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Translators Getting Their Moment in the Sun

A Q&A with the National Translator Association chief Charles Keiler

It’s been a busy season for the National Translator Association: fielding calls, lobbying on Capitol Hill, and calling again on the Federal Communications Commission to open a series of translator filing windows that would enhance direct broadcast service across the U.S.

Radio World spoke with NTA Vice President of Audio and Radio Charles “Ched” Keiler, who also serves as lead principal with E Three, a broadcast engineering firm. Founded in the 1960s, NTA represents TV and FM translator licensees, and holds an annual meeting each year to discuss key issues affecting translators. The 2016 event will be held in May in Spokane, Wash.

Radio World: Tell us about the NTA.
Charles Keiler: The National Translator Association is a national not-for-profit organization that supports the use of translators for the enhancement of free over-the-air broadcast signals originating from broadcast stations. This would include both the radio and television broadcast stations. 

More specifically, with regards to radio broadcast stations, radio translators can be used to supplement the broadcast of AM, FM and FM HD stations throughout the FM broadcast band. Translators greatly benefit the broadcast industry and NTA wants to make sure that Congress, the Federal Communication Commission and the public are aware of these benefits. NTA regularly sends personnel to Washington to lobby on behalf of the translators and the broadcast industry for the public benefit.

RW: What was the organization’s take on the recently released AM revitalization order, particularly as it relates to translators?
Keiler: NTA, along with most of the rest of the broadcast community, was hoping to have an AM-only filing window in place before now, as well as a general open filing window for translators for all broadcasters. We support what the FCC stated in its recent Report and Order on the subject and are looking forward to the start of the 250-mile waiver process filing window followed by an AM-only translator filing window. The 250-mile waiver process will give many stations more of a chance to employ the use of translators to enhance their coverage using their existing AM station. We certainly support this idea and the thought of the FCC hosting more frequent filing windows as these actions benefits both the broadcaster and the public.

RW: Do you feel the 250-mile rule will meet the translator needs of AM radio stations?
Keiler: The 250-mile relocation waiver was approved a short time ago, and wasn’t even on the drawing board a couple of months ago. The 250 waiver is a one-time short-term fix. There are a lot of others within the broadcast community that feel that translators are not a cure all for what ails the AM broadcasters. We tend to agree to a point, but if translators can be used to enhance the coverage of an AM station, then we are in support of it. I know from personal experience that translators have changed the outlook for many AM broadcasters in which I was personally involved with. We do need to consider what happens to the AM broadcast band after this filing window.

RW: Do you have any concerns about the translator language as it’s written in the AM order?
Keiler: I do know that a number of broadcasters are looking at translators right now to see what is available in the markets that they serve. It’s going to take time for them to negotiate and acquire a translator and then seek out an appropriate tower site to place the translator on to enhance their coverage.

It’s possible that the window might not be long enough, especially if someone has to go out and buy a translator and then perform a number of engineering steps that would be necessary to move the translator in order to make it operational for their needs. In many cases, I find that the first attempt to acquire a tower site is not successful for any number of reasons. This is one of many reasons that we still would like the commission to keep in place other tools like the Mattoon waivers that have been and can be useful in the future in the relocation of translators after the 250-mile waiver expires. Perhaps the commission should reconsider not allowing the 250-mile waiver to expire as it is currently set to do.

RW: You also support TV translator licensees. What are your priorities for that group?
Keiler: With respect to television translators and the incentive auction, if events proceed the way the commission envisions, there’s going to be a tremendous consolidation of the 600 MHz band and that means a tremendous consolidation of free over-the-air television as we have known it for the last 60 years. A lot of translators, LPTV and some Class A television stations are going to be seriously affected as they are not protected from this process. As a result, they could and will likely go off the air along with a number of other broadcasters. NTA has asked the commission to protect these stations and we will seek compensation for the relocation of these and other displaced translators along with any modifications that might be needed to allow these translators to be relocated and remain operational, and allow continuous service in the public interest.

RW: How does the NTA feel about the recent expansion of LPFM, which some view as being at the expense of translators?
Keiler: In 2010 Congress passed the Local Radio Community Act. The act explicitly states that translators and LPFM should be on an equal playing field. In order for this to happen, some of the technical rules need to be melded together so that the limited radio frequency spectrum can be allocated fairly. For example, filing windows should occur simultaneously. This is not as easy as it sounds to accomplish.

It would be to the publics’, as well as broadcasters’, benefit that when there is a filing window, it would be a window that would be equal to all. If you have a window for only LPFMs, then translators are left out of opportunities that may only exist at that time; and vice-versa for LPFMs. We have not had a translator filing window since 2003. The best process would be to have more frequent and predictable filing windows and treat all services as the same.

RW: Can you talk about the role that translators have played in HD Radio?
Keiler: FM HD Radio is composed of a conventional analog signal with digital sideband that is capable of carrying multiple streams of audio simultaneously. Back in 2010, the FCC allowed translators to rebroadcast those digital multiple streams of audio, which are called digital broadcast minor channels, via translators. A number of broadcasters have taken advantage of the use of these digital minor channels to extend unique broadcast to the public and expand their public service with their existing single station. A broadcaster is allowed to rebroadcast these digital minor channels on an analog translator within their service contour. This essentially means that a single broadcaster can have multiple analog broadcasts throughout the FM band by the use of their digital minor channels and analog translators. Many broadcasters have taken advantage of this opportunity.

RW: What is one aspect that you’d like the radio industry to understand about translator technologies?
Keiler: With respect to AM broadcasters, translators can help eliminate issues that cause the public to seek other stations in the FM band, such as noise and interference issues along with emissions from low-frequency noise sources — issues in which the FCC has not thoroughly addressed as of this time. I know that for many broadcasters who have installed translators with their AM stations, they are very pleased with the results. The AM band offers a unique public benefit as Commissioner [Ajit] Pai has stated so eloquently. It offers unique programming that is not found elsewhere. While translators will benefit AM stations, they are not a cure-all for all the issues that remain within the AM band, and we should not stop trying to improve and revitalize the AM broadcast service.

RW: What would you like the industry to understand about the NTA and its goals?
Keiler: The National Translator Association’s entire focus is on both television and FM radio translators, and on translator benefits to the public. We would like to invite all translator owners along with other interested parties to become members and support the National Translator Association.

RW: NTA must be pleased to see translators being considered in such a public, positive way.
Keiler: It’s nice to see how translators can benefit broadcasters and the public. The family living within a small rural community benefits from obtaining broadcast services that would not be available to that family or the community, which in turn, educates and enlightens that community for the good of [the whole]. Large metropolitan areas benefit from enhanced broadcast coverage. Ethnic communities within large metropolitan areas benefit from broadcast specifically geared towards their ethnic believes and customs. Translators are a great and not always appreciated benefit to the public interest for more reasons than I have been able to enumerate here.

Related: NTA Asks for Translator Filing Window (Oct. 2015)