In a move that could impact the critical morning drive hours for AM radio stations, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill that would make daylight saving time permanent beginning in 2023. If the House and President Biden go along, the proposal would mean daytime-only AM stations would need to wait an hour later before signing-on for several months of the year.
The impact would be limited in summertime. But during the darkest days of November, December, January and February it would mean that that the sun would not rise until after 8am – and in some cases nearly 9am – when morning drivetime is over. It is not just daytime-only stations that would be impacted. Scores of AM stations operate at either reduced power or with directional signals after dark.
The upside is the change would give AMs more time during their afternoon drive, when some stations need to power down before 5pm during the winter months. But many AM owners have said that the amount of money they would make from an extra hour of broadcast time during the afternoon would not make up for the losses they would suffer from one fewer hour in the morning.
Under the proposed Sunshine Protection Act (S. 623) radio stations and other businesses would have until Nov. 20, 2023 to prepare for the change. Arizona and Hawaii, which do not observe daylight saving time, and territories including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that currently remain on Standard Time year-around would continue to do so.
To date 20 states have gone on record as opposing a twice a year clock change, and dozens more are looking to do so.
“I think the majority of the American people's preference is just to stop the back and forth changing. But beyond that, I think their preference is — certainly at least based on today's vote, and what we've heard — is to make Daylight Saving Time permanent,” said bill co-sponsor Marco Rubio (R-FL). “Hopefully, this is the year that this gets done. And pardon the pun, but this is an idea whose time has come.”
The National Association of Broadcasters says it has “some concerns” about the bill even as it recognizes there is broad bipartisan and public support for the idea. A spokesperson says NAB is working with the bill’s authors as well as leadership in the House Energy and Commerce Committee to minimize potential impact on broadcasters.
How big the time shift will be will depend on a station’s facilities, according to broadcast consultant Steve Moravec, who says it will come down to the disparity between a station's day and night facilities. “The impact could be devastating, especially for those without the support of an FM translator,” he said.
Daylight Saving Time was started in 1918 as a way to save energy. The impact on AMs was only exacerbated in 2005 when Congress expanded the time-shift by four weeks, purportedly to save energy. The change, which took effect in 2007, moved up the start of DST by three weeks to the second Sunday of March and advanced its end date by one week to the first Sunday of November. The result is sunrise now occurs much later in March and November than it had in the past.
Could A Fix Come From The FCC?
To help AM stations deal with Daylight Savings Time, in 1959 the Federal Communications Commission created the so-called “critical hours,” covering the two hours immediately after sunrise and the two hours directly before sunset, when some AMs must operate at reduced power to compensate for the fact that signals can go much further because of how the Earth's atmosphere works. The FCC also created a system of pre-sunrise and post-sunset authorizations that permit daytime-only stations to remain on the air with up to 500 watts for a time longer than what they’d normally be allowed. That’s meant stations could sign-on starting at 6am, regardless of the actual local sunrise time on the calendar. The parameters for those authorizations were last revised in 2007 to account for the longer daytime saving time approved by Congress.
Now as Congress looks to make daytime saving time permanent, it may give fresh focus to a long-forgotten idea. In 2010 the FCC examined a proposal that suggested extending the pre-sunrise authorization by an hour by changing its start time to 5am to take into account changing commuter habits and the importance of morning drive radio to stations.
At the time, engineering consultant Richard Arsenault estimated his proposal would help as many as 2,063 AMs and the benefits of improved local coverage would outweigh any drawbacks, such as limiting the ability for listeners to hear distant stations in the early-morning hour. Yet the FCC never went further with the proposal, even as it explored a variety of other rule changes to revitalize the AM dial.
One potential hurdle for the 5am proposal would be a required change to the federal government’s agreements with the governments of Canada and Mexico, concerning cross-border interference protections.