Downs Advocates for AM Solutions
     

Here’s a question: If you sat in your office at 11 a.m. and turned on an AM radio, would the audio be listenable? What if you tried at home at 8 p.m. in the middle of your living room?

For many readers, both answers will be no.

Ben Downs and his business partner Bill Hicks own five radio stations in Bryan/College Station, Texas, four of which operate on AM frequencies (including a grandfathered “W” call sign that turns 90 next year). Both men live in the community. All of the stations’ announcers are live and local. Their news and sports departments employ nine people.

Bryan Broadcasting is local — indeed, Downs says, it is the only locally owned commercial medium of any kind left in the Brazos Valley.

But thanks to problems of mounting noise, plus the proliferation of mobile devices lacking AM reception entirely, Downs fears his AM stations and many others are threatened with extinction.

Ben Downs. ‘No amount of compelling programming can save AM if the laws of physics keep it from being heard.’

Dramatic solutions?

That’s why Downs, who has been in radio since age 14 and is now a second-term member of the radio board of the National Association of Broadcasters, has pushed NAB to explore ways to help AM operators.

There are some 4,800 AM radio stations in the United States; some 2,000 of them are members of NAB.

In October the Radio Board gave Kevin Gage, NAB’s new executive VP and chief technology officer, permission to spend money on a study to explore “options for AM broadcasters from an engineering perspective.” The results are likely to be among the most scrutinized of any report out of NAB in recent years.

At stake, Downs thinks, is nothing less than the future of radio’s senior service. “I truly believe if we do nothing, we’ll have no AM band in five to 10 years. We have very little of one now.”

The marketplace, Downs thinks, already is doing what it can. Talk and sports formats in big markets increasingly have moved to FM. Some 500 AMs are using FM translators, anxious for any footing on the FM band. But, Downs said, “a lot of us don’t have access to a spare FM or a translator.”

As authorized by the board, the NAB plans to look into options involving the technology of content delivery, regulation and frequency band rules.

What kind of answers might it develop? Expect the authors to explore options like converting the AM band to all-digital; moving AMs to those low VHF TV channels; allowing AMs to make more use of translators and FM IBOC multicasts; and taking advantage of less-discussed options like mobile DTV.

Ideas such as going all-digital would be contentious; and Downs acknowledges “a thousand reasons why any of these won’t work.” But just deciding to study the question, he said, is a “page-turning moment” for NAB.

Downs himself favors using Channels 5 and 6, where a small number of full-power TV stations remain (the map shows occupants of Channel 6), along with Class A and LPTV stations. He says radio manufacturers likely would go along because most FM receivers already have this capability because they’re built to accommodate consumers in Japan, where radio stations do use the 5/6 frequencies. “The hardware is already there. The receivers are already built.”

Using Channels 5 and 6 will be one of the options explored in the study, though Downs makes clear NAB has not endorsed this or any other specific strategy. In fact, in 2008 NAB opted not to support the AM migration proposal put forward by the Broadcast Maximization Committee. That would have required AMs to go all-digital, and it didn’t protect full-power TV stations left behind on 5 and 6 after the DTV transition.

“Since some of the TV people cannot move, it seemed that was a big roadblock. But maybe we could convince the FCC through regulatory changes that this could be shared — both FM and DTV could share these frequencies.”

Could AMs move onto FM Channels 5 and 6, sharing that space with the few full-power TVs that remain there? This map by du Treil, Lundin & Rackley demonstrates how much space exists on Channel 6, though Class A and LPTV stations are not shown. ‘They would be foolish to stay in the low VHF band after the problems their full-power brethren have had there,’ Downs said.

Board members pondered the idea for the past year or so; and at the fall Radio Show the Joint Executive Committee asked NAB’s technical staff to instigate a study that might help AM owners. Joint Board Chair Paul Karpowicz and Radio Chair Caroline Beasley made the motion.

Unlistenable

“The noise kicked up by digital and solid-state devices is basically rendering the AM band unlistenable,” Downs said.

“Get a clock radio and put it in your house and try to listen at night sometime. You’re lucky to get one station.” AM radio, he believes, has lost in-home and in-office listening, and soon will lose in-car, too, thanks to LED traffic lights, meter reader systems and other noise sources.

Downs said that research in other countries, while limited, shows that AMs would have to increase power dramatically to match coverage they had 10 years ago to overcome the increased noise. Anecdotally, that appears to be true here in the United States too.

Another big problem is lack of availability of mobile devices that can receive AM in the first place.

“That little thing in your pocket, the handset, has replaced watches, pocket cameras … we all know what it’s done to landlines. Young people are even using it as a flashlight. It’ll ultimately replace the $20 clock radio. Both of my kids use their iPhones as their alarm clock in the morning.”

But the laws of physics dictate that AM reception antennas must be long, which is a problem. Further, the handset itself is likely to be a noisy place. “As it stands today, there’s not a really good pathway into mobile devices if you’re going to stay on the AM band.”

Downs said he’ll favor any solution that fixes the interference and gets AM radio into handsets in the next five to 10 years.

“I’m just hoping that the people who have power to make these decisions understand the value that licensed AM broadcasters bring to the table,” he concluded. He says many good strong AM stations remain in business. However, “If we don’t do something, all of those licensees are going to be marginalized. …If we don’t find a way to preserve them, then we lose a huge amount of community voices.”

Radio World will have more on this effort as it develops. About two years ago we explored whether AM was still relevant and where it might go, in a series of articles. Some readers were offended by our premise. But overall reaction made clear that the future of AM is of concern to many people. I told Downs that every point he raised has been discussed at one time or another within Radio World and in other venues, and I welcome the NAB’s effort to focus the debate.

“There is nobody who talks about my little Bryan/College Station [community] like our AM stations do,” he told me. “We are very local. We serve the community. That word is overused; I wish I had a better word for it. Pandora will not have a food drive in Bryan, Texas.”

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