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Pai Serious About Revitalizing AM Band


Yesterday, at the NAB show in Las Vegas, nearly 250 people attended a panel lead by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. Pai told them of his love for AM radio, childhood memories of listening to sports on KLKC-AM in Parsons, Kansas, and his desire to make AM radio strong again. "I still believe, as I proposed at the Radio Show last September, that the FCC should launch an AM Radio revitalization initiative." Broadcast attorney John Garziglia was on the panel and said Pai made it clear he is genuinely interested in revitalizing the AM band.

The biggest challenge AM radio faces is the sound quality. Consumers have grown accustomed to crystal clear sound, so even when AM broadcasters deliver high quality content, and many of them do, it's difficult to compete. Commissioner Pai threw out some staggering numbers. "Today, AM broadcasters are facing some challenges. To throw out just a couple of statistics, in 1978, half of all radio listening was on the AM dial; in 2010, that number was only 17 percent. And since 1990, the number of AM stations has decreased while the number of FM stations has almost doubled."

Some broadcasters believe digital is the answer and there has been some positive news about digital from a test just completed in North Carolina by the NAB AM revitalization task force. Others say FM translators are the answer. In fact, there have been pockets of success for AM broadcasters who are able to rebroadcast on an FM translator.

Garziglia has been pressing the commission for a rule change that would help AM broadcasters interested in utilizing an FM translator. "The FCCs restriction on moving FM translators more than several miles is a huge regulatory barrier to bringing FM translator service to many AM stations. If the FCC removed or relaxed that regulatory barrier prohibiting FM translator moves of an appreciable distance, it would be an immediate, substantive step that the FCC could take to revitalize AM stations. The Tell City waiver request asks that the FCC allow an AM station to search 50 or more miles from its transmitter site for an FM translator it might acquire and move." 

There are other, more technical solutions also being considered. However, there is not yet a consensus on which path AM broadcasters want to take. The good news is that it appears that everyone -- including Commissioner Pai -- agree something needs to be done to save the AM band. Pai says AM radio has a rich history that shouldn't be left to die. "When you talk to people about the AM band, you evoke a wide range of memories, from the child lying in bed on a warm summer night listening to a baseball game to the long-haul trucker listening to Paul Harveys commentaries. Indeed, this years Super Bowl commercial featuring Paul Harvey struck such a nerve, Id bet, partly because broadcast radio has a strong bond with the American people."