Bryan Broadcasting’s Ben Downs is a champion for AM Radio. For years he’s been trying, along with others, to solve the noise issues that plague the AM band. His plan to get the FCC to allow AM stations to go all-digital is gaining steam. The Commission has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and the item will come up at the Commission’s meeting on November 19. The big question with AM Radio will always be, is it too late?
Radio Ink: How long have you been working on this and why is it important to AM operators?
Ben Downs: This all-digital option is just a piece of the AM Revitalization puzzle that’s been underway for some time. I began working with the FM translator issue back in 2013. The idea of assigning an FM translator to every AM station permanently was very new then. But an even longer shot was the idea of AM converting to all-digital. On June 30, 2018 Hubbard applied for an experimental license to broadcast in all-digital on WWFD. This was after extensive all-digital system testing by NAB Labs and David Layer.
Then in March of this year, our company filed a Petition for Rulemaking that asked the FCC to allow AM stations to voluntarily convert to all-digital. All the digital testing that had been done truly had been done, and the results were considered a success. I felt like it was time to change the rules on the books and let AM operators make this choice straight up. It’s been very exciting to see how quickly the FCC has moved on considering this option for AM operators.
Radio Ink: If approved what will this actually mean to the sound of AM Radio? Wouldn’t you agree right now it’s pretty much unlistenable when you have so many other crystal-clear options?
Ben Downs: For years, every AM operator I know has despaired because of the overwhelming noise on the AM band. That noise is a part of our modern technology. It comes from our phone chargers, computers, cell phones, flat screens, lights, and power lines. Even before the noise floor kept getting higher, the audio quality of radio receivers was plummeting. This all-digital system fixes both of these problems. It is immune to the noise and hash on the AM band, and the HD radio receivers in the home and in cars have audio quality far superior to the AM radios we’re used to hearing.
As we know, the AM Hybrid Digital system is currently available, but it was always designed as a way to bridge the gap between analog and digital. It uses much more bandwidth which resulted in many stations ultimately turning it off. And the hybrid signal is more fragile than this all-digital version. The hybrid system that’s currently allowed by the FCC is a much less robust way to do AM Digital than the all-digital version we’ve asked the FCC to authorize.
But here’s the part that most people don’t know. While the all-digital is new to broadcasters, it is an old friend to HD radio. Every HD radio sold from the start will pick up this all-digital signal. It is fully compatible. To an AM operator considering converting, this means there are nearly 60 million receivers on the road already. Xperi says that 18-25%
Radio Ink: Specifically, what does the NPRM from the FCC mean and what happens next?
Ben Downs: Today, before an operator could go all digital, they would have to ask for an experimental license like WWFD did. Those licenses have to be renewed annually and don’t allow the station to run commercials. The NPRM would make AM all-digital a permitted and authorized way to broadcast. The draft proposal we’ve read makes this a voluntary conversion and asks a good number of questions about setting technical standards. The FCC will vote on it at their next open meeting on November 19, at which time the public can make comments. Then, we’ll see what comes out.
Nobody thinks this is the right answer for every AM station. Daytime AMs will still get the biggest boost from their translators, not all-digital operation. But it will be the right answer for many AM stations and that’s why we wanted them to have this option.
Radio Ink: What is your opinion on the band-aid the FCC put on the AM issue with the FM translators?
Ben Downs: For stations in the small and medium markets, it’s what AM stations needed to compete. Translators won’t solve all the problems since having a translator doesn’t mean you can’t make a stupid programming decision. What it does mean is an AM operator can compete on an equal footing with other FM stations. On AM, we’ve pretty much been limited to talk of one kind or another. But now, an operator can actually evaluate a market for programming holes and then develop programming to fill them no matter the format.
In a small to medium market, there’s a much better chance of finding a space for a translator, and if you engineer it aggressively you can most likely provide coverage to your entire market. But neither of those benefits are available in major markets. An open frequency is a unicorn in the top 50 markets and there’s no tower tall enough to cover Houston with 250 watts.
Radio Ink: How can AM radio survive in the long run?
Ben Downs: The room for error with an AM is a lot less than a major market Class C. But for the first time, AM operators can begin looking at new and unique programming options without worrying about the noise and inferior sound coming out of the kitchen radio.
AM radio found itself severely limited by its technology. The AM band is where all the noise in the modern world gathered and the quality of the AM receivers declined to a point where they just couldn’t get much worse. We now have a bunch of new tools. But operators will have to be creative. An all-digital AM with 24-hour coverage can program anything and have it sound crystal clear. The engineering will be competitive, but the programming must be competitive also.
Like everything else, you can’t make poor choices. Programmers will be faced with new questions, but for the first time they have access to new answers. Do I continue to broadcast talk or sports on my station that has an FM component? Would a mass appeal music station work, now that I have an FM or a 100% digital AM? After all, Rush and Sean will retire some day. But there’s still a tough decision to make: which is the best chance to take: program to the 25% that have digital-capable radios or take a chance with the 10% who will still listen to AM for music. Dave Kolesar with WWFD made the choice to run a unique music blend in all-digital on an AM station. And for the first time in a long time they are seeing their ratings trend upward. New music on an AM station — a brave new world with such stations in it.
Reach out to Ben by e-mail at [email protected]
Read the entire 34-page NPRM HERE.