One year after the coronavirus pandemic impacted radio, there were 44 fewer licensed commercial FM stations and 34 fewer AMs at the end of March compared to a year ago. The latest update from the Federal Communications Commission says that count includes 17 commercial FMs that disappeared during the first quarter of the year while the AM count was cut by five.
The number of AMs has been slowly eroding for the past several years as evolving listener habits continue to impact the number of stations. But the dip in the number of commercial FMs is a rarer sight, with the tally mostly continuing to climb in recent years. The pandemic changed that. Yet the loss of commercial FMs in the past year also suggests the vast majority of broadcast stations have weathered the impact with the loss representing about a half percent of the overall number of commercial FMs.
Further suggesting the pandemic may have had a hand is FCC data that shows noncommercial FM numbers climbed during the past year. There were 4,213 as of March 31. That was an increase of 41 compared to a year ago.
Yet the number of commercial FMs is not likely to stay reduced for long. The FCC is gearing up to auction 136 FM construction permits during Auction 109 scheduled to begin on July 27. As the economy springs back from a year of closures, it could spur interest for the stations and help the total number of signals on the air see some of its biggest growth numbers in several years.
Even as ad revenue has been pressured by the pandemic, broadcasters have continued to invest in FM translators. The FCC reports the total number of FM translators and boosters as of March 31 was 8,521 or 333 more than a year earlier. That includes 101 more translators and boosters that were licensed during the first three months of this year.
Two Percent Of LPFMs Vanish
It was not just commercial radio that contracted last year. The pandemic continues to have an impact on low-power stations, too. The total number slid throughout 2020 and the latest tally from the FCC shows there were 2,114 licensed LPFMs as of March 31. That is a decrease of 45 from a year ago, including 22 that disappeared during the first quarter. Looked at another way, the FCC data says two percent of all LPFMs ceased to exist during the pandemic.
As Inside Radio has previously reported, the number of low-power stations could start to grow again during the next few years. The FCC has said it plans to open a new LPFM filing window, but that is not expected until later this year, at the earliest, once Auction 106 is completed. There’s also the pending completion of the repack of television stations, and a July 2021 sunset of low-power television operations that first need to be completed.
Beyond radio, the Media Bureau reports the total number of full-power television stations held steady with 1,758 licensed at the end of March, the same as when the year began. The latest FCC data shows the total amount of low-power TV stations slid to 1,985.
Overall, there were a total of 33,511 radio and television licenses issued by the FCC as of March 31.