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The longest thread in the history of this blog belongs to Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station, which I posted on July 26, and still has comments this month. The post followed a complex deal by which the New York Times divested its legacy classical music station, WQXR — and by which the station’s format, call letters, record library and some of its personnel survived as a noncommercial outlet of WNYC, on a different channel with a weaker signal. From the comments one might gather that more listeners were unhappy than happy with the deal. My post mostly presented the upside.

Now here in Boston a similar move is underway. WGBH, “Boston’s NPR arts and culture station” will go the way of WNYC-FM, which phased out classical music starting in 2002, eventually shunting it to HD side-channels and Internet streams while populating the FM signal (as well as its AM one) with news and information programming, which tends to be more popular and to attract more money in listener contributions. By saving WQXR, WNYC returned classical music to the airwaves (although the city was still down one classical station, or two if you want to go back to the very late WNCN.) WGBH clearly had the same thing in mind when it bought WCRB, which was already weakened in the Boston metro when it moved from its old local channel (102.5) to its current channel (99.5) in Lowell. (Wikipedia has good background poop on WCRB’s own long saga.) While both WCRB signals have about the same range, the old 102.5 signal radiates from the Boston FM and TV antenna farm in nearby Needham, while the new one on 99.5 comes from a hill overlooking the I-495/I93 intersection, far to the north near the New Hampshire border.

So now WGBH plans to move its classical programming to WCRB, whch will become a non-commercial station (as did WQXR), and to do more news and information programming on its own home signal (89.7), which is grandfathered at 100,000 watts on Great Blue Hill (hence the call letters) in Milton, on the south side of Boston. In terms of wattage alone, WGBH is New England’s most powerful station. (The largest coverage belongs to WHOM/94.9 on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which puts out 49,000 watts from the highest peak in the Northeast.) As a result WGBH can go head-to-head with WBUR/90.9, which is the incumbent public radio leader in Boston. (I’ve looked at the ratings, and WBUR has kicked WGBH’s butt for years — a fact that I am sure has rankled the latter.)

Still, many listeners are not happy. And not just about losing classical music.

WGBH is doing its best to gloss over the signal loss for classical (and other arts & culture) listeners, especially in the southern reaches of Eastern Massachusetts, where WGBH has a very strong signal and WCRB is mostly absent. To demonstrate, here is a comparison of coverage for WGBH, WCRB and WBUR, calculated by Radio-Locator.com:


Click on the image for a legible full-size version.

Still, my own take in the WGBH/WCRB case is the same as it was for WNYC/WQXR: this is the best that could be done for classical music on Boston airwaves — and it offers opportunities not possible for WCRB had it remained a commercial station. Go back to that first link if you want to see what those are.

As for me, I expect to be more likely to listen to a ‘GBH-run noncommercial WCRB than I did to the commercial one. First, the commercials were (and, at this writing, still are) annoying. Second, the WCRB repertoire was pretty close to all-hits, rather than the more varied and challenging fare found on WGBH. There should be a happy medium between the two, and I’m sure ‘GBH will work hard to find it.

But I’m privileged to live on the north side of the metro, so I get WCRB just fine. I think it’s a safe bet that more than one half of WGBH’s listening area won’t get a useful signal out of WCRB. And the area within which listeners can get WGBH’s HD stream is a subset of WGBH’s coverage area.

A digressive word about HD radio. I got one recently — a $99 Teac unit — at Costco. The tuner is remarkably good, and it gets most local stations’ HD side-channels. But “tuning” HD is a counter-intuitive chore. You tune in the partent station, wait for the HD symbol to appear, and then tune to the one or two HD channels of the station. It’s a multi-step selection process, with delays along the way. I’d be curious to know if anybody (beside those who pick a channel and stay put) has had a positive experience with tuning it.

For those who want to compare apples with apples, here’s some data:

One last thing. I for one (and I am sure there are many more) would love to hear Chris Lydon return to Boston’s airwaves. He has been a podcasting pioneer with an outstanding show. But coming on a live station would be fabulous.

Hey, how about Larry Josephson too?

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Edward Rosten and I have been having an interesting dialog in the comment section of my last post, which was mostly about WNYC buying WQXR from the New York Times (which has owned it forever) for $11.5 million — and moving QXR’s classical programming up New York’s FM dial from 96.3 to 105.9, where the maximum transmission wattage is far less than allowed on the old frequency.

There has been much hand-wringing and prognosticating over the whole thing. What Would You Do With the New WQXR? is a post on the NYTimes site that is followed by a great many comments. Says Edward, “Post #58, I can assure you, is representative of ‘input’ from people who’ve given ANY thought to how the proposed changes will play out. (‘Power to the people’ has yielded to ‘power to the 24/7 classical music station, whatever its name!’)”

So here’s a summary of my own thinking about why this was a good move by WNYC.

  1. $11.5 million is a bargain for any FM signal radiating from the center of Manhattan, even in these depressed economic times.
  2. There will be a 24/7 classical station in New York called WQXR. It will continue to play much, if not most, of the music its current audience likes. It will also employ some of the same people and air some of the same programs. Doing even a subset of this is to buck the tide that is drowning classical stations everywhere in the U.S.
  3. The signal on 105.9 will pack less punch than the old one on 96.3. The new one is 610 watts while the old one was 6000 watts, from the same antenna on the Empire State Building. The difference, however, is smaller than the wattage would indicate. On FM, height matters more than wattage, and those are the same. And signal strength increases as the square root of the wattage. This means that the new signal will be about a third the power of the old one, rather than one tenth. Either way, it’s still plenty of signal for the boroughs, southern Westchester, Jersey counties bordering the Hudson, and Nassau County. Not bad, considering.
  4. WQXR will now be a noncommercial station owned by the top public station in the top metro market in the country. There are many upsides here that are not available to commercial stations — least of all one owned by a struggling newspaper. These include…
  5. No commercials, beyond the usual noncommercial radio pitches for listener support. For an example of an alternative outcome — having a legacy station and its call letters shunted to a secondary signal while remaining commercial — check out WCRB, Boston’s equivalent of WQXR. The Wikipedia entrty provides copious (and depressing) background. What they don’t say is that WCRB plays lots of commercials, in spite of a commercial free sections of its schedule. (I’d suggest checking out WCRB’s live stream, but they’ve discontinued it.)
  6. The opportunity for listeners to support the station directly, and involve themselves in the station’s missions. In the past one could support WQXR only by buying a car or a mattress from an advertiser. Now you can put some money where your ears are.
  7. WQXR can use translators to enlarge its signal, and bring it to places outside its local coverage area. Translators are low power stations radiating the same audio on a different channel from the original signal. WQXR currently has translators on 96.7 in Asbury Park and 103.7 in Poughkeepsie. Now here’s the cool deal: While commercial stations can only use translators to fill in holes in their home coverage areas, noncommercial stations can put translators anywhere they please. Of course, these have to be on unoccupied channels, and most channels are occupied in most places. There are two ways WNYC can go here. One is to buy up, swap or otherwise deal for existing translators. (There is lots of horse-trading going on in any case between public broadcasters and religious ones. The latter have been much more resourceful about maximizing coverage and spreading translators everywhere.) The other is to find open spots where translators can be wedged in. Anywhere in the country.
  8. The Internet is a wide-open frontier. I listen to WNYC’s classical stream (also carried on the air over the station’s HD service on FM) here in Santa Barbara. I also listen to many other stations (including a dozen or more classical ones) here as well. I use either my iPhone or our home Sonos system. Those are my radios, and they sound fine. There are no limits to the number of Internet channels WNYC/WQXR can choose to put out there. For models of station/stream proliferation (and brand extension) see what KCRW and Minnesota Public Radio do. This multi-million-dollar move by WNYC serves notice that it plans to be one of the country’s public super-stations.

I could go on, but you get the point. The opportunities for WQXR as a WNYC property are far wider than the New York Times would dream of contemplating. I advise loyal listeners of both stations to get behind the effort with cash and helpful input, rather than complaints about signal differences and what WNYC might do with WQXR. Hey, WQXR will be a public station soon. That should give you more influence than ever before.

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There’s a good chance that the best picture you can put on your HD screen doesn’t come from your cable or satellite TV company, but from your new HD camcorder. As time and markets march on, that chance will only get larger. That’s because the there is a trade-off between the number of channels carried and the quality of each channel. That quality compression shows up as “artifacts” in the picture itself. Gradations of shading and color, such as in a blue or gray sky, turn to a mosaic of blocks. (In this shot, I show how grass on a football field has pimples.) Carriers compete more by the number of channels they carry than by the quality of each channel.(There are exceptions to this, but on the whole that’s what we’ve got.) Meanwhile your camcorder quality only goes up.

And as camcorder quality goes up, more of us will be producing rather than consuming our video. More importantly, we will be co-producing that video with other people. We will be producers as well as consumers. This is already the case, but the results that appear on YouTube are purposely compressed to a low quality compared to HDTV. In time the demand for better will prevail. When that happens we’ll need upstream as well as downstream capacity.

So here’s a piece in Broadband Reports that shows how carriers can be out of touch with the future, even as they increase the capacities of their offerings. An excerpt:

In upgraded markets, Comcast is not only upgrading existing speed tiers ($42.95 “Performance” 6Mbps/1Mbps and $52.95 “Performance Plus” 8Mbps/2Mbps tiers became 12Mbps/2Mbps and 16Mbps/2Mbps), but is adding two new tiers to the mix ($62.95 “Ultra” 22Mbps/5Mbps and the aforementioned $139.95 “Extreme 50″ 50Mbps/10Mbps).

One recurring theme we’ve seen in our forums is that the new speeds have many users downgrading. In both forum threads and polls, many customers on Comcast’s 16Mbps/2Mbps tier say they’re downgrading to their 12Mbps/2Mbps tier — apparently because they don’t think an additional 4Mbps downstream is worth $10. Customers used to be willing to pay the additional $10 for double the upstream speed, but there’s no longer an upstream difference between the tiers.

That last line is the kicker. Comcast apparently still thinks that downstream is all that really matters. It isn’t. For anybody producing a lot of photography or video, upstream not only matters more, but supports activities where the user can see the difference.

In fact there isn’t a lot of perceived difference between 12Mbps and 16Mbps on the downstream side. Either is fast enough for a YouTube video. But on the upstream side, you can see the difference. In my case, that difference appears in the progress bars for pictures I upload to Flickr.

A few months ago I upgraded my Verizon FiOS service from 20/5Mbps to 20/20Mbps. The difference was obvious as soon as it went in. The difference will be a lot more obvious to a lot more people once those people start sharing, mashing up and co-producing higher-definition videos.

Just watch.

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