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The Rock face of the Music Radio island is eroding away, as station after station falls into the vast digital sea. Here’s a story in Radio Ink about how two FM rockers have been replaced by news and sports broadcasts that were formerly only on the AM band. (The illo for the story is a hideously discolored mug shot of the aged Mick Jagger.) But Rock isn’t the only music format that’s in trouble. All of them are.

For most of the last century, music and music radio were Xtreme symbiotes. To be popular, or just to be known to more than your local club or coffee house, you had to get your music on the radio. (For some great cinematic history on this, rent Coal Miner’s Daughter, just to see how Loretta Lynn established herself as a singer.) That’s because you also needed to sell what the radio played, which were recordings. All of those were on plastic discs.

Most music we hear is no longer on discs, or even on the radio.

Radio’s biggest advantage since the beginning was being live. This is why it’s still essential for talk, and especially for news and sports — the three formats that are winning on FM and keeping AM alive. Radio will remain strong as long as Internet streaming stays complicated (which it is, even on smartphones), and radios remain standard equipment in new cars. But music radio is still dying slowly. Three reasons:

  1. Music on radio is rarely presented by connoisseurs who know more than you do, and you’re glad to learn from. This in fact has been the case for a long time. There remain a few exceptions, but none (to my knowledge) make much money. By contrast, the Net is full of music connoisseurs and connoisseur-like offerings (e.g. Pandora, LastFM, Spotify).
  2. You don’t choose what music you want to hear. You can do that with Spotify or Rhapsody, and to a lesser extent with Pandora and LastFM.
  3. Advertising. We used to have no choice about enduring it. Now we do.

But music dying on the radio doesn’t mean it lives on the Net. At least not in the form of radio stations as we’ve known them. That’s because of copyright laws.

Radio has huge legacy legal advantages over all-digital alternatives on the copyright front. I won’t go into the details, because they’re complicated beyond endurance, but suffice it to say there is a reason why there are no podcasts of popular music. (Briefly, it’s that the podcaster would have to “clear rights” with the copyright holder of every song.) All we get is “podsafe” music, and music from outfits like the ones mentioned above, which have worked their own broad licensing deals with copyright holders — and from radio stations that enjoy similar deals and happen to stream as well.

Note that radio stations pay more, per recording, to copyright holders for streaming than they do for broadcasting on the air. But they get a break on the streaming side if they’re already broadcasting music over the air, because they don’t have to clear rights with all the artists they play.

The key here is the term “performance.” The way the law (in the U.S. at least) is set up, every play of every recording on the radio or over the Net is considered a performance, and the assumption by the copyright absolutists (the RIAA, primarily) is that copyright holders need to be paid for those performances. And they’ve been putting the squeeze in recent years on music radio to pay as much for performance rights as streamers on the Internet have been forced to pay. (They put those shackles on the Internet radio baby, right in the cradle.) This will also have a chilling effect on music radio.

So an irony of considering recorded music a “performance,” for the purpose of extracting royalties from radio stations on the Net and over the air, is that music on both is either going away or turning toward new systems, such as Spotify, LastFM, Pandora and the rest. But no new radio stations, on either the airwaves or the Net. Not if they’re going to play music of the RIAA-protected kind, which is most of what we know.

If the record industry were not immune to clues, it would find ways to open up opportunities for new music radio stations on the Net. But I doubt they will, until FM music is on its deathbed, just like it’s been on AM since FM wounded it.

Bonus links: Michael Robertson’s latest improvement to radio, DAR.fm.

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I just learned from Dan Kelly that Bruce Elving passed away last month. Details are thin, but here’s a short list of links:

Bruce Elving, Ph.D.Bruce and I were frequent correspondents for many years, starting the early ’70s, when Bruce began publishing his FM Atlas, an authoritative compilation of technical details for every FM station in the U.S. — and an essential handbook for everyone who loved to listen to far-away FM radio stations. Those people are called DXers, and I was one of them.

From my homes in New Jersey and North Carolina, I logged many hundreds of FM and TV stations whose signals skipped off the ionosphere’s sporadic E layer. If you’ve ever been surprised to hear on your FM radio a station from halfway across the country, you were DXing.

For DXers, catching far-away stations is kind of like fishing. You don’t want to catch just the easy ones. That’s one reason FM and TV DXing was more fun than AM and shortwave DXing (at least for some of us). AM and shortwave depend on the ionosphere for distant coverage as a matter of course. Back before the AM band became a crowded mess, “clear channel” stations like WSM in Nashville and KSL in Salt Lake City could be heard all across the continent at night, because there was nothing else on their frequencies. WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, heard every night on radios in rural areas throughout The South, literally made country music. (I listened in New Jersey, carefully turning my radio to “null out” interference from New York’s WNBC, now WFAN, which was right next to WSM on the dial.)

In its heyday (or heydecade), DXing on FM was about hooking relatively rare and slightly exotic fish. The best months to fish were in late spring and summer, when warm calm summer mornings would bring tropospheric (or “tropo”) conditions, in which FM and VHF-TV signals would travel greater distances than their normal line-of-sight propagation provided. Thus my home in Chapel Hill, NC was often treated to signals from hundreds of miles away. I recall days when I’d pick up WDUQ from the Pittsburgh on 90.5 with the antenna pointed north, then spin the antenna west to get WETS from Johnson City, Tennessee on 89.5, then spin just north of east to get WTGM (now WHRV) from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the same channel.

Tropo is cool, but the best FM fishing is in sporadic-E “skip.” This happens when the E-layer becomes slightly refractive of VHF frequencies, bending them down at an angle of just a few degrees, so that the signals “skip” to distances of 800-1200 miles. This also tended to happen most often in late spring and summer months, usually in the late afternoon and evening. Thanks to sporadic-E, we would watch Channel 3 TV stations from Louisiana, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Cuba and various places in Canada. But, more often, I would also carefully log FM stations I identified in Bruce Elving’s FM Atlas. From 1974 to 1985 (after which I lived in California), I logged more than 800 FM stations, most of which came from more than 800 miles away. Bruce said he’d logged more than 2000 from his home in Duluth, Minnesota. I’m sure that’s a record that will stand for the duration. (Bear in mind that there were only about 10,000 FM signals in the U.S. at the time.)

We’re talking about obsession here.

For Bruce, FM was a cause, forever the underdog, even after it became an overdog with his help. See, up until the early ’60s, FM was the secondary radio band in the U.S. The sound was better, but most cars didn’t have FM bands, and most cheap radios didn’t either. Transistor radios, which were the iPods of the ’50s and ’60s, were mostly AM-only. Bruce championed FM, and his newsletter, FMedia, was a tireless advocate of FM, long after FM pretty much won the fight with AM, and then the Internet had begun to win the fight with both.

I remember telling Bruce that he needed to go digital with PCs, and then take advantage of the Net, and he eventually did, to some degree. But he was still pasting up FM Atlas the old-fashioned way (far as I know) well into the ’90s.

I pretty much quit DXing when I came to Silicon Valley in ’85, though I kept up with Bruce for another decade or so after that. Learning about his passing, I regret that we didn’t stay in closer touch. Though we never met in person, I considered him a good friend, and I enjoyed supporting his work.

With Bruce gone, an era passes. TV DXing was effectively killed when the U.S. digital transition moved nearly every signal off VHF and onto UHF (which skips off the sky too rarely to matter). The FM band is now as crowded as the AM band became, making DXing harder than ever. Programming is also dull and homogenous, compared to the Olde Days. And the Internet obsoletes a key motivation for DXing, which is being able to receive and learn interesting things from distant signals. A core virtue of the Internet is its virtual erasure of distance. Anybody can hear or watch streams from pretty much anywhere, any time, over any connection faster than dial-up. The stream also tends to stay where it is, and sound pretty good.

What remains, at least for me, is an understanding of geography and regional qualities that is deep and abiding. This began when I was a kid, sitting up late at night, listening to far-away stations on the headphones of my Hammarlund HQ-129X (hooked up to a 40-meter ham radio dipole in the back yard), with a map spread out on my desk, and encyclopedia volumes opened to whatever city or state a station happened to come from. It grew when I was a young adult, curious about what was happening in Newfoundland, Bermuda, Texas, Winnepeg, or other sources of FM and TV signals I happened to be getting on my KLH Model 18 tuner or whatever old black-and-white TV set I was using at the time.

When it was over, and other technical matters fascinated me more, I’d gained a great education. And no professor had more influence on that education than Bruce Elving, Ph.D.

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Howard Stern‘s contract with Sirius XM is up at the end of the year, and it was good to hear on the show this week that the full retirement option is off the table. That was one of five options Howard said he was considering. Says the Stern site (on a wrapup of Thursday’s show),

Howard said he had a ’5 point plan’ for the show after his Sirius XM contract expires in December: “I know what the future is.” Howard explained: “One of the points is if we decide to stay here…again, if we decide to stay here.” The other 4 points are the other 4 options–one of which (retirement) has already been taken off the table, but until then: “For four months I’m a company man.”

Before I go into my own prediction, I want to give props to Rob Eshman’s Serious Stern blog, in particular to Ten Reasons Howard Stern’s Retirement Will Hurt the World. Here’s the one I’ll focus on:

9. There will be no one else to save satellite radio.

Unless they find the Moshiach and give him a channel, shalom Sirius.  And I say that as someone who like a friggin’ genius bought stock at—I don’t want to say what I bought it at.  I hope Mel Karmazin will figure out a way to transform the company, but under the current model, it really needs a big personality.  No one has an audience as loyal as Howard’s. Done. Period.

Earlier this week, Howard recalled and compared his meetings with XM and Sirius back when both were courting him. These meetings went down while the curtain slowly closed on Howard’s long tenure in terrestrial radio. XM bragged about having more subscribers, having more repeaters on the ground, yada yada, while Sirius asked him what it would take, and then took it. Once on Sirius, Howard rocketed the company past XM in the satellite radio marketplace, and Sirius eventually bought XM. To sum it up, Howard was the star satellite radio needed to establish itself as a medium.

Now Internet radio needs the same thing. It’s time for Howard to make his move. But it doesn’t have to be entirely away from Sirius XM. The two can be bridged. In fact, they need to be — at least for Sirius XM to survive in the long run.

Right now nearly everything you can get on Sirius XM you can get on the Internet, or on what’s left of terrestrial radio, most of which is also on the Net as well. Stations identify with “WFFF and WFFF.com,” the way they used to say “WFFF AM and FM.”  True, “tuning” on the Net is mostly a chore, but the stuff is there, in far more abundance than on Sirius XM’s channels. That company’s stock is under a dollar, and the market’s faith is not positive. But then, Wall Street doesn’t have a clue about Howard. Or it has the wrong clues. For example, finance blogger Relmor Demitrius considers Howard’s importance, and comes to this:

Conclusion. OEM sales exposed the product to many consumers.  They like XM just as much as they like Sirius, but some (less than 5%) are willing to pay for access to Howard, and probably only half of those 5% only for Howard.  Those that have XM haven’t made significant efforts to move over to Sirius, or cancel XM when their free trial ran out, and install a Sirius exclusive radio.  I believe by the facts presented here that Howard is well worth his salary and should be paid accordingly, as well as offering him on smart phone applications and any overseas content offerings.  But is he the end all savior of satellite radio?  Absolutely not.  Satellite radio would be here with or without him.  Company is stronger with him, but would survive just fine without him.  In fact, the cost difference is so minimal, it would be in tune to having a bad year, or a storm hitting your oil well that month.  A small hiccup that would easily be erased with time due to the overwhelming popularity of the product itself and the now vast options of content offered by both companies.  The revenue generated and saving of the 100 million of his contract would simply give reason to spend it elsewhere, and sign other talent to compensate.  Like any company that losses an asset and has to repurchase another one.  Howard’s popularity is no longer so huge that him leaving the platform would harm it in any way medium or long term.  The facts are quite clear on this.  Sirius XM added more than 1 million customers this year alone.  That would offset losing Howard Stern right there.  Their growth would probably cover any cancellations and they wouldn’t miss a beat.  The company that hired Stern 5 years ago is vastly different in 2010.

This is all framed inside satellite radio, which is floundering. What it misses is what will happen when Howard moves to the Net with his own subscription service. Howard will make Internet radio matter, just like he made satellite radio matter. He won’t do it alone, but it will happen a whole lot faster because he’s there.

Right now most Internet radio is free. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s good, and important. But not all radio will be free, just like not all television is free, and not all newspapers and magazines are free. Some broadcasting, like public radio and television, you can pay for voluntarily. But that won’t work for Howard. He’ll want to charge for the goods, and he’ll want to legitimize the business model, just like he did with satellite radio. Count on it.

Stop for a moment and go read The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet. in Wired. It’s this month’s cover story. The bottom line is this: Internet usage through apps and subscriptions is going up, fast. We’re listening to radio through smartphones, iPads, laptops and other new devices. With the spread of Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G and other wireless connections, we will no longer be tethered to our houses or cars. We will move toward what Bob Frankston calls ambient connectivity. How we get there is less important than the bait that pulls us in that direction. Howard is great bait. That’s why he’ll go there. He fixed satellite radio. Internet radio is next.

What I hope is that he’ll do it independently, and not just through one of the carriers (say, Verizon, AT&T or Comcast). We should be able to download a Howard app for our Android, Symbian, or iOS (Apple iPhone or iPad) device and listen any way we like, anywhere we like. And pay a monthly fee for it.

Now here’s the opportunity for Sirius XM: we should be able to get Howard there too. That’s not just because it’s a good distribution deal, but because the fate of satellite radio is to serve as a repeater for Internet radio. Everything is being absorbed into the Net, including satellite radio. I’m sure Howard knows that. In fact, I’d be amazed if he doesn’t.

So far Sirius XM has done an awful job of embracing the Net. Getting Howard (or any Sirius XM channel) on a browser requires a zillion clicks and an authentication routine that makes going through customs and passport control look simple. The Sirius app for the iPhone is also useless (at least for me and countless others) without Howard (who has never been on it, and it’s never been clear why), and isn’t that great in any case.

But it can be done well. The integration of Internet, satellite — and even terrestrial radio — should be as seamless as possible. If Howard and his new partners get the right techies to help, they can kick ass. In fact, I’m betting that they’ll do exactly that.

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I just posted this essay to IdeaScale at OpenInternet.gov, in advance of the Open Internet Workshop at MIT this afternoon. (You can vote it up or down there, along with other essays.)  I thought I’d put it here too. — Doc


The Internet is free and open infrastructure that provides almost unlimited support for free speech, free enterprise and free assembly. Nothing in human history, with the possible exception of movable type — has done more to encourage all those freedoms. We need to be very careful about how we regulate it, especially since it bears only superficial resemblances to the many well-regulated forms of infrastructure it alters or subsumes.

Take radio and TV, for example. Spectrum — the original “bandwidth” — is scarce. You need a license to broadcast, and can only do so over limited distances. There are also restrictions on what you can say. Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, prohibits “any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication.” Courts have upheld the prohibition.

Yet, as broadcasters and the “content industry” embrace the Net as a “medium,” there is a natural temptation by Congress and the FCC to regulate it as one. In fact, this has been going on since the dawn of the browser. The Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (DPRSA) came along in 1995. The No Electronic Theft Act followed in 1997. And — most importantly — there was (and still is) Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.

Thanks to the DMCA, Internet radio got off to a long and very slow start, and is still severely restricted. Online stations face payment requirements to music copyright holders are much higher than those for broadcasters — so high that making serious money by webcasting music is nearly impossible. There are also tight restrictions on what music can be played, when, and how often. Music on podcasts is essentially prohibited, because podcasters need to “clear rights” for every piece of copyrighted music they play. That’s why, except for “podsafe” music, podcasting today is almost all talk.

There is also a risk that we will regulate the Net as a form of telephony or television, because most of us are sold Internet service as gravy on top of our telephone or cable TV service — as the third act in a “triple play.” Needless to say, phone and cable companies would like to press whatever advantages they have with Congress, the FCC and other regulatory bodies.

It doesn’t help that most of us barely know what the Internet actually is. Look up “The Internet is” on Google and see what happens: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q… There is little consensus to be found. Worse, there are huge conflicts between different ways of conceiving the Net, and talking about it.

For example, when we say the Net consists of “sites,” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “visit,” we are saying the Internet is a place. (Where, presumably, you can have free speech, enterprise and assembly.)

But if we say the Net is a “medium” for the “distribution” of “content” to “consumers,” we’re talking about something more like broadcasting or the shipping industry, where those kinds of freedoms are more restricted.

These two ways of seeing the Net are both true, both real, and both commonly used, to the degree that we mix their metaphors constantly. They also suggest two very different regulatory approaches.

Right now most of us think about regulation in terms of the latter. That is, we want to regulate the Net as a shipping system for content. This makes sense because most of us still go on the Net through connections supplied by phone or cable companies. We also do lots of “downloading” and “uploading” — and both are shipping terms.

Yet voice and video are just two among countless applications that can run on the Net — and there are no limits on the number and variety of those applications. Nor should there be.

So, what’s the right approach?

We need to start by recognizing that the Net is infrastructure, in the sense that it is a real thing that we can build on, and depend on. It is also public in the sense that nobody owns it and everybody can use it. We need to recognize that the Net is defined mostly by a collection of protocols for moving data — and most of those protocols are open to improvement by anybody. These protocols may be limited in some ways by the wired or wireless connections over which they run, but they are nor reducible to those connections. You can run Internet protocols over barbed wire if you like.

This is a very different kind of infrastructure than anything civilization has ever seen before, or attempted to regulate. It’s not “hard” infrastructure, like we have with roads, bridges, water and waste treatment plants. Yet it’s solid. We can build on it.

In thinking about regulation, we need to maximize ways that the Net can be improved and minimize ways it can be throttled or shut down. This means we need to respect the good stuff every player brings to the table, and to keep narrow but powerful interests from control our common agenda. That agenda is to keep the Net free, open and supportive of everybody.

Specifically, we need to thank the cable and phone companies for doing the good work they’ve already done, and to encourage them to keep increasing data speeds while also not favoring their own “content” subsidiaries and partners. We also need to encourage them to stop working to shut down alternatives to their duopolies (which they have a long history of doing at both the state and federal levels).

We also need to thank and support the small operators — the ISPs and Wireless ISPs (WISPs) — who should be able to keep building out connections and offering services without needing to hire lawyers so they can fight monopolists (or duopolists) as well as state and federal regulators.

And we need to be able to build out our own Internet connections, in our homes and neighborhoods — especially if our local Internet service providers don’t provide what we need.

We can only do all this if we start by recognizing the Net as a place rather than just another medium — a place that nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve.

Doc Searls
Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Harvard University

[Later...] A bonus link from Tristan Louis, on how to file a comment with the FCC.

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@robpatrob (Robert Paterson) asks (responding to this tweet and this post) “Why would GBH line up against BUR? Why have a war between 2 Pub stations in same city?” (In this tweet and this one, Dan Kennedy asks pretty much the same thing.)

The short answer is, Because it wouldn’t be a war. Boston is the world’s largest college town. There are already a pile of home-grown radio-ready program-filling goods here, if one bothers to dig and develop. The standard NPR line-up could also use a challenge from other producers. WGBH is already doing that in the mornings by putting The Takeaway up against Morning Edition. That succeeds for me because now I have more choices. I can jump back and forth between those two (which I do, and Howard Stern as well).

The longer answer is that it gives GBH a start on the inevitable replacement of signal-based radio by multiple streams and podcast line-ups. WGBH has an exemplary record as a producer of televsion programming, but it’s not setting the pace in other media, including radio. The story is apparent in the first four paragraphs of its About page (which is sure to change):

WGBH is PBS’s single largest producer of content for television (prime-time and children’s programs) and the Web. Some of your favorite series and websites — Nova, Masterpiece, Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, Curious George, Arthur, and The Victory Garden, to name a few — are produced here in our Boston studios.

WGBH also is a major supplier of programs heard nationally on public radio, including The World. And we’re a pioneer in educational multimedia and in media access technologies for people with hearing or vision loss.

Our community ties run deep. We’re a local public broadcaster serving southern New England, with 11 public television services and three public radio services — and productions (from Greater Boston to Jazz with Eric in the Evening) that reflect the issues and cultural riches of our region. We’re a member station of PBS and an affiliate of both NPR and PRI.

In today’s fast-changing media landscape, we’re making sure you can find our content when and where you choose — on TV, radio, the Web, podcasts, vodcasts, streaming audio and video, iPhone applications, groundbreaking teaching tools, and more. Our reach and impact keep growing.

Note the order: TV first, radio second, the rest of it third. But where WGBH needs to lead in the future is with #3: that last paragraph. Look at WGBH’s annual report. It’s very TV-heavy. Compare its radio productions to those of Chicago Public Radio or WNYC. Very strong in classical music (now moving over to WCRB, at least on the air), and okay-but-not-great in other stuff.

Public TV has already become a ghetto of geezers and kids, while the audience between those extrmes is diffusing across cable TV and other media. An increasingly negligible sum of people watch over-the-air (OTA) TV. Here WGBH lost out too. It’s old signal on Channel 2 was huge, reaching more households than any other in New England. Now it’s just another UHF digital signal — like its own WGBX/44, with no special advantages. Public radio is in better shape, for now, because its band isn’t the ever-growing accordion file that cable TV has become; and because most of it still lives in a regulated protectorate at the bottom fifth of the FM band. It also helps public radio that the rest of both the FM and the AM bands suck so royally. (Only sports and political talk are holding their own. Music programming is losing to file sharing and iPods. All-news stations are yielding to iPhone programs that offer better news, weather and traffic reporting. In Boston WBZ is still a landmark news station, but it has to worry a bit with WGBH going in the same direction.)

So the timing is right. WGBH needs to start sinking new wells into the aquifer of smart, talented and original people and organizations here in the Boston area — and taking the lead in producing great new programming with what they find. I’ll put in another plug for Chris Lydon‘s Open Source, which is currently available only in podcast/Web form. And there is much more, including Cambridge-based PRX‘s enormous portfolio of goods.  (Disclosure: my work with the Berkman Center is partially funded through PRX — and those folks, like Chris, are good friends.)

In the long run what will matter are sources, listeners, and the finite amount of time the latter can devote to the former. Not old-fashioned signals.

P.S. to Dan Kennedy’s tweeted question, “Is there another city in the country where two big-time public radio stations go head-to-head on news? Can’t think of one.” Here are a few (though I’d broaden the answer beyond “news,” since WBUR isn’t just that):

All with qualifications, of course. In some cases you can add in Pacifica (which, even though my hero Larry Josephson once called it a “foghorn for political correctness,” qualifies as competition). Still, my point is that there is room for more than one mostly-talk (or news) public radio station in most well-populated regions. Even in Boston, where WBUR has been king of the hill for many years. Hey, other things being equal (and they never are), the biggest signal still tends to win. And in Boston, WGBH has a bigger signal than WBUR: almost 100,000 watts vs. 12,000 watts. WBUR radiates from a higher elevaiton, but its signal is directional. On AM that means it’s stronger than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others; but on FM it means no more than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others. See the FCC’s relative field polar plot to see how WBUR’s signal is dented in every direction other than a stretch from just west of North to Southeast. In other words, toward all but about a third of its coverage area. To sum up, WGBH has a much punchier signal. I’m sure the GBH people also have this in mind when they think about how they’ll compete with BUR.

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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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I love this:

despair_socialmedia

… and I hope the good (or evil, depending on your perspective) folks at Despair.com don’t mind my promoting their best t-shirt yet. (If it helps, I just ordered one.)

You’ll notice that blogging isn’t in the diagram (though Despair does feature it in four other purchasable forms). I bring that up because I think there is a difference between the social media in the Venn diagram and blogging, and that difference is akin to that between weather and geology.  The former have an evanescent quality. I’m still haunted by hearing that users get a maximum number Twitter postings (tweets) before the old ones scroll off. If true, it means Twitter is a whiteboard, made to be erased after awhile. The fact that few know what the deal is, exactly, also makes my point. Not many people expect anybody, including themselves, to revisit old tweets. The four names in the diagram above are also private corporate walled gardens. Blogging itself is not. True, you can blog in a corporate walled garden, but blogging is an independent category. You can move your blog from one platform to another, archives intact. Not easy, but it can be done. More importantly, your blog is yours. That’s why I dig Dave’s Scoble, your blog still loves you post. And why in the comments I said,

FriendFeeds and Facebooks and Microsofts will come and and go. They can be bought and sold, because they’re not human. Robert is human. Companies can’t be charming and lovable. They can, sometimes, for awhile. Ben & Jerrys did. Zappos did. But they got sold. You know, like slaves.

The only publication on Earth that’s all Robert’s is his blog. That’s where his soul is, because he can’t sell it.

It was while pondering the difference between social media and blogging that I posted this tweet today:

Thanks, @dnm54 But I still feel like my posts lately have the impact of snow on water. Too wordy? Not tweety enough? Not sure.

That got some reassuring responses, several playing with the snow-and-water metaphor. That’s one I’ve used often ever since first hearing “Big Ted”, by the Incredble String Band (from their Changing Horses album), played by the great Larry Josephson on his morning show on WBAI, back in the earliest 70s. “Big Ted” was a dead horse, about which the band sang, “He’s gone like snow on the water. Good bye-eeee.”

For a long time I harbored a fantasy about writing a history of radio, titled “Snow on the Water,” because that was its self-erasing quality. It was like unrecorded conversation that way. You get meaning from it, but you don’t remember everything verbatim, for such is the nature of short-term memory. Eight seconds later you might remember what somebody said, but not exactly. Tomorrow you might remember nothing more than having talked to the person.

Now I’m thinking “snow on the water” applies to social media as well. They’re conversational in the literal sense. They’re weather within which tweets fly and fall like flakes, and disappear into the collective unconscious.

On the other hand, blogging is geology. A blog’s posts may be current and timely, and constitute one person’s contribution to conversation around a subject or two, but each post is built to last. It has a “permalink”. Over time posts accumulate like soil deposits. You can dig down through layers of time and find them. What do tweets have? Temp-o-links?

From the beginning I’ve thought of blogging as journalism in the literal sense: Blogs are journals. Yet much of traditional journalism seems to have, on the whole, not much respect for its archives on the Web. Editorial “content” scrolls behind paywalls, doesn’t keep durable URLs, or disappears completely.

Which brings me to this comment by Tom Matrullo, left under this post about advertising. It’s way too deep to leave buried there:

There is no question that advertising requires us to be in the here and now, and not in the there and then, because it seeks to influence our desires and actions. Active repression of time, history, the past is basic to most commerce and commercial speech.

But I’d go further, because this is a large and important topic. Broadcast itself as a medium tends to put the past at a distance, even when it is about the past, because it makes it into spectacle. Something we watch from our NOW, the big now of advertising and current media.

And yet further: no media are more dis-attuned to the past than news media. It is all about the next story. That one last week that was entirely wrong? Ancient history. To be current, in news-speak, is to develop a sort of targeted Alzheimer’s in a certain direction.

Maybe this is one reason why the news media — on the whole, seems to me — have embraced social media of the temporary sort while continuing to put down blogging. Yes, they’ll set up blogs for their writers, but there’s often a second-class quality to those blogs, and the blogs willl get erased after the writer leaves — or even while the writer is still there. Dan Gillmor’s blog at the San Jose Mercury-News disappeared a number of times. Now it’s gone permanently. Dan’s columns are there, if you’re willing to pay $2.95 apiece for them.

It still blows my mind that, on the Web, newspapers give away the news but charge for the olds. Why not charge for the news and give away the olds? That would be in alignment with what they do with the physical paper. People will pay a buck for today’s paper, and nothing for one three days old. In the physical world, old papers are for wrapping fish and house-breaking puppies. If papers gave every old story a true permalink, search engines would find them, could sell advertising on them, and progressively elevate the whole paper’s authority.

I think they don’t do it for two reasons. One is that they’ve always charged for access to “the morgue.” Another is that embalming old papers has always been expensive. For many decades they bound them up like books for storage in libraries. I still have three of these, each for a whole week of New York Times papers from the ’50s and ’60s. The library at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill sent them out for recycling in 1975. The whole huge pile was rescued by buddies of mine who ran the recycling operation. The newspaper and the library at the time were modernizing by putting everything on microfilm. At the “Will Newspapers Survive” forum at MIT a couple years ago, I asked the panel (which included Dan Gillmor) about why papers charge for the olds and give away the news. Ellen Foley of the Wisconsin State Joural replied,

Speaking for the nation’s regional papers, one of our biggest problems is that today’s issues are all on microfilm tomorrow, not online. It would cost more than a million dollars to digitize our archives. It’s hard for me to make this argument to our publisher, who is trying to make money and make ends meet.

It’s not in the transcript, but I recall her adding something about how storing archives on disk drives was also expensive. That didn’t sit well with the audience, which knew better.

Anyway, my point is that, on the whole news organizations don’t care much about the past. They care about the present. I think social media tend to do the same thing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Nor am I trying to elevate blogging into the Pulitzer sphere. (But hey, why not?)  I’m just trying to get my head around What’s Going On.

Here’s my thinking for now. What I write on blogs isn’t just for the short term. I also have the long term in mind. I’m making geology, not weather. Both have their places. The more durable stuff goes here.

Bonus link.

[Later...] Joe Andrieu has a thoughtful response.

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In Curation, meta-curation, and live Net radio, Jon Udell begins, “I’ve long been dissatisfied with how we discover and tune into Net radio”, but doesn’t complain about it. He hacks some solutions. First he swaps time for place:

I’ve just created a new mode for the elmcity calendar aggregator. Now instead of creating a geographical hub, which combines events from Eventful and Upcoming and events from a list of iCalendar feeds — all for one location — you can create a topical hub whose events are governed only by time, not by location.

Then he works on curation:

I spun up a new topical hub in the elmcity aggregator and started experimenting.

That ran into problems from sources. Still it was…

…great for personal use. But I’m looking for the Webjay of Net radio. And I think maybe elmcity topical hubs can help enable that.

So Jon leverages what Tony Karrer described in Second Calendar Curator Joins to Help with List of Free Webinars, and adds,

What Tony showed me is that you can also (optionally) think in terms of meta-curators, curators, feeds, and events. In this example, Tony is himself a curator, but he is also a meta-curator — that is, a collector of curators.

I’d love to see this model evolve in the realm of Net radio. If you want to join the experiment, just use any calendar program to keep track of some of your favorite recurring shows. (Again, it’s very helpful to use one that supports per-event timezones.) Then publish the shows as an iCalendar feed, and send me the URL. As the meta-curator of delicious.com/InternetRadio, as well as the curator of jonu.calendar.live.com/calendar/InternetRadio/index.html, I’ll have two options. If I like most or all of the shows you like, I can add your feed to the hub. If I only like some of the shows you like, I can cherrypick them for my feed. Either way, the aggregated results will be available as XML, as JSON, and as an iCalendar feed that can flow into calendar clients or aggregators.

Naturally there can also be other meta-curators. To become one, designate a Delicious account for the purpose, spin up your own topical hub, and tell me about it.

I really like Jon’s idea. Sometime this weekend I’ll set up what he’s talking abouthere. Or try. I’ve always found Delicious a little too labor-intensive, but then blogging in WordPress’ writing window (as I’m doing now) is a PITA too. (One of these days I’ll get my outliner working again. That’s so much easier for me.)

The new radio dial is a combination of tools and each other’s heads. Given how the Net has eliminated distance as a factor in”reception” (a rapidly antiquifying term), the new frontier is time — how we find it. Or, in radio parlance, how we tune across it to find what we want, and then listen live or off stored files, either in our own devices (podcasting) or in the cloud (on-demand).

As we develop whatever this becomes, we need to avoid the usual traps. For example, there is this tendency for developers — commercial ones, anyway — to believe that the only available paths are –

  1. Making a commodity
  2. Trapping the user

So they do the latter. That’s why we get stuff like the iTunes store, which works with only one brand of mobile devices (Apple’s), and which nearly every other phone maker now, derivatively, wants to copy. (iTunes’ radio tuner, which is nothing more than a directory, works with nothing but itself, near as I can tell. As with most of the iTunes environment, it veers far from Apple’s reputation for ease of use — in addition to being exclusive and non-interoperable.)

What Jon’s doing here is one more among many necessary steps by which control of the marketplace shifts from user-trappers to users themselves.

Speaking of which, there is plenty of user input to the new, improved, and still-improving UI on the Public Radio Player, which now finds programs as well as stations. So, for example, I’m going to be on The Conversation with Ross Reynolds today on KUOW in Seattle, taking about the new 10th Anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto. The show starts at noon (though my segment comes in a bit later). When I looked up “conversation” on the Player, I found Rick’s show in the list results, and went right there. This goes a long way beyond tuning the way it used to be. But it still has a long way to go.

We’ll get us there.

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New England is full of ruins. Woods everywhere are veined with stone walls, relics of an agrarian age that ended when the industrial one began. Shipping canals, which were thick with horse-drawn cargo when the Thoreau brothers rowed past them up the Concord & Merrimack Rivers, were abandoned once railroads did the same job better. Mills along canals and rivers have long since been torn down or turned into museums, stores or condos. Bypassed by cars and trucks on highways, old railroad beds have lost their easements or turned into bike trails.

So now what happens to radio and TV — two more old industries with landmarks on landscapes? I visited the subject to some degree over in Linux Journal yesterday, with What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came? Here I want to go farther, and look at an industry we know is going to die — and to start doing it well before the end arrives.

AM radio, which operates on such low frequencies that signals are radiated by entire broadcast towers, are built as single or multi-tower “arrays” sitting on buried conductors: “ground systems” that can take up more space in soil than their towers occupy in the air above. Most of these facilities were built between the 20s and 80s. Since then scarce land and environmental restrictions have slowed their spread. I would add that available frequencies are also scarce, but that hasn’t stopped the FCC from easing rules, over and over, turning the band at night (when signals bounce off the sky to reach hundreds of miles from their transmitters) into wall-to-wall hash.

FM radio has only been around in a serious way since the 1950s. Operating on a VHF band, where the antennas themselves don’t need to be large (as they do on AM), FM does best when radiated from altitude, meaning the tops of mountains, buildings and high towers. Some of the latter grow to the legal limit of 2000 feet.

With its VHF and UHF signals, television also requires transmission from altitude. When you see a very high tower standing on landscape, or a bristle of short towers atop mountains and skyscrapers, you’re looking at sources of TV, FM or both. A huge percentage of the world’s tallest masts (a category that includes buildings and towers) stand in the U.S., and many are the full 2000-foot height. Most were built for TV stations. (Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of these. Also of tower collapses — a remarkably long list.)

The first set of these to go the way of ship canals is low-band VHF TV. That is, channels 2-6. After June 12, no antenna broadcasting on those channels in the U.S. will continue to operate. Most high-band VHF TV channels — ones operating on channels 7-13 — will also be abandoned, though a few will continue to transmit digital signals. All stations that formerly occupied channels 2-6 will move to a UHF channel (14 to 50).

Old analog TV transmitters are mostly worthless and can’t be re-purposed. (Here’s an excellent piece on that subject, from The Current.)

What I’m wondering about are the towers. The Current’s story suggests that they’re too expensive to take down (not worth enough in scrap), and that most will be re-purposed in any case.

I don’t think so.

It might be easy enough to re-purpose a few former Channel 2 or Channel 4 towers. But what happens when AM and FM transmission is obsoleted by webcasting? This hasn’t happened yet. There are many architectural and UI challenges, plus the added legal burden of copyright restrictions, which are much tougher on music broadcast on the Web than on the air (at least in the U.S.) But the end will come. The brightest writing on the wall right now is the Public Radio Tuner, a project of CPB and several public radio organizations. Last I heard (disclosure: I’m involved in the project), downloads of the free tuner for iPhone were past 1.6 million. This and other tuners, on the iPhone and other portable devices, will account for more and more listening, especially as more cell phone data plans take the ceilings off data consumption — as AT&T has already done for the iPhone.

Some have suggested that TV and FM towers can be re-purposed for cellular use, and to some degree that’s true. But cellular coverage requires many sites at low elevations, rather than a few at high elevations. As one Cisco guy told me, “they might be able to lease out the bottom 200 feet” of a tower.

Still, ends always come, and The End is in sight for over-the-air radio as well as TV. Then what?

Bonus linkage: Scott Fybush‘s amazing series of visits to broadcast towers, over many years; and a few of my own photos of transmitting sites, many shot from altitude. Also the blog and tweets of George Clark, both of which led to this digression.

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Looking forward to Media Logging across many devices and media types. Thinking about this while digging KKFI out of Kansas City. Currently I’m listening over my laptop, but I just added it to my favorites on the WunderRadio tuner (found it by a search there). Other faves are Radio Paradise, KPIG (which is playing the excellent”Lord, Don’t Move That Mountain” by Angela Strehli), KGSR (playing David Bowie’s Fame), WBJB, WERS, WBGO, Cruisin’ Oldies, WUMB, WMBR, KRCL, KUAT, KVMR, Whole Wheat Radio, Missing are WBCR-lp (from Great Barrington, deep in the Berkshires, currently playing the Dead’s Tennessee Jed) and Power106 from Jamaica. Still, a pretty amazing list.

Also digging the tweeter nowplayingon. Is he or she using the Yes thingie to get those 21,525 updates, so far? Not sure.

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