Some of my earliest jobs were at radio stations. The broadcast kind, that is. They were, even then, quite impressive; even little "coffeepot" daytime-only AM stations and 3 kW FMs in small towns had impressive-seeming studios, transmitters bigger than the biggest deluxe refrigerator (mostly empty inside!) and tall towers in large, empty fields.
It was a substantial investment in plant and infrastructure. Licenses changed hands at staggeringly high prices, each one a semi-monopoly.
--Licenses aside, it was even that way for "underground" radio: Indianapolis's own Radio Free Naptown, one of the longest-lasting radio pirates in the U.S., had extensive studios and a relatively sophisticated transmitter, despite operating a few big steps outside the law. They were well before my time, but still (in)famous when I got into the biz.
Fast-forward 40 years: I've been getting e-mail that RFN will be returning to the "air"... via internet.
It's legal. There's no worry the FCC will bust down the door, handcuffs and warrants in hand. It doesn't even require much in the way of equipment; the people running it may be traditionalists, with a room (or three) of analog equipment, but all it really takes to be a real radio station, available to millions and sounding as professional as any, is a computer or two, a decent 'net connection, and a microphone. You could do it from your desk, without any fuss, muss or bother, let alone much of anything to identify it as a "radio studio."
Right now -- and assuming you didn't download a podcast or a bunch of music to your Personal Device -- old-fashioned over-the-air radio is still the main way to reach you on the move; but satellite radio (SiriusXM) gets around that and increasingly, your telephone is a WiFi hotspot: how long do you think it will be before your car radio notices? (It already happened to tuners and receivers.)
The old, impressive, hardware/plant-heavy radio as I knew it, as you know it, it's really already dead. Those towers, in many places now using up valuable suburban real-estate, are only so many dinosaurs and the only reason for the deejays and talk-show hosts to show up at the building is so the Program Director can make sure they're not too intoxicated to do their jobs. It stumbles on, but it's ending; they're in the content business, not the sending-out-high-power-RF business and they're starting to realize it.
...And in the wings? The only thing in commercial RF with bigger towers and larger content-creating facilities than radio would be television. It takes some screamin'-costly hardware to pump a full 720p/1080i high-definion, 5.1-channel sound video of a wrecked school bus into your TV -- and that's all before the Cable Company or Satellite TV Provider lays hold of it.
It's already short-circuited; there are more channels feeding directly into the pay provider than transmitting in clear over the air, ten times as many in most places. The Big Four (4.5?) TV networks send you dozens of streams, only one of which is mediated by Your Local Stations. And sitting right next to my TV is a little purple box the size of a powder compact that isn't looking at a geosync bird or wired up to pay-by-month co-ax: it streams HD vid right off the 'net, in (almost!) real time. As the phone companies have got into the delivering-TV biz and cable companies into the delivering-data biz, it's all starting to merge.
Right now, the servers, editors, format reformatters and ingest hardware it takes to generate and massage TV content still take up way more than one PC; but it is shrinking all the time. "Smart" effects mean the the fancy news-studio settings you see are more and more generated inside a computer, with a bunch of special-blue or special-green painted walls and boxes standing in so Joe Anchorguy doesn't put his hand through a "wall" and the software has surfaces to map onto. Sooner or later, you'll be able to stream high-quality, professional-looking TV from your desk -- and when there's fat, fast wireless access everywhere, that live report from London or Karachi doesn't take any more hardware than a tablet and a high-zoot camera, either.
...Leaving those big buildings and tall towers no more than the boiler-houses, engine rooms and smokestacks of an outmoded technology. In a generation, they'll be eyesores; in another, they'll be quaint. Maybe they'll even restore one or two, and fire it up once a year for nostalgia's sake. (Also.)
For now, Local Super Live-Action News had better look lively; there's something meaner and leaner in the egg, and when it hatches, there's no tellin' what all it's gonna consume.
YANKEE RADIO TOOL KIT, #106
4 weeks ago