Cromwell Owner Bud Walters. ‘As much as I would love to save the AM technical facility as we know it, its days are likely numbered.’ FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai in September talked about AM radio. He called upon his fellow commissioners and the agency’s staffers to “focus on one basic question: Are there regulatory barriers we can remove to help this sector rebound?” (Read Pai’s remarks at radioworld.com/links.)
Here, Cromwell Radio Group owner Bud Walters and Womble Carlyle communications law attorney John Garziglia discuss AM revitalization — in particular, Walters’ proposal to make it easier for AM stations to move existing FM translators farther, and thus allow more of them to re-broadcast their AM signals.
Garziglia: There are two ways to look at AM revitalization. One way is to think about just the AM technical facility and what can be done to make that facility sound better, be better received, and be more listenable. The other way to look at AM revitalization is to think about what can be done to enhance the service to the community now provided by the AM station.
Walters: I look at AM revitalization from the aspect of how to best continue to serve the AM’s community with the radio service that in many cases has been part of that community for decades.
Garziglia: I also view AM revitalization from this perspective. AM radio as a technical matter has been hit so hard from so many angles. The noise levels affecting AM reception have risen dramatically with the proliferation of computers, noisy light bulbs and dirty power lines. AM signals do not penetrate most office buildings. Listeners are not willing to tolerate different night and day patterns, or no nighttime service at all, from AM radio stations. Automobile manufacturers are installing horrible AM antennas on newer cars. There just are not any feasible fixes to the AM technical facility that can overcome these issues.
Walters: All of this noise interference might be somewhat mitigated if the FCC allowed for dramatic power increases for all AM stations. But, a huge capital expenditure in the tens of thousands of dollars for new transmission equipment is just not possible for most AM broadcasters, let alone paying a power bill that would be 10 times what it now costs for electricity. A large power increase for AM stations is a non-starter even if it comes with the benefit of 10 times the current AM power. Thus, as much as I would love to save the AM technical facility as we know it, its days are likely numbered.
Garziglia: Other proposals for AM revitalization include moving AM to all-digital, or to TV Channels 5 and 6. Those proposals fall into the “enhancement of service to the community” approach. But with these types of approaches, the billion or so radio receivers in our country that currently receive AM would be obsolete.
Walters: Either all-digital or moving current AM stations to a new band sounds exciting. My concern is how many years that’s likely to take. Saying to AM broadcasters, “Just wait 15 years or so until 2028 and AM radio will be resuscitated on a new band” appears to be not much of a solution at all. I believe that if the FCC wishes to continue the AM service now provided to communities, it must come up with something that can be implemented much more quickly.
Garziglia: That really leaves the FCC with only one immediately implementable solution to AM revitalization, which is to remove regulatory barriers to AM stations acquiring FM translators. FM translators are here now. There are enough of them out there, both licensed and applied-for, that removing commission regulatory barriers to AM stations acquiring FM translators would be a win for AM revitalization as well as for the listening public.
Walters: My experience in pairing an FM translator with an AM station is that there is an immediate increased acceptance for the AM station in the community. As with any business, if there is not enough revenue coming in, it is impossible for the business to keep operating.
AMs have suffered diminished revenue not only due the technical challenges to AM reception but also as a result of the public’s perception of AM. When advertisers have the perception that people are not listening to AM stations, it is next to impossible to bring in enough revenue to support even minimal programming on an AM station. The carriage of an AM station on an FM translator makes a dramatic difference.
Garziglia: This discussion illustrates the importance of your WTCJ(AM), Tell City, Ind. waiver request for the transmitter site and channel move of the Central City, Ky. FM translator to carry WTCJ (FCC File No. BPFT-20121116ALE). [For original news story see radioworld.com/links.]
Womble Carlyle’s John Garziglia. ‘The agency’s restriction on moving FM translators more than several miles is a huge regulatory barrier to bringing FM translator service to many AM stations.’ Commissioner Pai is seeking to eliminate regulatory barriers that hinder the AM radio sector. Unfortunately, for many AM stations including WTCJ, there simply is not an FM translator available for acquisition within the minimal several miles radius within which the FCC now limits FM translator moves. The agency’s restriction on moving FM translators more than several miles is a huge regulatory barrier to bringing FM translator service to many AM stations.
Walters: The removal of that FCC regulatory barrier prohibiting FM translator moves of an appreciable distance is an immediate, substantive step that the FCC could take to revitalize AM stations. If an AM station is allowed to search fifty or more miles from its transmitter site for an FM translator it might acquire and move, it is more likely that such an FM translator can be found.
Garziglia: Assuming that there must be a definitive regulatory distance limit to the moves of FM translators, the WTCJ waiver request proposes that an AM station’s interfering contour specified in Section 73.37(a) of the commission’s rules, the 0.025 mV/m contour, be the outer limit within which an AM station can seek an FM translator to move to serve the AM station. The WTCJ application proposes that if an FM translator’s transmitter site is within the AM station’s 0.025 mV/m contour and a move is not proposed into an LPFM spectrum-limited market, the AM licensee may replace that FM translator’s current service with a move of the FM translator to serve the AM station as its primary station provided the move is in compliance with other FCC technical rules.
Walters: Too often, government agencies such as the FCC look at things in terms of big solutions. Big solutions, however, often take years to implement. It has taken the FCC almost a decade to process the FM translator applications filed in 2003. While another FM translator filing window in the future would be beneficial, an FM translator window for AM stations would not provide actual relief to AMs for many years.
While not all AM stations will benefit from the FCC’s grant of a waiver to allow for more substantial FM translator moves to serve AM stations, many will benefit. It appears that the removal of the current regulatory barrier on FM translator moves is something the commission can legally do now that will have an immediate, substantial, beneficial effect upon many AM stations.
Garziglia: The WTCJ waiver request is premised upon a replacement of service theory. Just as a full-service FM station can now apply to move from one channel to another even though the channels may not be mutually-exclusive with one another and both facilities could co-exist, WTCJ is asking the FCC to apply the same rationale to the replacement of an existing translator service area with another service area. While there is no FCC rule or policy that requires the agency to allow this, we make the case in the WTCJ waiver request that there is likewise no FCC rule or policy that prohibits this if the commission wishes to grant such a waiver to encourage AM revitalization.
Walters: Making it easier for AM stations to obtain FM translators is an AM revitalization solution staring the FCC in the face. It is an action that the FCC can take today.
Garziglia: FM translators are not authorized on a Section 307(b) basis to provide service to particular community. Therefore, it makes public interest sense to allow for substantial FM translator transmitter site moves where the listening public can be better served by the replacement of translator service at one location in order to serve an AM station’s audience at another location.
Walters: I am hoping that Commissioner Pai is serious in his call for AM revitalization and that he, and the FCC chairman and other commissioners will make it happen quickly. The WTCJ waiver is an action that the FCC’s Audio Division can take right now to eliminate an agency regulatory barrier and help revitalize AM stations. Having the WTCJ waiver granted would serve as an important FCC precedent. The availability of the waiver enabling a move of FM translators within a wider area to re-broadcast AM stations would have an immediate, substantive, effect upon the vitality of many AM stations.