Cumulus Media is giving all-digital AM a go by launching Digital AM 1230 HD WFAS(AM) in White Plains, N.Y., on Monday. The station is just north of New York City and can be heard in the northern suburbs of what is the top media market in the United States.
The 1,000 watt AM station, which is also changing to an all-news/talk format on Monday, has been informing listeners of the pending change on its website. Once WFAS switches to all-digital operations, only radios equipped with HD Radio technology will be able to receive the radio station. WFAS will no longer be available on analog-only radio, according to its website.
Conrad Trautmann, SVP, technology and operations for Cumulus Media, led the all-digital conversion process for the broadcaster and said a lot of technical consideration went into the project beginning with the existing tower.
“In order to run digital bandwidth through an AM antenna you need the antenna optimized. We worked with Carl T. Jones [a consulting engineering firm] to redesign the existing antenna so it would support running IBOC HD Radio,” Trautmann said.
The WFAS antenna is a “folded unipole, so it’s a grounded 450-foot tower with a skirt and the skirt stood 16 inches off the tower,” Trautmann said. “However, the modeling we did showed the skirt had to be 36 inches off the tower. That meant buying all the components and parts to stand it off further.”
It was also determined the tuning network in the antenna tuning unit was no longer usable for the broadband signal, he said, and had to be redesigned. “We ordered all the parts from Kintronic. We basically rebuilt the ATU at the base of the tower.”
The all-digital station will use a new Nautel NX3 all-digital transmitter and a Telos Omnia.9 audio processor with HD output, Trautmann said.
Cumulus engineering staff spent part the week testing the all-digital signal and was “very satisfied with the results,” Trautmann says. The station’s website has been advising listeners of the coming changes and touting the advantages of all-digital AM: “Broadcasting in digital can eliminate static and interference and improve sound quality to equal FM radio. In addition, it can extend the range for clear AM reception.”
“In analog we typically had about 15 miles of Grade A signal, or city grade signal. WFAS is only 1,000 watts. On the drive testing we did with the all-digital signal it is solid all to the way 25-mile mark. So it seems we have added 10 miles of radius to the signal, which results in quite a bit of population coverage in the northern suburbs of New York City,” Trautmann says.
That increased signal reach will mean more penetration into the Bronx and Queens and the northern tip of Manhattan, he said, “but it’s by no means a New York City signal.” In addition, the test signal sounded like FM, Trautmann says, with “all the lows and highs. And it’s louder on the dial than the other AMs.”
The radio station is telling listeners they can find the station on Monday using an HD Radio-capable receiver, using the online stream or via its mobile app on a tablet or smartphone.
Trautmann, who had help on the project from Bud Williamson from Digital Radio Engineering, says Cumulus had been looking for a good candidate to experiment with all-digital AM and WFAS was chosen since it “wasn’t getting any ratings and not generating much revenue.”
WFAS featured the CBS Sports Radio Network prior to its Monday launch of all-digital. The station will now offer all talk programming, including “The Dan Bongino Show,” which debuts Monday on the Cumulus owned Westwood One.
Trautmann says Cumulus wants to see how WFAS performs before it commits to any more all-digital AM conversions. The project does coincide with Thursday’s announcement that Cumulus is partnering with Xperi’s DTS AutoStage connected car platform. The broadcaster says it will integrate its 415 radio stations into the hybrid radio system available on Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles.
“We are really hoping to see if the hybrid radio component of this becomes beneficial. If we get people to tune in and then when they get out of signal range have the car radio switch to the stream then we can demonstrate how AM radio can sound as good as any other platform. The switching from the over the air to the stream is really critical for that,” Trautmann said.
WFAS appears to be the third radio station in the country to convert to all-digital AM since the FCC authorized AM radio stations to do so. WWFD(AM) in Frederick, Md., and WMGG(AM) in Tampa, Fla., are the others.