September 2013
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Stay sharp, do not be fooled

I am wondering what is going on with the HD Radio roll out these days. Particularly the all digital AM conversion scheme being bantered about so often last spring. Not much is being discussed publicly about that or the AM revitalization.  I have found FCC Commissioner Clyburn’s remarks at this week’s NAB Confab interesting.  HD Radio is paid lip service here:

There are hurdles: if broadcasters do not broadly embrace the HD technology and the multicasting and other enhancements that it makes possible, listeners will have few incentives to buy digital receivers. Likewise, if no consumers own digital receivers, then there is no reason to broadcast in digital.
But I’m not worried. More than 15 million digital receivers have been sold so far, and that number will only rise. Thirty-three auto manufacturers include or plan to include digital receivers in their cars, and those receivers are standard equipment in over 80 models. This will dramatically increase the number of digital receivers in the coming years.

But in the solutions for AM broadcasters, HD Radio is not mentioned at all.  What is put forward as a six (actually five) step plan to revitalize AM radio turns out to be some rearranging of the deck chairs and little more. Cliff notes version for the FCC’s AM revitalization:

  1. Open a one time filing window for AM license holders to acquire an FM translator
  2. Relaxing community coverage rules for AM licensing allowing greater flexibility for transmitter siting
  3. Eliminating the “Ratchet Rule” used in night time allocation studies for new facilities
  4. Permitting more widespread use of MCDL technologies by eliminating STA requirements
  5. Reducing minimum field strength requirements by twenty five percent allowing the use of shorter towers

While those options may save an AM license holder some money, none of them do anything to improve the technical quality of AM broadcasting.  Several of them (#2, 4 and 5) will, in fact if widely implemented, reduce signal levels over cities of license, making electrical noise and interference problems more prevalent. This is a step in the wrong direction.

These points are basically a rehash of some to the MMTC’s (Minority Media Telecommunication Council) ideas for a radio rescue first bantered about in 2009.

This demonstrates that the NAB and the FCC are not at all serious about revitalizing the AM band but merely marking time and making it look good until the final transmitter is switched off.

AM licensees are on their own, but all is not lost.  I have noticed several successful stand alone AM station that are not only surviving but thriving.  The common thread in these station is good local programming.  On the technical side of things; a well maintained plant with good quality audio feeding a properly operating transmitter and antenna array will go a long way to providing good service to the city of license.

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5 comments to Stay sharp, do not be fooled

  • Mark Heller

    Paul: You know the folks at LBA or Radio Engineering Services or ??? could go out to any older tower site, and within a day or two, and get the site sounding great again. It’s the licensee and Chief Operator to maintain it. Some owners won’t do this. There are others, who will. I wonder how many folks will get a translator and run it in mono? A lot of AM problems are from outside sources, but it’s funny how a utility jumps when a Ham Radio operator calls, instead of the local broadcaster. We’re not heading to all IBOC. I really think we’re heading to a new class of FM, including Class D at 12kw, and then the band will be as stuffed as AM today. Let’s see what the paperwork contains…it will be out, soon enough.

  • Rod Zeigler

    So, Interim Commission Chair Clyburn states that 15 MILLION digital receivers have been sold. Let’s look at that a bit closer. Are these retail sales, or are these wholesale transactions like they used to report in the heyday of CB’s? Aside from that bit of minutia, 15 million is what percentage of radios in the U.S.? 1%? Less? I would say that single digit percentages of total receiver numbers, over all of the years that IBOC has been available, is less than an overwhelming mandate by the listening audience.
    Add to the above that only, in a VERY few instances, have broadcasters made any real commitment to programming these “extra” channels. Most are simulcast of an in-house AM. The ones that have been successful have been niche programming such as music genre, or foreign language. HD/IBOC was a solution in search of a problem and the industry players that made the big upfront investments are now panicking to get some kind of return on their investment. Hype, hyperbole, and creative accounting are not going to convince anyone of sound mind that this unwanted, and unneeded, technological boondoggle is the greatest thing to happen to broadcasters since Marconi. How many shut off their IBOC because they were interfering with other stations in their group? How many have shut off their IBOC just to see how many complaints they received, and the phones, e-mail, and front lobby were absolutely quiet?
    IF, and this is a huge if, broadcasters are mandated to go to an all digital modulation scheme, let’s do something intelligent this time and go to a WORLD standard. Let’s not get another AM Stereo fight started with nothing but losers in the end. How about telling the FCC to put on their big boy and girl pants, set a standard, set a reasonable conversion date, and mandate that all receivers sold in the U.S. must receive this standard by a much earlier date. While they are at it, mandate that all “Smartphones” sold in the U.S. must also be able to receive broadcast signals on this standard modulation scheme AND be able to receive EAS warnings if so chosen by the USER. Also mandate that ALL cell companies participate in WAS, with this same user option. IBOC/HD in it’s current iteration should go the way of Quadraphonic sound. Interesting, but not quite ready for prime time.

  • Paul Thurst

    Mark: what you say is true, but it can start out as something small and simple. For example, cutting the trees and brush down from around the AM towers. You don’t need a high priced engineer to do that, almost anyone can and it has been proven time and again that even such simple measures can net a meaningful improvement in signal strength. Also clean audio, things like basic wiring and simple maintenance can go a long way to cleaning up distortion, hums, etc. Fancy test gear is not required, just a set of ears and some patience. A simple volt/ohm meter can be used to look at power supply ripple, a simple frequency meter can be used to look at STL frequencies. If you are a mom and pop AM broadcaster, these are some simple, inexpensive solutions. It is my belief that the mom and pops are going to be the survivors because they have no grand expectations and are willing to grind it out.

    Rod: 15 million receivers over a ten year period does not look good. How long did it take Apple to sell 15 million iPhones? A couple of months perhaps? iBlotch is not the answer to any of radio’s current problems, for that, the current broadcast station owners need to look in the mirror.

  • Peter

    HD is not a solution it is fantasy.

    AM is not going to make it, too many negatives & not enough positives. Talk, religion & ethnic radio are not hot properties so that won’t cut it.

    The reality is like most already know, migrate what you can to FM translator or whatever, or no tomorrow.

  • Paul Thurst

    Peter: You may be right however, I know of a number of successful AM stations currently operating without a translator. The difference between a successful station and an unsuccessful one is the programming. There is no one size fits all magical programming formula either. In order to be successful, the station management needs to know and understand the local community, then give it what it wants. This varies greatly from one place to the next, but one thing is for sure, it is very difficult to understand the local community if you are not in it.

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