Andrew Skotdal The author is licensee of 50 kW AM stations KRKO and KKXA in the Seattle market, chair of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters and a former NAB board member. He participated in the recent NAB Labs driving tests of all-digital on the AM band.
In a Dec. 3 commentary, he wrote about the benefits of moving occupants of the band to abandoned VHF spectrum, the current Channels 1–6, rather than pursuing all-digital operation on the existing band. Radio World received so much reaction that we asked Skotdal to expand on his thoughts about the implications.
The benefits of all-digital modulation on the AM band are real, and we’ll hear more about them in April. But none of the discussions has explored how occupants of the band convert to digital. The reason: There are too many barriers. Practicality, cost and other factors conspire against digital implementation.
These reasons further support migration to VHF spectrum as the preferred solution for occupants of the band.
DIGITAL VS. TRANSLATOR
Given a choice today between upgrading an AM station to digital and buying an FM translator, the choice is simple. A station owner will buy the translator, because it can be received by 100 percent of the radios in America, while AM digital can be received by maybe 5 percent; further, the translator offers an immediate improvement in sound fidelity.
Also, in many cases the FM translator costs less to operate than the AM signal it simulcasts; as a result, some AM owners are dropping AM power and relying on the translator.
AM owners have demonstrated they want FM frequencies and have pushed the FCC to open spectrum and change existing rules.
Finally, FM cellular reception represents a consumption risk to AM radio in the way it trains new consumers. And several manufacturers are building FM-only radios. AM station owners will choose an FM frequency over a digital upgrade in order to maintain their ability to reach 100 percent of the population versus a portion of it.
VHF spectrum satisfies this demand.
DIGITAL CONVERSION COSTS
AM digital conversion costs also are a barrier, whether for hybrid or all-digital modes.
Consider a 10 kW AM station with a transmitter that can’t be modified. The list price on a new 12 kW transmitter is approximately $60,000. The HD Radio gear is $18,000. The iBiquity license is $10,000. Shipping, insurance and installation may be $10,000. So the upgrade will be approximately $100,000. If a station operates at 5 kW or 1 kW, the transmitter costs are lower.
So we can say that upgrade “list” costs would be $50,000 to $100,000 for stations of 1 kW to 10 kW. These ignore possible necessary antenna system modifications to make digital work, particularly for directional arrays; also, costs can be mitigated where an existing transmitter can be converted and some discounts from list can be achieved.
Regardless, the numbers will be significant.
Given a choice between a digital FM upgrade and upgrading an AM, an owner with both types of frequencies will choose to upgrade the FM first because it is easier to upgrade, often costs less and affords additional channels if desired. AM digital conversion is hampered as a result.
And cost becomes a factor for other reasons.
In markets of fewer than 100,000 people, the digital conversion expense is likely greater than the value of an AM license. Even in larger markets, it may represent the entire net revenue for a group of stations for a year.
The odds of station owners laying out $50,000 to $100,000 for one AM radio station in markets where they serve fewer than 250,000 (or even 500,000) people are even lower when the technology is useful only to consumers with HD Radio technology. In a rural market, the receiver penetration with that technology is likely less than 5 percent, which is also the situation here in Seattle.
How many markets and counties have 200,000 people or less across America? Very few, if any, of the AM stations in these markets would upgrade unless forced to do so — and in being forced to do so, they might go bankrupt.
Every time I’m in a car on a trip and I pass an AM radio transmitter site, I stop by and say “hi” if the studio is also there. Based on my visits, I can say that the state of AM in America is disrepair. Tube transmitters are still in use across a broad swath of American AM radio.
DIGITAL SUNRISE QUESTIONABLE
An “all-digital sunrise” for the band has been postulated as a means to speed digital adoption; but this doesn’t work.
Let’s say the FCC authorizes AM stations to go all-digital tomorrow if they wish; and that some go digital and some don’t. Imagine half the AM frequencies in a market going all-digital while 85 percent of the existing receivers are analog. Consider the listener’s perspective. Scanning the dial on an analog radio, you’d hear analog audio (Station #1), then a static hiss (Station #2), then analog audio (Station #3), then a static hiss (Station #4) as you scan up the dial. This is completely unacceptable, given that only 5 percent of the audience would hear a radio station at every stop.
In a “turn on all-digital when you want” scenario, the AM scanning experience will be worse for the consumer than the experience of tuning from political talk to Russian, to Spanish, to news, to sports, to regional Mexican music as you do here in Seattle. Scan an analog radio up the dial today; at least you know there is a radio signal when you can hear foreign languages and foreign music.
ALL-DIGITAL X-BAND QUESTIONABLE
What if you could isolate the expanded band and simply start with all-digital there?
That’s an improvement from the listener side; at least analog listeners would learn that the upper end of the band was unlistenable from their perspective, and they would know to avoid it. They wouldn’t know why it’s static, but they’d know it wasn’t for them.
Expanded-band licensees would first need a way to keep their analog signals going if their part of the band is designated digital.
Then there would be “haves” and “have nots.” The “haves” in this scenario are big groups and capital-flush independent owners with $70,000–$100,000 to upgrade each of their expanded-band stations. They’re likely in big markets.
The “have nots” are those in markets smaller than 500,000, or small broadcasters in markets of any size, who scraped together every penny they had to get their expanded-band station on the air but still kept their old signal hoping for a little incremental revenue.
My friend in a major market, a minority broadcaster, just crowdfunded a campaign in his community to make his $64,000 balloon payment on his loan. He’d laugh if someone asked him if he’d invest in HD Radio on his AMs. Then he’d reach for his gun.
Similarly, it’s one thing for big-market operators like CBS Radio to upgrade with HD on AM. It’s another for operators like BiCoastal Media in a market like Hood River, Ore.
IS THERE A DIGITAL CONVERSION PATH?
So the question really does boil down to this: What is the incentive to convert AM radio stations to HD Radio?
If the goal is making the AM band all-digital, receiver penetration has to lead way ahead of transmitter upgrades, and get above 75 percent quickly, which won’t happen; or you can try to jump-start it by setting a regulatory conversion date for the FM band and have the FCC require receiver manufacturers to implement AM HD chipsets with FM.
Even in a scenario where FM conversion is mandated and AM receiver chipsets come along for the ride, you still have the AM transmission conversion cost and impossible to resolve implementation issues illustrated above.
As an alternative, if the goal is to achieve a digital version of today’s AM band, operators have to be incentivized somehow, e.g. tax breaks that might cause corporations to buy signals and shut them down for the tax benefits or FM migration/AM surrender as outlined in my December commentary.
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?
There are many benefits of HD Radio: You enjoy the same level of signal quality at a distance as you have at the transmitter site. It’s a robust technology capable of overcoming interference from power lines and bridges while maintaining reception quality. It’s a technology that gives AM music better sound fidelity than Sirius/XM allocates to its music channels — close enough to FM that music on AM is a competitive alternative to FM.
But regardless of these benefits, HD is too little, too late for today’s AM stations. From a timing perspective, there is no functional model to convert the band to digital radio. We have too many licensees, too few receivers, too much expense, and no mandates or other tools to encourage adoption.
That is why we should focus on VHF migration. Or we’ll simply see more AM band operators go bankrupt over time. With 14 to 17 percent of the total radio audience using the band in many areas (according to the FCC in its 2013 revitalization Notice of Proposed Rulemaking), operating in today’s environment is too challenging for many AM radio operators in America.
We would be better as an industry waiting three decades for new FM receivers with VHF band capability to simplify the listener experience to one band, than spend three decades waiting for AM HD receiver penetration to reach 85 percent. VHF migration affords everyone an equal shot at targeting cell phone radio receivers; more importantly, migration sidesteps AM interference issues.
AM radio is still a massive-reach platform, and stations continue to prove that their content can keep AM relevant; but digital technology on AM can’t improve the fortunes of the stations using the band while the receiver base is so low. In the meantime, the rise of the electromagnetic tide will continue to erode the AM band.
VHF migration is the only way to truly solve that problem.
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