At yesterday’s NAB Leadership Conference in Washington, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell stated that he thought that broadcasters would be pleased with the outcome of the Commission’s action on the NAB proposal to allow AM stations to use FM translators to fill in holes in their coverage, or to provide nighttime coverage for daytime stations. The Commissioner said that the proposal was working its way through the FCC. While he would not commit to a date when action could be expected, he thought something should come out soon. In the interim, the FCC has granted at least one AM Station Temporary Authority to use an FM translator to rebroadcast its signal – apparently as a result of a Congressional request.
We wrote, here, about the NAB proposal when it was first advanced back in August. Broadcasters then had hopes for quick FCC action. While it is good news that the FCC seems to be moving on the NAB proposal, broadcasters should not think that relief for all AM stations is coming soon. Instead, the FCC will simply release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, opening a formal comment window in which parties can state their support for the proposal. There may be others who oppose the proposal – particularly the supporters of Low Power FM stations. Given that the FCC already has an open proceeding dealing with the relationship between FM translators and LPFM stations, the proposal to give AM operators FM translators will have to be linked in some way to this other proceeding. And, were the FCC to decide that LPFM stations have a priority over FM translators, any victory for AM stations might be hollow, as LPFM stations could preclude the operation of many FM translators.
In the interim, the FCC seems to have allowed at least one AM station to use an FM translator on a temporary basis. WRHI(AM) in Rock Hill, South Carolina was granted Special Temporary Authority to use an FM translator to rebroadcast it’s signal, based on a showing that the station was no longer able to serve its rapidly expanding community with its AM station. According to the January 31 letter granting the STA, the request was filed only two days before the grant. Seldom has the FCC acted on anything that fast – and it is certainly unusual for an action that fast where the action requested a waiver of the FCC rules, as was required here. According to a report in the Rock Hill Herald, the grant followed a personal request to the Commission by the local Congressman. This seems very similar to a case that we reported on, here, where the FCC granted an STA to a former pirate station operator in Nevada to operate his station as an LPFM on a temporary basis, until the next LPFM window. This action was also reportedly done as a result of Congressional urging.
It is worth noting that Commissioner McDowell stated at yesterday’s meeting that he was not aware of the Nevada case. In both of these cases, temporary action by the FCC outside of the normal process, as a result of political urging, can set bad precedent. The precedent set by these cases could result in many pirates and AM stations seeking to use FM translator frequencies on a temporary basis. Is the FCC ready to accommodate them all? It certainly will be interesting to see how these situations play out over time.