May 082022
 

So, this is quite sad news… I learned this on Friday morning that one of Brisbane’s longer-serving radio stations will be taken over by new management and will change its format from being a “classic hits” music station, to being a 24/7 sports coverage station.

It had been operated by the Australian Radio Network who had recently done a merger with a rival network, Grant Broadcasters, picking up their portfolio which included their portfolio of stations which included a number of other Greater Brisbane region stations. This tipped them over the edge and so they had to let one go, the unlucky victim was their oldest: 4KQ.

Now, you’re thinking, big deal, there are lots of radio stations out there, including Internet radio. Here’s why this matters. Back in the 90s, pretty much all of the stations here in Brisbane were locally run. They might’ve been part of a wider network, but generally, the programming about shows and music was decided on by people in this area. Lots of songs were hits only in Brisbane. There are some songs that did not make the music charts anywhere else world-wide. But, here in Brisbane, we requested those songs.

Sometimes the artists knew about this, sometimes not.

Over time, other stations have adjusted their format, and in many cases, abandoned local programming, doing everything from Sydney and Melbourne. Southern Cross Austereo tried this with Triple M years ago, and in the end they had to reverse the decision as their ratings tanked and complaints inundated the station.

4KQ represented one of the last stations to keep local programming. I’m not sure how many still do, but in particular this station was unique amongst the offerings in this area due to its wide coverage of popular music spanning 1960 ~ 1995, and in particular, its focus on the Brisbane top-40 charts.

Some of the radio programs too were great: Brent James in particular had an art for painting a picture of Brisbane at that time for both people who were there to experience it, those who missed out because they lived someplace else, and people like myself who were either too young to remember or not alive at the time in the first place. A lot of their other staff too, had a lot of music knowledge and trivia — yes you can reproduce the play lists with one’s own music collection, but the stories behind the hits are harder to replicate. Laurel Edwards is due to celebrate her 30th year with the station — that’s a long commitment, and it’s sad to think that this will be her last through no fault or decision of her own.

It’s loss as a music station is a major blow to the history of this city. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they’ve torn down Festival Hall to put up an apartment block!

A new normal

The question is, where to now? The real sad bit is that this was a successful station that was only culled because of a regulatory compliance issue: ARN now had too many stations in the Greater Brisbane area, and had to let one go. They reluctantly put it up for sale, and sure enough, a buyer took it, but that buyer was not interested in preserving anything other than the frequency, license and broadcast equipment.

In some ways, AM is a better fit for the yap-fest that is SEN-Q. They presently broadcast on DAB+ at 24kbps in essentially AM-radio quality. 4KQ has always been a MW station, originally transmitting at 650kHz back in 1947, moving to 690kHz a year later… then getting shuffled up 3kHz to its present-day 693kHz in 1978 when the authorities (in their wisdom at the time) decided to “make room” by moving all stations to a 9kHz spacing.

Music has never been a particularly good fit for AM radio, but back in 1947 that was the only viable option. FM did exist thanks to the work of Edwin Armstrong, but his patents were still active back then and the more complicated system was less favourable to radio manufacturers at a time when few could afford a radio (or the receiver license to operate it). So AM it was for most broadcasters of that time. “FM radio” as we know it today, wouldn’t come into existence in Brisbane until around 1980, by which time 4KQ was well-and-truly established.

The question remains though… ratings were pretty good, clearly there is demand for such a station. They had a winning formula. Could an independent station carry forward their legacy?

The options

So, in July we’ll have to get used to a new status-quo. It’s not known how long this will last. I am not advocating vigilante action against the new owners. The question will be, is there enough support for a phoenix to rise out of the ashes, and if so, how?

Existing station adopting 4KQ’s old format?

This might happen. Not sure who would be willing to throw out what they have now to try this out but this may be an option. There are a few stations that might be “close enough” to absorb such a change:

  • 4BH (1116kHz AM) does specialise in the “older” music, but it tends to be the softer “easy listening” stuff, they don’t do the heavier stuff that 4KQ and others do. (e.g. you won’t hear AC/DC)
  • KIIS 97.3 (97.3MHz FM) was 4KQ’s sister station, at present they only do music from the 80s onwards.
  • Triple M (104.5MHz FM) would be their closest competitor. They still do some 60s-80s stuff, but they’re more focused on today’s music. There’s a sister-station, Triple M Classic Rock (202.928MHz DAB+) but they are an interstate station, with no regional focus.
  • Outside of Brisbane, River 94.9 (94.9MHz FM) in Ipswich would be the closest to 4KQ. They make frequent mentions of 4IP and its charts. Alas, they are likely beaming west as they are not receivable in this part of Brisbane at least. (VK4RAI on the other hand, located on the same tower can be received, and worked from here… so maybe it’s just a case of more transmit power and a new antenna to service Brisbane?)

I did a tune-around the other day and didn’t hear anything other than those which was in any way comparable.

Interesting aside, 4IP of course was the hit station of its day. These days, if you look up that call-sign, you get directed to RadioTAB… another sports radio station network. Ironic that its rival meets the same fate at the hands of a rival sports radio network.

A new station?

Could enough of us band together and start afresh? Well, this will be tough. It’d be a nice thing if we could, and maybe provide work for those who started the year thinking their job was mostly secure only to find they’ve got two more months left… but the tricky bit is we’re starting from scratch.

FM station?

A new FM station might be ideal in terms of suiting the format, and I did look into this. Alas, not going to happen unless there’s a sacrifice of some sort. I did a search on the ACMA license database; putting in Mt. Coot-tha as the location (likely position of hypothetical transmitter, I think I chose Ch 9 site, but any on that hill will do), giving a radius of 200km and a frequency range of 87-109MHz.

Broadcast FM radio stations are typically spaced out every 800kHz; so 87.7MHz, 88.5MHz, 89.3MHz, … etc. Every such frequency was either directly taken, or had a station within 400kHz of it. Even if the frequency “sounded” clear, it likely was being used by a station I could not receive. A big number of them are operated by churches and community centres, likely low-power narrowcast stations.

The FM broadcast band, as seen from a roof-top 2m “flower pot” in The Gap.

There’s only two ways a new station can spring up on FM in the Brisbane area:

  • an existing station closes down, relinquishing the frequency
  • all the existing stations reduce their deviation, allowing for new stations to be inserted in between the existing ones

The first is not likely to happen. Let’s consider the latter option though. FM bandwidth is decided by the deviation. That is, the modulating signal, as it swings from its minimum trough to its maximum peak, causes the carrier of the transmitter to deviate above or below its nominal frequency in proportion to the input signal amplitude. Sometimes the deviation is almost identical to the bandwidth of the modulating signal (narrowband FM) or sometimes it’s much greater (wideband FM).

UHF CB radios for example; deviate either 2.5kHz or 5kHz, depending on whether the radio is a newer “80-channel” device or an older “40-channel” device. This is narrowband FM. When the ACMA decided to “make room” on UHF CB, they did so by “grandfathering” the old 40-channel class license, and decreeing that new “80-channel” sets are to use a 2.5kHz deviation instead of 5kHz. This reduced the “size” of each channel by half. In between each 40-channel frequency, they inserted a new 80-channel frequency.

This is simple enough with a narrowband FM signal like UHF CB. There’s no sub-carriers to worry about, and it’s not high-fidelity, just plain old analogue voice.

Analogue television used FM for its audio, and in later years, did so in stereo. I’m not sure what the deviation is for broadcast FM radio or television, but I do know that the deviation used for television audio is narrower than that used for FM radio. So evidently, FM stereo stations could possibly have their deviation reduced, and still transmit a stereo signal. I’m not sure what the trade-off of that would be though. TV stations didn’t have to worry about mobile receivers, and most viewers were using dedicated, directional antennas which better handled multi-path propagation (which would otherwise cause ghosting).

Also, TV stations to my knowledge, while they did transmit sub-carriers for FM stereo, they didn’t transmit RDS like FM radio stations do. Reducing the deviation may have implications on signal robustness for mobile users and for over-the-air services like RDS. I don’t know.

That said, lets suppose it could be done, and say Triple M (104.5MHz) and B105 (105.3MHz) decided to drop their deviation by half: we could then maybe squeeze a new station in at 104.1MHz. The apparent “volume” of the other two stations would drop by maybe 3dB, so people will need to turn their volume knobs up higher, but might work.

I do not know however if this is technically possible though. In short, I think we can consider a new FM station a pipe dream that is unlikely to happen.

New AM station?

A new AM station might be more doable. A cursory look at the same database, putting in much the same parameters but this time, a 300km radius and a frequency range of 500kHz-1.7MHz, seems to suggest there are lots of seemingly “unallocated” 9kHz slots. I don’t know what the frequency allocation strategy is for AM stations within a geographic area. I went a wider radius because MW stations do propagate quite far at night: I can pick up 4BU in Bundaberg and ABC Radio Emerald from my home.

The tricky bit is physically setting up the transmitter. MW transmitters are big, and use lots of power. 4KQ for example transmitted 10kW during daylight hours. Given it’s a linear PA in that transmitter, that means it’s consuming 20kW, and when it hits a “peak” it will want that power now!

The antennas are necessarily large; 693kHz has a wavelength of 432m, so a ¼-wave groundplane is going to be in the order of 100m tall. You can compromise that a bit with some clever engineering (e.g. see 4QR’s transmitter site off the Bruce Highway at Bald Hills — guess what the capacitance hat on the top is for!) but nothing will shrink that antenna into something that will fit a suburban back yard.

You will need a big open area to erect the antenna, and that antenna will need an extensive groundplane installed in the ground. The stay-wires holding the mast up will also need a big clearance from the fence as they will be live! Then you’ve got to keep the transmitter fed with the power it demands.

Finding a place is going to be a challenge. It doesn’t have to be elevated for MW like it does for VHF services (FM broadcast, DAB+), but the sheer size of the area needed will make purchasing the land expensive.

And you’ve got to consider your potential neighbours too, some of whom may have valid concerns about the transmitter: not liking the appearance of a big tower “in their back yard”, concerns about interference, concerns about “health effects”… etc.

DAB+?

This could be more doable. I don’t know what costs would be, and the big downside is that DAB+ radios are more expensive, as well as the DAB+ signal being more fragile (particularly when mobile). Audio quality would be much better than AM, but not quite as good as FM (in my opinion).

It’d basically be a case of opening an account with Digital Radio Broadcasting Pty Ltd, who operate the Channel 9A (202.928MHz) and Channel 9B (204.64MHz) transmitters. Then presumably, we’d have to encode our audio stream as HE-AAC and stream it to them somehow, possibly over the Internet.

The prevalence of “pop-up” stations seems to suggest this method may be comparatively cost-effective for larger audiences compared to commissioning and running our own dedicated transmitter, since the price does not change whether we have 10 listeners or 10000: it’s one stream going to the transmitter, then from there, the same signal is radiated out to all.

Internet streaming?

Well, this really isn’t radio, it’s an audio stream on a website at this point. The listener will need an Internet connection of their own, and you, the station operator, will be paying for each listener that connects. The listener also pays too: their ISP will bill them for data usage.

A 64kbps audio stream will consume around 230MB every 8 hours. If you stream it during your typical 8-hour work day, think a CD landing on your desk every 3 days. That’s the data you’re consuming. That data needs to be paid for, because each listener will have their own stream. If there’s only a dozen or so listeners, Internet radio wins … but if things get big (and 4KQ’s listenership was big), it’ll get expensive fast.

The other downside is that some listeners may not have an Internet connection, or the technical know-how to stream a radio station. I for example, do not have Internet access when riding the bicycle, so Internet radio is a no-go in that situation. I also refuse to stream Internet radio at work as I do not believe I should be using a workplace Internet connection for personal entertainment.

Staff?

The elephant in the room is staffing… there’s a workforce that kept 4KQ going who would soon be out of work, would they still be around if such a station were to materialise in the near future? I don’t know. Some of the announcers may want a new position in the field, others may be willing to go back to other vocations, and some are of an age that they may decide hanging up the headphones sounds tempting.

I guess that will be a decision for each person involved. For the listeners though, we’ve come to know these people, and will miss not hearing from them if they do wind up not returning to the air.

In the meantime

What am I doing now? Well, not saving up for a broadcast radio license (as much as my 5-year-old self would be disgusted at me passing up such an opportunity). I am expanding my music collection… and I guess over the next two months, I’ll be taking special note of songs I listen to that aren’t in my collection so I can chase down copies: ideally CDs or FLAC recordings (legally purchased of course!)… or LPs if CDs are too difficult.

Record companies and artists could help here — there are services like ZDigital that allow people to purchase and download individual songs or full albums in FLAC format. There are also lots of albums that were released decades ago, that have not been re-released by record companies. Sometimes record companies don’t release particular songs because they seemingly “weren’t popular”, or were popular in only a few specific geographic areas (like Brisbane).

People like us do not want to pirate music. We want to support the artists. Their songs did get played on radio, and still do; but may not be for much longer. Not everything is on Spotify, and sometimes that big yellow taxi has a habit of taking those hits away that you previously purchased. They could help themselves, and the artists they represent, by releasing some of these “less popular” songs as FLAC recordings for people to purchase. (Or MP3 if they really insist… but some of us prefer FLAC for archival copies.)

The songs have been produced, the recordings already exist, it seems it’s little skin of their nose to just release them as digital-only singles on these purchase-for-download platforms. I can understand not wanting to spend money pressing discs and having to market and ship them, but a file? Some emails, a few signed agreements and one file transfer and it’s done. Not complicated or expensive.

Please, help us help you.

Anyway… I guess I have a shopping list to compile.