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Airwaves: October 7, 2005

Raising Limits

Clear Channel's CEO Mark Mays is campaigning to get Congress to allow broadcasters to own more radio stations, hoping to allow owners such as his company to own 10 stations in any market rather than eight; up to 12 in large cities such as Los Angeles.

Mays -- apparently with a straight face -- claims that the change is needed so that little 'ol companies such as his can compete. Citing the competition from satellite radio, he says that free radio is struggling and that the cost of competing with new technologies is staggering while profits are declining.

Yes, he's serious. Those thoughts were given in a speech to the Progress and Freedom Foundation. The point Mays misses, of course, is that he and his company are THE reason for increased competition and increased costs.

Satellite radio wouldn't even exist if not for the likes of Clear Channel. The company owns enough stations to essentially have a monopoly on most formats in most cities. Creativity and good programming have been replaced with cookie-cutter copycat Wal-Mart radio, and people are tuning out in droves. If stations gave listeners what they wanted, satellite radio would have gone bankrupt years ago.

To make matters worse, instead of focussing on good programming, Clear Channel is spending big bucks adopting unproven technology that the public doesn't even want and that increases interference (see the next item): HD Radio.

So if Clear Channel can't compete now, what makes it think it can compete by owning more? Radio's already dead because of them ... are they looking for more nails?

Letter of the Week

Reader Sam Osofsky writes:

"I have been encountering an interesting phenomena.  I listen to XPRS, which I know is from San Diego. I have been listening to them for several years.  Recently, I have been picking up a ever-present hiss on just their frequency (not present on 1070 or 1110).  The hiss is not related to my car, because I have picked it up on other cars.  The hiss was present for about 2 months, went away, and then came back.

"The hiss can go away momentarily while passing objects, yet the radio signal does not seem to be affected.

"Any idea why this is happening?"

What you're hearing is interference from the digital broadcasts coming from, ironically, KNX and KDIS. And you're right, it is ever-present. The reason it went away for a time was because KNX stopped using digital completely for a while, and KDIS was apparently having trouble with equipment at roughly the same time. My understanding is that the interference can be heard even in San Diego, XPRS' home turf.

That is the reason so many engineers and others are concerned about digital broadcasts, also known as "In-Band, On-Channel digital" (IBOC) or "HD Radio," the trademark name from developer Ibiquity. On a special digital radio, the sound is said to be good; on typical analog radios the digital broadcasts cause interference and ringing. Makes you wonder what happens as more and more AM stations adopt the technology.

What can you do? Perhaps a call to the owners of KNX and KDIS would help. But probably not: they don't care if you can receive such a distant station ... and probably would be happier if you couldn't. The FCC is a good place to lodge a complaint, as they are the ones that approved the system in the first place.

But perhaps technology has a solution. I've heard the same problem on almost all of my radios except for two: A Carver high-fidelity AM stereo (and FM stereo) tuner, and a Blaupunkt "Digiceiver" car stereo. Both use special "noise blanking" technology that does indeed seem to stop the interference problem, or at least reduce it. Perhaps if more companies employed such technology, the transition to digital -- if it happens -- will go much more smoothly.


Copyright © 2005 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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