Monday, February 7, 2011

Live Transmission

February 7, 2011

Live Transmission

"But the people as a whole retain their interest in free speech by radio ... It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."

--U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, in 1969, writing for the majority in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission

"Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the Constitution, but freedom to combine to keep others from publishing is not."
--U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, in 1945, writing for the majority in Associated Press v. United States

On October 5, 1998, dozens of unlicensed radio broadcasters marched on Washington, D.C. Their target: the Federal Communications Commission headquarters. But these protesters didn't just carry signs. They hauled puppets. Leading the way was a huge Pinocchio marionette, "Kennardio," named after then-FCC chairman Bill Kennard. And pulling his strings? A TV-headed monster-- the National Association of Broadcasters. "I just chuckled about that, because if anything, I was the NAB's nemesis," says Kennard, now the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, speaking on the phone from Brussels. "I was creating a new radio service that was seen as a threat to the commercial broadcast industry." That radio service was low-power FM, or LPFM, and it's been a long time coming.

In early January, President Barack Obama signed the 
Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which is expected to create hundreds, possibly thousands, of noncommercial FM stations. The new law brings into effect much of what Kennard's FCC set in motion more than a decade ago. Like the roughly 800 LPFM stations already in existence, these new entries on the dial will be run by nonprofits: churches, schools, unions, local governments, emergency responders, and other community groups. Their signals must be no stronger than 100 watts, the same as an incandescent light bulb, so a typical broadcast range is only about seven miles in diameter. Unlike all but one current LPFM station, the newcomers will be able to apply for licenses in the top 50 U.S. radio markets-- home to 160 million potential listeners. A dollar may not get you very far in New York City or Los Angeles, but even a weak radio signal carries.

Many questions about how the law actually works will not be answered until the FCC issues final rules, expected later this year. And some of the details can get rather technical: For example, the "
contour method," which is a way of measuring potential signal interference. Still, at its most basic, what the Local Community Radio Act does is remove restrictions on LPFM stations that have been in place since the turn of the millennium. And it frees the FCC's hand to issue more licenses for LPFM stations in places where it couldn't before. For some lucky communities-- and the increasingly interconnected independent music world is only one-- the Local Community Radio Act could quietly change the way we think about radio: as an art form, as a medium, and as a public forum.
"I'm a strong believer that the passage of this bill is going to make it possible now for a lot of small, community-type programming to make it onto the airwaves: independent musicians, people that are doing good work in their communities," says one of the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), just hours after speaking on the House floor against health care repeal. (Doyle has previously come to the defense of constituent Gregg Gillis, better known as mash-up artist Girl Talk.) "We're going to stay on top of the FCC to make sure that good people and good groups are getting these licenses."
It's no secret radio isn't what it used to be. In one sense, the 21st century has been a golden age for streaming audio as an art form, with websites and podcasts allowing for a greater variety of curated listening experiences than ever before. These are also exciting times for noncommercial broadcasters such as NPR, KEXP, or WFMU. But as a medium, traditional American radio is in sorry shape. Advertising revenues are downMedia consolidation has robbed cities of local voices, and it continues-- see the Comcast-NBC merger (which won't affect radio, but does for the first time put a single company in control of both video content and the cables that deliver it). Noncommercial radio has its own struggles: House Republicans want to defund NPR, and community stations like San Francisco's KUSF are going off the air. Meanwhile, Internet access remains limited to those who will pay for it, which excludes huge swathes of the population, especially African-Americans.
LPFM is hardly a solution to all of these challenges. Its 100-watt limit is far weaker than the 1000 watts the FCC initially envisioned under Kennard, a Clinton appointee and former college radio host. The final law includes various other concessions to win the support of not only the NAB, the powerful industry group, but also NPR. And existing broadcasters have gobbled up many frequencies that originally could have been available to LPFM stations.
When speaking with activists involved in LPFM, you immediately notice their passion, and then you maybe wonder why you didn't know about all this earlier. The Local Community Radio Act is a stirring example of people who might not ordinarily trust the government voluntarily casting aside their cynicism to work within the system-- and, all these years later, finally succeeding. The efforts of hundreds of groups, from to the Christian Coalition, from civil rights organizations to the band OK Go, have resulted in opportunities for more people to have a voice in their own communities. Coupled with the Internet, LPFM stations have the potential to be at once local and global, nostalgic and forward-looking, functional and aesthetic. Or a lot of them could totally suck. As with the congressional fight, it all depends on people like us caring a whole awful lot.
For many, radio has a sentimental connection: baseball games, listening to your parents listen to the news, driving around aimlessly in high school. And it could be a door to new experiences. "When I was 10 years old listening to the radio, I wasn't thinking about this stuff," says Mac McCaughan, co-founder of Merge Records and a founding member of the bands Superchunk and Portastatic. "But I did know that in between Led Zeppelin and Journey or whatever, the album rock station would sometimes play a song by the Clash. And even if you're 10 years old, you notice that it sounds different than the other stuff you're hearing. I was certainly exposed to things via the radio that really changed my life."
More than 90% of the population over age 12 listens to the radio, according to the latest Pew Research Center data. By contrast, just two-thirds of American adults currently use a high-speed Internet connection at home. Meanwhile, total radio revenue fell 18% in 2009, with local and national radio advertising expected to continue dropping at least through this year, while listenership held steady around 236 million people per week. NPR listenership, on the other hand, nearly doubled from 1999 to 2009, according to Fast Company, and now stands at 33.9 million weekly listeners. Radio is in a time of transition.
You could trace that transition to midway through the Clinton Administration. In one of its first major pieces of economic legislation after retaking the House majority for the first time in 40 years, a Republican-led Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which massively deregulated the number of outlets a media company could own. At the time, America had 10,257 commercial radio stations and 5,133 radio owners, according to FCC data. As of last May, there are 11,202 commercial radio stations but only 3,143 owners, a 39% drop in the number of owners since 1996.
Instead of local music, or local DJs debating local issues, radio listeners now often heard DJs from other markets pretending to live in their city and spinning identical playlists. In Boston, for example, the heritage black-owned commercial radio station, WILD 1090 AM, was eventually sold and stopped being an urban format station. People started to notice the difference. A movement of unlicensed radio broadcasters emerged: Free Radio BerkeleyFree Radio Santa Cruz. The puppet-filled demonstration at the FCC came after Kennard made good on his legal obligation to shut down such "pirate" stations.
"I didn't like shutting them down, frankly, because a lot of them were run by people who just wanted to connect with their communities," the ambassador explains. "So I said, 'Gee, there's gotta be a way to enable small, community-based nonprofit organizations to have a voice on the airwaves using low-power FM transmitters.' That was really the origin of the low-power FM service. And of course, it was a tough battle, because the incumbent commercial broadcasting industry and the noncommercial broadcasting industry, including NPR, fought this aggressively."
Radio broadcasters exhaust no small amount of money on Capitol Hill, and they contribute in a way that may give bipartisanship fans pause. The NAB donated more than $1 million to congressional races in 2008, 55% of it to Democrats, according to During the same cycle, people and political action committees involved with Clear Channel gave $785,000, with 59% to Republicans. Last year, on top of more than $847,000 in campaign funding-- this time 60% to Democrats-- the NAB spent a total of almost $10 million on lobbying. The power to unleash Sick Puppies on an unwitting nation doesn't come cheap.
The Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, supported by both the NAB and NPR, effectively gutted the FCC's LPFM initiative. Under the FCC's plan, noncommercial groups could apply for LPFM stations on a "third adjacent frequency" of an existing full-power station. In plain English, that means that if a full-power station is at 97.1, then an LPFM station could theoretically be opened at 96.5. The 2000 law said even a third adjacent frequency was too close. This didn't stop LPFM stations from operating in many rural areas, but it did keep the program out of the biggest cities, where population density could have made it most useful. The new law removes such restrictions. Where a third adjacent frequency is not available, nonprofits will likely be able to apply for FCC waivers to operate on a second adjacent frequency.

WGXC studios in the Catskill Community Center, courtesy Prometheus Radio Project
Existing broadcasters have long argued LPFM would cause unacceptable levels of interference. The NAB went so far as to send around a CD that purportedly demonstrated the LPFM initiative's terrible impact by basically mashing up two previously recorded radio signals; the FCC's chief engineer called this CD demo "misleading" and "simply wrong." But the curiously named Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act did, in fact, preserve an opening for community radio activists. The law required the FCC, then led by Bush appointee Michael Powell, to study whether or not third adjacent frequencies would truly interfere. In 2004, the agency reported to Congress that even on a third adjacent channel, LPFM stations "do not pose a significant risk of causing interference to existing full-service FM stations."
Case closed. Or so you might think. But being based on misguided premises didn't end the ban on third-adjacent LPFM stations. Only Congress could do that. For local community radio activists, technical vindication was only the beginning of an epic battle against the broadcasting industry, one that has culminated so far in the recent legislation. One of the organizations most prominently involved has been Prometheus Radio Project. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the nonprofit was founded by Pete Tridish (pronounced "Petri Dish"), whose short-lived Radio Mutiny was one of the very same illegal stations Kennard's FCC had shut down.
"Ten years ago, five years ago, the NAB claimed that if you put an LPFM station three clicks on the dial or closer, it would cause the entire world to explode," says Hannah Sassaman, a longtime organizer with Prometheus and now a senior field analyst with the Open Technology Initiative, a project of the New America Foundation think tank. "They didn't compromise on that at all. The reason why we won and the reason why the NAB decided to compromise is because we built a movement."
NEXT: Building a grassroots movement
Radio Mutiny defied the legal system. Prometheus mastered it from within. For more than a decade, the organization has worked to bridge those two worlds, the outsiders and the insiders, working with grassroots groups around the country to lobby Congress for better media access in their hometowns. An earlier version of the Local Community Radio Act passed the House by a voice vote in December 2009. Under Senate rules, though, a single senator can block a bill anonymously by putting a "hold" on it. For much of the past year, Prometheus worked to remove those secret holds, connecting local groups with senator after senator as a series of "rolling holds" dragged on. (On January 27, the Senate eliminated the use of secret holds.)

That's where Jim James, of Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket, got involved. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a former major league baseball player, decided not to run for re-election last year-- but not before weighing in on LPFM. "The problem with Sen. Bunning is they just were not sure where he stood on this issue," James says, responding via e-mail. "So I wrote a letter to his office explaining who I was and where I was coming from, and that I was curious if Sen. Bunning supported the legislation. If so I said, please pass on our thanks. But if he did not have a position on it, I encouraged him to please not block the bill." Bunning, who famously blocked unemployment benefits earlier in 2010-- "Tough shit," he said-- allowed the LPFM legislation to proceed.

James isn't the only musician to speak out in support of community radio. The list goes on and on: In 2000, McCain, a staunch advocate of LPFM, welcomed Indigo Girls to a press conference opposing the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act. The previous fall, dozens of artists-- including Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Mike Watt, and Archer Prewitt-- threw their support behind the LPFM movement. More recently, the Future of Music Coalition has posted videos showing Saul Williams, the Mekons' Jon Langford, Tara Jane O'Neil, and the Hold Steady's Franz Nicolay preaching the gospel of local radio.

Merge's McCaughan brought that gospel directly to the Senate Commerce Committee, where he testified in October 2007. "It was pretty nerve-racking," he says. "Because it was the Commerce Committee, for me to make the argument of, like, 'There's awesome bands on college radio that you can't hear anywhere else'-- they don't really want to hear that." And McCaughan's hesitancy to invoke college radio highlights another reality of LPFM-- that it is designed to serve local needs beyond just music. Lifting the restrictions on LPFM, he testified instead, would lead to a "significant expansion of community-based stations that will prioritize local and independent content and news, not to mention programming that highlights kinds of musical genres that are routinely ignored by commercial radio."

Independent musicians and label owners have an obvious interest in bringing greater diversity of voices to the airwaves. In April 2007, the four biggest radio station group owners-- Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Citadel, and Entercom-- agreed to pay FCC fines totaling $12.5 million after a major-label payola investigation by then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. According to data compiled by Future of Music, indie labels' share of commercial radio broadcasts didn't change much in the four years after Spitzer launched his inquiry, in 2005.

"What LPFM can and probably will do is create a new sense of innovation," says Future of Music policy director and former Misra Records co-founder Michael Bracy, who has been fighting for this cause since the 1990s. "We're still talking about the Merge Records effect. We're talking about bands that are on Top 10 charts, that are critically beloved, that can't get on commercial radio. For the Spoons and the Arcade Fires of the world, LPFM is going to serve as a bridge that gets them on local radio."

Stranger things have happened. Opelousas, La., is known as the birthplace of zydeco, a washboard music style with Creole roots. The Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival has been held there annually since 1982. But no commercial radio station within earshot of Opelousas would play zydeco until after LPFM station KOCZ went on the air in November 2002, says John Freeman, CEO of the Southern Development Foundation. Pretty soon, Freeman says, "Every commercial radio station in the area, from here to Texas and New Orleans, was playing zydeco."

Not that KOCZ sticks to any one style of music. Located in a heavily Catholic town, the station starts the day with gospel befo
re moving into blues, zydeco, R&B, jazz, local music, and eventually rap. "At night, that's when those hip-hop people are waking up, at 8 p.m., so let them do hip-hop from 8 to 12," Freeman says with a chuckle. But the true focus of KOCZ, which Freeman says the foundation spent about $26,000 setting up, isn't music at all.

"It gives the people a voice," Freeman explains. "You have to look at the history of how the community evolved. During the post-slavery period, African-Americans in Opelousas, La., could not live in the city. They had to have a permit to live in the city. When the Union Army took over the capital, Baton Rouge, Opelousas became the capital. Now today 65% of the population of this city is African-American, they have a black mayor, and most elected officials are now African-American. It's just a very well-run community, and still with all of that, they've never had a voice, no news media, nothing for the people to actually communicate."

LPFM stations can range from the whale sounds of KAQU in Alaska to the religious broadcasts of many stations across the country. But public affairs programming, from school board meetings to local news, is often a major focus. During Hurricane Katrina, WQRZ was the only local station on the air in Bay St. Louis, Miss., providing emergency messages in an effort that raised LPFM's stock immeasurably on Capitol Hill-- the Bush Administration even gave station founder Brice Phillips an award. LPFM advocates also point to a train derailment in Minot, N.D., in 2002, which released noxious fumes and killed one person; police had been unable to reach emergency contacts at the city's Clear Channel affiliates.

Tim Stone of Portsmouth Community Radio at the FCC headquarters
The most successful LPFM stations, community radio activists say, excel at both music and public affairs. Tim Stone, a founding member of Portsmouth Community Radio in New Hampshire and formerly the president of its board of trustees, certainly agrees. Started with $25,000, WSCA in Portsmouth airs 15 locally produced weekly public affairs programs, plus hours of eclectic music programming prepared by live volunteer DJs. Local musicians are also featured, right down to elementary school band concerts. Stone credits Matt Murphy, general manager of WERU in Maine, with a saying: "Public affairs programming is where we build community. Music is how we celebrate and dance about it."
Portsmouth Community Radio offerings that you won't hear on commercial FM go far beyond fifth graders fumbling through scratchy violin solos. Along with the political, environmental, pet-care, and arts shows you might expect, there's "Don't Dis' My Ability," run by three adults with disabilities. "There was a program they did a few months ago where they interviewed a Vietnam War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder," Stone says. "The fellow they were interviewing, who had just learned he had PTSD in the past 10 years, after he tried to commit suicide-- he's being interviewed by, in some cases, these significantly disabled adults that are running this program. And you're just sitting back there, almost in tears. This is what community radio is about. It's your democratization of local media. Anybody can walk in the door."
Even with music, the LPFM movement's long struggle offers a useful corrective to any sunny view of the Top 40 charts as a purely democratic expression of popular will. "An easy way of explaining this is, 'Do we want the political leverage to tell us what kind of music we want to listen to for the next year?'" says Erubiel Valladares Carranza, a vice president with the PCUN farm workers' union, which runs KPCN in Woodburn, Ore. "You're stuck with this one song because of the political leverage." Reaching into nearby Salem, KPCN airs talk and songs in indigenous Mexican languages such as Nahuatl or Mixtec, not just Spanish.
Localism is an ever more common buzzword in these globally connected times. AOL, for instance, is investing heavily in a local news initiative called Patch, which now has 700 sites operating in 19 states and the District of Columbia, The New Yorker reports. Yahoo, Google, and regional news companies are vying for the same local advertising dollars, according to The New York Times. The Times itself went "hyperlocal" in early 2009 with its launch of neighborhood blogs called-- what else?-- The Local.
It's easy to cheer for community-oriented culture in the abstract, but at what point does "local" become "provincial"? In a 2002 essay called "Planet Rock," critic Robert Christgau grapples with a similar question. Discussing the global spread of hip-hop, one of the few regionally distinctive music genres left in America, Christgau muses that sometimes Jay-Z and Public Enemy might satisfy a need that homegrown rappers, no matter how geographically rooted, can't fill: "What if it's just better music? What happens to the local then?"
Ideally, I suppose, it co-exists. WRIR in Richmond, Va., which officially kicked off on January 1, 2005, could be a case in point. Airing locally produced as well as public-radio news and talk programming during weekdays, the station plays a wide range of music on nights and weekends: from independent, local, and emerging artists to jazz, punk, alt-country, bluegrass, rare "blaxploitation" soundtracks, and various styles from Africa. WRIR president Liz Humes says, "Even though a lot of our content hopefully will be locally driven, these odd, eccentric bands from Holland or from Mali-- they need to be heard on the radio, because they also speak in a voice that represents their community." Global village, anyone?
If that's the case, though, then getting there could still be treacherous. Nearly all of the LPFM stations mentioned here offer streaming audio, letting them be at once deeply local and-- theoretically, at least-- geographically limitless. But the online world carries its own pitfalls. Copyright law restricts the number of songs that can be webcast from one album or artist in a given time period. "We stream, and right now that's just a stream," Humes says. "We have to really watch what we play so we do it legally. We can't ever do the Willie Nelson tribute program if we're going to stream it, because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act won't let us."
The FCC's LPFM efforts date back to the days when there was the Internet but no Google. In today's vastly different media landscape of iPads and Groupons, then, it's notable that at least one online-only radio station is just champing at the bit for its shot at the broadcast spectrum. Chicago Independent Radio Project, which recently celebrated its first anniversary of its streaming audio being live, hopes to apply for an LPFM license, says Shawn Campbell, CHIRP's president and founder, citing simple convenience as well as the need to reach those without access to technology.
An Internet presence doesn't mean sacrificing local flavor. "Even though we're online, we have a real firm sense of place in Chicago," says Campbell, whose station plays what she describes as an eclectic mix of independent, lesser heard, and under-appreciated music from a variety of genres, alongside a fledgling news operation. "We want to be a station that when you listen to us it's really easy to figure out where we are." Where CHIRP is, it turns out, still presents some hurdles, despite the new law. The language of the bill doesn't guarantee a frequency in Chicago, so the group will probably have to apply for a waiver, as will any applicant in New York or L.A., Campbell says. The details of the waiver process are currently up to the FCC, but pro-LPFM groups express some optimism that regulators will take an accommodating view.
Deanne Cuellar, executive director for the Media Justice League, has radio in her blood. "I actually grew up in a ham radio, LPFM repair shop when I was a kid," says Cuellar, whose organization is a San Antonio nonprofit that focuses on social justice issues as they pertain to media. "So I saw truckers and at-home radio broadcasters come in to get their equipment. I just thought that was normal. I just thought it was what everybody did." On January 17, the Media Justice League held a meeting about the process to start an LPFM station right there in the city of the Alamo, the home of Clear Channel's corporate offices. On the agenda: mapping out a plan for community involvement and creating a station structure.
NEXT: The future of LPFM
So what happens next? Well, the FCC has to decide how to interpret the law. A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment beyond current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowksi's statement promising "swift action." Sooner or later, the commission will propose rules for public comment and then eventually adopt final rules. Then it will open a licensing window for new applications, which may not take place for more than six months. What that process will look like is uncertain. The new LPFM stations probably won't actually go on the air until 2012, but nonprofits can start preparing now. Advocates for local radio hope the licenses will go to true community groups.

One easy way to stay abreast of these issues is to sign up for the 
Prometheus newsletter. That will keep you informed if there are any calls to action. In the meantime, those interested in starting up an LPFM station should get out and talk to their neighbors. "People can start having conversations and building alliances with others in your community," Prometheus policy director Brandy Doyle says. "Most good community radio stations are participatory, and they involve bridges and alliances across different segments of your community. One thing that I suggest to people is start thinking about what communities in your area don't have a voice in the media. I think Pitchfork readers may already know what music doesn't get airtime locally, but you can also think about what voices are missing: the voice of immigrants, the voice of workers, youth, LGBT communities."

Just as active participation was essential in making the Local Community Radio Act a reality, it will also be essential to making a new LPFM station a success. "I spent time everywhere from Rap
id City, S.D., to San Antonio, Texas, to Nashville, Tenn.," says Sassaman, the longtime Prometheus organizer. "Literally dozens of Prometheans and hundreds of volunteers came to D.C. and we wore angel costumes and went to the FCC when Michael Powell said that no one cared about LPFM. We went to the NAB and hula-hooped around and said the NAB should stop making us jump through hoops. I was some kid from West Philly who didn't own a pair of good shoes, let alone a suit, and suddenly I could get on the Chinatown bus, or eventually the Amtrak, and head to D.C."

Future of Music's Bracy, too, emphasizes the importance of engagement. "You can go to Washington and you can get policies made that can be beneficial," he says. "People may feel like something like this could never pass. The broadcast lobby would shut it down. But when you're persistent, and you have facts on your side, and you just keep working and working, you can do something."

In the end, when the Senate passed the Local Community Radio Act this past December, the vote was unanimous. It's important to note that the NAB and NPR, too, ultimately supported the bill. Mike Riksen, vice president of NPR's policy and representation division, says the public radio broadcaster endorsed the act in early 2009 after compromises involving not only potential interference but also radio reading services-- essentially, radio for the blind (then again, the FCC long ago determined LPFM would not cause "harmful interference" for these services). NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton says the law satisfies his group's concerns about interference, too: "Everybody, I think, can claim victory on this."

That so many people could get past their often considerable differences and create something positive for each other bodes well for the LPFM stations themselves. "We weren't just organizing against something horrible-- against the war, against terrible things going on in the world, against climate change," Prometheus's Doyle says. "It's organizing 
for something instead of against something." If they're to achieve the almost transformative effect that Prometheus, Future of Music, and many others hope, the stations will have their work cut out for them.

In some ways, the present media moment is not unlike the mood on the UK music scene in the fallout from indie's original do-it-yourself movement. "Serious rock's dream is that people can be changed, minds opened," critic Simon Reynolds writes in "New Pop and Its Aftermath," an 
essay that's mostly about what came next. "So the great nightmare is when pop becomes industry, when efficient marketing ensures music is channeled only toward the people who are already receptive-- rather than working for an overall education of desire. The year 1979 was haunted by the fear of this death of communication-- complaints about compartmentalization, demands for access (to radio), and diversity."

Merge's McCaughan remembers when his life changed, as a kid in South Florida listening to the album rock station. Isn't the real dream, though, to change someone 
else-- open their minds? Couldn't that chance be at least part of the allure of radio, and of participatory media in general? "That's one of the best things that can happen to you, if you're a new band and you hear your song on the radio," McCaughan says. "It's kind of a mind-blowing thing."

Beyond social justice issues, beyond concerns about the demise of local journalism, longtime Prometheus organizer Sassaman says she wants people to make culture something that's active rather than passive-- something that's not just about consuming but about creating for your neighbors. Putting her money where her mouth is, Sassaman, too, is in a band: a winsome, harmony-laden lounge-pop outfit called 
Kiss Kiss Kill. "We would never get on a big station," she says. But they could be on a noncommercial station. "One day I was driving down the street and I got a call, and they're like, 'You're on the radio!' Millions of Americans over the next generation will have that experience." The public airwaves are about to get a little more public.

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