March Madness and Radio’s Future

March Madness for me this year was a double treat. First, my team, the Duke Blue Devils, won the championship. (Though my heart went out to Butler, which came within inches of winning at the buzzer on a half-court shot.) Second, I got to follow the Devils, and North Carolina Basketball in general, on . I did this over on my iPhone. I listened in my pocket as I cooked in the kitchen, rode on my bike, and walked to the bus and the train. I dug and in the mornings, the PackMan in the afternoon, and hyper-local features such as the Duke Basketball show from the Washington Duke Inn, on Duke’s campus).

I loved hearing old familiars like , and Duke play-by-play announcer , who started as a sales guy at WDNC in 1975, not long after I left that same job. In those days WDNC was a struggling Top 40 station, still owned by the Durham Herald-Sun newspapers, still with studios in the paper’s building, and still carrying CBS news (its lone connection to a glorious past). Since then WDNC has bounced through a number of formats, and currently thrives in the overlap of , and empires. Its FM counterpart is WCMC/99.9, which didn’t exist when I left town in 1985. Currently known as “620 The Buzz” (the FM is “The Fan”), it was until recently The Bull. (In fact, if you go to http://wdnc.com, it re-directs to http://www.620thebull.com/, which is a blank page. Somebody needs to get a second re-direct going there.)

A confession. Not long after Bob Harris took over play-by-play for Duke games, he often had Mike Krzyzewski, then Duke’s rookie basketball coach, as a guest. I wasn’t a fan of Coach K. His predecessor, Bill Foster, was gregarious, emotional and easy for fans to love, Krzyzewski seemed cold and a bit nasty. He rarely smiled and had coaching style that appeared to consisted entirely of barking at officials. I once said of him, “There’s nothing about that guy that a blow-dry and a sense of humor wouldn’t cure.” While it wasn’t quite a nickname for Coach K, it stuck, and I heard it repeated often. Today, of course, Krzyzewski is an institution, and much loved by everybody who knows him, especially his players.

Anyway, the most interesting irony to me, as I listen to WDNC here in Cambridge, Mass, is that it has long been the custom in radio to obsess about signals and coverage — since you can’t listen to what you can’t get. Among souls who still do this I know few who are more devoted, even still, than I am. (The very best is Scott Fybush, by the way. I love his site visits.)

As a kid growing up in New Jersey I would ride my bike down to visit the transmitters of New York’s AM stations, whose towers bristled from swamps on the flanks of the Hackensack river: WABC, WINS, WMGM/WHN, WOV/WADO, WMCA, WNEW, WHOM…

I’d talk with the guys who manned the transmitters (they were always guys, and they were often old), logging readings and walking out to the towers to make sure all was well. I became a ham radio operator around that time, and continued to fancy myself something of an engineer, though technically I wasn’t. Still, I jumped at the opportunity to take shifts maintaining WDNC’s transmitter as a side job when I worked there. The whole plant was about the same age as me (at the time, 27), and spread across about ten acres at the end of a dirt road on the northwest side of town. It was 5000 watts by day and 1000 watts by night, with directional patterns produced by its three towers. The shot above is from Bing’s excellent “bird’s eye” view of the site. (Why doesn’t Microsoft make more of this? Google has nothing like it, and it totally rocks.) And it’s much nicer now than it was then. At that time the fields had turned to high brush, and I needed to ride a lawnmower out to the towers on a bumpy path, so I wouldn’t get ticks. (One could pick up — I’m not kidding, hundreds of ticks by walking out there.)

What fascinated me most about the facility was the engineering files, which included details on the transmission patterns and coverage maps showing how waves interacted with conductive ground to produce signal intensities that didn’t look as much like the signal pattern as one might expect. AM coverage depends on ground conductivity. In North Carolina (and the East in general) the ground conductivity is poor; but at the bottom end of the AM dial the waves are longer and travel farther along the ground in any case. WDNC was at 620, so its signal was many times the size of a signal at the top end of the dial with the same wattage.

Now I can go online and see WDNC’s daytime pattern here and its nighttime pattern here — both at . I can see the coverage they produce at . Here’s a mash-up of patterns (left) and coverage (right):

Which is all well and cool. Playing with this stuff is catnip for me. But it’s also meaningless, once radio moves off AM and FM and onto the Net, where in the long run it makes much more sense.

What we’re dealing with, in the images I show here, is exceedingly antique stuff. The basics of AM broadcast engineering were set in the 1920s and 1930s. FM dates from the 1940s and 1950s. Recent improvements to both (through IBOC — In Band On Channel) are largely proprietary, and uptake on the receiving end borders on pathetic. None of the technologies employed are interactive, much less Net-native. They soak billions of watts off the world’s power grids. AM stations occupy large areas of real estate. FM and TV stations use frequencies that require high elevations, provided by tall towers, buildings or mountains, offering hazards to aviation and bird migration. Not to mention that lots of the biggest towers tend to fall down. In 1989 a pair of 2000-foot TV/FM towers near Raleigh (serving the same areas outlined above) collapsed in the same ice storm.

Three problems stand in the way of building out radio on the Net.

First is the mobile phone system that carries it. When I listen to WDNC on my iPhone, I don’t care how much data I use. AT&T has no data limit for the iPhone or the iPad. Other carriers need to have similar deals. To my knowledge they don’t — at least not in the U.S. (Sprint used to, and after my problems with Sprint last year I doubt I’ll use its system much for media again son.) Still, even AT&T regards subordinates mobile data to mobile telephony. This gets more retro every day. In the long run, we’ll have a mobile data system that includes mobile telephony but is not defined by it (and its infuriating billing systems). These also need to be better integrated with wi-fi from all sources (and not just the carriers’ own). These days most wi-fi access points are “secure,” making them useless as part of a larger system. But that can change.

Second is revising the rules restricting music streamed and podcast over the Net. Copyright law, especially as established by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, screwed the hell out of music broadcasting and podcasting. Today we have some of the former and little of the latter (except for “podsafe” music, which includes approximately nothing that’s been popular over the last 80 years). Fixing this won’t be easy, but it needs to be done.

Third is revising the means by which stations make money, and rules about where advertising can be carried. For the former we need a much better system for listeners to pay broadcasters on a voluntary basis, for both commercial and noncommercial stations. (This is why at ProjectVRM we are working on EmanciPay, for example.) For advertising, there are currently restrictions on much national advertising, which is why the majority of ads I hear on WDNC (and other commercial stations that do streaming) are public service announcements from the Ad Council. Listening to these, over and over and over and over, accelerates the listeners own aging process.

Networks and stations also need to realize that more and more online listeners aren’t tuning in to Web pages. They’re tuning directly to streams using applications on mobile devices. The folks on WDNC do a good job of using Twitter, Facebook and other familiar “social media,” but they don’t seem to have a clue that it’s a heck of a lot easier to listen to mobile radio on something that’s actually like a radio — namely a smartphone — than on a computer. Search for “radio” in Apple’s app store and you’ll get hundreds of results. The Public Radio Player, there on the left, has had over 2.5 million downloads so far. Hopefully the iPad will help. Check out Pandora’s latest.

Anyway, a big thanks to the folks at WDNC/TheBuzz for a great season of Duke, Carolina and ACC basketball coverage — especially for a listener stuck here in New England, where pro sports dominate. (Not that I don’t love those too. I just need my college basketball fix.) Props to @TZarzour and @WRALsportsFan too.

4 comments

  1. H.W. Duncan’s avatar

    I am somewhat optimistic about AM Radio’s future because there seems to be little competition for the spectrum space.

    As long as you have the asymmetry between the relatively tiny size of an AM receiving antenna and the necessarily-large size of a transmitting antenna coupled with high power, the bands below 2 mHz will be useless for 2-way communications. The highest and best use of the AM band seems to be one-way communications i.e., broadcasting.

    We can already see pressure to reallocate TV broadcasting channels for Wifi use. There is no reason to expect FM stations to escape this trend. The FCC continues to cram more and more FM stations, LPFMs, translators, and boosters into the FM band, increasing interference and reducing the coverage of existing FM stations The Digital FM scheme only make the interference worse

    On the other hand, some aspects of the AM band are improving. Marginal AM stations and AM stations on valuable real estate are disappearing, eliminating at least some interference to existing stations. Of course, the Digital AM scheme is a bad idea that increases interference to the point that it cannot be used at night.

    I suspect that AM Radio may be the last broadcasting service to survive.

  2. John A Arkansawyer’s avatar

    I’m still trying to figure out why a local radio station, designed to serve a local audience, has its natural* home on the internet.

    What radio gives that the internet cannot is direct service between the speaker and the hearer. If carriers X, Y, and Z all refuse to carry its broadcast (seen Al Jazeera on your cable lately?), carriers X, Y, and Z can be told to go screw themselves for a change. The signal still goes out.

    The existence of legitimate radio stations opens up the door to low-power legal use, as well as less legal strategies.

    It’s a lot harder to jam the radio than the internet. Just ask China.

    *Someday, when I grow up to be a philosopher, I’d like to write the book that puts an end to the concept of “natural” in this context and those like it.

  3. Sal Yoselfhelpi’s avatar

    AM Radio is what all the survivors will be listening to after the Apocalypse. I know, I played Fallout 3.

  4. Calms Forte 4 kids’s avatar

    I really think AM radio is a dying thing. We will soon see far more online radio stations as opposed to radio stations on AM. I think the AM sector will all start slowly moving online because there are so many people who don’t even know what AM radio is.

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