question of AM revitalization is on my mind today.
Ajit Pai is taking an unusually prominent role, for a commissioner, on the
matter of AM revitalization.
A reader appreciated Chris Imlay’s commentary in the Jan. 16 issue. Imlay,
he emailed me, “was right on the mark regarding interference below 30 MHz by
the electronic devices out on the market today.”
he continued, “all the writing on it seems to fall on deaf ears. Why doesn’t
the FCC realize what they have done by allowing so many devices that interfere
with services? … It seems the FCC does not care about frequencies below 30 MHz
when it comes to interference. Chase a pirate on FM, find a beacon light out on
a tower, public files not in order at a station … but interference from a
continued, “They don’t hear the plasma TV noise, electric machine noises, PC
interference, cellphone interference, CFL light bulb interference ,overhead
light rail lines interference, etc., etc., etc. interfering with the AM radio.
concludes: “Surely somebody at the FCC must say, ‘We need to look into this.’”
hear the options
To be clear, the FCC explicitly acknowledged AM’s issues years ago, writing
in its AM translator rulemaking that “the combination of higher-fidelity
alternatives to AM radio and increased interference to AM radio have caused an
erosion of the AM radio audience and loss of young listeners to other
about AM’s situation is common in our industry, and the sense of urgency is
You’ll recall that Radio World featured a series of
articles about it starting in 2009, with a front-page story titled “Is AM Radio
Still Relevant?” That headline startled a lot of people, and some criticized
the underlying assumptions; but to me, the need for a broad industry discussion
about AM’s situation was obvious. Since that time we have published several
commentaries and stories exploring various angles, including the matter of
AM regulatory options also have been
a focus of discussion by the new NAB Radio
Technology Committee, reporting to the NAB Radio Board.
These welcome talks unfortunately have taken place out largely of the
public eye. Details of the committee’s “AM Engineering Study” — authorized by
the radio board in late 2011 — have never been published.
I reported then that committee would look into options
involving the technology of content delivery, regulation and frequency band
rules; I speculated that it might explore options like moving AMs to
frequencies shared with TV; allowing AMs to make more use of translators and FM
IBOC multicasts; and taking advantage of less-discussed options like mobile
hope is that whatever ideas the committee developed, its ideas will be put
forth publicly, so that the industry at large can debate them and benefit. (An
NAB spokesman told me recently the report was for the board’s internal use
only, and was not intended to be published.)
We know that one idea is to let AM stations turn off their analog and
broadcast entirely in digital. As RW has reported, there has been a bit of
testing of this, with more anticipated. The National Radio Systems Committee
received a briefing on the tests at the recent CES, and we expect to hear more
about that project at next month’s NAB Show.
But whether the all-digital path is a practical one is anyone’s guess. My
own speculation is that, faced with a menu of improvement options, AM broadcast
owners would probably prefer more limited regulatory tweaks first. Yet there hasn’t been
sufficient industry debate over what those other options might be.
One person pushing the issue is, in
fact, quite prominent at the FCC.
Commissioner Ajit Pai wants the FCC to help AM.
“Specifically, we should conduct a
comprehensive review of all our AM radio rules,” he said at last fall’s Radio
Show. “We should focus on one basic question: Are there regulatory barriers we
can remove to help this sector rebound?”
He is well aware of the problems
mentioned by our reader above.
“One notable change is that AM reception has gotten
worse,” Pai said then. “The causes of interference to AM signals have only
expanded in the last two decades. If you’ve tried flipping through the AM dial
recently, you know what I’m talking about.”
Pai even acknowledged a “widespread perception
that today’s FCC is largely indifferent to the fate of [broadcasters’]
He is about to take an even more visible
role. He will lead a session on this topic at the NAB Show — an unusual, maybe
unprecedented, decision for a commissioner. I think it’s a great idea.
According to NAB, “This session, held within the
Broadcast Management Conference, will address possible options for sustaining
and enhancing AM radio as a unique entertainment medium.”
I hope the session will get specific. I hope Pai will delve into some other
improvement options he mentioned in passing last fall, such as a possible
across-the-board power increase for AM stations, the use of synchronous AM
transmission systems and development of “anti-skywave antennas” so that some stations
wouldn’t have to go dark at night.
Regardless, we need to keep up the momentum on this.
We live in a world where spectrum is highly sought after; if a critical mass of
influence makers were ever to perceive that the senior radio band truly was
vulnerable, you could expect someone to make a play for it. Even putting that possibility
aside, consider what Ben Downs of Bryan Broadcasting Corp., who sits on the NAB Radio Board,
told me in late 2011: “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.”
than a year has passed.