AM, FM, UHF and the Future

Two weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article entitled “A Quest to Save AM Before It’s Lost in the Static.” The average listener to NPR is 56 years old, and new ones aren’t coming on board so quickly because of music services like Pandora. The big question that broadcast television executives are asking is whether there is a future for local television broadcast stations. In fact, the FCC is asking the same question, anxious to buy back a bunch of local television spectrum and sell it to the wireless operators because they say they represent the future. A century ago, we were trying to imagine a world where broadcast radio and television stations might someday exist. Now, we’re wondering whether we need them at all.

I really love this picture of a 1965 AM radio. It comes from a Ford Mustang. To see more, click on the radio.

I really love this picture of a 1965 AM radio. It comes from a Ford Mustang. To see more, click on the radio.

I suspect AM and FM radio are easier to defend because they provide news, sports, weather, emergency information, and entertainment for people on the road. Half of  radio listening happens either in a car or a truck (the rest happens at home, and to a  lesser extent, in workplaces). Once an also-ran, FM  is now the most popular part of the radio band. Music sounds much better on FM than AM radio, so AM is used, mostly, for talk, news, and religion (you knew that). Following the audience, many sports teams have moved to FM, leaving the AM landscape that much more barren. The New York Times article describes an effort to upgrade AM radio, an improvement requiring the replacement of every car and home radio. That seems as unlikely as the replacement of analog television seemed just a few years ago. But we did it.

The digital television transition moved some local broadcasters to other channels (“masked” with their old TV channel IDs so you never noticed), improved some signals for some households (worsened some signals for other households), and greatly increased the available television channels that could be transmitted by a single television station. Most network affiliates have made little meaningful use of  additional bandwidth, but MeTV, retroTV, and Antenna TV are among the entrepreneurial newcomers that make use of the additional bandwidth.  A handful of new non-commercial public networks have emerged, including several importing programs or full channels from other countries including Japan and France.

Jeannie_Bewitched_Website-960x445Where does  this lead? And how do we even begin to think about the future when so much television viewing is now on-demand and so much audio listening is via Pandora, podcasts, Sirius XM, and audible?

Let’s start with the audio side. Traditional radio listening is probably entering its final innings. The disruptive technology is mobile internet. It’s no longer a techno-stretch to include an internet device in an automobile or truck. Hundreds of channels are replaced by thousands. On-demand replaces scheduled programs.  ANy smart phone doubles as an audio file server, easily replenished via the cloud, and, with increasing reliability, the cloud itself becomes the server as the driver enjoys a live stream without considering its source. Program your vehicle with voice-activated instructions, and the car will know  you prefer Car Talk on Tuesday mornings during your commute. Brands matter, podcasts matter, but 24/7 feeds of country music and local news breaks don’t, or won’t. Press a button to see and hear local traffic conditions with appropriate automated warnings, and suggested re-routings. Sirius XM is trying to stay ahead of the curve by selling its own internet channel packages, and starting its own on-demand services. Good idea, but a half dozen companies will offer, more or less, similar subscription services, and, of course, everybody is competing with free (free has been the standard for AM and FM radio, and old habits are hard to change). Add audiobooks and podcasts to the mix, and the AM/FM prognosis becomes even more gloomy.

What about TV?With few exceptions, people watch programs, not networks. New matters less than buzz. If you haven’t seen it yet, last season’s Boardwalk Empire trumps  this season’s Girls. There is so much product,  so much fragmentation of viewing time, everyone plays catch-up almost all of the time. Catch-up has the potential to transform large numbers of viewers into video library consumers , not television viewers who know or care what’s on NBC on Wednesday nights at 9PM. In fact, if there was no broadcast television, viewers would quickly find alternatives on cable, on demand, and various internet services. Which is to say, 20th century television is probably enjoying its last laps. We just don’t need what we had before–there are better alternatives.

With broadcast radio and broadcast television, we established and continue to enjoy a public trust. As members of the public, we provide broadcast spectrum, at no charge, to the likes of CBS and its local affiliates, and they provide a mix of news, entertainment, and other useful or interesting stuff at no charge. The whole thing is monitored by an FCC that is not perfect, but generally watches out for abuses, and the public’s interests. That’s all good, and that’s in the process of going away.

In its place, there is no public trust, no assurance of an appropriate mix of news, entertainment and other useful or interesting stuff, and almost none of it will be provided at no charge. We are making a VERY POOR choice. We have missed a step. We are handing our mass communications to companies whose principal business is collecting monthly fees for services, not attending to the needs of the communities they serve, not attending to any national agenda or public interest. We have already seen bad behavior from operators who wish to constrain what is and is not made available through their commercially-controlled networks. We will see more control–all quite reasonable because these companies are not required, nor encouraged, to do good. They are required (by shareholders) and encouraged (by advertisers and subscribers) to keep the public interested, to capture our imagination and attention, but not for anything resembling good reason.

In short, we are missing a step. You and me, we have some interests to protect here. We should be unwilling to transfer control of all media to companies with no meaningful public interest requirement.

Let’s think about that. And let’s continue the conversation in the  near future.

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