An important leader in efforts to
“revitalize” AM radio in the United States is Ben Downs. You’ve read his
opinions in our pages before.
I showed him the column I wrote last issue in which I welcomed industry
discussion of AM improvement, predicted this would be a major topic at the
spring NAB Show, and took note of the special interest being shown by
Commissioner Ajit Pai in AM. I asked for his perspectives, and I share them
Downs is a member of the NAB Radio Board and
chairman of NAB’s AM Task Force. He is vice president and general manager of
Bryan Broadcasting, a group of seven stations he owns with business partner and
company President Bill Hicks.
he writes, “It is very true that the quest to revitalize AM has accelerated. It
is nice to read that broadcasters who are defensive about their AMs are now
willing to say, ‘Yes, it’s time to fix some things.’ The arguments that niche
programs work just fine on AM are proof of the battle we’re facing.”
revitalization is done right, he continued, AM radio will no longer be at the
back of the format bus. “Music formats have migrated away from AM stations in
the past decade and now we see the acceleration of spoken word formats moving
to FM. Limiting AM to niche formats is not a pathway toward a thriving future.”
agrees that progress is being made.
“Whether in the
past the FCC was focused on the problem of Part 15 device interference, it
recognizes it now. In a recent meeting with Audio Services leaders Peter Doyle
and Susan Crawford, they absolutely understood the problem and were open to
good ideas to fix it. I had the impression that they were eager to find a way
to lift the senior radio band above the noise.”
Downs recalled a study conducted in Madrid and Mexico City in 2005 that
found that AM transmitter power would have to be increased four to six times
just to put the industry back to 1995 levels of signal above noise.
“That is a reason I am cautious about the idea to double AM power.
According to the study, doubling power would (amazingly) still not be enough of
an increase. Plus it might be beyond the ability of some AM operators to
afford,” Downs wrote.
“Because of longstanding FCC rules many transmitters are exactly sized
to the licensed power. And the rest of the system is as well. Many antenna
matching units would need to be replaced.”
Downs’ biggest concern is a statutory requirement that AM stations resolve RF
interference to telephones, TVs and audio systems when they change operating
parameters. He noted that if an apartment complex has been built around your
tower, resolving interference complaints could be a lifetime job for an AM
“The long-term solutions, whether the migration to unused VHF spectrum
or a conversion to all-digital, will take a lot of time to process. Without
some form of intermediate relief, waiting 10 years for a long-term solution may
be too long for some AM stations to remain viable.”
hopes for nearer-term ideas. “The recent Tell City Waiver would allow AM
stations to move a translator in a mega-hop as long as it was used to enhance
an AM station. Likewise some — any — relief for AM daytime or ‘almost (25 watt)
daytime’ stations would add years of shelf life for the stations most at risk.
Daytime stations suffer at the hand of a skywave protection plan that has
little relevance to local community service. School closings local news, high
school sports and other local station staples are not served from hundreds of
Perhaps, he wrote, once translator/LPFM processing settles down, the FCC
would consider opening a new one-per-station translator window for AM stations.
“A boy can dream,” Downs said.
“Unfortunately, the long-term solutions require new receivers. The
growth of AM HD Radio receivers in cars is making the digital option look
feasible, but best I can tell, there are no home clock radios nor under cabinet
radios capable of receiving digital AM or FM. The DTV transition handled this
with a receiver mandate; an idea that makes regulators and lobbyists pale.”
Regardless, Downs concluded, “Commissioner Pai’s interest — passion —
for AM revitalization is the best news AM operators have heard in years. As
broadcasters we should encourage him at every turn. Only by having proof of our
support will he be able to keep up the momentum. I’m really looking forward to
hearing him at the NAB Show in Vegas. And I hope for a unified plan for AM
revitalization before many more Vegas conventions have passed.”
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