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Saving The AM Band is a Very Hot Topic

9-28-2012

At the Radio Show in Dallas, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai advocated an AM radio revitalization initiative, asking if there are regulatory barriers to helping AM stations. Our piece from John Garziglia turned out to be one of our hottest stories last week, and your comments are still coming in. Many of you are very passionate about saving the AM band. Broadcast Attorney John Garziglia started it all off with his piece that follows, and many of you have added great information to the conversation.

We wondered if there were any regulatory barriers that the FCC could quickly lift that would have an immediate, positive, substantial impact upon AM stations? So, we posed that question to broadcast attorney John Garziglia.

John Garziglia says:  There are a number of proposals for invigorating AM broadcasting that have been advanced over the past few years including moving AM stations to TV Channels 5 and 6, migrating to all-digital HD Radio on the AM band, and massive power increases for AM stations. A new band or all-digital broadcasting both suffer from the years of time that implementation would take, and both would make the current base of almost one billion AM receivers obsolete. Power increases would incur substantial costs beyond the means of most AM broadcasters.

There are several immediate actions that Commissioner Pai and the FCC could take, however, that would quickly enhance the prospects for a number of AM broadcaster stations. These actions would not be a salvation for all AM broadcasters. But, significant numbers of AM broadcasters would be able to take advantage.

The first action the FCC can immediately take is to reduce or eliminate its efficiency requirements for AM antenna systems. Right now, each AM station is required to achieve a certain efficiency from its antenna system. Back in the days when AM was the predominant radio service, efficiency standards made sense to achieve the maximum utilization of spectrum. But today, when many AM stations are struggling to stay on the air, having to maintain expensive antenna systems to achieve the widest possible coverage is counter-productive. Rather, the FCC should allow for AM antenna systems that may not achieve the current efficiency standards so that AM antennas can be located on less-expensive real estate.

The second action that the FCC can immediately take is to allow AM broadcasters to take greater advantage of the currently pending Auction #83 FM translator applications for AM station re-broadcasts. Many marginal AM stations today remain viable and able to serve their communities as a direct result of rebroadcasting on an FM translator.

The public interest is served by the programming that AM stations provide to many smaller and medium communities. This programming service can be enhanced by FM translators. If FM translators can be used to continue this important service to communities from AM stations, the FCC should do everything it can to put as many FM translators as possible into service re-broadcasting AM stations.

Unfortunately, the FCCs current policies for FM translators negates the opportunity for all but a few AM stations to obtain FM translators. This could be immediately changed if the FCC recognizes that its AM revitalization goals would be substantially aided by quickly changing its policies to allow AM stations to more efficiently obtain currently authorized, and Auction #83 applied-for, FM translators.

The existing FCC policies on FM translators serve FCC procedural goals rather than serving the public interest. The FCCs current procedural goals punish mass filers and forestall hopping of FM translators from areas where they are unwanted into areas where they can re-broadcast AM stations. These regulatory barriers keep FM translators away from where they would do the most good in service to the listening public.

The FCC should take the substantive road that best benefits the listening public, rather than keeping in place the procedural regulatory barriers that salves the FCCs dismay over FM translator mass filings and serial hopping.

Right now, there are several thousand Auction #83 FM translator applications pending, many of which could be used in rural areas to provide service from AM stations to the public in small and medium communities. The FCC procedures, however, contemplate the dismissal of the majority of these Auction #83 applications rather than allowing them to be potentially granted and moved to a location where an AM station could be re-broadcast.

To serve the goal of AM revitalization, rather than requiring dismissal of these Auction #83 FM translator applications, the FCC should allow for the grant of as many as possible. The FCC has already adopted rules to protect LPFM opportunities in spectrum-limited markets so the grant of pending Auction #83 FM translator applications outside of spectrum limited markets will not impact the FCCs goal of LPFM service.

Once these translator applications are granted, the FCC should immediately allow for a move of FM translators to any location where an AM station may be broadcast on the translator. In the same way as the FCC allows full-service FM stations to replace service on one FM channel with a like service on another non-adjacent non-mutually-exclusive same-class channel, the FCC should allow moves of FM translators where the currently authorized FM translator service at one transmitter site would be replaced by like translator service at another non-mutually-exclusive transmitter site, as well as moves of a translator to any FM channel.

Translator authorizations are not awarded on the basis of service to a particular community or a particular area. Rather, translator authorizations are awarded on the basis of a re-broadcast of an AM or FM service. The move of FM translator sites and changes in channels should be allowed without reference to the mutual-exclusivity of the existing facility with the proposed facility. The proposed translator transmitter site or non-adjacent channel will simply replace an existing authorized service with a more needed service, in the same way as the FCC now routinely allows for same-class non-mutually-exclusive FM full-service station channel changes. 

Right now, the FCC has before it the question of whether a substantial majority of FM translator applications that are now pending from the Auction #83 filing window will be dismissed, or whether the processing of those applications may move forward with the potential that many of them can be used for the re-broadcast of AM stations. Commissioner Pai may quickly achieve AM revitalization goals by seeking an immediate change in FCC policies so that the majority of Auction #83 FM translator applications are not dismissed but rather are made potentially available to AM broadcasters, and allowing for translator transmitter site moves and channel changes to provide re-broadcast service to AM stations.

In an effort to get many FM translators, both now existing and soon to be granted, into locations where they can best serve AM stations, the FCC should move forward, beyond its restrictive translator serial hopping policies, with a policy that allows for the move of an FM translator to any channel or location where it can best serve an AM station in accord with AM revitalization goals. Doing so fits well within current FCC precedent for minor modification applications.  Hopefully, the FCC will find a way to put aside its procedural concerns on FM translators in favor of serving the public with substantive policies that can effectuate AM revitalization. 

Because the above changes can be adopted through the current Auction #83 proceedings and with application waiver policies, Commission Pai and the FCC may quickly take the actions described above for AM revitalization which would have an immediate positive effect on the AM broadcasting service.

John Garziglia is a Communications Law Attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Washington, DC and can be reached at 202-857-4455 or jgarziglia@wcsr.com  Have a question for our "Ask The Attorney" feature? Send to edryan@radioink.com.




(4/12/2013 9:29:19 AM)
What is being discussed here is not the "revitalization" of the AM band, but ideas for its death and replacement.

True revitalization requires the FCC to place conditions on AM receiver manufacturers (e.g., AMAX), dump HD, require Motorola stereo, enforce anti-interference standards, etc.

Not every AM will have an opportunity to gain an FM translator.

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(10/11/2012 8:47:44 PM)
Leave the AM band alone? You've got to be kidding. Today's young audiences can no more relate to AM than newspapers, which sadly may disappear in the not too distant future. The current migration of sports to FM is another nail in the coffin.

- P. Sautter

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