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AM Digital WWFD Concludes Its Test Phase

The Hubbard station now is a full-time, all-digital operation

WWFD in Frederick, Md., has concluded the experimental phase of its MA3 HD Radio operation. It has notified the FCC that after five years, it will now continue to operate as a full-time all-digital AM station as is allowed under commission rules.

Dave Kolesar at a meeting of SBE Chapter 37 in Wheaton, Md.

The Hubbard-owned facility was the first AM station in the United States to convert to the MA3 mode, doing so under experimental authority in 2018. 

Dave Kolesar, the engineer and program director who spearheaded the initiative and has given numerous presentations at engineering conferences about it, tells me that Hubbard recently asked the FCC to conclude the special temporary authority. 

It was my intention all the way back then that this would be permanent, there just wasn’t a legal mechanism at the time to do so. The STA had been kept so that we could do research on MA3, which required us to operate at variance with the NRSC-5 mask, for the purposes of furthering the understanding of all-digital operations in the field,” Kolesar wrote in an email.

“The end of the STA simply means that WWFD is now operating under the same legal authority that the other stations are using for all-digital operations. We haven’t ruled out filing for an STA again if the desire and need to conduct more experiments warrants it.”

I asked him for a thumbnail takeaway of these past five years.

“We have learned that all-digital AM broadcasting is much more robust than the hybrid mode of HD AM, and in fact has many advantages over analog broadcasting in terms of sound quality and metadata,” he replied.

“Stereo audio, song data, album artwork and even a secondary HD2 channel are all capabilities of MA3 broadcasting. It opens up the possibility of music formats on AM that can be competitive with FM, satellite and streaming services. It makes AM look and sound like every other broadcast service in the dashboard, and that’s essential to the future of the band.  It even works well in EVs, much better than analog in fact.”

To my knowledge there are two other stations airing all-digital AM HD Radio right now. Crawford Broadcasting flipped WYDE in Birmingham, Ala., in September. And Cumulus station WFAS in White Plains, N.Y. went on with all-digital in 2021 and continues to operate in that mode.

Stations that gave it a try earlier but have since turned it off include WIOE in Ft. Wayne, Ind.; WTLC in Indianapolis; WMGG in Egypt Lake, Fla.; and WSRO in Ashland, Mass.

What about future adoption of MA3? Kolesar said it’s hard to tell.

“I view MA3 transmissions as the goal that every AM broadcaster has to get to, sooner rather than later. Analog AM listenership is declining, and we need to stop worrying about obsoleting existing analog-only radios, because fewer people are bothering to turn them on.”

He thinks stations without a significant audience should try digital now and build up a new audience, with a compelling format, perhaps from scratch.  

“Legacy stations with established audiences can convert later, but their day will be coming soon. There’s nothing written in stone saying that the AM band has to survive, but if you want to save it, I strongly believe that getting to digital ASAP and pairing it with compelling ‘destination’ content is the way to go.”

He says that when you pair MA3 with a connected car platform such as DTS AutoStage, which tunes stations by flipping through tiles on a screen, you have a powerful solution to the band’s woes. 

“You simply select a station by its logo and then you hear audio. It doesn’t matter if it’s FM, streaming, satellite or digital AM. There’s another argument for digital: Analog AM stations have no metadata capability, and so those stations will only show up as a number on a screen, and will likely be passed over.”

[Read our 2019 profile of Dave Kolesar, recipient of the Radio World Excellence in Engineering Award.]