A proposal to allow AM station licensees to buy FM translators located as far as 250 miles away from the AM station and move them to an area where they can rebroadcast the AM station was the talk of the NAB Radio Show last week.   With battling news releases from FCC Commissioners (one from Commissioner Pai supporting an immediate translator window during which AM licensees would have an exclusive right to file for new FM translators, and a subsequent one from Commissioner Clyburn where she indicates her belief that the 250 mile proposal was the quickest way to bring translators to AM licensees), this proposal seems to have replaced the proposed translator window restricted to AM owners that had been proposed in the AM revitalization order introduced by the FCC about 2 years ago (see our summary of the initial proposal for an AM window here, and a discussion of the controversy over that window here and here). What does this proposal entail?

While the precise rules that are being considered by the Commission are unclear as they have not been released for public comment, from comments made in the public statements released by FCC Commissioners last week, other comments made by FCC staffers at the Radio Show, and stories reported by the trade press, it appears that the FCC is considering allowing any AM licensee to buy a translator located within 250 miles of their AM station and, as a one-step minor change application, to move the translator onto any channel that fits in the AM station’s market.  An AM licensee buys the translator authorization – and it basically gives that licensee the right to file for a vacant frequency in its market on a first-come, first-served basis. At the Radio Show, FCC officials suggested that the staff’s review of the translators that have recently been granted as a result of the 2003 translator window led to the conclusion that this proposal will make enough translators available to service many of the needs of AM licensees. Of course, that assumes that many of these translators will be for sale, but the FCC seems to think it likely that enough will be available for the right price.

The NAB and other parties who advocated for the translator window had expressed concerns that major market licensees would buy up all of the available translators, precluding opportunities in secondary markets. Yet, at the Radio Show, an FCC official suggested that it was unlikely that there would be that many opportunities for major market stations, as there simply are not spaces on the FM band on which the translators could operate in most major markets. After the 2003 translator window, the recent LPFM window and many FM drop-ins over the past few years, there is little space on the FM dial for new translators that would not create interference to existing operators in major markets.

To take advantage of this window, an AM broadcaster would need to (1) find a translator or translator construction permit that is for sale within 250 miles of the AM station that they want to rebroadcast, and (2) make sure that there is an open frequency on which the translator can operate without interference in the area in which the area in which the AM operates.  Translators will likely have to operate within the 2 mv/m contour/25 mile radius of the AM station, as currently required by the rules – though there is apparently some discussion of allowing AMs to use a translator that meets either test (the translator service area is contained within a circle radiating 25 miles from the station’s transmitter site or within the 2 mv/m contour of the station – rather than limiting the translator service area to the lesser of those areas as required by current rules).

The exact process for implementing this proposal is up in the air (obviously, the whole proposal is still up in the air until adopted by the Commission, and some advocates of the filing window for AM licensees to apply for new FM translators are still pushing that idea). Recent reports, including in Commissioner Clyburn’s statement, indicate that a first shot at buying and moving translators may be given to licensees of Class C and D AM stations.

But the details as to exactly how this process will work will await the release of the decision as approved by a majority of the Commissioners. Indications are that the decision could be out relatively soon – and if this proposal is adopted, we will then see if the predictions of the Commission’s staff as to the opportunities provided by this process prove to be correct. If not, there have been suggestions that a filing window for new translators, limited to AM licensees, could still occur at some later date. So keep watching to see how all this plays out in the coming weeks.