Matthew Wesolowski is general manager of WYAB(FM), licensed to Jackson, Miss.
RW: What do you see as the most pressing technology challenge facing radio broadcasters in 2018?
Wesolowski: I believe that the most significant challenge facing the broadcast industry is something that may well be beyond our control: the ever-increasing radio frequency noise floor.
Analog broadcast technology is a superb method in which to deliver programming efficiently over a wide area. The FM band, in particular, is able to faithfully reproduce audio with minimal potential for interference. This statement is just as true now as it would have been 70 years ago, as there is no fundamental flaw in the signal transmission standards that were established long ago.
As time marches on, however, the noise floor is rising, while wireless providers are trying to establish new services with steadily weaker signal-to-noise ratio bandwidth. The Internet of Things, modern lighting and even cellular phone chargers are creating enormous interference — and not just to AM stations. As a result, the practical primary service contour of every station is shrinking.
I believe that other engineering and legal authorities have advocated penalizing equipment manufacturers for noncompliant RF-emitting devices. That is a noble, but incredibly difficult, strategy to implement. Perhaps in concert with that effort, I would seek a modest across-the-board signal increase for station licensees. Such an approach would likely raise more than a few eyebrows, but if we have no realistic ability to reduce the noise, perhaps we could at least up the signals.
Unfortunately, this may be an unsolvable problem.
RW: What consumer electronics trends will have the most impact on how consumers interact with radio and audio media?
Wesolowski: If we ever get to the point where seamless, reliable, wide-area high-bandwidth wireless internet becomes available from coast-to-coast in fully autonomous vehicles, then that will present an interesting challenge to the broadcast radio industry. Some would say that we’re practically there now, but I am skeptical. I think that it will take quite awhile for the public to completely embrace self-driving cars.
When you can punch in a driving destination and consume wireless entertainment without interruption from whatever internet-connected devices exist at the time, then radio will find it tougher to compete. Tough, but definitely not impossible. Dialing into a radio station is easy and a feat that can be accomplished easily while behind the wheel. Without the hassle of operating the automobile, however, the driver will be free to connect to more complicated media.
Even so, I believe that there will be a place for traditional, over-the-air broadcast radio for the foreseeable future. Whenever there is an opportunity to address the topic of dashboard positioning with vehicle manufacturers, our industry needs to maintain a “radio-first” attitude.
RW: What other technology trends or changes should we be watching for in your specific part of the industry?
Wesolowski: Many FM licensees are lobbying for on-channel booster (as opposed to FM translator) program origination ability. Though I do not count myself in that group, I am closely watching the situation. FM booster stations do not represent a new technology in and of themselves, but the manner in which they would operate without causing interference to the primary signal introduces a huge technological challenge.
The FCC does not allow program origination from FM boosters at the moment, but such a change is not unthinkable. If the commission were to allow program origination from FM boosters, then that would open up a whole new world of hyperlocal geographic marketing channels within a station’s primary service area. Whether or not the industry would take advantage of such opportunities remains to be seen. I do not view this concept as financially viable for most operators, but am a fan of the engineering innovations borne out of the idea.
RW: How are you preparing your staff to tackle these challenges?
Wesolowski: The question boils down to: “How does one prepare for the unknown?” I suppose the future will arrive whether or not my staff is ready, but I prefer to look backwards in time for answers, rather than attempt to make a game plan off of any incredibly uncertain forecast of things to come. Change arrives in many shapes and sizes, but solutions are surprisingly timeless. Relationship selling, for example, yields success. I suspect this was the case in the distant past and will be in the distant future.
I believe in distilling challenging situations to their simplest, constituent parts. Our entire industry’s foundation can be summed up in one sentence, for instance: “We say nice things about you on the radio for money.” When staff members bring an issue, I encourage them to think of the situation in its most basic terms. There is no need to make problems more complicated than they are. The ability to recognize future issues for their core elements and respond accordingly is an invaluable quality for staff and management alike.
RW: Are you optimistic about radio’s future? Why or why not?
Wesolowski: I am particularly optimistic for the future of operators who have no debt load, but still have quite a bit of confidence in those companies which have overextended themselves with untenable financial obligations. In a business sense, broadcast radio is high-margin industry with a sky-high barrier to entry, enjoying billions upon billions of capable, already deployed receivers. Digital media competitors, by contrast, operate in a somewhat low (or negative, on average) margin environment with no barrier to entry, suffering from ever-changing content delivery pipelines. The financial case alone points to broadcast radio being resilient for years to come.
Consider the cost of running a local AM radio station with FM translator, especially in an era in which main studio requirements have been abolished. A dedicated licensee could effectively run a high-quality sounding station from a spare bedroom, reaching a wide area for just a few thousand dollars per month. Until the economics and tremendous efficiency of radio broadcasting break down, responsible operators will continue to make it a viable business.
RW: Where do you learn about new technology each year, in particular which trade shows or information sources?
Wesolowski: I value my membership in the International Broadcasters’ Idea Bank above all other professional organizations, but my state’s (Mississippi) broadcast association is an incredible resource, as well. Our annual combined convention with the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters each May/June in New Orleans is an event not to be missed.
Otherwise, I always have to read Radio World from cover to cover!
RW: What else should readers keep on their radar?
Wesolowski: I believe that 2018 will bring real policy reform with respect to spectrum allocation. Along with a few dozen other broadcasters, I am pushing for the creation of a “FM Class C4” 12 kW station class option for licensees located in Zone II of the United States. Several hundred FM Class A stations would be eligible to double their effective radiated power level without impacting other broadcast services. With the final FM translator window concluding soon, it seems as if now is the time for the FCC to introduce such an allotment class.
Otherwise, there are many exciting pending regulatory proposals and technologies that could energize the industry. I think that we will see nonadjacent FM translator channel modifications allowed as minor changes before the end of the year. I also believe that, at some point, low-power FM stations will get a chance to apply for 250 W authorizations. I would hope that all of these changes are part of some sort of consolidated technological streamlining order later in the year, as there is quite a backlog of good FCC petitions out there.