Reliable but obsolete: radio streaming cut

02/07/2019

Nancy Hanson loves listening to classical music in her home in Woodacre; the strains of cello suites and waltzes are a constant as she goes about her day. For over a decade, Ms. Hanson has played KDFC, San Francisco’s FM classical music station, which she accessed through Comcast’s cable service. 

Radio service is unreliable in much of the San Geronimo Valley, leaving some residents to rely on cable connections for access to local news and music stations. Internet connectivity is also fickle, and older residents often cannot or do not want to navigate new technologies to find streaming services. 

But last month, Comcast stopped providing West Marin customers with FM radio channels as part of its cable service. Now, Ms. Hanson and a handful of other West Marin residents are struggling to access their well-loved local airwaves. 

Comcast had tried to retire the service once before, but local pushback managed to secure the continuance of the FM-cable connection. It is unlikely, however, that a local campaign or county pressure could force Comcast to change its policy, said Jean Bonander, executive officer of the Marin Telecommunications Agency. 

“Before 2006, Comcast was subject to a local franchise [agreement] that had been set up in Marin,” she explained. Afterwards, the state took over control of cable franchises, which, she said, “means that from a local perspective we don’t have much control over programing or content of the various cable franchises.” 

Because Comcast is operating under the state franchise, “they really don’t have to answer to local municipalities any longer,” said Michael Eisenmenger, executive director of the Community Media Center of Marin. “Much like the 5G stuff going on right now, it disempowers local municipalities over having any power over their right-of-way. It’s their ballgame, and if they can squeeze in a little more bandwidth by removing a service and using it for something more marketable—and profitable—they will.”

Joan Hammel, senior director of public relations at Comcast California, said the service was discontinued because the technology used to broadcast FM signals was reaching the end of its life. She said Comcast California was the last market in the country still offering FM channel access. 

Ms. Hammel pointed to other ways that Comcast users can access the radio. “For individuals, there are a number of apps they can use to tap into those broadcasts,” she said.  

But internet usage is not a cure-all for valley residents. Some seniors are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with downloading and navigating new technology. And reliable internet, like access to radio waves, is inconsistent in rural areas. 

Donell Peters, who lives in the San Geronimo Valley, receives no FM reception at home. Although she recently obtained a powerful wireless router, she keeps her computer in her office, which is located in a separate building from her house. Ms. Peters does not relish the prospect of having to use it to stream her favorite local news and music channels instead of utilizing her home entertainment system, which is connected to Comcast. 

“Going through the hoops of getting some app on a tablet or phone, streaming to TV through wireless to get this or that, is just a pain in the butt,” she said.

Lagunitas resident Amy Valens said that after she had posted about the service discontinuation on a community forum, members responded with mixed reactions. Some agreed it was a problem, while others said that it was not, because they were able to use the internet for their radio needs.

“I think very few people are aware that they can receive FM radio stations via cable,” said Richard Dillman, KWMR’s chief operator. “I’m not sure why Comcast would drop it, but I suspect maybe they also think it’s being very little used, [and] that they could use the space on the cable for other things.”

Ms. Hammel added that so far, the company has not heard much negative feedback about its decision to end the service. Although she expressed sympathy for anyone inconvenienced by the company’s decision, she said the decision was driven by the need to invest in new technology in a rapidly changing landscape. 

“We are certainly not in a position where we want to leave anyone behind, but we need to make business decisions to stay contemporary as we serve the vast majority of our customer base,” Ms. Hammel said. “Sometimes there are tough choices that leave people feeling disappointed or left behind, and we certainly apologize for that inconvenience. From a business standpoint, investing in computer equipment, we do have to make business decisions.” 

Ms. Valens, who regularly listens to KWMR, KQED and KPFA, noted that when residents—and Comcast—expected people to use the internet to access the radio, “that assumes a certain good access to internet and expertise in using it,” she said. “Some of us don’t have good internet. Those of us who are what I call ‘internet tourists,’ over the age of 70, are not having an easy time navigating change.”  

Mr. Eisenmenger said the Media Center would gladly provide training for anyone interested in learning how to download a radio app or tuning into a potential secondary audio program through the center’s own cable channels. 

“There are apps that are really, really simple: we have a free radio app on an iPad, and then wireless speaker we can move around anywhere,” he said. “There’s a little investment in that, but everything else is free and doing an audio stream is really a small amount of bandwidth—you’d have to have a pretty terrible internet connection for that not to work.” 

Yet Ms. Hanson’s flip-phone would not be able to download the requisite technology. “I don’t want to be listening to a phone, for God’s sake,” she added. She expressed frustration over having to pay the same amount of money for cable that she did before, even though Comcast has removed what, for her, is an essential service. 

But Ms. Peters noted that most residents in the valley have few other options. AT&T, which provides DSL service, doesn’t have the same broadband capabilities as Comcast, and the valley’s location makes it difficult to install dish satellite systems. 

“If you look at the population of West Marin, look at how many people are over 60 years old,” Ms. Peters said. It’s a population that is not tech savvy, and does not “typically have a lot of money, so they can’t reconfigure everything. So they lose that ability to listen to local radio unless they get into their car and drive.” 

Although Ms. Valens has figured out how to set up some of the FM stations on her smart phone, she has found the reception less consistent than Comcast’s service. In an email to Ms. Bonander, Ms. Valens said that the sound quality reminded her of the transistor radio she used in the ’60s: “better than nothing, but quite a step down.”

Accessing radio via the internet isn’t an ideal situation, Mr. Eisenmenger said, given that it could be disrupted by bad weather or disasters. “It’s not a good solution, but Comcast probably wasn’t either,” he said. “There’s nothing more foolproof than on-the-air radio but, unfortunately, the geography of Marin doesn’t really make that easy.”