KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Try to dial in American Forces Network Kaiserslautern’s radio signal while driving around town and you’re likely to find little more than static. The signal broadcasts on 100.2 FM, an even-numbered frequency most modern American car radios won’t pick up.
It’s a relatively new problem and partly a self-inflicted wound that resulted from a combination of new technology, the whims of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and bad luck.
“When we got these frequencies, there was no digital radio yet,” said Keith Fenske, the chief of web operations for AFN Europe. “I mean, we tuned everything with an analog dial. It wasn’t a problem.”
Those old analog radios tuned in even-numbered frequencies just as easily as odd-numbered ones.
But with the advent of digital tuning, the FCC’s choice of allocating only odd-numbered frequencies to FM broadcasters – and the choice of auto manufacturers to tailor digital radios to that narrow segment of the radio spectrum – has proved a headache for Americans who ship their cars to Europe, where radio bandwidth is managed differently.
While AFN is negotiating with the German version of the FCC to allow it to broadcast on frequencies American radios can dial in, AFN also has been testing another technology that could render the change obsolete: live radio streaming over the Internet.
A pilot stream dubbed “AFN 360” launched in June, logging some 377,000 connections in its first nine months. Listeners in that time streamed more than 352,000 hours of programming, according to Fenske.
“We’re rather blown away by the amount of feedback that we received,” he said.
In the wake of 360’s success, the network plans to launch 31 new Web streams worldwide sometime this summer.
Among them will be 23 local streams – one for each of the network’s stations in Europe and the Pacific – and eight specialty streams out of Riverside Calif., where AFN is headquartered, said Jef Reilly, director of AFN’s worldwide radio operations.
While that content, such as urban, country and talk radio, is already available through AFN satellite and cable, the Web streams will enable anyone with a computer or mobile device such as a smartphone to stream it wherever they have an Internet connection or data service.
Most listeners have tuned in to the 360 service by computer, Fenske said, but about 30 percent are connecting through mobile devices.
“I never expected it to be quite that high, at least not this soon,” he said.
The streaming technology AFN uses provides remarkably clear audio with a relatively small amount of data, about 32 kilobits per second or “just about half of the amount of bandwidth that an old dial-up connection gave you.”
Radio stations around the globe have provided similar services for years, including the Canadian Forces Network and the British Forces Broadcasting Service. Research shows listeners are increasingly moving toward streaming content, Reilly said.
“That’s where we are as a culture. We’re just trying to get there, too, and give our listeners over there (in Europe and Pacific) another option.”
“We’ve been trying to get this done for a very long time.”
Licensing agreements and laws preventing AFN from broadcasting in the U.S. had to be overcome; leadership needed to buy into the idea, and a way to pay for it had to be found, he said. All those pieces only recently came together.
Leadership is now onboard and cost savings from a recent renegotiation of music contracts will more than cover the $80,000 to $100,000 the service is expected to cost annually, Reilly said.
That cost includes a perk the network has never before had: analytics that show exactly when and what listeners tuned in and tuned out.
“That will help in our targeting of services, and it will really help our programming decisions, I think, down the road,” Reilly said.