Larry Monroe and James Cotton

During his last show, Blue Monday, before retiring from KUT, Larry Monroe was joined by blues great James Cotton (photo by Ave Bonar). Interviewed on the KUT website, Larry had this to say:

KUT News: I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you whether your hours being reduced at KUT played a role in your decision to retire.

Monroe: I have no comment.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

To date, only a handful of stations have opted to bear the extra expense and wear on equipment associated with boosting the output on their HD channels — with good reason. Now it seems that part and parcel of that boost is an accompanying degradation of the analog signal, as reported in this post, entitled “Look Before You Leap,” on the Radio World website. Author Dave Hershberger, a senior scientist at Continental Electronics, leads off this way:

FM broadcasters may now increase their average digital signal power, in most cases to levels as high as 10 percent of the analog power. Transmitting more digital power will certainly increase the digital coverage area and reduce digital dropouts. However, there may be some unintended consequences, which every broadcaster will have to evaluate before increasing digital power… One negative effect is the way in which increased digital power will mean increased envelope modulation of the linear sum of the FM and OFDM signal components. Peak-to-average ratio reduction algorithms may be called upon to work harder to reduce the envelope modulation… Elevated digital power will also aggravate self-interference to the analog signal [emphasis added].

Dave then plows into a bunch of engineer speak, heavy going for the uninitiated, but the upshot is that this power boost would mess with the station’s analog channel — contrary to what the claims have always been from those flogging the system. They’ve always claimed that while it may mess some with the AM band, hey, no problemo with FM.

Stick a Fork in It

In other related news, word out of Europe is that iBiquity’s flagging fortunes there took a fatal blow. The one place that experimented with IBOC — Switzerland — just pulled out. The internet brims with stories, but this post on Radio World says it most succinctly: “Swiss HD Radio Project Dead.” The article reports that Markus Ruoss, owner of Sunshine Radio and head of the HD Radio project, “said that for himself ‘the HD Radio chapter is complete.’” He thanked investors for the $1.5 million they invested in the crapshoot.

Jack Hannold sends along links to German coverage, for those who sprechen Deutsch:

http://www.infosat.de/Meldungen/?msgID=59896

http://www.satundkabel.de/index.php/nachrichtenueberblick/radio/73919-digitales-radio-steht-in-der-schweiz-vor-dem-aus-qhd-radioq

http://www.digitalfernsehen.de/news/news_954896.html

http://www.persoenlich.com/news/show_news.cfm?newsid=90185

For their part, Bob Struble and iBiquity seem to be backpedaling furiously. This post on the website This Week in Consumer Electronics carried this waffle from the master chef:

Radio broadcasters are waiting for further growth in the installed base of HD Radios before they resume a more aggressive pace of station conversions to digital broadcasting, said HD Radio developer iBiquity Digital. “Broadcasters want to see some more eggs before they take the next step,” iBiquity president/CEO Bob Struble told TWICE.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Paul Riismandel of Radio Survivor intoned a death knell for HD on the AM band in an article entitled “HD Radio on AM — Not Worth It,” leading off with his conclusion from his test of the FM band (contrary to all the swag broadcast by myriad investors in the scheme):

One of the supposed advantages of HD Radio is improved fidelity over analog. As I observed in my listening test of HD on FM, there’s almost no real improvement for HD over the analog signal.

Paul noted that in Chicago, iBiquity claimed to have seven HD channels broadcast on the AM band, though he was only able to pick up three, even after severe manipulation of his antenna. A comment by Greg Smith led him to a post that showed two of the stations no longer broadcast in HD. His conclusions?

Much more so than with FM, I consider HD Radio on AM to be mostly useless and not worth the effort. It’s especially not worth the loud digital hash noise I receive on my analog-only radios on the frequencies adjacent to the HD stations. It’s like a line of digital litter strewn across the AM radio highway….

While I’m willing to work a little to optimize reception, I’m not really willing to go to great lengths for the purpose of the test. I’m looking at HD Radio not from the standpoint of an average radio listener, who I believe is generally not willing to work too hard to receive an HD signal.

Down and Dirty in Austin

This story, entitled “HD radio offerings gain strength in Austin market,” ran in the Austin American-Statesman this week, relying on information from Bob Struble and iBiquity as well as the associate general manager of KUT, Austin’s “public” radio station. The following email was sent to the Statesman letters to the editor:

Mighty puffy piece (“HD radio offerings gain strength in Austin market”), relying on the fox’s quotes about the situation in the henhouse… HD radio is a scam, foisted off on the public by the monopoly licensee, iBiquity, and championed by the great consolidators in the industry: Clear Channel, Emmis, and — yes — NPR. All investors. The public’s airwaves controlled by a monopoly? Never before. And your tax dollars — through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — have bankrolled 40 percent of these channels, all “public” radio stations. Now we see NPR giving bargain-basement prices on shows to push this flimflam. What is the ROI at KUT — the return on investment, holy grail of bean counters? Who would advertise on a channel no one listens to, as it’s cut-rate canned content far inferior to what’s on analog. The price to listeners? So long, Larry, Paul, and John [longtime KUT deejays]. After 20 years in development, iBiquity has sold, maybe, 3 million units — as opposed to more than 700 million analog radios. This is “gaining strength”? For a different perspective, take a look at the HD radio discussion board on radio-info.com for radio engineers’ perspectives on how “HD” jams low-power and community radio stations. See keeppublicradiopublic.com to see how your public radio stations are being assimilated into the borg…

The interesting bit of information that did come out of the article was a quote from the aforementioned general manager:

News and information programs on KUT2 would cost $750,000 a year — or more — if they aired on the main signal, according to Hawk Mendenhall, KUT’s associate general manager. Instead, the station pays around $6,500 annually to suppliers that include the BBC and NPR. Classic jazz that airs on KUT3 costs even less.

“It’s extremely inexpensive to offer these programs,” Mendenhall says, “but I don’t know how long that will last.”

So, NPR is also busily flogging this dead horse, HD radio, in hopes of extending its hegemony (see “Desperate Times,” here). For now… The price of poker must some day go up. Our problem with this is the associated cost to local radio, now and most certainly more so in the future. There’s an interesting exchange from May 6th on the Facebook site with Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio where many of these issues are discussed, including “HD radio and its nonexistent revenue stream, its degradation of surrounding signal strength, the proprietary ownership of the technology by iBiquity (and partner Clear Channel, for one) and its relationship to NPR and the FCC, the cost to stations to bring up and run HD channels and what that means to the budgets of local stations. (If KUT spends $1 million on its “digital initiative” and $1 million on its local-news budget, at the behest of NPR and its Argo Project, where do the cuts come from in a $6 million budget? It’s not from the $500,000 paid the suits, or the $13 million being raised for a new building.)”

As mentioned in an earlier post, here, NPR’s integral role in the ramrodding of IBOC through the FCC may be the most distressing part of the flagship’s role in all this — not exactly covering itself in glory with its shady dealings. And who’s to profit from all this double-dealing? Why, iBiquity, of course. And for years to come, as itemized in its licensing agreements, detailed here. NPR would like to think it can salvage its sagging fortunes with a new network of subservient public radio stations subscribing to its canned products. But what if a tree falls and nobody’s listening?

What may be more disturbing on a local level in Austin is the media — mainstream and otherwise — blindly accepting the blithe assertions of a suspect public radio station management. This is a management that has, since 2007, refused to release financial data — i.e., will not say where the money goes, money from taxpayer dollars (the CPB) and listener pledges. And this is a management led by a man who left his previous place of employment, an Indiana public radio station, on the brink of bankruptcy — and, again, its finances shrouded in secrecy. These are the people deserving the public trust — the wheeler-dealers in public radio and the media weasels beholden to the ad dollar? It’s a sad state of affairs in a city that prides itself on its its progressive tradition as well as its music.

Another One Bites the Dust

Tom Taylor’s newsletter on radio-info.com reports that another college radio station is in danger of being assimilated:

“God Save WNAZ” tee-shirts are selling on the campus of Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University, where the administration discloses it’s negotiating for the sale of the 43-year-old Class A facility at 89.1. The Tennessean says this isn’t the typical case of a struggling school that sees a windfall in its FCC license — “the school is operating in the black for its 19th consecutive year.” The problem is the estimated $1 million cost to upgrade its equipment. The administration says that for a small school like Trevecca, that would mean an extra $1,000 in tuition paid by each student over the next three years. The deal would presumably include three translators (93.9 in Gallatin, 99.5 in Clarksville and 101.9 in Lebanon). Plus the full-power WNRZ, Dickson at 91.5. They all simulcast the same “edgy” contemporary Christian fare, as one student put it.Presumably Trevecca would keep its AM station, Christian teaching WENO at 760. (It’s probably making money.) The Nashville Board of Radio-Info.com seems to think K-Love parent Educational Media Foundation is the lurker here, as the possible buyer. EMF is constantly busy, that’s for sure.

As is the norm nowadays, supporters have opened up a Facebook page, here.

The Radio-info.com discussion boards report that another campus non-comm may also be on the block, Tennessee Temple University’s WDYN in Chattnooga.

Owl Watch

Here are some of the latest developments in the struggle to keep KTRU in Houston a station run by Rice University students, following the announced sale to what Free Press Houston calls “Clear Channel affiliated U of H”:

• In an opinion piece posted on the Rice Thresher, the student newspaper’s website, writers Kevin Bush & Jonathan Stewart opined:

These are the times that try Rice’s soul. The recent incident involving the sale of the KTRU transmitter necessitates a surge of vigilance and skepticism among the student body. Unless the Rice administration is forcefully made aware of student opposition to the secretive process through which the KTRU tower and frequency were pawned off to the University of Houston, we must operate under the assumption that any university asset or program the administration deems unprofitable or underutilized is available for sale to the highest bidder. All members of the Rice community should be alarmed by the dangerous precedent established by the subversive liquidation of a fixture of our university’s culture. We must demand more accountability and transparency from our administration….

Given the immense backlash that resulted from its previous attempt to shut down the KTRU signal, it is hard to imagine that the administration’s opacity was not a deliberate attempt to preclude dissent and to obviate organized opposition. The administration may never admit it, but its actions suggest it had something to hide. More disturbingly, its choices permanently undermine confidence in its receptiveness to student input. Unless students actively express our disapproval, Rice administrators have little incentive to operate more openly in the future….

To accept the ends is to condone the means. Thus, one cannot claim simultaneously that the sale of the KTRU signal was justifiable but that the administration’s secrecy was not. Endorsing the sale of KTRU based on the proposed improvements it would provide would send the administration a message that its actions — including its willful circumvention of student opinion – are acceptable. In a response e-mail, President Leebron directed us to “hold [the administration] to [its] word that this is not a precedent.” We propose a better option. Do not sanction the sale to begin with.

We take further offense at the condescending language the administration has adopted in its attempt to excuse its actions. For example, President Leebron asserted that KTRU should be for sale because it is one of Rice’s “most underutilized resources.” If underutilization can serve as a pretext for liquidating university assets, then every unprofitable athletic program, underperforming academic department, and unnerving student tradition (do we even have to mention which ones?) should fear for their futures. Moreover, Vice President for Public Affairs Linda Thrane told the Houston Chronicle that, as a result of the sale of KTRU, “Students aren’t losing anything.” Even if we accept that the ability to broadcast over the airwaves what the Houston Press has on multiple times dubbed “Houston’s Best Radio Station” does not amount to “anything,” the entire Rice student body has lost the administration’s purported commitment to student input. By its own admission, this administration will decide how much our organizations mean to us — and act accordingly.

• Jennifer Waits of Inside Survivor posted the following:

I was also pleased to see that a number of people affiliated with University of Houston are also opposing the sale by showing up at rallies, organizing Facebook groups and speaking in favor of student radio at Rice University. A columnist at the University of Houston paper even pointed out that the arrival of a second radio station on campus won’t benefit students at either institution.

In an interesting twist, the folks at Save KTRU are reporting that fans of public radio and classical music (who have been happy to hear of University of Houston’s plans to expand the public radio network with this purchase) in Houston will actually be disappointed by the proposals on the table for the new all-classical station on KTRU’s current spot on the dial. Apparently the broadcast range for the new classical station will be much smaller than the existing classical station on KUHF. So who wins?

• A Facebook site for WVUM in Miami is showing solidarity, with the following post: “Houston has a serious problem. Rice University Radio might have to go all classical. Almost happened to us a few years ago… Imagine Miami sans WVUM. Help ’em out if you can.”

• The Facebook site to save KTRU (link on right), now approaching 1700 members, continues the fight. Even the official Facebook site for KTRU, 1800 strong, is inundated by a storm of protest.

• The website for the Houston Chronicle carries an editorial decrying the sale, and the comments therein focus the arguments in the typical highly literate Rice manner. As the authors of the piece noted:

This deal, which was secretly negotiated without the knowledge or consent of the students, faculty or alumni of either university, was approved by the Rice Board of Trustees with no public notice, and by the UH Board of Regents just hours after word had leaked to the press. There was a simple reason for all the secrecy: Had the proposal been exposed to public view, it would have been stopped.

For the University of Houston, which had apparently been led by Rice administrators to believe KTRU had little listenership or support, the current outcry against the proposed sale likely would have proved decisive.

Additionally, spending nearly $10 million during the depths of a recession requires the most stringent of justifications, and as UH Regent Tilman Fertitta asked, “How does the University of Houston need two radio stations, and Rice doesn’t need any?”

Included in the commentary to this piece:

Spritely, in response to the question, “Is it clear which side initiated this transaction?” wrote:
Turns out that the administration has been actively planning the tower/FCC license sale for months (if not years). From what I understand, first the Board tried to find Rice’s sports broadcasts safe harbor on AM radio. But they were unable find one, so Rice sports is going down in flames along with everybody else. I mean, if Rice really needed the funds for a new commisary it could have shopped the station around. $9.5 mil for *rare* FM real estate is a pittance and fiscally irresponsible EVEN IF Rice had made public their intention of selling off something they owned. But therein lies the shame: The Board sold off something that wasn’t theirs to sell, and then took it to a whole other level by flying the finger at Rice students/alums AND the Houston community by selling it at an I’ll-show-you-who’s-boss! price.

This is just a sampling of what can be found on the internet. Stay tuned. Go, Owls!

All the News That’s Fit

An interesting report just came out — the Radio Television Digital News Association/Hofstra University Annual Survey of TV and radio salaries — and it just might cause a bit of consternation at our public radio stations. It has to do with the salaries paid news directors and reporters on the airwaves. In some cases, they seem to be a bit out of line.

At KUT in Austin, for one, the suits brought in Emily Donahue to be news director and her husband, Dave Brown, from L.A. at a premium: Emily for $81,000 a year and Dave for $84,000 (as a deejay, he was paid more than any of the existing deejays, many of whom were subsequently downsized following a management plea of poverty). These numbers were for 2008-2009, as seen in the open records bought and paid for by Austin Airwaves and saveKUTaustin. KUT, you see, doesn’t release its finances, despite receiving taxpayer funding and public donations, hiding behind its UT overlords. This information had to be pried free.

You can see from the following pages how these salaries compare nationwide, both in the average paid and the maximum paid, as well as the amount paid in different size markets (click on them to enlarge):

If numbers are available from your public radio station, consider yourself among the lucky enlightened. You might take a look and see how salaries compare there.

It might also be interesting to note if your public radio station is involved in NPR’s Argo Project, its attempt to “consolidate” local public stations into a news network — aided, of course, by some seed money provided by your taxpayer dollars supplied by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. KUT has spent a considerable amount of money on upgrading its local news to show that it’s a team player. And as Jeff Boudreau pointed out, both WGBH and WBUR show up prominently here, in a story about some of these willing participants — WBUR (bought up by ‘GBH) doing a show called “CommonHealth” and WGBH doing “Climatide.”

Are these stations throwing money at the problem because they feel becoming news hounds best serves the public interest? Or are they just being good dogs?

Chips Ahoy

The bean counters in radio have turned our stations into a wasteland, the PDs given over to wild speculation and fits of consolidation. Inside Music Media’s Jerry Del Colliano, a former prof at Southern Cal and a longtime critic of what passes for intelligence in the radio hierarchies, likes to call them “consolidators” — those more interested in the buying and selling of stations and trying to squeeze a profit out of them than in actually producing a good product. And that often takes the form of automation and a mass of layoffs.

Take out the “buying and selling of stations” and put in “adding HD channels” and you can throw in public radio stations, who make up 40 percent of the digital morass, thanks to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and your tax dollars (though in the past couple of years, they too have succumbed to the lure of the takeover, given the public’s underwhelming response to the digital farce). Either way, the weight of the added expenditures yield the same effect: canned crap and layoffs, a more mediocre product.

Which gives weight to what some claim is the death of radio, reported on in a new post on Radio Insights, “Could NAB Botch the FM Chip Any Worse?” The NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters, is off fighting a war against phantom boogie men, desperately seeking a deal that would put FM radios in cell phones — a dead-letter item if there ever was one. Their problem lies elsewhere, as noted in this comment therein:

If radio is becoming irrelevant, it is not because of the technology. It’s because of the lousy programming on most American stations. FM serves up the same 20 songs, geared toward soccer moms, mall rats, and 20-something secretaries . . . over and over again. AM gives you a steady diet of quack infomercials, sports talk, paid religion, and right-wing political propaganda. I don’t want to use my cell phone for listening to radio stations. I use it for phone calls, period. The NAB and others seem to forget that the new media all come with ever-increasing monthly fees. But radio is FREE! People, make your stations LOCAL, throw your satellite dishes into the Dumpster, and give us some more variety of programming . . . for us older folks, too, who happen to account for 38% of consumer spending these days.

Jerry Del Colliano of Inside Music Media says it ain’t gonna happen:

Radio’s FM chip problem is that it is all a fantasy.

Sounds great to think of billions of cell phones as radios, but it will never happen. The major consumer products and mobile industry is against it and they have real lobby groups not what the NAB has turned into — impotent. $100 million in annual increased taxes for stations sounds like nothing the way the NAB is throwing your money around. Except for one thing.

Consumers have and will continue to reject a mobile phone as a radio and $100 million a year is just the starting point. It, like other taxes, will go up and never down. In other words, you are about to be had once again by your National Association of Broadcasters, the people who were instrumental in tacking on radio deregulation to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with little warning to most radio operators.

Maybe it’s time to put a person who has actually worked in a radio station as head of the NAB. The last guy was from the beer industry and Gordon Smith is a former senator. Both pretty unimpressive at exactly the wrong time.

Even at a paltry 20 cents a chip in the typical phone, it ain’t gonna happen. And then there are the real dreamers — Bob Struble could actually be classified a nightmare — who envision an HD chip in there, at $5 a pop. The IBOC hyper flack machine distributed hints in the media recently that this possibly was in the offing with iPhones. And the media got all a-twitter.

Right. Steve Jobs is just begging to pay iBiquity fees and kowtow to its substandard gimcrackery — right after he changes sex and checks into a convent.

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