The following is reprinted with permission from this week’s Northeast Radio Watch by Scott Fybush.
It’s easy to point the finger of blame for AM’s troubles these last few decades on the FCC itself. There have certainly been some misguided policy moves that have ended up hurting AM more than they’ve helped. The complicated “ratchet rule” that took effect in the 1980s was designed to reduce overall AM interference, but in practice has served largely to prevent older AM stations from being able to move to new transmitter sites from which they might offer better service. The breakdown of the old clear channels and addition of minimal night power for hundreds of former daytimers raised the noise floor across the band dramatically. The failure to settle on an AM stereo standard in the 1980s effectively killed that technology, and whatever promise it brought of better AM audio quality was further quashed a decade later with the current NRSC audio standards that serve to significantly limit AM frequency response. Radio manufacturers (which, these days, pretty much means car radio makers) responded by even more tightly limiting AM bandwidth, furthering the present-day conventional wisdom that AM “just sounds bad.”
Those factors, while all supported by the FCC’s actions, originated not at the Portals (or at M Street before that), but with broadcasters themselves. In a sense, AM broadcasters have been their own worst enemies for the last few decades, in no small part because there are so many conflicting agendas at play among the 5,000 or so AM licensees across the breadth of the U.S.
To hear broadcasters tell it, every AM station in America is a picture-perfect community station, owned by a mom and pop who’ve been trying to provide local news and sports to their small town since 1947 or thereabouts. There are certainly some of those stations still out there, and we’ve tried diligently in this space to highlight their service – but for every WBTA or WINY or WDEV out there in smaller markets, or for every WBZ, WOR or KYW still providing solid big-signal service to a big city, there are probably a dozen other AMs that are less picture-perfect, at least where the FCC’s current endeavor is concerned. It’s not hard to find examples of other AMs that provide far less value to the listener these days: the forgotten stepsisters attached to larger, more profitable clusters of FMs; the well-intentioned stand-alone that just couldn’t quite pull the money together to remain functional; the rack of equipment plugged into a satellite feed from thousands of miles away.
Therein lies the problem: the way FCC policy has been constructed for the last few decades, the Commission effectively cannot distinguish between all those wildly divergent species of AM operations. Blame that, if you will, on the end of the comparative-hearing era and the rise of the postcard renewal. Since the 1980s, any AM station that’s met the minimal threshold of being on the air, running EAS tests and maintaining some vestige of a public file has been just as equally entitled to benefit from changes in the FCC rules as any other AM licensee. (The one major exception turned out to be a failure for other reasons – the AM band expansion to 1700 kHz in the 1990s was based entirely on interference reduction on the existing band, but in the end removed almost no existing signals from the dial.)
By way of comparison, consider the example from north of the border. It’s widely believed that Canada established a policy to migrate its entire AM band to the FM dial over the course of the last quarter-century. What’s really happened is a little more complex: after attempting a regulatory scheme to keep the AM band alive (with strict limits on hit music content on FM, for instance), Canadian regulators came to a conclusion the FCC has strenuously sought to avoid: what matters, they concluded, is not the platform but the service being provided. In most of Canada, the FM band had been kept clear enough to provide room for new frequencies to be used by former AM licensees – and as soon as those AM licensees could make the case that their service merited a new home on FM, their AM signals were deleted.
On this side of the border, by contrast, the FCC appears to be trying (at the behest of the industry) to have it both ways: it’s offering some proposals that would focus on the service being provided by current AM broadcasters, but at the same time it’s continuing to hold sacred the concept that each of the existing 5,000 or so AM licenses should somehow be able to continue on the AM dial. (Imagine, back in the 1980s, if AM broadcasters had been given first priority for the thousands of new FM frequencies opened by Docket 80-90, and if they’d been allowed to simply transfer their AM authorization to FM rather than continuing to operate both. Instead, many of those 80-90 FMs ended up competing with existing AMs or combining with them at great expense to owners.)
On the “service” side, the proposal outlined by interim FCC chair Mignon Clyburn last week in Orlando would expand the opportunities for AM stations to secure FM translators. There’s been talk in the industry of “5,000 new translators,” but that’s an exaggeration on several levels – first, because the FM spectrum space simply doesn’t exist to provide room for every broadcaster currently shoehorned into the AM dial, and second, because hundreds of forward-thinking AM broadcasters have already picked up translators.
On the “sacred license” side, meanwhile, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking now on circulation among the commissioners appears to buy into the sentiment expressed by some AM owners that more power is their ticket to renewed success. If you’ve been reading some of the national trades in recent months, you’ve read opinion pieces from the owners of several class D stations on regional channels explaining how full-power night authorization would make their stations viable. What about skywave interference, either to existing stations or from other new night signals? “You’re right, I don’t know anything about that,” was the actual quote from an actual class D station owner talking about his understanding of the laws of physics that govern medium-wave skywave propagation – even as he argued for his station’s desperate need to provide useful service after dark.
It is, in short, a giant mess – and it may well be that the mess dates all the way back to the 1940s, when the FCC began to allow relatively uncrowded regional channels to fill up as full as they could get. If it took a complex directional array to get the magic “5,000 watts full-time” into the promotional materials, that was OK. Can’t squeeze in a full-timer? A little pressure from a local would-be station owner on his congressman and the FCC cleared the way for a daytimer on a regional channel. By the dawn of the 1960s, those regional channels were packed so tightly that nobody had room to move, even as their markets began to grow far outside their 1940s-era signal patterns.
So it has gone now for seven decades: each time a creative station owner finds a way to start filling a corner of the dial, the FCC’s presumption is that every possible bit of that new space should be allowed to be filled, regardless of the long-term effects on the industry. The result, time and again, has been disastrous. Most of those AM “sacred licenses” struggling the hardest to survive came to life between the 1940s and the near-complete filling of the AM dial in the 1980s.
For most of that time, the FCC at least looked for some threshold showing from a proposed licensee that it could make an initial economic success of itself. By the time the 80-90 FMs had filled up in the 1990s, even that requirement was gone – and when the most recent FM translator window drew 12,000 applications in 2003, FCC policy dictated that even if it took more than a decade, pretty much every space on which a translator was technically grantable would be filled, never mind that many of those applications had become purely speculative in nature. That, in turn, has led to years of delays as the translator policy bangs up against a conflicting FCC priority to clear space for low-power FM.
And now comes the “service side” of Clyburn’s proposal: at some point in the fairly new future, the interim FCC chair says there will be a one-time-only filing window in which AM stations can apply for one translator each. In practice, this window is unlikely to yield more than a few hundred more translators; in urban areas, the dial simply doesn’t have room, and in outlying areas, many AMs already have obtained their translators. Nowhere in the proposal is any sort of provision, sought by at least some AM operators, to allow for a translator-style FM license to replace an existing AM, allowing the AM signal to go silent and to clear some congestion on the dial.
Instead, the rest of Clyburn’s plan would even further clog the noisy medium-wave spectrum. It would kill the despised ratchet rule, which is probably for the best, and would allow existing AMs still more flexibility to relocate by reducing city-of-license coverage requirements and by allowing shorter radiators that would throw up still more skywave at distant co-channel stations.
It’s likely to be a popular set of proposals for struggling AM station owners, and we have a lot of sympathy for many of them. But it’s no substitute for the sort of fully-thought-out plan for the band that’s been missing for many decades now. Does the FCC actually intend to promote greater listening to the AM band itself? If so, it doesn’t seem that moving “AM stations” to FM is the way to do it. Is the goal to throw a lifeline to AM station owners? If that’s the case, why force them to continue to operate on AM at all? (There are other broadcasters who’d argue, with some justification, that AM owners who sold their original FMs years ago shouldn’t get a “double dip” at the FM trough now.)
There is, in short, lots to digest here and every reason to believe that these moves, too, will yield all sorts of unexpected consequences. We’ll be watching closely as the FCC begins to turn commissioners’ speeches into policy reality. (And with our consulting hat on, Fybush Media is ready to provide assistance to station owners looking to navigate these new realities – contact us if you’d like a free initial consultation!)
Scott Fybush is the Editor/Publisher of Fybush.com, home of Northeast Radio Watch, Tower Site Of The Week and Tophour.com. For subscription information or to purchase the upcoming 2014 Tower Site Calendar visit Fybush.com.