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 here.
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.
Now 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.”
If 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.”
However, Downs 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.”
BURDEN OF MITIGATION
However, 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 engineer.
“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.”
He 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 miles away.”
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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