Trunk Line

Entries Tagged as 'Future'

A lost love

November 30th, 2023 · No Comments

kfog logos

When I moved to Palo Alto from North Carolina in 1985, the preëminent rock station for the Bay Area was KFOG, on 104.5 FM. The morning jock was M. Dung (the on-air handle of Michael Slavko), who did more than anyone else to make me feel comfortable and welcome in a completely new environment. Like the rest of the station, M (what he usually called himself) was “always on, but a little off.”

My fave rock station in North Carolina had been WRDU/106.1, to which many friends who had worked at WQDR/94.7 had just migrated after that much-loved station flipped to country music. (A genre I also like, but we’re talking about friends here.)

From  1982 to 2017, KFOG was a great friend to fans of rock and related genres. You can see how much it was loved just by searching for it. The top results are tribute sites and KFOGisForever. Below those are a list of heartfelt lamentations.

I’ll carry this forward with my answer to a Quora questionWill 104.5 FM in San Francisco ever flip back to any music format?

In American radio, very few station formats are permanent. Two of the most durable are all-news and all-sports. For decades, the biggest all-news and all-sports stations in major markets were only on AM signals. Nearly all of those stations in recent years have added FM signals, displacing whatever was on the FM channel they moved to. All-news WINS/1010 in New York, WBBM/780 in Chicago, and KNX/1070 in Los Angeles moved to 92.3, 105.9, and 97.1 respectively, replacing the music stations on those channels. All-sports WEEI/850 in Boston and WFAN/660 in New York did the same when they moved to 93.7 and 101.9 in those cities. And KNBR/680 did the same in San Francisco when it added the signal at 104.5, long the home of KFOG.

Never mind that KNBR’s day signal covers a third of California and its night signal covers the whole Western U.S., while KFOG’s old signal barely covers the Bay Area. AM is a dead band walking. FM is where the listening is, and the signal at 104.5 is at least competitive. By now there are very few incumbent ratings leaders on AM that have not added an FM signal. KFI/640 in Los Angeles, WLW/700 in Cincinnati, KOA/850 in Denver, and WSCR/670 in Chicago are four that come to mind. There are a handful of others. Even with those, I’m sure it’s a matter of time before their owners find an FM signal to add.

In the longer term, FM is doomed as well. The Internet is slowly eating away at every incumbent communications medium: print, radio, TV, all of it. Your best radio is now the phone in your pocket or purse. All stations of any importance are there as well as on old-fashioned broadcast bands. If you want to hear KFOG again, there are a number of websites streaming the old programs. Nearly every piece of recorded music ever played on KFOG is also on music services from Apple, Amazon, Spotify, and other sources.

Here is another reason why KFOG is unlikely to return to the airwaves: rock music is still with us, but its era is over. We could argue that, but look up Rock Era and see what comes up. KFOG played a lot of genres other than pure rock (one of the things that made the station distinctive), but it was still a rock station.

Music genres today are largely created and maintained online, rather than on the air.

But hey, maybe the old KFOG will return someday.

But, if it does, it will need to pry the callsign from its current holder: KFOG/1250 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Might be a long shot, but money talks. If there is an economic case, it’s one worth making. And, for what it’s worth, the station mostly identifies as “Power 92” (named for its FM signal), and I read in June that the AM side was off the air.

In respect to infrastructure (the theme of this blog), my point is this: As we move into the Digital Age, the Internet and digital tech will finish absorbing and obsolescing every old analog communication system.

Radio’s age lasted roughly from the early twenties of the twentieth century to the early twenties of the twenty-first. Some of what it was will live on through streams and podcasts online. But it’s a matter of time before radios will only play hiss.


Tags: Broadcasting · Future · History · Industry · Over-the-Air (OTA) · Radio

On Infrastructure as a MEGO

September 24th, 2022 · No Comments

MEGO in journalism stands for My Eyes (or Ears) Glaze Over. According to William Safire , a MEGO os “a subject of great importance which resists reader interest.”

Infrastructure is a one-word MEGO.

So I haven’t written much about infrastructure, including here: on a blog created by Christain Sandvig when we were both fellows at the Berkman Klein Center. It was meant as a place where learned folk who care about infrastructure could hold forth. A variety of those was recruited to participate, and approximately none did, including me. I’ve kept it alive in recent years by posting here occasionally, mostly with stuff that I think fits better here than anywhere else I tend to write.

In the meantime, I have kept an active site on the topic going: a Flickr account with the name Infrastructure.  My chief interest there is in showing the plasticity of infrastructure over time: how it changes or gets replaced. I am especially interested in forms of infrastructure that are out of sight, mind, or booth, but on which we depend completely. These include water, gas, electricity, waste treatment… all the usual.

Plus broadcasting. Because that’s the form of infrastructure I know best, care about most, and see disappearing. Nobody else seems to be on this beat, so I’m stepping up.

“Compulsions are easy to come by and hard to explain,” John McPhee explains in a New Yorker essay that visits his compulsion to collect stray golf balls. I am likewise compelled to take pictures of transmitter sites. I came by my interest in transmitters when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, observing the Manhattan Skyline from across swamps populated by dozens of transmitting towers for New York’s AM  radio stations. I loved radio and was so curious about the sources of signals that I would ride my bike down Route 17 (dangerous and dumb, but I survived) to WABC in Lodi, WINS in Lyndhurst, and WADO, WBNX, and WHN on Patterson Plank Road in Rutherford and Carlstadt. There I would gawk at the towers and sometimes knock on doors of the buildings feeding signals to the towers, so I could talk shop with the engineers who answered. The compulsion stayed with me. So, after I could drive, I visited countless other facilities, including mountaintop FM and TV stations.

But I didn’t begin shooting lots of photos of broadcast transmitters until digital photography became easy, along with publishing details about them. (One of the most active groups on Facebook is titled, no kidding, “I take pictures of transmitter sites.” It has over fifteen thousand members, most of which, I gather, are active or retired engineers like the ones I would visit as a kid.)

In the last few years, I’ve also come to realize that I’m documenting a medium in decline. Radio is being eaten on the music side by streaming (Apple, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora) and on the talk side by podcasting. Broadcast TV moved almost entirely from antennas to cable decades ago, and now cable itself is being replaced by subscription (aka “prestige”) video services. TV stations maintain transmitters mostly to satisfy “must carry” rules for cable. (Your station can’t be on cable if it’s not on the air.) So now my transmitter site photography has a documentary purpose: keeping up with what’s going down.

The example at the top of this post tells the story of one tower transmitting three of Santa Barbara’s AM stations: what broadcast engineers call a triplex on a monopole. Here’s what the tower looked like for most of its life, when it was 198 feet tall and proclaiming itself a landmark with bright red and white paint. And here’s what it looks like since December of last year, at just 128 feet tall, painted dark green to camouflage it among surrounding palm and eucalyptus trees. The tower now makes up for its lack of height with a flat 24-foot-wide X mounted on top like the candy on a lollypop. The tower was shortened because it was slightly bent. Twenty years ago, the tower would have been replaced or straightened.

Since the tower is now less efficient, the stations have adjusted their powers, mostly upward. Listeners, I am sure, can tell no difference. Nor did they notice when WBBM/780, Chicago’s alpha news station, dropped from its legacy status, running  50,000 watts full time, to 35,000 watts in the daytime and 44,000 watts at night. they did that so the station’s owner could sell off the land under the station’s transmitter sits. WBBM is now diplexed onto the tower of sister station WSCR/670.

The Santa Barbara stations are lucky that their tower stands a city equipment yard, consuming only a few square feet of space on the ground that’s not for sale. Countless other AM stations across the country have been going dark or operating with cheaper facilities. They do this because AM listening is declining while the value of land under many transmitter sites exceeds the worth of the signals. In the Santa Barbara case, the tower stands in the city equipment yard, taking up almost no room on the ground, and the shorter tower works almost as well as it did at full height. And, because it’s an example of AM’s growing unimportance, I keep shooting pictures of stations like these.

Among the reduced or deceased signals:

  • WMEX/1510’s 50,000-watt facility
  • WFNI’s 50,000-watt six-tower site in Indianapolis. (That link is to a 2019 Google Streetview of the site. Note the For Sale sign. It’s sold now, the station is off the air, and the land covered with buildings. It was, for most of its life, and at the time of its demise, the biggest AM station in Indiana. When I lived in North Carolina, it was one of the biggest signals one could get at night.)
  • KABC/790’s and KHJ/930”s legacy transmitting sites in Los Angeles
  • KOKC/1520’s original full-size towers (lost in a tornado and replaced with cheaper ones half as high and much less efficient)
  • WDNC/620 in Durham and WKIX/850 in Raleigh, North Carolina, with land sold from under their old towers

Those are harbingers toward a time when AM is gone completely, as it already is in much of Europe. FM and TV are not far behind. But streams will remain, as the most popular radio already is the smartphone.

And I want to document as much of the change as I can.

By the way, I am also firing up this blog because it is also starting to show up in some RSS feeds. Greetings, feedsters!

Important: RSS is a hugely important source of Internet infrastructure. Dig:

Nothing with that many results can’t matter.

Tags: Future · History · Industry · Media · Radio · Television