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“iHeart Is Still Focused on AM as a Medium”

Littlejohn and Mullinax describe recent projects to protect and extend its investment

At a time where the viability of the U.S. AM broadcast band has come under the microscope, what’s the prevailing attitude of iHeartMedia and the 250 AM properties it owns and operates? 

Continue to invest, says Jeff Littlejohn.

iHeartMedia’s Randy Mullinax, Nic Blomstrand, James Gay and Oscar Franco are shown during the WIOD(AM) project.

“iHeart is still focused on AM radio as a medium,” said the company’s executive vice president of engineering and systems integration. “We see the importance AM has not only as an entertainment medium, but for news and information.” 

Among other things, Littlejohn strongly believes in AM’s importance for emergency weather coverage. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in South Florida. 

In addition to being an iconic AM signal dating to the 1920s, iHeartMedia’s news/talk 610 WIOD in Miami has received notoriety and awards — including regional recognition from the Associated Press — for its breaking news and weather coverage, notably during Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Wilma. 

Service during and after emergencies is one reason the Federal Emergency Management Agency values the role of AM stations.

Antwane Johnson, FEMA’s director of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), said, “People need to be made aware of threats, hazards and alerts while they are traveling. AM radio has been tested over and over during the most devastating natural disasters, and has withstood them all.” 

RF site project

WIOD’s current transmitter site is in an inundation zone in North Bay Village on Biscayne Bay, risking transmission failure during any flooding event. The site is also just two blocks from a 22-story condominium, with concrete and steel almost in WIOD’s nearfield array, which could cause signal degradation. 

In 2017 iHeart embarked on a project to move the WIOD site about 15 miles to Bird Drive Basin, just east of Everglades National Park along Krome Avenue. 

Randy Mullinax is a leader of iHeartMedia’s engineering Tiger Team, which provides support to new buildouts and maintains existing RF sites. He has been at the center of the WIOD move. 

“The (new) location in a low-lying, wetlands area is good for propagation, and with a cardioid transmitting pattern, we’d end up sending most of the signal over Miami-Dade and Broward counties,” Mullinax said. 

The project encountered several challenges. “Plowing radials into this area is extremely difficult,” Mullinax said, with crews encountering as much as five feet of muck in some areas and caprock boulders just below the surface in others. The COVID-19 pandemic raised supply chain issues, price escalations and closer scrutiny of build permits. 

Crews hydro-excavated a pit for the transmission, sample and control lines for two stations added to the Houston site. Sample lines are equal length per the MoM model; excess lengths are coiled and buried to assure that lines stretch or shrink consistently from temperature changes. The crew then shoveled sand into crevices by hand prior to dumping, to keep lines in place and avoid kinking under the weight.

Ultimately, Mullinax was able to proceed thanks in part to a conservation easement via the South Florida Water District, allowing iHeart to build out its facility.
The WIOD buildout uses a Nautel NX50 transmitter, slated to operate 50 kW from a directional four-tower array during the day, with 20 kW at night from a slightly different pattern. 

SWE Services erected the towers and installed the ground system. Ron Rackley, prior to his death, was consulted on the filtering system. The site will use Orban audio processing and a Burk Technology facility remote control. Its antenna control system is from Tunwall Radio while WIOD’s phasing cabinets are from Kintronic Labs.

A 300-ton crane was needed to stack the Miami towers. “It was fun to watch the crew use another 100-ton crane to assemble the larger one,” said Nic Blomstrand.

Persevering through the hurdles, Mullinax expects the new site to be live by the start of the peak hurricane season in August. 

“We know that listeners depend on stations like WIOD, so we are committed to thoughtful investment that ensures these stations will be reliable in the worst of conditions.,” he said. 

Littlejohn sees WIOD as emblematic of the importance of the AM medium, as evidenced by studies showing spikes in AM listening when cellular service, for example, might be overloaded. 

“AM still has a really large audience,” he said. “As a company, we’re blessed with some really good signals — 1030 WBZ, 700 WLW, 1040 WHO as examples — and we’re committed to making improvements to others where we see a need.” 

iHeartMedia AM signals in Honolulu — 590 KSSK, 830 KHVH, 990 KIKI — will also undergo RF enhancements this year. 

Seeking more AMs

The company’s launch of BIN, the Black Information Network, in 2020 prompted it to seek several high-profile local marketing and asset purchase agreements, including at 1600 WWRL in New York, 1120 WUST in Washington, 1370 WQLL in Pikesville/Baltimore, Md., and 610 WTEL in Philadelphia. 

“With the launch of BIN, there was an obvious need to get coverage in several key markets. We specifically sought out AM signals as a way to accomplish the additional market coverage,” Littlejohn said. 

This commitment to AM is also in evidence in Houston. iHeart purchased 1320 KXYZ from Multicultural Radio Broadcasting. The station’s directional array sat on property considered valuable for industrial development. 

With MRB willing to sell the station but not the property, iHeart would immediately have to move the facilities. Mullinax’s expertise was instrumental in integrating KXYZ into a triplex AM project in the Houston market.

In fact, iHeartMedia’s KPRC at 950 in Houston was in the same situation as KXYZ, Mullinax said. 

“Its property was in a very industrial area near huge transmission lines and became a problematic site for us. We were already considering the possibility to diplex KPRC with KBME [790 AM, another owned station] right around the time the acquisition of KXYZ came about. We determined that not only would a triplex arrangement work, but an upgrade in signal would be achieved and valuable land freed up.”

iHeart’s Nic Blomstrand, Randy Mullinax, John McMartin, Rudy Rivas and Ronnie Williams get help from electrical contractor Hamker Enterprises to lift and install the ATU boxes onto the platforms in Miami. The boxes later were firmly anchored (with hurricanes in mind) and grounded.

iHeart made the decision first to diplex KXYZ with KPRC temporarily, at its legacy site, until the eight-tower KBME site could be built out to accommodate the two additional signals. Featuring Kintronic phasing cabinets and based on design consulting by the Carl T. Jones Corp., the project was completed this year.

Among other “firsts” in his career, Mullinax said, Houston was the first time he has used hydro excavation technology. “Whereas with a backhoe we may have dug through existing transmission lines, with the HydroVac, we were able to push water in the ground, and essentially dig without actually digging,” he said. 

The elevated transmitter building in Miami.

At the eight-tower triplex site, KBME runs 5 kW DA during the day and a separate 5 kW nighttime directional array. KPRC runs at 7 kW non-directional during the day and 4.3 kW via a nighttime directional array. KXYZ uses the same three-tower directional array during both day and night, 8.4 kW day and 2.8 kW night. 

KXYZ is using a new Nautel NX10 main transmitter with Harris DX-10 backup. Both KPRC and KBME have Harris DX-10 mains with Broadcast Electronics AM6A backup. The antenna control systems for all three stations were designed by Tunwall Radio.

“We’re very happy with the results in Houston,” Littlejohn said. “Not only did we save a signal [in KXYZ], but we improved coverage.”

The engineers signed the floor in Miami with the install date before placing one of the transmitters (as marked in the yellow tape). Two new Nautel NX50 transmitters are backed by a BE AM10A moved from the previous site for redundancy.

Littlejohn acknowledges the limitations in audio bandwidth with AM, and as such, the company’s approach is to focus modulation on the area the listener is most likely to receive it, between 0 and 5 kHz. 

“Environmental noise certainly wasn’t the issue in 1920 that it is today, and the simplicity of AM is both its strength and weakness. AM coverage is quite robust, but it is limited by physics by what you can do sometimes, so we try to make a tradeoff towards a long-term, high-quality operation.” 

iHeart also has implemented FM translators through the FCC’s AM revitalization docket to enhance coverage in urban cores and maintain listenership after dark, such as 850 KOA’s 94.1 in Denver, 700 WLW’s 94.5 in Cincinnati and 1100 WTAM’s 106.9 in Cleveland. Interestingly, Littlejohn sees evidence that new listeners are using these FM broadcasts as a gateway.

“In almost all cases, we’ve found that the discovery of programming on FM leads to listening on AM,” he said.

A drone photo shows the breadth and terrain of the WIOD site. The elevated transmitter building is at bottom center. Photo by Nic Blomstrand.

[Read iHeart’s comments to the FCC about proposals to eliminate FM ownership subcaps and the potential impact on AM stations.]