Radio Trends with Rob de Santos
By Kirk Harnack [TWiRT] on Jan 8, 2014 8:00:00 AM
Exactly what is radio these days? Popular Communications columnist Rob de Santos discusses radio trends on "This Week in Radio Tech" with Kirk Harnack.
What will happen to AM radio? How is LPFM affecting traditional radio broadcasting? Rob de Santos, who writes the popular monthly column, “Trends in Technology” discusses key topics facing the radio industry today.
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Announcer: This Week in Radio Tech, episode 195 is brought to you by Telos and Axia, together enabling API broadcast studios, talk shows and audio connections almost anywhere. On the web at Telos Alliance.com. And now our feature presentation, TWiRT
What will happen to AM radio, and exactly what is radio these days anyway? Plus, we've got the reverse law of the Internet. All right, calm down. He says that to everyone. "This calls for immediate discussion." "What's up, doc?" "All your base are belong to us." "Hey hey hey." From his palatial office of important business or in a choice hotel in a distant land, this is Kirk Harnack.
Kirk: Rob de Santos discovers trends and technology for Popular Communications magazine, and he joins Chris Tobin and me.
Announcer: You're dialed in to This Week in Radio Tech.
Kirk: Hey, welcome into This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack, your host. Delighted to be here. This is our second to last show for 2013. Sad to see 2013 go, but looking forward to 2014. This is episode number 195 of This Week in Radio Tech. It's the show where we talk about anything to do with radio technology and the things that radio touches, communications of every description, IP audio, streaming, getting audio back from remote sites, high quality recording, or just whatever quality you get can audio recording getting audio back from the field.
We bring radio and broadcast engineers together, and people from other walks of life that touch the radio and technology industries we talk about here on this show. So welcome in.
I'm Kirk Harnack. I'm host of this show and start of this thing almost four years ago. My co-host with me this evening, online with us-well, he's in studio in Queens, New York at the GFQ studios. Ladies and gentlemen, the best-dressed engineer in radio, it's Chris Tobin. Hey, Chris. Welcome in.
Chris Tobin: Hello, Kirk. Yeah, I'm doing well. Four years now.
Kirk: Just about. All of us. Yeah.
Chris: I like it. It's fun. It's a new time, and next year it will be even better.
Kirk: Well, it will be working hours for us workings tiffs, right?
Chris: Yeah, but it gives me opportunities to maybe go on the road and go places, do stuff.
Kirk: Hey. Here's our commitment to viewers and employers that are in time zones where we are on during business hours next year. We will make sure that every year is not entirely filled with madcap hilarity. We will make sure there's some actual teaching, like a webinar. This will be your weekly webinar. You can learn all the stuff you've got to learn.
Hey, maybe we ought to do a deal where, instead of continued education points, which we probably couldn't arrange for, we will do some bogus tort education points. What do you think?
Chris: Yeah. That works. I think so. We'll have to set up a phone number and stuff to take calls.
Kirk: Yeah. We ought to set something up on the webpage where people who view the show can click, can check in. I watched. At the end of the year we will send them something. That would be kind of cool.
Andrew: And we are planning on taking phone calls for a new year, right?
Kirk: That's right. In fact, Andrew, let's talk about that next episode. Taking phone calls. There are different ways to do it. We're going to talk about how we're going to do it. How about that?
Andrew: Perfect. I can tell you about what doesn't work well.
Kirk: Okay, all right. Good deal. Hey, a few minutes ago, if you're watching the show live, welcome in. You can watch on GFQ live.tv. That's the best place to catch it. You can choose from any number of streams there. You can also download the audio version of the show later on. You can subscribe to the audio version of the show. Just go to GFQnetwork.net, or you can go to thisweekinradiotech.com and see all the past episodes and download the audio or video there. So check it out.
Hey, don't mean to put off this guy, but our guest this week is a fellow that I met at the Ohio Association of Broadcasters convention a few months ago. Really fascinating guy. Rob de Santos. He is a, well, he writes Trends in Technology. I call him the thought leader at Popular Communications Magazine.
Rob, welcome in from-where are you in Ohio?
Rob: I'm in Columbus.
Kirk: Okay. Good deal. You didn't have far to travel for the convention.
Rob: Yeah. I'm smack in the middle of . . . we actually warmed up today, so I can't call it the frozen north.
Kirk: The company I work for is up there at the mistake by the lake. It's Cleveland, and it's cold there. You guys don't get so much.
Rob: We hit 50 today. Told it's only going to last a couple of days now that we're back in winter.
Kirk: Well, hey. Rob is our guest and we're going to cover lots of subjects with him, mostly in the realm of, where is this going? What is radio and where is it going, and what about AM? Rob's gotten a lot of communications back to him about that subject.
So Population Communications Magazine is what he writes for, and he is the trends and technology column writer for that magazine.
Hey. Our show is brought to you by my employer. I sure appreciate their support. It's Axia Audio. It's the Telos alliance. This week we're going to show you. This is going to be cool. In about 30 minutes from now we're going to show you an Axia studio under construction, and it is gorgeous. It is so cool. Actually, it's two rooms. There's a control room and a talent room, and it's amazing. So stand by for that.
Again, I'm Kirk Harnack along here with Chris Tobin and Rob de Santos with Popular Communications magazine.
Rob, I have seen Popular Communications magazine on the shelves. I'll tell you what, I might have picked one up one time and flipped through it, but I'm not a subscriber. I guess I should know from the title, [but tell me] what this magazine is all about.
Rob: Pretty much, it covers the gamut of communications monthly. There are monthly columns covering everything from ham radio, radio history. If you're into that they have a column every month giving you bits and pieces, much like the kind of stuff you saw on Scott Fybush's website talking about the history of the station and what's going on.
There are columns in there about propagation, columns about the monitoring hobby of folks into using scanners and that sort of thing. There might be a column on computers and communications. Wide range of stuff. If it has to do with communications from a popular standpoint, that's where they're at.
Kirk: Like, 15 years ago Popular Communications, I'm guessing, wasn't covering the Internet very much. I mean, a number of us were on the Internet 15 years ago, but I can't imagine that it was being covered a lot. Was it?
Rob: No, it wasn't.
Kirk: But that has changed now.
Rob: I think that the reality is that the Internet revolution has pretty much touched everything. It would be-you probably can't read a column in the magazine where, in some way or another, the Internet is not mentioned, whether it's, "Send me stuff by email," or it's, "Here's this new, great application you can use to collect or document this information, or watch the solar cycle," or whatever it is. It's everywhere. It literally is everywhere.
Kirk: Yeah. When I think of communications, I'm an old school guy. I think of radio. I think of short wave. I think of the things that are mostly under the banner at Popular Communications magazine. So AM, FM and short wave. Maybe police scanners. That kind of thing. Short range communication that way.
Let me just ask it a different way. How has the Internet and all of the communicating we do over that, like, right now, affected how big the magazine is, or how much you're covering; what got pushed out of the way to cover Internet communications?
Rob: You know, I think it's more an evolution than a revolution. I think what you see is you will probably see less of the headlines of, "Monitor the highway patrol." Although lots of people still do that, and probably more of stuff said-there might be, "Well, if you want to follow what's going on in aviation, and while you're listening to the local tower, you can bring up on your computer and you can watch all the flights going in and out of the airport in real time graphically."
Kirk: Yeah. Plus you're ATC from some other city if you want.
Rob: Exactly. The whole business of that has changed. I think the other thing that has changed is the Internet is affecting the way we communicate, not just what we talk about when we communicate. It's really effecting the fundamental way we communicate, and that comes to something I've written about, which I call the reverse law of the Internet.
Kirk: Okay. The reverse law of the Internet. All right.
Rob: What I theorize is, is that the popularity, the number of times a message is read, or if it's read at all, is inversely related to the length of message. The longer the message, the less attention it gets. The extreme example of that, of course, is Twitter. 140 characters and the world is listening to you.
Rob: Whereas longer form communication has become far more narrow and more specialized. That is simply changing the whole dialogue in the communications area because it effects so much of what we do as a society, let alone as just radio, obvious, or professionals, or engineers. It is that pervasive.
Chris: Hey Rob, this is Chris. Curious question. Popular Communications Magazine I've enjoyed for many years. I still to this day pick it up and take a look see. In your opinion, what you've come across and the stuff you guys do, what is radio today? Radio today to the average person, the industry, folks like yourself that cover various industries of communication, I'll call it.
And with your inverse law you just mentioned, it's very curious what you've said. It almost dovetails along with people today with the instant gratification that we've become a society of. I'm just curious on the radio side.
Rob: I would tell you, if you want to throw a bomb into a room of radio folks of any stripe, ask them the definition of radio.
Chris: Oh yeah. That's great.
Rob: You could ask the question. You'll get the, "Well, it's not a radio if it doesn't have a dial, if it doesn't have a tuner and an amplifier, and you don't have some sort of an antenna or reception capability." The truth of the matter is, from the standpoint of the people on the other end of the transmission, by and large, they don't care. All they care is, I want to listen to X at this time and I don't really care what the transmission medium is. It doesn't matter to me, and the younger they are the more likely they are to see it that way.
I certainly think my 14 year old daughter sees it that way. In a very practical question, if I'm driving down the road and I want to listen to WXYZ, do I care how that device and the dashboard is getting the signal to me?
Kirk: No. Good point. Yeah.
Rob: I really don't. The answer to what is radio, in the end, is it isn't what I would define as the physical device. Is it receiving electromagnetic waves? Then it's probably not a radio from the way my generation saw it or your generation saw it, but from the standpoint of the average person out there now, they don't make a distinction. They don't make a distinction between Sirius XM and AM and FM and Internet radio. None of that really has any distinction to them.
Quite honestly, unless they are technically educated, they probably can't explain how radio works to you anyway. Sad to say. The average person won't be able to tell you, "Well, this is an amplifier and it has to feed the signal into this and this." None of that matters to you.
So from that standpoint, they see it as an appliance. And if that appliance delivers what they want, who it gets there from here doesn't matter.
Chris: This is true.
Kirk: Yeah. We on the show, engineers, our colleagues in the industry, and a number of people who participate in the chat room, and we meet in conventions, all the people I would consider my peers and colleagues, we say radio and we pretty well still think of a transmitter and wireless, and wireless in the AM or FM, or maybe the short wave bands. And you, boy, you really drive the point home that consumers today, especially maybe those under some certain age, boy, they don't care how it got there.
Like, iTunes choose the name iTunes radio. And it's not going over any FM or AM transmitter at all. Yet they're calling it radio.
Rob: Okay, and let me turn that around for just a second here. Is there not a radio or a receiver in there somewhere?
Kirk: Well, if you're using a laptop that's wired.
Rob: If it's coming over a Wi-Fi or a cellular signal, it's coming over a radio. It just isn't a radio like you and I know a radio with a dial [inaudible 15:21]
Kirk: It's not a radio that I controlled.
Rob: Yeah. In fact, if you want to walk through them all, and this next exercise, you'll get strange looks, but it's an interesting exercise. Do it four or five times. Go up to people in the mall and ask them if they have the radio on them.
Kirk: Hmm. What do you think they say?
Rob: I'm guessing nine out of ten of them will tell you, "No." Then you can point out the cell phone in their pocket.
Kirk: Okay. Yeah.
Rob: Again, it's a perceptual thing. Those of us who have been involved one way or another in radio or television broadcast for many years, we kind of know exactly what we're talking about. We have a clear picture. But that's not how the public sees it, and I think ultimately industry discussions based on arguing about whether Sirius XM is radio or not are pointless. Because it's the consumer and the customer that's making the decision, not us.
Chris: Well, it has been 84 years since that first broadcast from KDK in 1929. 84 years of radio generically. Radio as a medium to [invade] information, whether it be talk or music. So, you're right. It doesn't matter if it's XM, Sirius, AM or FM, or cell phone, or whatever Wi-Fi enabled tabletop device. Broadcasters themselves have to get with the program, and unfortunately they have gone too far away from the program.
Kirk: Folks, you are listening or watching to This Week in Radio Tech. We may have to change the title someday of what we talk about what we do here. This is the show where we talk about what we've always thought of as radio technology. I'm Kirk Harnack along with Chris Tobin, and our guest Rob de Santos. He is one of the writers-well, he is the writer of the Trends in Technology column at Popular Communications magazine, and Rob has some really interesting insights on what is radio. And we're going to talk about where is radio going?
He doesn't just know about AM and FM broadcasting radio, but also short wave, police scanner type of communications. We'll get into tall of that as the show goes on, so welcome into the program, which is brought to you by Axiom.
So this subject, I mean, I'm trying to wrap my brain around this, Rob and Chris. So what is radio these days? Fast forward maybe another year or two years when any new car is going to have 4G connectivity built in the dashboard, and we've already got fancy color touch screen displays on dashboards, have for some years, mostly used for navigation or controlling other hardware audio devices in the vehicle. So if you want to bring your iPod along for the ride, you can get a dock for that. I do in my car. I've got it in the glove box. In fact, I haven't had the iPod out of the glove box now in months. I trust lives there and I play some favorite tunes there.
Also, I'm doing a lot of Bluetooth in the car. So I'll have podcasts, or I'll be streaming live over 4G and piping that, via Bluetooth, into my car radio. Now, plenty of us geeks are doing that. I wouldn't say a whole huge-certainly not a majority of ordinary car drivers are doing that, but some people are. If you really want to listen to a program and that's how you're going to get it in, that's how you get it in.
But when it becomes frictionless, when it becomes, you pay your $20, $30, $40 $50 bucks a month to your sale provider, your wireless carrier, and you've got 4G in the car, and now, instead of just the local 40 or 50 radio stations that you may have on your AM or FM tuner, now you've got 20,000 stations to choose from, and maybe easily 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 favorites that easily pop up. In other words, when it becomes frictionless to choose a local FM station or an Internet station, maybe in your old hometown, where you used to live, just the place programming that you know you like, what do we call that?
I'm sorry for the long preamble for the question, but Rob? What do we call this thing in the dash now? Will we still call it a radio?
Kirk: Chris says yes.
Rob: I think the reality is that's where it's headed. It's possible with changes-the rate at which these things seem to evolve is growing. I mean, I've often wondered, even some of the great inventors of history, the Edison and people like that, would probably marvel at the changes just in the last 15 or 20 years. But, yeah, it's a good question. I assume for the near future it will be called radio. I just don't know what it will evolve into. Somebody at some point will come up with a great marketing term for it, I'm sure, and that will be forgotten.
Radio, per se, will be forgotten. I mean, I think radio as we know it still has life in it. I think the answer to that part is, I've written a series of columns, and I've got a big features article coming up in the next couple of months in the magazine on the proposed changes by the FCC to the AM ban, but I ran a column 15, 18 months ago, and it was focused on what's the future of AM radio?
I got more feedback to that column than everything else I've written in the least five years combined, and what it told me was, there are a lot of people out there that still really care, even people who are only peripherally interested in broadcast, per se. Because if you are over the age, say, of 40, you probably still remember a time when AM really mattered. I mean, after all, it was only about the time I graduated from high school when FM finally reached parody with AM radio.
Rob: So while, by some measures now, AM's share of the broadcast dollar is getting close to single digits, it's still there. People still care. I think there's a lot of questions about whether, in another generation, AM will be part of it. I know you talked a little bit about it on last week's program. I think it really is a tough question to answer. The way I read what FCC proposed is it seems to me we're changing the makeup and the dress, but we're not doing a whole lot about the shape of the body right now.
Rob: AM is not on the treadmill right now, and it's not a good thing. And I think that, unfortunately, the really hard decisions will end up probably being market driven. And it's going to be brutal. I think, if the current trends continue, there will come a point in the future where a large number of AM stations, particularly outsider of the major cities in this country, will no longer be financially viable.
Kirk: Well, I think a lot of them are not now.
Rob: And when that happens, what's likely to take place is going to be out of the control of the FCC, or even the industry, at that point. Because, you know, radio station owners are business men like anyone else. At the point the business your in is no longer profitable, and you can't see any reason to continue besides the goodness of your heart, Fido needs dog food and you're going to do something.
And I think when that happens it might not be pretty, which is the one thing that really does bother me as an industry. We need to have some really, really hard discussions, and if we don't have them soon the market will decide for us.
Kirk: Rob, you said something a minute ago. You said something, like, "Radio is still holding on." I hear people say that, and I thought, "Well, okay. That's just whistling past the graveyard." But just earlier this month, on December 2nd, the annual radar report came out, a measurement of radio listening across the US. I was surprised as could be by this. The headline a few weeks ago was, "Radio increases year over year reach by more than 700,000," according to the December 2013 radar report.
We're not whistling past the graveyard yet. Here's the breakdown. Radio now reaches 241.8 million listeners, 91% of persons ages 12 and older on an average weekly basis, and the time spent listening has held steady at two hours and 35 minutes a day with the radio medium. And by the way, with the radar report, I assume that they are talking about traditional broadcast radio.
Rob: Yeah, and that's probably more or less right. What's happening, really, it seems to me, is twofold. One is that the total number of hours you listen to audio is climbing much faster, and radio is not really sharing in that growth. The second thing is the share of AM out of that, as opposed to FM, is continuing to shrink. I guess the third point I would make is we have to be really weary of thinking that because everything looks good today, there's no storm over the horizon.
Rob: I think the reality is-do I think FM radio is going to go away? No. I think FM radio will be with us a long time. But I think its place will change, and as you were talking about, that thing of, "Well, I could listen to my old home town." I was a long time resident of southern California. I still sometimes like to tune into the radio stations in LA and see what's going on in my old town. People do that.
And in that sense, yeah, it still has got life in it. There are still some stations quite a bit of good money, and I'm sure it benefits the Telos alliance and a lot of other companies, because it's still there. The question, really, is not what happened last year. What's going to happen ten to 20 years from now?
And I think the answer to that is there will still be sticks in the air. But I think their relative importance in the listening spectrum is going to kind of delve into all those other options. The example I would use is, if you're tuned into your favorite radio station and you're driving down the highway, if that signal coming out of the speakers is coming to you over FM, that's nice. But you went onto your little graphical screen there and you punched you WXYZ, and it came up, and you're hearing it. Do you care whether that came over an Internet connection, over a broadcast spectrum?
Do you care if you're driving down the road and the radio device, whatever you call it, decides, "I'm getting too weak a signal now. I can't get that signal anymore, so I'm going to switch to the Internet feed," and it switches transparently, and you don't even know it happened. Which, by the way, that's a technology that is in the laboratories right now.
I would say to you, in that case, the answer to it is that, yeah, those broadcast hours that we're listening to might continue to be there. But we might be measuring the wrong thing at that point.
Kirk: Yeah. Looking at this radar report a bit more deeply, it turns out that almost all of the gains in radio listening from December 2012 to December 2013, the 700,000 additional weekly listeners that the radar report claims; those were almost all Hispanic listeners. Turns out that Hispanic listeners, especially young and middle aged, have grown incredibly. That tells me that the number of non-Hispanic listeners, and the report doesn't say this, but if you do the math, unless I'm missing something, that's what it's going to be. The number of non-Hispanic listeners has remained about flat.
I guess that's what you would expect. At least we haven't lost a whole lot. Maybe we lost a tiny little bit.
Rob: And I think there's a perfect example that reflects the demographic trends in society. That's one of those, look at the census numbers, and they tell you what's happening. 15 or 20 years ago, outside of a few places along the southern border of the United States and maybe out on the west, most major markets in this country didn't even have a Spanish language station. Now I'd tell you there's probably not a major market in the United States that don't have at least one.
Rob: Some of them have three or four or five, even in moderate sized communities. But that's a demographic trend.
I think the interesting part, by the way, about that is, not all those Hispanic stations are broadcasting in Spanish. Some of them, you are doing bilingual programming. You're seeing that in television now. There are Hispanic networks going on the air, and the predominant language is English, and you're thinking to yourself, "Why would they do that?"
Well, the answer actually is, you're seeing the same thing happen in the Hispanic community in the second, third and fourth generation as happened in other immigrant communities. I'm of Italian ancestry. It happened to my family 100 years ago this year [when] my grandfather came over on a boat from Italy. He spoke Italian. He eventually learned English. My grandmother never did. My father never had a discussion with him that was in English. My daughter, who is now the third generation after them, has absolutely no interest in learning Italian.
[inaudible 30:50] poignant. She has never heard it spoken at home. So assimilation happens, but yeah. I think you're absolutely right. That's where the growth is, but I think that's a demographic growth. I don't think it's a technology driven growth.
Kirk: Got you. All right. It's going to be interesting. I think the next few years could be a slow ride downhill, and yet I certainly believe that people want content. They want to be informed. Look at audiobooks. Audiobooks have grown and grown and grown. Audible.com, for example. That has grown and grown. People still devour programming from, say, NPR, which provides a lot of news and talk programming, and then all kinds of other services that are online, like I heart radio, and consolidators like Stitcher or Tune in. These guys appear to be doing okay, and then there's Pandora, provider of a lot of this.
So people want to consume content. Hopefully people don't forget about radio, what we call radio, or that radio makes sure that it is inserted into all these other places. If radio is producing content it ought to be available how people want to get it. Wouldn't you agree?
Rob: That's exactly it. If you're producing good content, if you're producing a product that people want to listen to and you make yourself available where they want it, they're going to consume it. There's no shortage for desire of good entertainment or good education or good, whatever, just because it's there. I mean, it's absolutely in demand. I mean, I'm a big fan of Stitcher, for example. Stitcher is great. I can queue up a whole bunch of podcasts. I can be in the car for two hours and listen to just all kinds of stuff, and never have to think about it. It's all right there.
I think all of those services have their place. I don't think broadcast is going away, but I do think for the AM stations, there is a real question of survival here. You could do five programs on what's going on there. But I think that's a real emotional issue now, and it deserves to be. The AM band, unfortunately, I think from a regulatory standpoint was ignored, even by the FCC's own admission-largely ignored for decades. I think they have ignored it to the point where now, as I said, you could change the dress but you're not really doing something about the body. Because if you have to do something about the body it's going to be really painful.
There are ways you can keep the people who own those businesses in viable business, but whether you do that and preserve the brand as we've historically known it is problematic.
But there's growth in other areas. What you're seeing in low power FM, and the thousands and thousands of groups that want to get on the air with these low power stations all across the country, the number of applications filed was in the thousands. I think that just reflects that, give people an opportunity to get their message out, and they will show up, as well as the listeners.
Rob: It's there.
Kirk: I want to ask Chris Tobin a couple of things here. Chris, I always imagined that you being a New Yorker, you've got to live in a bit of a bubble regarding the viability of AM radio stations. You've got some fantastic AM stations there and, what, 20 million people there in the area to listen to them. Probably more than that if we start including areas farther out that the AMs still get to.
Well, Chris, what kind of bubble do you think you're in compared to . . . I've got an AM station in Greenville Mississippi. It's not viable. It's only on the air because our FMs are able to pay its bills.
Chris: In [larger] markets, yes, I guess you could say there are bubbles. There are a lot of broadcasters in this market, the New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey Market that are doing very well. There are smaller stations, both AM and FM. I think part of the problem we're running into as an industry, and the way we think about things, as we were talking about earlier with the word radio, what is radio . . . And Rob's point is, it doesn't matter how people get their content, and content definitely drives everything.
Look at the latest article for CBS Inc. They have shifted their revenue sources farther away from advertising only to now more content driven licensing and rebroadcast. Okay. CBS. ABC has been doing that. ABC Disney is the same thing, and a few others. But they are beholden to Wall Street when it comes to stock holder values, so their decisions sometimes are biased.
Then you have broadcasters who could do better, but because they're publicly traded they are at the mercy of a lot of business analysts who claim to know what they're talking about in our industry. So in the case of being in a bubble, New York City, I think the only bubble is the larger broadcast groups. Those are the ones that have a bubble. They are afraid to do something. I have worked for several of them. I have had to sit in meetings and listen to the phrase, "Well, we'd love to do that, but that would break the radio station."
Reality is it wouldn't have. And I've worked for a couple of stations that did some pioneering with Internet delivery of content, not rebroadcasting the audio signal, but actually creating content that was driven by topics of the day or events of the day, and everybody over the age of 45 in the company, and the executive staff, couldn't see how this made any sense and abandoned all of our stuff. That was five years ago. Five years later, I'm now seeing the same type of content delivery, content creation, being done by non-broadcast entities-your Pandora and all these.
I think bubbles do exist. I think a lot of them have to do with companies set in their ways because they are afraid to make a change. I can't speak for what you have, Kirk, in your situation, but I have met a lot of folks who are in, we'll just say small markets, medium markets, whatever, who had been fighting hard to try to keep what they want. They have learned by just changing the way their content goes and their attitude, they have been able to turn things around.
Not everybody, but I'm still a firm believers, and as Rob pointed out, the content delivers. Okay. However, you have to, like any product, we'll just say, I have this bottle of water from Poland Springs. By itself it will go nowhere fast. But if you mark it, create a buzz about it and do other things, it suddenly becomes something people want. It's bottled water. There's, what, 12 different brands out there. You can get the same thing.
Kirk: At each gas station, yeah.
Chris: At each gas station. Yet people still will have a certain favorite. Radio has lost that. If you go back in the history, and as Op Com used to do back in the day and probably still does now from time to time, if you look at the history of the famous radio stations, and we lost the jock this week, Larry Lujack passed away, Larry Lujack of Chicago, worked for WLS, right? You're talking big time AM stations. I'll just say that. And why were they successful? Because they were AM? Because there was no other competition? No. Because they delivered content people wanted to participate in. They were the original social media outlets.
Think about it. Go back to the air checks. Listen to some of this stuff. CKLW. 20 20 news. Listen to some of that stuff. Listen to some of the things they did on that radio station. By today's standards they would be taken up on charges and be in court right now. I kid you not.
Rob: You're absolutely right.
Chris: Right. I mean, come on, "A tisket a tasket, they went home in a basket, two youths today were . . ."
Rob: [inaudible 39:36]
Chris: That's a famous line from CKLW 20 20 news. Byron McGregor. "Tisket a tasket, two youths go home in a basket." Or, "A lady is wielding a 20-ounce Louisville slugger. Took it to the head of her husband, who decided he wasn't happy with the way she did dinner."
These are actual broadcast news elements that I am repeating from an anniversary air check that you can get from CKLW. Can you imagine somebody doing that today? No. We don't even scratch the surface today in programming. Instead we're all up on this, "Let's do this, let's aggregate this, let's do this, let's move it to this, or we'll change its name, or we'll recreate . . ." Rob points out, underneath the package it's still the wrong stuff. But we just put a new label on it. That doesn't mean anything.
There are plenty of bubbles all around the major markets, but I think the real trick is broadcasters have to just get up and get back to basic business. I mean, real business. Not the business of giving business.
Chris: I'm serious. But I'm serious. You read some of the trades. Some of the trade magazines and the things they say and why, you know, companies are cutting staff. The classic line now, the big thing at the year-end is, "We have to cut staff because the market is not pacing where we want it to be."
Really? According to the things I've read the market you're talking about is doing very well. You've chosen not to do anything about it, so intend you got rid of half your sales staff, or you got rid of your morning show procedures. All of a sudden your morning show is no longer creative. They're just regurgitating something they wrote an hour earlier. How many morning shows you listen to nowadays, syndicated included? Where the first hour is live, second hour is a tape, third hour is maybe half live, half tape of the hour of the first.
Chris: Tell me they're not doing that because I've worked on them. That doesn't work. As you pointed out with the radar report, it plateaus. The demographic is shifting to Hispanic, or whether it's Hispanic, Indian or Asian, it doesn't matter. It's the content they want. If they want to assimilate to society they're going to go with the content that the assimilation process [is that] they want to be part of. I come from a background of a multinational family. I grew up in a city where, back in the day, as Rob pointed out, a lot of folks spoke, it was Italian, German. You had various other languages. Spanish. And then over the years things change and shift and you go with it. Now you see that happening all over again. It just repeats itself.
But now broadcasters aren't responding to this. Instead we're screaming at people like Pandora. "They're taking my business away." Really? 50% of Pandora's staff came from radio, so hello? Why did they come from radio? Oh that's right, because they were let go from the broadcast jobs.
Think of it in terms of business. You have an asset. You want to increase profit. What was the big thing, the big trick, the real genius business move for the last ten years? Cut expenses. But if you're a real business man you say, in order to be profitable you have to increase sales, increase revenue coming in. How do you do that? You rethink. You reinvent.
No. Broadcasters, we just cut staff. So we cut the salaries and the bottom line looks better. At the end of the year we can say, "Oh, we saved 20% in salaries. Our bottom line went up. Therefore our market value is better and stockholders, everyone, is happy."
No. The reality is you didn't move. You didn't move anything. But that has been accepted. Now we're paying for it.
Kirk: You are watching, listening to This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack along with Chris Tobin and Rob de Santos from Popular Communications magazine. Coming up, Rob is going to talk a little bit about the sun cycle that we're in. What does that have to do with broadcasting? Well, more than I thought, so stick around. Saving AM, and what will happen to AM if it's not saved?
We'll have some thoughts on that coming up with Rob de Santos. Our show is brought to you by my friends and colleagues at Axia, and this is so great. It's like show and tell. I want to show you some pictures of a studio that is under construction right now, right as we're doing this show. There are engineers there toiling away, and look at that. That is so pretty. Look at the lighting overhead. If you're listening to the show, I'm sorry, you're missing out.
Look at the legs on that table. Isn't that amazing? They're guitar necks. Look at that. And from the ceiling, highlighted lights coming down, white and purple. There's your modern day studio with a whole bunch of video monitors and your audio console. Now this is not ready to go. It's under construction. There's a pan, tilt and zoom HD TV camera over on the wall. That ought to tell you something about what they're going to be doing in there.
There are all those monitors. Racks full of equipment, although not nearly as much equipment, I think, as we used to have. Just a few punch blocks. Those are for GPIOs. There's no audio flowing through those punch blocks. This place is a whole Axia installation, big, big honking Axia board with telephone control in there. They're adding this studio to an existing Telos VX system.
Let's see. What else do we have there? There are the manuals laying out. Is that a Vox Pro controller there, gentlemen? Is that what that is with the shuttle wheel on it?
Chris: Yes it is. That's Vox Pro. Yeah.
Kirk: Hardware Vox Pro controller. Parts of guitar necks for support. This is where the producer sits, and the producer will have a console with his own. And look at that. It's an Axia radius, the same console, or the same kind of console, that this very show is coming to you through right now. It's a whole Axia installation here. More engineers working on it. A few wires here and there. There's a Telos V-Set 12. That's getting ready to handle a bunch of phone calls. There's going to be a nationally syndicated show coming out of this studio in just a few weeks.
Well, I wanted to show you that. An Axia studio under construction. Folks, I've built a lot of studios, and I've down it the hard way for years and years as Chris Tobin has done. Chris, have you built a studio the hard way?
Chris: Well, yeah. It was state of the art at the time. Now the state of the art has shifted.
Kirk: You've probably never put in a Christmas tree, but you have probably taken a few out.
Chris: No, I did. Early on in my career I was putting in Christmas trees, learning how to solder and wire wrap around them.
Kirk: Oh my God. You're older than I thought.
Chris: Well, I was just happy to work at facilities that were very dated and traditional and kept to certain things. But, yeah. Christmas trees. I've put them in. I've taken them out.
Kirk: Glad you're taking them out.
Well, hey. Andrew. If you could go back and show one of the shots of some wires hanging out somewhere from that selection. I don't know if you've still got them, or if they are available.
When you build an Axia studio you're building a studio using live wire, which is Ethernet. It's IP. It uses off the shelf Cisco switches. You get to hook various devices up. Instead of a slew of cables, with most devices just one cable will hook it up to the rest of the system. So this one cable carries live wire audio, which is linear. It's linear IP audio. It's not compressed. It's bit for bit. What goes in comes out.
It also carries GPIO, that is contact closures to control something. In a studio just down the hall from this one you're looking at, they run a national show there every day with national talent- big time, I'm telling you. And they wanted to add a profanity delay. So they purchased a 25/7 brand profanity delay, which has a live wire jack in tieback, and instead of having to wire a bunch of GPIOs and contact closures and buttons around the place, put one wire in the back. One cable. One Ethernet cable goes to the Cisco switch, and then a little typing and it all got configured. So audio goes in, audio comes out.
Of course, when it goes in delay audio goes in, it comes back out, like, seven seconds later. And all of the tally lights, all the control remotely from the console or the procedures station, it all happens over that Ethernet. It's really easy to do. It also means that if the need to swap it out or change something, that's easy too.
This was all done with live wire and Axia. You saw some telephones there; some Telos V sets like the one on the screen behind me. These are all audio over IP, and just so easy to wire up. If you have not had the pleasure of building an Axia studio, hey, before your career is over in radio, whether that's five years from now or 50 years from now, you need to experience it. I've built a number of Axia studios myself. It's really gratifying for something to go together that fast, and when you're done it works so beautifully.
And you know what? It can even be configured and changed. If you need to make configuration changes, it can even be done remotely. When they need me to, once in a while, I remotely log into my radio station in Pago Pago American Samoa, and you will make a change. Maybe they want the mic to have some more bass, or maybe they need to bring the newsroom into a different fader.
Easy to do remotely. Check it out on the web. Axiaaudio.com. A-X-I-A. Axiaaudio.com.
Check it out there. I would appreciate it if you do. And Livewire. I promise you, it will make you rife a whole lot simpler.
You're watching This Week in Radio Tech, our episode number 195, with me, Kirk Harnack, along with Chris Tobin in studio in Queens New York, and Rob de Santos from Columbus, Ohio.
All right, Rob. Back at the show here. You and I were talking a couple of hours ago about sun cycle, sun activity. I know that has something to do with short wave and ham radio communications. What does that have to do with the broadcast communications, and what's happening right now with that?
Uh-oh. Did Rob leave?
Chris: Oh. You said something to offend him, or the topic you just broached on was something he can't speak about. Actually, you know, that sunspot activity, as it's known, also impacts utility lines too.
Chris: Oh yeah. The corona discharge from the sun. There are all kinds of articles of things of that sort. It's pretty wild. And, yeah, communications in general. That's what the tempest rating is for a lot of satellites that are in orbit that handle that, what do they call that? Magnetic flux. The plasma that comes off the sun.
Kirk: This thing called a tempest rating, is that a measure of quality of who well a satellite, which is outside of our magnetic belts that protect us from such things, are tempest ratings a measure of quality?
Chris: Well, tempest design is based on who hardened a device from radiation, from gamma rays, x-rays, that sort. Satellites are designed in that fashion. That's why you see gold foil on them. There are a lot of things they do to harden the device so it can withstand it. But the sunspot activity, or sun cycle, there is a name for that. The solar storms.
Kirk: Oh, yeah.
Chris: They do wreak havoc. They have different intensities and cycles. Was it every 11 years, I think? I forget how it works. But there are some articles I've read that are just wild. You can have power outages and disruption of power distribution because of it. A lot of times you don't know when or how, but it's that kind of stuff.
I'm sure Rob could elaborate even more on it. I think we have him back.
Rob: Yup, yup. [inaudible 51:13] All of a sudden we weren't there.
Kirk: Skype fails when you need it the most.
Chris: Well now, that was actually the NSA tapping in because of the topic we were about to talk about.
Rob: That's right.
Kirk: So tell us about the solar cycle, and what's this doing for broadcasters or against broadcasters?
Rob: One of the things that's part of the dialogue on the whole AM issue relates to the fact that AM propagation is different during the day than at night. During the day it's ground wave propagation. At night it's more like short wave. It's sky wave propagation; that signals can reflect off an ionosphere and go out huge distances. Which, in the concept of the 1920a and '30s, the clear channel stations and clear frequencies could reach 30, 40 states at night.
Well, the thing is that as that has broken down over the years and you have all these other stations on the frequencies and they are all broadcasting extended hours, perhaps to reduce power, some of that signal is leaking out. It's noise.
But what's going on with sun right now? Well, we're in the middle of supposedly a peak in the solar cycle, when you would expect propagation to be at its best.
Rob: But this solar maximum is the weakest solar maximum in more than a century. Some of the speculation is that it may be one of the weakest ever recorded. It hasn't gone to zero, but we are at levels that would have been considered very low at the minimum 22 years ago.
So when we talk about what's happening in night propagation, we're not in what we have been used to for most of the 90s years we've had AM radio in this country. Normally at this part of the solar cycle, people who try to do DXing, listing the long distance radio stations at night, AM DXers would tell you that at this point they ought to be hearing stations from halfway around the world on those oddball nine kilohertz split frequencies that are used in most of the rest of the world.
And the reception at this right now is terrible. They are not getting the numbers they are used to. They are still there, occasionally. I mean, jeez, there is a station, I think, that' sonly 15, 21 kilohertz in Saudi Arabia that uses half a million watts. Yeah, they still get out [inaudible 53:55]
Kirk: Okay. Let me make sure I understand here. We should be coming into a maximum where there's a lot of solar activity, and our maximum is not very high at all. In fact, it's about as high as some other solar minima have been, and so we're not getting the increase in propagation that we're accustomed to getting every, what, about 11 years or so?
Rob: Exactly. And there's a lot of arguments going on in terms of the science behind it, what's actually happening to the sun. The problem from a planning standpoint is, it's simply making what's going on right now worse, in the sense that whatever we think is going on now is probably not a real reading of what has gone on historically over the 90 years or so we have had radio as we know it.
Yeah. It adds just another layer of complexity, and oh, by the way, the climate scientists will argue about whether the sun is affecting global warming or that. That's another whole discussion unrelated to this.
These are all factors in it. Even a signal, you know, you've got a one thousand watt nighttime signal. That signal doesn't disappear at the end of the FCC [contour]. It might not be listenable. But a tiny bit of that is still out there. It gets weaker with distance, but it's still out there, and you pile enough of those on top of one another. Throw in some digital hash from the handful of stations doing the ubiquity digital thing, and then you have a real mess.
Kirk: Yeah. Got a lot of noise out there. Absolutely. What do we expect over the next few years as far as this solar [back swell]? Are we just going to go back down into a solar minima?
Rob: Yeah. We came off of an extremely deep and long minima, and we'll probably go into another one. But beyond that, I have absolutely no idea, and I don't think anybody else does either.
Kirk: This is not a matter of the sky is falling. It's, the sun is burning out, is it?
Rob: The problem we have with predicting solar activity is that while we can get some idea of the general levels of solar activity from three rings and ice cores and all that sort of stuff, in terms of observing the sun and knowing-and getting data and knowing what's happening on the sun, we only have arguably 150 to 300 years of data. The sun is five billion years old. Our sample size is a little small at this point.
Kirk: I agree. So, we could touch on AM radio some more, but I'd tell you what I'd like to do. I'd like to move over. We have plenty of ham radio guys who watch and listen to the show. Talk to us about what's going on in the world of other communications besides broadcast before we have to close the show down? What's happening in short wave and ham radio?
Rob: Well, the situation with short wave makes AM look healthy. International broadcasting as it existed from the 1930s until the last, oh, ten to 15 years, is essentially dying. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the political imperative that drove the need for large international broadcasters during the Cold War is gone. The sec on thing is the Internet. It has made it possible to hear those stations around the world, which, prior to the early 1990s, the only way you could do it was by short wave.
Rob: The general complexity of the marketplace is such that there are so many entertainment options in so many avenues to get radio in most developed parts of the world, short waves are relevant. The places it still matters are some parts of Asia and Africa where the infrastructure is not there yet, and we're getting news, particularly in certain government regulated societies, [that's] still hard. So getting outside news is still important. So there's still a role for the voice of America, and BBC's international arm, and a view of those people.
But even that has shrunk. VOA once had four major broadcasting centers in the United States. I didn't talk about transmitting locations here. They are down to basically borrowing one that they sold and are leasing back.
Rob: And they lease a bunch of venues overseas and stuff like that. The BBC is roughly getting close to the same situation. It's not healthy. What's going on in, say, more near term, more [closed in] transmissions like the utility bands and police and fire and radio, digital. That's what is happening there. There is a mass movement going on among police and fire and utility users to move to digital.
So you see that happening. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean they're un-listenable.
Kirk: Oh. That was my question.
Rob: It doesn't mean you can't listen to them. The radios used to listen to them have gotten three times as expensive as they used to be. You're not going to go into your local radio shack and buy a $40 scanner anymore and do in. In many parts of the country you're not going to hear much more than the plumber using his radio in his truck.
It's not happening. But a lot of them are still unscrambled. But they're now digital. And you're seeing, gradually, slowly seeing all these public service agencies integrating their communication systems. It's happening faster in some areas than others, and ironically probably happening more effectively outside the four or five largest metropolitan areas in the country. Because integrating the police and fire agencies in, say, the New York City metro area is orders of magnitude more complex than doing it in Akron, Ohio.
Kirk: That's true. That's very true.
Rob: The other problem they are facing, though, is spectrum. The demands on spectrum, because, after all, that's a finite resource. There's only so much nature gives us. [It's] really, really severe. Everybody wants a piece of 700 megahertz or 900 megahertz communication bands, whether it's for cellular or the local police department, or a new TV service, or whatever it is.
Mobile TV. That would be another good discussion. So they have got some real issues there. That whole area is pretty intense. Some of those public service frequencies are worth tens of millions of dollars of megahertz, but obviously you want your fire department to have it if your house is on fire.
Kirk: Good point.
Rob: So a lot going on there.
Kirk: If there is such a demand on public service frequencies, why is there so much more demand today than there was, I don't know, say, 20 to 25 years ago when most of it was analogue. If your trunking systems were coming into play, which I guess was still analogue; moving about in frequency. Why all the extra demand? Are more people talking to each other?
Chris: Companies want to make money.
Rob: I think, first of all, what happened is that if you look at, say, frequencies above the FM band up through 900 megahertz or gigahertz three years ago, you had police and fire, some local services and utilities, the dog catcher, the plumber. People like that, who had business radio services. You had television using the traditional dozen or so local broadcast channels, and not a whole lot else.
There was some military up there and that sort of thing. But by and large, there wasn't anybody else up there. Now the demand for frequencies for sell service, for wide area Wi-Fi that's coming very quickly, and for all those other services where they want to send you a monthly bill . . . So, yeah. I think that's what is happening.
The other thing is technology. A 900-megahertz radio was pretty unwieldy 30 years ago. Now you carry one in your pocket and you complain if it weighs more than four ounces.
Kirk: Yeah. Rob, I told you the hour would fly by, and it has. We've gone over an hour. If folks want to hear more of what you have to say and what other thought leaders and industry leaders have to say about communications nowadays, tell us about the magazine, Popular Communications.
Rob: Popular Communications is probably in about every major magazine rack you will find in the country. Your local Barnes and Noble, for example, will have it, and pretty much any place. If they don't carry it, just go ask them for it. They can get it very easily.
Get an issue. It's also available digitally through Zinio. So if you prefer to read your magazines on your Kindle you can do that. You can, you know, Popular Communications is on Facebook. You can go there and ask questions. Some of us authors actually pop up there once in a while, and of course, all of us are readable by one electronic medium or another.
And there are one or two good radio conventions still around that aren't just radio industry coming up in March. It's still called the Short Wave Listener's Fest in the Philadelphia area every year, but it covers a whole lot more than short wave these days. People from all over the world show up, and they love to talk about radio.
Kirk: I noticed that Popular Communications magazine has a Facebook page. So that's a good way to connect and at least get introduced to the magazine and the ideas that are being batted around there. Go to Facebook and just search for Popular Communications magazine. I would imagine that, Rob, you probably participate in this page from time to time and get articles, or links to articles, posted there. A lot of pictures there. A lot of things going on. So check that out, and on your newsstand you'll find Popular Communications. Right?
Rob: Yes. Absolutely.
Kirk: All right. Good deal. Hey, we've got to go. Our show has been brought to you by my friends at Axia. We showed you pictures of a studio under construction. When I can we will bring you pictures of that studio finished, and maybe a little video of it in operation. It's a really cool place. Thanks to Axia audio on the web at axiaaudio.com for supporting and sponsoring This Week in Radio Tech.
Chris Tobin in studio in Queens, New York. Thanks for being with us, buddy. I appreciate it.
Chris: Oh. You're welcome. Just a word to the audience this week, Bernie Weiss passed away. He was the founder of [Agionics] CCA, and also the father of ground grid transmits for FM. Those of you who are transmitter nuts, you know what I mean.
Kirk: And thank you so much for reminding us. I've got to tell you, Bernie and I were friends. I did a lot of warranty work for his [inaudible 01:07:07] line. And grounded grid? Oh my gosh. I've got to tell you, that's just my favorite design.
Chris: That is the best.
Kirk: Grounded grid FM transmitter opened the backdoor. What do you got? A transformer, a diode, a capacitor, a choke and a tube.
Chris: Yeah. And you have an arch welder when you want to do some work.
Kirk: That's right. Grounded grid. What a fabulous, simple and effective design. Just seems to be, generally speaking, free of so many problems that plague other high power tube transmitters. They don't have too many tube transmitters anymore, and Bernie Weiss- wasn't he the first guy to come up with a usable IP audio studio transmitter link for use over the Internet?
Chris: Yes. It was to PCs.
Kirk: I get that. But he was the first. What a great thinker. Just awesome. Bernie Weiss passed away at the age of 87 years old, actually, just about a week ago. Thanks for that reminder, Chris.
Chris: You're welcome.
Kirk: All right. We'll catch you next week at This Week in Radio Tech. Our show next week will be at this regular time, Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, but starting in 2014 we'll be on earlier. We'll be on in the middle of the afternoon, two p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday with a repeat of the show about this same time in the evenings. So if you're used to catching it at this time, you certainly can.
All right. Thanks for watching. We'll catch you next week, at This Week in Radio Tech. Bye-bye.
Announcer: That's all the bandwidth we could pilfer this week. Another TWiRT is propagated, and all the transmitters and audio equipment live happily ever after thanks to the handsome engineer and his kind, benevolent care. We will be back next week.
"Lord willing and the creek done rise." "This Week in Radio Tech." Subscribe to iTunes and you'll never miss a show. Search for This Week in Radio Tech in the iTunes store. Soliciting is strictly encouraged. If you liked today's show, tell a friend. If you didn't like it, we were never hear.
Kirk Harnack's wardrobe provided by The Salvation Army and The Red Cross disaster relief services. Hair and makeup provided by [inaudible 01:09:13] "He's unique, wouldn't you say?" "I just want to get it over with." This ends this transmission. Tango, whiskey, India, Romeo, tango. Signing off. Okay.
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