AM radio dial

The addition FM translators has breathed new life into scores of AM stations during the past several years, but the next move to better the radio dial may be to power down some of the smallest-signaled AMs. That’s the idea that Bryan Broadcasting VP Ben Downs has been pushing at the Federal Communications Commission. During a series of meetings last week, Downs suggested the FCC allow owners of Class D AMs to voluntarily surrender their primary station license and transfer that primary status to the translator.

“We have a situation with the AM band where it is crammed-full of radio stations,” Downs said. “There are more than 4,400 stations and this way we can lighten the load on the AM band and reduce the noise and congestion by a lot.”

But before any such a plan could be rolled out Downs said the FCC would need to provide some sort of protection for owners that if they give up their AM they couldn’t lose their FM too. That would happen by giving those translators primary status, meaning unlike other translators, they couldn’t be forced off the air to resolve an interference complaint. It’s why Downs proposes such a designation should only be given if the translator has been built and operating for a “substantial period of time”—most likely a year or two—to ensure that it isn’t stepping on another signal.

Class D stations have arguably been among the biggest benefactors of the Commission’s AM revitalization effort. For many, the FCC’s three translator filing windows have provided a path to a 24-hour signal for the first time. But Downs thinks a substantial number of the Class Ds currently licensed would nevertheless be willing to turn-in their license while enjoying a financial windfall by turning off the AM transmitter. “They use more electricity, there’s the issue with directionality, and also the land underneath a lot of these daytime stations can be very valuable as markets have grown up around them,” Downs pointed out.

One of the more contentious ideas under consideration as part of AM revitalization has been whether to maintain skywave protections, which allow the 60 clear channel stations in the U.S. to cover hundreds of miles and as many as 38 states. But Downs thinks if some Class D AMs disappear, it could resolve that debate as well. “It takes the pressure off of having a lot of small AM stations that are around the fringes of these Class A powerhouses,” Downs said in an interview.

Expanded Band Status Quo

Even as Downs is proposing some AM stations begin shutting down, he thinks the FCC shouldn’t step away from the expanded band—at least not yet. Expanded band stations sit between 1605 and 1705 kHz under waivers. Bryan Broadcasting owns expanded band “News Talk 1620” WTAW Bryan-College Station, TX but it’s a bit of an anomaly. Of the 24 expanded band station pairs that remain, only two are simulcasting the AM station they were originally linked to. Most now independently program ethnic or non-English language programming and a half dozen carry religious formats. Downs thinks such niche programming is unlikely to remain on the dial if a company is forced to decide whether to shut down the expanded band station or the AM it was originally paired with. “There is not going to be five people standing in line to pick-up an urban gospel station or a foreign-language station in a market—especially on AM— I just don’t think it’s going to happen. So when that service is lost, it’s lost,” he predicted.

The FCC first approved expanded band AMs in 1996 with a goal to address a cluttered and interference-prone dial by clearing some stations from their existing position between 550 and 1600 AM. But Downs argues that today there’s so much more interference from a variety of digital devices flooding homes and offices that expanded band AMs are hardly the culprit for what ails AM. Instead, he proposes the FCC keep expanded stations on the air until the next AM filing window when owners are able to find a spot lower on the dial to move. “If the day does come that we have to surrender one of those paired stations,” he said, “since there is unique service provided by them, let’s at least hold off until a window opens and we can have a chance to file for a replacement for it.”

What’s The FCC’s Next AM Move?

Downs gives credit to FCC chair Ajit Pai for giving AM radio a seat at the table, and his proposals arrived as the Commission considers what its next moves will be in the AM revitalization initiative. Three filing windows have led to a majority of AMs now being paired with an FM translator. But by some accounts, that was an easy first step. The current emphasis seems to be on technical rule changes, but the FCC has signaled it remains open to bigger ideas.

Pai has said he’d like to see consensus on some of the thornier issues to bring more assistance to the struggling band. “The Commission will continue to work with AM broadcasters to address their technical challenges and ensure the viability of AM radio,” Pai pledged as the final window’s results were announced two months ago. “The incredible interest in new cross-service translator stations demonstrates the commitment of AM broadcasters to enhancing their ability to provide quality service to their communities,” Pai said in a statement.

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith told Inside Radio earlier this year that although the FCC deserves a lot of credit for how it has helped radio to date, broadcasters themselves must now put up their ideas for public scrutiny.

“There are creative people at the FCC working on novel ideas to boost AM radio, but the work should not be theirs alone—radio broadcasters also need to step up,” Smith said. “We should be proactive and pitch innovative proposals that can help spark our industry as a whole.”