The Rise of Independent Media
What would happen if anybody could produce radio or TV programming as easily as they consume it?
What would happen if the natural limits to broadcasting went away?
Those questions only had sci-fi answers when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, not far from the swamps later re-labeled "meadowlands", after a sports complex by that name appeared alongside Paterson Plank Road. In those days, back in the '50s and early '60s, I was like any other geeky kid who had better luck with science than with girls: I sublimated unrequited desire for the latter into preoccupation with the former. Since computers were still captive to big business, big defense and big science, I focused my science obsessions on big radio.
I could visit the working end of big radio by riding my bike down to the transmitters of New York's big AM radio stations, whose towers rose like alien crystals out of the tidal muds flanking the Hackensack River. There I'd hang out with old guys at WMGM-WHN/1050, WADO/1280, WMCA/570 and WINS/1010, learning the relative merits of Continental, Westinghouse and RCA transmitters, the directional effects of multi-tower arrays, the relative efficiencies of towers trimmed to various fractions of wavelengths and the mysterious variable called "ground conductivity". Eastern states generally lack good ground conductivity. Values on land range from a low of 0.5 Mhos/m (Manhattan, Long Island, Atlanta) to a high of 30 Mhos/m (prairie states from Texas to Canada, Central California). Salt water is ideal, with a value of 5000 Mhos/m. Therefore you can't beat tidal swamps for siting AM transmitters.
Since most AM stations have directional antenna arrays that protect other stations on the same or adjacent channels, and the large lobes of their patterns point out to sea across the populated regions they try to serve with strong signals, the Meadowlands have long been the home for most of New York's AM stations. (For pictures of patterns, and coverage, check out fccinfo.com and radio-locator.com. Those links go to results for the New York area.
(A couple weeks ago, as I was flying a northbound approach to Newark Airport, I got some great shots out the window of some of these same transmitter sites. These two shots are of WMCA/WNYC's three towers. This one shows the same site, with the ruins of WNEW to the left across the Turnpike. This one is of the new WNEW now called WBBR. This one is of WMGM/WHN, now called WEPN. This one is of a corner of WOR's new 3-tower site.)
As I grew up, and FM began to grow in popularity, I took more interest in VHF radio propagation. On FM and TV (which flanks the FM band -- channels 2-6 below and 7-13 above), waves are only a few feet long at most (divide the distance light travels in a second by the frequency and there's your wavelength). While AM waves carried along the ground, or bounced off the ionosphere at night (which is why you can pick up "skywave" signals from AM stations hundreds of miles away after dark), FM waves travelled about as far as you could see from the transmitting antenna. That's why FM and TV stations transmit from the tops of mountains, towers and skyscrapers.
The idea in every case was to game nature. Or rather to take advantage of natural features and natural limitations.
Today, if I want to put a show on the radio, I don't bother with radio at all. I record an .mp3 file, put it on a website and "enclose" a pointer in an RSS feed. Anybody who picks up the feed or downloads the file can get the recording, anywhere on the Net. Which is anywhere with a Net connection, anywhere in the world.
This is why radio as we know it is doomed. Same with TV. AM and FM stations have a future as long as manufacturers ship cars with radios. But that future will be increasingly restricted by a growing assortment of other sources of what we've come to call "content".
A friend took me for a ride the other day in his new Honda Civic hybrid, which comes with a jack and a cradle for an iPod. I asked if he minded if I checked out his radio on AM and FM. It was like I was asking to look in the trunk at his spare tire. "Um, sure." he said. None of the buttons were set. Now, his case may be the exception. But it is also a serious harbinger of diversification to come.
Two stories, both from Tuesday, April 11.
"Trying to corral Stern's lost herd" was the headline of a story in the L.A. Times that began, "Only a fraction of the audience followed the shock jock to satellite. Stations wonder where millions of ears went. Can millions of listeners just disappear?"
"Disney's Web Move Shakes Up Decades-Old TV Model" was the headline of a story in the Wall Street Journal with a subhead that says "Sorting Out Winners and Losers: Advertisers Reach More Consumers; But Local Stations Feel Shut Out."
The first story was the more clueful one, because it faced the undeniable fact that radio's audience is not a fixed sum, but comprised of human beings who have many choices about how they spend their time. The second story is framed by the assumption that a fixed sum of people will still watch the same sum of television, even if they're watching an iPod rather than a TV. It also fails to mention how Disney plans to stream ABC and Disney shows over the Net. What technologies are involved? Will they be limited to one kind of client (say, Windows running Real or Windows Media Player)? Probably.
"If we can convert 5, 10, 15 percent of the peer-to-peer users that have been obtaining our product from illegitimate sources to becoming legitimate buyers of our product, that has the potential of a huge impact on our industry and our economics," said Kevin Tsujihara, president of the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group.
This means Warner Brothers hopes to improve sell-through percentages to about what public broadcasting gets from its customers.
What all this misses, however, is the evolution of consumers to producers, and the obsolescence of "media" as a one-way construct.
Last month, at the Santa Barbara Forum on Digital Transitions, there was much talk about how young people are certain to be a boundless source of fresh content of all kinds, especially video. Sure, there will still be plenty of appetite for expensively produced and packaged TV and movie products. But there will also be an overwhelming abundance of independently produced TV, movie, music and other forms of what the professionals still call "programming", including traditional radio transmitted over packets instead of airwaves.
"It's only human nature", somebody said. In that case, we'll have nature gaming media, instead of media gaming nature. And the result will be the end of media as we knew it -- as scarce, expensive and restricted ways for a few producers to reach millions of consumers.
The one scarcity that will still matter is time. Choices about whether to produce or to consume will be made from a new state we've never enjoyed throughout the entire history of regulated industrial media. They will be independent.
This post is an updated and expanded version of the April 13 issue of SuitWatch.