Primo Hash

The chickens have come home to roost on the airwaves of some of the major consolidators in radio, according to this post on rbr.com:

Pete Skorich, Detroit Pistons Director of Broadcasting, addressed a rumor that  RBR-TVBR heard regarding a rate reduction in The Detroit Pistons contract with Clear Channel’s Sports WDFN-AM 1130 kHz over poor reception in the evenings. Details had it that 50-kW KMOX St. Louis (1120) and 50-kW WRVA Richmond (1140) were killing WDFN’s nighttime signal because of their skywave HD Radio carriers on 1130. Well, Skorich tells us there was no rate reduction but instead a complete move to CBS Radio’s The Ticket (WXYT) simulcast of 97.1 and 1270 some two years ago.

But he did note it was because of reception complaints: “That was one of the components, and we were with them for five years. They had a weak signal and we were getting a lot of people that could not hear us. It could have been [because of] HD Radio, but at the time we were totally unaware of it.”

WDFN is 50-kW during the day, but lowers its power to 10-kW in the evenings. CBS Radio’s KMOX added HD Radio in May, 2006. In the Summer of 2008, CC Radio pulled WRVA’s nighttime digital signal “due to destructive interference to three high-power AM stations the company owns in Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis operating on adjacent 1130 kHz,” according to StopIBOC.com. This was potentially just after the Pistons moved to The Ticket.

RBR-TVBR observation: This has been a complaint from time to time for local stations affected at night by first-adjacent 50-kW skywave stations. Even full-time 50-kW AMs have issues in their markets from distant HD Radio skywave signals.

But this is the first time we’ve heard it could have been a factor in programming and associated revenue. You may note that on 1270 AM, there are no first adjacent 50-KW stations that would add HD Radio interference onto its signal. As well, it is 50-KW full-time.

Interesting that one major player is hashing over another with IBOC fuzz. Meanwhile, the wags on the radio-info.com discussion board are having a field day with the news:

Play Freebird: Hold on now — how can this be?  AM IBOC “not only meets the emission mask , but exceeds those requirements”, doesn’t it?

radioskeptic: Isn’t it fitting that one of the two stations clobbering Cheap Channel station WDFN’s nighttime signal with useless Hash Disturbance (TM) noise is another Cheap Channel Station?

Less just is the fact that the other “HD” noise generator rendering WDFN unlistenable at night belongs to CBS, whose Detroit AM-FM simulcast is benefitting from the interference.

KB10KL: I’m just wondering why radio keeps the lid on this stuff, it is obviously happening a lot more than anyone in radio admits, especially on the AM side. Are people who work in radio THAT afraid of the IBOC Alliance, companies like CBS etc. that invested money in this scam? This happened two years ago and it was pretty much a secret until now?? I’m wondering when or if radio is going to go up in arms about this stuff or just let Horrible Distortion continue to go limping off into the night as it has been? Could this be Pandora’s box finally staring to open for IBOC?

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The Trojan Horse

The KUSFers in Frisco just won’t go away. Their Facebook page is climbing towards 7,000 friends, and the tenor in the blogosphere has taken a decided militant tone, witness this post on Change.org called “Tell USC local, independent media is too important: don’t crush community stations from afar”:

The University of Southern California has announced that it will ‘preserve classical music in San Francisco’ via the purchase of the rights to broadcast there at 90.3 FM and 89.9 FM. USC sees this as a chance to connect with alumni and with potential recruits. The deal, however, is a travesty.

For decades, 90.3 has been the home of the award-winning, University of San Francisco-operated community station KUSF-FM. As part of a deal negotiated behind closed doors between USC, the University of San Francisco, and Entercom – one of the largest radio station owners in the country — the station was unceremoniously torn from the airwaves earlier this week. Volunteers arrived to find the station behind lock and key; others report being treated like criminals as they were ushered out in a state of surprise. Preserving classical music from afar should not come at the expense of the cultural and musical communities that are now losing a key hub. As USC students, alumni, faculty and staff, it troubles us deeply that our own institution is partially responsible for this outcome.

Educational stations are one of America’s last widely-available outlets for local, critical and challenging content. During a time in which independent voices are increasingly scarce on the consolidated FM dial, USC’s initiative comes at the cost of hobbling a decades-old community institution. Please sign the petition below to express solidarity with those of the KUSF community working for the return of their station. It is our hope that USC can achieve its goals while preserving a valuable San Francisco voice.

And this, the post notes, “is directed specifically to students, alumni, faculty and staff of USC.” The petition itself goes a step further:

Entercom, one of the largest operators of radio stations in the United States, appears to have entered into a ‘content swap’ with USC Radio. USC will gain control of Entercom’s classical-music station 102.1 KDFC-FM in San Francisco, changing the commercial station into a nonprofit entity while retaining its name and staff. Entercom will now use its valuable slot at 102.1 FM to rebroadcast its San Jose-based KFOX 98.5 classic rock programming. This offers the benefit of likely increased ad revenue with no additional cost or effort. USC Radio would need to find a different home on the dial for its new enterprise, hence the purchase of 90.3. (USC also purchased broadcasting rights to 89.9 FM, operated by Christian broadcaster Howell Mountain Broadcasting.) USC is reported to have spent $3.75 million to complete the entire transaction.

Why do this? USC Radio president Brenda Barnes told the Daily Trojan, “There are a lot of Trojans in the Bay Area… USC wanted to have a more tangible presence in an area that is so important for alumni and perspective students.” This effort carries heavy collateral damage. The first opportunity for KUSF’s audience to respond – which they did in droves, emphatically opposing the sale of their station – was at a public meeting January 19, 2011, after the station’s closing. This gathering unfortunately did not even include students who were still on winter break.

Local content on radio is rare in the current highly-consolidated media environment. Community access and involvement is even more rare. KUSF-FM provided both. Educational stations licensed by the FCC decades ago, now increasingly and shortsightedly sold by their home institutions for a quick windfall, have become one of the few ways marginalized voices and content can reach the public. While some administrators may see their radio stations as little more than a “teaching laboratory” for students considering broadcast careers, in reality they have become vitally important institutions in themselves, as innumerable alumni and devoted listeners of such stations can attest. These stations are taking chances on perspectives and content not otherwise represented by commercial media, nor would most NPR affiliates touch much of what airs on them.

A Fistful of Dollars

A recent post on Tom Taylor’s blog on Radio-info.com painted a stark picture of radio revenue over the past couple years, a situation precipitating fevered moves among frazzled radio execs and a few big bankruptcies. The funk in commercial radio sales was trumped by a decade-long sag in the fortunes of public radio, which bent their bean counters to wheeling and dealing like Wall Street traders, buying and selling stations, bartering their stations’ good names on the bloated hype of HD channels, and turning their playlists into an amalgam of automat music du jour:

The numbers don’t lie

New Census data shows the 2007-2009 revenue dropoff in stark detail.
What the Census calls “radio stations”, as distinct from “radio networks”, produced these revenue estimates — for 2005, $14.447 billion. For 2006, an almost equal $14.616 billion. For 2007, $14.871 billion. Remember that the economy started getting funky around late 2007, and here’s 2008 – $13.958 billion. Here’s the real stinkeroo — for 2009, station revenue was $11.693 billion. That’s a drop of over $2.2 billion, year to year. In its own numbers, the RAB estimated that 2008 was down 9% and 2009 fell 18%. We haven’t seen the RAB’s full-year totals for 2010 yet, but you could guess the revenue gain will be in the 4% range. The just-released federal Census data shows that compared to owning radio stations, running a radio network remained a pretty steady business. Here’s the five-year trend, beginning in 2005 — $2.999 billion. $3.829 billion. $4.124 billion. $4.295 billion. And in 2009, $4.259 billion.

So the clever public station owner — a University of Texas or a University of Houston or a USC — figures the road to riches lies along the consolidation path, one time-worn by the mega companies like Cumulus and Clear Channel, who bought up stations left and right. Not to spread their good sense and good music, mind you. Just to squeeze the revenue from them by chopping expenses (like those money-sucking employees) and make the airwaves profitable enough for a handsome salary for the deserving few, biding in comfort ’til the time is ripe to turn them over for a fistful of dollars.

Don’t mind the extra expense gobbling up other stations: You can program them with a tape machine from the home planet, NPR, or PRI, or the like. You might lose a few longtime listeners, but, hey. What are they gonna listen to, eh? That commercial crap on the other stations? Or is that what your suits read in the tea leaves of Arbitron too — the commercial crap? Well, hey, it’s bidness, right? So with that overriding sense of a noblesse oblige, find that least common denominator with the most return, and let those underserved huddled masses take their gripes to the FCC. Yeah, good luck with that.

DUQed Out by Duquesne

Current.org carried this post about the battle in Pittsburgh that’s heating up over what’s to become of their public radio station, and the introduction contains the name of a familiar co-conspirator in the controversy:

Pittsburgh’s NPR News and jazz music station WDUQ is to be sold for $6 million to a joint partnership of WYEP and Public Media Company, a new local ownership and operating entity established by Public Radio Capital.

The sales contract is half the price that the license-holder Duquesne University sought to earn when it put WDUQ on the market last year. “It’s a market issue,” said Dr. Charles Dougherty, president, during a Jan. 14 news conference.

The good doctor prescribed a plan of action for workers at the public radio station: suck it up.

The deal provides some accommodation for jazz music lovers, but officials at the news conference said programming decisions are yet to be made. “The framework is set, but specific format details haven’t been resolved,” said Marco Cardomone, chair of the WYEP Board. His station will retain and even “beef up” its Triple A music format, he said.

The contract establishes an employment and internship program for Duquesne students at the new station, but WDUQ managers and staff will lose their jobs when the sale closes. “We’ve informed them of this decision and are counting on their history of professionalism to see us through the transition,” Dougherty said, referring to the station’s staff.

One anonymous comment was none too pleased with the development:

All of this took place behind closed doors with no public input. The more experienced and competent group which had been doing news and public affairs programming, Pittsburgh Public Media, formed from those who had been employees of WDUQ were ousted, even with a higher bid by a station, WYEP, that really has no more experience in radio than assembling a AAA playlist and has shown very little interest in public affairs in the past. They probably got the nod because the President of Duquesne University, an ultra conservative Catholic, still held grudges with the existing WDUQ management and its rebirth as Pittsburgh Public Media because it once took an underwriting announcement from Planned Parenthood. This is far from being the best outcome for Pittsburgh and PRC enabled it.

Mmmm. Triple A playlists. Everybody’s favorite. Coming soon to a station near you. “Anonymous” also had this to say:

Not only did PRC enable it, they are looking to profit from it, at the community’s expense. It’s been a week, and there’s been no statements from anyone, other than the initial press conference. Why the secrecy? What is there to hide? Or hide from? A track record of declining revenues and increasing expenses over the last five years hardly suggests that WYEP is the right choice to shepherd the new operation. Yet, the university rejects a higher bid and selects this fledgling joint venture. All Pittsburghers can do is shake our heads and wonder why.

The Foot of the Class

The Save KUSF Facebook site has zoomed past 6,500 friends, with no end in sight. The citywide protest seems to be taking on a life of its own, with San Francisco politicos chiming in on the discussion. Jack Hannold sent along a link to this post on the SFWeekly, describing how one city supervisor introduced a resolution Tuesday that will be voted on next week. (You can read the resolution here on the Facebook site.):

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the district where University of San Francisco is located, last week attended the meeting where volunteers talked about ways to save the station. The supervisor was appalled at what was happening, and pledged his support to help KUSF.

Mirkarimi has crafted a resolution in support of the volunteers who are trying to keep 90.3 FM a community radio station. He will introduce the resolution at tomorrow’s board hearing.

“I wish we could do more,” Mirkarimi said. “This is another corporate slam against public access radio. It’s a tragedy for USF to not consult the community and give it a chance to save the station before they sold it off.”

The Facebook site carried one synopsis of the public meeting from Kenya Lewis quoting the supervisor at an earlier rally:

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, a USF alumnus, rolled up his sleeves, took the mic, and spouted his outrage. “It’s frustrating . . . to see the Jesuit ethic to be botched and really bastardized in the way it was . . . in their idea of selling the station in advance and not providing the right of first refusal” to the KUSF community.

And again:

“What a grave error it was for the University of San Francisco to sell the license of KUSF 90.3 on the dial,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who introduced a resolution Tuesday urging the university to rescind the sale. “It’s a travesty that the University of San Francisco did not reach out.”

The blog SFBG (of the San Francisco Bay Guardian) carried more info on the brouhaha in a story by Johnny Ray Huston called “Enter the void,” unearthing more interesting facts:

But while USF’s [President Stephen] Privett claimed that he accepted “the first offer that came across [his] desk” and had not actively put KUSF on the market, on the Jan. 19 installment of KQED’s Forum, CPRN [USC’s Classical Public Radio Network, which dealt for the station] Managing Director Brenda Barnes asserted that the company only solicited radio stations that were for sale….

“I was on a street law program the other day and there was talk about pursuing an injunction,” says attorney and former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. “Jello Biafra also had an interesting idea — he thought the pressure should be put on USC.”

USC’s involvement in the purchase of KUSF is one of a number of recent acquisition moves by USC within the radio marketplace. It left KUSF a casualty of a growing related trend, in which commercial classical musical stations are being shifted to nonprofit public radio status — thanks in part to USC, a college station that broadcast many languages and musical genres (including classical) and foregrounded local music was booted off the dial and replaced by KDFC’s uniformly classical programming.

Jennifer Waits, writing on the Radio Survivor blog, added this interesting tidbit about the deal, filed with the FCC:

There’s also a provision to pay USF a monthly fee for the right to play classical music over KUSF’s frequency of 90.3 FM while the application is under consideration with the FCC. As we reported, classical music programming from formerly commercial station KDFC has been broadcasting over KUSF’s frequency since the afternoon of Tuesday, January 18th. Surprisingly, that monthly fee (which begins at $5,000 a month for the first 4 months and increases to $7,000 a month thereafter for the remainder of the first year of the “Term” of the contract) is quite a bit less than Classical Public Radio Network is paying KNDL.

The paperwork, including the Public Service Operating Agreement and Purchase Agreement (both dated January 12, 2011), was signed by USF Vice President and Provost Jennifer Turpin and USF Vice President of Business and Finance Charles Cross, the man who infamously refused to talk to KUSF volunteers on the day of the station shut-down last week, claiming he had no information about the sale.

Jennifer’s thoughts on the sale can be found at her blog Spinning Indie, here (link also on right).

The Back-Door Boogie

Jack Hannold sent along this post from Tom Taylor’s newsletter, further testimony to the consolidators’ plans to circumvent FCC rules and monetize their woebegone HD channels (reported on here):

Cumulus finds an FM translator to buy near Kalamazoo, and it’s yet another spin by San Diego-based religious broadcaster Horizon Christian Fellowship. The name of the translator indicates that it’s in non-commercial territory, at 91.7. But translators have a much easier time moving around the dial, and this one, W219DA, will be at 103.5 when it returns to the air. (There’s a “minor modification” being filed at the FCC for the currently-silent signal.) Cumulus says it will be a fill-in for the signal of rock WRKR, Portage at 107.7. But the filing makes it clear that what the translator will really do is re-broadcast the HD-2 signal of WRKR, not its main format. Cumulus, which has been very savvy about its use of translators in markets big (Atlanta) and small (Kalamazoo), is paying Horizon $12,500 [emphasis added].

FCC rules limit the number of stations a company can broadcast in a given market, but the use of translators gives them a work-around — with a wink and a nod from the lapdog FCC. This not only allows them to broadcast a completely new channel — translators were designed to allow a station to broaden the reach of existing channels, and this obviously is different content. It also positions the formerly unheard HD channel where it can be picked up by Arbitron Purple People Meters, and thus making it more attractive to advertisers (who’ve stayed away in droves).

If this practice is accepted by the FCC and expanded upon by the big dogs, look for “public” radio stations that have mortgaged their futures on HD channels to follow suit, trying desperately for some kind of return on investment from the heretofore worthless channels filled with homogenized hogwash.

Bad Bet

Mark Ramsey, writing on his blog Mark Ramsey Media, took radio to task in an article last year entitled “Radio Is About to Make a Very Bad Bet,” alluding to a deal brewing over the last months of the year to barter a performance royalty in exchange for radio chips in cell phones, something vehemently opposed by small broadcasters, in particular, struggling in a flaccid economy but favored by higher-ups in the industry who supposedly represent their interests:

Theoretically it makes all the sense in the world: The labels want higher licensing fees from radio?  Fine, then radio wants a faster and easier path between its past and its future. Sounds good — assuming radio has any sense whatsoever as to where its future lies. Unfortunately, recent history has indicated that nothing could be further from the truth.

Herein is where Bob Struble’s iBiquity hopes to get the camel’s nose of HD radio into the tent they’ve only glimpsed as a mirage in its fevered IPO dream for the past seven years. Small broadcasters, already beholden to the music industry for other fees, is in open arms over NAB attempts to railroad this deal through. In this post on the arstechnica site, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) also came out strongly against a deal that would force them to include these chips in their products:

But the NAB proposal elicited a furious letter from Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents the mobile phone makers. The statement threatens nothing less than existential war against the whole concept of terrestrial broadcasting itself.

If NAB keeps pushing this agenda, the missive warns, CEA will “continue to point out the following”:

“Radio is a legacy horse and buggy industry trying to put limits on innovative new industries to preserve its former monopoly. The industry’s refusal to innovate to the benefit of consumers raises questions about the ongoing wisdom of broadcaster use of publicly owned spectrum that could better be used for broadband services that serve the public interest.”

And:

“Many local radio stations are unmanned, particularly at nights and on weekends, rendering the alleged emergency alert benefit of FM tuners in mobile phones unreliable and raising questions about the wisdom of permitting such unattended operation.”

And:

“At a time when popular new digital media platforms like satellite radio and online music services are required to pay performance royalties to copyright owners, it is unclear that the royalty exemption for broadcast radio stations can be justified. Indeed, fairness requires that the royalty rate paid by broadcasters should be the same as that assessed to online music streaming services and other new technologies.”

This deal may already have come and gone, but the idea that the NAB would consider this a priority is in itself telling of whose best interests are in mind. So… First we make them put in an FM chip, then maybe we’ll go with TV. Wonder of wonders, could an HD chip be in the works? Yeah, right. Maybe sometime after the phaser is installed, or maybe the teleporter beam.

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