AM “Revitalization” Destroying AM Radio

%22We have a company that's doing progressive stuff, and yet we're named after AM radio stations.%22

Bob Pittman, the head of iHeart Media, said this when announcing the company’s name change from Clear Channel Media + Entertainment.

I can’t imagine former Clear Channel CEO Randy Michaels ever saying something like this.

Ouch.

It’s going on three years since the Federal Communication Commission (F.C.C.) announced plans for “AM Revitalization.”  Then, late last year, the long-awaited AM Radio Revitalization Report and Order was finally issued by the F.C.C.  Included are numerous items, most of which will create additional interference on the AM broadcast band.  One item allows AM stations to operate with higher power at night.  The idea is to help lower power local stations provide a better signal so it can better serve its local market with meaningful local programming (more on this later).

This, however, would be at the expense of other stations, including those big signaled 50,000 watt “clear channel” stations.

But, first a history and science lesson.

Decades ago, to insure radio coverage was available in rural and farm areas of the country, the U.S. government assigned “clear channel” status to stations on certain frequencies across the country.  These are stations like WSM in Nashville, WLW in Cincinnati and WLS in Chicago.  With 50,000 watts, an assigned frequency on the left or lower end of the AM band and most importantly no other station operating on those frequencies at night when the AM signal travels farther, these stations were heard in upwards of 35 or 40 states.  Having a Class I station, as it was then called or a Class A today, was unique, valuable and gave station owners a competitive advantage over their lower powered competition.

Here’s the science part.  If you have one transmitter operating on a certain frequency and you have another transmitter operating on the same frequency at a tower site next door, the radio waves from each transmitter will cancel each other out and you won’t hear anything, even though both stations are transmitting and operating normally.

 

Simply put, two transmitters operating on the same frequency simultaneously cancel each other out.

 

In the mid 1980’s, the F.C.C. allowed what were then called Class IV local AM stations to increase power at night.  These stations were on frequencies like 1400khz with an assigned daytime power of 1000 watts and 250 watts at night.  Remember, AM radio signals travel farther at night.

While this may be counterintuitive, unless you understand the science behind radio, these stations had bigger coverage areas with 250 watts at night.  Why?  By increasing the power to 1000 watts at night, increased interference on these frequencies resulted in smaller coverage areas for stations once the sun went down.  The signals cancel each other out at distances away from their transmitters.

Science.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about the F.C.C.’s initial plan to help AM radio.  My then employer and many radio industry trade publications didn’t appreciate my candor.

Guess who was right?  People are just now getting outraged?  Almost three years after “AM Revitalization” was announced and I spoke up?  Now?

I’m guessing someone at iHeart Media Googled “clear channel” and found they own a bunch of these stations.

“Well, hot dang,” as they say in Mississippi!

It appears an order was sent from the offices high above Midtown Manhattan for iHeart Media owned “clear channel” stations to instruct listeners to sign a meaningless “online petition.”  The petition calls on the F.C.C. to drop their proposal allowing increased power for some AM stations at night, especially on “clear channel” frequencies.  Correctly, the company concludes, this would cause interference and cut down the nighttime coverage areas of the “50 clears” they own.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 3.37.25 PM

For example, there’s iHeart Media’s WGY in Schenectady/Albany, New York, a legendary station (if there ever was one) originally put on the air by General Electric.

I’ll let them make their case.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 3.38.04 PM

Interesting, because their programming isn’t anything unique.  If WGY disappeared, listeners in their region could easily find the same programming elsewhere.

  • WGY does have a three and a half hour morning show broadcast from their studios in suburban Albany. It starts at 5:30am and runs until 9am.

But, let’s see how unique the rest of WGY’s weekday programming is and where it comes from.

  • At 9am, there’s Glenn Beck and his daily weeping session.  He’s followed by Rush Limbaugh.  Plenty of stations carry these shows.
  • Evening drive time, when the WGY signal starts to boom as the sun goes down, they broadcast the syndicated Sean Hannity show, heard on hundreds of radio stations.
  • In evenings, it’s Michael Berry.  His show is syndicated and broadcast from Houston, Texas.  Similar to Ted Cruz, I’m guessing he doesn’t understand “New York values.”
  • Mark Levin follows.  His show comes from WABC in New York City.  It’s not hard finding his show on numerous radio stations at night.  But, at least he knows how to find a good slice of pie in the Empire State.
  • Then it’s Clyde Lewis’ and his conspiracy show.  But, “Ground Zero” doesn’t come from gritty lower Manhattan.  It comes from quaint Portland, Oregon.
  • Finally, it’s Coast to Coast AM with George Noory.  His studio is right off the 405 in Sherman Oaks, California.  Traffic sucks.  But, who cares?  It’s L.A., right?

WGY has a grand total of three and a half hours of local programming each weekday – hardly the meaningful local programming I spoke of earlier.

To be fair, this isn’t the fault of the local program director or market manager.  This is what they’ve been required to broadcast from iHeart Media and its syndication arm Premiere Networks.

Does syndicated programming have a place on a station like WGY?  Of course it does.  Just not 85% of its programming.

And that’s why WGY’s meaningless online petition is…well…meaningless.

If iHeart Media, or any consolidator company for that matter, actually thought they had something special with their “clear channel” stations, they would have been fighting to insure a strong AM band years ago. They would be defending their investments from the bad ideas coming from the F.C.C.  They would have spoken up almost three years ago, as I did.  But, they didn’t.

iHeart Media also owns 700WLW in Cincinnati, a station that is locally programmed.  But, this station is the rare exception when compared to many of the other “clear channel” stations it owns.

I’m not being nostalgic here.  A “clear channel” AM is a very special type of radio station.  It has unique strength, power and influence even in times of quickly advancing technology.

A “clear channel” station deserves ownership that passionately understand its value.

  7 comments for “AM “Revitalization” Destroying AM Radio

  1. Scott Cason
    March 2, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks to the marvels of the internet, and the fact that our power companies have some very dirty power lines, clear channel stations are not what they used to be. I would go so far as to say our 50kW clears could drop their power back to 10kW day/night and nobody would be able to tell the difference….if some of them haven’t already clandestinely done so without notifying the authorities.

  2. March 3, 2016 at 5:43 am

    The FM band is also getting crowded. In the last article I posted a link to a WNCI aircheck from 1970, RECORDED IN CINCINNATI. Here in Columbus, WLW used to sound like a local signal. These days, it doesn’t have quite the same punch it used to.

    DX-ing used to fascinate me as a kid. I loved pulling in shows from WLS or WABC just for the sheer fascination of being able to pull in such a distant signal not to mention the great programming at night. As Darryl noted, the shows are all the same these days so what’s the point of pulling in some scratchy signal from far away? (Thank God WLW and WHLO have such good signals during the day. I get to get away from Glenn Beck and John Corby when they get boring.)

    I think the fact that there is now an internet takes away some of that fascination as well. You can access media from all over the planet without having to twist and contort the position of your AM radio.

  3. Constant
    March 11, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    1. Thanks for the “science.” I’ve wondered in the past.

    2. Can you blog about WLW when it was 500 kilowatts(!). I’ve read it applied to broadcast at 750 kilowatts. This is real interference.

    3. Or your thoughts about “experimental” radio like XERA?

    4. WLW needs help with alternative programming for that 9:00 am Saturday slot. How about giving consideration for spreaker.com. Experimental radio?

    • March 11, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      Constant, (1) You’re very welcome. (2) I sure can. Here’s a little trivia tease, there were two 500K transmitters built, one installed at 700WLW and the other was to be installed at WSM in Nashville. But, it never happened. (3) Would Donald Trump’s wall block the signal? LOL (4) Oh well. When I left, there was only one way to go….down. 🙂 Thanks for the thoughts and have a great weekend. Darryl

  4. March 12, 2016 at 2:05 am

    Darryl,

    President Carter started and President Reagan finished the job of destroying AM and FM radio a long time ago. The only thing left to do is to bury the beast. When those two mindless clowns allowed the FCC to drop the public service requirement for frequency ownership, they essentially destroyed radio. It’s why the world is filled with so many “former” radio personalities who were downsized out of jobs and positions when the marketplace was allowed to consolidate. When I tell people that EVERY radio station in EVERY city once had a news director, a news commitment, public affairs programming, public service announcements, they look at me like I’ve lost a screw somewhere. Radio today isn’t the radio I grew up with. Radio today is bland, boring, automated and everyone sounds the same. That’s because so few people own the entire industry these days. There is no innovation. There is no experimentation. There is no impetus to give the public quality programming because the FCC has allowed station owners to feed the public a series of crap cakes. Yum, yum, may I have another? Although deregulation, and a lack of regulation, is good for most business, it was terrible for broadcasting. Entire communities are no longer served by any stations. There is no local news. There is no local programming. There is no local host. There is only another crap cake. The clear channel stations who are crying about this change haven’t even begun to realize that they died a painful and terrible death a long time ago.

    • March 14, 2016 at 1:56 pm

      Bill,

      You can blame the politicians, but radio station owners share just as much of the blame. Through the NAB, the broadcaster’s lobbyist, they were able to get the politicians to make the changes they wanted. I would also say “local” is defined by what is of interest to me “locally.” If, for example, the national presidential race is what is interesting me, then to me that’s local. The important point you make is radio, due to its massive downsizing is homogenized – making it boring, there is no experimentation and this is deadly, there is no innovation. We live in a time of innovation and radio sitting on the sideline is not a good thing. Have a great week and thanks for checking out the blog.

      Darryl

  5. Name
    April 10, 2016 at 11:05 pm

    wave interference? if so,
    * it creates “holes” but doesn’t cancel out everywhere (spatially).
    *”noise cancellation” earphones use same concept (blogs.scientificamerican.com/psi-vid/how-do-active-noise-canceling-headphones-work/)

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