The Federal Communications Commission will allow U.S. AM radio station owners to convert their stations to all-digital HD Radio transmissions if they choose to do so.
The commission voted unanimously in favor today at its October open meeting.
Industry observers will be watching to see if any owners large or small take this step. All HD Radio receivers in the market are capable of receiving the MA3 signals; but making this switch would end analog listening on the given frequency.
The order establishes technical rules to protect existing stations from interference. Stations that want to convert will be required to notify the FCC and the public 30 days in advance.
“These stations must provide at least one free over-the-air digital programming stream that is comparable to or better in audio quality than a standard analog broadcast,” the FCC wrote in a summary. “They also must continue to participate in the Emergency Alert System. The order envisions that AM broadcasters will decide whether to convert to all-digital operation based on the conditions in their respective markets.”
The Texas broadcaster who pushed the FCC to allow voluntary all-digital transmission on the AM band has said this would be a “uniquely positive” one in AM revitalization.
Ben Downs, VP/GM of Bryan Broadcasting in Texas, petitioned the FCC in March 2019 to make this move. “The option to convert to all-digital isn’t a magic wand for an AM station, but it is a tool we can use to compete,” he told Radio World today in expectation of the vote to approve. “Those of us with AM stations have been limited to spoken word and niche formats because AM is just not suitable for mass appeal music formats. This changes that fact, and gives us many more options.”
He said there are 70 million radios in the marketplace that will receive AM digital now.
“I’m certainly happy about this. For AM stations that couldn’t find spectrum for a cross-band translator, this is a great option. It will probably benefit large markets with a crowded radio dial that still have the need to compete using an AM signal.”
This change is the latest in a series of “revitalization” steps that the commission has taken to help broadcasters that operate in the AM band, which is troubled by declining listenership, noise and changing consumer habits.
As we’ve reported, three AM stations have received experimental authority to operate in all-digital. Hubbard’s WWFD in Frederick, Md., has actively promoted the format and made presentations about its experiences. Another, WIOE in Ft. Wayne, Ind., experimented but ended its digital transmissions. A third, WTLC in Indianapolis, owned by Urban One, wanted to rebroadcast multicast channels of the AM test signal over FM translators, but the commission didn’t allow that.
The National Association of Broadcasters praised the decision. “Radio broadcasters are grateful to Chairman Pai for championing AM radio during his tenure at the FCC and thank him for successfully implementing policies to help revitalize AM stations.”
[Take a closer look at details of the order and hear what Ben Downs is planning to do with his own AM stations. Read that here.]