The Wacky World of Simulcasting

Until there is peace in the Middle East, don’t expect to be reading much politics on this blog. I’m actively not listening to “right wing” talk radio. If you’re interested in volunteering to help the web site, read on – otherwise you might want to delete the bookmark you have for this blog.

One of the hardest things to keep correct in the database is simulcasts. Part of the reason is there are so many different reasons for them. Before you can get the data right, here is the obligatory boring background:

*** Begin boring background ***

While there were AM radio networks where programming was carried on more than one station at the same time, that’s not really what a Simulcast is. Network programming was occurring on a program by program basis for a few hours a night, and most of the stations were not owned by the radio networks.

With the official release of FM radio following World War II, almost nobody wanted an FM license. Cars didn’t have FM radios so there was no audience. FM signals were difficult to receive as the frequency of the signal would drift similar to the way TV pictures used to “roll” and require constant adjustement. Transistors were not widely used yet. The pre WW2 experimental FM band was at 42-50 Mhz instead of the current 88-106 Mhz. (later expanded to 108 Mhz)

Part of the reason for the move was that the lower FM band was disrupted by “skip” – if you’re old, you may remember watching channel 2 or 3 on your TV suddenly getting weird signals from 1000 miles away – Channel 2 is on 54-60 Mhz. Partly because David Sarnoff wanted to bankrupt Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of the superheterodyne circuit that made commercial AM radio possible and FM radio, General Sarnoff pushed for moving the FM band, which happened in 1945 just after the war ended – and made all existing FM radios obsolete, and needing to be replaced by shiny new RCA FM Radios to be bought by the returning veterans. Edwin Armstrong committed suicide in 1954. [Ironically, his tower in New Jersey was used temporarily to broadcast TV after 9/11 destroyed all the TV transmitters on top of the World Trade Center]

The long simmering feud on AM between non-commercial broadcasters and the interests of “Big Radio” (aka the NAB and NBC) had not been resolved and General Sarnoff’s politics wanted to make sure the commies and labor unions types didn’t get a toehold in “his” radio. Various groups pushed for an educational area of the FM band. The final compromise pushed by the universities and religious groups was that Non-Commercial radio would get 88-92 Mhz licenses and the existing AM radio stations would get one “free” FM license with the same call sign as their AM station.

With the invention of Automatic Frequency Control and transistor radios, FM radio started to look commercially viable around 1960. Some in AM radio viewed it as a threat to be stopped (“It will never catch on!”) (“Hey, we own the radio waves!”) (“People will never type “http://” and listen to radio on computers) – then FM stereo was standardized in 1961 and FM music had arrived for the masses.

A lot of AM stations hadn’t seen any point to having an FM station (prior to 1960) and turned in their licenses rather than wasting electricity on a radio station few people could or would listen to. The FCC didn’t want FM to just be the existing AM station on a second frequency. While the FM station could “Simulcast” the AM station, it could only do so a limited number of hours of the day. Owners who wanted to keep the license but not spend money on programming would typically carry their AM morning show on FM, then switch to unattended music the rest of their day. Even if their AM station had to be turned off at sunset, there was no reason to actually put anything on the FM station with a live human.

Since each owner could only have one FM station in a city, the concept of an FM simulcast didn’t yet mean anything. Some non-commercial stations (like universities) were allowed to have FM translators that relayed the Flag Ship signal out to the rural areas on a different frequency. A Translator has no unique programming other than the top of the hour station ID identifying itself rather than the entire network (most don’t do that). An FM Booster is another type of creature – it repeats a weak FM signal on the same frequency as the mother ship. These are used in places where there are issues – like in a valley down between mountains. You as a listener would never know you’re hearing a booster but they require a separate license with their own rules. [There used to be AM boosters, and a few still exist in Puerto Rico]

With the rapid change following the 1996 Telecom Deregulation Act signed into law by Bill Clinton, owners could have as many radio stations as they could afford, and up to 8 stations in a single market (based on market size). Since you no longer were talking mom and pop single station owners, it became popular to combine the programming on more than one station using the same programming to save money. Since there are 2 or more full power FM stations involved – they aren’t translators – they’re just full power stations that happen to have the same programming 24 hours a day.

One limit on this is that both stations have to have a “studio” and business office within 25 miles of the center of the community where they are licensed, so that you can go there and give the owners a piece of your mind! So these types of dual FM simulcasts are typically stations close to each other than can share the same office, and sell advertising to basically the same market. This also influences radio ratings. One 2.0 share simulcast is worth more than two 1.0 share stations.

So where is the wacky part? This seems pretty sensible. The Wacky part sits right at the feet of George “W” Bush and his supporters. Those wacky communists and labor union types were making progress on the idea of community based Low Power FM radio, and that kind of anarchy can’t be allowed to drown out the love of Jesus.

So to the benefit of folks like Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, two changes were made. For satellite delivered radio signals for non-commercial FM stations, the FCC was told to issue Main Studio Waivers – there was no need for a local full power “station” to have anything other than a transmitter box with an antenna on top sitting in the middle of a corn field. The other change was an open ended window during which religious broadcasters could apply for any unused frequencies. A few computer and radio tech savvy people were able to churn out 1000s of applications, effectively blocking LPFM licenses (until this year, when the FCC threw out most of those religions license apps).

The result of this is a huge number of religious stations relaying satellite programming 24 hrs/day with no local presence in the community they supposedly “serve”. Licenses for stations and repeaters are traded like Baseball cards to other owners. Recently, the FCC allowed FM repeaters originally issued to Non-com religious groups to be sold to commercial AM stations as FM repeaters for AM (with no full power FM license). Just last week, one of these sold for $1 million. Who says there is no profit in non-profit?

**** end boring history ****

So the problem is – the hardest “mistake” to find is when you have a simulcast and it breaks up – say Kxxx 103.5 is simulcasting Kyyy 107.1 and the owners sell one of the stations, or decide the simulcast doesn’t make sense any more (maybe switching one half of the pair to be sports). Since the FCC doesn’t care about simulcasts on full power stations, there is no way to figure out that there has been a divorce – other than by finding it by hand. In my example, you go to the kyyy web site and it now just says 107.1 instead of “107.1 and 103.5”, which should trigger a reaction to go look at Kxxx (wikipedia is a good start) and see if it really is no longer carrying kyyy’s programming.

Compound that with the religious broadcasters with 100s of stations simulcasting (full power and/or translators) and about the only way to know (maybe) is to cross check affiliate lists. But even than is not fool proof – stations listed on the affiliate list may be owned by someone else and “leased” by the religious broadcast (LMA) and the lease could have ended and the station is now doing something else.

Here are the biggest of the simulcasters

| scount | URL                                                       |
|    354 |                                  |
|    290 |                                     |
|    191 |                                      |
|    156 |                                       |
|    134 |                                  |
|     90 |                          |
|     69 |                   |
|     54 |                               |
|     52 |       |
|     52 |                         |
|     44 |       |
|     39 |                                   |
|     38 |                                      |
|     35 |                                       |
|     32 |                                      |
|     29 |                                       |
|     29 |                          |
|     29 |                                      |
|     28 |                                   |
|     28 |                                 |
|     27 |                    |
|     26 |                                      |
|     25 |                                  |
|     24 |                                       |
|     24 |                               |
|     24 |                      |
|     23 |                                      |
|     23 |                |
|     23 |                                |
|     22 |                              |
|     22 |                                 |
|     21 |                        |
|     20 |                                 |
|     20 |                                       |
|     19 |          |
|     18 | |
|     18 |                              |
|     18 |                                      |
|     17 |          |
|     17 |                   |
|     17 |                                      |
|     17 |                                     |
|     17 |                        |
|     17 |                              |
|     16 |                                      |
|     16 |                         |
|     16 |      |
|     16 |                              |
|     16 |                                      |
|     16 |                        |

Complicating sorting things out is that just because two stations share the same web page doesn’t mean they are a simulcast. A lot of the AM/FM combos are two cheap to have two web sites, so list both on a single page. Some broadcasters have an inventory of stations they control, but they aren’t all carrying the same programming – they might have a group of English language catholic stations and different group of Spanish language stations (and might move the station from English to Spanish with nothing more than a note on their web page, if that). Public radio stations will often have up to 3 different programming formats (News&Talk, Classical, Jazz and etc.) and knowing which station is which format is rarely easy, especially because many of them use HDRadio and broadcast all 3 formats on the same station!

I’m reworking the station editor to make it smarter – I’ve created a lot of noise myself because it isn’t always obvious which station is the “Flagship” – is it the AM station or the FM? Is it the station near the owners or the station with the best sounding call sign?

So if any of you Christians want to help sort out the mess, I’ll embrace you with open arms. The two biggest messes are Moody Bible Institute (which has regional simulcasts) and EMF’s KLove – because of their size and the difficult of knowing if a station is part of KLove or Air1.

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5 Responses to The Wacky World of Simulcasting

  1. Art Stone says:

    Sorting out Washington State University took about 2 hours – they have a news feed and a news/classical mix, one jazz station, a student station and a community college feeding an HD2 channel

  2. Art Stone says:

    Never underestimate the power of greed and money – today’s news is that a 10 watt translator in Chicago just sold for $4.6 million. The seller is a Cavalry Radio Network. So spreading the love of Jesus has a price after all

    This is so outrageous that someone might actually complain, although I’m not sure who.

  3. Art Stone says:

    New thing available – doesn’t require being logged in to view, only if you were updating information

    You can put in a search string to look for something

  4. Art Stone says:

    In a very fundamental shift for me, I’m starting to add these networks as “Stations”, and setting the “Flagship” to be their internet website, not their terrestrial designated flagship licensed by the FCC

  5. Art Stone says:

    True Oldies isn’t technically a simulcast, but very few of the affiliates have a web site, so I just dumped them into that pile if I could not find a web site but knew they carried Scott Shannon at least part of the day.

    Interestingly, Scott Shannon has retained control of the True Oldies Channel web site (through an anonymous registration service to protect his home address :)) and is actively streaming programming on the web. The smarter people in radio own the web sites that they promote on their syndicated shows, not their employer – so when they change employers or lose their show, they don’t lose their internet presence.

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