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Arsenault: Champion of AM Radio

He has pushed for regulatory changes, though success hasn’t been all he’d hoped

FORTESCUE, N.J. — Richard Arsenault knows AM radio is slipping in popularity as media consumption fragments. He believes it’s a matter of time before more small-market AM broadcasters meet their financial doom during challenging economic times.

That’s why the consultant and former AM station owner in 2010 asked the FCC to consider two petitions for rulemaking: one to allow a power boost for AM licensees, another to allow for AMs to begin pre-sunrise service earlier. The FCC rejected the power increase idea, citing interference concerns. It has yet to act on the pre-sunrise service request.

Richard Arsenault, right, is shown with Terry Dalton of Stellar Communications on a project in Pennsylvania. The proposals drew new attention to Arsenault and positioned him as something of an advocate for downtrodden stations, particularly AMs.

“Due to the exponential growth in competitive digital technologies and the ever-increasing interference from those devices, AM radio needs all the help it can get,” Arsenault said.

Dual citizen

The 57-year-old now works as a broadcast radio consultant specializing in acquisitions and broadcast technologies. His namesake firm is a virtual clearinghouse for a variety of broadcast services, ranging from FCC feasibility studies and preparation of commission exhibits to hands-on studio construction and transmitter installation.

“I find great satisfaction in finding creative cost-effective solutions for many smaller AM, FM and LPFM station operators. Unlike larger corporate stations, I frequently get to work directly with the station owner and enjoy that personal friendly interaction,” Arsenault said.

He was born in Montreal and moved to the United States when he was 10, after his father took a position as a high school history teacher in Champlain, N.Y. Arsenault, of French-Canadian descent, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1971. He holds dual citizenship; under a newly revised naturalization law, Canada also recognizes him as a citizen by birth.

His interest in broadcasting was demonstrated when he built Part 15 transmitters as a youngster; he also assembled studio equipment out of old parts and built an amplifier for his electric guitar. “I was ripping radios apart for parts.”

Arsenault’s first radio job was as a disc jockey at WDVL(FM) in Vineland in southern New Jersey in 1972. His first big break in the broadcast engineering business came several years later when WMVB(AM/FM) in nearby Millville hired him as staff engineer.

In the early 1980s, Arsenault traveled to Beaumont, Texas, to work for Lamar University as chief engineer for KVLU(FM). He also worked as technologist for media services for the College of Communications at Lamar.

Arsenault has his Bachelor of Science degree from the University State of New York, now known as Excelsior College. But he received an education of a different sort when he joined the staff at the consulting firm of Jules Cohen & Associates in Washington in 1982.

“That was where I gained valuable insight into radio and television feasibility engineering studies and preparation of FCC applications. It’s a very professional organization and was a great educational experience.”

By the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s Arsenault was involved with many radio stations as chief or contract engineer; by his count, at one point he was in charge of engineering services at 14 stations. Then in 1994 he took the opportunity to purchase one: WREY(AM), the Millville station where he’d begun his broadcast engineering career in 1974.

Arsenault eventually brought back its WMVB call letters and performed just about every job inside the radio building.

“It was a terrific experience. I was general manager, sales manager, chief engineer, talk show host and more. I have a lot of respect for what a GM does. I find that the technical side is easier.”

Trying to survive

Arsenault, a member of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) since 1982, sold the radio station in 2000 to Quinn Broadcasting and has since focused on his consulting business.

He is based in Fortesque, on the southern coast of New Jersey along the shore of the Delaware Bay. Arsenault works mostly with small and medium-sized broadcasters along the eastern seaboard.

“I feel like I can come in and really make a difference and be helpful to small broadcasters in many ways. Many are just trying to survive in the world today. The diversification of media has brought on an onslaught of media choices,” Arsenault said.

“Many small broadcasters are struggling while some are doing a little better than imagined.”

The kind of thing he notices when visiting smaller broadcasters is lack of attention to the required public inspection files, which often are incomplete. This can lead to fines.

“It’s pretty basic stuff usually. I give (owners) technical advice on everything from maintaining EAS equipment to tower lighting issues. I understand what a lot of broadcasters are facing today. They are easily distracted from some of the simpler compliance issues because they are so preoccupied on just surviving day to day.”

‘AM radio needs all the help it can get,’ says engineering consultant and former station owner Richard Arsenault. Arsenault filed his petitions for rulemaking with the FCC last summer to help broadcasters, specifically AMs, through tough economic times. But the process is challenging. “Today the FCC appears bogged down in too much red tape to quickly make changes to help some broadcasters.”

AM suffers in part from increased electromagnetic interference, one reason Arsenault advocates a power increase. “What were once usable AM signals in areas are now unusable signals in many areas. To increase the ratio of the desired stations to the unwanted interference in theory seems to make sense, but the commission dismissed it. A resolution is not simple,” he said. He’d hoped for a ten-fold daytime power increase, or at least a four-fold hike.

He believes the FCC officially dismissed his power increase petition before it was adequately publicized, which minimized the number of comments filed by the public. He concedes too that under his ten-fold proposal, it was unlikely that many small-market AM stations would or could invest to upgrade unprofitable facilities.

His pre-sunrise proposal received a number of comments, all “100 percent in support of my petition,” he said.

Regarding other efforts to help AMs, he is under-impressed with the state of AM HD Radio. He decries what he describes as hash and noise of nighttime AM HD and says the format reduces coverage areas of stations significantly.

“The result, from trying to help AM, is actually hurting it,” Arsenault said.

However, he sees the surge of AM stations using FM translators to improve nighttime reach as a great benefit. According to BIA/Kelsey’s “Investing in Radio Market Report,” more than 400 AMs now are rebroadcasting on FM, which is about 8 percent of AMs in the country.

“Back in 1989 I filed a petition for rulemaking to allow AM stations to use FM translators. The FCC dismissed it without prejudice back then because it was a bit premature, but it is helping many AM broadcasters now,” Arsenault said.

It was an NAB petition, filed in 2006 for cross-service translation, that finally gained FCC approval in 2009. The association lobbied hard for AMs to rebroadcast on FM translators, saying this change would mitigate coverage problems and promote competition, diversity and localism.

New band

Arsenault envisions a number of low- and medium-powered AM stations eventually migrating to a new band created by extending the bottom of the FM dial by 6 or 12 MHz.

“If a plan were undertaken to move a portion of existing AM stations into an expanded FM band or other new band, the remaining stations could easily upgrade power … to more effectively compete with stations in the FM band.

“The whole concept reduces the number of AM stations, cleans up the AM band and fills it with solid signals making radio a whole lot healthier,” he continued.

“I suspect down the road that if a majority of existing AM stations are relocated, the FCC might renegotiate with Canada, Mexico and other nations with existing radio interference agreements to possibly open up higher-powered AM domestic operations. Stations could easily upgrade to 500,000 watts and profit from covering multiple states.”

All About the Relevance of AM Read more stories on the topic of AM radio’s health and future. Arsenault also has started a series of free broadcast career tests on his website that range in theme from radio sales and marketing to general management and computers.

“Although these tests cannot replace the value of certification available from professional broadcast organizations, the tests have potentially unlimited use to those in broadcasting and others potentially interested in radio or television. Someone might use the tests to help them determine specific areas in broadcasting that they might need to brush up on.”

As for small broadcasters competing against all sorts of new technologies, he remains optimistic about those who continue to provide important local community service.

“They will survive. Those stations that play primarily music and are not interwoven into the fabric of their communities will likely feel the greatest impact. The savvy broadcaster will fine-tune programming to integrate elements that are beyond that what the various digital music players can provide.”