Analog Sunset Is Broached in AM Panel
Has the time come for the FCC to declare an “analog sunset” for AM radio stations? That was but one of the ideas discussed publicly in a crowded conference room discussion about the future of AM on Monday.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s call at the Fall NAB Radio Show for the commission to “revitalize” AM sparked this panel. Panelists debated possible fixes like a power increase, allowing more AMs to operate on FM translators and all-digital AM transmission, among others.
Pai, who was received warmly by Monday’s audience, said he has been a huge fan of AM radio since growing up in Parsons, Kansas. In Washington, he said, ESPN980 is one of his favorite stations; he recently sat in on a taping of Tony Kornheiser’s sports show.
“It’s high time we revisited the AM rules. You know as well as I do that AM still matters,” said Pai to thunderous applause. He thanks broadcasters for numerous ideas and suggestions he has received.
Womble Carlyle attorney John Garziglia recited the litany of items that contribute to a rising AM noise floor, such as “dirty” light bulbs and computers as well as the plethora of electronics now found in a car dashboard.
CBS Radio Senior Vice President of Engineering Glynn Walden said many of the suggested solutions “nibble around the edges” without getting to the root of what he described as the real problem: “The AM band is a hostile environment.” He suggests requiring AM stations to go all-digital. The so-called “hybrid” mode of HD Radio — in which the analog and digital signals share the same licensed channels — was not meant to be permanent, said Walden, who is considered one of the fathers of that technology.
“It’s time for the FCC to declare an analog sunset” and for radio to move to an all-digital service, Walden said.
He said the all-digital mode for AM can be noise-free. Several organizations — The NAB Labs, iBiquity Digital, Harris and Kintronic Labs — participated in all-digital testing of the HD Radio transmission system recently on a CBS Radio expanded band station in Charlotte, N.C. Preliminary results look promising, according to participants, though more testing is needed to validate the results.
Several panelists said any move to all-digital should be accompanied by a government mandate that receivers include better tuners, and that manufacturers include an HD Radio component in all radios.
Ben Downs, vice president and general manager of Bryan Broadcasting and a member of the NAB Radio Board, agreed that the noise floor has exceeded AM’s ability to overcome it. He also believes that skywave protection has outlived its usefulness and should not be a consideration.
Noting the tough business environment for AM owners, Garvey Schubert Barer attorney Melodie Virtue said two clients have turned in AM licenses just in the first quarter of this year because they can’t make money from those stations.
Panelists shot down the concept of an across-the-board power increase for AM. Walden said it would entail larger transmitters, new transmission line and higher electric bills. “Your air conditioning bill” for the transmitter would also go up by a factor of 10, he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s practical.”
Another idea more well-received is to expand the use of FM translators by AM stations. Garziglia has a client who has asked the FCC for a waiver to move an FM translator farther than is normally allowed; that request remains pending. Downs supports the concept. “Allowing AMs to define themselves with an FM translator” solves many of the noise floor issues.
Another reason such a waiver would be important, said Garziglia, is that advertisers generally don’t believe people listen to AM radio anymore.
Pai concluded by urging attendees to let the chairman’s office know revitalizing AM is an important concern. Though other media issues tend to get headlines, he said, “radio is important, too.” He asked broadcasters to continue to send him ideas for helping AM.
Many of the attendees stood and applauded Pai.
An earlier version of this story stated that Glynn Walden had suggested moving some AM stations to television Channels 5 and 6. He mentioned this option but did not recommend it.