AM radio, the senior broadcast band, no longer has the luxury of time to correct its problems, if those problems can be corrected at all.
This week there’s an assembly of “radio people” in Atlanta. The annual NAB/RAB Fall Radio Show, where station owners get to have free drinks on the vendors gathered trying to sell them something, engineers get to see the latest cool new gadgets and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the Washington, D.C. lobbying arm of broadcasters, can get some press about all the great things the industry is doing. All well and good.
It’s now been two years since a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) chairwoman got the crowd at the 2013 Fall Radio Show cheering about what the FCC was going to do to save AM radio. What’s been done? Predictably, NOTHING.
While I disagreed with many of the ideas the FCC was proposing back then, you should be more outraged at their inaction. Even with our current “do-nothing” and “retire with a big pension representative government,” there is no excuse for the harm the FCC is now causing AM radio.
Two years is an eternity in today’s ever changing technological world.
Here’s something you may not realize. The iPhone, the device that changed the way you communicate, document your life with pictures and keeps you entertained and connected through social media apps was introduced in 2007, just 8 years ago. Technology changes fast and waits for no one, especially the FCC and broadcasters with little focus or desire to save a technology created over a century ago. History shows “amplitude modulation” was not originally thought of for voice or music. It was meant to transmit morse code, where fidelity didn’t matter and today’s data may be its future.
The problems with today’s AM radio weren’t created overnight. Its demise started decades ago when the FCC allowed more and more stations, full-time and daytime, high and low power, non-directional and directional to be crammed onto the dial. Today, additional interference from modern lighting, computers, smartphones and other things, creates an interference filled AM broadcast band. If listeners want the “limited programming” available on AM, like conservative talk shows, sports, religion and brokered programming, they can find a better and more convenient way to hear it, like streaming over an iPhone.
AM’s problems are interference and limited programming choice, the core issues facing AM radio today.
So what can be done about interference? In 2013, the FCC issued a “Notice of Proposed Rule Making” (NPRM). Pretty much everything it proposed then, which they have done nothing to advance since, will take a lot of time, something AM radio no longer has.
The FCC’s proposed 2013 fixes were:
- Modifying AM antenna standards
- Wider implementation of modulation dependent carrier level control technologies
- Eliminating the “ratchet rule”
- Modifying daytime and nighttime coverage standards for existing AM stations
Most, if not all of the above, will cause more interference and/or signal distortion on the AM band.
The final proposed fix was allowing AM licensees an exclusive filing window for FM translators, which I previously said won’t help AM radio “because the translators are on FM.” All joking aside, allowing more stations to be jammed onto the FM band is nothing more than the “AM-ization” of FM and will cause more interference and decreased signal coverage for existing FM stations. Revitalizing the AM band by allowing licensees a low powered FM translator frequency is not “revitalization.” It’s a white flag surrender with the FCC and broadcast industry giving up on the AM radio.
And could that be the ultimate goal? Freeing up the valuable AM spectrum space to be auctioned off for other uses, like wireless data?
Current FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, has come out saying the FCC would finally move forward with AM revitalization, but without the AM-only filing window for FM translators because he doesn’t think there are enough translator frequencies for the AM licensees wanting one. Plus, it may not be fair for AM station owners to have an exclusive filing window, excluding others groups who may also want an FM translator frequency. And there are others in the FCC that have said there may already be too many FM translator stations. Ya think?
AM has precious little time left. The FCC must move on the things it can control and fix quickly. Number one on the agenda must be cleaning up the interference on the AM band caused by too many stations and that starts with taking back the licenses of hundreds of low powered stations, leaving the band to higher powered and viable AM stations. The surviving AM stations could then increase power and adjust patterns allowing for expanded coverage over the entire areas they are licensed to serve.
I’m guessing, however, I’ll be writing another article in 2017 saying the FCC has still done little, if anything, to save AM radio.
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