once was into a full-time fundraising vehicle. And speaking of vehicles, when will the torture stop? Seems like when the station is criticized for saturating the airwaves with smarmy, incessant, excruciatingly irritating pleas for vehicle donations, the response is to make the spots even stupider and play them even more often.

In fact, it seems that lately, any time KUT management is criticized by long-time loyal listeners who are disillusioned by the increasing corporatization of the station, it responds by shoving more of the corporatization in our faces. As if to say, “Fine; you don’t like all our advertisements in disguise? We’ll blast you with a round-the-clock announcement about why we need them.” The announcement says that underwriters now support 40% of the programming we love, yet the programming—and the programmers/DJs—we love continue to be chipped away and hacked off and unceremoniously dumped. Instead, we hear underwriting advertisements. And announcements about why underwriting advertisements are so important to us.

Speaking of advertising, how about a little truth in advertising? Why are those sacred Saturday broadcast hours still referred to as “Folkways?” Clearly, that show is now “The Folk Hour Followed By KGSR Until The News Comes On.” I reiterate that it’s not bad music; I just don’t understand why the precious few weekly hours specifically devoted to folk music are now filled with other kinds of music that can be played on other shows or other stations.

And do you think we’re so stupid that we haven’t noticed that Aeilli is leashed?

And I love to hear Austin music, but why do you think that’s just about the only music we want to hear?

Before the current management started its slow, steady strangulation of the marvel that KUT once was, KUT didn’t have to brag about being independent. It was. It didn’t have to boast about how many different songs per year it played. It just played them. It didn’t have to tell audiences that its DJs handpick the music they play because it was obvious they did. It didn’t have to have shills shore up support for the station. And it didn’t insult our intelligence by telling us, over and over, in on-air announcements that start weeks before the “on-air fund drive,” that contributing early will keep the fund drive short, when in fact, it simply lengthens it by several weeks.

As I mentioned in my previous letter (attached), I am delighted by many of the good changes that have occurred during the three decades I have made this wonderful city my home. But of all the bad changes—such as the pollution of Barton Springs, gridlocked traffic, and outrageous housing prices—the worst, in my opinion, is the killing of KUT by short-sighted, egotistical management. It’s the same affliction that threatens to kill (with KUT’s collusion) the cherished, incomparable, immeasurable treasure that is the Cactus Café. I used to proudly donate to KUT. Instead, I will now donate to Save the Cactus Café.

001KUT

Into the Fray

A tip of the hat from a fellow radio blogger, Radio Survivor (great subtitle: “News, views and tough love for radio”), whose link is now found on the right. He notes the Austin-Boston connection herein (not to slight Gainesville, Johnson City, and Seattle), and adds this to the commentary:

A growing priority on news and information programming has been happening at public radio stations nationwide for well over a decade, with many long-running local music programs coming to an end. Even back in 1997 when I attended the CPB’s Public Radio Program Directors conference, the emphasis was on research indicating that moneyed listeners valued keystone syndicated programs like All Things Considered more than local programming, especially music. Since then the trend has only grown.

Read the post here. He also mentions the emphasis on HD radio and the scam being perpetrated on the American people by iBiquity in cahoots with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Power to the public.

Radio World

Barry McLarnon, writing in the current issue of Radio World, took some shots at HD radio in an article entitled “Oh Well, on With the Experiment.” Among his insights:

The saga continues. It’s remarkable that the development of the IBOC system began well over 20 years ago, yet it still seems to be an ongoing experiment. On the AM side, the experiment seems to be pretty much concluded: The ship has sprung a leak and is listing badly…. The system was torpedoed by poor nighttime performance, interference problems, and the lack of any real selling point, like new audio services.

Of particular note, Barry writes of the influence of the major players pushing for the HD power increase and the subsequent subservience of the FCC:

The FCC order regarding the power increase represents a bit of a departure for the commission. Up to this point, they at least paid lip service to protecting the public interest by requesting comments at key junctures in IBOC deployment.

This time, however, they based their decision almost entirely on the contents of a report submitted after the close of the comment and reply comment periods. What also raises eyebrows is the fact that the order discusses a couple of ex parte filings submitted after comments were no longer invited.

So, in essence, a few privileged parties had their say at that point, and everyone else was left out in the cold.

And as Barry notes, the role of NPR in gaining acceptance for the power increase has been less than exemplary. “In their 2008 report, they warned of dire consequences that would ensure from a blanket FM IBOC power increase.” But a quick rewrite was done on the report, and suddenly: “Oops, our mistake, a blanket increase of 6 dB is actually just fine, and even a 10 dB increase will be okay in most cases.” The numbers in the two reports are the same, but they’ve been jiggered in 2009 to justify the power increase.

There’s much more of import here, but his conclusion merits particular mention:

[I] fear that many will miss this important conclusion from these test, buried in the bowels of the report (page 46):

“Station managers and engineers need to be conscious and informed of the effects of elevated IBOC, if they are considering adopting high-power digital transmission for their own stations. Although the listening experience of such a rise in power will vary greatly for listeners across the protected service area, all in-home analog listeners will experience some reduction in audio quality and most will experience a significant reduction in audio quality.”

Sounds like a pretty serious flaw to me.

California Dreamin’

Capital Public Radio, four stations covering Sacramento as well as Reno, is drinking the Kool-Aid now too. Changes include many if the same we’ve seen elsewhere, involving local news and a “re-tooling” of music programs.

The goal is to unify our news and talk programming to set the stage for future growth,” Joe Barr, director of news and information programming, wrote, in an e-mail. “CPR’s newly approved strategic plan makes it clear that news and information is the future of the organization [emphasis added].

There are many reasons for it, but the unfortunate fact is that the audience for the station can no longer sustain the business of the station. In that way, we’re no different from a retail business that doesn’t have enough customers to keep the doors open.

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