As we noted in our list of November Regulatory dates for broadcasters, at its November 22 meeting, the FCC will be considering the adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (see the draft order here) allowing AM stations to go all digital – on a voluntary basis. This Notice follows a Petition for Rulemaking which I filed on behalf of my client Bryan Broadcasting (see our articles here and here). The FCC’s NPRM, if adopted in the form of the draft Notice, suggests that the Commission, subject to a review of comments, is inclined to adopt the proposal to allow AM stations to voluntarily convert to an all-digital operation. While that is the tentative conclusion of the FCC, it does pose numerous questions on which it seeks comments.

The FCC’s questions include inquiries on the technical, programming, and operational aspects of the conversion of an AM station to digital. But the FCC recognizes some of the potential benefits of the all-digital operation and identifies some of the likely early adaptors of any such technology. These early adopters would likely include AM stations that have an FM translator that can continue to provide programming to the public even if some of the public does not have a radio with AM digital reception capabilities. We note that some AM operators with FM translators have already suggested the possibility of surrendering their AM signal, a proposal that has thus far been rejected by the FCC (see our articles here and here). The prospect of an all-digital AM operation would allow these stations to rely on their FM translator for current analog coverage of their markets, while trying to provide a more robust AM signal in the long-term rather than simply abandoning the service altogether. In addition, music stations are much more likely to be interested in an all-digital operation with the promise of higher fidelity than possible through an analog operation. But the FCC asks numerous other questions.
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November is not one of those months with due dates for renewal filings, EEO public file reports or quarterly issues programs reports. Some of those obligations wait until December, when renewal filings for radio stations in Georgia and Alabama are due by December 2 (as December 1 falls on a weekend). Due for uploading on or before December 1 are EEO public file reports for station employment units with 5 or more full-time employees for radio or television stations in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont.

November 1 does signal the first day on which radio and TV stations can file their Biennial Ownership Reports. As we wrote here, the FCC has extended the deadline date for those filings until January 31, 2020 as the FCC is making refinements in its forms in the LMS filing system. Reports are to reflect the licensee’s ownership as of October 1, 2019 so stations have the information that they need and can start filing their reports later this week.
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With the June 3 filing deadline fast approaching for license renewals for radio stations in Maryland, DC, Virginia and West Virginia, stations (including FM translators and LPFMs) licensed to any community in any of those states should be beginning to prepare their applications. As we wrote here, the FCC forms should be available next week, so once May 1 rolls around, early birds in those states can start to file their renewal applications and the accompanying EEO program report. These stations should also be running their pre-filing license renewal announcements on the 1st and 16th of May. Radio stations in the next renewal group, stations in North and South Carolina, should be prepared to begin their license renewal pre-filing announcements in June – so in May they should be recording and scheduling that announcement to run for the first time on June 1 (see this article on pre-filing announcements for more information).

While May is one of those months with no other regularly scheduled regulatory filing deadlines, it is full of other FCC deadlines including comment dates in several proceedings of importance to broadcasters. In addition, broadcasters in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees should also be preparing to add to their online public inspection file their Annual EEO Public File Report – due to be added to their files by June 1.
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For decades, the FCC has been attempting to solve problems with AM reception – in the 90s looking to protect AMs from each other, and today trying to assist them in overcoming the effects of background “noise” coming from the proliferation of electronic devices in the environment which make AM reception, particularly in urban areas, very difficult. Even a number of car makers have announced plans to remove AM radios from new vehicles – particularly electric ones – given these stations’ susceptibility to interference from in-car electronics. Is there a solution?

Bryan Broadcasting (a long-time client that I assisted with its pleading) thinks it is time that the FCC do something dramatic to give AM a long-term future. This week it filed a Petition for Rulemaking asking the FCC to allow any AM to go all-digital in its operation.  The pleading does not suggest that any AM be forced to convert to an all-digital operation – instead it proposes that stations be given the option to make that conversion whenever they want. This is not a new concept, the FCC having considered it in the past and, in its 2015 AM Revitalization Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, discussed listed it as an issue on which they wanted comments so that they could consider such a transition at some point in the future (that discussion principally advanced in the FCC’s questions about the future use of the expanded band – see our post here on that 2015 Order).  Already, there is one AM station in Maryland operating full-time with all-digital facilities under experimental authority, and several tests have been conducted across the country on this all-digital operation.  While these tests have shown many positive results, why suggest this option for AM stations to make this digital conversion now?
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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.
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