AM radio dial

The new year may bring in a new type of AM radio station: the digital-only station. The new rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in October have been published in the Federal Register, clearing the way for the Media Bureau to begin authorizing AM stations to voluntarily power off their analog transmitter while maintaining a digital signal. The FCC, however, has not yet announced a specific date for when those rules will kick-in.

By a unanimous vote, the Commission on Oct. 27 approved a proposal that will allow broadcasters to voluntarily power down their analog AM transmitters and serve the public with only a digital signal. The FCC concluded digital would offer a “superior listening experience” for listeners compared to analog. Under the current rules, AM stations are authorized to operate with either pure analog signals or hybrid signals, which combine analog and digital signals. Yet the problem of interference remains.

One requirement that the FCC has included is the establishment of a 30-day waiting period after a station files a Form 335. Once those details are submitted, a station would not be able to make any changes to its planned technical operation. The 30-day notice would also be used to alert listeners with required on-air messages that, without a digital receiver, they will no longer be able to hear the station. As for what those listener notices must say, the FCC is deferring to stations, saying broadcasters have a “strong incentive” to promote the change using on-air and website announcements.

There are also several technical guidelines geared toward preventing digital AMs from interfering with analog stations. They include applying existing analog power limits to the digital broadcasts.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai said this week the digital option gives him optimism about AM radio’s ability to compete with other stations in the market. “Making the transition to all-digital service presents an important opportunity to preserve the AM service for future listeners. All-digital signals offer better audio quality, with greater coverage, than existing AM stations—whether analog or hybrid,” he said in a speech to The Media institute.

The Commission has been focused on finding ways to revitalize AM radio during Pai’s tenure. And one reason it has confidence that an all-digital signal can work is the experiment that has been running on Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD, Frederick, MD (820). WWFD has been operating as a digital-only AM station since July 2018 under experimental authority granted by the FCC. Hubbard has said that it has seen “significant improvement” in WWFD’s audio quality and that the digital signal has been “much more robust” than the analog signal. And while the move has meant that analog radios can no longer receive WWFD, Hubbard says the feedback from listeners has been positive.

Nine all-digital AM tests were previously conducted between 2012 and 2014, spanning a variety of station types and geographic locations.