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AM Searches for Sustainability

Experts debate viability of short-, long-term proposals to revitalize the senior band

Commissioner Ajit Pai visited CBS Radio Pittsburgh to conduct a radio roundtable with CBS and other owners in western Pennsylvania. From left:Jim Graci, program director KDKA(AM); Michael Young, CBS Radio Pittsburgh senior vice president and market manager; Pai; Ryan Maguire, program director KDKA(FM); and Mark Anderson, CBS Radio Pittsburgh operations manager and program director for WBZZ(FM) and WDSY(FM). Purveyors of AM radio, the once-dominant mode of broadcasting in the United States, continue to search for ways to stabilize their business and remain viable. While that debate is going on, though, some AM broadcasters are “starving to death,” as one broadcast engineer characterizes it.

Many supporters agree some kind of technical fix is needed to allow the venerable radio service to sustain itself and adapt to listener habits and their desire for digital devices. There’s been a sense both of crisis and opportunity about AM in the past year, with AM’s health receiving attention in convention sessions and meetings (not to mention coverage in general interest publications like American Spectator, which headlined its recent commentary “AM Radio, Signing Off”).

Broadcasters are debating possible immediate fixes like allowing more AMs to operate on FM translators and eliminating the minimum ground system requirements for AM antennas, as well as longer-term goals like eventual AM band migration to low VHF TV frequencies.

Grim reports of downward revenue and audience loss have been widely reported, and the FCC has released a variety of rulemakings intended to help AM. In 2009, when it adopted one that allows AM broadcasters to re-transmit programming on FM translators to fill in coverage gaps, the commission stated that higher-fidelity alternatives and increased interference have eroded the audience for AM as young listeners migrate towards “newer mass media services that offer higher technical quality and superior audio fidelity.”

Fifty-four years ago, AM was king. Until 1978, it claimed more than half of all hours spent with radio. The FCC said that by 2009, the latest figures available, the total had dropped to 17 percent overall, while among persons aged 12–24, AM accounted for only 4 percent of listening, compared to FM’s 96 percent.

Data from BIA/Kelsey show that revenue at U.S. AM stations has been mostly flat in the last few years, but down over a longer period.

Annual revenue for commercial AMs was around $2.9 billion in 2006 prior to the recession, but stood at $2.1 billion in 2012. (AM was not alone in this; FM U.S. commercial radio, which brings in far more money, saw revenue fall more sharply in that period, from $11 billion to approximately $8.7 billion; however FM’s recent trend line is up; see accompanying chart.)

Yet while flagship AM stations like WCBS or WINS in New York, KFI in Los Angeles and WBBM in Chicago remain multimillion-dollar billers, according to BIA/Kelsey, stories abound of the struggles of other AMs, especially — though not strictly — in smaller markets.

Another possible measure of the health of the band is station count. There are fewer AMs on the air in the United States compared to 2008, according to FCC data, though not by much — 4,786 five years ago compared to 4,734 in the latest data. Longer term, FCC figures show a gradual decrease from levels of the early 1990s; see chart.

Observers also talk about stations that have gone silent. A Radio World review of the FCC database, which lists stations that have been dark for at least two months, indicates the number of AM stations off the air has remained steady since at least 2009. There were 83 AMs silent at the end of July, according to the commission. Radio World reporting about this topic revealed some licensees turn off stations as a means to conserve cash.

Data about silent stations must be used with caution, experts say, because for any reporting period, some may fall off the list because licenses were cancelled, others may return to air and still others may be added to the list for the first time. (By law, a broadcaster’s license is cancelled if a station remains off the air for more than 12 months, according to the agency.)

Another anecdotal indicator of AM’s health: The value of some licenses is such that, in a few cases, corporate owners felt it made more sense to donate stations than continue to operate them. A number of AMs have been donated to the Minority Media & Telecom Council as part of its Media Brokerage program. MMTC officials said the organization has sold or is in the process of selling seven AM stations donated by Clear Channel Communications in 2010.

AM broadcasters have been seeking cures for the perceived downturn.

More than 500 AM stations now rebroadcast on FM translators, according to the latest quarterly data; and the FCC is considering allowing more AMs to do so.

Passage of a pending rulemaking to eliminate the so-called “ratchet clause,” also would help, believe AM experts.

The FCC introduced the ratchet clause in 1991 with hopes of reducing nighttime interference from modified AM facilities. The clause requires AMs that want to modify their signals to demonstrate an overall reduction in the amount of skywave interference they cause to certain other AMs. Existing signals are now expected to provide additional protection to the newer ones, even when there’s a chance for the existing signal to move to a better site or improve its directional pattern.

Many broadcast engineers say this clause hurts AMs that wish to improve their nighttime signals.

Further, in mid-August, the commission clarified rules concerning construction near AM towers to make it clear if such construction distorts the antenna pattern of an AM in excess of 2 dB, the offending party must correct the distortion. The agency also approved moment method computer modeling to demonstrate that certain AM directional antennas perform as authorized, a move that will save broadcasters time and money compared to traditional AM field strength proofs. A coalition of broadcasters, consulting engineers and equipment manufacturers sought the changes to “harmonize the disparate treatment” between broadcast and wireless entities, according to the commission.

And AM is getting some attention at the top of the agency. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has become something of a champion for AM, has taken a visible role over the past year; and he told broadcasters at a meeting at KDKA(AM) in Pittsburgh in July that he’s had “very productive discussions” with Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn about AM revitalization and is “hopeful we’ll see progress in the coming months.”

An FCC spokesman said Clyburn has asked the Media Bureau to look at possible rule changes to help AM broadcasters. AM “is on the list of issues we are considering but we have not yet made any recommendations to her or the full commission,” according to the spokesman.

Talks between AM advocates and the FCC are “ongoing through the usual channels” like NAB and the Minority Media & Telecom Council, according to one source familiar with the discussions but not at liberty to discuss them publicly.

“We have reached the end of what we can do to fix AM,” said NAB AM Radio Task Chair Ben Downs. “The existing framework has to be changed, and only the FCC can do that.”

Downs, whose day job is vice president and general manager of Bryan Broadcasting in Bryan, Texas,believes more translators are likely to be part of any FCC solution, as well as some technical changes, including the possibility of all-digital HD Radio AM technology, rather than the existing hybrid analog-digital transmission, scheme. “However, I do not believe that all-digital is ready to be put forth as a solution yet,” he said.

NAB Labs has tested the various modes and coverage area of an all-digital AM band, according to Downs, referring to testing on expanded-band station WBCN(AM), Charlotte, N.C. Initial results were described as promising, and NAB seeks more AM test stations.

However, not only will more testing be needed, but so would a commitment from manufacturers to increase the availability of digital receivers for the home, according to Downs. “As it stands today, there are millions of HD-equipped radios in cars that are compatible with an all-digital AM band, but few home receivers.”

Any proposed mandate for industry conversion to all-digital AM would likely be contentious, due to the capital cost to owners as well as the resulting obsolescence of millions of AM analog receivers in U.S. cars, bedrooms and kitchens.

The biggest worry for Downs is “a schedule at the FCC based on the usual regulatory speed.”

Regardless of how swiftly the commission acts, observers who spoke to Radio World for this story agree that the band needs help.

AM rescue plans have been discussed since at least 2009 when the MMTC released a plan that included relaxation of community coverage and AM signal contour rules and other technical measures. Its petition for rulemaking gained the support of CBS Radio and Clear Channel at the time.

MMTC “is still waiting for the commission to act” on the petition, according to MMTC co-founder David Honig. “Commissioner Pai has it and, I understand, is encouraging the agency to take up some of our proposals. He has been a great champion of AM radio and of small and minority broadcasters,” said Honig.

An across-the-board power increase, proposed to the FCC by broadcast engineer Richard Arsenault in 2010 but dismissed by the commission without public comment, would have been a good place to start, several AM proponents said. His proposal didn’t specify an analog or digital rise. Arsenault believes a power increase is the only way to “offset coverage losses resulting from the ever-increasing amount of interference from digital and other electronic devices.” But other experts believe the drastic measure is likely a “non-starter” because of the potential for increased interference to other stations.

“Realize that an across-the-board power increase requires international negotiations with Canada, Mexico and other treaty nations. Many of the AM stations in Canada have migrated to the FM band, which I suspect could simplify negotiations,” according to Arsenault.

Arsenault said he would entertain re-petitioning the commission with the request but “only if the FCC is ready to entertain the concept and open it up for public comment.”

Opinions vary among other technical observers contacted by Radio World for this article. Regardless of which measures the commission eventually may adopt, though, the transition to an improved service through technical changes approved by the FCC likely will take time, something some licensees can ill afford, several said.

Glen Clark, president of Glen Clark & Associates, believes an analog overall power increase would go a long way in overcoming electronic florescent light noise and high ambient noise caused by buildings full of Cisco network infrastructure, which emits RF.

“And we have proof that it works from the past experience,” he wrote in an email, when Class D stations “got a 4X increase in nighttime power.”

The bad news about a power increase “is that 50 kW is written into” the North American Radio broadcasting Agreement, “so stations like KDKA, WFAN, WJR and those guys won’t get anything from this approach,” according to Clark. He also doesn’t believe a power increase would help all AM owners.

Meanwhile, a 2009 proposal from the Broadcast Maximization Committee to create a new broadcast band using TV Channels 5 and 6 spectrum could be a big boost for AM broadcasters, supporters said.

For the BMC proposal to work, new receivers would need to be introduced to account for AMs that want to move to the FM band, experts said. Clark believes the BMC proposal “fails the logic test” because of the lack of such an installed receiver base.

Some broadcast engineers estimate it could take 15 to 20 years for new receivers to penetrate the market.

The use of FM translators by AM stations has certainly helped some small-market AM stations nationwide, but the lack of available translators means demand will never be met in even the ­­­­­­­­­­­rosiest of scenarios, said Jack Mullaney, president of Mullaney Engineering Inc. “In addition, in most major markets the FM band is a mess and so congested that there will never be a new FM translator created.”

Mullaney, a member of the Broadcast Maximization Committee, sees re-purposing of TV Channels 5 and 6 as the only real solution to help AM stations survive in the long run.

“We put forth a plan in which most, if not all, of the current AM band could migrate and operate as a digital radio facility. Certainly, some AM owners will elect to remain in the AM band,” Mullaney said. “Unfortunately, the re-purpose of TV 5 and 6 is frozen in time, waiting for the FCC to decide how they plan to kill over-the-air television with the reverse auction” and spectrum re-packing, he said.

The expected flood of low-power FM applicants from the new filing window expected this fall will seriously limit FM translator filing opportunities for AM stations in the foreseeable future, according to Clarence Beverage, president of broadcast engineering consulting firm Communications Technologies.

Beverage, who also is a BMC member, said an across-the-board power increase for AM isn’t a viable solution for multiple reasons, including increased interference from first adjacent channels.

Night skywave interference is “the biggest issue affecting AM operation,” Beverage said. “Moving stations to TV Channels 5–6 spectrum solves that problem. However, that would have been much simpler to do before the FCC began [discussing] the DTV repacking process.”

The exclusion of AM from discussions about adding broadcast radio reception to cellular phones has been noted by some supporters of the band.

“AM just doesn’t work well in the miniaturized cell phone world. The wavelength is just too long,” said Bert Goldman, president of Goldman Engineering Management and a BMC member. “Decent reception would be very hard to achieve. Substandard reception is already hurting the industry.”

In addition, other broadcast engineers note that cellphones emit radio frequency that causes interference, which would render AM reception essentially useless.

Nonetheless, AM has some options, Goldman believes. In addition to the possible migration to Channels 5 and 6, one option being reviewed is full-digital operation of AM stations, as referenced by Downs above. However, nighttime skywave interference often prevents AM stations from having uniform, 24-hour coverage that stations in the VHF band enjoy, experts said.While the discussion about full-digital is a good thing, Goldman said, such operation wouldn’t overcome that skywave interference issue — and would leave the station with no way to serve existing listeners while waiting for receivers capable of decoding the all-digital AM signal to penetrate the market. And while some experts support allowing more AMs to operate on FM translators, Goldman sees that as a “small” short-term fix.

Most industry discussion has focused on possible technical or regulatory changes. Comments by those outside of radio, and some within, tend to focus on programming considerations.

“Listener indifference comes not from technological changes but from programming ones,” wrote Daniel Flynn in a recent American Spectator article that ruffled some industry feathers. “Calcified formats, sonic limitations and automated programs, more so than any geriatric host, has aged AM out of the demographic targeted by advertisers,” wrote Flynn.

Demonstrating that even AM broadcasters don’t agree whether there’s a crisis, Southern California Broadcasters Association President Thom Callahan responded to that article in an opinion piece for LARadio, “AM Radio will Grow and Change, Just Like America.” He sought to counter the perception that the senior band is in decline, writing: “AM radio is NOT dead.”

Listenership for 22 AMs in the Southern California market has shown only a slight drop over the last five years, at “3,319,400, a loss of only 466,900 listeners” through second quarter 2013, he wrote. And he emphasized the evolving nature of AM programming. In Southern California, “there are eight Asian AM radio stations programming in five different dialects to over 2.5 million Asian Americans, all on the AM dial,” according to Callahan.

“Had Mr. Flynn consulted with us prior to publishing his blog, we would have urged him to focus his attention on the sweeping ethnic and demographic changes happening now in America and how AM radio will directly benefit from those changes, as it has for the past 100 years.”

Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson contributed to this report. For a list of recent articles about AM revitalization, visit