This article was originally written for the British DX Club's journal Communication intended for readers in The United Kingdom and Ireland...
During the first two decades of television broadcasting in America there were only a handful of stations on the air usually broadcasting from dusk to nearly midnight. In the 1960s, schedules became more developed and eventually grew to operating from about 6 am through midnight or slightly later. It wasn't until the 1970s that full 24 hour broadcasting became fashionable.
Two networks were available from the very beginning: NBC and CBS. ABC followed in the early 1950s as a spin-off of NBC's Blue Radio Network. Another contender was the DuMont network underwritten by a television manufacturer. DuMont became extinct in the 1956 leaving only three networks as near monopolies.
Great change came in the early 1970s. Master antenna systems serving rural areas began to carry a network, distributed by satellite or microwave, known as Home Box Office. Its popularity grew quickly by airing second-run uncut movies and exclusive TV specials. There was one catch: You were charged a small fee. This was the beginning of cable TV. This was also the beginning of the end of the big-three's network dominance.
As more and more channels came on the air, the major television network's audiences eroded proportionately. During the 1980s, most cable television systems were offering about 40 channels. With improved technology, home entertainment delivery systems now offer as many as 180 channels or more. The amount of choices is mind-boggling.
Quantity does not equate to quality. Technically, the increase in channels has caused the decrease of channel bandwidth. Pictures may be received without ghosting or excessive noise, but in many cases they are getting fuzzier all the time due to poor overall resolution. The more channels you push down a pipe, the less room each one has to exist. Program quality suffers from the same effect. It sometimes seems that every TV program that has ever been produced is broadcast over and over again just to keep all the channels running. Very often you'll hear the remark that "there is nothing on."
The lethal injection to television is greed. Quality is only a memory. As the audiences of the major networks drifted away to dozens of other choices, desperate measures had to be taken. An industry that once suspended a popular talk show host from performing, after he used the term 'water closet’ on the air (how rude!), now serves up nightly barrages of graphic violence and sex. Families with children really can't put their televisions on at night. Shows that are intended for "general audiences" are often peppered with lewd promos for adult shows that are the cornerstone of today's networks. Many entities depend on "infomercials," 30 or 60 minute shows pleading with viewers to buy a product, to raise money to stay afloat. It is a sad commentary. Television was once considered a family medium.
Even cable television providers have had to diversify to keep their businesses solvent. During the 70s, 80s and 90s, cable TV distribution companies had a lock on providing programming in many areas. Subscribing to their service was the only way to view television. The advent of satellite-delivered television, DirecTV and Dish Network, has forced cable TV companies to also provide telephone and Internet service to remain solvent.
Greed has changed television forever. It has become very difficult to pull it out of its tail-spin. People now resort to pre-recorded programming on DVDs, the Internet or home video disk recorders (such as Tivos) for entertainment. Even books are making a comeback! One network, CBS, has recently been discussing farming out their once prestigious news gathering operation to CNN which used to be a minor upstart network. How the cards have changed!
The final straw for television may be close at hand. Next February, all of America's analog television transmitters will be turned off leaving viewers to become dependant on all-digital broadcasting. This action will send millions of analog TV sets to neighborhood landfills. The United States government has gone to great lengths to promote the change to digital. Specially-designed DTV-to-analog 'granny boxes' are being offered at enormous governmental discounts to help those still watching with antennas to convert before the switch. If one event served as a turning point into 21st century technology, this is it!
A secondary casualty to the conversion to over-the-air digital television will be hundreds of TV DXers nationwide. Nearly every station that uses the low VHF TV spectrum, from 56 to 88 megahertz, will be migrating to UHF frequencies. E-skip reception will be limited to trying to log the very few remaining digital broadcasters using Low VHF and, hopefully, whatever foreign DX that might arrive now that these frequencies are in the clear. We live in interesting times.
Will digital over-the-air TV work? Maybe. There is no forgiveness. In areas where reception was marginal, satellite subscriptions may be the only cure. If you are used to watching tentative snowy analog pictures, you have little hope of pulling in a digital signal. Miracles do happen. I now can pull in three digital channels from a city over 100 miles away perfectly (when the wind is blowing the right way and the weather isn't blocking the signal.) One new obstacle is tree leaves. The attenuation they inflict on UHF frequencies sometimes restricts signals from reaching their destinations. You can watch these distant stations 6 months a year when the trees are bare and not in the way!
I wonder how long television will exist as a separate independent appliance. A couple of nights ago, I wanted to watch election results of the Pennsylvania primary elections for presidential candidates. Over-the-air television took the path of greatest revenue. All four national commercial networks aired their regular Tuesday night programming. Cable news networks, like CNN, MsNBC and Fox News Channel covered most of the events in Pennsylvania. If you wanted to see a campaign speech in its entirety, you could hop between networks and catch most of the content. My best bet was a link through a local newspaper, The New York Times that offered free internet coverage via The Associated Press’ TV Network feeds. Using this link, I could view the speeches as if I were watching a raw backhaul transmission from the event. It was the only way to go!
America’s ABC Television Network is offering an on-line on-demand service of their prime time offerings over the Web in MPEG 4 format at no charge. Presented with a HDTV-like 16 X 9 perspective, the quality is simply superb. ABC’s servers match your computer’s I/P address to your location, then insert branding graphics to match your locale. Link in from Los Angeles and you’ll see station logos and other mentions with local content. Link in from Detroit and the presentation changes to match that specific area. It is quite clever and effective. It’s also called the future of TV! (see picture above)
When I think of American radio, I think of a messy garage. Every once in awhile you find something that is interesting and worthwhile, but for the most part, it really is just a big pile of junk. Radio began around 1920 in America. In the beginning, radio was a formal medium of entertainment and news and was taken very seriously. Live broadcasts from radio studios were usually filled with entertainers and announcers dressed in black tie. Not anymore!
Medium Wave "AM" radio was the only game in town until the late 1960s when FM began to catch on with the American public. FM was the place to catch classical and jazz music and the first "progressive rock" stations playing psychedelic hippie music. 40 years later, FM is the monotonous mainstream of heavy advertising and inane talk.
I think the cumulative play list of all American radio stations contains no more than about 500 rock and pop standards that are played over and over and over again. Nearly every station has a "Morning Zoo" program typically featuring, at least, a jovial self-interested man and woman making rude comments about nearly everything to fill up time between adverts. Very little music is played. It simply takes too long!
America's largest radio audiences are during "drive times," 6 to 10 in the morning and 4 to 7 in the evening. This is when people are a captive audience driving to and from work in their cars. This is also when you will hear no music! Some people are simply numb to this routine and listen anyway.
The cerebral minority tune to a listener supported network called National Public Radio that provides long-version news and talk during drive-times and a host of variety programs during the rest of the day and night. To this day, America maintains an FM sub-band, from 88 to 92 MHz, devoted entirely for non-commercial broadcasters. Chances are your local NPR station will be found here. College radio stations and religious organizations use this allocation to experiment and train future broadcasters. It can be an interesting place to be. In general, American commercial radio is a brown lawn. It serves a purpose, but it isn't pretty.
There is hope: The last moments of the 20th century brought America the advent of satellite radio. Currently, two companies offer subscription services of over 150 channels of programming serving everywhere the sun will shine: XM and Sirius. At this writing, they are trying to merge into one company but they have not yet been granted complete federal approval to complete the deal. In its first decade, satellite radio has been a breath of fresh air.
XM Satellite Radio claims to be "Everything All the Time" and lives up to its slogan. Music plays continuously without commercials. The play lists are simply endless. The presenters are knowledgeable and entertaining. Every genre of music is embraced. Huge amounts of sports coverage is offered from cities all over the country and the world. It is our savior! With satellite radio, listening is fun again.
Very little is censored. Both services bank on several channels of bawdy obscenity and humor. Sirius Satellite Radio literally rivets its entire existence around one ribald presenter named Howard Stern. His signature is alluring naked women and telling potty jokes. He has two complete channels devoted to him on Sirius. What an interesting commentary on American culture this makes!
XM is quite superior to Sirius in one important aspect. Its delivery system relies on two geosynchronous satellites (named Rhythm and Blues) that follow the rotation of the earth. If you receive XM’s signals well where you are it won't change! Sirius uses three low earth orbit satellites (LEOs) that continually travel back and forth across the North American continent. You never quite know when or how you will encounter a good Sirius signal.
One weird artifact: XM signals can die an awful death. Lose the signal rapidly and it will make a sound reminiscent of kicking an old spring reverb unit. XM receivers also have a silly feature: A white noise generator. Instead of the programming dropping off and on dramatically when a signal is interrupted or is weak, the receiver will turn on a little white noise to emulate the sound of an old fashioned radio fade to ease the blow.
XM's ability to hold a signal is actually quite good. It receives data, collects it in an intelligent bucket brigade processor and provides the resolved audio about five seconds later. This allows your car to briefly pass under a bridge or past rocks and trees without interruption. Both XM and Sirius augment their satellite signals with complex networks of terrestrial repeaters producing strong signals to fill in holes in metropolitan areas. Your receiver automatically selects the best signal stream. Walk in-between the skyscrapers of Manhattan with a portable XM MyFi Walkman-like receiver and you'll never miss a note.
Another attribute of satellite radio has really poked at "real radio." Nearly all satellite radios offered by XM and Sirius include built-in RF modulators. In America, radio is considered primarily a mobile medium. For consumers to reach under their car's dashboard to directly connect to a vehicle's already installed AM/FM radio isn't viable. The simple solution to this problem was to build miniature FM transmitters into the small satellite receivers. The program you tune in via satellite gets transmitted onto an "unused" FM frequency. (The default frequency is 88.1 MHz. You can select other frequencies, but end-users rarely do.) It even switches from mono to stereo transmission automatically! A great solution, don't you think?
The results can be considered either infuriating or comical. 88.1 FM is the first frequency of America's non-commercial FM sub-band. Tune to this frequency and you would expect to hear light classical music or National Public Radio's news and information. Thoughtful, intellectual and dignified.
Imagine riding down a highway, listening to Chopin, and suddenly being over-ridden by the sounds of a ribald "shock jock" (like Sirius' mainstay Howard Stern) making lewd jokes about women's anatomy! Needless to say, The National Association of Broadcasters attacked the satellite companies with all their might about this but little could be done. No attempts at a satellite radio recall were ever made! Too many people already had purchased and installed the units. Replacing all of them was not a viable option.
The very latest generation of satellite radios now incorporates lower power FM transmitters and updated wiring schemes to minimize radiation. With millions of satellite radios already installed, the damage has already been irretrievably done! I would estimate the range of a typical satellite radio FM transmitter to be about 250 feet. This can create quite an interesting cacophony sitting in an urban traffic jam!
Hand-held satellite receivers have been a challenge for both services. The incorporation of an effective integrated antenna for satellite reception is difficult given the dimensions of a portable radio. XM leads the pack in this respect. The Samsung Helix and the Pioneer Inno (very similar designs and packaging) are the state-of-the-art for satellite reception on-the-go. Sirius has never really marketed a product that can compete with these XM portables. Their inferior satellite delivery system hinders this concept further.
XM reception is actually quite robust broadcasting on a swatch of spectrum space centered at 2339 MHz. Its microwave signals behave very much like light. In theory, XM antennas should see the southern or southwestern sky without obstruction. In actuality, reception is quite forgiving. I have two XM receivers inside my house using miniature antennas about the size of a large postage stamp. It’s a wood frame house and I have no trouble pulling in XM just by carefully searching around for a hot spot where the antenna sees their signal.
XM’s transmission system is truly miraculous. Using a tiny antenna, about one inch square, you can drive along a highway moving at 120 km/h and consistently pick up signals from over 22,000 miles away producing perfect reception of about 170 program streams. If this is not a magical miracle, what is? XM programming is also available on multiple channels of the DirecTV satellite service and via the Internet at xmradio.com. It can also be heard on portable wireless devices like Blackberries.
In reaction to the onslaught of digital television, satellite radio, iPods and the Internet, good old terrestrial radio has devised a last-ditch effort to stay alive and stay dominant. In a burst of marketing genius, a consortium of broadcasting companies formed a developmental firm called iBiquity to create a new mode of broadcasting confusingly called HD Radio. Without a proper amount of RF spectrum for a new individual radio service, their plan was to squeeze (crowbar?) digital signals onto the existing broadcast bands. They call it "In Band - On Carrier" or simply IBOC.
Do you remember making mud pies in your backyard when you were little? This is the radio equivalent. In theory, IBOC sneaks the digital signal into the ether when you are not looking. In reality, it has the stomp of an elephant, especially on medium wave. Consider this example: 50,000 watt WFAN 660 kHz in New York puts on their IBOC encoder. The audio quality of the analog signal of WFAN must decrease significantly to coexist with the digital "mask." Tune to 630, 640, 650 or 670, 680 and 690 and you'll hear a raucous digital buzz saw produced by WFAN's HD Radio signal. It approximates the Doppler sound of several trains passing each other. Many broadcasters consider digital broadcasts as legal jamming. Not friendly to the ears!
At night, a new kind of symphony exists. Sky wave propagation delivers signals from hundreds of miles away to your set. Consider the racket that ensues. On the east coast of The United States we have witnessed the blending of digital IBOC stations on 750, 760, 770 and 780 all at once. Not only does the noise combine; it beats due to propagation phasing causing a phenomenal noise. Many stations have ceased using IBOC at night voluntarily. Others hold on dearly: WOR 710 New York, WTIC 1080 Hartford and WBZ 1030 Boston, to name a few. If you come to The States to DX, bring your own mop!
There is a taste of arrogance to IBOC, especially on medium wave. iBiquity licenses their technology to both the receiver and transmitter manufacturers. Broadcasters must pay an on-going fee, periodically, to continue using the technology. The cost of digital transmission gear is quite dear, as well. Small, independently owned station owners can not afford to invest in the system, yet they must endure the barrage of noise created by larger adjacent stations' transmitters who can afford IBOC. Intended or not, it has become a David and Goliath battle on the airwaves. Will it ever stop?
FM is somewhat better. DXers experience masking of more distant in-between stations, but the effects are not quite as bad. IBOC is a half-baked solution for presenting a technology that really requires its own dedicated RF spectrum. It may survive on FM until something more logical is designed. It is pure disaster on medium wave "AM" and should be illegal!
What does HD Radio offer? In theory, better fidelity and (only on FM) more channels to listen to. Of course, since it is a digital medium, reception is tentative. You either can resolve it perfectly or not at all. There is no noise or fading, but it simply does not travel well. On FM, you can squeeze as many as three audio streams onto one frequency. Broadcasters really haven't taken these additional channels seriously yet. You'll hear less popular formats like disco, country and western music or ethnic content on the -2s and -3s or time-shifted reruns of primary station programming. Adding insult to injury is a new trend to not only air advertising on secondary FM channels, but to charge a subscription fee to listen to them.
HD Radio's biggest problem is adoption by the public. Few HD-capable radios are offered and fewer are sold. I can’t say I have ever seen a HD radio that actually worked. My local Radio Shack stores have offered them, but the sensitivity of the receivers has been poor and, without a sufficient outdoor antenna connected, these sets just can’t resolve tentative digital signals. I only know of one person, a British ex-patriate and fellow ham, who has actually made this system work in his home!
Want a really good fight? See the radio war being battled on America's Internet! Huge conglomerate corporations, like Clear Channel, pay tens of millions of dollars for one broadcast station serving a large metropolitan market. Heavy-handed industry guilds, especially The National Association of Broadcasters, represent and defend these leviathans in court and in legislature. Bring in high-speed Internet service and, suddenly, in walk thousands of computer and music enthusiasts who are looking for a way to broadcast the masses legally without huge investments. You don’t think big corporations want to compete with average people who did not pay millions of dollars to monopolize the air, do you?
How do you keep the masses at bay? Taxes! Everyone in the old-school establishment has their hands out for a pay-off! Large corporations can’t just throw their economic foundation away, can they? Recording artists, their distributors and their recording companies all want a fee. Some want to tax Internet access. Additional fees arise if your server (or server provider) can feed over a certain amount of clients simultaneously. You also have to be alert for copyright limitations and rights to specific events. Certainly, you can’t rebroadcast another’s content! There have been many annoying attempts to squelch independent Internet webcasters. No matter what has been thrown in their way, most independent program producers have been able to dodge their roadblocks.
Terrestrial broadcasters should be running for cover. Just as soon as wireless Internet becomes as commonplace as cellular telephone service what we call ‘radio’ will have a completely new meaning. Yahoo, AOL, MySpace are all experimenting with streams. New services like Slacker and Flytunes are creating a listening experience combining automatic caching with Internet reception. If you lose the live wireless signal the cache takes over. You’ll always have your tunes! XM now broadcasts to Blackberries and other wireless devices. Refresh my memory: What is AM and FM again?
Regardless of all these new efforts in multiplicity, domination in this new generation of broadcasting depends on content. AOL has shown serious effort for creating exclusive music and encouraging lesser known artists. Those services that primarily serve their listeners more than their greed will not alienate audiences. It will be fascinating to see how such a plethora of players will evolve into the new medium of 21st century: E-radio. Just watch: Coming soon is a brand new audio-visual world all on the master stream! How will we DX that?