F.C.C.’s Out of Control Licensing of the FM Band

Darryl_Parks

Darryl Parks shortly before his famous missive about the FCC and NAB.

As we lead up to the first anniversary of my infamous blog which pointed out issues with the so-called “fixes” proposed to help the struggling AM band, fixes that would simply increase interference on AM, I thought I’d lead into my anniversary celebration week with a quick snap shot of where we are with licensed radio stations in America.

FCC Logo

Serving in the lobbyist’s interest, convenience and necessity.

A year ago I dared to point out the snake oil being sold by some Federal Communications Commissioners (F.C.C.), snake oil that brought cheers from attendees at the 2013 National Association of Broadcasters (N.A.B.) convention.  Maybe calling the convention a “circle jerk” was a little over the top, but it got the attention of people, including my former employer.  (I thought I saw them cheering down in the front row, but wasn’t sure.  I am now.)

It’s been over a year.  What tangible help has been given to struggling AM owners and their suffering businesses? (I will avoid saying, “Who was right?)

NOTHING!

I love AM radio and will be one of the last believers in the medium.  A year ago I dared to suggest the worth of many AM stations was in real estate and that the unviable stations, ones that had little business, struggling to pay the electric bill and were no longer needed to serve their community’s public interest, convenience or necessity, should be turned off.  Fewer stations would ease some interference on the band.

Others, in the past year, have suggested AM stations should be given FM translators, low power FM stations, to help listeners hear their product, thus increasing the value of the AM radio facility.  I’m still not following how a low power FM station makes an AM station more viable for no other reason than it’s on FM, but I’ll keep trying to understand this logic.

Decades ago, when the AM band was the only place to get news, weather and entertainment, years before FM and TV stations were commonplace, the F.C.C., like drunk sailors on shore leave, licensed stations and the AM band was flooded.  There were clear channel stations, regional stations, local stations, directional stations, daytime stations, stations that had pre-sunrise authority and others that had a few minutes of post-sunset broadcasting.  Anything to shoe-horn a station in.  The AM band was overrun with static.  Then came computers, lighting and the interference horrors and hash of IBOC, better known as HD Radio, which really isn’t high-def.

After years of regulatory neglect by the F.C.C., a few commissioners have spoken up and said we need to save the AM band and that’s a good thing.  But, history is about to repeat itself on the FM band as stations are being put anywhere one can be shoved in.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s the data from the F.C.C. as of September 30, 2014…

  • AM stations on-air     4715 (down from 4721 on June 14, 2014)
  • FM commercial stations     6633 (up from 6622 on June 14, 2014)
  • FM non-com/educational stations     4085  (up from 4082 onJune 14, 2014)

TOTAL     15,433  (up from 15,425 on June 14, 2014)

But wait there’s more….

  • FM translators     6186  (up from 6141 on June 14, 2014)
  • FM low power (LPFM)     873  (up from 814 on June 14, 2014)

TOTAL FM stations on-air     17,777

Admittedly, there’s more science, physics, geography and commercial v. educational licenses that go into the following math and reasoning, but for simplicity, there are only 100 channels on the FM band in the U.S.A. (Channel 201 = 88.1 MHz to Channel 300 = 107.9 MHz), which means there are 177.77 stations on each of these frequencies in the U.S.

Seriously?

Each time another new FM translator or LPFM goes on the air, the signals of full-power stations already on the band are degraded.  This due to adjacent and second-adjacent channel interference. Your favorite FM station no longer coming in as strong as it used to?  There’s a reason.

The answer to interference and the billing woes of radio today is…wait for it…there are too many stations, selling too many commercials, which in turn drives the price down of available inventory.

The answer is less stations with less aggregate inventory to sell forcing higher rates and creating less interference on both the AM and FM bands.

Unfortunately, economics are already forcing AM station owners to shut off their transmitters.

Radio broadcasters wont ‘t admit it, but the “Law of Supply and Demand” rules over them too.

Maybe it’s time to cash in the acreage at their tower sites, something I said almost a year ago.

 

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  4 comments for “F.C.C.’s Out of Control Licensing of the FM Band

  1. October 24, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    This is a textbook case of government serving the special interests instead of the public interest.

    And a textbook case of how little difference there really is between both Duopoly political parties who take turns mismanaging the FCC.

    I grew up in Pittsburgh listening to, and being inspired by, the incredible talent on KQV, KDKA and WTAE.

    Looking at the red lights on the magestic radio towers in the North Hills at night was like looking at magic; sound propelled from the Burgh across the nation.

    Now, listeners must struggle to hear shockingly inferior signals, if, that is, they want to hear hour-long commercials that stations shamelessly call “programming.”

    Let’s hope some of the owners of AM stations still have the drilling and mineral rights when they sign-off.

  2. Nick
    October 27, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Interesting history, but most of us have already moved on. I get my “radio” from TuneIn and iHeartRadio on my phone. No need to worry about stupid program directors. If the station drops a favorite, I just go to the favorite on another station. Geography has been erased.

    The sacred WLW tower in Mason still has some emotional appeal. But today’s radio comes from the telecom towers I pass every day. In the end, the content is more important than which venue delivers it.

  3. John Davis
    October 27, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Remember when the NAB said the solution to nobody making any money in radio was that we didn’t have enough stations, so Docket 80-90 deregulated things so we could give “first local service” to all kinds of places on the map that were able to pick up nearby cities, and their “local service” consisted of speaking the city of license as quickly as possible before clearly enunciating the bigger city that followed in a :02 ID jammed between spots at :55. Or creative engineering shuffled signals that used to legitimately serve little towns to provide “first local service” to a suburb of a major metro. And thus we ended up with more stations than the market could support, and the only solution was to loosen the ownership caps. We know what happened after that.

    So why else would we expect the solution to our woes would be to sign on a bunch of 250 watt FM signals that you can only pick up in the car to replace AM stations whose cities of license have mostly outgrown the pattern or weren’t really viable in the first place, turning the FM band into a similar swamp that the AM band has been for years.

    The rules behind LPFM have their hearts in the right place: the intent is to sign on low powered hyper-local stations that effectively serve a neighborhood. But in practice it’s just more noise on the dial, especially since most people who get LPFM stations think their coverage area exceeds what’s possible given the limits on power and height.

    As usual, broadcasters should be careful what they wish for.

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