Translator Q&A: Let’s Get Specific

The author responds to questions raised by our series on FM translators
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Several weeks ago, Radio World carried a four-part series on FM translators, looking at the basic FCC regulatory aspects of FM translator stations, the perspective of an FM translator licensee carrying an AM station or an HD sub-channel, the challenges an AM station licensee faces in acquiring an FM translator and the issues full-service stations may have with possible FM translator interference. The series is available at www.radioworld.com/translators.

The series provoked questions and comments from Radio World readers. In this wrapup, let’s take a look at several aspects of FM translators in more detail.

FEEDING THE TRANSLATOR

The first in the series included a photo of an FM translator with no AM or FM receiver visible in the rack. A reader asked what was feeding the translator, apparently assuming that FM translators must be fed with over-the-air signals.

With an in-contour fill-in FM translator carrying either an FM, FM HD sub-channel or AM station, there is no FCC requirement that the FM translator be fed by an off-the-air signal. Rather, the broadcast programming of the primary station can be fed to the FM translator by whatever means is the most efficient, including the use of an STL, a hard wire or the Internet.

Conversely, if the FM translator is a commercial out-of-contour non-fill-in translator, it may only be fed by an off-the-air signal of the FM primary station. Out-of-contour AM carriage is not allowed by the FCC’s rules. Therefore, even though not stated in the photo’s caption, the photo must have shown an in-contour fill-in translator being fed by a means other than an over-the-air signal.

COMMERCIAL VS. NONCOMMERCIAL

Another reader asked if there is a limitation on ownership, specifically whether a commercial broadcaster could own a noncom FM translator.

This is where the FCC’s transmitter rules depart from those for full-service AM and FM stations. Unlike full-service FM stations in which a noncommercial station must be owned by a noncommercial entity, the commercial or noncommercial status of an FM translator is entirely dependent upon the primary station carried.

If an FM translator is carrying a noncommercial educational station, the FM translator is regarded as noncommercial but there is no restriction upon who may own the FM translator. The noncommercial translator may be owned by an individual, a commercial entity or a noncommercial entity.

Equally important, the restrictions on receipt of compensation for out-of-contour non-fill-in carriage do not apply to noncommercial FM translators. Therefore, it is legal for an individual or an entity — even though he, she or it may have broadcast station interests — to own an out-of-contour non-fill-in FM translator that carries an NCE station as its primary station.

Conversely, an individual or entity that has attributable interests in any commercial FM broadcast station cannot own or have any relationship whatsoever with an out-of-contour non-fill-in commercial FM translator. This difference in the FCC’s rules does not alter the requirement that only non-commercial FM translators operate in the 88–92 MHz reserved portion of the FM band.

HD SUB-CHANNEL CARRIAGE

We also heard a question about re-broadcasting HD sub-channels (an HD2 or HD3 channel) on an out-of-contour non-fill-in basis. The reader asked about leasing an HD sub-channel on a full-power station and running it on his out-of-contour translator. Would FCC’s rules permit it?

The re-broadcasting of HD sub-channels is not addressed specifically in the FCC’s rules. The presumption is that the same rules that apply to primary station carriage of the main analog FM channel apply to the carriage of an HD sub-channel.

Therefore, while broadcasting an HD-sub-channel on a non-fill-in basis would appear to be acceptable, the same rules limiting compensation and relationships for the carriage of out-of-contour commercial stations would apply. If there is any financial or other relationship whatsoever between an out-of-contour non-fill-in FM translator and the HD sub-channel, it would not be allowed if a commercial HD sub-channel is being carried as the primary station.

With the reader’s situation in which an out-of-contour HD sub-channel is leased, unless it is the HD sub-channel of an NCE station, the prohibition on relationships between FM translators and out-of-contour commercial primary stations would ban the HD sub-channel carriage on the FM translator.

SEQUENTIAL MOVES

The subject of sequential translator moves came up, with the question of whether FCC decisions limiting FM translator moves are made at the Audio Division staff level or by the full commission. Readers also asked what is the maximum number of transmitter site hops that will be allowed for an FM translator, and what rule the FCC uses as its basis for authority to restrict moves of FM translators.

Sequential transmitter site moves of FM translators is a legal and procedural area fraught with uncertainty. The FCC appears to recognize that it has scant authority to limit the number of FM translator moves. The legal precedent for translator move limitations was largely manufactured by the Audio Division and then repeated by the commission by pronouncing as a matter of policy that, although sequential moves may not be contrary to its rules, the rules were not intended to allow for sequential moves.

The specifics of how many, if any, sequential moves the FCC will allow an FM translator is unclear. Awhile back, the Audio Division routinely was granting 15 or more sequential moves. Today, FM translator operators consider it lucky if the Audio Division grants in excess of two.

As a practical matter, I believe there is little public interest reason for the FCC to bar sequential or significant moves of FM translators. FM translators are not based upon Section 307(b) to serve specific communities but rather exist for the FCC-rule-stated purpose of “retransmitting the signals of an AM or FM broadcast station … in order to provide broadcast service to the general public.”

The public interest is well-served when FM translator stations provide service from the primary station to the public where it is most needed. Yet, in recent years, the FCC has imposed artificial non-rule based restraints upon moves of FM translators, which ultimately harm the public’s satisfactory reception of radio broadcasting signals.

AM CARRIAGE ON FM TRANSLATORS

Alluding to the subject of AM revitalization and FM translators, a reader commented that he personally felt that AM stations should not be granted FM translators at all, observing that to do so is “essentially giving up on AM.”

In a 2012 Radio World article that I co-wrote with the Cromwell Group’s Bud Walters (see (www.radioworld.com/wtcj), we observed that “[t]here are two ways to look at AM revitalization. One way is to think about just the AM technical facility and what can be done to make that facility sound better, be better received and be more listenable. The other way to look at AM revitalization is to think about what can be done to enhance the service to the community now provided by AM stations.”

The commenter, who is against AM stations being carried on FM translators, evidently falls into the former camp of believing that the public interest is best served by saving the AM technical facility. With the exception of FM translators, however, there are few immediately implementable AM revitalization technical solutions that will provide widespread benefit. FM translators re-broadcasting AM stations have dramatically enhanced both the service and future prospects of many AM stations. No other AM revitalization proposal carries with it the significant degree of benefit provided by an FM translator.

Another reader laments that he fails to “share the optimism for [FCC AM revitalization] action soon on translators.” Indeed, AM broadcasters were encouraged in 2013 by statements from Audio Division officials that an AM-only window for FM translator applications would be opened by the “end of the year.” Such an AM translator window was thought by the FCC’s Audio Division to negate the need for more dramatic AM relief such as the now-denied Tell City Waiver. The waiver was a proposed marketplace solution that would have allowed AM broadcasters to acquire and significantly move FM translators.

But we are now well into 2015 without any indication that such a filing window will open soon. So in response to the commenter, yes, a degree of AM revitalization pessimism may be in order.

ARE MHZ STILL PERTINENT?

Finally, a reader in Atlanta wonders “why these MHz are still pertinent,” as he listens to his favorite radio show via Internet streaming.

There is no question but that new radio programming transmission capabilities are available to the public. More will be available in the future with LTE broadcast and ATSC 3.0 audio being two huge potential radio disrupters. But radio has survived TV, CB, cassettes and satellite radio, and today continues to survive in our IP-centric world.

Leaps in technology impact both radio transmission methods as well as the creation of programming. Having the entirety of a radio station’s programming on a hard drive the size of a deck of cards was unthinkable several decades ago. As long as AM and FM radio receivers are ubiquitous, radio broadcasting will survive. FM translators fulfill the important role of enhancing radio reception service to the listening public and are therefore very much part of radio’s future.

John F. Garziglia is a veteran radio and television attorney offering assistance in all areas of Federal Communications Commission law in the Washington, D.C., offices of Womble Carlyle. For other publications, see listings at www.linkedin.com/in/johngarziglia.

Comment on this or any story. Write toradioworld@nbmedia.com with Letter to the Editor in the subject field.

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FM Translators

In this four-part series, John Garziglia explores FCC regulatory aspects of FM translator stations from various relevant perspectives