Tag Archives: Federal Communications Commission

Live & Local ?

Stuck in a Time WarpI’ve been attending a lot of radio meetings these past years and one refrain I’ve heard over and over and over and over is that the power of radio is it’s “live & local.”

This week, the FCC voted along party lines 3 to 2 to eliminate the Main Studio Rule.

1934 Congress Establishes the FCC

The first regulatory body to oversee radio was the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) that was established by the Radio Act of 1927. The FRC was created to, among other things, insure that the public airwaves of America were used in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity.” The FRC was given regulatory powers for licensing all radio stations and insuring the airwaves were assigned to broadcasters capable of providing quality broadcasts. The amateurs were assigned to another piece of the broadcast spectrum which today is known as Amateur Radio Service or Ham Operators.

Amateur Radio like AM/FM radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission which was established by Congress with the Communications Act of 1934.

Main Studio Rule

So, this week when the FCC voted to end the Main Studio Rule, what did that mean according to the FCC’s regulations that have been in place in 1934 (and per Gregg Skall) updated in 1988 to make them clearer? FCC attorney Skall wrote back in 1991 in his “Main Studio Rule and Staffing” memo:

The main studio rule as clarified in 1988 requires a station to maintain a main studio within its principal community contour “which has the capability adequately to meet its function…of serving the needs and interests of the residents of the station’s community of license.” That rule has now been further revised to allow a main studio to be located either within 25 miles from its community of license reference coordinates, or within the principal community contours of any station, of any service, licensed to its community of license. (See memo, Revised Main Studio and Public File Rules). Jones Eastern requires the station to maintain a “meaningful management and staff presence” at the main studio on a full-time basis during regular business hours.

You can read the full memo here.

LIVE RADIO

Since the introduction of automation systems, syndication, satellite delivery and computer voice tracking, the LIVE aspect of radio has been on the wane. Even in the #1 radio market in America, New York City, stations may or may not have a live operator behind the microphone when you’re tuned in.

When I was starting out in radio, we used to have to announce whether a program was live or pre-recorded so the listeners wouldn’t be deceived about the broadcast. In the early days of radio, virtually all radio was live and so it was the exception for something to have been recorded.

Today, it’s more likely what you are listening to is not live but syndicated, voice-tracked and pre-recorded.

LOCAL RADIO

With the Main Studio Rule, the goal was at least there would be a live person at the station and the studio would be in the community the licensee was licensed to serve.

Lance Venta writing on RadioInsight wrote “But what will it (elimination of the Main Studio Rule) mean in the short term? Probably not a lot. In the long term, be prepared for a much leaner broadcast facility.” You can read Lance’s entire article “The Radio Station of the Future…Today!” here.

The National Association of Broadcasters has been lobbying for the elimination of the Main Studio Rule, and its executive VP of communications Dennis Wharton said “We’re confident that cost savings realized from ending the main studio rule will be reinvested by broadcasters in better programming and modernized equipment to better serve our local communities.”

Brick & Mortar Presence

FCC attorney Scott R. Flick said that the Main Studio Rule was really a government mandate for radio to have a brick-and-mortar presence in an internet age. “Its existence hindered stations from evolving and adapting to the rapidly changing business strategies of their many non-broadcast competitors.”

It’s ironic that the biggest online retailer, Amazon, is now in the process of acquiring a brick-and-mortar presence as the radio industry appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

Public Safety

When a broadcaster doesn’t have a studio in the local community it serves, it delivers its programming through the internet, satellites, microwaves or wired lines. Broadcasters have been quick to point out how these forms of communication are first to go down in natural disasters.

What seems to be missing in this conversation, is a Black Swan event. Will radio be ready for a Black Swan?

Today’s Big Regulatory Difference

The big difference I see today for radio versus its toddler years is how it is regulated. The Radio Act of 1927 provided the foundation for all broadcast regulation right up until today. While more Acts were passed and made law over the years, the basics remain much the same as when they were first made law.

Some of the key provisions in the original Act that we’ve deviated from today are:

  • Limiting the number of broadcasters to foster higher quality radio broadcasts versus having more stations of poor or mediocre qualities
  • Radio broadcasters would operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity”
  • Radio would be a regulated medium to assure high quality and operating in the public interest
  • Radio would be commercial and privately owned (a condition that made radio broadcasting in the USA different from every other country in the world)

Those who complain that radio isn’t like it used to be only need look at how broadcast regulations have been changed over the past century; the biggest change being the Telcom Act of 1996.

Make Radio LiVE & LOCAL Again

On May 24, 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a “Broadcast Localism Hearing” in Rapid City, South Dakota.  The president, general manager and co-owner of KLQP-FM licensed to Madison, Minnesota (population 1,767) Maynard Meyer addressed the commission.  He told them (I’ve edited his comments. The full text can be found here. )

“Localism in radio is not dead, but it is in dire need of resuscitation in many areas.  I have been involved in the radio business in announcing, sales, engineering and management for about 36 years, all of my experience is in communities of 5,000 people or less.  We personally live in the communities we serve so we know the ‘issues,’ we work to address them in our programming and have been doing so for the past 21 years.“

“A few years ago, many stations operated this way, but much of that has changed for a variety of reasons.  I think the beginning of the end of local broadcast service started in the 1980s when the Federal Communications Commission approved Docket 80-90.”

Mr. Meyer went on to explain to the FCC how many communities that “on paper” had a local radio station actually found that the transmitter was being fed from another location tens of miles away.  Mr. Meyer went on to say:

“I don’t think this is the best way to promote local radio service.  From what I have seen through my personal experience, as soon as a hometown studio is closed and relocated, the local service is relocated as well.”

What do you think?

 

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Is Your Iceberg Melting?

94This past week was another tough one for the wonderful people who work in radio. Most people who get into radio do it because they’ve caught the “radio bug” and the work becomes their life’s passion. I know that’s how it is for me.

When I caught the “Radio Bug”

From my earliest years, I knew what I wanted my life’s work to be. I built a radio station in my parent’s basement and broadcast to the neighborhood (about a 3-block radius) on both the AM and FM bands using transmitters I bought from Radio Shack.

When I started high school, I earned my 3rd Class Radio/Telephone Operator’s License, Broadcast Endorsed from the Federal Communications Commission in Boston. I wasn’t old enough to work, so I had to get a Massachusetts Work Permit. They didn’t have a category for disc jockey, so they branded me as “talent.” (I never told them I had to take meter readings every half hour in front of a transmitter that put out 1,000-watts of electromagnetic power. If I had, they would never have given me my work permit.)

College Radio

In college, it was radio that paid for my bachelors and masters degrees. I took my college’s carrier current radio station, got an FM broadcast license and was the first general manager.

Radio was in my blood.

RIF’s

After the Telcom Act of 1996, radio began its road down the consolidation path funded by Wall Street. It was during this period of time a new acronym would come into radio’s every day lexicon, RIF’s, or Reduction In Force. In other words, people were being terminated in huge numbers.

This past week, I sadly read about another round of RIF’s taking place among our country’s biggest owners/operators of radio stations. It breaks my heart.

RIF’s from the Manager’s Perspective

We all feel sorry for those that have unexpectedly lost their job. What we often don’t read about is the perspective from the other side of the desk, what the management is going through when these decisions are made at corporate.

I lived through it in 2009 as a Clear Channel Market Manager.

It’s NOT FUN.

With each corporate meeting, I would come home with a flash drive that could not be opened until a specific date/time with who I would have to RIF next.

I RIF’d my entire news and promotions departments.

I RIF’d DJ’s and PD’s.

I RIF’d my national sales manager, my director of sales and local sales managers. With each round of RIF’s I got more hats to wear. The work still needed to be done, it didn’t go away with each round of RIF’s.

I hated my job.

Then my regional manager showed up unannounced and RIF’d me.

His manager showed up after he had RIF’d all of his designated market managers and RIF’d him.

The company president RIF’d the senior regional managers.

Then the CEO RIF’d the president.

It was not a happy time, but believe it or not, being RIF’d to me was better than being one of those that found themselves with more and more hats to wear, with more and more responsibility, without a penny more in pay.

There were many folks who told me to find another line of work, but they didn’t know that broadcasting was the only thing I ever wanted to do.

Except for one other thing, teaching and mentoring the next generation.

My education was in teaching. Both my bachelors and masters degrees were in teaching.  My best teachers were those who worked in the field first and then came into the classroom to teach.

Paying It Forward

My long term goal was always to one day teach at a college or university the very things I had done all of my professional life.

My big opportunity presented itself at Western Kentucky University’s School of Journalism & Broadcasting in 2010.

When I was RIF’d by my regional manager, I had met or exceeded every goal I had been given and was paid bonuses for my accomplishments. I was even named one of radio’s Best Managers by RADIO INK magazine. The issue of the magazine with me in it came out almost the day after I was RIF’d. Funny how life is: good things happening at the same moment as bad.

One Door Closed, Another Door Opened

When my last management job came to an abrupt end with Clear Channel, my broadcast professorship door opened at WKU.

Let me tell you, going from being a radio market manager to broadcast professor is a steep learning curve. But with the help of Charles H. Warner at NYU, John Parikhal of Joint Communications and others, I successfully made the transition and became successful at teaching. In fact, my new broadcasting educational work branch opened my eyes to all kinds of new and exciting learning opportunities.

I started this BLOG and a column for RADIO WORLD magazine during this time.

Those have lead to numerous invitations to appear on podcasts, Vlogs, articles, and broadcast interviews with others sharing stories of my work and experiences.

I’ve done research on the radio industry and their employment needs in the 21st Century. I’ve presented panels every year at the national conference in Las Vegas as well as been an invited broadcast expert on many panels at both BEA and NAB.

I’ve presented seminars at state broadcast associations and done training sessions for broadcast companies.

In short, I’ve been more active in broadcasting on so many levels than I ever was as a radio manager.  And I’ve loved every minute of it.

But I’m not going to candy coat what’s happening, not only in radio but in all ad supported media. It’s a revolution.  Not an evolution.

In revolutions the first thing that happens is destruction of the old. We’re still living through that period right now and it’s not fun. I get it.

Our Iceberg Is Melting

Back in 2008, many people picked up a copy of Ken Blanchard’s book “Who Moved My Cheese?”  I know I did. It’s a great read.

But maybe the book everyone in broadcasting should be reading today is “Our Iceberg Is Melting” by John Kotter. Kotter is an award winning author from the Harvard Business School.

Like Blanchard and Johnson’s Cheese book, Kotter writes a simple fable about doing well in an ever-changing world.

The fable is about penguins in Antarctica that discover a potentially devastating problem to their home – an iceberg – and it’s melting away.

It’s a story that will resonate with anyone in broadcasting today.

Read about how the penguins handle their challenge a great deal better than many broadcasters are doing today. Kotter’s book walks you through the eight steps needed to produce positive change in any group.  You will not only enjoy the read, but will be guided with valuable insights to deal with our 21st Century world that is moving faster and faster every day.

The Big Take Away

When corporate, middle management and all employees are on the same page with regards to change, it is amazing what can happen, despite adverse conditions.

These are lessons for people who already are in broadcasting, for broadcast students, enlightened colleges are already teaching the concepts, skills and providing the tools that will be needed going forward. My students know that the future is not bleak. They understand the history of broadcasting that brought us to where things are today and they are as pumped as you and I were when we were their age to craft the future of broadcasting in the new century.

I’m excited.

They’re excited.

The best is yet to be.

 

 

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The Question Radio Itself Has Yet to Answer

86That was the subject of an email I received from a reader of my blog recently. The writer went on to eloquently state why he felt the way he did, even citing articles on the topic. He had my interest and I asked him if we could speak on the phone.

The BIG Question

This reader’s (who asked to be kept anonymous) big question was “What can radio do that other media can’t?”

And it’s a very good question.

In 2017 when many are using the internet for things that only radio could provide in the past, is radio’s future being the poor man’s smartphone, tablet or iPod when it could be more?

“NPR and SiriusXM, in addition to the new exploding podcast marketplace, have had no trouble creating personalities and programs,” but my reader writes “why does FM commercial radio continue to stick with playing the hits, past and present, at the expense of personalities, thinking it will make them money when the biggest radio companies have trouble paying off debts on the stations they seem to have paid too much for?”

Well it was a well-known fact all of my radio life that you make money in radio at the time you buy a radio station. Buying it right makes all the difference. And those big radio companies went on a buying spree using other people’s money (Wall Street) and it’s much like student loan debt, no one worries how much debt they’ve accumulated until they are asked to replay it.

Is Local Radio Local Anymore?

My reader quotes Westwood One’s Chief Insights Officer Pierre Bouvard from an AdExchanger interview as saying “A local radio station gives you traffic, sports, weather, great music, funny DJs and talks about your town,” he said. “Spotify has these robotic music playlists, which are awesome, but there’s no one telling you what happened at the Giants game last night.”

My reader says Pierre (who was my first Arbitron representative back in the 80s) makes a good point, but wonders if Pierre ever took the time to hear what passes for much of local radio these days. My reader feels that much of today’s FM radio stations do a combination of great music and robotic, Spotify-ish playlists, and relatively little in the way of “traffic, sports, weather…funny DJs and talk about your town” stuff.

Sadly, I’ve heard similar things said at radio meetings where the person starts off by saying “now don’t quote me on this, but…”

TELCOM Act of 1996

It was President Bill Clinton who signed the Telcom Act of 1996. That act was supposed to bring competition to the phone and cable television industries thereby lowering costs of each to the consumer. While that didn’t happen quickly (some might wonder if it ever did) it did cause the quick consolidation of the radio and TV industries. We went from a country where the largest radio operator could own 12AM-12FM-12TV stations to virtually whatever their pocketbook could afford. And with Wall Street Bankers waiting in the wings, what a company could afford was a lot.

Low Power FM & Translators

For the non-radio folks who read this blog, Low Power FM signals and Translator signals are virtually the same thing, with the exception being that Low Power FM stations originate programming and translators don’t. Both are received over the air on the FM radio dial. Both have increased the number of FM signals on-the-air in America today.

The latest FCC (Federal Communications Commission) report as of the end of December 2016 shows that there were 4,669 AM radio stations on the air in America. Over on the FM dial, 16,783 signals now beat the airwaves (FM, FM educational, translators and low power FM).

To put things in perspective, at a time in America’s radio history when the number of FM signals equaled the number of AM signals on the air, 75% of all radio listening was to FM. So you can only imagine what it’s like today.

93% of Americans 12+ are reached weekly by AM/FM radio says Nielsen.

So while the Telcom Act of 96 caused radio to consolidate under fewer owners who own more stations, adding to the signal overload was the advent of low power FM and translator signals. So much to program and no one home to do the work.

Enter computers, voice tracking, and syndication. This is same computer technology that is employed by Pandora, Spotify, Radio Tunes, SoundCloud and many others.

When TV Challenged Radio

In 1952 TV was born again. It was birthed just before World War II but the war years put broadcast radio/TV development on hold. After the war ended, things began to ramp up quickly for TV.

In 1953, Elmo Ellis was hired to fix 750AM – WSB in Atlanta. Ellis would write about “Removing the Rust from Radio Programming” for Broadcasting/Telecasting (now called Broadcasting and Cable magazine).

One of the points Mr. Ellis made was that a stack of records and a turntable do not a radio station make, though many broadcasters persisted in that very belief.

It was the very same philosophy I employed when I launched a “Music of YOUR Life” radio station. I felt that to be successful, you needed more than just Al Ham’s music list, you needed the personalities that complimented the music.

Both my reader and I are in complete agreement in that a radio station is more than just a song list.

Less Is More

The problem today is that with the “land rush” by broadcasters to own as many signals as they can, we have seen our country’s biggest broadcasters put themselves into a debt situation they cannot get out of and smaller broadcasters have signals and streams to manage but not the revenues to properly execute them.

If we go back to the beginning of broadcasting in America, we see that the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) that predated the current FCC felt that quality over quantity of radio stations should be the rule of measure. By limiting the number of stations, the FRC was attempting to insure the content of those stations on the air would be of the highest quality and also by limiting the number of stations; the advertising revenue that is the life blood of free over-the-air radio could be sustained.

What Can Radio Do That Other Media Can’t?

This brings me back to the question my reader originally posed and asked me to answer.

But before I do, I’m going throw that question out to my other readers – to date over 80,000 from all over the world – to weigh in with their thoughts.

What do you feel radio can do that other media can’t?

Is any radio station you know of doing it right now?

Is this a sustainable future for over-the-air radio?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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Don’t Let Radio End Up Like Yahoo!

49I just finished listening to Jason Jennings’ podcast about how Yahoo went from being a company worth $120 Billion to its sale to Verizon for $4.8 Billion. I think the wisdom that Jason shared is very applicable to the radio industry’s journey through consolidation since the Telcom Act of 1996.

Jason says the selling of Yahoo is like a train wreck; you don’t want to look, but you just can’t help yourself. I know many who’ve said similar things as Wall Street invaded radio with its goal of “increasing shareholder value.”

So how can radio learn from Yahoo’s mistakes? What are the lessons Jason shared that apply to radio? Let me share with you the Top 5 Lessons of Yahoo:

#1) Know What You’re All About

Yahoo never really defined itself and the revolving door of CEOs contributed to this with each one bringing a different vision – or no vision – to Yahoo. Or as Jason puts it, the company didn’t have a purpose; they never knew what they were all about.

As radio was deregulated and its original mission of serving the public interest, convenience and necessity was abandoned, nothing replaced radio’s reason for existing except for “increasing shareholder value.” Not surprising as radio people were replaced by Wall Street investors.

#2) Have a Set of Guiding Principles

Radio’s guiding principles were first established by the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) and then by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Under President Ronald Reagan – and his government is best that governs least approach – radio’s deregulation began. President Bill Clinton would open the flood gates of consolidation with his signing of the Telcom Act of 1996.

With no guiding principles, investors were free to move in all directions; and they did, buying up not just radio stations but many of its manufacturers and service providers for radio.

It’s like the old saying, if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will take you there.

#3) Using a Business like a Personal Piggy Bank

Radio investors and many top radio executives began using radio as a personal piggy bank, only taking care of themselves and focusing on the immediate quarter with no long term vision, strategy or investment. Too many just lined their pockets and left.

#4) Trying to Be All Things to All People

Jason says “great companies stick to their knitting. You can’t be all things to all people.”

Radio was originally about serving their community of license via over-the-air broadcasting. It delivered local news, local sports, local community events, local bands and more by local radio personalities who lived in the communities they served. It was focused like a laser beam on local, local, local.

#5) Don’t Copy the Competition

Radio today is trying to copy Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music and others. Radio today is trying to also copy YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and SnapChat. Radio is trying to copy just about every other business advertising model and without any guiding principles has been economically treading water.

Yahoo’s SVP Brad Garlinghouse wrote his infamous “Peanut Butter Memo” in October of 2006 that pleaded with the company to narrow its focus and clarify its vision.

Brad felt that Yahoo was spreading its resources too thinly. Business Insider recently wrote “This internal memo from 10-years ago shows Yahoo still hasn’t solved its biggest problem.”

If Yahoo had a culture problem, radio by way of mass consolidation had an even bigger one. First, as Wall Street money flowed in and radio stations were bought up, each of those stations represented its own culture that would need to merge into a larger culture. Then these new larger radio groups would try to change the culture from a local scope to a national scope. National radio personalities like Ryan Seacrest, Rush Limbaugh and many others would replace local personalities. National radio contests would replace local ones. Live and local for the most part would soon only appear in the history books on radio.

Culture is created at the top. Over the last twenty-years, radio’s consolidation has seen a revolving door of top leadership. The culture of radio has been a moving target for both industry professionals and listeners alike. Culture is built over time. There is no “quick fix” for building culture.

Absent a company culture, what fills the vacuum is one of everyone for themselves.

Now twenty-years later, there are signs of new growth as people who believe in live and local, and operating in the public interest, convenience and necessity are entering the business.

In many small markets, this way of operating never got sucked into the vortex of consolidation.

Even some of our country’s biggest radio companies are focused on getting back to the core principles radio was built upon.

Radio, the first broadcast transmission system to reach a mass audience, almost 100-years later is still the leading way to reach a mass audience.

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Radio’s Dilemma (or Opportunity?)

38Radio’s a business. Peter Drucker said “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” A business also needs to make profit or it won’t be in business for very long. On that we can all agree.

Surprisingly, many business people who know this still go out of business, often because they focus on the profit part and not the customer part. Plus those businesses either never had or lost their competitive advantage.

Radio’s dilemma is it lost that competitive advantage. That being having an FCC license to broadcast. Not everyone could obtain a broadcast license – they were limited by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – or had the ability to profitably operate a broadcast property. Profitability is when you earn money in excess of your cost of capital.

The radio business made a lot of money. Many enjoyed cash flow margins north of 50%. Its success attracted more people into radio ownership because it “looked easy” and made a bundle of dough. As more radio stations came on the air, it drove up wages, increased competition and increased multiples for valuing radio properties when they were bought and sold.

If this type of growth and expansion was all that was taking place, the “circle of (business) life” would have seen the radio industry slow down as the overcapacity from all of the new radio stations fought over the not-as-fast-growing advertising pie. It’s similar to what happen to the casino industry as expansion took off in America after just Nevada and New Jersey were no longer the only two states to license casino gaming.

Enter the great disruptor; the Internet. Radio, as we all once knew it, would be changed forever. For the Internet would now provide the world with an infinite number of “radio” options, like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, RadioTunes et al. All trying to be ad supported like OTA radio.

Clay Christensen wrote about what happens when an industry is disrupted in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma.  He tells the reader how incumbent companies often respond to their disruptors with disastrous consequences.

Radio looked at the Internet as a “free broadcast license” and put their OTA signals onto a stream and then tried to squeeze a little extra profit by running separate ads on the stream versus over the air. It created a little extra money for the radio business but created a less enjoyable listener experience.  Sean Ross recently wrote in his newsletter “Ross On Radio” how different and better a radio station he listens to online sounded when he actually traveled to the market and heard the same station over the air. The difference was in the breaks and it was HUGE.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.

Southwest Airlines has enjoyed four decades of profitability. Like Walmart, Southwest had a root purpose for existing. Sam Walton’s Walmart mastered logistics to keep prices to his customers low and Herb Kelleher’s Southwest focused on constant improvements to make travel by air more affordable to more Americans. Like all successful enterprises, they put the customer first and profits were the result of doing everything else right.

For radio to be successful on the Internet, it needs to create a better user experience that attracts and delights the listener or that creates a new and different user experience that will enrich the end users’ lives. Radio, over the air, FCC licensed radio has the best platform to promote its Internet products. The possibilities are infinite. But each product must have a purpose beyond just making a buck.

Businesses that grow have a purpose beyond profit. Businesses that focus their growth on profits won’t have either growth or profits.

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Dream Along With Me…………………. (My Plan to Save AM Radio)

26I’ve been reading all the opinions about the FCC’s proposal to change the rules regarding America’s 77 Class A (formerly known as clear channel) licensed radio stations. Supposedly, all being done to “revitalize” the AM broadcast band. Like giving AM radio stations an FM translator does nothing to revitalize AM radio listening, neither – in my honest opinion – does this bright idea either.

The FCC’s plan is to allow AM radio stations to retain their daytime power at night, politically correct though it may be the laws of physics play by no such rules. And we don’t have to wonder about the consequences, because to some extent this type of thing has already been initiated with 1,000/250 licensed stations maintaining a full 1,000 watts day and night, and it didn’t work.

First, I don’t have a dog in this fight. So what I’m about to say is not to benefit one side or another. These are my own opinions.

My first GM job was running a daytime 1,000 watt radio station with no pre-sunrise or post-sunset authorization. We signed on with local sunrise (7:15am in the winter) and signed off at local sunset (4:15pm in the winter). I was at my desk before my radio station went on the air about half the year and I remember writing commercial copy for an advertiser I’d sold that day as my radio station was playing the Star Bangle Banner to sign-off for the day.

When that carrier was turned off, WBT from Charlotte, NC would come booming in.

I know the pain of being a small radio operator.

Today, such a radio station has probably obtained a 250-watt FM translator and has its programming appearing on local FM radios in addition to their AM signal. Ever listen to any of these radio stations? I have, when I take road trips. I’m listening to their AM signal but they only identify themselves by their FM dial position.

The History of Clear Channel Signal Radio Stations

The clear channel signal designation goes back to the Radio Act of 1927 and the creation of the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). The FRC immediately went about creating a number of national “clear channel” AM radio stations that would be superior in quality broadcast content and with enough power to be heard over an entire region. Their signal would be on a frequency that would have no competition. Lower power AM radio stations would be relegated to a complex system of frequency sharing.

The FRC was later replaced by the Communications Act of 1934 and the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC was put in place to be the “cops” of the people’s airwaves and protect those airwaves from being misused or interfered with in any way.

Less Is More

The FRC operated under the belief that it would be better for America to have fewer radio stations of higher quality than lots of radio stations that were mediocre.

The FCC, mainly through deregulation, has lost that mission. For broadcasters it meant less oversight – which they didn’t mind – but it also meant that the FCC wasn’t looking out for their interests when it came to policing things that might interfere with the AM broadcast band. You see the FCC regulates (or not) those things that now are the bane of AM radio. Things that, like Mother Nature’s lightning, interfere with AM radio signals – light bulbs, power lines, computers etc.

I Grew Up On AM Radio

By the way, it was lightning’s interference with AM radio that was the impetus for Edwin Howard Armstrong to invent frequency modulation or FM radio. FM is how the audio gets to your TV set.

It was AM radio that I grew up on. It was AM radio that attracted me to a radio career that spanned over forty years. And I believe that AM radio should be preserved, because it is low tech and is the signal most likely to be around after some event that takes out everything digital – which today is just about everything.

However, I also ran a news/talk AM radio station once that people depended on in emergencies and that was the problem. They didn’t think about it any other time. So I’m very aware that to be viable, a radio station needs to program something that people want/need even when there’s no emergency affecting their lives.

How To Save AM Radio

So here’s my “bright idea” to save AM radio. Eliminate Class B, C and D AM radio stations, sign these signals off and let them make their current FM translators their whole radio station. First, they will be able to liquidate the land their AM antenna farm sits on and at the same time reduce their operational costs. They already are identifying by their FM translator’s dial position and local residents have most likely made the switch.

For America’s Class A (formerly known as clear channel class stations), I proposed a HUGE power increase, like to 250,000, 500,000, 750,000 or a million watts for these current 77 stations. I would also propose a study be done of AM radio stations, not currently licensed as Class A being reviewed for such a designation, but with a power of say only 50,000 or 100,000 watts to deal with specific geographies and locations of America.

I’m Not a Radio Engineer (But I’ve Stayed at a Holiday Inn)

There’s simply no way to put the “noise genie” back in the bottle that causes AM radio such grief. My hope would be (and you radio engineers feel free to weigh in here and set me straight) is that by removing a lot of the AM radio clutter caused by other AM radio stations and increasing the power of the few remaining stations, we might cause these stations to be really listenable in more (most?) situations.

I would also regulate these new high power radio stations in the same way that the FRC proposed when they established them. These would be stations that would create original programming. They would be operated by entities that would operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity. They would be a low tech backup in a high tech world. They would have the scarcity of competition that should make them economically viable because of their attractiveness to advertisers. They would tie the country together in the event of a disaster. If a local dominant AM radio station was taken out by a disaster, the other high power stations, not similarly affected would be able to be heard and assist the affected area.

This situation happened years ago in Kentucky when floods put Louisville under water and Nashville’s 650AM-WSM stepped in to provide residents with the information they needed.

AM radio that provides solid information and yes, even entertainment, would get listeners. But even more importantly, it would provide America with a life-line in times of emergencies that digital communications has been shown to fail.

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Why is so much of television so bad?

That’s the question that Newton Minow asked on May 9, 1961 when he addressed the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC.

In his first public address after he took over as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Mr. Minow didn’t pull any punches. He made it clear that in his role at the FCC he was going to make darn sure that broadcasters operated in “the public interest.”

What is meant by operating in “the public interest?” That’s been open to interpretation since those words were written down. Here’s how Mr. Minow defined them:

“Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree. And so does your distinguished (NAB) president, Governor Collins, who said ‘Broadcasting to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product….By no means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest…But a much better job can be done, and should be done.’ I could not agree more with Governor Collins.”

Mr. Minow also told the radio broadcasters in the room that the FCC wasn’t going to go to sleep at the switch on them; they were still listening, but that most of the controversies and cross-currents in broadcast programming were swirling around TV and that’s what he planned to address in this speech.

“When television is good, nothing – not theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse,” said Minow.

He then threw out this challenge to television broadcasters:

“I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet, or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Mr. Minow is 89 and living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On the 50th anniversary of his famous speech, he was interviewed by James Warren of the Chicago Tribune. Minow was 35 years old when he took over as chairman of the FCC under President Kennedy. He told Warren that he couldn’t have anticipated the impact his speech would have. Minow’s severe censure of TV’s “procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons” remains highly “radioactive” to this day.

If you’re a fan of the television show “Gilligan’s Island” you might not have realized that the boat that sank was coyly named after the FCC chairman; however spelling it S. S. Minnow. Does that give you some idea of how distasteful having their medium called “a vast wasteland” was to the TV men of that day?

Mr. Minow’s own daughters joke that their dad’s tombstone might be inscribed with the words “On to a vaster wasteland.”

In 1998, President Clinton appointed a commission to review “the public interest” on the eve of the arrival of Digital Television. That commission issued a 160-age report on December 18, 1998.

In 2015, “the public interest” issue has been addressed with respect to the Internet.  Again, the FCC under its current chairman Thomas Wheeler has come forward with a plan that has been as well received by the “Internet men” of today as Mr. Minow’s assessment of TV back in 1961. Here’s what the FCC decided:

Adopted on February 26, 2015, the FCC’s Open Internet rules are designed to protect free expression and innovation on the Internet and promote investment in the nation’s broadband networks. The Open Internet rules are grounded in the strongest possible legal foundation by relying on multiple sources of authority, including: Title II of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As part of this decision, the Commission also refrains (or “forbears”) from enforcing provisions of Title II that are not relevant to modern broadband service. Together Title II and Section 706 support clear rules of the road, providing the certainty needed for innovators and investors, and the competitive choices and freedom demanded by consumers.

The new rules apply to both fixed and mobile broadband service. This approach recognizes advances in technology and the growing significance of mobile broadband Internet access in recent years. These rules will protect consumers no matter how they access the Internet, whether on a desktop computer or a mobile device.

The public interest standard has long provided guidance for promoting greater diversity in content, political debate, access, service to local communities, education, diversity and equal employment. The communications revolution will continue to challenge policymakers to ensure operating in “the public interest” remains.

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