The FCC’s proceeding on revitalizing AM radio is headed into its second phase, looking at further steps that it can take to assist the oldest broadcast service adapt and thrive in the new media world. In the Fall, the FCC adopted certain policy and rule changes to help AM stations, most notably allowing wider use of FM translators to rebroadcast AM stations through waivers allowing translators to change channels and be moved up to 250 miles to serve an AM station (see our articles here and here for more details). Now the proceeding moves on to consideration of additional proposals on which the FCC seeks comments. The comments are due on March 21. Proposals to reduce the protections afforded to “clear channel AM stations” and the end of dual-band operations by certain stations that were given expanded band channels (at the top end of the AM dial between 1610 and 1700 AM) have received a fair amount of comment in the trade press, but there are other proposals as well. What are some of the issues that the FCC is considering? A brief summary of some of the proposals is set out below.
Lessening of AM station protections. The FCC offered three proposals for a lessening of interference protections afforded to AM stations. To some, lessening of the interference protections between AM stations might seem to be a backward step in improving the service (and a step that is in many ways undoing the FCC’s last major review of the AM rules 25 years ago, where the focus was on minimizing interference between AM stations). But, in each of these cases, the FCC now sees the major culprit in the decreasing popularity of AM stations as not the interference between AM stations, but instead the interference that comes from environmental background “noise” from all of the electronic gadgets that are now part of everyday life. To overcome that background noise, the FCC’s underlying rationale in most of these proposals is to make it possible for more local AM stations to increase their power. While the power increases might lead to increased interference between AM stations, it is the FCC’s premise that most of the interference would be in areas far from the station’s primary service area – and increased power in the center of service areas would make up for the losses by helping the stations to overcome the background noise. Of course, even with the proposals, not all AM stations will be able to increase power, so the stations that suffer interference in their outer coverage areas may not be the same stations that receive benefits from the service improvement in their core markets. Here are the areas in which the FCC proposes to decrease protections between AM stations.
- Clear Channel (Class A) Stations – The FCC’s first proposal to lessen protections – and the one to which most press attention has been directed –is its proposal to reduce the protections afforded to “clear channel” AM stations. These stations – about 57 in the mainland US and 16 in Alaska – are allowed power levels of up to 50 kw, and have their signals protected both daytime and nighttime, and in the “critical hours” near sunset and sunrise. Not only is protection afforded to their “groundwave” signal, the signal that hugs the earth and provides the basis for interference considerations for all other AM stations, but their “skywave” signal is also protected under current rules – the skywave signal being one that goes great distances by literally bouncing off layers in the atmosphere to return to provide service on earth. These high powered stations were initially authorized to provide broad coverage across the country so that even those in rural America, outside the coverage of local radio, could still receive some news, sports and entertainment programming. Local stations that operate on the same channels as these stations and on adjacent channels are required to power down at night, and in some cases to go off the air entirely, to protect these clear channel stations.Because the local stations need to reduce power to protect the clear channel stations, the FCC expressed fears that the local stations were suffering in their core service areas. Thus, in this proceeding, the FCC proposes to end skywave and critical hours protection for clear channel stations, as well as to reduce the protections afforded to their groundwave signals. The FCC asks for comments on the extent to which this would impact rural populations who rely on the service from these stations, and also how it would affect the EAS system which, in some places, relies on the signals of these stations to relay emergency information to rural stations and listeners. Proponents of the clear channels ask why the FCC should be hobbling some of the few successful stations still operating on the band. In fact, some commenters even suggested letting these stations further raise their power to provide even greater service. So, obviously, this will be a contentious issue.
- RSS interference changes. In assessing interference between stations, the FCC uses a method called RSS (root sum squared) which tries to assesses the total interference that comes from multiple stations in determining when the increase in power of any particular station will cause prohibited interference to other stations. In its last revision of the AM rules 25 years ago, the FCC expanded the number of stations that were considered in such an analysis, including those that had previously been excluded because their level of additional interference was small, and it also added consideration of first-adjacent channel stations in the computation of the RSS interference. In looking back at those changes, the FCC now thinks that maybe the changes were misguided and prevented too many stations from increasing power. So, it proposes to reverse the changes, and exclude consideration of adjacent-channel stations and of those stations that are low contributors of additional interference. Again, some stations might end up suffering some additional interference, but the FCC believes that the benefits of increased power to other stations in the core of their service area would outweigh any detriments.
- Daytime contours for Class B, C and D stations. The FCC is also proposing to end consideration of the interference effects of a proposed increase in power by an AM station on any third-adjacent channel station. Lesser protections would also be afforded to other adjacent channel stations. In addition, the FCC would also reduce the protected service contour of most AM stations from its .5 mV/m contour to its 2 mV/m contour. As with its other proposals for reduction of protection, the idea is to make it possible for more AM stations to increase power to overcome background interference as they would have to afford lesser protections to other AM stations.
Allow Wider Use of FM Translators. The use of FM translators by AM stations has had the most immediate impact on the fortunes of AM broadcasters. The FCC proposes to expand the areas in which this benefit can be utilized. Currently, such translators have to have their 1 mV/m signal entirely within the lesser of the 2 mV/m signal of the AM station or within a circle with a radius of 25 miles from the AM station’s transmitter site. The FCC now proposes that the translator be allowed to be located so that its 1 mV/m would be within the greater of the 25-mile radius of the AM transmitter site or within the 2 mV/m contour (not to exceed 40 miles). Obviously, this would allow much broader use of FM translator stations by AM stations, and would allow such stations to fill in nulls caused by directional patterns that may currently keep their 2 mV/m contours well within the 25-mile radius of their transmitter sites – again providing better local service to the AM station’s core audience.
Proofs of Performance. The FCC proposes to simplify the ways that proof of performance are done – reducing the number of radials that need to be measured when conducting some proofs, and by simplifying and expanding the use of Method of Moment proofs – ones that can be done principally by computer modeling rather than field measurements. This would save AM operators the expense of conducting some of these proofs.
Eliminating Continued Dual Band AM Operators. When the FCC last looked at AM radio, it authorized for the first time the location of stations on frequencies from 1610 to 1700 – the “expanded band.” 88 stations were allotted frequencies in the expanded band, with the plan that they would migrate to the expanded band the stations that they currently operated in the core AM band that contributed a significant amount of interference to other AM stations. The idea was that these stations would have 5 years of dual band operations during which time they could decide to either move permanently to the expanded band or to remain on their old channels. As programming did not need to be duplicated on the expanded band stations, many operators developed new formats on these stations and a group (which I represented), backed by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, asked that these operators be able to continue to operate both stations as many programmed formats targeting minority audiences. The FCC allowed 25 of these operations to continue – now for almost a decade.
The FCC is now suggesting that these dual operations cease. The Commission asks for comments as to whether to require these 25 operators to give up one of their two stations, suggesting that it be done within a year of the FCC’s decision on the matter. But the FCC asks for information on the impact that such a surrender would have, and whether a one-year time frame is an appropriate period for the termination of such operations. This seems to be the one area where the FCC’s idea of lessening the interference of AM stations to each other, as reflected in its last AM review 25 years ago and now seemingly being abandoned in favor of more local service, is moving in the opposite direction – looking to end such local service to promote a reduction in AM interference.
Further Notice of Inquiry. Finally, the FCC asks for comments on additional rules that they may consider in further rulemaking proposals. Because the following questions are merely raised as a Notice of Inquiry, they cannot lead immediately to new rules like the other issues described above. Instead, the Commission would need to first issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking suggesting rules that it might adopt. Thus, the FCC is just starting the conversation on the following issues:
- Greater Use of the Expanded Band. As set forth above, the FCC 20 years ago issued only 88 licenses for the 10 channels in the expanded band. Since then, though the FCC has been asked from time to time to allow more stations into that band, nothing has happened. Now, the FCC asks whether it should use the band more extensively, and if so, how. Should the FCC use mileage separations to allocated stations as it did with the first 88 channels, or should it use contour protections as it does with all other AM stations? Should they allow all classes of AM stations to locate in the band, or just specific classes of stations? Should it give preferences for location in the expanded band to brand new stations; or to existing stations that that, by moving to the new band, reduce interference in the core band (as the FCC did previously); or should preference be given to some other type of stations – like perhaps daytime AMs?
- Main Studio Rules. The FCC asks whether some changes in the main studio rules should be made for AM stations to allow them to reduce their costs of operations. Should the FCC allow AM stations to co-locate their main studios with other stations in their markets, even if the other stations have studio locations that are not within the area in which such studios can be located under the current rules (within 25 miles of the reference coordinates of the city of license, or within the principal community contour of the station or of any other station licensed to the same community)? If so, should there be limits on how far away such a studio can be? How about AM stations that don’t have another co-owned local station with which they can be located? Do new communications channels, including the fact that station’s public inspection files will soon be on the Internet, lessen the need for main studios to be open during normal business hours?
The Commission is looking for ideas on whether to proceed in these two areas.
This is what’s on the table for AM so far, in addition to the changes that are already effective, including the current set of application for new translators that are being filed and quickly processed by the FCC right now. The FCC has not, yet, formally proposed all-digital operations, an issue that some think may be the only way for AM to really be overcome the increasing electronic noise that is making reception increasingly difficult. So, while comments are being filed this month on these issues, there may be further proposals in coming years to look at new ways in which to improve the oldest of broadcast services.