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Salem Fears Doom for Religious Radio if FCC Kills Subcaps

It worries that the entire AM band is at risk

Exactly how far the FCC rolls back radio ownership limits is yet to be seen, if it does at all; but one group owner with a vested interest in AM radio is making a compelling argument to maintain the current subcap formula.

Salem Media Group says if the FCC goes down the path of eliminating AM/FM subcaps, then the rush by broadcasters to the FM band and the abandonment of AM stations will spell doom for the senior band, and possibly all of religious radio too.

The FCC’s latest quadrennial review process is looking at its local ownership rules. The National Association of Broadcasters and companies like Townsquare Media and Midwest Communications have argued that fierce competition from digital media of all kinds requires easing or eliminating subcaps to allow for more consolidation so radio owners can compete with Big Tech. Those organizations want the FCC to increase the number of FM stations a given company could own in a given market.

[Related: “Nine Radio Groups Criticize iHeart and Salem on Ownership Stance“]

However, Salem disagrees, saying more local market consolidation would bring diminished investment in technological improvements and programming in the AM service. “Moreover, Salem firmly believes that the relaxation of the subcaps will do little to counter the diffusion of radio’s market position while doing much to undermine the commission’s progress toward AM revitalization,” it says.

In each of the largest Nielsen markets, a licensee today can own up to eight radio stations, but a subcap limits the licensee to owning no more than five in either the AM or FM service. Salem fears if the subcap is eliminated, the “migration of leading brands to the FM band could accelerate the departure” of the AM audience.

The company included multiple examples of recent “AM to FM migration” in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. in its filing with the FCC. 

“Moreover, because the AM signal is far more amenable to wide area coverage, a policy decision that encourages station owners to consolidate their holdings in the FM band could leave many listeners disenfranchised, potentially eradicate certain formats, and increase risk in times of crisis,” Salem told the FCC.

Salem says, currently, “most top-25 radio markets in America are home to successful, well-branded radio stations on the AM band.” It asks the FCC not to “accelerate a decline in AM band listening.” 

Salem operates AM stations in many major U.S. markets, it says, including KRLA in Los Angeles, WMCA and WNYM in New York, WIND in Chicago, KFAX and KTRB in San Francisco and KSKY in Dallas. All of which air a Christian and/or conservative talk format. 

The broadcaster also owns the Salem Radio Network (SRN), which delivers syndicated news and Christian and conservative talk programming to approximately 3,100 affiliated radio stations. A significant majority of those affiliates are on the AM band.

Salem urges the FCC not to get sidetracked by NAB’s argument to address the increased competition from digital audio programming. “The question the commission must address is whether media ownership rules remain necessary in the public interest as the result of competition such that the rule’s AM/FM subcaps, which limit the number of radio stations from the same service that an entity may own in a single market, should be retained.”

Religious programming would be especially hard hit if the subcaps are relaxed, it said. “Without the current restraint on the number of stations a local owner may hold in the same service, it is possible that in a few short years an entire subindustry within broadcasting — religious radio — which now thrives on the AM band, will either be consolidated into groups which have no inclination for religious programming, and/or will become inaccessible to small-market America,” Salem wrote.

While NAB favors abolishing the AM caps and raising FM limits in local markets, according to its filings, Salem believes such reforms would shred any hope of AM radio maintaining its accessibility and attracting listeners. The licensee asks the FCC to bring no harm to the AM service.

“It is incumbent upon the commission to move cautiously and responsibly before changing a formula that has brought unparalleled success to the radio industry, unleashing an avalanche of public service to communities around the country. Salem urges the agency not to take any action that would undo the advances made in the AM Revitalization proceeding to enable AM broadcasters to compete better in their radio markets.”

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