FCC 375

Another FM translator record has been set and it assuredly won’t be the last. The Federal Communications Commission reports there were a record 7,604 FM translators and boosters licensed as of March 31. That’s up 2% compared to a year ago, with that figure certain to climb higher during the next few months as the FCC begins awarding licenses to broadcasters following several recent filing windows for AM owners.

But for some AMs the ability to add an FM signal may be coming too late. The FCC says a half dozen fewer AMs were licensed at the end of March compared to the end of December. And the number of AMs declined 1% since a year ago with 4,633 licensed at the end of first quarter. That’s the lowest number since the 1980s, according to FCC records.

In a recent interview, FCC chair Ajit Pai said the agency is looking at more than just translators to help AM radio. He told MSNBC the Commission is working to find a consensus with engineers and broadcasters on other potential fixes. “I have personally been to Houston, Puerto Rico and Miami in the wake of the recent hurricanes and I have heard first-hand from folks who have said that AM broadcasters were in some cases the lifeline for people in a moment of desperation,” Pai said.

Beyond the AM dial there was also an unexpected and rare drop in the number of commercial FMs during the first three months of the year. The Commission counted 6,741 as of March 31—a decline of 13 versus a year earlier. But at the same time the number of noncommercial FMs has continued to grow. The latest tally shows 4,125 noncommercial FMs are licensed by the FCC. That’s a new record, beating the old one set just three months earlier.

Even with all the new FM translators and noncommercial FMs signing-on, the FCC has also found ways to continue squeezing more low-power stations on the radio dial. It reports the number of low-power FMs jumped 12% to 2,150. That includes the addition of 73 LPFMs during the first quarter alone. The FCC data also shows the count of low-power stations has more than doubled during the past decade –even as low-power radio advocates fear that a swarm of new translators could make it more difficult for LPFMs to sign on, or could potentially box in stations at their current transmitter sites. That’s largely because when Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act in 2010 it allowed LPFM stations for the first time to operate in big city markets, where radio dials are already congested, and on second-adjacent channels to full power FMs.

Beyond radio, the FCC reports the total number of full-power television stations dropped 1% to 1,765 licensed as of March. 31. The impending television repack is expected to see the number of full-power TV stations continue to decline during the next few quarters as some broadcasters turn-in their licenses and collect the billions of dollars from the government to clear their spectrum for wireless use. The FCC also reports the total number of low-power TV stations declined 2% to 1,920. That brought the tally of radio and television licensees to 33,054 at quarter’s end—a 1% increase compared to a year earlier.