The prospect of allowing broadcasters to power down analog AM transmitters and leave just a digital-only signal as their replacement remains on the drawing board at the Federal Communications Commission. While the digital-only signal means stations that opt in would no longer be able to reach the vast majority of receivers in use today, the idea is getting wide backing from the radio industry. In comments filed in recent days, operators large and small have gone on record in support of the FCC taking the next step and advancing the proposal to a formal rulemaking.
The FCC has been accepting comments on a petition filed in March by a Texas broadcaster. Ben Downs, VP and general manager of the Bryan Broadcasting station, said giving stations the option of dropping their analog signal would provide struggling AM owners an “innovative tool” with which to compete. It was clear from the discussion panels at the 2019 NAB Show that it’s not such a far-fetched idea in the minds of many, Downs told Inside Radio. “I don’t think anyone questions the all-digital MA-3 option from a technical feasibility position anymore,” Downs said.
The biggest vote of support comes from the National Association of Broadcasters, which threw the weight of its members behind Downs’ proposal that the FCC should examine allowing digital-only AMs on a voluntary basis. “All-digital AM service will allow substantially improved sound quality that could help AM stations to retain and attract listeners in the increasingly competitive audio marketplace,” NAB said. The trade group said that AM radio audience share and advertising revenues “continue to wane” as a proliferation of fluorescent light bulbs, computer monitors, flat screen TVs, cell phone chargers and other devices have all contributed to a higher noise floor, causing “pervasive interference” to AMs. “Some auto manufacturers are simply excluding AM radio from their all-electric vehicle dashboard radios due to electromagnetic noise,” NAB says.
Hubbard Radio is also likely to play a pivotal role as it has owns the most recent test site of all-digital AM. Since last July adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD Frederick, MD (820) has been operating as a digital-only station. “Since that time, Hubbard has noticed significant improvement to WWFD’s audio quality,” the company tells the FCC, explaining the digital signal has been “much more robust” than when WWFD was running a hybrid setup that offered both analog and digital. And while the move has meant that analog radios can no longer receive WWFD, Hubbard says the feedback from listeners has been positive. That includes some listeners which is says weren’t aware they had receivers that were HD-capable. Hubbard is so pleased with how the WWFD experiment has gone that it says it supports the FCC allowing it on a more permanent basis. “Hubbard’s experience with WWFD has resulted in the company considering transitioning additional AM stations to all-digital broadcasting, once Hubbard is permitted to do so,” the company said.
Not surprisingly Xperi, the licensor of HD Radio, thinks its technology is worthy of standing on its own and it too is encouraging the FCC to take the next step to allow that to happen. “Over 50 million HD Radio receivers currently in the marketplace will support the AM all-digital functionality, including the digital audio program and accompanying program service data, from day one,” it says. Not only could all-digital AM revive the long-shelved idea of AM stereo, Xperi says, but it will also allow stations’ digital signals to carry metadata to receivers that will display information like program title, artist, a station’s logo or album cover images. It would also be able to play a role in offering more advance emergency alert messages such as offering evacuation maps or photos of missing persons.
Next Phase In AM Revitalization
For many broadcasters, all-digital AM is seen as the natural progression in the FCC’s ongoing effort to revitalize the AM dial. The Cromwell Group says allowing FM translators to simulcast was a “first step” and now those FMs will ensure that listeners can access the AM programming even if they own an analog-only receiver. “A next phase would be the conversion of AM station to all-digital,” it says.
Several small broadcasters are also voicing their support, including Choice Radio, Delta Radio Network, Miller Media Group, O-N Radio, SNE Broadcasting, SSR Communications, and Trignition Media. Even some operators without any AMs, like Blackbelt Broadcasting, say it’s an idea whose time has arrived. “The marketplace is becoming more difficult for small town broadcasters. This could mean the difference between an AM station staying on the air, or going dark,” it says. The California and Missouri state broadcast associations have also gone on record asking the FCC to advance the proposal.
Crawford Broadcasting has been operating most of its AMs in hybrid mode since 2003 and Director of Engineering Cris Alexander says a “resounding yes” would be their answer if they were given the chance to replace hybrid mode with digital-only signals. He tells the FCC they would certainly do so in some key markets. “The noise floor is now higher, incident and localized noise sources are more pervasive, and there are many more HD Radio equipped receivers now in the hands of listeners,” Alexander says. “All-digital AM broadcast represents a tool that we already have at our disposal.”
There’s no way to tell how many AMs would make the leap to digital-only. But the list of stations using digital radio currently stands at more than 2,300 on both the AM and FM dial. All major auto brands offer factory-installed HD Radio receivers, with HD Radio technology a standard feature in over 170 vehicle models. – Frank Saxe