Sunday, September 5, 2010

Recognizing the Value in HD Radio

To date, the consumer market's embrace of HD Radio has been underwhelming.  My anecdotal research suggests it's mostly the radio geeks who are following the technology presently, and their reviews for the most part haven't been positive.  The objections are technological in context.  In order for digital In-Band-On-Channel ('IBOC') broadcasting to work properly, digital channels are transmitted at a fraction of the power of their analog counterparts.  Transmitting at reduced power partially explains why HD Radio signals are more difficult to receive than analog signals -- all other factors remaining constant.

Paul Riismandel, in an op-ed at Radio Survivor, discusses whether HD Radio is worth the consumer's time, effort, and $.  Using the newest-latest in home HD Radio receivers, Riismandel conducted a series of (admittedly) unscientific, but nonetheless reasonable tests to assess HD Radio's value proposition for consumers.  What's interesting is Riismandel acknowledges HD Radio signals do sound clearer, if not better... when they're actually received.  His complaints are twofold: the 'cleaner' sound doesn't equate to superior sound quality vis-a-vis dynamic range, etc., and inconsistent reception  of HD Radio channels across the dial.

Riismandel makes some valid points, especially considering HD Radio as viewed through the eyes of an audiophile, broadcast engineer, or otherwise geek.  The thing is... geeks don't drive market tastes.  Joe and Judy Averageradiolistener have accepted spotty reception across their radio dial as a fact of life since the medium's inception.  Effectively, the reception issues with IBOC HD Radio are similar to those with FM stereo, but receivers can be set so that they'll pick up a station's less sensitive signal when its more sensitive signal isn't detected.  (This feature, however, means the receiver only plays the FM station's analog channel.)  Still, I don't believe this problem represents that great of a disincentive for consumers.

Regarding sound quality, it's quite apparent from the widespread market acceptance of streaming media, .mp3 and other digital audio formats, and mobile audio devices like the iPod, that consumers aren't really preoccupied with absolute sonic fidelity.  Satellite and Internet radio don't match the aural experience possible with a CD Audio recording, high-powered amplifier, and a good set of speakers.  Neither does mp3 audio.  To this point stations broadcasting in HD Radio need only demostrate the quality of their channels relative to their non-HD channels. 

I also believe Riismandel's observations don't consider how people listen to radio for attempting to answer why anyone would buy a HD radio receiver.  People don't listen to the radio for sound fidelity.  Rich, clear signals are important, but secondary to a station's content and brand image.  Unfortunately, radio broadcasters have been slow to identify the value HD Radio represents for their listeners.  I think once the resourceful broadcasters discover what listeners value about 'free' radio, they'll adjust their marketing plans accordingly.  Perhaps then will be the time when we'll see consumer demand for HD Radio receivers take off.

Friday, June 25, 2010

How to Set Fire to a False Flag

It was about 1 year ago when I first heard public service announcements (PSAs) on Radio One's WMMJ 102.3 alerting listeners to 'Reality Radio' -- a call to arms against the Performance Royalties Act, H.R. 848, as introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. John Conyers.  The PSAs frame H.R. 848 as a direct threat to Black broadcasters (and by extension, 'urban' radio) with its proposed royalty schedule's supposedly onorous effect on station operating expenses.   According to the PSAs' announcer, Radio One chairwoman Catherine Hughes, the royalty is prohibitive to the point Black broadcasters, many with already tenuous financial situations in a tight economy, will end up going out of business.  Implicit in Hughes' arguement is the fallacy should Black broadcasters disappear,  urban radio formats will disappear with them.

Listeners were instructed at the end of the PSAs to contact U.S. Representative Donna Edwards about H.R. 848.  I wrote the following to Rep. Edwards:

July 1, 2009

The Honorable Donna Edwards
U.S. Hou
se of Representatives
318 Cannon House Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

I am writing to urge your support of H.R. 848, the Performance Rights Act bill, introduced by Rep. Conyers. Your name is provided as the contact person in a commercial currently being broadcast on WMMJ 102.3 FM in Washington, D.C.. I telephoned your office to provide my comments on the issue, but feel more explanation is needed than a simple rejection or endorsement of legislation..
As you may know, many performers ‘cover’ lyrics published by third parties when creating recordings, and that unlike songwriters and composers (and in many cases, record labels), these performers do not receive performance royalties when their work is aired by broadcast radio and television stations. I have a minor philosophical objection to paying a royalty to someone for whom as a broadcaster I’m otherwise (1) providing a forum for exhibition but (2) not generating income from sales of their production. However, the objection is mooted by certain realities of the recording and broadcast industries. Radio stations like WMMJ indirectly earn tens of thousands of dollars annually from the exhibition of songs from performers covering lyrics owned by a 3rd party. Broadcasters currently pay publishing royalties, so I fail to understand the rationale for their not paying a performance royalty, especially since Internet, satellite, and cable radio stations pay performance royalties -- to a much more prohibitive and regressive schedule in the case of the webcasters. Over-the-air broadcasters should not be exempted from the same requirements.

I propose you endorse H.R. 848 with two caveats: that the tax be progressive -- with marginal rate brackets created to avoid creating disincentives for small- and medium-sized radio stations; that similar modifications be made to the current law as pertaining to performance royalties for web- and satcasters in order to ensure more competition between all these radio media.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do not reside in your district. But I have worked in broadcasting and presently consult on various new media projects, including Internet radio, and IPTV. I would be happy to make myself available to share my knowledge and experience on these industries upon request. Thank you for your continued service to the public.


William L. Tucker, Jr.

My point in writing to Rep. Edwards was not to call out Hughes or RadioOne for hypocrisy and demagoguery.  Given the dynamics between broadcasters and their audiences, there's no way for me as a listener to affect significant reforms upon Hughes and Al Liggins' style of management or programming decisions.  I am guided by a larger principle: performing artists are entitled to a royalty from broadcasters just as are lyricists and composers.  There's no valid justification or philosophical rationale for exempting broadcasters from the same copyright regulations satcasters and webcasters are obliged to follow.  Hughes, Liggins, and other broadcasters are certainly aware how the status quo benefits them while it exploits countless numbers of performers.  So since copyright law is a political issue, I felt the most effective venue for action is our political system.  I voiced my opinion to a member of Congress.  I urge every reader of this essay who feels similarly moved to do likewise.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Radio Wars, Episode II: Radio Narcissus

Just the other day I weighed in on Facebook link to a blog thread about new media.  The blog, Darryl Williams' Full Cirkle Media Group, features various news and issues about radio as it promotes Williams' media consulting services.  What piqued my interest was Williams' comments on streaming, podcasts, and Internet radio.

Apparently, Williams sees himself as some sort of patron saint-gatekeeper for reconciling traditional radio with today's technologies.  A Stanley Crouch for radio, as it were.  In his essay New Media , Williams distinguishes between Internet radio and podcasting as streaming versus prerecorded content, insinuating podcasts shouldn't be recognized as Internet radio programs because they aren't 'live'.

I responded on the Facebook thread with a more complete presentation of streaming and podcasting, explaining them as separate, but complimentary technologies: podcasts are digital media files which may be downloaded onto media players and other devices but are ultimately streamed when played back.  I went on to note podcasts can be 'live' or prerecorded, and cited BlogTalkRadio as an example whereby a general consensus of both media and IT industry pros, and laypersons consider audio-only podcasts Internet radio. 

April Sims -- provider of the link on Facebook and proprietor of -- then Williams replied to my post with crypto-insults of varying acerbity.  Sims asked if my intention was to "flex" my knowledge (suggesting me as intellectual bully) or solicit Williams' services; Williams attacked my credibility on the account of not having foresight about Internet radio's future.... before backpeddling away from his own definitions as those of, "... all major recording platforms regarding digital media".  At least Sims had the presence of mind to stumble and trip through a half-apology after reading my motivation for adding in my two cents.  (Which leads me to ask -- with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek -- why is it so many bloggers to sites like Facebook reflexively attack dissenting opinions that, hypothetically, they're eliciting with their commentaries?)

I suppose Williams also experienced a subsequent moment of clarity, for he invited me to link up with him on Facebook.  Accepting his invitation, I took the opportunity to expound on my earlier point and get to the root of his objection to podcasts as Internet radio.  Williams dismissed the technical explanations as sophistry, alternately posing himself and the aforementioned secret cabal of media people as reliable sources.  He didn't want to get into a battle of wits or "so-called expertise" over semantics, to let him tell it, as if his semantics and so-called expertise was sufficient authority to ignore the evidence.  It was at this point when I thought qualifying my credentials as a fellow professional in media and information technology would calm the rising current of umbrage I sensed coming from Williams.  I had peed in his cornflakes you see, by deconstructing his psuedo-technical rhetoric, and nothing short of me sacrificing myself on the Altar of Political Correctness would exonerate me as a radio/new media heretic. 

I ended my exchange with Williams by asking the practical value in defining Internet radio so narrowly.  He sent a message, again demurring from a war of words with a (suggested) radio/new media dilettante and would-be agent provocateur while resurrecting an opaque defense on behalf of the radio industry.  And then, in the passive-aggressive tradition of intellectual frauds/roadside montebanks like Professor Marvel, he 'defriended' me while providing his phone number to talk further.

If I hadn't yet become fully skeptical about engaging Williams as a peer, imagine my attitude upon discovering my defriending his post-mortem: "Why some people feel the need to appear to have the corner on technology and understanding is beyond me".  To which I say, pot, meet kettle.  Good luck protecting the future of radio from innovation.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

D.C.: A Music Mecca's Unrequited Love

A number of prominent, internationally-known musicians have claimed the greater Washington, D.C. area as their home.  Representing nearly every genre, they include Duke and Mercer Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Tori Amos, Billy Eckstine, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters & Nirvana), Roberta Flack, Patsy Cline, Jelly Roll Morton, the Blackbyrds, Bo Diddley, Henry Rollins, Denyce Graves, and others.  Venues like Bohemian Caverns and the Lincoln Theater were the basis of the U Street corridor's reputation as "Washington's Black Broadway".  The nation's capitol even has its own native music genre -- Go-Go -- and has a significant (though underground) House/Electronic music scene.  According to Wikipedia, the D.C. area, "... is also an important center for indie music and culture in the United States", and, "... a prominent center for national and international media".  So, it's disappointing that even with the recent emergence of D.C.-based acts like Wale, Good Charlotte, and Raheem DeVaughn onto the national scene that local 'indie' artists get relatively little support from the local media outlets and purpose-built entertainment venues. 

As a member of r.e.a.c.t.'s advisory board, your input will help shape D.C.'s music scene for the benefit of the region's emerging artists, fans, and entrepreneurs.  Our individual resources can be combined to:
  • promote music and performing artists of the Washington, D.C. region
  • develop a network of affiliate performance spaces, media outlets, and business/professional services that support local independents
  • establish a viable minimum compensation formula for 'live' performances in area venues
  • fund grants and endowments.
r.e.a.c.t. is open to input from anyone in any part of the greater D.C. community.  For consideration as an advisory board member, add to this thread a brief factoid about yourself, or your organization, your interest in local music, and your ideas in support of the organization's cause.  Submissions are open now through May 28, 2010.