Last week, acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn delivered a speech at the NAB Radio Show, which talked about new technology and old, and her affection for AM radio.  In the most newsworthy aspect of the speech, the Chairwoman announced that the FCC is currently considering a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to improve the service delivered by AM radio. As we wrote here, the issue of AM improvement has been a major initiative advanced by Commissioner Pai, looking to restore AM radio’s competitive posture.  Attention is needed to overcome some of the many obstacles that AM faces, including those from interference that has increased significantly in many metropolitan areas, causing more and more electronic “noise” that disrupts the AM service. The discussion at the Radio Show raised several proposals for AM relief. But will they really help AM stations?

First, it is important to understand that the Chairwoman was talking only about a series of proposed actions – nothing has yet been decided. There is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that is circulating at the Commission. This means that the proposal has been drafted and is being reviewed by the other Commissioners. Once they finish their review, the Notice will be released to the public, which will then have some period of time (probably a few months) to comment on the suggestions made by the Commission. According to the Chairwoman’s speech, and echoed by Commissioner Pai in an address that he delivered to the Radio Show, broadcasters will also be urged to come forward with their own ideas as to how to improve AM radio. All of the comments filed by the public will have to be digested before the Commission can actually implement any of them. With that background, what is to be proposed, and which actions will likely move the fastest?


Continue Reading AM Improvement Proposals Coming from the FCC – What is Coming and How Quickly?

The rules for determining when construction of a new tower may cause a distortion of the pattern of a nearby AM station, and when the party building the new tower has a financial obligation to remedy any interference caused, were clarified by the Commission in an order released late last week. The order makes clear that all towers used by FCC licensees must abide by these rules, putting into formal rules the existing general obligation that all “newcomers” that create interference to an existing licensee must be responsible for rectifying that interference. There was apparently some question about the duty of newcomers to rectify issues that they cause to AM stations, as the rules for all non-broadcast services did not explicitly include language embodying that concept.

The Commission also made clear that the distortion of an AM stations pattern would be measured by the “moment method,” a computer program that will determine if there is a disruption to the pattern, rather than by actual field strength measurements. Doing a “proof of performance” of an AM station can be a long and costly process. Thus the FCC several years ago authorized the moment method of modeling AM patterns (see our article here). In this order, the Commission extends the reliance on this method to the resolution of complaints about new tower construction interfering with existing AM patterns. Other specifics of the order are set forth below.


Continue Reading FCC Sets New Rules for Determining When New Tower Construction Triggers Financial Responsibility for Disrupting AM Station Antenna Patterns

At the NAB Radio Show in Dallas in September, FCC Commissioner Pai promised that the FCC would take action to revitalize the AM band (see our story here). For years, AM has suffered a gradual erosion in listening, as interference on the band has increased – not necessarily from other AM stations, but instead from background noise that is now part of the environment in most urban areas. This interference is caused by everything from fluorescent lights to plasma TV screens to various other electronic devices that are prevalent in the modern world. At the NAB Show in Las Vegas the week before last, Commissioner Pai reprised his discussion of AM improvements, this time moderating a panel of experts to discuss the potential remedies to the problems faced by the AM radio service. So just what remedies may be possible?

The panel set out several possible solutions to AM interference issues, all of which have potential downsides or problems. These include the following:

  • — More FM translators for AM stations
  • — Blanket power increases for all AM stations
  • — A reduction in skywave protection
  • — The adoption of a cellular architecture for AM stations
  • — All-digital operation for AM stations

Let’s look at each of these options below.


Continue Reading Saving AM Radio – What is the FCC Considering?

The care and feeding of the broadcaster’s public file is a hot topic once again. For many years, the public file was often overlooked, being visited most often by competing broadcasters looking for dirt on their cross-town rivals, or by college journalism students assigned a project by their professor requiring the review of local stations’ files. But, with the debate that occurred earlier this year over the online public file for television stations, the file has received much publicity, being the subject of review and analysis in the popular and academic press, as well as in the broadcast trade journals. This week, the FCC issued a reminder about the obligations of a television broadcaster for complying with the public file rules (see that reminder here). In the past two weeks, I’ve conducted two seminars for broadcast groups on the public file obligations of stations. The first was a webinar for 20 state broadcast associations and their members, organized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. The PowerPoint slides used in that presentation are available here.

The slides set out information about the importance of the file, and provide some description of the required contents of the file, and the retention period for documents that need to be contained in the file. Radio stations have the obligation to place all of the required documents in their local, paper files and maintain them there for the appropriate period of time. TV stations, with the advent of the FCC-hosted public file (see one of our previous posts on the mechanics of the online file here), actually have a somewhat easier time in meeting some of their obligations – as the FCC itself will post to the file all documents that stations are required to file with the FCC – including renewal and technical applications, ownership reports, children’s television reports, coverage maps, the station license and the Public and Broadcasting procedure manual. Radio stations need to find all of these documents and manually place them into their files. TV stations need only upload other information that is not filed at the FCC – like Quarterly Issues Programs lists, annual EEO Public File Reports, and certifications as to the station’s compliance with the Children’s television commercial limits. Beyond these basics, in the seminars that I recently conducted, several other interesting questions were raised.


Continue Reading The Care and Feeding of the Broadcaster’s Public Inspection File – An FCC Reminder and a Compliance Seminar

Moving a station from a rural area into a more urban one was a fairly common occurrence until the recent recession – when the value of new "move-in" stations in many larger markets essentially collapsed. Soon after the collapse, the FCC stepped in to stop what the marketplace had already severely slowed, by effectively prohibiting the practice of moving stations into urbanized areas.  In its Rural Radio Order (which we summarized here), the Commission adopted “presumptions” that eliminated preferences that applicants had received for proposing a new service to large suburban communities, and preferences based solely on the number of people that a modified station would serve. A number of parties (including ones that I represented), sought reconsideration of the FCC’s order, challenging both the theory of the FCC order and some of the details. On Friday, the FCC issued its order on reconsideration, denying any fundamental changes in the policy, but clarifying some of the details of the showings to be made in evaluating city of license changes for broadcast stations, and also grandfathering under the old rules more of the applications that were pending when the new rules were adopted.

Before discussing the changes, it is worth reviewing the Commission’s processes for deciding which of competing proposals for new FM channels in different communities should be granted, and whether the change in the city of license of an existing station is in the public interest. These choices are governed by Section 307(b) of the Communications Act and the substantial case law that has built up at the FCC around that section. Section 307(b) requires that the Commission make a “fair, efficient and equitable” distribution of radio service among the states and communities. Over the years, the FCC has adopted standards for determining how to make this distribution – favoring applications that propose a “first local reception service” (or service to “white areas” – those that currently receive no predicted service from other stations), net favoring a second reception service, next giving a preference to those providing a “first transmission service” (i.e. a first station licensed to a community). Finally, if none of the preceding preferences come into play, the Commission looks at “other public interest factors” – usually the total population served by a proposal, including an evaluation of the other services from other stations available in both the gain and loss area of a proposed facility move (or in the proposed coverage areas of the new allotments that the Commission is evaluating). 


Continue Reading Reconsideration of FCC’s Rural Radio Decision – Making It Difficult to Move a Radio Station from a Rural to an Urban Area

At the NAB Radio Show, Commissioner Ajit Pai delivered an address discussing a number of topics, including a proposal for the FCC to undertake a study of AM radio and to come up with a plan to make that service more competitive. We cover many topics here on the Broadcast Law Blog, and often write about changes in service for FM radio and television, as well as the digital media, but it seems that our coverage of AM mirrors the FCC’s attention to the service in the last few years – relegated primarily to situations where struggling AMs run on a shoe string budget run into the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau because of some significant violation of the Commission’s rules. So what did Commissioner Pai propose, and is it realistic to expect real reform of the AM service?

The mere fact that the Commissioner proposed a study, and one to be completed in just over a year, is in and of itself encouraging. The NAB has been internally conducting a similar study, though no results have been released yet. The AM band has suffered from many problems, including a decrease in the quality of AM receivers as FM has become much more dominant, and the increase in background “noise” creating interference to AM service – all sorts of electronic devices that are now so common everywhere, including many of the lights now used both indoors and outdoors, create interference to the AM service that make listening, especially in most urban areas, difficult. So what can be done?


Continue Reading FCC Commissioner Proposes Review of the AM Band to Make it More Competitive – What Can Be Done?

When building a new radio station, the FCC gives broadcasters three years in which to construct.  The deadline for construction can only be extended for limited reasons (referred to as circumstances that justify "tolling" of the permit) – for a short term equal to the period that an Act of God (e.g. a hurricane, blizzard or flood

Just a reminder to broadcast stations in certain states of several upcoming February obligations.  First up, February 1st is the deadline for Radio Stations in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to file their FCC Form 303-S license renewal applications seeking a renewal of their broadcast licenses.  (See our earlier license renewal advisory for more information about the FCC’s

Changing the city of license of an AM or FM station is getting more difficult, based on recent FCC decisions.  As we have written before, the FCC’s Rural Radio order changed the manner in which the FCC reviews city of license changes.  In connection with any proposed city of license change, the FCC reviews the proposal to make sure that the change will result in a favorable arrangement of allotments, making sure that the distribution of radio channels is in the public interest.  In making that decision, the FCC has relied on a series of priorities – first insuring that all areas of the country get at least two radio reception services (Priority 1 was to provide service to "white areas" that currently receive no radio service at all, Priority 2 was to provide a second reception service to all areas).  The next priority was to provide as many communities as possible with their first "transmission service", i.e. a station licensed to that community that would have a primary responsibility to address its needs and interests.  Finally, if there was no proposal to provide a first or second reception service or a first local transmission service, the FCC  looked at Priority 4 factors, i.e. other public interest matters.  In the past, service to a greater number of people itself was a Priority 4 consideration.  Based on a case released last week, service to a greater population apparently is no longer be viewed as justification for the change in the city of license of a radio station – even if the proposed move is from a rural community that already has a significant amount of service to a similarly well served urbanized area and results in a significant increase in the population served by the station.

The Rural Radio order changed the Priority 3 preference for a first transmission service by determining that any proposal for a city of license within an urbanized area would be viewed as being a proposal for service to the entire urbanized area (meaning that, instead of being a first local service to a named community, all the stations in the urbanized area would be considered as serving the same city). Thus, a proposal to take a station from a rural area (e.g. proposing to take the third radio station from some smaller rural town) to a city without a service in a urbanized area would no longer be viewed as providing the first local transmission service to the suburban community (but would instead be viewed as being a proposal to provide just another service to a metro area that probably already has many stations that are licensed to the various communities in the urbanized area).  Some had thought that, while Priority 3 would no longer justify such a move, a Priority 4 preference would be available if the move would allow the station to serve a much larger population, and if any loss area was already well served.  In the proposed move discussed last week, the Commission relied on language in the Rural Radio Order that stated that population increases alone would not be enough to justify a city of license change when a station proposed to move into an urbanized area.  In this case, the Commission’s staff found wanting a proposal to move from the well-served community of Boone, Iowa to a community in the Des Moines urbanized area – even though the proposed change would result in service to over 300,000 more people than are currently served by the station – increasing the number of people served by the station from less than 100,000 to over 400,000. The request was not denied outright, but instead the applicant was given another opportunity to supply additional information to demonstrate the public interest benefits that would result from the move. 


Continue Reading FCC Makes Changing City of License of Radio Stations More Difficult

Changing the city of license of a broadcast station was made more difficult by the FCC’s rural radio order.  That order, about which we wrote here, imposed substantial obstacles on broadcasters attempting to move their stations from rural areas into urbanized areas – making such moves difficult if not impossible in many cases.