Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's A Very Fine Stationary Steam Engine

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.


pdb said...

Oddly enough, I have just now cancelled my subscription to Time Warner Cable's TV services, and picked up a second WD media player box as well as a pair of digital antennae for local stations. Not only did this cost less than a month of cable TV, but it left me enough change to pay for a month of Netflix. I'm amused to be going back to the future for my local TV needs, I hope your industry colleagues here appreciate it!

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

For what it's worth, it's already come to my car radio; I can stream Pandora to my Android phone and, with Sync in the Escape, it connects right into my mobile sound system.

But I still have a monthly Sirius contract, because 3G/4G data streaming is not ubiquitous (look at any cellular service map).

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

"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."

Interestingly enough, the DJ's for SiriusXM's 80's channel (who are the original VJ's from the first years of MTV) don't show up at the building - they all have their own little studios at home where they record their shows in advance. I'm not sure how they send it to the broadcast center, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's done over the internet.

Dave H said...

Heh. I guess "disk jockey" means something entirely different these days. It's a person who wrangles audio files off of a hard drive and onto the air. (Or wire, as the case may be.)

The morning host on our local AM gabber let slip a few days ago that at least one of the people he banters with on the air is connected to the studio with ISDN. I believe that's only available from the telco, and is probably more stable than an internet connection.

North said...

For years I've ignored broadcast radio. All I would get locally is pre-recorded robot announcers and national-level commercials. I started to listen only to my large collection of mp3s on my server.

Then one of my friends, and some of her friends decided that they had had enough. They bought a radio station and are running it the old way. Local commercials, great classic music, and LIVE announcers. They are a PART of the community.

I've been to their studios. I've helped them out. I joke that the "voices on the radio are talking to me", but I've been thanked by name as I'm sitting here at my desk listening. Makes me laugh.

There is no reason that radio can't be local and become a part of the community again.

Cincinnatus said...

Your piece can't be right. Why just a few years ago, Congress mandated conversion of on air TV to this really cool over-the-air hi-def signal specifically to revitalize the US television manufacturing industry.

That had to be a great success right?

karrde said...

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?

Echoing what Nathan said: I work in the Auto Biz, and suppliers are already producing high-end Infotainment Units that can bring Internet Radio into the car.

(See, it's now an Infotainment Unit, not a Radio-plus-tape-deck or Radio-plus-CD-player.)

Amusingly, the office I work at is down the road from one of those Broadcast Towers. The thing must be 1000-ft tall, and have lots of wattage.

And I don't watch any of the TV broadcast from that location. (There's one big-name local TV studio which has a big sign on the building next to the tower, and the internet sources claim that there are 3 TV stations that have a license to use the tower...)

Kind of sad,after a fashion.

I wonder if there will be a Historic Radio Tower society to take care of it in 50 years, kind of like current Historic Lighthouse Organizations.

og said...

Time was, you had to be a member of the Musicians union just to put the needle on the record. I think I still have my card around here somewhere.

I also have a lot of actual records they tossed out in the day when they changed everything over from records to those newfangled CD's. Every damned one of them is cue burned so badly they will occasinally throw the needle clean out of the groove. I can still remember talking up those ramps.

Anonymous said...


We should start the campaign now to take back some of the unused spectrum into ham bands.

In particular, I'd like the 5 meter band back. ;-)

Better yet, let's try to grab for hams everything shorter than 200m that isn't nailed down... the way it used to be.

Stranger said...

Yes, but those fine old towers and studios are often available relatively cheaply. Often for less per square foot than a house in the nearest exurb.

They make fine base loaded 160 Meter antennas. Especially with an 80 Meter Yagi on top to make it electrically longer. Of course, stacked 160 and 80 Yagi's would be even nicer.


Roberta X said...

Some of those towers are maintenance nightmares, to say nothing of the insurance!

Hams who have tried it say shunt-feeding the really big ones is not all that great -- there's just too much antenna for HF! So I guess what you want is the defunct site of a little local AMer: nice serious ground, tower (probably) up on insulators....