Ten years ago the Federal Communications Commission adopted rule changes that cleared the way for AM station owners to simulcast their signals on FM translators. In the June 2009 order, the Commission acknowledged the “reduced viability” of AM stations compared to FMs and said the “cross-service translating represents a logical extension of the Commission’s longstanding efforts to support and improve the AM service that will provide licensees with additional flexibility to respond to the technical and economic conditions facing the AM service.” It ushered in a series of three AM-only filing windows with thousands of new licenses issued for FM translators.
Despite that step and a series of others taken as part of FCC chair Ajit Pai’s AM Revitalization Initiative, new data released Tuesday by the agency shows owners of AM stations remain in a precarious position. The number of AMs licensed fell to 4,610 as of June 30. That’s a decline of 23 AMs during the past year alone. And compared to a decade ago when the FM translator order was approved, the number has fallen 4% with the fewest number of AMs on the air since the 1980s when the explosion of talk radio helped revive what had been a faltering AM dial.
The Media Bureau also reports there were 8,126 FM translators and boosters licensed as of June 30. That’s an increase of 5% compared to a year ago with nearly 200 new translators signing-on since the start of the year. Pai told the NAB Show in April that he believed AM broadcast efforts have been “going well” with about 37% of all AM stations in the U.S. now having a companion FM signal.
Even as AM has struggled, the number of FMs on the air has set new records thanks to an economic recovery and engineers using new, high-tech software to discover new footprints in which to place new allocations. That’s giving listeners a greater number of stations to choose from. The latest count of commercial FMs is 6,726. But the Media Bureau says the real gains have been made on the noncommercial end of the dial. A record 4,179 noncommercial FMs are currently licensed to operate. That’s about a thousand more noncommercial FMs than were licensed a decade ago.
At the same time, the number of low-power FMs has remained largely steady. The FCC says there were 2,178 LPFMs licensed at the end of June. That’s just seven more than a year earlier. With the three translator windows for AM stations now completed, many in the LPFM community are still hoping the FCC will open a new filing window to license additional low-power stations.
Beyond radio, the Media Bureau reports the total number of full-power television stations was relatively steady with 1,757 licensed at the end of March. The latest FCC data shows the total number of low-power TV stations was 1,897, which is a slight dip from a year ago.
Overall, there were a total of 33,508 radio and television licenses issued by the FCC at the end of the second quarter.