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“Empirical Data Is What We Need”

Martin Stabbert on all-digital AM

all-digital AMIn a recent ebook, Radio World explored the implications of allowing all-digital operation on the AM band in the United States. Here’s an excerpt in which Townsquare Media Vice President of Engineering Martin Stabbert shared his thoughts on the idea. Read the ebook here. Also, readers are invited to send a letter to the editor on this or any subject.

Martin Stabbert is VP of engineering for Townsquare Media, which has 85 AM stations, and chair of the National Radio Systems Committee’s AM and FM Analog Broadcasting Subcommittee.

He’d like to see the commission explore whether to allow all-digital.

“I personally feel the key word is ‘allow’ and not ‘mandate’ at this point,” he emphasized. “For stations in a good position and willing to make such a transition, it should be an option. It would be helpful to see the consumer uptake as well as provide real-world results of what works and what doesn’t.”

Stabbert concurs that initial efforts to run AM hybrid mode, especially at night, were not very successful. “Now over a decade later and with an all-digital mode, perhaps the outcome would be better. Empirical data is what we need.”

As to technical concerns that might be raised, Stabbert points to interference. “The FCC would need to establish a meaningful and efficient means to identify and resolve interference issues caused to analog stations by stations operating in the all-digital mode,” he said.

[We Look Forward to to the Day of All-Digital AM]

And he acknowledges that the number of analog-only receivers in the market is a potential big obstacle. “A mass abandonment of the analog mode by broadcasters could potentially end the life of the AM band completely before digital has time to take root.”

Is it credible to think that current broadcast owners would embrace this move? “I believe many broadcasters would embrace the option of all-digital — especially those with existing FM simulcasts, be it full-power or translators,” Stabbert said. But no two situations will be identical.

“Tangible factors such as market, transmitter location, condition and configuration of the transmitter facility, frequency, power, antenna pattern, station class, format, ratings and revenue would all come into play. Intangibles would figure in as well; and the sky could be the limit on those permutations.”

For broadcasters who might want to look ahead, we asked Stabbert what steps and investments AM broadcasters should make now.

“My advice would be to at least maintain existing transmission systems as best as possible — especially directional antenna systems and ground systems,” he said.

“Even if the financial resources are not there to improve or replace ground systems or other key components of infrastructure, it does not take a lot of money or effort to keep the transmitter sites from becoming attractive nuisances.”

Stations without funds to improve their facilities will not have the funds to repair them either if destroyed by vandals, he said.

“Have someone visit the site weekly. Mow the field, pick up the trash, turn on (fix) the porch light — or at least put a set of tire tracks through the weeds in the driveway. It’s not that hard to make the site appear active and possibly stave off those in search of an easy copper-harvest.”