(By John Garziglia) The FCC has authorized voluntary all-digital AM radio operations for all AM broadcasters. This presents AM stations with an opportunity to greatly enhance their audio quality and thus join the magical world of “FM”, envisioned by the 1978 Steely Dan hit of the same name. The rule change authorizing AM all-digital operations will become effective 30 days after the FCC’s just adopted Report and Order is published in the Federal Register.
The FCC is requiring a 30-day advance notification for AM all-digital operations. Each AM station operating in all-digital must, in the same way as FM HD operations, provide at least one free over-the-air digital programming stream that is comparable to or better in audio quality than a standard analog broadcast. Any additional available digital capacity can be used for either broadcast or non-broadcast services.
In the Report and Order, the FCC cites Xperi estimated data of 70 million AM and FM HD receivers shipped to North America with 90% still in use, and an estimated 60.9 million HD receivers installed in automobiles. Virtually all of these HD receivers will satisfactorily receive an all-digital AM signal.
AM broadcasters will need to make their own decisions as to whether it is a solid business proposition to convert to all-digital AM. An AM station fortunate to have an associated FM translator will be able to continue to largely serve its analog radio audience on the translator, while providing a far superior listening experience to its HD radio audience with the AM all-digital signal. With the FCC’s recent elimination of the program duplication rule, AM stations that arrange to simulcast with another AM station can continue serve both HD and analog audiences.
There are significant reasons in favor of an AM station conversion to all-digital. Based upon AM all-digital station tests, the HD audio quality for listeners will be static-free out to the periphery of the station’s service area, as opposed to an analog listening experience with audible noise from power lines, spark plugs, in-car electronics, atmospheric electrical charges and adjacent channels. Even listeners in automobiles with poor filtering and choking for today’s complement of the vehicle’s computers, motors and circuits should enjoy a far superior AM listening experience. Some HD radios will display AM station call signs and graphics.
There are, however, significant reasons why an all-digital operation may be detrimental to an AM station. If an AM station has no paired FM translator or AM station, an AM station going all-digital risks losing a significant percentage of its listening audience. its analog audience will experience only hash on the AM station’s frequency in place of the now heard analog music or talk interspersed with occasional static. HD audience loss will vary from market-to-market. There are different levels of HD radio penetration for different communities and different formats.
A conversion to all-digital AM may be expensive, costing in the neighborhood of $250K or more for AM transmission systems that need substantial work to successfully pass the all-digital AM signal. There may not be a return on investment to be had, even if the AM station in all-digital does increase its listenership.
Perhaps the best assessment of all-digital AM operation advantages might be had by actually testing an all-digital transmitter at a subject station. Given that only a simple FCC notification need be filed as a regulatory matter, possibly equipment manufacturers will design a portable moderate-power AM all-digital transmission system that may be loaned to do facility and audience testing. If such a test system were to show both a satisfactory technical operation along with a positive audience reaction, a station owner’s experience of hearing his or her previously static-laden, fading in-and-out, low fidelity, mushy AM analog audio in pure, clean, flawless all-digital, may make a believer out of many AM station owners … and listeners.
“Give her some funked up music … she treats you nice … Feed her some hungry reggae … she’ll love you twice … The girls don’t seem to care tonight … As long as the mood is right … no static at all … no static at all … [AM!] – no static at all”.
John Garziglia is a communications attorney at Womble Bond Dickinson and can be reached at (202) 857-4455 or [email protected]