Small AM radio stations might be facing their last best chance for survival, under a plan to keep the oldest of broadcast mediums alive. More than 400 small stations have applied for FM translators to bolster their coverage, especially a night, when the AM band becomes a jumble of noise, fading and static.
Translators and other suggested improvements are part of the FCC’s AM Revitalization Plan, released in 2015 but being phased in this year, as listeners continue moving away from AM and more small stations turn off the transmitters and turn in their licenses.
As part of the Report and Order, the FCC opened the first of two FM translator application windows in January, allowing small AM outlets to apply for 250-watt translators through July 28. A second application window will open July 29 though October 31 for AM stations of any size.
In some parts of the country, including the Northeast, there are very few FM frequencies available because of band crowding. The FCC’s FM channel locator tool can be found here.
John Ramsey, a consulting engineer in Connecticut, is in the business of helping stations secure the licenses they need. Ramsey, owner of the Hartford Radio History website, tells byteclay.com that at least one station, WILI in Willimantic, has obtained a construction permit for an FM translator on 95.3 MHz. Other stations in Hamden, Norwich, Putnam, Windsor and Manchester would be candidates for an FM simulcast, if any translator frequencies are available.
Owners of smaller AM stations (Class D and C licensees) point out that they are the most economically distressed, serve their communities with local news and sports, but have trouble covering their cities of license at night because of antenna pattern changes, reduced power and sky wave interference from big stations.
As part of the revitalization, the FCC also proposes nighttime power increases for small stations, at the expense of big clear channel stations that have been traditionally protected from interference. This has set up a “David and Goliath” situation, with a coalition of Class A owners fighting the idea, and insisting that long distance nighttime AM radio is still relevant in this digital age.
The AM Radio Preservation Alliance, comprised mostly of mega-corporations like CBS Radio, iHeart Radio and Cox Communications, argues that millions of people in rural America depend on nighttime AM radio and interfering with it is a bad idea. In a 56-page filing with the FCC, the Alliance said “Class A stations have played invaluable roles in providing the public with critical and often life-saving information in times of severe weather, natural and man-made disasters and other emergency and public safety events.”
The AM Alliance claims that clear channel stations are the “anchor tenants” of the AM band, attracting about 30 percent of the overall listeners and without them, listenership would erode even further.
The FCC is also considering:
- Changes to the 25 year old AM expanded band, covering 1605-1705 KHz. There is discussion of allowing only digital HD stations to locate there.
- Modifying antenna efficiency rules, to allow shorter and less obtrusive towers that AM station use;
- Relaxed main studio requirements so that licensees could co-locate several station studios in one place, as a means of reducing cost.
- Simplified methods for stations to submit coverage proofs, when applying for and renewing their licenses.