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Embrace Local Service and Remain Viable

AM station owner explains why he thinks it’s time to relax Class A protection standards

According to a notice of ex-parte communication, Jeff Littlejohn, iHeartMedia’s executive vice president of engineering and systems integration, recently told the commission that about 600,000 existing listeners of Class A AM stations would potentially lose protected service if interference protections were reduced to equivalent to current Class B protections.

iStockphoto/skodonnell While iHeartMedia is certainly entitled to voice its opinions, there are serious objections to be raised with these particular ex-parte discussions.

First, the discussions involve models that have not been disclosed. We have no way to validate Mr. Littlejohn’s premise or assertions. The correct venue for this type of comment would be to file the comments, along with the model, in MB Docket 13-249 so that everyone can see how the figures were derived. Unless that is done, assertions based on the iHeartMedia model should not even be considered by the FCC.

Second, even if we accept the premise that there would be erosion of listeners, that outcome might not be bad if other, local stations gain significant potential listeners as a result. Mr. Littlejohn’s arguments do not disclose the potential benefit to other stations. For all we know, several million listeners might gain local service for the loss of those 600,000.

Class A channels are a relic, an opportunity that was given to some early broadcasters over 75 years ago but that has no place in today’s world.

Communications networks have grown so much since the early days of radio that national and regional news and information is readily available in every community. There is simply no longer a need for AM Class A services that duplicate far more popular methods of listening to news and entertainment. The key to all broadcast survival is being local. Radio stations are licensed to serve the needs and issues of a community. For most broadcasters, this is also where they earn a living. Those who embrace local service have, generally, remained viable.

In earlier times, Class A channels served areas way beyond their main city of license, rural areas that needed farm and weather reports as well as other content not otherwise available. Today, with licensed stations in more small and rural markets, the massive coverage of Class As doesn’t mean much except “status” to the major broadcast chains that own them.

Interference levels in the real world make most signals useless beyond the 2 mV/m contour. The fact is that protections to even the 0.5 contour are totally unrealistic, much less the .05 contour. Frankly, most stations struggle to claim acceptable coverage within their 5 mV/m contours.

Also, one must realize that iHeartMedia wants to protect its Class A stations even at the expense of the AM band, in general. While they don’t likely see themselves in this light, the FCC must consider what is best for Class A stations or for the entire band. While iHeartMedia may or may not preserve some regional listeners by preserving Class A protections, AM radio will continue to decline. The exceptions have been a few AM stations that have significant local presence.

In order to have a significant local presence, those stations need to be on the air 24 hours a day with enough signal to be useful in their cities. Unfortunately, this is impossible for quite a few stations if existing Class A protections remain. As listeners migrate from the band, they generally do not come back. As Mr. Littlejohn noted, it is quite difficult to attract new listeners to the band. Thus even he acknowledges that migration is hurting his Class A stations.

What’s good for iHeartMedia in the short term may be bad for everyone in the long term. I strongly believe that the short-term benefits to Class A stations of preserving existing protections are offset by the long-term loss of listeners that happens when listeners find that there is no content on the band, especially after dark in their town.

The 50 kW power licensed to these facilities would not be taken away. I only suggest decreasing the interference level that would affect contours outside of the main coverage area.

Class A channels, non-directional with day and night coverage at 50 kW, number around 31 in the United States. Compare that to the total number of AM stations and it’s clear that the Class As are a very small part of the AM delivery system.

Local radio has been responding to the needs of their local service area with content that counts. Despite claims to the contrary, many Class As continue to offer syndicated programs, satellite-driven music formats that serve their licensed market, not the rural markets they once catered to. The Class As are now holding up these small-market, mostly independent, broadcasters by insisting their regional service is as important as local coverage. It just ain’t so. Across small towns and communities, local stations provide a service that has replaced any so-called coverage that a Class A station can give to that community. Listeners rely on their local radio stations.

The Class A channels are actually depriving small-market communities and residents who rely on local service and content as well as advertising benefits derived from these stations by insisting that their wide net of coverage is important. This super-coverage is not so super; and it’s only important to them and their corporate stockholders.

Nighttime service is awful for small-market radio, having to depart at sunset and sometimes as early at 4:30 p.m. Local stations sign off while the Class A stations bump them off the air; for what? Mainly “static” and no content that could possibly relate to the community served by the local stations.

The FCC should adopt rules to decrease current interference protections to expand AM stations’ local coverage both day and night in markets everywhere.

The author is co-owner of WRSO(AM) in Orlando, Fla.

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