RF Was Never the Answer for Broadcasting
Gordon Smith was one of the US senators for Oregon (Republican) before his ouster in the 2008 elections that swept Obama and the Democrats to power. He seemed to be a fair man for the State and we were lucky enough to have some of his connections tied directly to the coastal community in which we lived – giving us a little more attention than we might otherwise have had.
The Smith family, Gordon and his wife Sharon, have had their tragedies including the suicide death in September 2003 of their eldest adopted son, Garrett, in his apartment in Utah where he was attending Utah Valley State College. In a strict Mormon family Garrett had a problem with alcohol in the Maryland school he was attending while dad was in the Senate, and he had returned to Pendleton High School in Northeast Oregon for his final year. He had admitted depression before his departure on the compulsory mission (his was to England) his faith requires.
Oregon vegetables have been the source of the Smith fortunes in the form of Smith Frozen Foods, located in the tiny town of Weston close to the Washington state border, boasting sales of something close to 15% of the nation’s supply of frozen peas and corn. But when he was not re-elected in 2008 Gordon Smith didn’t go back to the country, choosing instead to take on the presidency of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) – the lobbying group for broadcasters with a major income source in the form of the NAB show held in Las Vegas in April of every year.
Gordon Smith started his keynote speech at NAB this week with a cartoon caption he said he had seen “in The New Yorker a while back.” “This man is standing at a lectern to give a speech and he's saying, ‘I know so much I don't know where to begin.’” If this was actually used in The New Yorker, it is not original. The story was first told by the Benedictine Abbot of Belmont Abbey (Hereford, UK) in a talk that he gave at the Mother House of the Sisters of St Joseph in Llantarnam in South Wales back in 2003. Abbot Paul Stonham, who was leading the Abbey after an unpleasant sexual scandal, was describing a talk by a Greek scholar he had conned into visiting his college.
The crux of Smith’s keynote was to point out the value of broadcasters to the communities they serve and to reinforce how forward looking they are. You would be forgiven for thinking that talk radio should probably be excluded from any such description of service. He was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Eddie Fritts, in supporting the continuation of over-the-air free programming in both radio and television, with special emphasis on the support that stations give their local populations.
He must have been living in Washington for too long…
There are few radio stations that allow an open microphone to be used locally; and when they have tried local programming they have been slapped down by their owners very fast. In TV the local news broadcasts are the most expensive proposition they have to fund: and advertising doesn’t cut it. Instead the broadcasts are used mainly as continuity systems to push other programming fed by satellite through the station’s system.
The argument that Smith makes – and that Fritts made before him – is that radio and TV are naturals for RF distribution: a one-to-many model as they put it. Why then, do they argue, should the likes of the FCC force them to move channels so that spectrum can be auctioned off for mobile use? If nothing else, it has had the positive effect of forcing stations to update their standards to digital and HD, although it still rankles to hear stations calling themselves ‘Channel 4’ when they are now actually broadcasting on Channel 42, or something.
It can certainly be said that a lot of already-sold spectrum is not in use by those who have bought the right to do so. Spectrum is a huge investment, but it is a long term strategy putting money in something that can never be created again; what we have is all that we are getting. But if you were starting a broadcast system all over again it is unlikely that you would use RF: if you want to address a fixed location, such as a home, RF makes no sense whatsoever. That applies to almost 100% of TV broadcasting...so why don’t we save numerous power stations by turning the lot off and insisting that cable and satellite services must provide the basic, now over-air, channels free of charge?
As for radio: what is left of it is fairly hideous. ‘Consolidation’ has been a terrible thing in, and for, the industry, making local broadcasting, as I have said, really non-existent. I have no problem in pushing to continue the current situation, however, because the percentage of the spectrum used by radio is so small. For less than one hundred megahertz the whole industry is accommodated with ease. (The material offered could be so much better, as it once was.)
But let’s use the RF spectrum for the good of all, not the benefit of the few TV broadcasters who are still making a little, very little, money from their terrestrial existence. That’s not a bad come down for an RF engineer…