It would seem that quite a few engineers in our business are giving up on any future for radio. To them, WiMax is a torpedo dead ahead that is poised to sink radio broadcasting and its 90 years of legacy service. The following letter from Mark Krieger, responding to my support for AM translators on FM, is typical of the sentiments we often hear on this topic. He has already written radio’s epitaph:
Just read your article regarding supporting FM translator grants to AMs and I confess it evoked a couple of laughs.
I too am a veteran radio engineer of 31 years, and an SBE officer and senior member as well. During that time I’ve had a variety of AMs and FMs under my watch, including a 50 kW AM with a five-tower DA. I used to love sending out QSL cards to Europe, just as I used to love listening to international broadcasting on my trusty Hallicrafters when I was 12 years old. I still have a basement full of every type of broadcast and utility receiver imaginable, the leavings of a lifelong love affair with radio.
Even so, here’s how the thesis of this article strikes me: In a nutshell, what’s being proposed is that AM operators be allowed to leave their sinking ships to board lifeboats that are already overfilled and also sinking, albeit more slowly.
This may be an unpleasant analogy, but we need to come to grips with the reality that the way Americans use media, including radio, is being irretrievably transformed by broadband technology. The fact of the matter is that AM has had a long and venerable life, as have FM and analog TV. But we’re nearing the end of that era. Broadcasting as a conduit for OPC (Other People’s Content) is drawing to a close. As the “pull” model takes over, the use of large chunks of bandwidth for carriage of dedicated programming makes less sense. In fact, I believe we’ll begin discussing turning off dedicated broadcast signals (FM and TV) and repurposing that spectrum to broadband in just a few years. And broadcasters will be powerless to stop it, because we’ve never owned the spectrum we operate on. That resource has been on loan to us by the American people.
The harsh fact of the matter is that unless you are in the business of creating content, you probably ought to cash out of broadcasting now, while you can still get a decent buck for the station. The public soon won’t need you to listen to Rush, Dr. Laura, Westwood One, the NFL, MLB, ad nauseam. Even now, they can get much of that programming right from the source.
Presuming, for a moment, that a local broadcaster does produce a quality localized product that has real value, he or she had better focus on developing their broadband delivery, promotion and business model rather than thinking about how to survive economically as a low-power FM — that really is the ultimate in futility. The only thing I’ve read lately that made me chuckle more was the article by a gentleman proposing the creation of a new FM band for AM owners. Now that was a hoot!
I could go on about studies that reveal that people under 30 have little or no affinity for the radio medium, how the NAB’s clout on Capitol Hill is waning, how WiMax is going to present a huge blow to major market radio, etc., but it’s all too grim. Let’s just say that we’re all working in a legacy industry, and that those of us who wish to continue working in electronic media ought to be about the business of getting our broadband pipelines in order with the knowledge that quality content, not a piece of paper from the federal government, is where our collective fortunes lay.
A Service of John Carroll University, Cleveland
There is no question that broadband technology is beginning to change broadcasting as we know it. The eventual deployment of widespread WiMax availability also will change it. Mark may be laughing now but to suggest these developments will soon render the broadcast service essentially useless, and that we should “begin discussing turning off dedicated broadcast signals (FM and TV) and repurposing that spectrum to broadband in just a few years,” is downright hilarious.
Mark’s observations and advice seem to misinterpret or ignore important realities on a number of issues, and presume the following statements are true or will soon become true:
- Most consumers will clamor for WiMax services and will prefer to engage and manage its “pull model” over broadcast services.
- WiMax-based devices that replace radios (and even TVs) will be just as easy to use for average consumers and just as affordable.
- WiMax will need the scarce spectrum now used for broadcast to be effectively deployed.
- The FCC can and will likely take existing channels away from broadcasters and award them to WiMax operators.
- Most folks under 30 do not need nor use radio anymore, suggesting they will not use it as they grow older.
- Most radio stations do not create useful or compelling content on their own and merely play tunes or OPC via networks and nationally syndicated shows.
- Most radio stations are not yet Webcasting over the Internet or are not gearing up to do so.
- Broadcast radio and TV are close to the end of their life spans and will completely give way to broadband and WiMax in the near future.
It’s not too surprising to hear comments like Mark’s coming out of a university environment where MP3 players, cellphones, laptops and WiFi internet are the mass media staples. Any university campus is a bubble wherein everyone is exposed to new technologies and hi-tech ways of doing things. In most cases, mom and pop paid for their student’s hardware and the tuition that provides the university Internet connections.
Furthermore, students and teachers alike generally have little interest in the affairs of their surrounding communities and are narrow-focused on their own pursuits.
When students move out of such isolation and into the real world on their own, they discover a whole new set of priorities that compete for their time, attention and money. The Internet and wireless communications devices will still be important of course, but they also will find devices that are free and easy to use that connect them with resources of relevance and importance in their local surroundings. That’s where local radio has always shined.
I wonder if Mark has considered how many “blinking 12:00” displays are still lurking on home recorders, and what percentage of the population actively uses TiVo and similar features with their home TV services. Pull technology has been around for a long time and still befuddles far too many folks who try to use it. Consumers want their information and entertainment services to be simple, convenient and easy to use. Finding and using Internet-based content, especially on mobile devices, has a very long way to go before it qualifies in that category.
WHAT BAND FOR WiMAX?
The FCC regulates the use of the currently allocated electromagnetic spectrum in the U.S., based for the most part on rules debated and passed by Congress. Existing stakeholders, represented by lobbyists, affect the process heavily. Any effort to displace existing licensed broadcast channels with broadband services would most certainly be subjected to a long battle taking years to resolve. But that’s probably not going to happen anyway.
The commission has seen the need for WiMax and its challenges coming for quite a while. Finding the appropriate spectrum for it may not be the big problem however. The battles over net-neutrality, priority access and of national vs. local distribution promise to be huge. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of underused and even “white” spectrum out there identified by an FCC Task Force study. Let me quote from former FCC chairman Michael Powell’s paper of Oct. 30, 2002 entitled, “Broadband Migration III: Directions in Wireless Policy”:
“The Commission has recently conducted a series of tests to assess actual spectrum congestion in certain locales. … The results showed that while some bands were heavily used, others either were not used or were used only part of the time. It appeared that these ‘holes’ in bandwidth or time could be used to provide significant increases in communication capacity, without impacting current users, through use of new technologies. … Although not dispositive, these results call into question the traditional assumptions about congestion. Indeed it appears that most of spectrum is not in use most of the time. … There is a substantial amount of ‘white space’ out there that is not being used by anybody.”
WiMax will work best in the UHF spectrum between 300 MHz and 3 GHz. That would exclude AM, FM and VHF TV. Most of the present broadcast UHF TV spectrum was already re-purposed for HDTV within the last 10 years. Rather than blowing up heavily used existing broadcast channels and converting them for use by WiMax, it makes much more sense to carve out a new band or group of bands for wireless broadband distribution from lightly used spectrum, as was done to launch the cellphone services.
CONTENT, CONTENT, CONTENT
Nobody would disagree that quality content is where broadcasters’ collective fortunes lie. But content has always been king and has driven every station since KDKA(AM) signed on the air.
Almost every time a station decides to turn its back on the importance of content, especially locally produced content, the results are predictably disastrous. When stations flip formats from “live and local” to satellite-delivered and time-shifted automation, they usually lose. I have no argument with Mark’s suggestion that stations operating in this manner will have problems when WiMax starts gaining a foothold.
On the other hand, Mark disregards the reality that virtually all successful stations have long produced and showcased familiar local content of value that attracts significant audiences in all-sized markets. That’s something that WiMax resources are not likely to displace unless they are clearly better and more compelling, and they are easier and more convenient for the majority of listeners to access.
Perhaps the most underestimated aspect of broadcast radio that Mark overlooks is the burgeoning commitment to develop Web site and streaming resources to extend its reach and appeal to broadband and Internet users. Almost all stations now have Web sites even in small markets. Most have added or are in the process of adding “Listen Now” buttons for live streaming as well as podcast download libraries.
Quite a few have been at it since the late 1990s and have integrated their Web presence as an important part of their sales and marketing efforts. It appears Mark is a little late realizing radio has been “getting our broadband pipelines in order” for some time now.
Broadcast radio is not operating in some kind of isolated vacuum, oblivious to the need for creating quality content and leveraging its distribution, whether over the air, over satellite networks or over the Internet. Where does Mark think folks like Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura and virtually all syndicated hosts come from? Why, local radio stations of course!
Beyond the Internet mega-content providers like AOL, Yahoo and MSN, a lot of the programming you hear over the Internet now and will hear on WiMax will come from radio stations and their parent companies.
Clear Channel Radio and Premiere Networks develop content for cellular radio and have a deal with Motorola right now to include some Clear Channel programming on iRadio phones. The Clear Channel Format Lab also is developing content for the Internet, and programming deals for more cellular systems and in-vehicle systems are in the works. Other major radio groups are hard at work inventing and growing their versions of similar resources.
THE MERCURY RADIO WAKE-UP CALL
One of the highlights for me at September’s NAB Radio Show in Dallas was the unveiling of the Mercury Radio study, a comprehensive and realistic look at where radio is today and what it needs to do to remain relevant and successful. It debunks the myth that nobody under 30 uses radio. They may be using it less than in the past since the introduction of MP3s and iPods, but in fact there is a large percentage of folks under 30 who still enjoy and depend on radio as their primary source for music.
The bottom-line conclusion of this study: we still have many strengths to keep us going but also many challenges in the digital era and transition to HD. When measured against all other media, radio is the clear winner in delivering “free and easy to use,” the most entertaining personalities and the best local connection. These attributes should be our constant battle cry in the face of other media that attempt to lure away our listeners. Everyone who cares about our business should give this 45 minute slideshow their utmost attention: www.mercradio.com/free.htm.
Radio companies everywhere are adapting to the forces of change as they diversify and re-purpose assets to better support their business models going forward. Market forces will reshape the present AM and FM bands according to how well station owners manage those assets. Smaller AM stations may go away or morph into LPFMs and translators, while larger ones step up to improve their coverage and service areas. Successful AM and FM stations alike should all look forward to being part of tomorrow’s WiMax landscape.
I would not advise engineers like Mark to forget about dealing with transmitter plants as they turn more attention to Internet operations anytime soon. WiMax may eventually supplant some of the broadcast service way down the road sometime, but not in his lifetime or in the foreseeable future.