The broadcast trade press was abuzz this morning with a report that an Arizona AM station currently simulcasting its programming on an FM translator has asked the FCC for permission to conduct a test where it would shut down its AM for about a year and operate solely through the FM translator. To grant this request, the FCC would need to waive its rule (Section 74.1263(b)) which prohibits an FM translator station from operating during extended periods when the primary station is not being retransmitted.
This idea of turning in an AM station to operate with a paired FM translator (though, in this case, the licensee promises to return the AM to the air within a year) is not a new one and has in fact been advanced in the AM Revitalization proceeding. The proposal offers pros and cons that the FCC will no doubt weigh in evaluating this proposal, and also raises many questions about the future of the AM band.
The immediate issue raised by the concept of trading an AM for an FM translator is what it says about the value of broadcasting on the AM dial. The once-dominant AM band has undoubtedly fallen on hard times in many parts of the country, with few AMs in major markets showing up among the ratings leaders in rated radio markets. Particularly in bigger markets, the AM band has been reduced to a few big signals that still have listeners and advertisers; some smaller specialty stations that have found profitable niches including ethnic, talk or brokered programming; and a number of struggling stations. FM translators have clearly made a difference for many of these struggling stations – not necessarily helping their AM operations but instead by giving their owners an opportunity to air their programming on the FM band where it is more likely to receive an audience.
Of course, right now, these FM translators are secondary stations, so any move to turn in an AM station to operate permanently on the translator risks having that translator knocked off the air because of an interference complaint (an issue that the FCC is currently trying to tackle in its proceeding on complaints about interference from FM translators – see our articles here and here) or because some full-power FM station increases power or a new FM station is added to the table of allotments. Some have suggested giving translators that have operated for a year or two without interference complaints some degree of protection from new or improved full-power stations (especially if the translator is associated with an AM station that agrees to surrender their AM signal), but whether the industry is ready to embrace that proposal is not yet clear. As evidenced by the mixed reaction to the proposal for C4 stations (see our articles here, here and here), some fear that the FM band is getting too crowded and that more FM signals preempt existing stations from improving their signals.
Getting rid of some of the weaker AM stations could have benefits to remaining stations, by reducing interference on the AM band, and potentially giving remaining stations some opportunities to improve their facilities. It could even lead, potentially, to more experimentation on the AM band – particularly with all-digital technologies that may improve the AM signal but will require much deeper penetration of HD AM radios before a large number would be willing to go that route for fear of not being able to be heard by their audience.
Another factor to consider is the role of changes in the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules. The NAB has proposed that AM stations no longer be counted in a multiple ownership analysis. Instead, ownership caps would apply only to FM stations (see our article here on the NAB proposal). While some have feared that this might mean that big broadcasters would abandon AM for FM operations, causing the state of technical operations and experimentation on AM to decline, others have suggested that this might free big groups or new entrants to gamble on AM by investing in a potentially unlimited number of such stations to program to niche audiences or for which to develop and deploy new technologies to make stations more viable.
Obviously, these musings run far afield from the issues facing the FCC in evaluating the proposal for the test by the Arizona station. But they are issues that need to be seriously considered by the industry as it contemplates the future of AM broadcasting. Certainly, some of these issues are likely to be discussed in the next phase of the AM Revitalization proceeding (see our articles here and here on possible issues to be considered in the future in that proceeding), and in the FCC’s upcoming Quadrennial Review of the radio ownership rules (see our post here on some of those issues). The Audio Competition report, on which comments are due next week, may also address some of these broader issues (see our articles here and here). There are no easy answers for AM, so the issues require thoughtful consideration by everyone in the radio industry.