of AM radio, the once-dominant mode of broadcasting in the United
States, continue to search for ways to stabilize their business and
remain viable. While that debate is going on, though, some AM
broadcasters are “starving to death,” as one broadcast engineer
Ajit Pai visited CBS Radio Pittsburgh to conduct a radio roundtable
with CBS and other owners in western Pennsylvania. From left:Jim Graci, program director KDKA(AM); Michael Young, CBS Radio
Pittsburgh senior vice president and market manager; Pai; Ryan
Maguire, program director KDKA(FM); and Mark Anderson, CBS Radio
Pittsburgh operations manager and program director for WBZZ(FM) and
supporters agree some kind of technical fix is needed to allow the
venerable radio service to sustain itself and adapt to listener
habits and their desire for digital devices. There’s been a sense
both of crisis and opportunity about AM in the past year, with AM’s
health receiving attention in convention sessions and meetings (not
to mention coverage in general interest publications like American
Spectator, which headlined its recent commentary “AM Radio, Signing
are debating possible immediate fixes like allowing more AMs to
operate on FM translators and eliminating the minimum ground system
requirements for AM antennas, as well as longer-term goals like
eventual AM band migration to low VHF TV frequencies.
reports of downward revenue and audience loss have been widely
reported, and the FCC has released a variety of rulemakings intended
to help AM. In 2009, when it adopted one that allows AM broadcasters
to re-transmit programming on FM translators to fill in coverage
gaps, the commission stated that higher-fidelity alternatives and
increased interference have eroded the audience for AM as young
listeners migrate towards “newer mass media
services that offer higher technical quality and superior audio
years ago, AM was king. Until 1978, it claimed
more than half of all hours spent with radio. The FCC said that by
2009, the latest figures available, the total had dropped to 17
percent overall, while among persons aged 12–24, AM accounted for
only 4 percent of listening, compared to FM’s 96 percent.
from BIA/Kelsey show that revenue at U.S. AM stations has been mostly
flat in the last few years, but down over a longer period.
revenue for commercial AMs was around $2.9 billion in 2006 prior to
the recession, but stood at $2.1 billion in 2012. (AM was not alone
in this; FM U.S. commercial radio, which brings in far more money,
saw revenue fall more sharply in that period, from $11 billion to
approximately $8.7 billion; however FM’s recent trend line is up;
see accompanying chart.)
while flagship AM stations like WCBS or WINS in New York, KFI in Los
Angeles and WBBM in Chicago remain multimillion-dollar billers,
according to BIA/Kelsey, stories abound of the struggles of other
AMs, especially — though not strictly — in smaller markets.
possible measure of the health of the band is station count. There
are fewer AMs on the air in the United States compared to 2008,
according to FCC data, though not by much — 4,786 five years ago
compared to 4,734 in the latest data. Longer term, FCC figures show a
gradual decrease from levels of the early 1990s; see chart.
also talk about stations that have gone silent. A Radio World review
of the FCC database, which lists stations that have been dark for at
least two months, indicates the number of AM stations off the air has
remained steady since at least 2009. There were 83 AMs silent at the
end of July, according to the commission. Radio World reporting about
this topic revealed some licensees turn off stations as a means to
about silent stations must be used with caution, experts say, because
for any reporting period, some may fall off the list because licenses
were cancelled, others may return to air and still others may be
added to the list for the first time. (By law, a broadcaster’s
license is cancelled if a station remains off the air for more than
12 months, according to the agency.)
anecdotal indicator of AM’s health: The value of some licenses is
such that, in a few cases, corporate owners felt it made more sense
to donate stations than continue to operate them. A number of AMs
have been donated to the Minority Media & Telecom Council as part
of its Media Brokerage program. MMTC officials said the organization
has sold or is in the process of selling seven AM stations donated by
Clear Channel Communications in 2010.
broadcasters have been seeking cures for the perceived downturn.
than 500 AM stations now rebroadcast on FM translators, according to
the latest quarterly data; and the FCC is considering allowing more
AMs to do so.
of a pending rulemaking to eliminate the so-called “ratchet
clause,” also would help, believe AM experts.
FCC introduced the ratchet clause in 1991 with hopes of reducing
nighttime interference from modified AM facilities. The clause
requires AMs that want to modify their signals to demonstrate an
overall reduction in the amount of skywave interference they cause to
certain other AMs. Existing signals are now expected to provide
additional protection to the newer ones, even when there’s a chance
for the existing signal to move to a better site or improve its
engineers say this clause hurts AMs that wish to improve their
in mid-August, the commission clarified rules concerning construction
near AM towers to make it clear if such construction distorts the
antenna pattern of an AM in excess of 2 dB, the offending party must
correct the distortion. The agency also approved moment method
computer modeling to demonstrate that certain AM directional antennas
perform as authorized, a move that will save broadcasters time and
money compared to traditional AM field strength proofs. A coalition
of broadcasters, consulting engineers and equipment manufacturers
sought the changes to “harmonize the disparate treatment” between
broadcast and wireless entities, according to the commission.
AM is getting some attention at the top of the agency. FCC
Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has become something of a champion for AM,
has taken a visible role over the past year; and he told broadcasters
at a meeting at KDKA(AM) in Pittsburgh in July that he’s had “very
productive discussions” with Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn about
AM revitalization and is “hopeful we’ll see progress in the
FCC spokesman said Clyburn has asked the Media Bureau to look at
possible rule changes to help AM broadcasters. AM “is on the
list of issues we are considering but we have not yet made any
recommendations to her or the full commission,” according to the
between AM advocates and the FCC are “ongoing through the usual
channels” like NAB and the Minority Media & Telecom Council,
according to one source familiar with the discussions but not at
liberty to discuss them publicly.
have reached the end of what we can do to fix AM,” said NAB AM
Radio Task Chair Ben Downs. “The existing framework has to be
changed, and only the FCC can do that.”
whose day job is vice president and general manager of Bryan
Broadcasting in Bryan, Texas,believes more translators are
likely to be part of any FCC solution, as well as some technical
changes, including the possibility of all-digital HD Radio AM
technology, rather than the existing hybrid analog-digital
transmission, scheme. “However, I do not believe that all-digital
is ready to be put forth as a solution yet,” he said.
Labs has tested the various modes and coverage area of an all-digital
AM band, according to Downs, referring to testing on expanded-band
station WBCN(AM), Charlotte, N.C. Initial results were described as
promising, and NAB seeks more AM test stations.
not only will more testing be needed, but so would a commitment from
manufacturers to increase the availability of digital receivers for
the home, according to Downs. “As it stands today, there are
millions of HD-equipped radios in cars that are compatible with an
all-digital AM band, but few home receivers.”
proposed mandate for industry conversion to all-digital AM
would likely be contentious, due to the capital cost to owners as
well as the resulting obsolescence of millions of AM analog receivers
in U.S. cars, bedrooms and kitchens.
biggest worry for Downs is “a schedule at the FCC based on the
usual regulatory speed.”
of how swiftly the commission acts, observers who spoke to Radio
World for this story agree that the band needs help.
rescue plans have been discussed since at least 2009 when the MMTC
released a plan that included relaxation of community coverage and AM
signal contour rules and other technical measures. Its petition for
rulemaking gained the support of CBS Radio and Clear Channel at the
“is still waiting for the commission to act” on the petition,
according to MMTC co-founder David Honig. “Commissioner Pai has it
and, I understand, is encouraging the agency to take up some of our
proposals. He has been a great champion of AM radio and of small and
minority broadcasters,” said Honig.
across-the-board power increase, proposed to the FCC by broadcast
engineer Richard Arsenault in 2010 but dismissed by the commission
without public comment, would have been a good place to start,
several AM proponents said. His proposal didn’t specify an analog
or digital rise. Arsenault believes a power increase is the only way
to “offset coverage losses resulting from the ever-increasing
amount of interference from digital and other electronic devices.”
But other experts believe the drastic measure is likely a
“non-starter” because of the potential for increased interference
to other stations.
that an across-the-board power increase requires international
negotiations with Canada, Mexico and other treaty nations. Many
of the AM stations in Canada have migrated to the FM band, which I
suspect could simplify negotiations,” according to Arsenault.
said he would entertain re-petitioning the commission with the
request but “only if the FCC is ready to entertain the concept and
open it up for public comment.”
vary among other technical observers contacted by Radio World for
this article. Regardless of which measures the commission eventually
may adopt, though, the transition to an improved service through
technical changes approved by the FCC likely will take time,
something some licensees can ill afford, several said.
Clark, president of Glen Clark & Associates, believes an analog
overall power increase would go a long way in overcoming electronic
florescent light noise and high ambient noise caused by buildings
full of Cisco network infrastructure, which emits RF.
we have proof that it works from the past experience,” he wrote in
an email, when Class D stations “got a 4X increase in nighttime
bad news about a power increase “is that 50 kW is written into”
the North American Radio broadcasting Agreement, “so stations like
KDKA, WFAN, WJR and those guys won’t get anything from this
approach,” according to Clark. He also doesn’t believe a power
increase would help all AM owners.
a 2009 proposal from the Broadcast Maximization Committee to create a
new broadcast band using TV Channels 5 and 6 spectrum could be a big
boost for AM broadcasters, supporters said.
the BMC proposal to work, new receivers would need to be introduced
to account for AMs that want to move to the FM band, experts said.
Clark believes the BMC proposal “fails the logic test” because of
the lack of such an installed receiver base.
broadcast engineers estimate it could take 15 to 20 years for new
receivers to penetrate the market.
use of FM translators by AM stations has certainly helped some
small-market AM stations nationwide, but the lack of available
translators means demand will never be met in even the
scenarios, said Jack Mullaney, president of Mullaney Engineering Inc.
“In addition, in most major markets the FM band is a mess and so
congested that there will never be a new FM translator created.”
a member of the Broadcast Maximization Committee, sees re-purposing
of TV Channels 5 and 6 as the only real solution to help AM stations
survive in the long run.
put forth a plan in which most, if not all, of the current AM band
could migrate and operate as a digital radio facility. Certainly,
some AM owners will elect to remain in the AM band,” Mullaney said.
“Unfortunately, the re-purpose of TV 5 and 6 is frozen in time,
waiting for the FCC to decide how they plan to kill over-the-air
television with the reverse auction” and spectrum re-packing, he
expected flood of low-power FM applicants from the new filing window
expected this fall will seriously limit FM translator filing
opportunities for AM stations in the foreseeable future, according to
Clarence Beverage, president of broadcast engineering consulting firm
who also is a BMC member, said an across-the-board power increase for
AM isn’t a viable solution for multiple reasons, including
increased interference from first adjacent channels.
skywave interference is “the biggest issue affecting AM operation,”
Beverage said. “Moving stations to TV Channels 5–6 spectrum
solves that problem. However, that would have been much simpler to do
before the FCC began [discussing] the DTV repacking process.”
exclusion of AM from discussions about adding broadcast radio
reception to cellular phones has been noted by some supporters of the
just doesn’t work well in the miniaturized cell phone world. The
wavelength is just too long,” said Bert Goldman, president of
Goldman Engineering Management and a BMC member. “Decent reception
would be very hard to achieve. Substandard reception is already
hurting the industry.”
addition, other broadcast engineers note that cellphones emit radio
frequency that causes interference, which would render AM reception
AM has some options, Goldman believes. In addition to the possible
migration to Channels 5 and 6, one option being
reviewed is full-digital operation of AM stations, as referenced by
Downs above. However, nighttime skywave interference often prevents
AM stations from having uniform, 24-hour coverage that stations in
the VHF band enjoy, experts said.While
the discussion about full-digital is a good thing, Goldman said, such
operation wouldn’t overcome that skywave interference issue — and
would leave the station with no way to serve existing listeners while
waiting for receivers capable of decoding the all-digital AM signal
to penetrate the market. And while some experts support
allowing more AMs to operate on FM translators, Goldman sees that as
a “small” short-term fix.
industry discussion has focused on possible technical or regulatory
changes. Comments by those outside of radio, and some within, tend to
focus on programming considerations.
indifference comes not from technological changes but from
programming ones,” wrote Daniel Flynn in a recent American
Spectator article that ruffled some industry feathers. “Calcified
formats, sonic limitations and automated programs, more so than any
geriatric host, has aged AM out of the demographic targeted by
advertisers,” wrote Flynn.
that even AM broadcasters don’t agree whether there’s a crisis,
Southern California Broadcasters Association President Thom Callahan
responded to that article in an opinion piece for LARadio, “AM
Radio will Grow and Change, Just Like America.” He sought to
counter the perception that the senior band is in decline, writing:
“AM radio is NOT dead.”
for 22 AMs in the Southern California market has shown only a slight
drop over the last five years, at “3,319,400, a loss of only
466,900 listeners” through second quarter 2013, he wrote. And he
emphasized the evolving nature of AM programming. In Southern
California, “there are eight Asian AM radio stations programming in
five different dialects to over 2.5 million Asian Americans, all on
the AM dial,” according to Callahan.
Mr. Flynn consulted with us prior to publishing his blog, we would
have urged him to focus his attention on the sweeping ethnic and
demographic changes happening now in America and how AM radio will
directly benefit from those changes, as it has for the past 100
World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson contributed
to this report. For a list of recent articles about AM
revitalization, visit radioworld.com/am.