AM radio dial

The Federal Communications Commission continues to try threading the needle of protecting the large coverage areas of Class A 50,000-watt AM stations while at the same time allowing the vast majority of AMs to increase their nighttime service area. In its latest proposal released for public comment, the FCC acknowledges broadcasters are still split and suggests one solution may be to offer different interference protections for day and night.

Critics of scaling back the reach of so-called clear channel AMs have argued it would do “significant harm” to the AM band, not only through the creation of “small islands of service in a sea of interference” but also undercutting the vital role Class A stations play during a national emergency. But those arguments may not hold as much sway as they once did at the Commission as chair Ajit Pai looks to advance the AM Revitalization Initiative beyond just the licensing of FM translators.

“We recognize the value of wide-area service but, at the same time, commenters suggest that much of the wide-area service that was once the exclusive province of Class A AM stations has been supplanted by FM stations, satellite radio, and other media,” the Commission said in a rulemaking proposal that secured the backing of all four commissioners. The document notes the deep disagreement that exists between those who claim distant AM stations serve a diminishing role in local communities and those who assert significant continued demand for the programming carried by the big AMs, which often includes conservative talk and sports. It also notes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has raised concerns about diminishing the reach of emergency messages carried by the Class As.

In an effort to find some common ground, the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket No. 13-249) offers a menu type of an approach as a possible way forward. It asks broadcasters and FEMA to offer feedback on what it’s serving up with some components offering less protection for Class A stations than others.

Here are the specifics of what the FCC is proposing:

Daytime Hours:

Class A AM stations would be protected to their 0.5 mV/m daytime groundwave contour, from both co-channel and first-adjacent channel stations.

Critical Hours:

  • Alternative 1: During critical hours, Class A AM stations are afforded no protection from other AM stations; or
  • Alternative 2: During critical hours, Class A AM stations are protected to their 0.5 mV/m groundwave contour.

Nighttime Hours:

  • Alternative 1: During nighttime hours, there may be no overlap between a Class A AM station’s 0.5 mV/m nighttime groundwave contour and any interfering AM station’s 0.025 mV/m 10 percent skywave contour (calculated using the single station method); or
  • Alternative 2: During nighttime hours, Class A AM stations are protected from other AM stations in the same manner as Class B AM stations are protected, that is, interference may not be increased above the greater of the 0.5 mV/m nighttime groundwave contour or the 50% exclusion RSS NIF level (calculated using the multiple station method).

“Essentially, we request that commenters consider the proposed revisions to AM station protection in terms of a new system designed to maximize local radio service without unduly jeopardizing wide-area service,” the Commission said in the proposal. It is also looking for specific ways to quantify the claimed costs and benefits of the alternative approaches being examined. That includes “realistic estimates” of the potential listeners that AM stations would be able to reach, especially at nighttime, if the rule changes are made. The Commission also seeks similar “realistic estimates” on how many listeners other stations could lose.

Smaller Signals, Smaller AM Audiences

The AM Radio Preservation Alliance, a group formed two years ago by more than a dozen of the biggest radio groups who also own nearly all of the 60 clear channel AMs, has argued those big-signaled stations attract “nearly 30% of national AM band listening, and [drive] more of the public to the AM dial.” The Alliance compared shrinking the size of clear channel AM audiences to the loss of foot traffic driven to a local shopping mall when the big department store closes its doors.

A separate analysis conducted by iHeartMedia in 2015 showed that the typical clear channel AM would lose about 600,000 listeners, accounting for more than three million hours of listening per week. It argued that would push even more listeners to the FM dial and cost stations advertising dollars since national and regional advertisers specifically seek out the clear channel stations for their multistate coverage, especially at night. In a meeting with the FCC, iHeartMedia executive VP of engineering Jeff Littlejohn said the loss of listeners outside the standard metro area would undercut the profitability of Class A stations and hurt their ability to produce high quality programming. He said the bigger culprit for smaller AM listening areas isn’t clear channel stations, but rather a range of electronic devices in the market today.

During a speech to the Michigan Association of Broadcasters in August, Pai agreed the rules governing Class A stations “should reflect the reality of the current noise floor” but Pai also said he believed those regulations should “appropriately balance the interests” of people who want to hear their smaller local AMs with those who want to listen to distant stations.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly thinks that the proposed reduction of Class A stations’ protections at night would seem to represent a “more realistic” view of the listenable signal of a clear channel AM station, and therefore reflect where actual listeners can be found. He also acknowledges that engineering data shows current noise conditions under the current contour protections means some other AMs can barely be heard after dark.

“I hope the record will reflect a consensus by engineers on how far a listenable signal extends,” O’Rielly said in a statement. “I will be hesitant to support a final order on this proposal without such consensus.” He said he would be more “sympathetic” to the proposed changes if there were assurances the new rules wouldn’t alter the realistic reach or expectations of those holding existing licenses. That is likely to be a difficult request of owners of clear channel AMs. For now, O’Rielly said he was willing to vote “yes” in order to allow the rulemaking to move forward.