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Downs Hails FCC Announcement on All-Digital AM

“All-digital isn’t the only answer to AM problems, but it is a piece of the solution”

The Texas broadcaster who pushed the FCC to allow voluntary all-digital transmission on the AM band in the United States is pleased that the commission plans to consider the idea.

“I think this is a uniquely positive step in AM revitalization,” said Ben Downs, reacting to news that the FCC will consider a proposal at its next meeting to take public comments and explore the implications. Downs is VP/GM of Bryan Broadcasting in Texas; he petitioned the FCC in March to initiate a proceeding to authorize the MA3 all-digital mode of HD Radio.

[Read: All-Digital on the AM Band? The FCC Might Allow It Soon]

“We’ve talked for years about the rise in the noise on the AM band and how the quality of receivers has declined. But this is the first time we’ve had a chance to directly resolve both of these issues,” Downs told Radio World in an email. “With the approval of AM all-digital, we have a technology that cleans up all the noise and hash we’ve been complaining about and sends an FM quality signal out of the speakers.”

Going all-digital would mean a station could not be heard on existing analog-only AM receivers. Downs said he recognizes that all-digital would not be the right choice for every station. “We asked for a voluntary standard because of that.”

But he said there are two circumstances where it makes a lot of sense.

One, he said, is an AM station competing with music that has an FM translator for “backup.”

“In that case, the station would be able to compete with high-quality audio while the translator covered listeners who only have analog radios.”

The other, he said, is a major-market station that wants to compete with music but hasn’t been able to break through the low-fidelity reality of AM radio receivers.

“Plus it would be nice to see title, artist and album on the AM dial just like our FM friends,” Downs said.

[Read Radio World’s recent ebook “What’s Ahead for All-Digital AM?”]

“There are enough HD Radios being driven around now that it makes sense for operators to think about this step. Every HD radio that’s been sold has the ability to receive AM all-digital. So do you take your chance with the 25% of cars with HD Radio or the shrinking percentage of people who listen to music on AM? It’s a market-based decision.”

Downs said he does not consider an all-digital option as the only answer to AM problems, but a piece of the solution. “And it directly impacts the problem we face on the AM band. I’m glad the FCC realized that AM radio just wants a level playing field. This coming vote allowing all-digital AM is a chance to give AM operators a tool to compete.”