The holy grail of radio

Doc Searls Weblog 2013-10-02

In A SERIOUS Message To The Broadcast Industry About Revitalizing AM Radio, Darryl Parks of 700WLW made waves (here, here, here) by correctly dismissing six FCC ideas intended to make life easier for owners of AM radio stations. Those ideas are detailed at that last link (by David Oxenford of the excellent Broadcast Law Blog).

All six, Darryl says, would increase interference. Instead, he suggests, “The answer is not MORE interference. The answer is LESS interference. And you do that by turning off non-viable stations. And before station owners start crying poverty, many of these non-viable AM stations have one thing that is worth a ton of money. The land their towers sit on.”

Well, not all stations own the land their towers sit on. KCBS/740 in San Francisco, leases their land from a farmer up in the North Bay. And other stations’ towers, such nearly all of those in New York, sit in tidal swampland or on  islands that would revert to nature if the towers came down. (For example, WMCA and WNYC, which share the towers next to the New Jersey Turnpike, shown above. Likewise KGOKNBR and WBZ.)

But Daryyl’s right: there are too many stations, and too much interference — not only between them, but also from electronic thingies that didn’t exist when AM technology and its regulatory framework were first built in the 1920s. For example: computers, mobile phones and energy-saving light bulbs.

I see three other solutions, only one of which is likely to happen.

The first is better AM receivers. The old tube and transistor types were much better, on the whole, than the newer chip-based ones. But even the chip-based receivers were better in the early days than they are now. The faults are not just in the electronics, but in the methods used for gathering signals. In cars, for example, the fashion in recent years has been to shorten antennas or to embed them in windows, mixed in with defrosting wires. Radios in cars I drove in the 1960s and 1970s would get New York’s biggest AM signals (on 660, 770 and 880) past Richmond, Virginia, in the middle of the day. The radios were not only better, but served by whip antennas on their fenders. And when I was a kid riding in the back seat of our new Chevy, on a family trip in the summer of 1963, I listened to WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, from the Black Hills to Minneapolis, again in the daytime (when AM signals don’t bounce off the sky, as they do at night). Alas, modern receivers and antennas are studies in cheap-out-y-ness, and don’t do the same job. In the absence of regulatory or market urgings, the chance of improvement here is zero.

The second is moving to an all-digital AM band. In this Broadcast Law Blog post David Oxenford says all-digtial “has shown promise for an interference-free operation in recent tests,” but “would require that there be a digital transition for AM radio just as there was to digital TV. That might be problematic, as it would require new AM receivers for almost everyone (except for those few people who already have Ibiquity IBOC receivers which should work in an all-digital environment).” I have one of those receivers in my kitchen. (That’s a shot of its display, there on the left.) HD on AM sounds like FM. Combine that with better receivers and antennas, and it’s a double-win. Here there is a small amount of regulatory urging, but try to find find a portable HD radio at Amazon or Radio Shack. Not happening.

The third is to develop better ways of getting radio streams on mobile devices. I have a mess of apps for getting radio streams on my iPhone and iPad, and none of them provide the simplicity of radio’s original dial & buttons system. If one app provided that simplicity, radio would move smoothly to mobile along with every other medium already re-locating there. Stations would continue to operate on the AM and FM bands until doing so no longer made technical or economic sense. But the path would be clear.

The one company that might have made this easy is Apple; but Apple has never been interested in improving radio as we know it. For years it buried radio station streams in an iTunes directory most people didn’t know was there — and then created a Pandora competitor with iTunes Radio. Like Pandora, Apple calls its streams “stations,” which also fuzzes things. The old stream directory still exists, for what it’s worth, under “Music.”

So it’s up to app developers. TuneIn, WunderRadio and Stitcher are currently the big three (at least on my devices), but all of them bury local radio deep in directories that are annoying to navigate and often incomplete. For example, let’s say I want to navigate the “dial” for Boston while I’m here in New York. On TuneIn, I hit “Browse,” then “Local Radio,” then find myself in New York. Not Boston. Then I hit “By Location.” That gives me a map I can pinch toward a red pin on Boston, where I find a virtual dial in the form of a list. That’s less work than it used to be, back when TuneIn wanted me to drill down through a directory that started (as I recall) with “Continent.” But it’s also missing all the great discoveries I used to make in local radio elsewhere in the world, such as the UK. (There are red pins only for major cities there.) Over on Stitcher one hits “Live Radio,” then “Massachusetts,” then “Boston” to do the same kind of thing, but the directory is has just three minor AM stations, then a bunch of FMs, but not WEEI/93.7, my favorite sports talker there. Between WBOS/92.9 and WTKK/96.9 there is nothing. All three do offer search, but that’s not easy to do when you’re driving or walking. (Nor is any of the above.)

All of them also assume, correctly (as do Apple, Pandora, Spotify, LastFM and many others), that individuals would rather put together their own “stations” in the form of music types, program collections, or whatever.

Individuals doing what they want is both the threat and the promise of radio online. Bring back dial-like simplicity, marry it to “roll your own,” and you’ll have the holy grail of radio.