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Urban One Disappointed by FCC Action on AM Multicasts

Liggins: “Everyone says they want to save AM; now here is a chance to do it”

WTLC The Light logo
If and when it proceeds with the test, WTLC would be the second full-time all-digital test station on the AM band in the United States.

An AM radio station in Indianapolis has received permission to operate experimentally using all-digital transmission; it would be the second such full-time test station in the United States.

But the experiment may never take place.

Station owner Urban One is not happy that the Federal Communications Commission approved only part of its request. The commission did not allow the company to rebroadcast digital multicasts of the AM test station over two analog FM translators.

In response, Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins III told Radio World, “AM radio is at best beyond challenged, and at worst headed towards extinction. Any digital applications that improve coverage and the ability to deliver multiple streams of content is critical to AM’s survival.”

He said the fact that FM digital allows the ability to broadcast multiple sources of content over translators has been a key use for FM digital. “That ability is even more critical to the survival of the AM spectrum. I hope the FCC will allow this key use of AM digital technology in our quest for experimental authority. Everyone says they want to save AM; now here is a chance to do it.”

The Story til Now

The station in question is WTLC in Indianapolis, located in Nielsen market #25.

Urban One asked for permission to use the MA3 mode of HD Radio to test all-digital operation there. (FCC rules currently do not allow all-digital operation on either AM or FM, though the commission has been considering lifting that restriction for AM stations, and many in the broadcast industry have expressed support of that idea including the National Association of Broadcasters.)

To continue serving local listeners during its test, WTLC proposed that two FM translators associated with WTLC would continue to operate in analog — an important consideration since all-digital testing means listeners with analog receivers would no longer be able to hear the AM signal.

The FCC accepted all of the above and it notified Urban One of that in a letter in May.

However, it did not approve the company’s request that multicast channels of the AM test signal be rebroadcast over those two FM translators. And therein lies the rub.

Urban One had hoped that the project would be a logical “next step” to the work done at Hubbard’s WWFD in Maryland. The potential use of multicast channels in AM digital has taken on a higher profile since WWFD tested an HD-2 multicast in December, as we’ve reported.

“WTLC will introduce an HD Radio MA3 multicast feature into a top 50 Nielsen radio market with consequent publicity to gauge listener interest in the purchase of AM multicast receivers,” Urban One wrote in its application.

“As technology is fast-moving and radio receivers for 2022 and beyond are now being designed, new AM receivers incorporating the reception of HD Radio MA3 multicast subchannels may depend upon concrete indications from the FCC that it will authorize this multicast mode, and from broadcasters that they will utilize this multicast capability.”

But the FCC staff apparently didn’t buy into this idea, at least not yet — perhaps feeling that the question of allowing all-digital AM stations and the question of using such stations for a new kind of translator “play” deserve separate consideration. This is speculation because the commission’s only comment on the matter was brief: “At this point we are not authorizing the rebroadcast of the (second) multicast channel on an FM translator station,” wrote James Bradshaw, senior deputy chief of the Audio Division, in the same letter.

Alfred C. Liggins III of Urban One
CEO Alfred C. Liggins III told Radio World, “Everyone says they want to save AM; now here is a chance to do it.”

Urban One attorney John Garziglia of Womble Bond Dickinson told Radio World that the company had engaged in “several in-depth discussions” with Audio Division officials ahead of the filing and explained its intentions, including the use of translators to rebroadcast multicast channels in the same way that FM stations can. He said Audio Division officials had “expressed optimism” that the request would be favorably received.

Only after the filing was made, he said, did the staff say it would not allow the AM multicast channel to be carried on an FM translator. Garziglia said Urban One would not would have asked in the first place had it not received informal assurances that the proposal as written would be favorably considered.

He also said that Urban One subsequently told the FCC it would not proceed — “it simply does not work for WTLC as a business matter” — but that the commission issued its partial approval anyway.

Radio World invited comment Tuesday from the FCC and will report any reply.

“Chicken and Egg”

Garziglia expanded on Urban One’s thinking in his comments to Radio World: “Unlike HD sub-channels, which are a reality, the HD Radio digital multicast channel chipset is being just being introduced. Going forward, it will be a ‘chicken or egg’ situation — multicast capability will not be included by consumer receiver manufacturers because they are not sure that consumers want this feature, and consumers will not ask for this feature because they are unaware that it exists.”

Urban One, he said, “was trying to take a lead, consistent with its business responsibilities, to expend the funds and efforts to introduce AM HD Radio digital multicast programming to the public, and to enable receiver testing of the AM MA3 multicast technology by manufacturers.”

Without the ability to simulcast the AM HD Radio digital multicast programming on an FM translator, he said, “The public will never know that the AM digital multicast programming is there. In addition, the purpose of introducing AM multicast capabilities to the public so that the public will demand such receivers is lost.”

He said the company saw a business benefit of serving the public with two AM multicast streams of programming; but without the multicast carriage, “it would be a losing business proposition, a consideration of which is often overlooked by the FCC but is vitally important to radio broadcasters.”

He concluded, “Unfortunately, at least at this point, the FCC is an obstruction, rather than a forward-looking champion of the radio listening public” in failing to approve the authority.

Garziglia said Urban One intends to seek an audience with Chairman Ajit Pai in the hope that his office can encourage the Audio Division “to take the wider policy view” — that the introduction of AM digital multicast broadcasts carried by FM translators “will be good for the public, good for the future of radio broadcasting, and good for the FCC in its encouragement of diverse programming.”

An engineer with a keen interest in all this is Dave Kolesar, who runs the first digital AM test station, Hubbard station WWFD. “I think the FCC won’t grant a translator to an HD2 operating under experimental authority,” he told Radio World on Wednesday. “If the MA3 NPRM is approved, and an HD2 is transmitted as part of regular, licensed operation, then the FCC will grant a translator. That’s just my gut feeling; I should say that I don’t have any ‘inside’ perspective.”

Kolesar speculated that the FCC might be waiting for a receiver on the market that can pick up an AM HD2. “That way, it’s truly a broadcast, and a cross-service translator could be used to promote that.”

Urban One station WTLC is a Class B AM on 1310 kHz with 5 kilowatts daytime and 1 kW nighttime directional. Branded “AM 1310 The Light,” its format is inspiration and praise. The test would be in cooperation with Xperi and Nautel, both of which supported the request and are also involved in the first experimental station, Hubbard’s WWFD in Frederick, Md.

The testing would use a Nautel NX5 transmitter with NX HD upgrade, Exgine and HDMC+, operating in Xperi’s HD Radio MA3 all-digital mode broadcasting both a digital main channel and a digital multicast channel.

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