Urban radio moves into white space

There’s something new on the FM dial in Boston. You might think of it as a kind of urban renewal. Grass roots, up through the pavement. (There’s a pun in there, but you need to read on to get it.)

You might say that fresh radio moved in where stale TV moved out.

Here’s some background. When TV in the U.S. finally went all-digital several months back (June 12, to be precise), one wide hunk of spectrum, from 54 to 88Mhz—where channels 2 through 6 used to be—turned into “white space“. In other words, empty. For most of us this doesn’t matter except in one little spot at the very bottom of the FM dial: 87.7 FM. It’s the first click on nearly every FM radio, yet the FCC licensed no FM stations there, because that notch belonged to TV channel 6 audio. From January 1963 until June 2009, you could hear Channel 6 (WLNE-TV) at that spot on the dial, across much of Southern New England, including the Boston metro. When analog television shut down in June, WLNE moved to Channel 49 with its digital signal. After that, 87.7 was white space too. (Some more background here.)

In a few cases (New York and Los Angeles, for example), somebody would get a license (New York, Los Angeles) to operate a low power analog Channel 6 TV station, leave the picture off and just broadcast the audio, creating a virtual FM station that most listeners didn’t know was licensed as picture-less TV. (LPTV stations are exempt from the digital requirement.) That was pretty clever, but it was also pretty rare. For the most part, 87.7 was all-hiss, meaning it was open for anybody to put up anything, legal or not.

Such as here in Boston. It was a matter of time before somebody put up a pirate signal on 87.7. That happened this week when “Hot 97 Boston,” an urban-formatted Internet station, appeared there. Hot 97 is also known as WPOT, according to this thread here.

I checked here and here to see if it’s legal (on FM), and can find no evidence. But it does sound like a real station. If you’re into urban radio with a local Boston flavor (also with no ads), check it out. The signal isn’t big, but it’s not bad, either. And it’s worldwide on the Net.

[Two days later...] I figured by now the Boston Globe and/or the Boston Phoenix would pick up on this story. So I just tweeted a bulletin. Let’s see what happens.

[Later still...] Dean Landsman reminded me that Brian R. Ballou of the Globe had a report on TOUCH-FM in June 2008. TOUCH is another pirate that appears from its website still to be active, at least on the Web (though at the moment I can’t get it on either FM or the station’s “click here/listen now” link). [And later again (October 13) ...] TOUCH-FM is still on the air. It’s pretty obliterated by other signals here in Cambridge, but I got it well enough to follow this morning in the car when I drove to Boston and back.

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15 comments

  1. Mike Brown’s avatar

    So the radio station simply didn’t make it at 97.5…. what a shame.

  2. H.W. Duncan’s avatar

    Hey Doc,

    There is apparently a licensed LPTV on Channel 6 in LA that isn’t running a visual carrier but is running stereo FM at +/- 75 kHz deviation (normal TV is +/- 25 kHz). The prevailing opinion among LA engineers is that the operation is unlawful but as yet the FCC has done nothing about it.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Does it sit on top of the licensed station (at the Los Angeles links above)? Here it is: http://svartifoss2.fcc.gov/cgi-bin/ws.exe/prod/cdbs/pubacc/prod/eng_tv.pl?Application_id=1187575 . Or is it that licensed station?

    On Mt. Harvard.

    I think I read somewhere that not running video is legal, somehow. Dunno, tho.

  4. H.W. Duncan’s avatar

    As I understand the situation, it is the licensed LPTV operation on Mt. Harvard that is running the audio-only FM. This info comes from various posts on the CGI Communicator. Being in Seattle, I don’t have any direct knowledge. However, I can hear audio on 87.7 around here from Channel 6 in Vancouver, B.C.

    The comments regarding legality have been limited to the extra-wide deviation and running a 19 kHz stereo beacon and not to the lack of a video carrier.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Ah, that makes sense. Channel 6 audio is also at what, 87.75 or something? In a 150Khz envelope rather than 200Khz? I forget.

    I would think that CPB, or NPR, or somebody (e.g. minority broadcasters, who have been pressing on a number of fronts), would want to grab up the existing Channel 6 facilities out there, given that they’re already enjoying freedom from audio encroachment at the bottom ends of FM dials. Lots of towers from 1000 to 2000 feet that used to carry Channel 6 are standing idle now. (WLNE in Providence and WECT in Wilmington-Fayetteville are two examples at each of those two height levels.)

    David Oxenford says some stuff about the issue here and here.

  6. H.W. Duncan’s avatar

    On a semi-related subject, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Educational FM band will eventually disappear. Back when Radio & Records was in operation, I would see some unbelievable prices being paid for relatively small Ed FM stations. I began to wonder if these purchasers were building empires that they would eventually petition the FCC (or merely bribe Congress) to convert to commercial operations.

    On the other hand, I keep seeing commercial FM applications for tiny towns with very few potential listeners (like TWO FM apps in Rocksprings, TX). I don’t think that I fully understand the financial model behind radio any more.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Well, “education” has been a fiction for the duration.

    What drives up prices for stations in the noncommercial band is competition between religious and public broadcasters. The prices are approximately the same as those for commercial stations. The difference is that donation-funded radio is waxing while advertising-funded radio is waning.

    The number and variety of apps for facilities in all markets is huge. It’s amazing. Look at Santa Barbara for example. On FM alone. Look at all the LICs, CPs and APPs from Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls alone. It’s wacky. (And all these stations and translators are just packing material on the dial.)

    Newspapers are slowly but un-surely moving toward a public radio model.

  8. Dean Landsman’s avatar

    A functional revenue model has yet to appear for for stations broadcasting at the low end of the FM totem pole. Launching a new station in an unknown and mostly untraversed area of the dial is enough of a leap, much less during a time when advertising dollars for terrestrial radio are down (as is always the case in economic downturns).

    A stand-alone radio station makes almost zero sense in this day and age. Radio as an integral element of a media enterprise offers all sorts of opportunity. DRM makes matter worse, and the new online music licensing and fee arrangements are such that it is economic suicide to succeed as an online music source.

    H.W. is most likely correct in his suspicion that the Educational Band will go the way of the buffalo soon enough. And the small market radio broadcasters stand a better chance of success than their larger market brethren. Small market radio serves the community in an inherent and immediate manner. That immediacy, topicality and local quality cannot be replaced. In smaller towns the costs can be controlled and the weaving of the station’s day to day presentation and focus into the events and occurrences of the community can turn into success — financial and otherwise.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Dean, if “a functional revenue model has yet to appear for for stations broadcasting at the low end of the FM totem pole,” why does public radio exist, and continue to thrive? For music, how is it that WFUV, WFMU, WETA and WWOZ continue to do well? Theirs is no get-rich model, but it is a sustainable one.

    The music royalty regime in the U.S. is brutal — but mostly to online stations, not (yet) to licensed radio stations.

    Have you listened to Hot 97 Boston? You’re the urban radio expert, not me; but I think they sound pretty good, and are clearly involved with their community — and that’s as an online station. While they’re a pirate on the FM band, they at least sound legitimate. I assume they have some kind of contribution-based revenue model. (I haven’t heard any pitches for money yet.) What is it that keeps them going? You tell me. It must be something.

    By the way, the story of Hot 97 Boston has yet to hit any of the mainstream media. Pretty amazing. And sad.

  10. Dean Landsman’s avatar

    My reference to the low end of the FM totem pole was those stations using the TV spectrum to offer what is otherwise higher-band commercial FM programming.I was not referring to public or listener-supported radio stations operating in the non-commercial/educational band space of traditional FM spectrum.

    Over the past decade one of the most significant “content development” strides has been the drop in the cost of creating and offering a good,or even high, quality “radio broadcast” product. Much the same way any Tom, Dick or Harriet with a PC can become a podcaster, so can anyone with a small investment in equipment, software and hard drive space can create a “radio studio” for online streaming, or even standard broadcast over the air.

    Low power radio just got a boost (pun intended) as you can read about here: http://bit.ly/jNJjY. To my knowledge there are no restrictions on these low power stations banding together in a net of sorts, nor on program sharing. There may be some requirements for local origination, or percentage of the broadcast day that must be local in nature..I haven’t read the FCC Rules & Regs on this.

    Streaming stations could simulcast with low power radio stations, creating on air and online combinations. This might be a nightmare for music license fees, but seems a likely wave of the future.

    An earlier Boston urban format pirate operation got some press in 2008,which you can read here: http://bit.ly/kozxd You and I and a few others had an email go-round about this (check your archives for email dated 6/12/08).

    I’ll check out this latest pirate operation when I arrive in Boston this weekend for the Monday/Tuesday VRM meeting, and of course will have a keen interest in its urban format.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    As I recall, there is a local programming requirement; and the rules were originally written to keep religious broadcasters from using LPFM as a network of translators. Alas, this failed. Lots of the LPFMs are already squatters for the likes of Calvary Chapel. For example, KVRY-LP/96.3 in Goleta, CA. The licensee is Calvary Chapel of Santa Barbara. The programming is mosty canned, from what I can tell. Okay, here are the rules, or some of them. The FCC has in fact shot down some Calvary Chapel applications, but many more have gotten through. The religious broadcasters are by far the most resourceful operators in the business. Check out this list here for just one example of Calvary Chapel’s translator jihad. Another one. These links go to old news too. Most of the damage is already done, and it was done during the pro-religion Bush II administration. Public radio folks also had their eye off the ball. The tide is turning, finally, but … there’s not much room left there.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mike, I don’t know why they call themselves 97.5, unless they were actually a pirate there once as well. Maybe they’ll weigh in with some background facts. Meanwhile, I don’t know if they were ever on that channel.

  13. JollyRoger’s avatar

    Here in the Merrimack Valley, I heard the South Boston pirate on 87.7. It sounds a bit like the old Hot 97.7 (licensed to Brockton MA), before it flipped to WKAF. Speaking of radio on the TV6 band, I also recently heard another pirate playing a sappy AC format at a low audio level on 87.9 that seems to be somewhere on the North Shore, I occasionally pickup island music from a couple Boston (Dorchester?) pirates on 101.3 and 106.1.

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    JollyRoger, I believe the 87.7 South Boston pirate is in fact Hot97 gone underground, sort of. The signal, for a pirate, is huge. It’s been there for months, going strong, with no clampdown from the FCC, and no mainstream media coverage either. I’ve talked to the Globe a couple of times. Not interested. I’ll bet that the coverage is comparable to WKAF’s, if not bigger.

    The pirate on 106.1 (Touch 106.1has been around for awhile. Very spotty signal.

    I would be very surprised if 87.7 isn’t the biggest pirate in the country.

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