The Grim Reaper Meeting With Himself – Are Four St. Louis-Area AM Stations Dead?
(By John Garziglia) For four St. Louis area AM stations, license renewal applications from the year 2012 have remained ungranted. As reported by Radio Ink in “Was A Convicted Felon Running Radio Stations?”, the FCC designated those license renewal applications for hearing in 2019. The radio licensee itself had a certain notoriety for a radio personality and alleged owner who called himself the “Grim Reaper of Radio.”
On February 19, 2020, an FCC administrative law judge issued an Order of Dismissal against the license renewal applications, dismissing the four stations’ license renewal applications for a “failure to prosecute.” This dismissal followed almost two years of hearing proceedings that sought to determine whether Robert S. Romanik, the self-identified Grim Reaper and a convicted felon, was actually in control of the radio stations rather than the named licensee.
No one ultimately appeared at the hearing on behalf of the purported licensee. The judge used the licensee’s non-appearance as the stated cause of dismissal.
Under the FCC’s rules, the licensee can appeal this administrative law judge decision to the full Commission, and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals. But, assuming this decision holds and the license renewals are denied, can others apply for the AM licenses?
Section 73.3571(h) of the Commission’s rules restricts the filing of new AM applications to announced filing windows. The last such AM filing window was in 2004. Action on any conflicting applications filed in such a filing window are determined by an FCC auction.
There is no timing restriction, however, on existing AM stations filing for modifications of facilities. Therefore, if the technical facilities of any of the four non-renewed AM stations are restricting other AM stations from an expansion of coverage, it is possible that existing AM stations could take advantage. Then, when a new AM filing window does open, the potential coverage of a newly-filed application for one or more of the defunct AM station facilities could be severely restricted, or eliminated completely, as a result of modifications to other AM stations.
There are four AM stations at issue in this FCC proceeding: KFTK(AM), 1490 kHz, East St. Louis, IL, operating with 1 kilowatt day and night; WQQW(AM), 1510 kHz, Highland, IL, operating with 1 kilowatt daytime-only; KZQZ(AM), 1430 kHz, St. Louis, MO, operating with 50 kilowatts daytime and 5 kilowatts at night; and KQQZ(AM), 1190 kHz, Fairview Heights, IL, operating with 10 kilowatts daytime and 650 watts at night.
Because WQQW(AM) is a daytime-only station, it is also probable that Section 73.21(a)(3) of the FCC’s rules, which prohibits the authorization of new daytime-only AM stations (unless formerly licensed as a full-time station), may forestall any future new station application for its facilities. New station applications for the facilities now occupied by the three other stations — KFTK(AM), KQZQ(AM), and KQQZ(AM) — will not be so restricted, provided that, when a new AM filing window does open (which could be years from now), the AM spectrum remains available to specify a new full-time AM station in accord with the FCC’s then-current rules.
AM stations with highly divergent day/night power levels or patterns, or AM stations operating on local channels with 1 kilowatt with no nighttime interference protections, or daytime-only AM stations, or AM stations with no FM translator, all have a challenged future at best. While it will take an engineering analysis to determine whether the demise of any of these AM stations, all which have one or more of these detrimental characteristics, will enable improvements to other AM stations, just the removal of these challenged AM signals from the crowded band may be a net positive. In particular, if all-digital AM becomes a reality, as proposed in the FCC’s November 25, 2019 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, it will be AM stations that have consistent, robust, day and night signals that have the greatest chance of success, a description that applies to none of the Grim Reaper stations.
The FCC’s refusal to renew a radio station license happens infrequently enough that preparing for last rites may not yet be timely. It is possible that the FCC could reverse the administrative law judge’s decision on appeal, or entertain an application for a “distress sale” of the stations, for public interest reasons. Unfortunately, the FCC’s former distress sale policy, which contemplated a sale to a qualified entity in order to promote ownership diversity, was declared unconstitutional in 1990. The unavailability of distress sale procedures was reiterated in a 2016 decision on several California radio license revocations. Nonetheless, it is possible that an FCC reversal or policy change could result in an opportunity for a sale of the existing stations to a third party.
The death of radio stations, even if possible to resurrect years later with new station applications, is usually not good for our industry. But, as noted above, it may be that AM stations going by the wayside with the challenged facilities noted here, is not a tragedy but rather an opportunity for the technical strengthening of other AM stations.
John Garziglia is a communications attorney at Womble Bond Dickinson and can be reached at (202) 857-4455 or [email protected]