AM radio dial

A champion of AM revitalization for the past six years, Ajit Pai has used his authority to advance several ideas percolating inside the Federal Communications Commission since becoming the head of the agency in 2017. The latest lifeline proposal, however, hails from the ranks of radio and it has quickly won support from a large number of broadcasters. If approved by the FCC, it would allow owners to power down analog AM transmitters and leave just a digital-only signal as their replacement.

The proposal under consideration at the FCC wouldn’t force any AM to remain a hybrid of analog and digital – or make the leap to an all-digital signal. “Because all-digital broadcasting would be on a voluntary basis, AM operators would be the ones deciding if transitioning is right for them,” Pai wrote in a blog post. He said the Commission will be looking in the coming months for more information about such things as the interference potential of all-digital stations as well as addressing what the technical standards for all-digital AM stations should be.

Specifics of the FCC proposal will be released in the coming days. But Pai said he views what is being teed up as a way the Commission can do more to give AM stations as much “flexibility” as they can in order to compete in the digital age. He will bring the formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to a vote at the Commission’s November 19 meeting.

The proposal was first submitted to the FCC for consideration last March by Bryan Broadcasting. Ben Downs, VP/GM of Bryan Broadcasting, told Inside Radio he’s encouraged to see Pai move it forward.

“The FM translator rules were what most of us in small and medium sized markets needed to continue to compete. Properly engineered, these translators will provide service that covers our communities. But the spectrum is just too full for translators to help in the major markets,” Down said in an email. “This will be an opportunity for an AM station that is competitively challenged to compete with music again.”

While many ideas languish at the FCC, failing to ever gain industry support, the all-digital AM outline has quickly gained traction both inside the agency and among pivotal industry players including the National Association of Broadcasters. “We agree with Bryan that all-digital AM service will allow broadcasters to provide substantially improved sound quality,” the NAB reiterated in a letter to the Commission last week. Digital radio developer Xperi, and several small and mid-sized radio groups also said all-digital AM should be explored. The California and Missouri state broadcast associations also went on record asking the FCC to advance the proposal.

The FCC had already been toying with the idea of allowing digital-only AM stations. The Media Bureau last year granted one-year experimental authority to conduct tests on all-digital using Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD Frederick, MD (820). That included testing to see how the switch to an all-digital signal impacts WWFD’s coverage area. Nine all-digital AM tests were conducted between 2012 and 2014, spanning a variety of station types and geographic locations. “These experiments validated the successful performance of all-digital AM radio service,” the NAB noted in its letter to the FCC.

David Layer, the NAB’s VP of Advanced Engineering, has said the goal is to eventually switch over all stations to HD-only broadcasts when digital receiver penetration is high enough. But most broadcasters agree that day still lies in radio’s future.

“All-digital (MA-3 mode) won’t be the answer for every AM station,” said Downs. “But it will be perfect for some stations that want to compete with a music format. And since every HD car radio ever sold is capable of receiving these signals, there are now 60 million radios owned by potential listeners. And that can’t hurt.”

Rethinking Simulcast Rules

In addition to a digital-only AM proposal, Pai also said Monday that the Commission will begin examining the 1992 rules that put limits on the amount of simulcasting commonly-owned radio stations in a market can air. Pai said they’ll look at whether the rules should be modified or eliminated outright. He said since the rules were adopted nearly three decades ago, the number of commercial radio stations has rapidly grown, and many stations are now simulcasting on mobile apps and websites. “With so much more competition and program diversity, which were the objectives of the radio duplication rule, we are seeking comment on whether the rule is still necessary and whether it should be modified or eliminated,” said Pai.