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Littlejohn: Retain Class A Protections

Help AMs, iHeartMedia tech executive says; but don’t increase interference while doing so

Should Class A AM radio stations enjoy the level of interference protection they do now?

The issue came up when officials from iHeartMedia + Entertainment met with senior staff of the FCC Media Bureau recently. A summary of that “ex parte” visit was filed by the company, focusing on comments by Jeff Littlejohn, iHeart executive vice president of engineering and systems integration.

A Class A station is one of the big boomers — think WSM, WWL, KFI, KMOX. It operates on a clear channel and is designed to provide primary and secondary service over an extended area and at relatively long distances, with operating power of 10 kilowatts to 50 kW.

Here is iHeart’s summary of what Littlejohn told the FCC officials; it is followed by an emailed Q&A between me and Littlejohn:

iStockphoto/Big Ryan Design As a follow-up to iHeart’s Comments and Reply Comments in the AM Revitalization proceeding, Mr. Littlejohn stated that iHeart accessed the Nielsen NRD database of diary and PPM (Portable People Meter) ratings to determine whether existing listeners of continental domestic Class A AM stations would lose protected service if Class A AM stations’ interference protections were reduced to those equivalent to current Class B protections. The study showed that approximately 600,000 existing listeners of Class A AM stations (excluding Alaska), accounting for over 3 million hours of listening per week, would potentially lose service if such reductions were adopted.

Mr. Littlejohn noted that quality and expensive full-service programming content, such as significant news production and sports programming combined with reliable coverage, is often what drives listeners to Class A AM stations. National and regional advertisers expect wide-area, multi-state coverage, especially at night, from Class A AM stations, so that the loss of listeners outside of standard Metro areas would undercut the profitability of Class A stations and reduce the ability to continue the high-quality programming expected by their audiences.

Mr. Littlejohn explained that, as AM is losing listeners to FM due to electronic interference on the AM band, changes to AM station interference protections would cause additional AM audience declines due to increased signal interference. In the event current protections were diminished, Mr. Littlejohn gave as an example of increased interference the co-channel interference that is experienced when Class D stations fail to turn off their signal during nighttime hours. The resulting interference is a bass-tone “beat” frequency hum that interferes with the quality of the audio signal of the nighttime-authorized AM station. On the other hand, gaining new listeners to an improved-signal AM station is very difficult. Mr. Littlejohn cited as an example iHeart’s concerted effort to improve the signal and audience share of an AM station in the Boston market. iHeart invested in an upgraded signal, and procured expensive programming, but did not attract a significant additional audience. Consequently, additional signal for an existing AM station should not be equated with additional listening.

Mr. Littlejohn noted that in the event an AM-only FM translator window is opened, participation should be equally available to all AM stations, as all AM classes have coverage issues, particularly in urban areas. Mr. Littlejohn remarked that while spectrum may not be available for FM translator stations in certain top urban markets, if an AM-only FM translator window were opened, many significant markets would have spectrum opportunities to pair with AM stations facing urban penetration issues.

As to AM all-digital, Mr. Littlejohn observed that recent experiments had raised concerns about increased interference. Further, given that less than 3 percent of all radios can receive digital signals, and only 10–15 percent of car radios are digitally-equipped, at this point, only experimental AM all-digital efforts should be considered.

My emailed conversation follows:

PM: Jeff, do you think there’s a real chance the FCC will act to reduce AM Class A protections significantly?

JL: I think the FCC is going to continue carefully considering methods for potentially revitalizing AM stations. After reviewing all of the facts and the impact on existing listeners, I hope that the FCC will retain their current protections on Class A stations.

PM: The number you cited of approximately 600,000 refers to listening to all Class A AM stations (not just iHeartMedia stations), yes?

JL: There are far more than 600,000 listeners to Class A radio stations. However, there are 600,000 listeners to Class A AM radio stations each week (IHM and others) that would lose interference protections, if the rules were changed to match Class B rules. That is a substantial number of listeners at risk for losing access to a station that they have come to rely upon.

PM: Can you tell us more about how you calculated the potential loss?

JL: We identified areas that would no longer be protected from interference if rules were changed to match Class B rules. Within each of those areas, we then searched the Arbitron NRD Database for listeners who would be impacted.

PM: How many Class A stations does iHeartMedia have?

JL: iHeartMedia owns 17 Class A AM stations in the continental U.S.

PM: Is the historical justification for Class A protections still relevant, given the immense amount of readily available information now at the fingertips of virtually every American?

JL: Yes. Class A AM radio stations provide unprecedented news, talk, sports and information, free, to millions of people every year. They are typically the emergency information leaders in an area, including being the backbone of the Primary Entry Point network. The physics of AM radio have not changed. We should not adjust the allocations rules as though these physics are no longer relevant.

PM: You mentioned efforts to improve a signal in Boston. Which station was it, and why do you think those efforts didn’t gain more audience?

JL: The station discussed was AM 1200. It is now operated by Bloomberg pursuant to an LMA.

AM listeners tend to be very loyal to their stations, which is great — but it can also make it more difficult to gain audience on a new channel.

PM: What else should we know about this issue?

JL: As we focus on improving AM, it is of paramount importance that our actions do not increase interference.

Also see a related commentary on this topic in the opinion section of this issue. Comment on this or any story to [email protected].