AM Broadcasting Revitalization
February 11, 2014
"Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated" is a quote attributed to the great American humorist Mark Twain. In fact, Mark Twin really said, "The report of my death was an exaggeration." Either way, this statement is one that is likely to be embraced by America's AM broadcasters.
Despite the many predictions that AM broadcasting is not just past its prime, but dead and gone, the fact is that AM broadcasting remains a vital force in many American communities and across the country. AM may not enjoy the prominence it once held, or be relied upon by American communities as their sole source of local news, information and entertainment, but it still plays a vital role in the lives of many Americans.
Doubters need only talk to a survivor of the 2011 Joplin, MO tornado. During the worst of that tornado, it was a Joplin AM station that remained on the air and played a critical role in getting accurate, life-saving information to the public when time was of the essence, warning folks of the coming danger and getting to them safety. It was the example of AM station KZRG that led Missouri Governor Jay Nixon of to declare to Missouri broadcasters, "I salute your courage, your professionalism and your dedication to serving your community throughout this catastrophe."
As FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently said: The story of KZRG demonstrates the importance of AM radio in times of crisis. But AM radio plays an important role in towns throughout the U.S. every single day. AM stations cover local politics and host debates about local issues. They cover community events, such as high school sports. And they reach out to all parts of society, with programming targeted at minorities, people who speak foreign languages, and the elderly.
With all this good that AM stations are continuing to do, the reality is that much of the AM technology is old and many AM stations need to be "revitalized" with repair or even rebuilt with a signal more focused on new population trends and tastes. In recognition of the vital role still played by AM radio and the need to provide it with new support, at the urging of Commissioner Pai, the FCC opened a new docket titled Revitalization of the AM Radio Service in docket no. 13-249.
Although an integral part of American culture for decades, the Commission recognized that AM sustainability has been threatened by the migration of AM listeners to newer media and AM's unique susceptibility to interference. Importantly, it also recognized that AM nighttime propagation characteristics make it very difficult to provide a useful nighttime service in many local communities.
Most importantly, it understood that land use patterns and values have evolved to the extent that changes in Commission rules will be required to rebuild AM stations, replenish their ground systems and achieve other technical improvements. To address this need, it proposed six rule changes and requested comments. Over 150 comments have been submitted in response.
The FCC proposals are:
- Open an FM translator filing window exclusively for AM licensees and permittees.
- Reduce the daytime community coverage standards for existing AM stations.
- Reduce nighttime community coverage standards for existing AM stations.
- Eliminate the AM "ratchet rule." (The rule that requires an AM station that contributes to RSS and proposing a modification must "ratchet back" RSS by either reducing its contributions to that RSS by 10%, or to a level where it no longer enter into the 50% RSS value.")
- Permit wider implementation of modulation dependent carrier level control technologies.
- Modify the AM antenna efficiency standards.
In this article, let's consider the issue of community coverage for AM stations. While the other topics are important, they will be discussed in later articles.
The current FCC rule requires a commercial radio station to provide 5 mV/m daytime coverage to its entire community of license. In most cases, the Commission will reduce that requirement to 80% of the community of license area or population with. Revitalizing AM stations, however, has run into problems because of the difficulties obtaining suitable tower sites in urban areas.
According to the Minority Media Telecommunications Council ("MMTC"), the requirement to cover the local community is actually harming the public interest by "limit[ing] commercial stations from changing sites and making other improvements that benefit the public interest." Changing land values frequently have also made it difficult to find suitably located and sufficiently large land sites to cover multi-tower AM waves in the central part of a city so that a station can meet its coverage requirements.
Just as importantly, with the vast number of AM and FM stations in most communities, together with the new multi-media services, increasingly AM stations are seeking to serve specialized demographic audiences that may not be spread across the entire community, but rather are more localized in a particular pocket of the community. With this in mind, MMTC and others have proposed that the Commission's definition of "community" may be outmoded. Rather, the Commission should change its definition of community, at least for AM stations, or discard the requirement altogether and rely upon a mature industry where AM broadcasters will seek to serve new audiences wherever they may be found.
Indeed, some commenters, including the Missouri Broadcasters Association, for whom I prepared comments, have suggested that the Commission should do away with the concept of community of service for AM stations and instead rely upon the competitive marketplace to define desirable locations for new radio service through AM broadcasting. Because AM stations require greater area for ground systems and often require multiple towers, the land and siting considerations differ considerably from other broadcast services. Given the issues now faced with achieving AM signal quality improvement, MMTC had proposed reducing the daytime requirement to 50% community coverage, and that is what the FCC proposed.
Given all the audience, land cost and technical considerations involved, the FCC should eliminate the daytime community coverage requirement entirely. Where an AM station is vital to the entire community, we can count on the licensee to answer the call and provide a service to as much of that community as is feasible. Where, however, there is a significantly underserved demographic "community" in a geo-politically defined larger community that is well served by other radio or television broadcast services, we can likewise anticipate that the licensee might seek to focus its AM station on how to best serve that group, providing a real "community" service that might otherwise go unattended, particularly if required to find the land and spend the money required to cover the entire city.
As important as the daytime coverage issue is, an even more critical problem exists with respect to the nighttime community coverage requirements. This rule, too, should be eliminated.
As the NPRM explained, and most readers know, many AM radio stations are required to reduce their power or cease operating at night in order to avoid interference to other AM radio stations. During daytime hours AM signals travel principally by "groundwave" propagation and can be heard at significant distances. However, at night AM signals reflect from the ionosphere back to the earth and can cause interference for hundreds of miles. Therefore, most AM radio stations must reduce power, sometimes drastically, and some must entirely cease nighttime operation. Despite this phenomenon, the Commission's nighttime coverage rule also requires that all except Class D "daytimers" maintain nighttime coverage over 80% of the area or population of the broadcaster's principal community.
MMTC noted that requiring these separate daytime and nighttime requirements presents major problems when trying to upgrade or rehabilitate an AM station. A site may be optimal for daytime coverage, but totally unsuitable for meeting the nighttime coverage requirement. To comply, some stations have had to buy two land sites and build separate daytime and nighttime tower arrays. Also, to escape interference caused by new electronic and lighting technology in much more prevalent in urban areas, and AM station may seek to move to a less urban site, where it could still serve a target nighttime audience. A problem can occur when it is unable to provide the required nighttime geo-politically defined community-wide coverage. Sixty years of community growth, changing boundaries and land values may make it impossible to find a suitable site for a single daytime and nighttime antenna system.
With such increased costs for finding proper land and facilities, the nighttime coverage requirement frequently defeats the station's effort to improve its daytime coverage. Here again, we have probably arrived at a place where the public will be better served by allowing an enterprising broadcaster to decide whether and how it will have sufficient nighttime coverage to justify the cost of construction and operation of the station.
It's 2014 and broadcasters are in a special and unique place. Many think that the special services AM has provided for 96 years since KDKA launched in 1920 are quickly becoming supplanted by "new" media, streamed over the internet, delivered one-to-one. Yet, as Governor Nixon recognized in praising KZRG in Joplin, broadcasting, with its one-to-many capability, is literally irreplaceable when the time is critical. It is clear, though, that the situation is not static and new challenges require new solutions. For AM radio, a new and to some, perhaps radical solution that is likely to produce very real service gains, is to eliminate the community coverage requirements as they apply to politically-defined communities to which stations are allocated and assigned.
This column is provided for general information purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice pertaining to any specific factual situation. Legal decisions should be made only after proper consultation with a legal professional of your choosing.