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Analog ‘Sunset’ Grabs AM Debate

It was one of several suggestions made in Vegas; another is a receiver mandate

One of several stories providing a final overview of events at the NAB Show in April.

FCC Commissioner Pai moderated a session on ideas to revitalize AM. Panelists, from left, are John Garziglia of Womble Carlyle; Glynn Walden of CBS Radio; Ben Downs of Bryan Broadcasting; Melodie Virtue of Garvey Schubert Barer; and Diane Warren of BounceOlogy.Photo by Jim PeckThe mention of an AM analog “sunset” in favor of an all-digital sunrise in the United States received quite a reaction at the NAB Show.

At least one HD Radio proponent thinks a “date certain” to go all-digital would help AM broadcasters; and the option of someday going all-digital has been implicit in the hybrid design of HD Radio from its start.

But serious discussion of such an outcome is new, and it comes as industry leaders seem serious about broad questions of AM’s survival. The idea of all-digital AM is provocative even without the addition of a mandate as implied in the phrase “analog sunset.” Several engineers told RW at the show they believe an all-digital solution won’t work and/or cannot imagine stations actually turning off their analog signals, voluntarily or otherwise.

Commissioner Ajit Pai moderated a panel at which participants debated possible steps to help AM operators. These include an across-the-board power increase; expanding AM use of FM translators; eliminating skywave protection; and establishing all-digital transmission, among others.

‘Big fan’

The fact that an FCC commissioner moderated the panel was a first, according to NAB.

Pai described himself as a “big fan of AM radio” since growing up in Parsons, Kan. In Washington, he said, sports station WTEM(AM) on 980 kHz is one of his favorites; and he recently sat in on a taping of “The Tony Kornheiser Show.”

“It’s high time we revisited the AM rules. You know as well as I do that AM still matters,” said Pai to thunderous applause.

Womble Carlyle attorney John Garziglia recited a litany of items that contribute to a rising noise floor for AM, such as “dirty” light bulbs and computers, as well as the plethora of electronics now found in a car dashboard.

But CBS Radio Senior Vice President of Engineering Glynn Walden made the most dramatic suggestion. He said many suggested solutions “nibble around the edges” without getting to the root, which he described thus: “The AM band is a hostile environment.”

“It’s time for the FCC to declare an analog sunset” and for radio to move to an all-digital service, Walden said. The so-called “hybrid” mode currently authorized for HD Radio, in which analog and digital signals share the same licensed channels, was not meant to be permanent, he said.

Walden — considered one of the fathers of IBOC and HD Radio — said an all-digital mode for AM can be noise-free.

As RW has reported, NAB Labs, iBiquity Digital, Harris and Kintronic Labs recently participated in all-digital testing of the HD Radio transmission system on a CBS Radio expanded-band station in Charlotte, N.C. Preliminary results look promising, according to participants, though more testing is needed to validate the results.

Walden observed some of the testing and said all-digital AM audio, if not perfect, was impressive.

Further tests

NAB Executive Vice President/Chief Technology Officer Kevin Gage told RW that participants are still working on a further all-digital AM test plan. The next test will involve more stations, across the whole AM band, as we’ve reported.

Several panelists agreed that any move to all-digital should be accompanied by a government mandate that manufacturers include good-quality AM tuners in receivers as well as an HD Radio component in all radios. Reactions afterwards ranged from “The FCC will let the marketplace decide” to engineers who speculated “I don’t think CEA would allow a receiver mandate” to pass.

Several engineers who spoke with Radio World after the panel described the concept of analog sunset/digital sunrise as a trial balloon. However one head of engineering for a major radio group agreed with the panelists that a receiver mandate would make the HD Radio transition viable. “Everybody wants a date certain for an analog sunset. We’re still fighting amongst ourselves on an HD decision that’s already been made.”

Another source said he’s “had a hard time” believing the FCC will sunset analog AM, which would disenfranchise lots of smaller radio groups and standalones.

One panelist, Ben Downs, vice president and general manager of Bryan Broadcasting, said the noise floor has exceeded AM’s ability to overcome impairments. He also believes that skywave protection has outlived its usefulness. He says that in order to “protect 47 stations,” hundreds of local AMs sign off at sundown.

Garvey Schubert Barer attorney Melodie Virtue said one thing the commission could do to help AMs is remove the rule that requires 80 percent of an audience to receive an interference-free nighttime signal.

However, panelists shot down the concept of an across-the-board AM power increase. Walden said this would entail larger transmitters, new transmission line and larger electric bills. “Your air conditioning bill” for the transmitter would also go up by a factor of 10, he said. “I don’t think it’s practical.”

FCC Audio Division Chief Peter Doyle was cool to the idea as well. In a separate session, he agreed that the technical challenges involved in an across-the-board AM power increase would be “difficult,” and he said there could be treaty issues as well, presumably referring to current agreements with regulators and industry in Canada and Mexico.

More ideas

The idea of moving AMs to spectrum used by analog television Channels 5 and 6 was discussed. One engineering consultant told Radio World that this option remains viable, working around the few TV stations that intend to remain on those channels. In general, Downs said, AM operators “have done everything we can. The next steps have to come from the FCC.”

Allowing more AMs to operate on FM translators, and easing restrictions on existing ones, would also help, several panelists agreed.

The Cromwell Group, a client of Garziglia’s, has a waiver request pending at the commission to move an FM translator farther than is now allowed. The so-called Tell City waiver would allow an AM operator to move an FM translator to the location where its serves the AM station community — as long as it’s within the interference contour of the AM station.

Downs supports the concept of easing rules on the use of translators, including the Tell City waiver, saying “allowing AMs to define themselves with an FM translator” solves many of the noise floor issues. If that waiver is granted, Downs said he’d follow up by requesting a “one-per-customer” FM translator window for AMs.

“We don’t have to work with the TV people,” he said; radio need not seek AM allocations on Channels 5 and 6. Allowing more AMs to operate on translators “would extend the shelf life for many years for AM stations.”

Noting the tough business environment for AM owners, Virtue said two of her clients sent licenses back to the commission in the first quarter because they couldn’t make money from the stations. Downs said there are 52 fewer AMs on the FCC’s roster than there were in 2009. “Those are the ones who couldn’t find a buyer. They just gave the license back to the FCC because that was the only exit they had.” There were 4,736 AMs licensed by the FCC at the end of the first quarter.

Another reason the FM translator waiver would be important, said Garziglia, is that advertisers don’t believe people listen to AM radio anymore.

“We recognize not all cities will benefit” from the waiver. “We’re saying if you can find a translator and need to move it, the FCC can eliminate that barrier.”

While automakers have no plans to eliminate radio options in the dash, he said, AM has suffered through their “benign neglect. For years, automakers have looked for ways to get rid of the stick antenna. Now cars are built with composite materials that don’t serve as good ground planes for AM reception,” he said.

Pai asked broadcasters to continue to send him ideas for helping AM. His call for an improvement initiative sparked the idea for the panel. An aide to Pai said the commissioner “hopes to get something started soon at the FCC.”