Whether you’re a small market AM operator or you run a Class A, your hope is that the FCC’s plan to revitalize the band will improve the quality of the sound the band spits out to your listeners. Over the years, The AM band has become sensitive to every product we plug in the wall giving it added buzz, crackles and other assorted sounds that instantly turn off the listener now living in a digitally clear world.
The FCC’s plan to allow AM stations to retain power at night, therefore causing interference with those big booming Class A’s, has gotten many of you riled up. Randy Michaels knows his stuff when it comes to the AM band. We asked him to break out of his shell and give us his opinion on what the FCC is about to do. Here’s part one of what he had to say…
RI: What are your thoughts on what you see the FCC doing to these signals?
Michaels: I think many at the FCC don’t understand the physics of broadcasting. Unfortunately the commissioners do understand the politics of broadcasting. Allowing some stations to have big coverage and allowing other stations to have less coverage seem somehow unfair and un-American. But the fact is, the AM band can’t hold the number of stations we have now. By great measure, new stations that have been created in the past many years have caused more interference than created service. The FCC was created to stop the interference that was so prevalent in the early 1920s, and they did a great job for years. What the FCC doesn’t understand is that by breaking down the Clears, they are going to destroy far more service than could be created because Clears are going to make a mess of those channels. Even at relatively high power, you’re going to have small service areas, small islands of service in a sea of interference. If they proceed, this will put the majority of the American landmass outside the reach of interference-free AM at night. In your city, you will get AM, but out in the country, you will have to go to FM. I think it’s crazy. The physics of the band, given where it is, sounds like a good idea, but for many reasons, it’s not.
RI: With iHeart and TuneIn and every other way you can get your favorite radio station, does what they’re doing really even matter?
Michaels: That’s an argument. But the question then is, does broadcast matter? If you’re going to listen to the radio on your smartphone, then you don’t need the transmitter at all. So you’re asking the question, does over-the-air really matter. I think, at least today, it does. Data isn’t free. Cellular coverage isn’t ubiquitous. If you want to get emergency broadcasts in a lot of parts of the country, right now AM radio is about the only way to do it. One of the problems in this whole thing is that they allocate stations based on probabilities. When you see those nighttime signal contours, they are 50/50 or 50/90 curves or 90/10 curves, or whatever. So 50/50 means 50% of the radio 50% of the time. Well that means the other 50% of the time its something else. When you put multiple interfering stations on the same channel on a given night, the odds that the interference will be higher than the map shows is greater than 50/50. The staff knows this, but the commission chooses to ignore it. To me, it’s just a little disingenuous. Look, there are countries that decided to do away with AM all together.
RI: Do you think we are headed down that road?
Michaels: I think we’re about to make all stations equally useless. I think the difficulty with AM—there are many difficulties with AM, but by far, the biggest one is signal. I’m old enough to remember when a 5,000 watt station could adequately cover a market. Now it’s the interference levels, both from clear channel’s and outside sources, from computers to energy-efficient light bulbs and everything in the house that makes noise. Plus cities have gotten larger and grown outside their footprints. Today, there are very few AMs that can actually cover a market. We are about to destroy those. Florida is already done, because the Caribbean has duplicated all the clear channels. So you don’t get any night service. Really, if you drive out in the middle of Florida, you don’t get any radio at night. You get crap. And we are about to do that to the whole country.
We’ll have part two from Randy Michaels in our Friday morning headlines.