Tuesday, March 04, 2008

When 50,000 Watts Isn't Really 50,000 Watts

Caught this story in Current about "Community Wireless" (public radio) in Park City, Utah.

I don't have much to say about the situation in general, but I did want to point out something the article didn't touch on much. Let me set the scene...

The overall story is about how Community Wireless shrewdly sold a transmitter/facility they had in Coalville for a significant profit, and used the proceeds to buy 1010AM in Tooele, UT (a close-in suburb of Salt Lake City) with the idea of getting access to the more lucrative (population dense) Salt Lake City market.

Seems like a good idea in theory, but here's the problem. While 1010 is a nice 50,000 watt AM station during the day. It's still a Class D daytimer with a weak 3,100 watts during Critical Hours (the short time around sunrise/sunset) and a miserable 13 watts (yes, just thirteen watts) at night. Fortunately that 13 watts is right next to downtown SLC, so there's some chance that it's reaching a more densely populated area. But with all the sources of RF interference out there these days (wi-fi, cellphones, lamp dimmers, power lines, computers, etc) that 13 watts might as well be nothing.

The unfortunate reality is that in today's on-demand / instant-gratification age..."super D" AM's, that essentially disappear once the sun goes down, are damn near impossible to make work financially. You can't have your signal go "poof" right in the middle of morning or afternoon drive...or worse, miss it altogether. Well, okay, with some niche/block formats you can do it because listeners tune in for a specific show, regardless of the time of the day. But while public radio is somewhat inherently block-formatted, there's no denying that the two big listener draws are Morning Edition and All Things Considered...otherwise known as when everyone's driving to and from work. During the summer it's not as bad as there's more daylight, but during winter it's a giant bummer when the sun sets at 4pm and your signal disappears.

Even worse, you've got to make enough money to keep that 50,000 watts pumping out during the day; transmitters that big are not cheap to operate. At least it's an non-directional facility. I can't imagine how expensive it'd be to shove 50kW through a directional array.

I wish the article had focused on this more...it'd make the initial shrewdness of Community Wireless's owners seem more foolhardy, but that's kind of the point; CW spent a lot of money to try and make this work, and now the station is struggling financially. It appears the struggling is as much due to fiscal mismanagement (if not outright fraud) by CW's managers, but this transmitter point might be something you could point a finger at, too.

Or maybe not; I don't know enough about the background of the story to really know for sure. But my point still stands about how a lot of these Class D AM stations are in an inherently difficult...if not impossible...situation.

No comments: