Time’s a-Wastin’, Houston

It’s time to act if you want to speak out for independent/college/free-form radio — namely, that at Rice University, where the students’ 50,000-watt radio station is in the process of being sold out from under them by a callous administration. As this post notes, on the Daily Cougar.com site of the University of Houston — the buyer of the station, already owner of an NPR station, KUHF — some 5,000 people have already signed a petition in an attempt to thwart the sale at the FCC. Other steps have already been taken:

KTRU’s student staff has retained the legal counsel of the Washington D.C.-based Paul Hastings Law Firm that handles a multitude of issues, some of which include mergers and acquisitions as well as telecommunication laws.

“The lawyers at Paul Hastings have taken on our case with a great deal of sympathy for our predicament,” KTRU station manager Joey Yang said. “I think that with their experience and knowledge they are well suited to handle the case.”

The case will be brought to the Federal Communications Commission for review as soon as the administration petitions for a transfer of the license.

When the petition is filed with the FCC, there will be a 30-day window for public input, then the FCC will decide whether a transfer of the license is in the best interest of the public and the community.

That window for public comment ends this Thursday, December 2nd, so take a few minutes and register your protest.

The University of Houston, also oblivious to the protest, plans on turning the existing NPR station into all-talk and to move classical music to the acquisition. As protesters charge, the classical music will then be broadcast on a station with half the power of KUHF, reaching a much smaller piece of Houston.

Writing on the Radio Survivor blog yesterday, Jennifer Waits put it this way:

Inherent in their argument is that it’s not in the public interest to sell an independently-run college radio station to a university that is planning to expand their public radio offerings with another station airing mostly syndicated programming.

It’s no secret that I’m disturbed by the trend of universities selling off their radio stations and I find it even more distressing when the buyers plan to air non-local syndicated programming.

Non-commercial educational radio licenses are increasingly owned by those with deeper pockets, primarily public radio groups and religious radio conglomerates. This landscape makes it even more challenging for local college radio stations to survive when there are willing suitors clamoring down administrators’ doors with offers of millions of dollars for an FM license.

I think it’s important for the FCC to hear that citizens are NOT in favor of consolidation on the left side of the radio dial, as we’ve certainly seen what a disaster that’s been on the commercial band. Here’s what you can do NOW:

…Thursday, December 2nd, is the last day that people within the Houston listening area can email letters directly to the FCC.

If you aren’t sure of the specifics to include in your letter, take a look at the sample letter on the Save KTRU website. Details on where to email letters and additional ways that you can help can be found at Save KTRU as well.

The Save KTRU website also details how you can contact your congressional representative. Act now!

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Radio City

So does HD work better in a big city, where there are already too many stations fighting for analog dominance? Not according to this discussion group, whose LinoNewYork took some samples:

Mike Walker: Thanks for the clips. Those WPLJ cuts suffer from so much processing that they make probably the worst case ever for HD’s sound quality. On top of that, there’s virtually no stereo separation (are you sure you captured a stereo signal??? I hear NOTHING resembling stereo). Just proves HD can sound every bit as awful as truly horrid analog!

Carnivore: Maybe I’ll take a drive around NYC and record HD Radio flipping back and forth from HD to analog in my car, complete with not-quite-synced up audio that causes echos and stutters, and poorly matched volume levels that will want to make you tear your hair out. That would be fun.

LinoNewYork: Mike, you have to listen closely for sep on the main, it is there. PLJ, and most other NY CHRs, are into “dense” processing and it seems that only ambiance and reverb cut through with any degree of separation. I have CDs of alot of these songs and many might as well be mono.

WPLJ/Citadel has a policy of mono feeds for the -2 and-3 streams also AM, its probably just as well at those low bitrates.

Mike Walker: Lino, I tried with headphones. You’re right . . . stereo is there. In the way that honesty “is there” in politics. It’s just damn hard to find!

Carnivore: Here’s the reality though. On AM, the slightest bit of electrical interference is enough to knock out the HD reception and cause the radio to fall back to analog. This happens all the time when driving around in a car, unless you happen to be so close to the tower you can practically see it through your windshield. The effect of flipping in and out of HD is incredibly annoying on AM, as it results in the sound quality changing drastically every few seconds, not just the high frequencies but the compression level, overall volume level, and even the timing of the two audio streams sometimes being not quite synced up. In my opinion this totally negates any benefit of the HD since it does nothing to extend the range of clear AM reception and it’s more annoying to endure than the lower-fidelity, yet consistent analog signal. With conventional AM you may not have those high frequencies but at least the sound quality isn’t bopping back and forth like a ping pong ball. To top it off, there’s nothing on the AM band that I care about hearing more high frequencies on. It’s all news and talk, and analog AM gets the job done just fine.

High-power FM stations fare a little better in the car. As long as you’re driving around the immediate local coverage area you should usually be able to keep a constant lock and enjoy the improved HD sound quality. But lower-powered FM stations can be almost as annoying as AM in the car. I live about 8 miles from the WFUV transmitter in NYC and that station flips in and out of HD constantly in my neighborhood. And that station is no slouch — according to radio-locator.com it’s cranking out 46,000 watts ERP. As for the big commercial stations on the Empire State Building, I start losing the lock on them between exits 8 & 9 on the NJ Turnpike, to give you an idea of the limitation.

If you’re expecting “hi-fidelity,” it depends. Some stations sound good when they’re not dropping in and out, others like WWFS-HD2 here in NY are pretty grainy sounding. And AM sounds highly digitized, not good enough to revive any music formats on the band IMHO.

At first I was excited about the potential of HD radio and I now own three receivers, two in the home and one in the car. But my enthusiasm has really turned around. I now think AM HD is completely pointless, and FM HD is a fun thing to be able to pick up for a radio geek but I can’t see it ever hitting critical mass. Ultimately I believe once the big HD Radio promotional push is exhausted, the subchannels will end up becoming the domain of paid religion, brokered and ethnic programming. Broadcasters are going to want to start making money from their investment and I think those are the only places they’re going to find it.

WUMB’s the Word

The following came from a post on the Fans of Folk Radio WUMB, reposted in its entirety, giving a good look at how songs are chosen at a radio station for incessant replay:

When record companies and some independent artists send CDs to commercial radio stations for airplay they are often stickered with notes “suggesting” which tracks to favor for airplay, as well as “tear sheets,” a one page artist biography and background information.

The theory is the more “spins” a certain song gets, the higher it will place in Billboard and other commercial pop music charts. WUMB-fm is run more as a commercial station than an independent community station in that

1)  it subscribes to this practice,

2)  airplay is dictated by music director, not the program hosts, who allows only certain artists/songs to be played (e.g. “playlist”),

3)  despite their personal knowledge and experience, “on air hosts” are not allowed to deviate from the playlist.

We suspect WUMB’s new CD flow goes something like this:

The music director…

1)  receives new CDs and reviews for “fit,”

2)  selects only one or two songs, the ones best fitting music mix WUMB’s desired sound, to add to the playlist,

3)  has the CD “ripped” into itunes or a similar database,

4)  creates a daily computer program of songs, promotional breaks, station IDs, PSAs, planned breaks for news, etc. The “on air personalty”…

5)  sits in the UMass Boston studio or in their home studio, and like a TV talking head, during the music breaks reads off prepared scripts or list of management-written talking points about the artists and songs.

Some functionary…

6)  Submits the daily “WUMB playlist archive” — http://wumb.org/cgi-bin/playlist1.pl — to Billboard, Americana Music Association and/or other commercial trade organizations.

In return…

7)  WUMB-fm management gets some kind of reward from record companies and featured artists’/artists’ agents.

If after a 3-4 weeks the CD is still in the favor of the music and general manager, the original one or two songs are retired, replaced by another one or two prescribed by the record company and publicist, and the cycle begins anew. Playing the snot out of the chosen songs to the exclusion of all others on the album, or previously done by the artist, to many listeners makes songs and artists unwelcome (that song again??!!).

In the wall post in its “friend” page — http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=814915243 — titled “Results of WUMB Boston’s annual Top 101 performers, including Chris Smither at number…,” “friends” are asking WUMB-fm management to explain their reasoning behind the heavy play/favorite practice, especially in light of many of the favored artists did not receive enough votes in the recent contest to break the top 120, let alone the top 100.

Richard Danca My question: How does the the top 100 list compare to the playlist? The station’s format has changed a lot over the past few years.

Wumb Boston ‎100% the artists on our Top 100 list are in the WUMB Playlist. If an artist makes it into the Top 100 and we have not previously had their music in our Playlist, we add it.

Scott Johnsen ‎@WUMB – Nice!

Paul Martin re “100% the artists on our Top 100 list are in the WUMB Playlist,” but the opposite is not true. The point was many of the favored artists played every day did not make the top 120. I believe that was Mr. Danca’s underlying point. Will those peoples’ votes (or lack of) influence play frequency and possible de-listing

Wumb Boston The Top 100 artists will probably be played more often. However, artists will not be removed just because they didn’t make the Top 100.

Howard Glazer Why not reduce the number of spins songs by those artists get? After all, the voting seems to show that the push being given those artists by your program director (1) isn’t working.(3)

For more about the “favored” artists who failed to make the top 120, read “There are no surprises in the top ten, so let us focus on how the ‘clunkers’ fared” — http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=175432842482751

WUMB’s “heavy play/narrow focus” commercial practice causes one to wonder, why does WUMB-fm give favor to certain artists and songs to the exclusion of others, is this to “bump” songs the record companies dictate up the charts? That practice serves the selected artists and their record companies and their publicists, but what does WUMB-fm get in exchange? We hope it is not payola (2), can there be another logical reason?

And how does repeating the same AAA artists and songs over and over and over benefit the listeners?

When some non-current favorite song is played, the chances are very hight that it is the one or two or three approved for airplay of that artist. Does WUMB-fm hold listeners in such a low regard that it believes listeners crave only the familiar? One of WUMB-fm’s favorite promotional jingles is “our roots are deep,” which is pure hype and subject to debate. It would be more palatable and truthful if “…but our hyper-played featured artist list is shallow” were added.

Perhaps WUMB-fm will reinstate its “Ask the Manager” feature (not heard since ex-program manager Brian Quinn was on staff) so we could try to get a direct answer. Or hold public forums where members and former members could ask policy questions. In lieu of that, we suggest you call or write station management — http://www.wumb.org/about/contact.php — to inquire into their reasoning behind earmarking 1 or 2 songs/album and playing the snot out of them. And why, despite popular rejection of Dala, The Guggenheim Grotto, Back Yard Tire Fire, Birdsong At Morning, Golden Smog, Ingrid Michaelson, Anders Osborne, Feist, Good Old War, The Tallest Man On Earth, Tom Jones, Sass Jordan, Mark Olson & Gary Louris, Samantha Gibb & The Cartel, Greg Laswell, Vetiver in the popular “top 120” vote, they will continue to receive airplay. And why WUMB-fm has adopted a commercial rather than free-form community radio sound and practices.

—–

(1) Please note, WUMB-fm has had no program director since Brian Quinn’s departure, Mr. Glazer probably meant “music director.” Nevertheless, we are waiting for that answer!

(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Payola

(3) Extracted from http://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=143341692381616&id=814915243&notif_t=feed_comment_reply To read the entire thread, go to http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=814915243

HD Unplugged

Here’s an interesting post about HD with some sound bites to back it up, on the blog “Reviews & Insights” in a piece entitled “HD Radio Undressed: The Naked Truth.” The first YouTube video shows a local Chicago TV station parroting the company line about the wonders of IBOC. The second gives lie to the ubiquitous claim trumpeting “static-free AM radio.” The conclusions:

iBiquity has long claimed that HD Radio eliminates the static and interference typically associated with analog AM reception. Here, some RFI produced by my well pump disproves their claim — the static causes the receiver to drop back to analog mode, and then it takes several seconds to regain the digital signal. The receiver is an Auvio HD Radio Tuner from Radio Shack. On FM it is fine, but on AM it has very poor performance, even on analog signals. WOR is the only “HD Radio” (IBOC DAB) signal I can reliably receive in digital mode on the AM band. WFAN is flakey at best, and all other digital signals just show a flashing “HD” symbol on the receiver but never can decode the digital audio. Also, the compression artifacts in the digital audio produce a very gritty, metallic sound — very harsh and unpleasant to listen to…. The last time I tried an “HD Radio” receiver was in 2007, and nothing has improved since then. Even on the best FM signals, the digital audio is still harsh and metallic, the digital reception is still very flakey, and radio stations still have problems synchronizing their analog and digital audio. So despite all the hype, “HD Radio” just isn’t worth the money, and analog AM/FM radio still works and sounds better!

Of particular interest are the many comments, a few of which follow:

Someone uploaded a video of lightning causing problems with HD AM, and when the radio received the HD signal the music sounded like complete shit compared to the analogue AM signal. What exactly does a well pump do and does the pump run constantly? How far away from the radio is the pump located? Are the radio and the pump both on the same electrical circuit?

I have never bought an HD radio, and I never will thanks to your video. I agree that AM/FM radio works better! I just hope terrestrial radio doesn’t go away…

I can’t believe how bad AM HD sounds with it’s saccharine fake treble that’s just a step below fingernails on the blackboard. I swear if the clip ran longer I’d have to wash my AKG-240 of the blood dripping from my ears. AM-Huge Disappointment!

IBiquity was nothing but a big black hole that radio dumped millions of dollars into that could have been spent on improving programming. The technology sucks!

HD radio just sounds like a marketing gimmick, people will buy anything with “HD” slapped on it.

HD radio sucks. Its sponsored by the NAB and this tv station got some under the table cash. Mostly the “news bit” was more like a sales pitch. I’ve tried HD radio and the stations always cut off about 40 miles from the city. It might be good if you live in an urban area but not in a rural area. Satellite radio is way better than HD radio. Coast to coast coverage of the same content and no static. I rather spend the $17/month for commercial free and uncensored music and all the NFL and NHL games.

And these from the hinterlands, where the most serious damage is done to the public airwaves from digital hash:

The only HD Radio station in South Dakota is KTSD-FM in Reliance, which is a “South Dakota Public Radio” retransmitter. I have never heard HD Radio in person, mainly because receivers have been out of reach, and I’m also not interested in getting one.

I live about 45 miles away from a major city. Our little town has one FM station. I’ve been waiting for HD radio only to find out that out here it won’t do me ANY good! I can gets lots of regular FM stations here. Why change that? I remember when most new ideas seemed like good ideas. What happened? And NO WAY do I want to move to a big city. Everybody is going nuts in big cities these days.

As noted before, 40% of HD channels are local public radio stations — funded initially by $50 million in taxpayer dollars courtesy of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Which, for its part in funneling local dollars away from local content into disasters like the digital initiative, should be de-funded. Or, if not, all taxpayer dollars should come with the proviso that any station accepting public funds in any manner should be required to post a complete disclosure of how its money is spent. This total lack of transparency transcends any arguments over the political bent of the stations. Share your thoughts with your congress people: See the link “What Can I Do?” on the left to get started.

Phasers on Stun

The latest bad joke out of the iBiquity “shock and guffaw” swag factory entails making HD radios into just one more Pandora, Jango, or you-name-it. And they’ve talked their buds at NAB into forking over more dough to make this turkey fly — a classic case of throwing good money after bad. That seems to be a trademark of industry bigwigs such as Clear Channel and CBS, two iBiquity investors.

Tagged “Persona,” as in  “customization at the personal level,” iBiquity’s latest scam is getting funding from the NAB FASTROAD technology initiative. It says “Persona would produce a listening experience that is customizable by ‘audio content, displays and advertisements.'” Engineers on the Radio-Info.com discussion board are definitely underwhelmed by the latest attempt to generate some buzz — other than over the airwaves, that is.

Play Freebird: Your assignment is to read this 40 page document, then summarize it in three words or less:

http://www.nabfastroad.org/PersonaRadioProject.pdf

Scott Fybush: “Mediocre Pandora emulation”?

Local oscillator: “Titanic deck paint.”

Bill DeFelice: “Flip It OFF!”

KB10KL: Waste of Time.

mmnassour: It’s been done.

Savage: “Persona Non Grata”

And the response to a rosy Radio World article about the concept, here, was anything but gushing:

The whole idea is one more example of iBiquity in panic mode. How many things have they tried attempting to wake up a sleepy public overburdened by other distractions far more interesting than digital radio? I can count quite a few. This is just like the strange and manipulative “barter” system they are trying on broadcasters to convince them to sign-up — just another odd attempt that will have little momentum. You can call these things good ideas, smart marketing or anything else, but the bottom line is it’s just a frantic attempt to come up with something that will work. In the end, it’s very tiring and consumers just don’t care. FYI — Any comparison to the early days FM is just stupid — no offense. FM didn’t displace any existing system. That comparison is overused and just bad but once again shows how people today have a very difficult time thinking correctly.

And this comment from a follow-up article:

I say let the morons keep at it. Kind of like placing them in a round room and telling them to find the corners. It’ll keep them out of trouble. IBiquity’s failed so many times this will be one more failure to add to their large collection. Just in time for the holidays too.

Expect some time after today’s Black Friday an announcement that the new HD will soon feature phasers and transporter beams — something that would be indeed different, albeit physically impossible.

HD Turnoffs

Paul Thurst on Engineering Radio reports here on a new slew of AM radio stations that have turned off their HD channels, notably in NYC:

I have received an e-mail from occasional reader John, who comments that many of the Windy City AM’s have turned their buzz saws off. I note myself today, the same can be said for many of the NYC AM’s.  WABC has had their’s IBOC turned off for quite some time. The latest to turn off is WNYC on 820 KHz. Several people have noted the loss of noise on their signal this morning.

According to Ibiquity’s own website, only six AM stations in the NYC market are currently using IBOC.

What does this mean?

Could it be that management is finally realizing that the cure is worse than the disease? The disease being alleged poor audio quality, and the cure being IBOC itself.

Comments following the post note that others have joined the retreat:

Rob H: KDKA’s 50KW station 1020 in Pittsburgh, PA, has stopped transmitting digital for a few weeks now as well, which is rather nice. Hope it stays off. I liked the station but stopped listening when they started transmitting digital. It’s amazing how much interference WBZ 1030 gives them at night. WBZ’s skyway signal is so intense it actually interferes with KDKA within their so-called protected contour. Makes for a poor listening experience with the constant rushing sound in the background. Can’t imagine why they put up with it. I’m sure the insignificant number of people that actually listen to KDKA digital can’t compare to the lost listeners due to the annoying interference situation.

Greg: I’m in Maryland and noticed that WBBM and WCBS haven’t been running IBOC in a while. Of course, WCBS clobbers WWL, and WBZ clobbers WHO. All of this made-up crap that DX listeners don’t matter — tell that to the many truckers (and rural listeners) that depend on, or used to before IBOC, DX-AM and Trucker’s Network out of WLW. I am so disgusted that I gave up listenening to AM since IBOC was authorized for nighttime use back in 2007. This is iBiquity’s attempt to localize the coverage of AM/FM. As you sow, so shall you reap.

The engineers in one blog group have this to add about stations dropping IBOC, and additional information about the big groups still running it and their connections to iBiquity:

KDKA 1020 in Pittsburgh seems also to have stopped the digital hash. WWVA 1170 in Wheeling has dropped it as well. I hope it stays that way. Both are 50KW. WHAM 1180 in Rochester went to daytime only. It too is a 50KW I think. I hope that with the new year AM stations don’t pay their iBiquity fees since no one is listening anyway. I wish WBZ would get the message — but it’s unlikely.

And:

CBS Radio will probably be the last AM IBOC advocate standing. Why? Because their VP for engineering, Glyn Walden, was one of the developers of IBOC at the time USA Digital Radio and Lucent’s digital radio spinoff merged. He has a lot of his ego tied up in it.

Walden and the President of CBS Radio, Dan Mason, were both big executives at iBiquity before coming to CBS. They have a lot invested in it.

Cougars on Rice

Students at the University of Houston have also expressed their dismay at the surreptitious sale of the Rice University 50,000-watt radio station, KTRU, to UH, a school that already owned and operated an NPR station. According to this post on the Houston student website, Daily Cougar.com, a number of students spoke up at a recent Board of Regents meeting:

Multiple students consecutively spoke to the straight-faced board members at the Wednesday meeting, and each student expressed a loss of confidence they had in the institution. Many UH students referred to the deal as a “black eye” on the university.

Nick Cooper, Rice alumnus and member of the local award-winning jazz band Free Radicals, told UH Regents they should “be ashamed at the way the situation was handled.”

Cooper said the loss of KTRU would be a monumental blow to local musicians like himself who gain exposure through the student run station.

Jonathan Stewart, an executive member of Rice’s student government association, went as far as to warn the Regents against entering into a contract with an institution such as Rice.

He said that the institution has practiced the utmost secrecy with its students and entering into any kind of contract with them would be “bad business and a risky investment.”

The Regents told the students that they could not respond or comment on this matter at this time.

Reactions have been similar throughout the UH community.

“As a communications student at UH, I am disheartened by our administration’s underhanded dealings,” Vincent Capurso, a volunteer D.J. at KTRU, said. “Is this what we are teaching business majors, deception?”

KTRU music director Kevin Bush said “they never suspected anything like this was going on behind their backs, but that the incident has confirmed suspicions about how the administration does business”

“They [the UH and Rice administrations] took steps to make sure it was something that wouldn’t draw our attention,” Bush said. “Although the Texas Watchdog article(s) may not demonstrate any legal malfeasance, they do show that the process was very underhanded.”

Among the comments was this from a UH grad, Robert:

am ashamed to have graduated from the University of Houston. If the sale goes through, I will never ever donate another penny to University of Houston; and given any opportunity, I will warn anyone considering attending UH that they should somewhere else because of the KTRU matter. Losing KTRU would be a major blow to the city of Houston.

Again, with major budget cuts in the horizon, why is UH trying to buy KTRU? UH through KUHF, already have FOUR stations….

None of this makes any fiscal sense. NONE OF IT.

And this from Yoyo:

Wow! What a lot of fish! Shem! Most of the important people involved don’t seem to care about anything except getting money, resume points, and a 24-hour news station, variously. Do you see KUHF, Rice, or UH telling the world, whether in the Houston Chronicle, on 88.7, or elsewhere, that they are buying KTRU, and moving all the classical-radio programming to a station with half the reach? That reeks of people who could care less about the music listeners and just want the money. (Ver’s de money, Lebowski??) I bet a lot more people would scream bloody murder if they found out that once they’re 8 miles from Rice they can barely get static-filled reception of the only classical radio station in town.

Did you know that KUHF wanted to raise 1.1 million this past fundraiser, but only managed to reach less than 1 million? So KUHC is starting out with a budget shortfall, already.

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