As the dark days of late-fall envelope the country, for low-power AMs and daytime-only stations the number of hours at full signal strength is near its low point. So the timing of a push from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB) to the Federal Communications Commission to take steps to do away with nighttime skywave protections couldn’t be better.
The interference protections for the so-called clear channel stations date back more than 70 years and were designed to give a handful of Class A AMs around the country big coverage areas stretching up to 750 miles. The policy was designed to extend radio coverage to all parts of the U.S., including to many communities that didn’t yet have any local radio stations. But NABOB president Jim Winston says today, those skywave protections work to prevent many local radio stations from serving their communities. That’s because some AMs are forced to sign off while others are prohibited from improving their nighttime signal. “This flies in the face of the Commission’s long-recognized statutory obligation to promote localism in broadcasting,” Winston writes in a letter to the FCC.
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. Winston says it’s a legacy of America’s discriminatory policies going 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 as most minority-owned outlets are either daytime-only or low-power AMs. “Elimination of Class A skywave protection,” Winston writes, “will be an enormous benefit to the communities served by those stations.”
The FCC has been studying what to do with the special status bestowed on clear channel stations as part of its ongoing AM revitalization effort. The issue has drawn some of the sharpest debate among broadcasters, some of whom believe the current policy should be left unchanged. The AM Radio Preservation Alliance—which is made up of 17 large radio groups, including several that own the clear channel signals—argues that abolishing the interference protections would “do more harm than good” and would “undermine” the efforts to revitalize the AM dial. “It would be a potentially irreversible step toward extinction,” they warn.
In comments filed with the FCC, the Alliance estimates “tens of millions” of listeners, especially those living in remote parts of the country, would lose access to “quality” programming, as well as emergency weather and news. They say it would also “weaken key links” in the Emergency Alert System, which relies on the clear channel AMs to cover all parts of the U.S.
FCC commissioner Ajit Pai told the Radio Show in September there has been “widespread support” for some AM revitalization proposals, such as relaxing the main studio rule. But many of the proposals now under consideration are much more complex and may require “a little navigating” to get approved. That includes how to resolve the debate over whether to allow AMs to boost their power at the expense of the nighttime skywave coverage of the big-signaled clear channel AMs.
Pai—who is under consideration to lead the FCC in a Trump administration—told the Radio Show he believes splitting up the proceeding could speed some help to AM stations. “Rather than waiting until we can figure out how to resolve those thornier issues, I believe that the Commission should take action in early 2017 to advance those proposals where there is broad consensus,” he said.