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Editorial: Found in Translation

Depending on whom you talk to, we might see the new rules adopted in days, weeks or months — such scheduling predictions are difficult with any commission, and notoriously so with the current one. We hope this won’t languish.

Back in the day, the notion that an AM station’s signal might be rebroadcast on an FM translator would have been viewed as an idyllic fantasy that could occur only in some post-apocalyptic universe.

Of course, that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone.

Now, as we have discussed in this space, the Federal Communications Commission has formally proposed a change in its rules that would permit such cross-service rebroadcasts.

In fact the Notice of Proposed Rule Making was released a year ago, following an NAB request in 2006, and the formal commenting opportunities closed in February. So the change has been ripe for action since then.

Depending on whom you talk to, we might see the new rules adopted in days, weeks or months — such scheduling predictions are difficult with any commission, and notoriously so with the current one. We hope this won’t languish.

The smart money expects that the new rules (a) will be adopted eventually and (b) when adopted, will permit AMs to rebroadcast on FM translators as long as the translator’s signal is encompassed within the lesser of the primary AM station’s 2 mV/m daytime contour or within a circle of 25 mile (40 km) radius centered the AM station’s transmitter site.

This is not exactly a difficult bet to make, since the commission already is routinely granting such rebroadcast authority on an STA basis. (Need one? Just file an STA request on CDBS — making the necessary showing — and wait 8 to 10 weeks.)

The STAs are subject to the final outcome of the rule making proceeding, but it seems unlikely that the commission would bother to let dozens (if not hundreds) of AM licensees get settled in if it really thought there was a strong possibility that, in the end, those STAs would be yanked.

RW supports this development, and encourages the commission to formalize the change as soon as possible. This proposal has substantial upside, particularly for AM licensees with limited (or no) nighttime coverage — those licensees, and their audiences, can obviously benefit from the nighttime opportunities which will become available. And we can see no significant downside. The notion that programming which happens to originate on an AM transmitter should somehow be quarantined from FM translators may (and we use that term charitably) have had some regulatory basis decades ago, but in this age of media convergence, it makes little sense.

But when the FCC does formally codify FM translation of AM signals, the commission would do well to consider a number of conceptual conundrums that implicitly lurk in the proposal.

For example, an AM station with no nighttime operation will, we understand, be able to operate an FM translator full-time (so long as the AM station has been on the air within the last 24 hours). If that’s the case, the translator will, in effect, be originating programming at night.

What, then, will be the translator’s status? It will be licensed as a translator, obviously, but it will apparently not be subject to the program origination rules of translators. And while it might therefore more closely resemble a low-power FM station, it will also presumably not be subject to the non-commercial limitations of LPFMs.

It is not clear that the broadcast industry really needs yet another service classification, even though the AM-on-FM translator proposal could be said to create one.

The proposal also could create additional tension between translator and LPFM proponents. Several years ago it appeared that the commission had decided that LPFM interests should outweigh translator interests. While the resulting freeze on translator applications has in recent months been lifted, it is not clear whether that reflects any change in the seeming pecking order. But the AM-on-FM translator provision arguably would give at least some translators the ability to claim quasi-primary status, or at least some preference over “mere LPFM” folks. Is the commission prepared to address any secondary service turf wars that may likely erupt?

Another aspect of the proposal is that it would be limited to AM licensees who happen to own the FM translator on which their signal would be rebroadcast. The rationale for that limitation is not entirely clear. After all, if an AM licensee can better serve its audience by allowing retransmission on somebody else’s translator, why should that be prohibited?

But while interesting, these are side issues. It’s possible that the FCC will choose not to address any of these questions, instead opening the floodgates (well, opening them wider than the STA process has already opened them) for translator-owners-only and waiting to see what happens. That’s probably fine, too — as long as the proposal is adopted and implemented sooner rather than later.

— Radio World