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AM Owner: Boost Nighttime Power

The author met with Commissioner Pai and discussed several options to help AM

WRDN’s Brian Winnekins met with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai to discuss AM. In November 2009, my wife Karla and I began a journey that continues today. It was during a trip to the National Association of Farm Broadcasters Convention in Kansas City that we worked on our first business plan to purchase WQOQ(AM) in Durand, Wis.

On the banks of the Chippewa River, Durand is in western Wisconsin near the Minnesota border. The population was just over 1,900 at the 2010 census.

WQOQ had been on and off air for many years, and we believed that if we could have a local station with programing geared toward Durand and the surrounding area, the station could be viable.

In June of 2011 we took control of the license, changed the call letters back to the original WRDN and put the 2 kW station back on the air the next year. So far it has been a very challenging and humbling experience for both of us.

It’s been challenging from the standpoint of finding qualified salespeople, equipment issues and the same issues that face many small mom-and-pop stations. It’s been humbling from the fact that we have received so much support not only from our personal friends but complete strangers in the broadcast industry who have helped with engineering, offering equipment and advice, an idea or a voice for a commercial.

Because we feature local news with obits, farm news and markets, local high school sports, church services and other local programing, we have received support and thanks from so many in the Durand area for bringing back the radio station.

The one question we are always asked is, “Why do we get this St. Louis station at night instead of WRDN?” When I tell them that, by law, we must lower our power to 152 watts at night, they ask why. When I explain it’s because of rules passed in the 1930s due to skywave transmissions, they say, “Well that’s just crazy!”

That community support extended to a recent meeting that I had with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai in May. I had read about the commissioner’s round table discussion at the NAB Convention, about revitalizing the AM band, in Radio World. I was taken aback that there seemed to be no input for small broadcasters like my wife and me.

Since I was going to be in Washington for the NAFB Washington Watch program, I emailed Commissioner Pai to ask for a meeting so he could get a perspective from a small broadcaster. I was not expecting a reply, but within a few hours our meeting was set.

WRDN station logo At that point I asked some of our community leaders for a letter to Commissioner Pai telling him what the station meant to them and why it was important the commissioner support allowing increased power for stations like ours at night. Not only did I receive letters from city leaders, but others residents offered letters of support.

In fact, the day before I flew to Washington, two residents, hearing about my meeting, came to me with handwritten notes expressing their voice of support. In one of the letters, the writer told the commissioner that it had been at least 15 years since he listened to AM radio, and he was now listening to WRDN. Another resident didn’t just ask, but begged the commissioner to do everything in his power to allow stations like ours to increase power at night.

Because of all the letters I had with me, when I met Commissioner Pai on May 13, I thanked him on behalf of the residents of Durand and Pepin County, Wis., for taking time to meet with me. Commissioner Pai and his aide were impressed by the letters and interested in what I was proposing.

First, the AM IBOC idea is a non-starter for stations like ours.

We would have to invest in a new transmitter and studio equipment, processing — even an STL. That, coupled with no “converter box,” begs the question, how are people supposed to listen to us? We can’t wait five to 10 years for new radios to come out. Then there is the licensing fee to iBiquity Digital. We have never had to pay the Marconi family for the right to use a radio transmitter, why do we have to pay iBiquity?

AM DRM. What hasn’t this been explored? It seems to me that Europe has been using this system, and since we did a full-digital test of AM IBOC why can’t a test of AM DRM be conducted? Yes, we have all the same problems implementing this just like IBOC, but we should at least test it. Oh, and at least I wouldn’t have to pay that licensing fee every year.

The FM translator is an interesting idea. In fact, for our station, it could work well, as our tower used to house WRDN(FM) before that was moved to Baldwin, Wis. But first, I have to find a translator, then I have to play hop-scotch across the state or country. The only people who get rich are my engineer, and the FCC with all the fees and studies we have to do to move the translator. Then if I do get the translator on-air, some full-time FM comes along and now I have to start over. Why can’t we just move it from a city to Durand?

One suggestion I gave the commissioner is to allow stations like ours, the Class D stations, the ability to find a full-time FM frequency. If my engineer can find an FM frequency that has similar coverage to what we have during the daytime, we should be allowed to apply for it and move to that frequency — with no waiting for an auction. However, three months after our license to cover is received, the FCC will delete the AM signal from the table of assignments, and we must return the license.

Since we would now be a standalone FM, under current law, we shouldn’t be allowed to move it to a metro area. With us leaving the AM band, that should give the opportunity for the station in St. Louis or Mankato, Minn., or Beaver Dam, Wis., to increase their power day and night. So everyone wins, and it will be much easier for our station to get financing for this compared to financing for AM IBOC!

We also talked about the NRSC bandwidth limitation. I believe that is so outdated and needs to be removed. We are broadcasting at 9 kHz into receivers that don’t receive anything above 3 kHz and we all wonder why AM sounds terrible? Let’s go back to the 15 kHz transmitting and make the radio manufacturers allow that 15 kHz to be received. I remember when AM radio still sounded pretty good on my home Pioneer stereo system, and I would listen to WDUZ in Green Bay or driving to school and listening to animal stories on WLS on the tube radio that was in my 1961 Oldsmobile 88.

Finally the commissioner and I talked about what I believe is the easiest thing he could do to help stations like ours. I proposed that the FCC conduct a nighttime power test from Sept. 1 through March 31. The commission would allow all Class D and Class Bs that have to lower their power at night, or stations that go off-air at night, the ability to keep their power at 2,500 watts or their regular daytime power, whichever is less during the night.

Citizens Back WRDN(AM)

Commissioner Ajit Pai says Winnekins gave him several suggestions for helping AM, as well as 10 letters from citizens of Durand, thanking the Winnekins for bringing back the station in 2012; the station had been silent for five years. The documents include letters from the local fire department, churches and the local school district. In one, a private citizen signs off by apologizing for a handwritten note, saying “computer is broken.”

Prime Realty Owner Robert Pelke writes: “Before Karla and Brian put WRDN back on the air I had not listened to AM radio for years! Please help our station and other stations like it by allowing this very affordable way to allow the smaller station owners and their communities a chance to succeed with decent night time service.”

“Having a local station with local owners, makes emergency situations or severe weather made known to people at any time,” writes James Sedlmayr, a firefighter and treasurer of the Durand Fire Department. “But at night it can be hard to get information out because AM radio stations have to turn down their power at night. A simple and cost-effective solution is to allow the AM radio stations to keep operating at full-power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

Several of the letters note that WRDN has helped local residents who were elderly or physically impaired stay informed about what’s going on in their town, such as church services and weather updates.

Pai has been pushing the commission to pay attention to the senior band and figure out ways to help AM station owners. He says the letters had a strong impact on him and help illustrate why the commission should start an initiative to help AM. He said in a statement, “In places like Durand, a local radio station is an important way — sometimes one of the only ways — for folks to feel like they really are a part of the community.”

Leslie Stimson

Why Sept. 1–March 31? That is the primary time for stations across America to have the chance to cover their local high school sports teams. If owners know about the test in advance, it would give them a chance to sell this local programing and maybe make some money! It doesn’t cost anything extra in new equipment and there are no licensing fees.

I know right now there are engineers shaking their heads, thinking this guy knows nothing of AM propagation. You’re right, I don’t know anything about that; but why is it that right now, there are stations across the country staying at high power (we all know that goes on) and it has not caused the end of the world. I’m betting most of the stations that are “protected” haven’t been adversely affected or even know that a co-station is running at high power. Yes, I know there are formulas that prove how AM goes farther at night, but do those formulas take into account all of the new manmade interference? I haven’t seen any that do.

I believe that with the higher power, we won’t hurt other stations in their primary city of license, while we would be able to give decent service to our primary city of license. Yes, in the station’s fringe areas there will be issues, but I believe that is the only place where that would happen.

If we can’t do this nationwide, at least let stations in the same region on the same frequency work it out. For example, Durand, Wis., St. Louis, Mankato, Minn., and Beaver Dam, Wis., would agree to try this and see what happens, or allow us to stay at the higher power until 10 p.m. local time. I also understand the international implications, but there is no way to renegotiate this at all? Let’s at least try something!

Finally, I want to publicly thank Commissioner Pai for taking the time to meet with me. It was a pleasure that a high-ranking FCC official would be willing to spend 40 minutes with a small AM broadcaster from Durand, Wis., population 1,931 and be concerned about our station and the thousands of AM stations across the country, big or small.

After our meeting, I met with members of the Wisconsin and Minnesota congressional delegations asking them to give Commissioner Pai the political support he needs to help make changes to the AM band. It has been a very long time since we have had a commissioner take a radio issue under his wing, and I encourage every station owner to contact their congressional leaders and tell them to give Commissioner Pai their support.

Brian Winnekins is co-owner, WRDN(AM), Durand, Wis. Reach him via email to [email protected].

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