Want Your AM To Succeed? Put It On FM.

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(By Robert Lee) “It’s all in the numbers.”

What do these storied AM stations have in common: WOR, WCBS, WLW, KDKA, WOR, KNX, WLS, KMOX, KSL, KFBK, WBZ? And more.

Yes, they are all famous, legacy AM stations. Some have been around for 70-plus years. Yes, they are all big, 50,000-watt “flamethrower” Class A AM outlets.

And, these historic “little c” clear channel AM stations all now have an FM presence.

Whether on a full-power, co-owned FM station, an FM HD sub-channel, or an FM translator, the numbers show that 43 of the 58 Class A AMs in the lower 48 states are also being broadcast on the FM band. That is a 74% total — a so-called supermajority. That is the reality of where today’s radio station owners and operators see consumer listening to broadcast radio going. Or, as I’ve said, “AM radio is dead.”

And that supermajority number of AMs-on-FM is just the Class A AMs. Include the Class B, C, and D AM stations on FM, and the case is even stronger. The reality is what it is.

I recently penned a piece for this website that drew a lot of passionate responses from readers who, in many cases, used some strong language to essentially assert that I am engaging in heresy by calling for the end of AM radio broadcasting in the U.S. and migrating all AM stations to the FM band. In order to accommodate the move of thousands of AM signals to FM, I have proposed creating an all-digital expanded FM band in what is now the television Channels 5 and 6 bandwidth, along with eventually, by a mandated “date certain,” the digitization of the incumbent FM band at 88 to 108 MHz.

From a different perspective, AM station owner Ben Downs, also here in Texas, recently filed a Petition For Rulemaking with the FCC, proposing that AM radio can be saved by allowing AM owners to voluntarily convert their senior band stations to a particular digital format, HD MA3. His effort was also featured in a Radio Ink story.

So, I again write an AM-to-FM piece, first, because of the Downs proposal to the FCC, and, second, because Chairman Pai and the other Commissioners are currently engaged in a critical, Congressionally mandated Quadrennial Review, whereby the FCC commissioners and staff are directed to “…determine whether the rules remain necessary in the public interest as the result of competition” and to repeal or modify any rule it finds is no longer in the public interest.” While this Quadrennial Review does not specifically include any review of technical and engineering standards, it can be amended, with proper public notice, to do so. Meanwhile, there is the concurrent FCC Proceeding 17-105, “Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative,” which does address the updating of engineering/technical standards in radio and TV broadcasting. I filed comments to that latter proceeding, arguing for shutting down the AM band and moving the AM stations to the FM band, expanded and existing. I continue to believe that transitioning all radio broadcasting in the U.S. to all-digital FM is the way to go, and to put AM behind us.

Chairman Pai and Commissioners: Sometimes the numbers – and technical truths – don’t lie. As with broadcast television, let’s bring broadcast radio into the 21st century…on FM.

Robert Lee is the owner of QXZ MediaWorks in Waco, Texas, and can be  reached by e-mail at contactus@qxz.media

11 COMMENTS

  1. I am not sure what you mean to put everyone on “Digital FM”. Does that mean FM with HD-1,2,3 or No Analog FM with all HD carriers? The latter is a non-starter, that is why the only practical approach is the former.

    Re-allocate TV Channel 5 and 6 to an expanded FM band? That would have been practical at the time of the switch to Digital TV in the US, but with the reduced TV frequencies available, many CH2-6 stations are beginning to light up again. Broadcast TV needed a clear direction from the FCC to clear CH 2-6 and provide sufficient bandwidth at UHF prior to Wireless Auctions. They dropped the ball on this one.

    Finally, do you really think AM to FM conversion actually took place in Canada? Take a listen, CHML ,CFZM and CFRB among others command a large radio audience, especially at night. Not to mention the Americans doing their part like WBZ, WCCO, WBT and of course, WSM, Nashville. Long distance truckers are part of that audience.

    He invented FM, but I certainly do not believe Armstrong would would have called for its demise.

  2. Ici en France AM n’existe plus. Et cela disparaît peu à peu en Europe. C’est dommage car les distances sont moindres et avec un émetteur de 100 kW on peut couvrir une zone très importante en termes de population. Les derniers qui résistent encore sont Bretagne 5 sur 1593 kHz et ils ont bien raison. J’espère qu’on y reviendra et que tout cela n’est pas définitif. Amis américains ! Gardez votre belle bande AM !

    • While I obviously disagree with DJ, this is the translation: “Here in France AM no longer exists. And that disappears little by little in Europe. It is a pity because the distances are smaller and with a transmitter of 100 kW one can cover an area very important in terms of population. The last ones that still resist are Britain 5 on 1593 kHz and they are right. I hope we will come back and that all this is not final. American friends! Keep your beautiful AM band!”

  3. And what does a forced conversion of FM to digital buy us? Forced obsolescence of all existing radios and continuing royalty payments to iBiquity. Oh yes, you can provide more inventory by adding HD-2 and HD-3 program streams…if you can sell the inventory you already have!
    Reallocation of TV channels 5 and 6 isn’t going to happen…period. In case you’ve been in a coma over the past two years, the FCC has dramatically shrunken the frequency bands available for television broadcasting. The UHF-TV band now only goes to channel 36. Channels 14-20 continue to be shared with land mobile, especially public safety services, so those channels are unavailable in some markets. Channel 37 remains reserved for radio astronomy and channels 38-51 will be used for wireless broadband services. So a lot of TV stations have to move to the low and high VHF bands, including channels 5 and 6.

    Since a lot of land mobile systems are moving out of low VHF, a possibility for FM expansion MIGHT be the original 42-50 MHz band. Consideration must be given, however, to those public safety radio systems that are still in that band and to the intermediate frequency of TV receivers. It will take some time for sufficient receiver penetration to be achieved in order to make the stations that move to this band viable.

    To improve AM, we need better receivers (remember the GE Superradio, anyone?), vigorous enforcement of the Part 15 and 18 restrictions on unintentional radiation from computers, power lines, and other noise generators, and BETTER PROGRAMMING. Find a niche and fill it! Infomercials for quack dietary supplements and cure-all laxatives won’t cut it! Such programming may bring in some quick money, but it sucks like a tornado. And people don’t listen to it. Getting rid of the iBiquity AM digital system would also help, as this would eliminate the cicada-like buzz heard on stations within 20 kHz of a station running “HD Radio”.

  4. “Finally, having said that, the FCC was inexcusably negligent, over the years, in not preventing and mitigating the electrical and electronic interference that has badly damaged AM signals.” NOW you’ve gotten to the real point. Write that article!

    Moving AM to FM is akin to saying to ‘save’ it is akin to saying ‘we can save the dog you love by shooting it and getting a puppy.’ If you want to save AM you need three things: reduced man-made noisemakers, better programming and better technical transmission and reception devices (think bandwidth and equalization).

    FM has nothing to do with it!

  5. Moving AM to FM is probably an undoable quick fix right now. On the other hand, AM’s are already on FM conceptually because both AM’s and FM’s are all at equal parity online. Both can have pristine quality with a ‘signal’ that’s worldwide. If you have one of the Google Home or Alexa units you’ll already feel that they’re equal in every way. Zero distinction between either. Those ‘audio’ units are the future. The only question is how long of a wait is there before online listening starts passing terrestrial listening.

  6. Outside the top markets, the real problem is too many stations for the dollars (and formats) available.
    We’ve witnessed dramatic shrinkage of regional and national dollars in our 200+ market How about one fast food chain going from $2k/month to $300 month? And the $300 only because we had a long relationship with the franchisee–who had contacts through his franchisee board.

    So while FM signals may save some AM stations (I lease tower space to 4 translators for local AM’s); they still have be sold. Nor is “digital” (waive your arms like a big bird) the answer–digital is more fragile a signal then FM, with little perceived difference in audio quality. Plus added equipment expense and on-going royalty payments. No thanks!

    • “I lease tower space to 4 [FM] translators for local AM’s…”.

      In a way, are you unintentionally making my case for ‘AM-to-FM’, Tom?

  7. Let’s just put it on FM … really? It’s not that simple and space on the band is one issue. Strong billing in big markets is another. The solution was DAB and a protectionist industry that didn’t see streaming audio coming blew it. Look at Europe and the UK. Now try tuning to that HD2 station in West Palm Beach. AM 880 should be accessible to all on FM — as 101.1 HD2 appearing simply as “WCBS News” on a radio. The only real solution is for the continued and sustained transition of all broadcast media to streaming apps. Over the air signals – all – will be outmoded for Radio in 20-30 years.

  8. The title of the article, “Want Your AM To Succeed? Put It on FM,” is not really honest. Your AM would not be succeeding. It would be shut down, and the owner would get an FM license in return. A more honest title would be: “Want Your AM To Succeed? It Can’t, So Close It Down. The FCC Will Give You an FM License In Its Place.” The issue then becomes: Is it the role of the Federal government to reward owners who have chosen to invest in outdated technology with free valuable FM licenses? And what about owners of AM stations which have gone dark earlier because they couldn’t make it? Aren’t they just as deserving of these FM licenses?

    • Very good and relevant questions, Jeff, that, on a certain level, raise philosophical points of discussion.

      First, by definition, many technologies, when they are first introduced, are not “outdated”. They are new, and, in a free market economy, are often a good investment. In recent years, the companies that invested in VHS and Beta VCRs, for example, reaped billions of dollars in profits in doing so. But then, times changed, and we evolved to digital successor technologies, including DVD, Blu-ray and digital playback and streaming. Just one example of individuals and companies taking a risk — an investment — in the free market economy.

      But, broadcasting is a hybrid industry that plays in both the public (government) and private sector, so to speak. Because there is limited spectrum in which broadcasting can operate, it is highly regulated by the Federal government, i.e., mainly the FCC, but even by the Justice Department, the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, etc. A broadcasting license is not ‘free’. It comes from the Federal government…with many conditions and responsibilities. When the FCC made the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting, all existing TV licensees were provided with a new digital channel to transition to, and then had to surrender the analog channel. We now need to do the same, I would argue, with analog AM channels (stations) in a transition to digital FM. As far as the former AM operators, they knew the risk of starting the business, and that there was no guarantee of success in a free market.

      Finally, having said that, the FCC was inexcusably negligent, over the years, in not preventing and mitigating the electrical and electronic interference that has badly damaged AM signals. The Commission was given the statutory and regulatory power and duty to do so, and it did not. A totally different issue, but an important one that the FCC needs to be mindful of.

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