Providing news and views from a broadcast engineers perspective since September 1986
I hope that you all had a wonderful Christmas and that 2017 will prove to be the best – A lot of newsy stuff to report on this month and some pretty, and interesting, pictures – The two biggest in-debt radio operators, Cumulus and iHeart, continue to dance around a mountain of IOU’s. I guess the expression – “Too big to fail” applies to these firms. If you find yourself overwhelmed with financial obligations, my recommendation is that you hire the folks handling these messes…They have to be geniuses. If you wish to better understand what’s taking place…Start with researching ‘springing lien’ (And you thought engineering was complicated?) Perhaps the real question that needs to be asked here – Is radio hurting and the financial position of these two big outfits a sign of a struggling industry or are these just a couple of examples of mismanagement? Another reason for raised eyebrows was the word that a couple of top executives with Cumulus recently received huge bonuses. Oh Well……There is another activity in the world of radio and that’s the looming spin-off of CBS. We have all been hearing a great deal about the problems impacting AM Radio – Giving this some thought, I’d like to share the following with you – AM BOOSTERS – Some recent attention is being paid to the AM band thanks to activity in Puerto Rico where an operator has been, for some time, operating a number of AM Boosters.
With information that the Commish wants to rein in this operation has come a lot of raised eyebrows and renewed discussion about how synchronized AM boosters might be good for the salvation of the ‘legacy band’. Apparently there are those that feel that if an AM Station could spread out its coverage with boosters it might be able to succeed. There are a number of cases where small AM’ s are linked with common programming serving multiple small towns that seem to work well.
DOES COVERAGE EQUAL SUCCESS? There was a time, especially in locations like Seattle that has very poor ground conductivity and a population that continues to spread out, where an AM Broadcaster needed to have either a low-dial position or lots of power (or both) to cover the entire market. Back when I got into this business, Tacoma and Seattle were, in many ways, hundreds of miles apart. Each had its own stations and that was fine. As the cities along Puget Sound grew together those big signals that covered most of the entire market were what kept them afloat with the smaller signal AM’s falling by the wayside, and in some cases, going dark. This shift to a larger conjoined area forced FM stations to re-locate their transmitters to higher locations for much the same reason. Today we have FM stations whose coverage is equal to the signals from the big, 50kW AM’s creating a more level playing field. Interestingly, in the Seattle area, we have very few small signal FM’s but several limited coverage AM’s continue to manage to survive.
IT HAPPENS AT NIGHT Radio listeners today have come to expect that their favorite audio sources will be there – whenever- they want it. AM is unique in that something bad happens when the sun goes down that they don’t understand, and further, don’t desire to. The fact that the vast majority of AM’s either reduce power, switch to a directional antenna or – sign off – at sunset is something that, 50 years ago, was tolerated…but those days are gone! (I recall a few years ago, while out doing AM field measurements, encountering a fellow that wanted to know how come a local station had their transmitter break – every day – during the 5th inning of the ball game) FM Radio and all manner of streaming, does not have that problem. Sadly, there is nothing anyone can do to fix it….including the Government.
THE QUALITY DIFFERENCE Today audio audiences expect full fidelity, low background noise, and stereo, for the simple reason that, with the exception of AM Radio, they all give them what they expect. Meanwhile efforts providing increased audio bandwidth and stereo on AM have been less than hugely successful. First we had AM Stereo – It was a better – But success was limited and lack of universal adoption killed it. Then came along IBOC, aka the AM Version of HD Radio. Like AM Stereo – A few stations operate it, but it has not been proven to be the key to universal success.
THE RECEIVER ISSUE Quality AM Receivers are largely a dream. For years the manufacturers of consumer radios have done a poor job in their AM sections. Lack of sensitivity, bandwidth (fidelity) etc. The fact is an old, tube-type, table radio manufactured over 50 years ago, works better than most of today’s products (I have one of those). Even with today’s HD Radio AM – You would be hard pressed to find a radio for your home that will decode it. It appears that the makers of receivers have given-up on non-vehicle AM receivers. Meanwhile you can purchase all kinds of receiving equipment for FM, including some models of smart phones. Unfortunately the broadcast industry, or any government entity, has done little to help correct this problem.
FM TRANSLATORS FOR AM’s The FCC, in an effort to give AM a shot in the arm, has agreed with those that have been claiming that if they just had an FM translator that things would be ‘all-better’. Apparently this is based on the fact that FM now has the biggest piece of the radio pie. I recall talking to an AM station owner many years ago about FM….Trying to convince him to file for an FM Frequency (when they were still available). He was not interested countering with arguments like – Why should l sink a lot of money into something that nobody listens to? – – How am I going to get my money back? – – Why should I reduce my bottom line just to say that I am an AM/FM station? (Funny how the same arguments are used today by some FM station owners when you discuss HD Radio). History has taught us that these folks were wrong and those that did indeed opt for an FM today find themselves in a much better position. The problem is there is just not enough empty spectrum to accommodate all those AM’s with big signal FM’s to make a difference. That train left the station many years ago. As they say, you snooze – you looze.
THE NOISE PROBLEM Like a lot of things…There will always be those that look to the regulators for answers. In the case of the US – The FCC could have done more to aggressively deal with the ever increasing noise floor that is, effectively, reducing the coverage of AM radio stations as each day goes by. Only lately have they been receiving pressure to do so…Unfortunately that horse left the barn many years ago. There is a lot of blame to go around here – 1) I blame the owners and operators of AM stations for being anti-science and failing to recognize that their enemy was all around them. Generally, they did not wish to try and understand what was going on (too close to that ugly word….’Science’). Their solution was to ask for more power. 2) I can blame the Feds for their apparent refusal to enforce their own rules.
SPECTRUM SUPPLY VS DEMAND Unfortunately, the ‘Magic Band-Aid’ FM Translator is a limited resource solution. The FCC recognized this and twisted their rules to permit the importing of translators from afar calling it a minor-change. The fact is the spectrum for these devices is limited and as it fills, that resource becomes increasingly more limited to the point that some translators will be severely limited in terms of coverage, resulting in being minimally effective at limiting the bleeding. Regardless of how the they are viewed, their actual benefit may be more limited to the addition to the station’s letterhead. Will having a flea-powered AM save the day….I think not.
THE LAWS OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND AND NATURAL PROCESSES In some ways, owners of AM stations have been discovering what it’s like when demand for a product goes down. This is nothing new. Consumers will always gravitate toward something new and/or better. Need I mention – The Horse & Buggy, black and white TV, Cassette and Reel to Reel Tape, Typewriters, Rotary Dial Phones etc. etc. There are countless industries that have not looked at the future and adapted (applied for those FM channels when they were available) and have been reduced to a paragraph in a history book. We need to face the fact that to a large extent AM Radio is facing the same dilemma that countless other industries have faced. As is said – There is nothing more constant than change. Radio, like all things, is facing change. One of the biggest factors today is choice. Today there are a zillion more audio choices. You can only divide the pie so many ways! The other big factor is quality. Let’s face it – a hyper-compressed digital audio source sounds a whole lot better than any monophonic, narrow band, pop and crackle AM signal ever will. Today’s consumers are not likely to lower their expectations – Unless there is compelling content that you can’t get anywhere else.
CONTENT MATTERS Content is always a huge factor. The fact that some AM’s are doing well underscores that. The change in listening habits and demands have pretty much forced AM to abandon music formats (there are a few exceptions) and become a place where talk will work. And this is good, as the technical characteristics of AM are more compatible. Formats like News/Talk – Sports/Talk – Telephone/Talk continue to work well. Examples – ESPN, Rush Limbaugh. Another area where AM has changed is other languages. Today you will find, in most metropolitan areas, a number of stations with non-English programming. The issue here is that there are more stations than there are viable formats. (Again supply and demand creeps into the picture.)
THE SMALL MARKETS There are a number of small markets across the country that are impacted by the shift of listening habits to FM. Certainly these folks are impacted. Admittedly the addition of an FM transmitter, albeit low power, can certainly help them….Especially if that AM is a Day-Timer.
THE SURVIVAL OF THE FIT I suspect that a lot of major market AM’s would go dark, regardless of their power level, if they did not have an co-owned cluster of FM’s footing the bill. I also have to believe that a number of ownerships would be happy to sell their AM’s just to get away from the financial drain. Further, I would wager that a lot AM’s could go off the air and no-one would notice. Any takers?
REDUCING THE BLOW TORCHES There are those that are calling for the reduction of protection for those legacy high powered stations at night feeling that if this were done, more small stations could survive and perhaps remain viable. Seems to me that this is a process that’s been going on for some time. The old ‘Clear Channels’ are not there anymore, folks. Just turn on your AM radio at night and try and find them.
MY RECOMMENDATIONS 1 – Leave AM alone – There are times that its best to ‘hold em’. 2 – Tell the Feds to quit trying to interfere with a natural process – This is not the Auto Industry – or the society for the preservation of the horse and buggy. 3 – Let the future of AM be determined by supply and demand – What happened to this foundation of capitalism in this case?
Perhaps if the Feds backed off we would find that AM will find a way to determine the level at which it can sustain itself. This may mean that AM Radio, in a few years, may end with a whole lot fewer stations and those that do survive could perhaps be economically viable. Those stations may end up being a mixture of small ones serving small markets and some big ones that have found a way to survive economically. That’s my $.02 – What do you think? As we enter this New Year – I’d love to hear what you see in your crystal ball for AM Radio.
Another wrinkle in the works is the matter of what will be the impact on the FCC of the changing of the guard in WDC? A change of party in power could change a lot of things. An example of this shift took place in the middle of the month when we all thought the Commission would adopt a number of changes to EAS….They declined to act. What we got was news that the Commission is undergoing a shakeup. Forecasting of political events is about as risky as forecasting windstorms or snow in Seattle. Guess we can all hide and watch.
Another popular sport these days is watching the FCC struggle to find a balance between the interests of TV stations and potential wireless users of a big chunk of what used to be exclusively TV spectrum. This is a moving target with a lot of shifting parts and pieces. Looks like the amount of broadcast spectrum shifting to wireless may be less than first thought. Again, my advice – Hide and watch Picture time! Whereas we have been having some early winter weather in our area…Here are some great scenes to share – First a couple of shots submitted by Doug Fisher captured during a recent trip to Capital Peak near Olympia. This one, suitable for a Christmas Card, showing a winter moon.
On a lighter note – Congrats to Dave Ratener on the purchase of a new Toyota Tacoma pickup. Seems to be a growing trend.
The FCC continues to do a ‘FINE job’ – Nailing a South Carolina firm 22 Grand for violations involving their public file. In this case staff changes were cited as a reason. I have often wondered how often stations find themselves behind with portions of a public file that they thought were being handled by a long-gone employee. In the past, I was the person in charge of the public files for a cluster of stations. In that case I would have to hunt-down a party that was supposed to supply the file with data. Often these folks leave (for one reason or another), leaving a gap in the P.F. that could prove to be expensive. I recall preaching about how they needed to be prepared should an FCC Inspector drop by….The transition to an on-line system, the Commission will have a much better way of determining compliance without the government expense of surprise physical inspections.
Another beautiful picture from Doug Fisher – this one shows Doug working on a frozen gate at Capital Peak – Those of us that travel to mountain top sites have learned to carry a torch for times like these. The mode of travel in these conditions is – over – the snow which means ‘tracks’.
It seems it was not long ago that the outfit that brought us HD Radio (Ibiquity) was sold to DTS. It didn’t take long for DTS to get ‘gobbled up’. Tessera Holding Corporation has acquired DTS. We will have to see just what this means in the coming months.
I caught this one on the USGS Mt St Helens camera site on December 13th. What surprised me was the fact that the Lava Dome was steaming. Looking at the USGS Site, there has been an up-tick in quake activity, nothing large however. Here is how you can check seismic activity for yourself – http://www.pnsn.org/volcanoes/mount-st-helens To reach the camera used in this shot – https://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/volcanocams/msh/ Certainly that blanket of fall snow is a beautiful sight.
Pirate Radio is back in the news again….and, as usual, there no place is like New York for pirates. Recently listeners to the city’s WXQR were hearing a pirate station preaching the Torah over their classical music. Can you image this taking place in Seattle? Of course the FCC confirmed that this should not happen. According to a NYC Newspaper there are (are you ready for this?) about 100 pirate stations operating within New York’s five boroughs. The FCC agrees that they should be shut down…for reasons only understood on the other side of the Potomac….it continues. I guess I have a hard time understanding how the Commission, on one hand, can gut the Enforcement Bureau and on the other hand let this mess continue. It seems that a country that likes to talk about a place where the rule of law prevails is not practicing what it preaches.
Pirates are not just active in New York….They apparently love California too. According to FCC Statistics, there have been about 165 pirate radio enforcement actions in that state alone since 2003. Meanwhile, the FCC is proposing a fine of 25 Grand against the operators of a pirate station in Arleta. According to news reports, the owners knew what they were doing was illegal but have been ignoring the warnings for a number of years. What am I missing here? I get the feeling that many of these operators have come to believe that the FCC is a toothless paper tiger and that they can do what they please. Tragically, actions speak louder than words. It’s been said that the problem is like ‘whack a mole’…The Feds hit them in one place and they pop up somewhere else. Perhaps the lack of effort to resolve this is because many feel that no one is dying or getting physically hurt? Could it be that radio, as we know it, will come to an end? Funny how the FCC seems to feel they can ‘fix’ AM and yet can’t find out how to ‘fix’ one of the major problems on the FM band. Again, I don’t get it.
Perhaps the solution to these problems will have to come from Congress and in that area broadcasting has a friend. Congratulations to that friend, Greg Walden, who was just elected to Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. If you recall, Greg used to own radio stations in Oregon. And let us not forget that Greg is also known as W7EQI. For those of us that have been involved with Amateur Radio for many years, this is especially significant. Walden represents Oregon’s second Congressional district. Now here is an interesting picture – Equipment being tested by the FAA to zap drones. Obviously a concern near airports.
Remember the item about the Saga/KPUG translator on 97.3 in Bellingham? The Commission has, quickly, granted them a Construction Permit to move to 97.9. I understand that this change will take place early in January. Have not heard of any repercussions over the 96.5 or 98.9 operation in Bellingham. Those frequencies are also in use in Seattle. Another winter scene picture – This one taken with my smart phone at West Tiger Mt recently. It was close to sundown turning the clouds near Enumclaw a pretty shade.
As my readers know – I love to feature the results of surveys that show locations where this column is read. (Seattle, Portland and Denver). Here are some new ones – 2016’s best places for business and career: Best Places: 1. Denver, Colo.
- Metro population: 2,820,200
- Gross Metro Production: $178 billion
- Projected annual GMP growth: 3.3%
Best Places: 4. Seattle, Wash.
- Metro population: 2,895,300
- Gross Metro Production: $250 billion
- Projected annual GMP growth: 3.5%
Best Places: 5. Portland, Ore.
- Metro population: 2,392,300
- Gross Metro Production: $150 billion
- Projected annual GMP growth: 5.4%
The best states for business 2016
- # 5 Colorado
- #9 Washington
And this finding, according to Business Insider, was a pleasant surprise – The #1 best city of quality of life in the US. Quoting them now – To determine which US cities offer the best quality of life, we turned to the latest Places to Live rankings from Niche, a company that researches and compiles information on cities. We looked at eight separate rankings in the best cities category — which assessed more than 220 places with a population exceeding 100,000 people — including “Safest Cities,” “Cities with the Best Job Opportunities,” “Healthiest Cities,” and “Best Cities to Raise a Family.” We then combined these rankings to determine which cities have the best overall quality of life. The final list of the top 25 cities reveals that midsized cities (with populations less than 500,000) offer the best quality of life. The state with the most cities in the top 25 is Texas with seven, followed by California with five. So which city ended up ranking #1 – Ready for this – Bellevue, Washington. Yep that city on the other side of Lake Washington from Seattle. Conde Nast Ranked the 17 most beautiful towns in America – Ranking #7 – Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Congratulations to PDX (Portland, Oregon). J.D. Power’s 2016 North America Airport Satisfaction Study recently ranked Portland International #1. Not all things turn out exactly as intended. American Tower (ATC) hired a contractor to cut down some trees that were growing into the building at their site on Cougar Mountain, as well as put some gravel on a road that was getting pretty muddy. The tree removal went well…But the laying of the gravel did not! As the 10 yard dump truck raised its bed, while driving spreading the gravel, they ‘discovered’ a guy wire attached to the old Century Link tower that crossed the road….Yup! Down went the tower. Good news is that it was a relatively short tower and may not have been in use. The bad news is the tower fell into power lines! The contractor put the tower back up and PSE restored the power about 12 hours later. Obviously a lot of generators received their load-test. I understand that this incident also uncovered a reluctant transfer switch in the process. Guess we can be thankful it was not a bigger tower. The message here is this – If there are guyed towers in the vicinity – Locate them!! Obviously this incident got the attention of a lot of folks at ATC. In this first picture you can see the tower, and antenna, nicely laying across the power lines. The ATC 273581 Site tower is in the right side of this frame. I was musing with Rob Purdy at the site on how it appears a slight wind will bring down the power lines at Cougar and yet they are strong enough to hold a tower.
Here you can see the tower (Rohn 65G) laying over the top of the little Century Link building. The tower in the background, formally known as the KUBE Tower, holds KRWM/106.9.
Here’s another winter picture. This one taken at Striped Peak (just west of Port Angeles) and shows KNKX’s Lowell Kiesow scraping a layer of ice and snow out of a satellite dish.
Lowell crafted this nifty dish snow and ice remover from a piece of plywood with a short pile carpet edge having just the proper radius for these dishes. The pole or handle is the one used by concrete finishers and comes in sections permitting reaching elevated dishes.
New tower standards have been announced. The new – ANSI/TIA -222-H was announced on December 20th – The Revision of the structural standard for Antenna Supporting Structures (And small Wind Turbine structures) is expected to be published the 3rd quarter of 2017. The new standard was constructed by TR-14 Task Group 3.
Congrats to the folks in Kilgore, Texas on establishing a new museum for broadcast equipment. The problem is, unless you are driving from Dallas to Shreveport on I-20 you are not likely to get there. Kilgore is 122 miles East of Dallas. (Too bad it is not closer to a major city. Kilgore is a town of 15,000.) The new facility, called the Texas Museum of Broadcasting and Communications is located in what used to be an auto dealership and has a lot of cool stuff. Probably the coolest is a fully restored 1949 DuMont Telecruiser. Which reminds me very much of the old KTNT-TV Bus that was managed by Tom Brokaw.
Pictures like this cause me to recall a lot of my early years with TV. For example this question that would likely confuse many today – Why did early Fader-Bars have the ability to be – decoupled? And what the heck is a ‘Split-Bar-Super’ anyway? On that topic – I recall looking at some early DuMont field production stuff. Did you know, before there were fader bars, video levels were set with rotory pots. To fade from one camera to another (dissolve) you turned down the level on one camera while increasing the level on the other all while watching what was later called an ‘A-Scope’ (Dang I AM getting old). As Paul McLane put it – Smitty is now a Free Agent. Hard to believe but Milford Smith (Smitty to everyone) has officially left Greater Media with whom he had been their VP of Engineering for 32 years. With Beasley buying Greater Media – Changes. Anyone that knew Smitty would tell you that he was (and is) a class act. He had one of those million watt smiles that would light up a room. I first met him while he was doing work in Seattle…and later, with my travels for Entercom and SBE – we would see each other. Great guy….and young too – (Only 68). He was recently quoted thusly – “Retirement was surely not on my radar, at least not for a while, after 50 years of doing this, I still very much enjoy the work — especially the people — and would surely love to continue in the industry in some capacity”
More pictures – Sure – How about this one?
Anyone recognize this tower?
Another winter beauty from Dwight Small – If you look at the lower left of this frame you will see a portion of the foundation for their new home on Lake Cavanaugh. Not hard to wonder why he’d rather look at this than any sight in Seattle.
I do receive a number of responses to this Column. Here’s one, received this past month, from Rockwell Smith that I thought I’d share. In this case, he is responding to my piece on how stations reached technical help – back when. Clay, I enjoyed your recent article on how calling the engineer has evolved. There is one rather unique way that I wanted to share with you. And that is using the station itself. KSRA in Salmon has always been unique in many ways. Being a small town, with a contract engineer located several hours away was one of them back in the ’60s. I worked here in the early ’60s part time while in high school, and soon was taking care of minor technical problems, calling in the engineer for the bigger things beyond my expertise at that time, or beyond my license grade at the time. But I digress. KSRA AM is a daytime station. Yes, we now have a whopping 56 watts at night, but back then, it was strictly daytime. We signed on with the Tennessee Ernie Ford song RIVER OF NO RETURN. It was not played in its entirety, but only the first 30 seconds or so of the song. But the record was on a peg in the control room marked EMERGENCY. Being a small town, it was the only station. Everyone listened in their businesses or cars. Should a situation arise where you needed management or technical response ASAP you simply played the RIVER OF NO RETURN. It was the “page” for anyone on the staff not at the station to call NOW. A couple of years later, I was back in Salmon, working for the Forest Service doing road surveys. That meant camped on site somewhere in the forest Monday thru Friday. No cell phone, no two-way, but I did have my little transistor radio. The station and I had an agreement that I would take care of any needs within my capability, but they needed a way to contact me. Back to the song. At sign off, they also played about 30 seconds of it, did the sign-off script, and ended with the Star Spangled Banner. It was agreed I would listen every evening at sign-off. If the station was off the air, of course I would walk out and call in. If the sign-off was normal, then everything was OK. But if the entire song was played, I needed to hike out and call in. It was not instant communication, but it was effective. Just for what it’s worth, I retired from full time work in Boise at the end of 2013, and am enjoying semi-retirement back in my home town of Salmon, working once more the very station I started with back in 1962 – KSRA. A lot has changed in 50+ years. I often say the only thing that hasn’t changed since I was here as a teenager are the call letters. — Rockwell Smith Semi-retired Broadcast Engineer AE7NT Amateur Extra Well, my friends, that’s it for this Month – and for 2016. Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts and look at my collection of pictures. If you have a picture and/or a news item (old news works too) to share – Please do send it my way. Lord willing – Will be back to most of these same places next month-
Clay Freinwald, K7CR & CPBE