AM radio dial

How far should protections go for radio’s big Class A AM stations that boom at 50,000-watts day and night? The Federal Communications Commission is poised to wade into that thorny debate as the next step in chair Ajit Pai’s AM revitalization initiative. The FCC has been looking for some middle ground during the past three years as it has considered whether AMs in smaller cities should be allowed to expand their limited day and nighttime service areas while still protecting the “core service areas” of the big AMs. How that core is defined by the agency is likely where the battle will be fought in the coming months.

“In my view, our rules should reflect the reality of the current noise floor and appropriately balance the interests of Americans who want to listen to smaller local stations in their communities with those who enjoy listening to Class A stations,” Pai said last week. He told the Michigan Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention that the Media Bureau has been studying the information collected since his predecessor first floated a change to clear channel AMs in 2015 and it’s now ready to take the next step. Pai is circulating a draft proposal among the commissioners that, if adopted, would change interference protections.

The FCC previously tentatively concluded that all Class A AMs should be protected only to their 0.1 mV/m groundwave contour from co-channel stations, in place of the current skywave protections. It also looked at the elimination of critical hours protections for the Class As typically in morning and afternoon drive. At the same time smaller stations that currently are required to sign off or power down at night would, under the previous draft, have be allowed increase their power and improve localized coverage areas.

The latest proposal won’t be made public until after the four commissioners cast their votes so it’s unclear whether the rulemaking currently circulating inside the Commission will follow a similar outline. But in an interview with “Reel Country 1430” WRDN, Durand, WI last year Pai said he was leaning toward scaling back the policy that’s been in place in some form since 1922 as a way to encourage more localism in radio. “I think at the end of the day the people in Durand want to be able to listen to that high school football game on Friday night. They want to be able get other information that’s in and about Durand from WRDN,” Pai said.

Issue Splits Industry

Like the current splits dividing the radio industry over issues of how to deal with full-power and translator interference complaints and whether broadcasters should be allowed to own more stations, there hasn’t been any consensus on clear channel stations. It’s such a hot button in fact that the National Association of Broadcasters hasn’t taken a position.

“This is a controversial issue,” attorney David Oxenford writes in a blog post. “Many owners of clear channel AMs argue that these stations are what keep listeners tuned to the AM dial and allowing more interference could weaken their ability to provide the attractive programming that many of them do. Of course, owners of the weaker AM stations want to serve their communities during all hours, not just during daylight hours.”

Scaling back or eliminating the interference protections that Class A AMs currently enjoy allowing those protections to cover as many as 38 stations has united several of the biggest groups. Two years ago, they formed the AM Radio Preservation Alliance made up of companies including iHeartMedia, Entercom, Cumulus, Cox Media Group, Bonneville, Alpha Media, Townsquare Media, Hubbard Radio, Bonneville, Hearst Radio, NRG Media and Tribune. Each owns plenty of AMs—including nearly all of the 60 clear channel AMs currently licensed by the FCC. And all are against changing the current skywave protections.

The Alliance’s analysis compared clear channel AMs to department stores that serve as anchors for shopping malls. They said those stations attract “nearly 30% of national AM band listening, and driving more of the public to the AM dial.” Eliminating skywave protections would create interference zones affecting one-half million current Class A AM station listeners, they argued, while also reducing the service area for Class As in their core local markets. The broadcasters also pointed out Class A AMs “have played invaluable roles in providing the public with critical and often life-saving information” during emergencies. It’s why the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has encouraged the FCC not to change its rules.

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. BIA reports four of the top-billing radio stations last year were AMs, three of which are clear channel stations.

Some broadcast engineers also fear altering clear channel interference rules could set off a chain reaction and only create more interference on the crowded AM dial. They say under the current protections when a daytime-only AM fails to sign-off it can disrupt even the booming AMs.

A ‘Totally Changed’ Situation

Not everyone thinks the status quo is the way to go however. Crawford Broadcasting—owner of 15 AMs, none of which are clear channels—has been among the most outspoken in favor of scaling back skywave protections for Class A AMs. It says the idea that big stations were needed to ensure every community has radio coverage has “totally changed” over the years as most small communities now have multiple local outlets. “Were the AM radio service being rolled out as new today, there is little doubt that no class of station would receive the protections that Class A stations receive as incumbents today,” it told the FCC.

The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB) has also urged the FCC to reduce the special protections for clear channel AMs, saying they hamper smaller stations from improving their nighttime coverage—and many of those outlets are minority-owned. NABOB has supported abolishing skywave protections for many years. Its members own a combined 76 AM stations, but none are clear channel signals. In fact, nearly half are daytimers. NABOB president Jim Winston has said that’s a legacy of America’s discriminatory policies dating back to when the big-signal Class A licenses were given out in the 1920s, ‘30s and ’40s, contending that discriminatory laws and policies kept them out of the hands of African-Americans. Even when those laws changed, and black businesspeople entered radio ownership ranks, it was most often through the acquisition of lesser-quality signals, a situation that’s remained largely unchanged decades later.