A Major Flaw In AM Revitalization?

6

Is there a battle brewing among AM broadcasters thanks to the FCC? Those struggling to survive want the FCC to give them every opportunity to make a comeback in this era of intense competition for both ears and ad dollars. Broadcasters who are now running some of the most successful radio brands may have to pay the price for the little guys to have a chance to thrive again. At least that’s what the FCC has up its sleeve.

There are 77 Class A AM radio stations across the country. Here is just a sample of those stations (see next story for the full list) WFAN, WABC, WCBS in New York, WGN, WBBM in Chicago, KDKA in Pittsburgh, KNBR San Francisco, WGY Albany, WHO Des Moines, KOMO and KIRO in Seattle.

Because of the way AM waves travel, rules now require other AM stations that occupy the same frequency to power down and get out of the way of these big boomers. The FCC is proposing AM stations on the same frequencies as these Class A stations be allowed to operate with nighttime and critical hours power levels that will cause massive and destructive interference to the skywave reception of these Class A stations. In essence, it will put an end to these stations broadcasting great distances.

This issue concerns iHeartMedia so much the management at WGY has launched a petition asking listeners to contact the FCC and prevent this from happening. The WGY petition is called, “Save AM Radio” and it states the FCC is about to allow greater interference on WGY, “which will reduce WGY’s ability to provide you with quality broadcasting at night. That means if their proposal passes, it will make it very difficult for many of you to hear our programming at night and during morning and evening drive times.”

NRG’s KXEL in Iowa has also launched an online listener petition, which says, “KXEL has been a 50,000-watt station since going on the air in 1942. It was designed to provide a large interference-free coverage area, especially after local sunset, and all night long. Now the FCC is proposing to change the technical specifications of this protected area so that other stations can come on the air at night, or increase their power.” Expect similar petitions at other stations to pop up all over the country.

One manager, who runs a Class A on the West Coast and is about to get into this fight told Radio Ink, “damaging them would be an unintended consequence that nobody is going to be happy with.”

And, someone who’s watching this issue very closely told Radio Ink, “The FCC should be very careful about demolishing that one advantage the AM band has. The unique nature of skywave reception, once lost, can never again be replicated.”

6 COMMENTS

  1. It’s about not having to pay for internet to hear WBZ at night or in a car, without a smartphone. We don’t all make six figures, you know. As Doc Searls says above, they would let local stations run higher powers that’ll give them “better local coverage where signals are super-strong, and increased skywave interference to far-off places on the same channels”. Don’t we have enough strong RF in the cities? – and inadequate AM coverage in remote areas? The whole point of “clear channels” was to make it so most parts of the country would be covered by one or more of these Class A’s at night, who because of that extra coverage, have the resources to produce original, quality programming. As I see it, boosting a local station’s power in East Nowhereland will still be insufficient for it to produce any local content, especially at night when more are watching TV.

    it’s also about privacy & anonymity – not being tracked & targeted for ads, or listening preferences sold to third parties including govt. agencies. Especially now the FCC wants to dismantle net neutrality & allow ISPs to track our browsing histories, etc.

    Sent from my Public Library’s iComputer

  2. This certainly sounds like the beginning of a cluster mess for AM. At the same stroke the AM stations in their own communities could serve their areas better when class A AM hasn’t for years now.

  3. This is why so many of us have given up and migrated our formats to the Internet, instead. Web-based stations can offer an unlimited variety of programming, and may do so without adherence to the FCC’s arbitrary standards with respect to content. AM radio is already dead (decommissioned by some European governments) and, sadly, the same will likely eventually occur here. Let’s face it; adherence to even marginally good operating practices for most US AM stations has long since passed. We did it to ourselves by being sloppy.

  4. By reducing the coverage areas of Class A stations to be protected from interference, what the FCC proposes is not “revitalization” for AM, or even life support. Instead it’s just another way to make a bad thing — skywave interference — even worse.

    Any veteran engineer can tell you that adding more stations, more power to stations, and more hours with more power to stations, only makes what was originally an AM feature into an even worse bug. The FCC has a long history of doing this over and over again. More stations, more power, more interference, every time.

    To grok the problem, consider the existing 750 mile protection zone for Class A stations. This was a “revitalization” move years ago that got rid of the “clear channel” designation (which gave a station exclusive use of a channel at night, when AM signals can travel hundreds or thousands of miles). This allowed lots of new stations to show up where skywave coverage by distant stations had been protected for the entire past. For one example of what this causes, consider 890KHz. For many years WLS in Chicago was the only station radiating on that channel at night. Once WLS was protected only to 750 miles from its transmitter, WAMG in Dedham (a Boston suburb) could show up on the same channel, just across the 750 mile limit, with a directional 6000-watt night signal aimed straight at Boston by a line of five half-wave towers. WAMG protected WLS’s coverage inside the 750 mile radius, but did nothing to stop WLS’s 50000 watt signal from continuing to pound into Boston. So at night WAMG sounds like crap over much of the Boston metro. So it was no surprise, when WAMG went off the air from September to December 2009, to find WLS sounding fine at night in Boston.

    The new proposed rules do away with the whole 750 mile thing, and just protect existing Class A stations where their signals are strongest on the ground. Essentially the rules tell the Class A’s that they their coverage will be reduced to allow other stations on the same or adjacent channels to increase their own power at night, and improve local service.

    But the result will be better local coverage where signals are super-strong, and increased skywave interference to far-off places on the same channels.

    So the real story here isn’t failure to protect existing skywaves, but increased interference by every station that increases its night power.

    In fact there are also many other problems endemic to AM broadcasting that no “revitalization” can fix:
    1) A band that’s nearly useless for data.
    2) Increasing environmental noise, mostly coming from computing devices of all kinds.
    3) Terrible receiver circuitry, especially in portable and home devices.
    4) Car makers getting rid of whip antennas, which are required for the best AM reception.
    5) Abandonment of both AM and FM by people (especially young ones) for whom the finite quantity of live radio stations are vastly outnumbered by zillions of other radio-like choices on computers and mobile devices.
    6) Real estate under towers proving more valuable than stations themselves.
    7) Woeful inadequacies of FM translators, most of which have fractions of the power and coverage enjoyed by competing stations on the same band.
    8) Poor sound, thanks partly to the nature of the medium and mostly to the awfulness of receivers.
    9) Abandonment of AM in electric cars, which generate levels of computing noise too high for AM to tolerate. (In fact AM is already gone in Teslas and one BMW.)

    For a sobering view of AM’s future in the U.S., look toward Europe, where AM transmitters are being clear-cut like a diseased forest: https://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/2016/01/05/the-slow-sidelining-of-over-the-air-radio/ Even the legendary million-watt Radio Luxembourg, once Europe’s top rock-and-roll station, went off the air at the end of last year, and its towers were dropped earlier this month. For a death-watch diary of AM around the world, read Ydun’s Mediumwave Info: http://mediumwave.info/news.html. (Outside North America, AM is called medium wave, or MW.)

    The best strategy for the FCC is to do whatever it can (which might be nothing) to encourage AM and FM stations to become as digital as possible as soon as possible. That means they should maximize streaming, podcasting and on-demand offerings, and then prepare for the day when digital finishes doing to FM what FM has long been doing to AM — plus a glut of “content” from an infiinitude of competitors.

    Two reasons why digital audio hasn’t wounded over-the-air radio enough to induce full panic:
    1) There are too many apps for too many stations, and they’re all different.
    2) No apps “tune” as easily as a real radio. When we get one or more of those, watch out.

    The only places where AM may continue to make full sense in the U.S. are central time zone states with high ground conductivity. (See the map here: https://www.fcc.gov/media/radio/m3-ground-conductivity-map . Look at the numbers: 15 and 30 are the best.) Across the AM-friendly lands of Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas, even a weak AM signal can travel hundreds of miles in the daytime. With just 5000 watts (1/10th the max licensed), KFYR/550 in Bismark puts a good signal across all of North Dakota and half of South Dakota. KLIF/570 reaches from Austin to Oklahoma City. There are lots of areas left in those states that are absent of cellular data coverage, required for digital radio streaming. But you can still get satellite radio, and for many listeners that might be enough.

    Don’t be surprised when FCC finally heaves a big sigh and sunsets the whole AM band. Hey: look at what happened to analog TV, and will also happen to what’s left of over the air (OTA) TV after stations sell off their spectra.

    The FCC giveth, and the FCC taketh away.

  5. Who cares if these stations cannot be heard half way across the country when there’s a lot more AM stations that cannot be heard in their own communities at night. I applaud the FCC for finally allowing stations to be heard in their own communities at night. If you really must hear these legacy AM stations they all have websites and can be heard and online.

LEAVE A REPLY