Tag Archives: Radio Act of 1927

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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It Was the Best of Times & the Worst of Times

65Radio broadcasting began in the “Roaring 20s.” A time in America that saw the first tabloid newspaper appear. Reader’s Digest, New Yorker Magazine, Time Magazine would also be born right along with radio. It was a time of unprecedented economic prosperity and social change. It was a time of a strong backlash of racism, fear of immigration and morality.

The 1920s and the world we are living in today are not all that dissimilar. Today, the wealth inequality is greater than it was in the early 1920s.

And just like those times, almost a hundred years ago, that gave birth to radio we are living in times that are giving birth to the “Internet of Things.”

Immigration: Then & Now

After World War One ended, America got tough on immigration. The most stringent set of immigration restrictions in American history was enacted with “The National Origins Act of 1924.” It restricted the flow of immigrants from Europe (and elsewhere) to less than 200,000 per year. This fear of immigrants reignited the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK membership saw its membership rise to a new high in 1928. Reformers advocated for a more militant, less conciliatory stance.

Today the battle rages on over building a wall between Mexico and the United States and over immigration of Muslims.

Women’s Rights

While women had won the right to vote, they still couldn’t go to college and most professions still excluded women. While women could now own property, they couldn’t establish credit with a bank or get backing for a business venture.

Many felt that the only thing that changed in America when women were given the power to vote was prohibition; the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

War on Illegal Substances

So while the United States tried to control alcohol in the 20s and failed, today we find America battling another illegal substance battle, marijuana, with much the same results.

People will find a way to do something they really want to do.

Modern Mass Media

The 20s ushered in the first decade of modern mass media. American-made films not only captured the attention of American audiences, but the whole world. Every city would have at least one movie house by the end of the decade.

Because the movies were silent, musicians were in high demand for the movies. And because radio was all live, it too needed musicians to perform during each broadcast day.

Radio Jingles

The 20s also saw advertising agencies now develop departments devoted to the creation of radio advertising and soon the commercial radio jingle was born.

The Worst of Times

The Roaring 20s would end with Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.

While this decade created favorable conditions for big business to prosper, the alliance of government and industry left labor unions out in the cold.

It was these times that radio was born.

The Great Recession of 2008 would be the environment that would see the Internet of Things born.

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.

Utopian Hopes, Dystopian Fears

When commercial radio was born in 1920, it was hoped that it would bring about national unity. Those utopian hopes and dystopian fears would fall basically into four different areas.

  1. Radio would create a physical unity in the country bringing people together as one
  2. Radio would bring about a new cultural unity as Americans
  3. Radio would make America a one language nation providing linguistic unity
  4. Radio would bring about institutional unity where everyone wanted the same things and held the same vision

I will let you draw your own conclusions on the success or failure of these goals for radio.

Internet of Things

Broadcasting in America started out as a government-assisted oligopoly. The internet did too. Both, I would argue, now fall into the unlimited category. While I realize this is definitely true for the internet, I know others would quickly point out the limited amount of spectrum for AM and FM radio broadcasting. However, with the growth of FM translators and LPFM stations, it feels like it’s unlimited.

The original system of a government preferred broadcasting system is being challenged today by the Internet of Things.

And covered in dust, is the original fundamental principle of operating in the public interest, convenience and necessity and not merely for maximum 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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Seems Like We’ve Been Here Before

I teach a course called the “History of Broadcasting in America” at the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University. It’s from this background I’m writing this week’s blog.

Broadcasting began with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation issuing KDKA the first commercial broadcast license on October 27, 1920. Let’s be clear, there was lots of broadcasting going on in America before this date, but this license marks the beginning of radio broadcasting that would be ad-supported.

Think about it. This period in American history was called the “Roaring 20s.” It would be a time the first tabloid newspaper would appear along with publications like Reader’s Digest, New Yorker magazine, and TIME magazine. This would be the world that commercial radio would be born in.

It was a time in America of unprecedented economic prosperity and social change. It was also a time of a strong backlash of racism, fear of immigration and morality.

Radio would be the new kid on the block in the 1920s. Broadband wireless Internet is the new kid today as we live in a period of time giving birth to the “Internet of Things (IoT).”

Déjà vu

Let’s compare the issues of then and now. In the 1920s, immigration was feared. America got tough on immigration with a stringent set of restrictions embodied in the Immigration Act of 1924 designed to limit the flow of immigrants from Europe primarily. Today we hear all about how we need to build a great wall between the American and Mexican border.

In the 1920s, the focus was segregation and discrimination of African-Americans. These same sticky issues are still with us today. Think Charter Schools. Gay Marriage. Muslims.

While women had earned the right to vote by the Roaring 20s, they still couldn’t go to college, most professions excluded women, they couldn’t own property, couldn’t establish credit or get loan to start a business. Women? How’s it going today besides your fight for equal pay, equal rights and women’s health?

The 1920s had the 18th Amendment, which brought about Prohibition. Today we have the “War on Drugs.” It’s been about as successful as Prohibition was, but it appears America learned nothing from its past.

The 1920s saw a technology revolution. American-made films not only captivated Americans, but the world. Every American city would have a movie theater by the end of the 20s. Today, virtually every American home is connected to the Internet, most with Broadband service.

Radio would grow up to be an ad-supported medium. It still is today. The Internet pursued the same ad-support path.

The 1920s were the best of times and the worst of times. Society was made up of the haves and the have-nots. The wealth-gap was huge. Today, that gap is bigger than it was a century ago.

The 1920s saw modern corporations and the federal government in a close alliance. And everyone thought that was a good thing, until October 29, 1929. A day known as Black Tuesday, the day stock market crashed, which would mark the beginning of the Great Depression. After that happened, Americans weren’t so sure about the big corporations’ influence over their government.

The equivalent (and hopefully the extent of it) comparison in our time would be “The Great Recession of 2007 – 2009.”

America 1920, commercial radio was born in America. It was the start of a mass communications revolution. It would kill Vaudeville.

Déjà vu All Over Again – Yogi Berra

Today, we are living in a period of world history that is undergoing a new communications revolution brought about by the creation of the Internet and the smartphone. And what the Internet of Things is doing is challenging the business model of just about every business.

When TV came along in the 1950s, it took the entertainment that radio had stolen from Vaudeville and stole it from radio. But radio, unlike Vaudeville back in the 20s, didn’t die. It re-invented itself into a new form of mass communication.

The challenge for radio today, unlike back in the beginning, is that broadcasters and the government understood they had to make a choice. Have lots of broadcasters and poor quality of broadcasts – OR – have fewer broadcasters but ones that could support the economics of high quality broadcasts.

Broadcasting in those early days was all live programs. Live music, live drama, live comedy, live variety, live everything. This requirement to do only live programming is what separated the big boys from the amateurs and that’s how those corporations got the best signals and the most power to broadcast on.

Operating in the Public Interest

 The requirement for gaining access to the public airwaves for these big broadcasters was that they operate in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity.” The Radio Act of 1927 would embody these principles:

  • Access to the public airwaves would be restricted to a few quality broadcasters vs. lots of mediocre ones

  • They would operate in the public interest

  • They would be regulated by the government

  • They would be a commercial medium operated by private entities

Today, the government is licensing Lower Power FM stations and Translator FM stations like Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees. Today there are 22,970 radio stations broadcasting in America as of June 2015. Add to this the infinite number of streaming radio stations on the Internet and you can see how this challenges today’s radio owner to fulfill operating in the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity” and make a profit.

While some may make the case that radio is not living up to the original covenant, you also need to realize that neither is the government. Less radio stations enabled broadcasters to provide more services to their communities of license.

Nielsen Audio says radio still reaches over 92% of all Americans 12-years of age and older on a weekly basis. It’s the #1 reach medium today. It has always been the #1 frequency medium. That powerful combination of reach & frequency is the one-two punch of effective advertising. American’s still love their radio.

But today, places to advertise on radio are infinite. The advertising budgets, however, are finite. The advertising pie has never been cut thinner.

And that’s the problem.

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