Almost two years ago, the FCC launched its AM revitalization efforts with great flourish, and promises of prompt action. We wrote about the two aspects of potential assistance for AM stations that were proposed in the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – technical proposals which mostly focused on ways to make the relocation of AM stations easier (see our article here) and the quick-fix proposal for new FM translators reserved for AM stations, a band-aid to keep AM stations alive while a new more permanent solution for these stations could be found (see our post here). The comments on the translator proposal, a filing window for new FM translators reserved for AM stations, were almost all positive. The vibrations from the FCC also seemed to be positive, and many AMs have been hanging on in anticipation of the coming of this filing window. This week, serious questions arose as to whether the FCC thinking on this issue has changed – and it appears that a translator window for AM stations may not in fact occur (or perhaps not in the manner that it was envisioned by most observers over the last two years).

This rethinking was first exhibited in an article on the FCC’s Blog, posted by FCC Chairman Wheeler on Monday morning, April 13, just as the National Association of Broadcasters Convention was beginning in Las Vegas. The article quickly became a prime topic of conversation among radio broadcasters at the convention. In the article, the Chairman promises to move quickly to resolve the issues posed in the AM NPRM, adopting some of the technical proposals that were set out in the NPRM, and proposing for future consideration new ideas for AM improvement. But what gathered the most attention were his comments on FM translators for AM stations. He wrote the following about that window:

I have two concerns about the record and whether opening such a window is necessary, given the current state of the marketplace. The first is whether there is an insufficient number of FM translator licenses available for AM stations….The second unanswered concern is why, if it is necessary to open the translator window, it should only be opened for one group… [I]f we are to assure that spectrum availability is an open opportunity, then the government shouldn’t favor one class of licensees with an exclusive spectrum opportunity unavailable to others just because the company owns a license in the AM band.

Conversations in Las Vegas centered around the meaning of these comments, comments that were further amplified in his speech before the NAB Convention on Wednesday.

In his Wednesday speech (the text of which is available here), Chairman Wheeler made these comments about the proposal for FM translators for AM stations: “I also intend to address how FM translators can be used to benefit not just some licensees, but all licensees, including new licensees, and how that fits with our statutory mandate to localism and diversity of voices.” Seemingly, this signals his recognition that translators do comprise part of the solution for AM radio – but what part is unclear.

We can speculate on some of the issues faced by the FCC in deciding on whether to open a translator window for AM licensees. Many have noted that, particularly in larger markets, due to FM spectrum congestion, there may be few opportunities for FM translators for AM stations. There may have been concerns about which AM stations should get access to translators – should they be open to everyone, or reserved for (or at least preferences given to) AM stations with no nighttime service or with limited nighttime power level – the stations most struggling in today’s audio marketplace. But what role translators will play will only be made clear once the specifics of the FCC decision are released.

In his blog post, the Chairman suggests that there are other ways for AM licensees to obtain translators, principally by buying them on the open market. He notes the thousands of new translators that have been granted in the last two years, as the FCC has completed processing of the thousands of FM translators from the 2003 translator window. But, as we have written, the FCC has been making it more difficult to move these translators from one community to another (see our articles here, here and here about various limitations that have been placed on the movement or use of FM translators), and many simply are not available where AM stations need them. In addition, the prices for those translators have risen significantly, with a recent sale of a million dollars being reported for a translator in a very large market, and many other sales for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars occurring even in smaller markets. A decision to not open a window for translators for AM stations will probably even increase the purchase prices for any available translators through the simple working of supply and demand – the lack of supply for any new translators can only drive up the prices for those that already exist. Many AM licensees may simply not be able to afford the prices for any translators that may be available in their service areas.

Will the technical fixes proposed by the FCC eliminate the need for these translators? Most likely, they will not. As we wrote when the FCC first made its technical proposals, most of these proposals only help AM stations that are looking to make technical improvements, or to change transmitter sites, and do little to address day-to-day operational issues, including high electronic background noise (which has only been growing with the growth in the number of electronic devices, and the increase in fluorescent lighting) that makes AM more interference-prone particularly in urban environments, the lack of AM receivers in some radios, and the allegedly lower quality of some of the receivers that do exist.

Some proposed longer-term technical fixes include a migration to an all-digital AM platform, or the adoption of other new antenna technologies that minimize interference between AM stations themselves, or affording less protection to some AM stations so that others can increase their power. But all of these proposals will require further comment (as they were not teed up in the 2013 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking), probably years of consideration, and years to implement after any new rules are adopted. If AM digital is the solution, that solution will require the replacement of the hundreds of millions of analog AM radios that are in the marketplace, further slowing the relief to AM stations. There are even proposals that have been made, even by the FCC, to use TV Channels 5 and 6 for the relocation of AM stations, as these channels are lightly used by TV stations, and are immediately adjacent to the FM band and have similar radiation characteristics to FM (see our article here). But the potential use of these channels for repacking TV stations after the incentive auction, and the need for new receivers to hear any AM station that moves into this band, don’t make this a short-term solution either.

Why is saving AM important? Some have suggested that, if AM is an inferior technology, we should just let it die off. The Chairman himself, in his blog post, offered one reason – the FCC’s commitment to diversity. As AM stations have become less costly to buy, they have become the home to significant broadcast diversity. Minority and targeted ethnic programs abound. Local coverage of high school sports still is very common in smaller radio markets. Talk and religious formats are all over the AM band. Some stations have adopted brokered formats – where anyone who wants to do a radio show can buy a block of time to program – a far easier way for an average person or community group to get on-air than trying to build or buy their own AM, FM, of LPFM station.

But the time is running out. Last Monday, at about the same time that the blog post was coming out, I was meeting in Las Vegas with a broadcaster who had been able to purchase an FM translator for their AM station – which they said had made them decide to keep the AM on the air when its future had looked doubtful. At other broadcast conventions that I have attended, I’ve recently heard others say that, even in some rural areas, AM is becoming a harder and harder business to support, as receivers are becoming more difficult to find. I have heard similar stories across the country. Objectively, the hard times experienced by AM radio is demonstrated by the fact that the number of operating AM stations is declining. Something needs to be done soon, and it is great that the Chairman has committed to move the proceeding forward. Let’s hope that there are concrete solutions adopted quickly, so that this valuable source of diversity does not disappear.