Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Strangest Commercial Ever...Yet I Can't Look Away

I've been seeing this ad for Reebok a lot lately, and considering that it's got 20 NFL players in it (and how much these guys get paid to appear in an ad) I'm sure I'll be seeing it a lot more. The first time I saw it I was just completely stunned. Not in a bad way, not at all. It was just such a giant non-sequitur, and yet...it was just weird enough that it works. Actually, it works really well.

It helps that the music, Train Song by Vashti Bunyan, is just a perfect choice. Haunting yet hummable. Plus, you know, I'm just a disgustingly huge Patriots fan and my boys are indeed featured prominently. Not as prominently as those blankety-blank Giants, but I suppose that's understandable.

Check it out:

FCC approves XM & Sirius merger. World to end at high noon.

Recently I accused FCC commissioner Jonathan Edelstein of "selling out" his normally-left-leaning values, in that he was willing to approve the XM-Sirius merger if various conditions were met. Conditions that were stricter than what had been originally proposed, but frankly, were ultimately meaningless in the face of a government-sanctioned monopoly...which is what XM/Sirius are.

I personally feel this merger is bad news no matter what conditions are imposed, hence my feelings about Edelstein.

Well, I give Edelstein some credit back. When it became apparent that fellow Commissioner Tate was the real sellout and cast the swing vote in favor of the merger...WITHOUT the extra conditions...Edelstein voted against it, after all.

This is still horrible news, but at least Edelstein gets some street cred back.

Quick reminder: both XM and Sirius have been paying quite a lot of money to NPR and other public radio content providers for the rights to air said pubradio programming. With a monopoly in place, you can bet that gravy train will be coming to an abrupt end pretty soon. This is bad news since that revenue was helping a lot to pay for other new initiatives, and it couldn't come at a worse time overall-economy-wise.

BTW, technically this is not over just yet. Various factions - like the NAB and NPR - can and no doubt will sue to block the merger. The merger will almost certainly be frozen until the court case is resolved, which will take months or years. In other words, long enough to see a new President into office. If Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama wins, by law that will shift the makeup of the five FCC commissioners, from three Republicans and two Democrats, to the reverse of that. It might even force the current FCC commissioner/chairman, right-wing, secrecy-obsessed, and under-Congressional-investigation Kevin Martin, out entirely.

Needless to say, an FCC commission with a Democratic makeup might be a lot more inclined to block the XM-Sirius merger. Even with Obama in the White House, I wouldn't take it to the bank, but it could happen. We'll see...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

VR3 Add-On Car HD Radio - price slashed to $38 (!!!)

I recently wrote a review of the VR3 add-on auto HD Radio tuner. It wasn't very kind; the radio isn't bad but it's not all that great, either. Between when I first bought it and when I finished writing the review, the price dropped from $150 to just over $100. That lowered price helped make the radio a lot more attractive.

Well, that was two weeks ago (July 13). Today at Target (July 27, 2008) the price was only $38. Yes, thirty-eight bucks! I grabbed the three units on the shelf and bought 'em for WEOS; at that price they'll make decent giveaways.

However, a price cut that steep can only mean that the model's discontinued (either by VR3 or Target) and is about to be superceded by a new model. That new model may or may not be HD Radio-equipped.

For example, I wandered over to home electronics in Target today as well, and found the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio, a tabletop model that also has a dock for an iPod and supports iTunes tagging (and has a "surround sound" emulator, too). Pretty sexy for $180.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The FCC sells out to Mel

I guess we know where Jonathan Adelstein's bread is really buttered. Adelstein, a Democrat appointee to the five-member FCC board of commissioners, is usually known for being a rather "liberal" member, often taking any stance that opposes "big media" from getting any bigger.

Well today he sold out. Oh sure, he's trying to extract a bunch of conditions of the deal...and I give him props for one of the conditions being that any satradio receiver has to include an AM/FM tuner (no word on if that tuner has be HD Radio-compatible as well...that'd be nice if it were).

But ultimately this is still two big companies becoming a sanctioned monopoly. Our government has a bad history of "regulating" monopolies. And I don't care what price restrictions or channel reservations you insist a merged XM-Sirius have...ultimately the consumer is going to get screwed. You'll see more ads. You'll see lower programming quality. You'll see cheap, disposable talent. And, yes, eventually you will see higher monthly subscription fees.

In essence, you'll see what happened to AM and FM radio when the FCC lifted the ownership restrictions on that: the entire industry went to hell. Well, okay, the industry was already in hell...but it went from the third circle straight to the tenth, ya know?

Congratulations, Mr. Adelstein...you just made a deal with the devil. Now go wash your hands.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Let the Pubradio Deathwatch Commence

Good grief. The number of public radio shows that either are rumored to be ending, or have confirmed their ending, is getting ridiculous! Let's do the list, shall we?
Guess that lousy economy is really catching up with public radio. Or is it? In some cases I think that's true, but I also suspect that some of these shows did an excellent job finding a niche and serving it when they started some ten years ago, but they never figured out how to adapt when that niche didn't really need them anymore. Others were just good ideas that weren't given the admittedly long time it would take to really get enough affiliates to be worth it...although I don't deny that it's hard to keep spending millions on a show that only has a few dozen affiliates.

I don't really know for sure, but this is a mighty disturbing trend regardless. I especially find it troublesome that several of the most "unconventional" and "experimental" shows are the ones getting killed off. Granted, "experimental" by definition means you're not sure it's going to work...but I really think that most of these "experimental" shows should have worked but either weren't given the chance or were set up to fail.

Monday, July 14, 2008

NPR kills off the Bryant Park Project

Well, I sort-of-called it back in January, when Luke Burbank bailed on BPP for greener pastures in Seattle's powerhouse AM talker: KIRO. But today NPR officially announced the end of the Bryant Park Project.

I would imagine the biggest reason for the euthanasia was that NPR is not in good financial shape right now. I wouldn't call it a crisis, but the extended Democratic primary battle...while possibly good for the country...was a giant strain on NPR's resources. Not to mention the overall concept of an 18 month Presidential race (ugh!) was daunting enough from a financial standpoint.

Couple that with fewer than two dozen affiliates (no doubt many of which were on HD Radio multicast channels - and therefore with very small audiences) and it's not surprising that NPR claims they spent $2 million over nine months with nothing to show for it.

However, allow me to be among those that give a giant dope-slap to NPR. No crap you didn't get much pickup...it'd only been on the air for nine months! You're trying to convince stations to not air Morning Edition which is, by and large, the biggest moneymaker for every NPR affiliate out there. That's going to take YEARS, not just nine months.

However, as I said in January, Luke Burbank himself also deserves a lot of blame here. Well, okay, I shouldn't pretend to know all the reasons why he left BPP. But the reasons given in the Seattle Times article published at the time sure point to a massive egotistical a**hole. And I have no doubt in my mind that his departure spooked a lot of potential affiliates - who wants to risk your most profitable daypart to pick up a show that's so personality-driven when the host just quit after only two months? I think that skittishness eventually doomed BPP due to lack of affiliate stations.

Frankly, Alison Stewart's (the remaining BPP host) maternity leave didn't help. Is that sexist? (Alison honestly wanted to know) Perhaps, but I think in this particular case it's more of a perfect storm. The bottom line is that Stewart was going to be away from the show for at least several weeks...and frankly, I think that's as it should be. Dammit, are we all such wage slaves that we can't spend time with our newborns? I certainly feel we shouldn't be.

And in an ideal world, it wouldn't have been a problem for BPP because the other established host, Luke Burbank, would be there to pick up the slack for a few months and then Stewart would've returned and all would be well. But Burbank's ill-timed departure (Stewart went on leave barely three months later) meant that you had what was supposed to be a world-class alternative to a flagship program that had no permanent host, right at a time when a lot of news was happening and budgets were also being drained rapidly because of that news. That equals uncertainty and stations' program directors HATE uncertainty.

No wonder nobody else wanted to pick up the show. Hell, I didn't at WEOS...and for all the reasons I just outlined. I was pretty sure that NPR would eventually dump the show and I was right. Damn shame, but shame on NPR for giving up so quickly. Or for not having a plan that could deal with these problems.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

VR3's Add-On Car HD Radio Hits Target with a Miss

Wandering through Target recently I spotted a big “HD Radio” logo on a box in the auto section. This was the first I’d seen of HD Radio in Target, a store that’s known for attracting shoppers that are younger and have higher median household incomes...qualities many stations like in listeners, too! Perhaps the VR3 VRHDUA100 could be a real boon. Sadly, while I found it to be a decent tuner, the radio itself has a clunky user interface and is limited in features as to be problematic.

The VR3 is an “add-on” tuner, designed to be used through your existing car stereo. There’s three parts: a main unit that you tuck away behind the dashboard, a control unit that you attach somewhere in the interior, and a power supply/cord.

The power supply
Unlike most car radios, the VR3 provides a power plug that mates with any 12VDC “cigarette lighter” power jack in a car. There is no other way to provide power unless you cut off the cigarette lighter jack and strip the wires a bit. Perhaps this is no big deal for a radio engineer, but I can't see Joe Average doing it.

However, this does make installation a lot easier. But for me, it also hogs a power source you might need for an iPod or cellphone charger. And in my case, my 2001 Honda Accord also has a lot of engine electrical noise on that jack, and it came through the radio very audibly with a high-frequency whine that would increase in pitch and loudness as the engine RPM's did.

Hmmm…strike one.

The main unit
The main unit is the size of a small paperback book (6.5” W x 3.75” D x 1.2” H) and easily fit behind my existing car radio. However, as with most add-on tuners it’s designed to go in-line of your car’s antenna. The problem here is that the main unit’s cord, designed to go to the existing car radio, is just 18 inches. So the main unit pretty much has to be installed right where your existing car radio is. Not every car has a lot of room back there.

The main unit also has two RCA line-level outputs for the audio, which work fine. But this revealed a glaring omission: there’s no RF modulator in the VR3. So if your existing car radio doesn’t have RCA line-level inputs, you’re outta luck. Or you have to buy a separate add-on FM RF modulator.

Yeesh…strike two.

For the hell of it, I did open up the case and took a look inside. The interior appears pretty densely packed. Although I never noticed an excessive amount of heat being generated during operation. I didn't take any pictures of the underside of the interior - it's just a blank PCB.

The control unit
The control unit is discreetly small (only 5” W x 1.25” H x 0.6” D) and the package includes a handy snap-in cradle that can suction-mount to your windshield. There’s a two-line LCD display (blue-white letters on backlit blue) and eight buttons: POWER, BAND, SCAN and MENU on the left of the display…TUNE UP, TUNE DOWN, ENTER and PRESET on the right. Enter also doubles as a “change display” button, which can be set to show the song title, artist, call letters, frequency, a signal strength bargraph meter, or scrolling text.

The radio will show PAD from RDS/RBDS or, if HD carriers are present, the PSD from the HD station. If neither are present, it just shows the frequency. Usually the top line is reserved for call letters and “FM”, “AM”, “HD FM” or “HD AM”. The bottom line is what’s controlled by the ENTER button, and it’s erratic to say the least. This is more the fault of HD stations not standardizing on what information they’re displaying using the artist/title/etc fields. But it’s frustrating because the VR3 only shows one at a time, and must be manually cycled. The signal strength meter seems to have little usefulness, especially with FM multicast stations; you already know you’ve lost the signal because the HD audio disappears before the meter drops at all.

There’s no brightness or contrast control on the VR3, and it is exceedingly bright for night driving. I “solved” that problem simply by stuffing the control unit in an out-of-direct-sight location…inelegant but I suppose it worked. This also kinda highlights another shortcoming: while the cradle is pretty well designed in terms of holding the control unit, it's not so great for actually attaching to anything. The click-lock suction cup works reasonably well for attaching to a windshield, but unless you want your car to have a giant "steal me" sign on it, you don't want to leave something like that out when you're parked. So it suddenly becomes a real pain in the neck to remove/setup the cradle every time you go out.

The lack of contrast control was also a problem because I usually wear polarized sunglasses during daytime driving, and LCD displays are inherently polarized themselves. Unfortunately, the VR3's display is oriented so that when viewed normally while wearing polarized glasses...the display turns solid black. D'oh! I had to turn it 90 degrees to see anything on the display. Grrr…

And while we're piling on with the annoying quirks: when you shut off your car, the radio doesn’t stay on the last station it was playing. Instead, when you start up the car, the radio goes to whatever the station was when you last turned on the VR3 itself. This isn’t really a big deal, but it’s one more vaguely annoying thing in a radio that has a lot of vaguely annoying things.

Somewhat more seriously, the radio has an annoying tendency to just tune to "static" when you tune up or down. Especially, and inexplicably, if you tune past 87.5 or 107.9 to "loop around" to the other end of the radio dial. Even if you know darn well there's a clear station on a given frequency, sometimes all you hear is static. Tuning one notch away and then back usually clears the problem, but it's disconcerting nonetheless.

However, something that truly is rather damning: the presets are incredibly difficult to use. You must hit PRESET first, then scroll up and down amongst the 20 presets (10 each for AM & FM) using the TUNE UP or TUNE DOWN buttons then hit ENTER to switch to that frequency. This effectively requires you to take your eyes of the road for several seconds at a time to use any one present.

Hoo-boy…that’s strike three.

Arguing with the ump
Now that I’ve kicked the VR3 while it’s down, I should point out some of the positives. The radio is not the most-ever sensitive tuner I’ve ever used, but it’s not bad. I’ve used the Kenwood HR-100 and the JVC KD-HDW10 in this same car, and both are slightly better, but only slightly. You can feel comfortable recommending this tuner to the non-radiophile for signal selectivity.

I was particularly impressed with the AM sensitivity (listed at -87dBm in the manual) which was markedly better than most stock car radios. I couldn’t find a spec on it, but my ears told me the VR3 dynamically adjusts the AM bandwidth to adjust for signal conditions…and when it had a solid signal it must’ve been very wideband because it sounded fabulous. The only catch, if you can call it that, is that often the bandwidth narrowing was VERY audible. On both AM and FM you’d often hear the sound get tinny or rich very quickly as the filter constantly adapted. Ah well, at least when the signal was good, the sound was good, too.

In all fairness, the VR3 seems designed to focus heavily on the “easy to install” part (the box even touts it) and for the non-technical, it does mostly achieve that goal. Even the simple manual does a good job tackling a universal installation concept. The problem comes when you want to actually use it – it’s just not that user-friendly. Worse, there are better options out there that are cheaper: the VR3 retails for $150.

UPDATE July 13th 2008:
a visit to Target today revealed they have lowered the price from $150 to $105. Looks like a recent change. I admit this makes the VR3 more competitive with comparable models like the Visteon HD Zoom or Directed Electronics "Car Connect" (see my review of the Directed) both of which retail for about $200. Although the Directed, and the similar-looking Visteon, both seem to offer far better performance and features.

UPDATE July 27th, 2008: another visit to Target and another price cut, this time to just $38 (!!!!!) Either Target or VR3 must be discontinuing selling this model to let 'em go at that price. I grabbed the remaining three radios on the shelf at the Henrietta, NY Target to use as giveaways for WEOS. I also noticed that in the home electronics aisle they now have the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio ($180) a tabletop model that has an iPod dock and supports iTunes tagging.

What about for in-house monitoring?
Thinking outside the box, what about for radio engineers wanting in-house monitoring? It's tempting...the radio's design that makes it automatically go to whatever frequency it was set to when you turned the power off via the POWER button on the control unit. And if it was powered on when you cut the power, it'll come back on automatically when power is restored. Quirky, but it means you can be assured that'll come back to a specific frequency in the event of a power loss.

Catch is, you can’t force it to power-on to a HD-2 or HD-3 (or HD-n) multicast channel. Alert reader Tom noticed that this is not true on his VR3; when you tune it to a multicast channel, press POWER to power off, then press POWER again to power on...the VR3 will return to the multicast channel every time after a power outage. When I re-tested my VR3 I discovered that mine did that, too...I don't know why it wouldn't during the original testing. Very weird. So it's got some potential as an in-house monitor. Unfortunately, when the carrier signal is lost, the radio switches back to the main frequency quite quickly...10 to 15 seconds. So unfortunately, it's not quite perfect for monitoring since you can't use it with a silence sensor, nor can you force it to tune to digital only. Still, not bad for $38, though.

In conclusion...
Target’s website offers a few other HD Radio options (although, oddly, the website doesn't list the VRHDUA100), but as of June 2008 I haven’t seen any alternatives in the actual stores as of July 27, 2008, Target is now selling the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio in the home electronics aisle. So for the time being, if your listeners want to walk into a store and walk out with an HD Radio for their car I’d have to recommend you send them elsewhere. If they just want a tabletop model, the Sony is a good one. While the VR3 is indeed fairly easy to set up, it's just too lacking in features and too difficult to use for your non-technical listener that it's not worth it.

The one place I could possibly recommend the VR3 is in a "company car" if your station has one. It's not a bad tuner and, presumably, your company car is mostly going to be listening to your station alone...thus you don't have to worry about changing the channel.

Thumbs Up
  • Decent tuner selectivity.
  • Small size.
  • Fairly easy/simple installation.
Thumbs Down
  • Very poor user interface.
  • Lack of FM RF Modulator.
  • Lack of options for power.
  • Cheap price reflects few features.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Ted Koppel - Humorous or Nasty?

Ted Koppel is guest-hosting NPR's Talk of the Nation today. Wednesdays means TOTN is in the Newseum in front of a live audience.

Generally speaking I really like Koppel. He brings the gravitas, which can make him all the funnier when he wants to be. He can do really silly stuff with an amazingly "heavy" deadpan voice.

But today, he's sometimes taking it one notch too far...I suspect that the audience is seeing a knowing wink and a grin, but us radio listeners don't have that visual cue and his words are definitely on the stinging side. Not all that much, and not all that often, but just enough that I think it's throwing your average public radio listener a bit off-stride.

(Here's a link to today's show page with audio archives and transcripts)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hillary Clinton in Geneva

Sen. Hillary Clinton was in Geneva today, making something of a whirlwind tour from Syracuse down the Thruway into Buffalo. She gave a quick speech at the Red Jacket Orchards store after touring some farms in Wayne county that got hammered by hailstones in thunderstorms recently.

WEOS broadcast the speech live and I got to shake her hand afterwards. Sweet. We posted a recording here, too.

Personally, I was inclined to vote Hillary but also leaning towards Obama. I ended up voting for Huckabee on Super Tuesday in the vain hopes of spoiling John McCain's chances of winning New York. :-) Anyways, I sure as hell would've voted for her Nov.2nd if she were on the ticket. She gives a good speech, though...and it's always impressive how long-time politicians like her have this amazing ability to memorize millions of names and pronunciations and little facts and whatnot. She pronounced perfectly several of the goofy names we've got around here (like "Canandaigua"...CAN-nan-DAY-gwah).

And, of course, she seems a little shorter in person. :-) I guess it's natural to think of these people as towering giants. After all, I came of age in the Clinton era. Given recent years, it's hard not to think of those as "the good times".

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Signs of the Apocalypse : Number Eleven

Well, we already had Bush elected President (number three), and the tanking economy (number eight). But this is just nuts. If you told me in March that by July 1st the frickin' Tampa Bay Devil Rays...the $*^#@ DEVIL RAYS!!!!...would not only be first in the AL East, but also have the best record in baseball I'd slap you silly and call you Manny.

If your name was Manny, I'd still slap you (and you might deserve it) but I'd call you Susan instead.

To top it off, the frickin' Cubs have the second-best record, and are leading the NL Central by three games. At this rate it'll be Armageddon by Halloween.