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The AM Revitalization Translation

Lance's Line RadioInsight Blog

AM Band Revitalization FCC FM Translator WindowAs the radio industry awaits the FCC’s long planned moves towards revitalization of the AM band, the battle lines are forming between the haves and the have-nots.

Minority owners led by the National Association of Black Broadcasters are trying to get the FCC to place additional emphasis on opening an application window for AM stations to apply for FM translators as the agency has been leaning away from that. The agency had instead been considering a waiver window to allow existing translator licenses to be moved up to 250 miles. Such a window would make it easier for larger groups that have already purchased translators or own many like Educational Media Foundation or Edgewater Broadcasting to monetize their assets.

Regardless of these moves, what does adding an FM translator have to do with revitalizing AM? Focusing on a translator is admitting that the AM band is dead and nothing can be done to fix it. These broadcasters realize that only spoken-word or ethnic formats have any chance of working on AM and even that has a limited shelf life. A 1kw AM daytimer would be much happier with a 99 watt FM translator and the ability to operate 24/7. But is crowding an FM band that is already full of rimshot’s trying to serve markets from miles away, LPFMs and existing translators going to really help the issue or just speed turning FM into what AM has become?

The all digital test of WBT Charlotte in 2013 was fairly successful but to get new digital receivers in place will be a long-term proposition.

How did we get here? Had a digital roll-out been handled much differently in the last two decades there would have been plenty of room for all broadcasters to survive and thrive. Instead political power plays led to a hybrid digital radio standard that requires a license fee from the developer for all broadcasters AND to place their chipset in a receiver. And even with the current HD Radio system, why weren’t AM stations or new licensees given access to the subchannels to help foster new programming ideas and accelerate the demand for receivers?

What is the best solution for all? The AM band is clearly on life support and in need of help. I don’t know if there is one best solution to fix all the problems that have built up over the past century, but any proposal for actually revitalizing AM should focus on AM and not destroying FM in the process.

Profile photo of Lance Venta
Lance Venta is the Owner and Publisher of RadioInsight.com and a consultant for RadioBB Networks specializing in integration of radio and the internet. Lance has two decades of experience tracking the audio industry and its use of digital platforms.

12 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Nathan Obral


    It didn’t help that most AM stations that utilized the Ibiquity IBOC standard sounded like pure garbage in analog. It wasn’t an invitation for people to buy an HD Radio receiver, it was just cause for people to avoid the AM band at any costs.

    The only station that I’ve ever heard that managed to sound great with the IBOC standard was WJR in Detroit, and Citadel was more than happy to scrap the equipment the second they took over the station.

    The folly of hybrid digital helped accelerate the impending death of the AM band, along with hyperpartisan polemic talk formats with calcifying audiences and abysmal fidelity (that forced anyone under 20 to abandon the band… back in the 1970s).

  2. Profile photo of EDM radio 87.9


    What was the deal with Fm band when analog tv signals went off the air permanently and move am stations on fm at 76 to 87 MHz fm

  3. Profile photo of borderblaster


    Noise levels are the biggest issue, and patterns that don’t cover metros. There’s no real fix; I can see where AM becomes a place for higher powered TIS operations, with the few preachers ‘n’ southern Gospel formats remaining. In my area currently 3 AMs went off the air in the last 12 months (though one leaves a 5000 watt dead carrier on the air) and one is only sporadically on the air. AM operators, LPFMs and big broadcasters want all the limited white space that’s left.

  4. Profile photo of airplane777


    Would the FCC consider giving some of the AM frequencies back to the people for a low power AM service?

  5. Profile photo of tdotoutlayer


    I am absolutely delighted that there are more than just a few people bringing up the issue of FM band overcrowding. The only way that AM services can be practically migrated to or simulcast on the FM band on even a modest scale let alone a large one is by expanding the legal “FM band” down to 76.1 MHz. Translators simply aren’t going to cut it when it comes to replacing most of the AM stations out there which is why it may be a good idea to set up licensees of lower-classed AM stations (i.e. class C & D) with an FM license on the extended band that is of the legally similar class, location in national “broadcast zones” permitting. In the end, we should have removed enough clutter from the AM band that class As, Bs, and even some Cs in what is now the “graveyard band” 1230 KHz-1490 KHz can operate as multinational superstations at night, possibly enabing an expansion of FEMA’s system of PEP stations. The benefits go on and on.

  6. Profile photo of therwnb


    I have been an advocate of using TV channels 5 and 6 (76.1 to 87.9 MHZ) to replace the existing AM, then allowing AM to be come an all digital community band for any public use or small community based commercial broadcasters.

    But I would go further by taking channel 7-13 (174 to 216 MHZ) for radio allowing for more broadcasters to compete. I am not a fan of how the FCC has mismanaged the TV and radio bands and believe more could have been done to allow for more stations most of all in radio where the costs are far less. The spacing requirements set up in the 40s for AM and later FM should have adjusted to allow for more stations placed closer together at lower power limits.

    The Idea of selling of the 600 MHZ band to cell phone companies i believe is the latest version of theft if the public air waves by the FCC.

    I could also see TV 2-4 going to AM, while 5-6 could allow for new commercial broadcasters, and 7-13 going to cell phone companies if the 36-50 range is left untouched to allow for future TV competitors.

    • Profile photo of John Unrath


      Is there anybody who wants 36-50 for anything? Too high for reliable long distance communication and too low for reliable short distance TV. Ask the amateurs who bracket that frequency range. Oh wait, then there is somebody who might want 36-50 🙂

  7. Profile photo of radioperson


    1) Open up 76.1 to 87.9 to the migration of almost all AMs.
    2) Allow only class 1-A and 1-B stations to remain on AM, and boost their power to 500K. This should take care of fringe areas where FM may not reach and also help these stations rise above the increased noise level of AM.

  8. Profile photo of Dr. Akbar


    500kw? Sure like to see those power bills…even with MDCL. Ancient Modulation is just that, and any attempt to slap another Band-Aid on this terminal patient is a waste of time and money. Expanding the FM band will take years for consumer electronics to catch up, all the while streaming devices in cars decimate terrestrial radio. When the land under the towers is worth more than the license, that speaks volumes about the future of AM radio.

  9. Profile photo of airplane777


    1. The FCC could create a narrow FM band to replace the AM band, (No frills, No stereo, No RDS)

    2. Or wait for the market to replace traditional radio with streaming radio all together.

  10. Profile photo of davemasonsd


    The biggest (original) issue is where to get the programming? If it remains on 540-1700, people can get it, but with increasing amounts of noise. HD didn’t work (more and more stations around here are shutting it off, thank God!). Moving to a different band would make these stations obsolete until new receivers got into the market. (See HD above.) FM took off when the FCC disallowed 100% simulcast. (Was FM ever mandated in radios?) UHF took off withe All Channel receivers mandated. (Cable helped.) My first mobile AM/FM radio was so deficient in AM bandwidth that I took it back to the dealer for repair. I knew it wasn’t me. I had another car (identical) with an AM only receiver. It sounded wonderful. AMs troubles are very involved and multiple. FM translators will only muddy the FM waters and (we have proof) coverage is greatly diminished. Unfortunately the only recourse to fix this is to allow attrition to slowly eliminate the “weaker” players in this game. In some markets this has already started with the expiration of numerous STAs. Whether it will happen with enough frequency to clear up the band in the next decade remains to be seen. A 1000 watt signal running paid religion lets the owners make money but the frequency offers very little in the form of general public service and is a narrowcaster. This is not a slam at religious radio, but frankly some of it is so poorly executed that one wonders. It’s become a vast wasteland and the abundance of paid “general” programming (vitamins, bankers, real estate sales) is no help. We all know that “if you build it they will come”. Today, there are deep(er) pockets tearing it down. It’s a shame, but no one’s about to legislate lessening the lack of creativity in the industry. I’m no expert, but it’s going to take a lot more action that we’re seeing now.

  11. Profile photo of Jay Rudko


    I’m all for the idea of expanding the FM band. The few TV stations still using channels 5 and 6 would need to be relocated, but the idea of a 76-108 MHz FM band is a good one. First, it will give AM stations, primarily those that are on graveyard frequencies, or daytimers, a chance to survive. The local channels, also known as graveyard frequency stations, would be able to compete better with their bigger brothers. Daytimers would have the ability to go 24 hour. Those stations would get first priority to go FM. We also need to look at the number of low-powered translators relaying the same program on several different frequencies in any given area. One higher powered signal would suffice. The FCC has to crack down on illegal stations as well. These “bootleg” stations interfere with licensed stations, and some of what you hear on them shouldn’t be heard on radio. South Florida, where I am, is a hotbed of bootleg stations. AM IBOC does need to be eliminated, especially with the band as crowded as it is. But IBOC does work on FM, and another solution for smaller AM’s that can’t afford to upgrade to FM would be to lease an HD2 or HD3 subchannel on an existing FM station. These are my suggestions. Discuss?

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