clear channel AM station

We typically publish our article about upcoming regulatory dates before the beginning of each month, but this month, the looming FCC shutdown and determining its effect on filing deadlines pushed back our schedule. As we wrote on Friday, the effect of the shutdown is now becoming clear – and it has the potential to put on hold a number of the FCC deadlines, including the filing of Quarterly Children’s Television Reports due on January 10 and the uploading of Quarterly Issues Programs lists, due to be added to station’s public inspection files on January 10. The FCC-hosted public inspection file database is offline, so those Quarterly Issues Programs lists can’t be uploaded unless the budget impasse is resolved this week. Certifications as to the compliance of TV stations with the commercial limits in children’s television programs would also be added to the public file by January 10 – if it is available for use by then. While these and other dates mentioned below may be put on hold, there are deadlines that broadcasters need to pay attention to that are unaffected by the Washington budget debate.

We note that the FCC’s CDBS and LMS databases are up and operating, though most filings will be considered to be submitted the day that the FCC reopens. As the databases are up and operating, many applications can be electronically filed – so TV stations might as well timely upload their Children’s Television Reports on schedule by January 10, to avoid any slow uploading that may result from overloading of the FCC’s system as the FCC reopens. Other FCC deadlines are unaffected by the shutdown – most notably, as we wrote on Friday, those that related to the repacking of the TV band following the TV incentive auction. The FCC has money to keep its auction activities operating so staff are working to keep the repacking on track. Deadlines coming up for the repacking include a January 10th deadline for stations affected by the repacking to file their Form 387 Transition Progress Report. Auction deadlines proceed whether or not the FCC is otherwise open for business.
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Late last week, the FCC issued a “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” in its AM Revitalization Proceeding. The FCC has been taking steps over the last several years to attempt to restore AM radio to health. In last week’s Further Notice, the FCC followed up on ideas that it floated in 2016 in a prior order in the AM revitalization proceeding (see our articles here and here) suggesting that protections afforded to Class A AM stations be lessened in order to allow increased power by other more localized AM stations. Class A stations, often referred to as “clear channel” stations, are those 50 kW AM stations that are currently given interference protections both during the day and to their nighttime “skywave” signals (the signals heard hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from the station’s transmitter site after bouncing off the atmosphere). These protections allow these stations to cover large geographic areas, and were particularly important in the early days of radio when these stations provided the only radio services to vast portions of the country that did not have local radio stations. In the Further Notice released last week, the FCC questions whether such protections are still necessary given the proliferation of other sources of audio programming (including radio stations, satellite radio and the Internet), and advances specific proposals that would reduce the protections accorded to these stations to allow some power increases by local AM stations.

This proposal is not without controversy. Obviously, station owners who hold Class A licenses do not believe that the service provided by these stations should be impeded. In fact, they note that many of these stations are among the few profitable AM stations in the country, often providing unique programming and substantial programming diversity to rural residents. These stations have also always been a favorite of long-haul truckers and others driving at night for providing uninterrupted service over vast distances. Perhaps even more importantly, and a question specifically raised for comment by the FCC, is the impact that any loss of service from these stations would have on the EAS network. Many of these stations serve as the primary stations for relaying national emergency messages to the EAS network. In fact, many of these stations have been provided funds by FEMA to improve their facilities to insure that they are available to provide uninterrupted service in the event of a national emergency.
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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.
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The FCC’s proceeding on revitalizing AM radio is headed into its second phase, looking at further steps that it can take to assist the oldest broadcast service adapt and thrive in the new media world. In the Fall, the FCC adopted certain policy and rule changes to help AM stations, most notably allowing wider use of FM translators to rebroadcast AM stations through waivers allowing translators to change channels and be moved up to 250 miles to serve an AM station (see our articles here and here for more details). Now the proceeding moves on to consideration of additional proposals on which the FCC seeks comments. The comments are due on March 21. Proposals to reduce the protections afforded to “clear channel AM stations” and the end of dual-band operations by certain stations that were given expanded band channels (at the top end of the AM dial between 1610 and 1700 AM) have received a fair amount of comment in the trade press, but there are other proposals as well. What are some of the issues that the FCC is considering? A brief summary of some of the proposals is set out below.

Lessening of AM station protections. The FCC offered three proposals for a lessening of interference protections afforded to AM stations. To some, lessening of the interference protections between AM stations might seem to be a backward step in improving the service (and a step that is in many ways undoing the FCC’s last major review of the AM rules 25 years ago, where the focus was on minimizing interference between AM stations). But, in each of these cases, the FCC now sees the major culprit in the decreasing popularity of AM stations as not the interference between AM stations, but instead the interference that comes from environmental background “noise” from all of the electronic gadgets that are now part of everyday life. To overcome that background noise, the FCC’s underlying rationale in most of these proposals is to make it possible for more local AM stations to increase their power. While the power increases might lead to increased interference between AM stations, it is the FCC’s premise that most of the interference would be in areas far from the station’s primary service area – and increased power in the center of service areas would make up for the losses by helping the stations to overcome the background noise. Of course, even with the proposals, not all AM stations will be able to increase power, so the stations that suffer interference in their outer coverage areas may not be the same stations that receive benefits from the service improvement in their core markets. Here are the areas in which the FCC proposes to decrease protections between AM stations.
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