Pirate Radio and the F.C.C.

I read this article in Wired on setting up a pirate radio station and I found myself a bit troubled by all the bad advice given.

To quote Michele Ellison, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau after a bust of a pirate radio station in Roslindale, “We will continue to use all available enforcement tools, including equipment seizures, to protect the airwaves and are grateful for the assistance and fine work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston.”

What he is saying here should be taken literally.  Wired tells you to avoid being busted, hop around in frequency, keep a low profile, don’t run regular hours.  That will only keep you from acquiring an audience.  What will get you busted fast is interfering with legitimate stations and endangering public safety.  The F.C.C. has far too limited of resources to go after every pirate station out there.  They are going to try to focus those resources on addressing issues of public safety and interference to legitimate operations as much as possible.  If you avoid causing problems in either of these areas, your chances of survival are increased.

I operated a pirate station in the Seattle area in the 1970′s for nearly half a decade, most of that time at power levels of around 100 watts, occasionally a kilowatt, and much of that time 24×7.  We even had record support from many of the major labels.  What finally brought us to the attention of the F.C.C. (and we never did get raided but did receive a cease and desist causing interference letter from R.C. Dietch, the chief engineer at the F.C.C. field office at that time) was when our antenna broke and the piece that remained happen to resonate in the 80 meter ham band.

During our years of operation, we didn’t try to maintain a low profile, quite the opposite, we were trying to (and to a large degree succeeded) build an audience.  We made bumper stickers, we gave out our phone number over the air.  It would have been trivial and easy for the FCC to contact or locate us, yet, until we caused interference, it was never an issue.  Even then, we received a letter, the F.C.C. didn’t have to raid us to figure out where to send it because we weren’t secretive about our location.  And the letter only demanded that we stop causing interference.  I chose to cease operations anyway because at that time I had a 1st Class Radio Telephone Operators license and I knew getting busted would likely result in the forfeiture of that license.

I operated in the AM band but these days most pirates are on the FM band.  With only a fraction of a watt, it is possible with a good receiver and a quiet frequency to cover several miles, much more with 10-100 watts on FM but harmonics can play havoc with television stations and public services such as police and fire communications.  If you want to get the F.C.C’s attention yesterday, interfering with emergency services is probably one of the most effective ways of doing it.  So, I’m going to suggest a few modifications to the instructions given in the wired article.

Do spend the time to very carefully research the frequency you intend to use to make absolutely sure that you’re not going to cause interference.  You should consider not only your intended frequency but adjacent and 2nd adjacent channels as well.

Get to know the engineers of the local radio stations.  This serves a number of good purposes.  You can learn important safety and technical tips from them.  You can find out about used equipment the station is getting ready to sell cheap or dump for free.  In the unfortunate event that you do cause interference, it’s better if you find out directly from them than from a visit by the F.C.C.

Don’t use a transmitter with a variable frequency oscillator as suggested by the Wired article.  These are inherently unstable and are likely to drift onto occupied frequencies.  Use a transmitter with broadcast quality frequency control, something with a crystal oven or vacuum crystal that can provide broadcast quality stability, and preferably something with broadcast quality harmonic attenuation.  An FM broadcast exciter which is intended to drive a higher power amplifier may be a good choice.

Get a functional modulation monitor and frequency counter to assure that you do not over modulate and interfere with adjacent frequencies and that your base frequency is within broadcast tolerances for the same reason.  An additional reason is that modern digitally synthesized tuners with narrow crystal filters will not cleanly demodulate a signal that is not properly centered in the channel.

Understand the safety issues.  You don’t want to get to know Mr. R.F. Burns, he is a pain. You can do more than superficial damage with radio frequency burns, you can damage nerve tissue and lose sensation or the ability to move muscles.  You can get non-trivial RF burns with just a few watts of power at FM broadcast frequencies.  Many people are fooled into thinking that because the present day solid state transmitters don’t require high voltage to operate, they are inherently safe.  But very high RF voltages can be generated even where only low DC voltages are providing the operating power for amplifiers and even though they don’t represent an electrocution hazard, they can be a serious burn hazard. Don’t let low DC voltages fool you into a false sense of complacency.

On the subject of public safety, with FM stations, a big concern is your harmonics. Your 2nd harmonic is going to land somewhere between 176MHz and 216Mhz, in the upper VHF television channels.  If you want to draw the attention of the FCC, interfering with your neighbors soap operas will do it.  Higher order harmonics will land on various public service frequencies and that will get the attention of the FCC since you are potentially interfering with emergency responders.  I suggest that you consider two things, a quarter-wave coaxial stub 2nd harmonic trap combined with a good low pass filter to eliminate the higher order harmonics.

Another thing to know is that harmonics can be generated outside of your transmitter and antenna by any non-linear device. That can include things like two conductors connected with a bit of corrosion. Copper oxide is a semi-conductor and can act as a rectifier, creating harmonics.  If your signal is strong, even though totally harmonic free, it can still overload the front-end of a neighbors television set, creating interfering harmonics there.  Consider choosing a fundamental frequency which has a second harmonic landing in an unused television channel.  If the problem is very local and you are good friends with your neighbors, you might be appease them by offering to install a quarter-wave trap (coaxial or twin-lead stub) at your fundamental frequency to alleviate overload in their television set from generating interfering harmonics.

Have a purpose for existing and create quality programming.  If there are any regrets I have over the way I ran my station, it was not paying more attention to the programming.  My primary purpose was just to wrangle a bit of control from the corporate monopoly on broadcasting, but then I didn’t really say much once I had a chunk of spectrum to talk on.  Other than that, the fascination of knowing my voice was going out there and with AM it’s much different than FM.  FM is much more of a threshold effect, either you can achieve a signal with close to full quieting or you can’t hear it at all.  But with AM, your voice just became lower and the noise became higher as distance increased.  If you had a really good receiver and a really good ear, you could pick out a really weak signal.  Knowing that and knowing skip could happen at night contributed to the fascination of it for me.  But I regret not doing a better job of really understanding how I could benefit the community and tailoring programming to those needs.

Consider legal alternatives to broadcasting illegally. In those days, we didn’t have a legal alternative.  Low power FM didn’t exist with the exception of educational stations.  The internet didn’t exist.  Today there are many good alternatives to explore.  If you are non-profit, apply for official non-profit status, and then you will be eligible to apply for a legal low power FM station, assuming a clear frequency exists, and if it doesn’t, then pirate isn’t a good option either.  If no clear frequency exists, consider an internet station (and we can help you with that) where there is almost infinite address space and dedicated Internet radios now exist for cars and homes and apps exist for many portable devices.

Extend the FM Band

An interesting phenomena has emerged in some of the nations most congested radio markets. Since most United States television stations have gone digital, in a few of the nations most populated and congested regions, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, analog stations on channel 6, have gone to a radio format.  Typically broadcasting some video, like old silent movies, all day long, in order to fulfill the Federal Communication Commissions requirement that they broadcast video, they have been using the audio carrier in radio station format, and promoting their stations as FM 87.7, although the carrier is actually at 87.75, the audio carrier frequency for channel 6 television.

This is a less than ideal solution given that 87.75 won’t be tuned in properly by any modern digitally synthesized FM receivers and the modulation index of a television audio carrier is less than FM broadcast resulting in a lower audio signal and lower signal-to-noise ratio. In addition, the stereo system used by television uses a pilot frequency of 15.75 KHz where normal FM radio uses 19 KHz and the result is a normal FM tuner capable of receiving 87.75 KHz will not be able to decode the stereo signal.  None the less, the Chicago station has succeeded in garnering 1.2% of the adult 25-55 audience in spite of these limitations.

These stations have been exempted from having to go digital because of low power status. This may not be continued into 2015.  These stations, which at least in Chicago, have met with significant commercial success, may be forced off-air in 2015.

The entire digital conversion has not gone as our government had hoped.  The hope in congress and the FCC was that in the process of going digital, television stations would vacate their current VHF frequencies and go to UHF channels, freeing up the old VHF spectrum to be auctioned off for billions of dollars.  They didn’t get the bids they expected.  To the best of my knowledge, Google was the only company which bid.

I’m not surprised.  The expected bidders were mobile service providers, the big wireless telephone companies.  The problem, low and high VHF television station frequencies use a long wavelength requiring a long antenna to be efficient at those frequencies. At 100 MHz, which lies in the current FM broadcast band between low and high VHF television stations, a quarter wavelength antenna is 29 inches or 3/4 of a meter.  Even the very high end of the VHF television band is at 216 MHz, still requires 14 inches of antenna.  Not the kind of antenna that is going to fit well into a hand-held smartphone.

Many stations found performance and coverage issues with their new UHF assignments and opted to remain on their existing VHF frequencies, so those frequencies weren’t freed up in all locations although in many they did move.

In Japan, the FM band is 76-90 MHz and the frequency spectrum from 90-108 MHz was used for television channels 1, 2, and 3, 6 MHz wide channels using NTSC (never-the-same-color), same as here.  These were shut down in the conversion to digital in Japan in July of 2011.

Since the demand for more FM station slots exists here in the United States, else people wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing with channel 6 audio, since channels 5-6 are mostly empty and correspond with the Japanese FM band, and since 90-108 MHz is now empty in Japan, and since bids didn’t come for these frequencies indicating that demand other than FM doesn’t really exist for these longer wavelengths, then why not extend the FM band from 76-108 MHz, both in the United States and Japan.  That would allow manufacturers to produce one receiver that would work in both Japan, and the Philippians where 76-90 MHz has been used, and in North America and Europe where 88-108 MHz has been commonly used, while at the same time satisfying demand in congested regions.  There hasn’t been a new frequency allocated in New York since 1985, it’s time.

Some would argue that only new receivers will be able to receive these frequencies, and while true, that was also true when the AM broadcast band was extended up to 1710 KHz from the previous 1600 KHz.
I’m just kicking this idea out there into cyberspace.  I’d love to hear your comments.

Coast to Coast AM

Coast-to-Coast AM (on FM locally) was what became of the old Art Bell show, George Noory being the regular host with John B. Wells and George Knapp filling in on the weekends.

I would like to see John B Wells and George Knapp get more air time.  I enjoy both of them for different unique things they bring to the air.  John has a good voice and a good sense of humor.  He tends to be knowledgeable in many of the fields his guests are and thus can ask intelligent questions, and he has a good voice.

George Knapp, not such a good voice, maybe not quite as much humor, but also very knowledgeable and a genuine investigative reporter which is a rare commodity these days.

George Noory, a good people person, but often not knowledgeable in the fields that his guests are involved in and I think there is a tendency to limit the scope of guests to keep them within his narrower field of knowledge.  He is patient with people and good at helping people who are having difficulty expressing themselves do so.  But he is willing to lower himself to two inches from the floor to sell some of the products that he does.  Carnivora?  Come on, we all know the old adage, “you are what you eat”.  We all know what flies eat, Venus Flytraps eat flies, do you want to eat that?  Not me.  And, “Men, are you waking up too many times at night with an urge to urinate?”  Try not waking up when you have an urge to urinate, not so good.

I guess some people must buy these things or they wouldn’t keep paying for the commercials, but if Coast to Coast really has an audience of 12 million people, I’m hard pressed to believe they can’t find some better sponsors.  I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t one of the reasons Art Bell “retired”, I know they all say it was family problems but I also know he wouldn’t give these products his personal endorsement like Mr. Noory and I can’t help but wonder if that wasn’t a factor.

Art Bell is Returning To the Air

Art Bell is returning to the air September 16th on Sirius XM Radio channel 104.  His website is active now, at http://artbell.com/.

Sirius is a pay-for satellite network.  You can also receive programming via the Internet for the same amount of money.  That’s the downside.  The upside is that since it is subscription based, there are no commercials, and thus no sponsors directing what is acceptable or not on air, nor does the F.C.C. sensor satellite radio so it ought to be interesting.  The cost should you desire to listen is $14.95 per month and that also gives you access to many other Sirius XM stations.

I’ve always enjoyed Art Bell, not just for the material content but because he is who he is.  When he was on the air before, he had his own studio in his home, complete with cart machines which lead to a rather humorous (from the listeners perspective) event in which he attempted to repair a cart rack with superglue and, in the process, glued his lips together, during a broadcast.  I wish that would happen to politicians on a more permanent basis.  But I respect the fact that he is knowledgeable and capable enough to create the show himself, do his own mixing, queuing, much of his own engineering, and even research guests for his show.  In the old days even answered lines unscreened, which is something clear channel ruined.

I’m happy that soon there will be at least one non-automated non-drone, real human being on the air again.  Wish it weren’t just satellite.

FM Band Propagation from the North

Propagation from the North seems to be stronger than usual during the warm afternoons of the last few days.  Normally, here in Shoreline, I can pick up 100.3 CKKQ “The Q” reasonably well, but not so with CHTT “Jack FM” on 103.1.  It’s usually pretty marginal.

These last few days I’ve been able to listen to them on the car radio as I drive around the Seattle / Shoreline area.

At first I wondered if they might have received a power increase or increased their antenna height, but then I tuned in the other morning and it was just marginally receivable as usual.

I’m guessing perhaps we’ve got a bit of a temperature inversion over the water in the afternoon resulting in a bit of tropospheric bending.

It’s always fun being able to listen to something that ordinarily wouldn’t make the trip so well.

I do wonder how they get “Jack FM” out of “CHTT”, but then if you pronounce “CHTT” it’s close enough to something you don’t want to be associated with that you’ll find anything else to call yourself.

Kudos KMCQ

I’ve been quick to criticize the bad clipped horrid audio of the vast majority of the Seattle area radio stations.

I thought I’d take a moment to make a positive comment about one exception.  104.5 FM, KMCQ, wonderfully clean audio.  Percussion instruments still sound like musical instruments instead of gated white-noise.

I’m not overly fond of the format, automated oldies, often of the slow dreary variety, but when they do get a good song on there it sounds good, so kudos to the engineering staff there!

Slightly Less Gloomy

It appears KZOK finally repaired whatever was causing the horrid audio, now it’s just back to the normal clipped and overly compressed audio those of us who live in the Seattle market are used to.

I’ve never really understood what it is with this region of the country, the obsession with being “loud” is extreme.  I understand the need on AM where the signal to noise ratio is bad unless you live next to the antenna, but on FM it makes no sense.

One notable exception is KMCQ, 104.5, one of the few stations in the Seattle market that isn’t badly clipped.  It’s nice to hear percussion instruments actually sound like the instrument instead of gated white noise.  Kudos…  I’m not real fond of the format, not that I have anything against oldies, but I don’t really care for the sedate, and I don’t like automation and the total lack of audience interaction, that’s just me, but I do appreciate good clean audio.

Some day I have to string up a shortwave antenna and see if I can receive anything beside computer hash.  The built-in antenna on my little SW receiver is completely useless in this house.

Radio Blog Blues

I apologize for the lack of posts here recently but truth be told, the state of radio is so depressing that I’ve lacked motivation.

Commercial Broadcasting in the Seattle area has consolidated into a handful of mostly right-wing mega-corporations that play nothing but bland automated crap or spew right-wing propaganda all day long, with the exception of one station that spews pseudo left wing propaganda that is so blatantly bogus that it’s an embarrassment to listen to.

KNDD used to be my favorite radio station for modern music but anymore, during the hours of the day it’s not automated, anytime they get a radio personality that actually has one, they’re rapidly replaced.  It’s as if they’ve cloned pig-vomit and sent a clone to every station in the Seattle market.

I don’t want to bash Mike Kaplan anymore. I’m sure he is doing the best he can.  However, either his aesthetics and mine are 180 degrees out of phase, or the upper management have clamped down on the budget so much that things like the Beach House, live talented original creative and funny radio personalities, and good website design are just out of reach now, but whatever it is, I don’t like it.

I like radio that actually involves and interacts with the audience, and even with the expanded play list, I still here the same song 2-4 times if I listen a whole day.  And maybe it’s just me, I mean I know I’m ADD’ish, but I get bored hearing the same song again and again all day long.

Jack-FM doesn’t play the same song twice in a day, but they play what they want, not want I want, so I find myself turning jack off quickly.  The station is the antithesis of audience involvement, completely automated, and I hate everything it stands for.

I used to like KZOK for older rock, and often still I’ll tune in and hear a favorite old song, but the sound quality is so atrocious that I can not stand it for more than about 30 seconds.

And KISW, which has remained true to it’s format for more than 30 years, now censors Show Biz Kids like everyone else.  Guess they’ve been castrated too.

Local content is almost non-existent in the Seattle market.  Want to find out what’s going on locally?  Forget radio, pick up a copy of Seattle Weekly or something.

So much for AM/FM broadcast in the Seattle market…

I think the FCC should go back to the old rules where no entity could own more than three stations in a market, one AM, one FM, and one television.  I also think they should go back to the old rule where at least 12 hours of every day must be local content and get rid of the 24×7 network crap stations.

I used to enjoy shortwave, but now all I get is computer hash from 1.7Mhz all the way to 30Mhz.  Not surprising in my house, but now if I take a portable and walk the neighborhood, it’s the same everywhere.  The FCC is obviously not enforcing part 15 when it comes to incidental radiation and that’s not an accident, it’s a way of reducing the exposure of US citizens to some less brain-dead brain-washed ideas from around the world.

So in a nutshell, that’s why I haven’t been posting much, general disgust with the broadcast scene in the Seattle market.

KZOK 102.5 FM Audio

Was wondering if anyone has knowledge of what happened to KZOK’s audio? It sounds like a 24 Kb/s MP3, which is to say horrid.  Pretty much anything over about 8Khz seems to be gone, but it sounds like there is a big peak just before it rolls off and everything sounds squished.  This has been going on for several weeks now.  I received no response to an inquiry I sent to CBS Radio.

Whatever it is, I sure hope it’s not permanent.

KNDD

Just returned from a visit to KNDD’s web site.   Got to say it matches the rest of the station, sterile, boring, devoid of the life it used to have.

Several years ago, 2006-2008ish…  It was exciting, the Beach House, Block Party Weekends, End Sessions with cutting edge musicians, a station with an air staff that wasn’t afraid to be bold, and fun, now it’s just blah.

The website has followed suit, it’s blah too.

I am glad to see the end has increased their play list, now at least it’s possible to listen to more than two hours without hearing the same song three times.

I’m thinking Seattle needs a new alternative station, one that gets cutting edge artists exposed, gravitates to high energy music, not the bordering on elevator music that is about 80% of the playlist these days.