FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in a speech this week at the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Summer Convention (the text of the speech is available here), announced that he has circulated to the other Commissioners for review and approval a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to make changes to AM interference standards. Specifically, he said that the NPRM would look at Class A AM interference standards. I was in the audience for the Chairman’s remarks, and audience reaction was muted – perhaps because so few people regularly use the term “Class A AM” when referring to what many call the “clear channel” stations – those big 50 kW AM stations that can often be heard halfway across the country at night because of their “skywave” service bouncing off the atmosphere to be received hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from where the signal originates.
What to do about Class A AM stations was an issue teed up by the FCC in the AM Revitalization proceeding initiated several years ago (see our post here summarizing the issued raised by the FCC back in 2013). While these clear channel stations are enjoyed by listeners far from their own city of license (often bringing sports broadcasts to distant fans, or programs like the Grand Ole Opry that have become national institutions), the huge service areas of these stations does come at a cost to local service – as many lower powered AM stations operating on the same channel as these Class A stations have to either drastically reduce their power or cease operations all together during nighttime hours. While some AM licensees have received FM translators to fill in those service gaps, those translators do not bring listeners back to the AM band itself. So, in the Revitalization proceeding, the FCC asked for ideas as to what it should do with these stations – e.g. if it should advance proposals to reduce protection to the clear channel stations in order to allow more local AMs to increase their nighttime power. It appears that the NPRM announced by the Chairman on Tuesday will crystalize the comments received in response to the 2013 Notice into more specific proposals for action.
In his comments in Michigan, the Chairman said “our rules should reflect the reality of the current noise floor and appropriately balance the interests of Americans who want to listen to smaller local stations in their communities with those who enjoy listening to Class A stations.” Exactly how the FCC proposes to achieve that balance may not be clear until we see the release of the new NPRM. This is a controversial issue, as many owners of clear channel AMs argue that these stations are what keep listeners tuned to the AM dial and allowing more interference could weaken their ability to provide the attractive programming that many of them do. Of course, owners of the weaker AM stations want to serve their communities during all hours, not just during daylight hours. This further NPRM will no doubt be carefully watched, and we will see the arguments raised on both sides in the coming months.