FCC 375

There’s no shortage of opinions on how the Federal Communications Commission should resolve the tricky task of figuring out how to resolve interference disputes that pit full-power FMs and translators up against one another. Dozens of broadcasters have offered their feedback on a proposal currently under consideration by the Commission.

The Commission voted to launch the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket No. 18-119) at its May meeting. Most of the revisions outlined in the rulemaking have largely received backing from radio owners. But it’s the proposal to change the scope of interference claims from a station’s current 60dBu contour to a 54dBμ contour that’s sparked the most controversy.

Radio Piles On The Evidence

Broadcasters offering opinions isn’t a rare sight at the FCC but, in a rare move, several of the largest companies are hoping to arm the Commission with empirical evidence to support their conclusion that more than just how to handle stepped-on signals is at stake.

In a joint-filing among seven radio groups, including Beasley Media Group, Cox Media Group, Gradick Communications, iHeartMedia, Neuhoff Corp., Radio One, and Withers Broadcasting, are mostly onboard with many of the FCC’s proposals, such as setting a minimum number of listener complaints to be submitted with any FM translator interference claim, standardizing the information that must be included within such a listener complaint, and allowing a translator to change channels to any available frequency using a minor modification application.

But where the groups put much of their focus was on a pair of empirical studies done on the proposed 54dBμ contour limit. If adopted, it would “fundamentally change the existing balance of equities between translators and other broadcast stations,” the groups say, as well as impact radio options for listeners outside a station’s protected contour.

In the first study, iHeartMedia EVP of engineering Jeff Littlejohn analyzed each station’s Nielsen audience data and predicted signal contours against the PPM panelists’ reported home ZIP code. “There is extensive FM radio listening by the public, both as measured by numbers and by percentages, well past the proposed 54dBμ contour cut-off,” the analysis concluded.

In some markets the impact would be bigger than others. In Baltimore and Providence, RI Littlejohn’s number crunching showed 26% of listeners live beyond the station’s 54dBμ contour. It’s also high in Memphis (20%), Harford (19%), Raleigh-Durham (18%), Philadelphia (16%), Phoenix (16%), Orlando (14%), Charlotte (12%), Austin (12%), Detroit (11%), and San Antonio (11%).

In a second study from Nielsen commissioned by the radio groups, they aimed to illustrate how consumers use radio. The Nielsen survey’s key findings included:

  • The majority (82%) of listeners agreed or strongly agreed that “I usually listen to the same radio stations while I am away from my home that I listen to while I am at home.”
  • Most listeners (61%) said more than half of their radio listening time occurs at home or within five miles of home.
  • Even more of loyal station followers’ radio TSL (75%) occurs at home or within five miles of home.
  • Listeners prioritize their favorite station even after leaving their home, with 82% trying to listen to the same FM radio station.
  • 81% of listeners are very likely or somewhat likely to find another similar FM station to listen to at home if they could not listen to their favorite FM radio station at home because the audio could not be heard clearly.

The Nielsen survey also found that if a signal is interfered with at the home base, the typical radio listener will tune elsewhere. Broadcasters say that underscores at-home listening is “foundational” to radio.

One state group, the New Jersey Broadcasters Association, adopted an official view that also focused on the 54dBμ contour designation, predicting full-power stations would be “significantly adversely affected” if they are no longer provided the contour protections that they’re currently given. The biggest worry is that a lot of stations have listeners beyond that dividing line, and such a cutoff “would significantly impair stations and their listening patterns.”

NJBA conducted its own analysis in the Monmouth-Ocean, NJ market and Nielsen data showed more than half of listening goes to stations beyond the proposed 54dBμ line. It points to Press Communications’ country “Thunder 106” WKMK, which receives 55% of its cume from beyond that cutoff. If the current FCC proposal is adopted, NJBA said that more than half of WKMK’s listeners would be “unprotected” and could be “adversely affected” by translator applications.

Educational Media Foundation, one of radio’s largest owners of translators, has also sided with the idea that a 54dBμ limit is too narrow. It calculates Philadelphia market contemporary Christian “K-Love” affiliate WKVP (106.9) has a listening area that’s “well over six-times” its protected contour with no co-channel overlap. “Arbitrary limits on interference protection should not be adopted,” EMF said in a filing, agreeing it could result in the loss of 10-20% or more of an audience to many full-power FMs.

How listenable a station is in the “real world” depends to a large degree on the quality of the receiver being used by the listener, according to EMF. “Translators are secondary stations, and the FCC should not change that definition by giving them new rights to create substantial interference to the long established listening habits of primary FM stations,” it said.

Cumulus Backs FCC’s Cutoff

In a break with the other big radio groups, Cumulus Media is supporting the FCC’s proposed 54dBμ limit, agreeing no interference complaint should be an automatic fatal blow to a translator if it occurs beyond that cutoff. The company argues that such a revision would “help prevent distant full-power FM stations from claiming areas which are on the outer-most fringe of their coverage areas, far removed from their service areas, which for all practical purposes they do not serve and have no intention of serving.”

Cumulus’ viewpoint comes from its experience in the Lexington, KY market where its translator W266AN at 101.1 FM had been simulcasting talk WVLK (590) until the company received complaints that the signal was interfering with country “Power 101” WSGS in Hazard, KY—more than a 100-miles from Lexington. Cumulus was forced to take W266AN silent and it’s now working to get the translator back on the air as W247CT at 97.3 FM.

Cumulus said that such a situation runs afoul with the FCC’s aim to revitalize the AM band, suggesting owners of AM stations need some assurance that if they invest in acquiring and building an FM translator, that it won’t be forced off the air by a distant full-power station. “The implementation of the 54dBμ contour limit proposed in the NPRM is necessary to avoid results such as that in the Lexington case set forth above where the loss of service to a relatively small station’s community of license, was found to outweigh the complete loss of local, enhanced AM service provided to the Lexington community,” it told the FCC.

Aleluya Broadcasting Network, which owns six translators in the Houston market, agreed that the 54dBμ as the outer limit is “reasonable.” While there’s little question a full-power FM can be heard a great distance, Aleluya believes efficient use of spectrum should permit FM translators to be allowed beyond that even if it steps on the full-power station. “Establishing a limit such as this will eliminate or resolve a great number of interference controversies at the FCC,” the religious broadcaster predicted. Other broadcasters with translator portfolios, like Mountain Community Translators and Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, offered similar views to the FCC.

Middle Ground Possible?

With no easy consensus presented by radio for the FCC to embrace, Cromwell Group president Bud Walters has suggested a middle ground the Commission could select if it’s looking for one. He suggested the 54dBμ protections be used when a full-power FM and a translator are on the same frequency. “There does need to be a buffer zone,” he agreed. But when they’re second- or third-adjacent dial positions, Walters suggested the same level of protection may not be required—especially since today’s digital radios have improved tuners.

Yet that may not be so clear-cut either. HD Radio developer Xperi told the FCC in a filing that it’s still studying the impact that the issue may have on the rollout of digital radio. That’s because many of the 2,300 U.S. stations that have make the switch to digital rely on translators to reach most of their listeners.