It’s Time To Kill The AM Band


(By Robert Lee)  “Elections have consequences,” and, “Someone moved the goalposts.” In reading the objections by a couple of LPFM advocacy groups about the recent deluge of FM translators-for-AM stations applications, I see two things going on: politics, first; and, second, misguided policy by a government agency, the FCC, which, as I said in my response to John Garziglia’s column of May 21, has taken one serious problem and created another equally serious problem.

On the first point, politics: During the Obama years, the Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler, Democrat-led FCC gave great priority to LPFMs, in the name of local community activism, to counter the big, corporate, full-power stations. Clear Channel was generally the biggest enemy that had to be slayed, or at least brought down a notch or two, since Clear Channel and its behemoth, cost-slashing brethren had destroyed localism in radio.

Then, an Ajit Pai, Republican-led FCC came along, with its “AM revitalization,” which meant shifting the priority and emphasis on the use of “secondary FM services” from LPFMs to FM translators-for-AMs. And, yes, the LPFM proponents are quite correct that there has been a flood of FM translators that now compete for space on the FM band, against both full-power and low-power FMs.

Which leads to my second point, regarding what I believe is misguided and destructive policy by the FCC in its too-late attempt to save the AM band. I believe that years of (total?) neglect by the FCC in enforcing its on-the-books rules against electrical and electronic-noise interference to the AM band has permanently and irreversibly damaged AM radio stations. Clogging the FM band with new translators for the AM stations is a Band-Aid solution that does nothing to actually and technically fix the growing “noise floor” degradation to AMs.

So, I have proposed, including in my comments in the Commission’s “modernization” proceeding, 17-105, to entirely shut down the AM band and move all AM stations to an all-digital, expanded FM band on what is now the TV Channels 5 and 6 bandwidth. The Channel 5 and 6 bandwidth is contiguous to the current FM bandwidth, which makes it the logical place to add more FM radio frequencies. Using the 5/6 bandwidth is not a new idea. It has been around for over 20 years. What is new about the 5/6 expanded band idea is that we now have digital broadcasting, which is much more efficient than analog transmission, meaning we can pack far more FM frequencies into an all-digital bandwidth. If we have the will to create an expanded FM, it can certainly be accomplished, as we have seen with the successful transition of broadcast television to digital.

(FCC ‘Modernization’ Proceeding 17-105:

Chairman Pai’s well-meaning attempt to save AM radio should, instead, accept the reality among many of us in the radio industry that the AM band is forever ruined by electromagnetic interference that should have been curtailed years ago, but was not. Let’s move into the 21st century, junk the AM band, and create a highly efficient, all-digital expanded FM band that will accommodate all radio broadcast services – full-power AM and FM stations, FM translators, and LPFM – with plenty of room for all. At some point, we would also move the incumbent FM band (88 – 108 mHz) to all-digital.

Chairman Pai and Commissioners, will you do the right thing and refocus your efforts on real solutions, and put the Band-Aids back on the shelf?

Robert Lee is the Owner-President, QXZ MediaWorks LLC, Dallas, Texas and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. AM broadcasters want a break-so put them on FM “translators”. LPFM operators want a break-so put ’em on FM. Cell phone companies want a break so put them on…is there a pattern here? Seems they’re now trying to use the only acceptable “radio” service as a dumping ground for the displaced. If the FCC can legislate things like interference-ridden additional signals on FM, they should be able to legislate fixing the AM band with lower noise and better quality. Let’s remember the law of supply and demand. If you increase the “supply” of FM frequencies, the value goes down. If you can fix the AM band, the value will go up. Radio relied on HD radio to provide more programming on radio-to “compete” with satellite’s myriad choices. Then along comes online streaming. There’s no way “radio” can compete with the number of online choices. Now it’s up to radio to make sure the RADIO choices surpass the quality of ONLINE choices. Content has been, is, and always will be the tie-breaker in media.

  2. Calling it ‘AM Revitalization’ is misleading. I agree about cleaning up AM and getting rid of interference, but to give AM’s FM translators and squashing and short-spacing LPFM’s is wrong. That’s not revitalization, that is just obnoxious and inconsiderate. AM belongs on AM, and should not affect FM stations.

    AM is obviously different that FM, and on multiple levels. I tune in to FM for music, and to AM for talk.

    Channel 6 is for use by displaced stations, Channel 5 is for pirates.

    Killing AM is a weird idea, that came out of left wing. There are many many AM listeners! AM is magic. I know old timers that made AM stations sound as good as FM, or close enough! There is an AM station not far from me that plays classical music and it sounds just as good as FM.

    The input I received on HD radio is that it sounds like ass. FM Analog is magic. Analog is magic. Digital to me is not the answer. Cramming a bunch more stations on the dial is not wise. Then nobody will make it… Might as well kill FM as well while you’re at it.

    And by the way, getting rid of current FM translators that are not tied rebroadcasting and actual AM or FM frequency would clear up a few channels, though I believe those should be given to LPFM’s.

    I also feel the FCC is being a bad father to LPFM’s. I have too many analogies how LPFM’s are treated like FCC’s bastard child. It’s like giving your kid money to go buy a bike, and when he comes come with the bike, you take it away and smash it. Unlike full powers who do it for the money, LPFM licensees pour their heart and soul into their stations.

    When will the FCC let LPFM’s transmit power and Haat equal to translators? When will the FCC open a translator window for LPFM’?

    My assumption is that they will do that when it’s too late and dial is too crammed, and I feel the FCC is making fun of LPFM’s.

  3. Moving AM aural service to FM (more than 2,000 FM translator grants have been made to AM stations) seems to be a slimy way to “revitalize” the AM Broadcast band, as it’s not a flat landscape for all AM’ers to get FM coverage via a translator. While former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was not popular with the broadcast community, he seemed to be the only advocate of not giving away spectrum.

    It’s amusing that the FCC still uses the phase “serving the public interest,” when commercial radio broadcasters are “for profit” operations with just about zero listeners and zero revenue. This combination results in zero value and no way for these operations to continue in business. They get no subsidies, no handouts— just flat zero income, and no one is going to put money in a business without a ROI.

    It seems to me that the addition of an FM translator for a zero-value AM operation is only going to perpetuate the AM death march.

    What really concerns me are these relatively low-power FM translator allocations. I predict that in the future there will be multiple complaints from the AM operators with FM translator grants that their coverage is poor and they need more power.

    Once this power-increase door is opened, it will never be allowed to close. The established full-power FM broadcasters need to watch for complaints from the new translator crowd about the need for power increases. These 2,035 AM licensees being equipped with FM translators can apply a lot of pressure on Congress.

    One suggestion I’ve heard for accommodating more FM operations with is to narrow deviation on the FM band, drop IBOC, and then repack the FM broadcast spectrum just as is happening with the television over the air broadcasters.The other part of such a scenario is the shutting down of all AM operations running less than 10 kW. Man-made noise is going to make it more and more difficult for AM reception from the lower-powered broadcasters. I can’t envision an expansion of the FM band or digital AM ever getting any traction, as consumer purchase of new AM or FM radio receivers is not happening.

    Smartphones rule! Consumers have purchased 236 – million units. Digital AM has come too late for consumers to want to invest in new receiver equipment. An FM band repack could be the only game left in town.

    The last time I looked, there were more than 581 comments on file at the FCC’s website regarding AM Revitalization. In traveling around the country in my RV, I have found that of the 115 AM broadcast channels available during the night time, usually only about four can be received with any degree of listenability. In metro areas, this sometimes rises to 12. AM nighttime reception is now just a sea of noise with few listenable channels. Power increases are not the answer, as this would only amount to mutual annihilation.

    IEEE BTS editor, James O’Neal, in previous writings made me aware of a comment made in 1927 by Henry Bellows, one of the first Federal Radio Commission members. I think it’s worth repeating here:

    “A broadcasting station is in many ways akin to a newspaper, but with this fundamental difference: There is no arbitrary limit to the number of different newspapers which may be published, whereas there is a definite limit, and a very low one, to the number of broadcasting stations which can operate simultaneously within the entire length and breadth of our country.

    “This limit has not only been reached; it has been far overpassed; the demand from every section of the country is to cut down the number of broadcasting stations in the interests of the listening public.”

    These words are from 90 years ago! All the FCC needs is a mirror for AM revitalization.

    Warren Shulz

    Retired Broadcast Engineer
    Life member IEEE, SBE, AES

  4. Mr Lee, pull your head out of your ass..the FCC is NOT GOING to reallocate TV 5-6 to radio…AM is not dead and the FIX for AM is the FCC mandating better receivers..Cquam, AMAX, noise Blanketing, etc…but that has a slightly better chance (0.999%) than your proposal so I’m not holding my breath. Quit with the dead horse proposal about TV 5-6..NOT GONNA HAPPEN… especially with the a Class B AM Stereo owner, I have no wish for the band to go away. And it’s not…but then I live in the real world and fantasy like yours.

    Christopher Boone
    Licensee, Musicradio Double-L S, KLLS, Lumberton/Beaumont, TX

  5. IMO, it would be a grave mistake to kill AM — but I do understand the technological arguments for doing so. I disagree consumers place a high value on sound fidelity, and whether AM revitalization or moving AM stations to the FM band will boost stations’ financial viability when many of these AMs have already alienated listeners with their programming.

    Like POTS, AM still has value for a great many disadvantaged communities that remain underserved by the proverbial free market. It would be irresponsible to disenfranchise these audiences with a wholesale conversion to DRM. The challenges facing AM are political and economic rather than technological. The question therefore is what policies and/or models can be developed for making more AM stations financially viable. The FCC could begin by incentivizing large radio groups to divest their AM holdings, while requiring ‘must carry’ (for indie AMs and LPFMs) and 3rd party local origination/public access of licensees holding multiple FMs with HD capability in a given market.

  6. If there is really interest in saving AM radio, two things need to be done: 1. Get rid of all the noise spewed into that band by the myriad Part 15 and Part 18 devices, as well as by poorly maintained power lines with cracked insulators whose corona trashes the AM band. While we’re at it, let’s kill IBOC (“HD Radio”) on AM. Decoding of its digital stream is not reliable, especially at night, and the digital sidebands create an annoying, cicada-like buzz on a good wideband AM receiver. I have heard it on KYW in Philadelphia. The digital sidebands also cause a lot of interference to first and second adjacent channels. 2. Put on programming that people can’t get on FM. AM is where FM was in the early sixties. Give us music that the FM stations aren’t playing, such as classic country (going back at least to the 60s), pre-Beatles oldies, adult standards, and, for those areas with a lot of people of Eastern European origin, polkas…yes, polkas! There’s a small AM station in Wisconsin that plays them and is making money. What dominates AM today? Sleazy infomercials for questionable real estate deals, quack “cures” and dietary supplements, political rants, and sports. Only the sports programming has any appeal. Translators are great…but what happens when the FM band becomes overcrowded? There is no space available for expansion of the FM band. The “incentive auction” forced a lot of TV stations to move into the low VHF band, making channels 5 and 6 unavailable for FM. And frequencies above 108 MHz are used for aviation, so an upward expansion is not possible.
    Streaming programming on smartphones is fine…but why should we have to PAY for something that radio can give us, the listeners, for free? Putting a computer screen on the dashboard to show us all those wonderful choices is not exactly smart. Do we need something that encourages drivers to take their eyes off the road and cause accidents?

  7. the AM survival depends om two things:

    Transmitter with Stereo Sound Qualiy and Receivers with Enough Bandwidht capabilities to decode that quality, but the radio industry doesnt have none of those features, and with their arrogance and lock of visions, the easiest way out is to over crowd the airwaives with a bunch of FM translators that were better serving a new generation of Low Power FM commercial licences instead of trying to save the Titaninc from drowning with just a bunch of small boats that are not enough to cope with such titanic forces.

    Technology was what broad us AM radio when radio was invented and technology will be the one who saves her child or render it useless as time goes by.

  8. The problem is too much noise so let’s fix it by doing X instead of reducing the noise.

    Yeah, right. Does anyone else notice the tiny logical flaw there?

    The premise is right: we have too much noise because of FCC neglect and that had hurt broadcasting. Now, just fix the problem George!

  9. Saying you’re revitalizing AM stations by putting them on FM is a joke. That’s like saying “We’re going to save Ford by giving everyone a Chevy.”

  10. I know of a few AMs that don’t even have a spare transmitter but spent thousands on an AM – FM translator! How crazy is that? Plus u know they’re feeding the translator with fiber not off-air as it’s legally supposed to be. Yet there are parts of the country that still only have 1 weak AM on the air that (fortunately) isn’t owned by 1 of the bankrupt groups so it’s ALL local.

  11. An awful lot of folks seem to believe TV channels 5 & 6 are no longer in use for TV and can be reallocated for radio. They would be wrong.

    Existing full-power TV stations on these channels leave one or both unavailable in at least seven of the top fifty radio markets. Neither channel is available in the Philadelphia market. You can’t just move these TV stations off to UHF; there was no room available before the repack, and there will be less after. (I can assure you ABC would rather not be on physical channel 6 in Philly!) Stations in Philadelphia and Milwaukee would preclude use in large parts of the NYC and Chicago markets. The TV repack will add San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston to the list of markets where one or both of these channels are off-limits.

    And then there are low-power TV stations. Unlike LPFM, LPTV stations are usually commercial. Hundreds are being kicked off their UHF channels, and in many cases low-VHF is the only place they can go.

    OTA television isn’t going away, and neither are channels 5 and 6.

  12. The rising RF noise floor and the FCC’s lack of enforcement of its own rules is a problem not only for AM radio but for other broadcast services, wireless services, and public safety services. We are drowning in a virtual Sea of Noise. As we move toward an increasingly connected world including a wireless “internet of things,” zillions of ultra-low power devices will be unable to cope with the RF noise in their environment. If the FCC wants to support wireless technology in all forms, it must put a leash on RF noise emitters. The recent fines against LED display operators are a good start.

  13. In Japan, they recently extended their FM broadcast band from 76~90 to 76~95 in order to accommodate their own brand of “AM revitalization”. As a result, there is a mass marketing now of ワイドFM or “Wide FM” receivers that can tune 76~108. The only problem is they do not have any capability for HD Radio or for DRM+. When comparing the two systems, DRM+ would be a better choice for this spectrum over HD Radio as it is a global standard and is more open source than the very proprietary (and very expensive) HD Radio.

    The American broadcast industry continues to crutch HD radio deployment in the 88~108 FM band through this insistence of using FM translators to rebroadcast HD streams while not pushing the consumer electronics industry to make more HD receivers. Because of the expense involved and the lack of receiver availability, HD Radio is a failure.

    In the past, I had developed reallocation plans that would allow for most Class C and D AM stations to migrate to the 76~88 MHz band as analog while keeping “in between” spectrum available for secondary services such as LPFM.

    For non-commercial operations, we should also consider overflow spectrum such as the 11 meter shortwave band which has been tested in the past and accepted worldwide by the ITU for domestic use.

  14. Right idea, wrong plan. As RBR has been advocating in its Observations, DAB not HD Radio as an in-band on-channel option could have led migration of AM years ago. But look at the billing of big market AMs owned by big companies then, and for Entercom AMs today. You wanna give up WINS on 1010 today? I would do it in 2020 when connected cars will render AM obsolete once and for all and get Detroit behind digital radio once and for all. Who listens to AM? That’s not the question. How to listen to AM stations in the digital age is the question. The delivery solutions exist and it’s time for the industry protectionists to cease with saving AM sticks that are today’s equivalent to B/EZ’s 1983-1988 meltdown.

  15. This proposal keeps coming up. It’s at least 20 years too late. nobody is buying radios now, and the chairs is there going to buy radios to get a new FM band is somewhere between slim and none. But won’t compelling programming that isn’t available anywhere else yet people to buy radios and carry both their phone and a radio with them? I wouldn’t bet the farm . First of all, the programming will be available somewhere else, unless an owner is really willing to commit suicide by broadcasting only at 82.7. Second, the fleet of vehicles on the road isn’t going to completely turn over for quite some time . So yes, nice idea, but we’re too late


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here