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AM revitalization comments

I have been reading the comments regarding the FCC’s NPRM (13-249).  Clearly, many people are interested in keeping the AM broadcasting band both active and relevant.  Some of these suggestions have merit, but are unlikely to be adopted by the FCC.  Others are viable and could alleviate at least a few of the technical shortcomings of the AM band.  The rest fall along expected positions.  Here is a brief rundown:

  • Clear Channel, iBiquity: Allow stations to transmit in all digital mode.  Likelihood: Possible.  The hybrid version of AM HD Radio has been a failure on several fronts; added interference to adjacent channels, self interference, poor adoption, wonky CODECs, etc.  However, letting stations choose to broadcast in all digital AM HD Radio may decide the issue once and for all.  As long as the all digital carriers fall within the current analog channels, this would be fine.  Actually, I would add that station transmitting in all digital be allowed to choose DRM as well as HD Radio
  • REC Networks, MMTC: Move AM stations to former TV channels 5 and 6.  Likelihood: Unlikely.  It would be a neat solution, however, there are currently many full and low power TV stations still using those frequencies.
  • Clear Channel, SBE, MMTC, Crawford, et al: Allow AM stations a special translator filing window.  Likelihood: Almost assured.  This has been broached by the FCC itself.  I would add that Class D and Class C stations be given priority.
  • SBE, du trial, Lundin and Rackely, MMTC et. al: Remove the “ratchet rule,” reduce antenna efficiency requirements and city of license contour requirements.  Likelihood: probable.  Over the years, the FCC’s rules and regulations designed to help AM broadcasting’s technical product have done the opposite in many cases.  This is especially true of the “ratchet rule.”
  • SBE, du Trial, Lundin and Rackely, MMTC: MDCL (Modulation Depended Carrier Level) Likelihood: Possible.  MDCL does not do much to improve AM signal quality, but it can save the station owner some money on the electricity bill.
  • Alabama Broadcaster’s Association, et al: Better FCC enforcement.  Likelihood: Not very.  This is another area were interference and AM noise problems can be fixed.  Given Ajit Pai’s desire for “non-regulatory” relief, stepped up enforcement seems to be a non-starter.
  • Hatfield and Dawson: Eliminate substandard AM stations.  Likelihood: Not very.  Getting rid of substandard stations and let the remaining AM stations enjoy a little breathing room is actually a big step in the right direction.  H&D notes that the FCC should petition congress for tax relief for those stations that choose to surrender their licenses.  Unfortunately, it does not appear likely that the FCC, congress and the current station owners would go for it.
  • du Treil, Lundin and Rackely: Do away with skywave protection for class A stations  Likelihood: Possible.  The argument goes; skywave listening represents a very small number of mostly hobbyists (AM DXers) as other, better methods for program distribution exist for serious listeners.  Sad but true.
  • du Treil, Lundin and Rackely: No more new AM stations.  Likelihood: Possible.  There is a cogent argument to be made regarding the overcrowding of the AM band.  Stopping any further crowding is a good idea.
  • SBE, Cohen, Dippell and Everist, et al: Tighten regulations on electrical noise emitters.  Likelihood: Unlikely.  The FCC does not have the mettle to tighten regulations against powerful manufacturing and technology lobbies.
  • iBiquity: Do not let anything get in the way of the HD Radio rollout.  Likelihood: Is it possible to get in the way of something that is standing still?

Talking amongst engineers and AM broadcasters, many of these ideas have merit.  The real question is, will any of this bring more listeners?

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16 comments to AM revitalization comments

  • @Paul: Thanks for the rundown summary of the responses to AM revitalization. It didn’t surprise me about iBiquity’s self-serving comments regarding an all-digital transmission push. Looks like they don’t give a damn about the the elderly who may depend on local AM radio – with their fixed incomes they can enjoy the old AM radio even if they can’t afford cable. iBiquity also has little regard for the mom-and-pop AM operator which they would extort licensing fees nor obsoleting most every AM car radio. BTW: Is Clear Channel an investor in iBiquity?

    Many of the other comments have merit in spite of how likely they would be able to be implemented. One idea would be to remove all translators from licensees that extend the service of their primary licensed signal past they predicted contour and make those translators available for AM migration. When I see non-comms with multiple AMs, multiple FMs and translators coming out of their ears it really makes me wonder what they’re all about, especially when programmed with nothing more than satellator programming.

  • Scott Cason

    None of this will have any effect until programmers stop treating AM as an “also ran” service. Start putting some compelling programing on AM instead of just plugging in the satellite receiver to the Optimod. Remember, we used to listen to music on AM…with the right programming, we can do it again….oh, and loosening up the NRSC standards to get more fidelity, too.

    As far as iBiquity’s comments, all digital is coming..just like they did in TV. That’s just a matter of time.

  • Bob M.

    Can you imagine what would have happened if digital TV began life occupying 18 MHz (6 MHz on each side of the channel)? IBOC on FM isn’t quite so bad, but it still eliminates any chance of listening to stations 1 or 2 channels away. AM is even worse. If a digital signal could have been implemented within the bandwidth of the existing stations, it probably would have gone over much better. Fuggedaboudit if the original 10 kHz bandwidth was still in effect.

    Unfortunately some of the best comments got put into the [unlikely] category because of lack of funding or FCC staff, so things will only get worse.

    Before making such a sweeping change, one must know their audience. As stated above, those older folks who depend on their AM radio won’t be able to go out and buy a new digital model. Their hearing probably won’t be able to tell the difference either, so why give them a 30-15,000 Hz response when they’re listening to 300-5,000 Hz programs.

    I see this whole thing as an exercise in futility for the commenters. The FCC seeks suggestions, knowing very well that they’ll do what they want anyway: to increase the profit for a few companies, making the best business decision rather than the best technological decision for the listening public.

  • Lorne

    I agree that it is all about the programming.

    It is much more likely that people will tune into a station offering programming that people want to listen to.

    Having said that, I have to wonder if the time and energy that is being spent on trying to revitalize AM were refocused towards quality content, what would the result be?

  • @Lrone, @Scott Cason: I whole heartily agree that programming will make or break AM. I’ve seen local small operators loved by the locals as they super-serve their listeners and communities. I’ve also seen good stations ruined by corporate owners taking the satellite receiver and pretty much feeding it into their Optimods.

    Scott: If all-digital is coming it will basically means the end of mom-and-pop ownership and a government sanctioned extortion of royalties from stations for the sake of iBiquity. It makes me wonder who and how much they’re greasing pockets for this all-digital mandate.

  • Rob

    If a robust digital format is adopted, then nighttime skywave broadcast could again become relevant and more than a hobby for a few DX’ers. Think of it as being akin to satellite radio but without all the launch costs. This would make protecting Class A broadcasters all the more important.

    Nighttime skywave is AM radio’s single unique strongpoint. If we ignore it, if we fail to build a commercially viable business model around it, and if we do not move on to fully-digital formats, then the FCC might as well get on with gradually closing down this legacy broadcast band.

  • Chris R

    The FCC does do enforcement, but the are very selective about it. As long as you don’t cause problems to the cell system, you are fine. http://www.tvtechnology.com/distribution/0099/fcc-cites-la-building-owner-for-lte-site-interference-/223712

  • Lee Rust

    Analog AM radio broadcasting has always had unique and wonderful characteristics, but it most likely will pass away along with the generations of listeners who have grown up and grown old with it. Increasingly high electrical interference and increasingly low audio fidelity, whatever their causes or solutions, have sealed the fate of traditional long, medium and shortwave AM. Consider this technical and demographic reality in light of the contemporary broadcast business model, and it’s clear that the end must come in less than 20 years.

    All-digital transmission modes in the current AM band should really be considered to be pioneering start-ups rather than any continuation of the old technology. New audiences will have to be built from scratch whenever suitable receivers and programming are made widely available. Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) has already made a place for itself in the international broadcast sphere, but dedicated receiving hardware is still scarce more than 10 years after that system was introduced on the air in 2003. DRM exhibits several distinct advantages over the competing AM HD Radio, not the least of which is an open-source vs proprietary system architecture.

    It looks like FM will be the last analog broadcast system standing as we proceed into an almost all digital, cellular and online media future. The nascent DRM ‘Plus’ may someday supplant traditional FM, but so far the European DAB and American FM HD Radio pretenders have failed to surpass the ubiquity, serviceability and adequacy of Howard Armstrong’s elegant invention of 1933.

  • Paul Thurst

    I agree that better programming is what will drive any revitalization of the AM band. People simply do not want to listen to bland, satellite syndicated talk radio. Locally programmed AM stations do much better. Asside from the interference caused by iBiquity’s digital modulation, the other issue I have with HD Radio is the propreitary nature of the modulation scheme. I have said it before; having one company hold the licesne for all the radio station’s method of sending information is a terrible idea and it may go against anti-trust laws in the US.

    The all digital mode is supposed to fit in a 10 KHz channel, in which case, fine; let stations that want to use it do so. Most of the listeners will then only hear white noise on the dial where the station used to be.

    @Chris R – Another example of what you are talking about can be found here: http://www.engineeringradio.us/blog/2013/07/the-curious-case-of-the-wkze-notice-of-violation/

  • Rob

    One more point: if DRM is adopted in the US, IT MUST NOT BE CALLED DRM. Just try talking to 20- and 30-somethings about an broadcast standard called DRM and they will recoil in horror. For decades now, DRM = Digital Rights Management, i.e., you pay Micro$oft for your music only to get screwed out of your music library anyway. You may as well try selling a bus brand-named “Satan” to a church group.

    Call it “DM” and be done with it.

  • Matt Morse

    Bill DeF suggested: “Looks like they don’t give a damn about the elderly who may depend on local AM radio”. If the elderly are the key audience that AM radio is depending on for its survival, then the owners might as well sell the land under the tower now.

    In 5-10 years, that audience will pretty much have cycled off the planet. For those still around, web-delivered content will have reached an operational simplicity where even Bubbie and Zayde can easily “tune in” whatever futuristic receiver they will have to allow them to listen to what they want.

    Don’t get me wrong — I love local AM radio. I would work in that arena again if offered a decent position. But when agencies and organizations hold discussions on “revitalizing” the band instead of having worked all along the way on what should have been done to stay ahead, I can’t help but think the autopsy is already on the calendar.

    I’m depressed about it, and wish I was in a better position to affect a change other than send my feeble opinions to the FCC.

  • @Matt Morse: First, I really think you’re giving the elderly the short end of the stick here. 10 years? I know elder people who are still in their homes in their 80’s and listen to local radio. I really think you have to think out to about 20 years to be totally fair. However, I do get the point you’re trying to make.

    Case and point about GOOD programming on AM radio. A few weeks ago I went to listen to consumer advocate Clark Howard on his flagship station’s stream (WSB-AM). Instead of hearing the delayed broadcast I heard the live coverage of the snowpocalypse hitting Atlanta. I actually listened to this for three days straight, as I found this informative and well presented. They were even airing live reports from citizens as well as rendering assistance to those who became disabled due to road conditions. THIS is compelling radio that is well programmed and providing an excellent service to the licensed coverage area. Granted, they also simulcast on FM but I think a local AM that programs for the community would save itself from a certain fate of no listeners and expending funds to pay staff fir (almost) nothing.

  • StvCmty

    I do not think an all-digital AM radio option is good; there may not be the receivers needed to make it useful for the listener.

    I used the contact form on http://hdradio.com/ to ask “Are there any inexpensive HD radios with external AM antenna connections?” I think that is a simple enough question since hdradio.com has a list of HD radios. When I sent in the question, I did not expect to get a response. Instead I got a response:
    “Currently there aren’t any AM HD tuners available a retail. You might be able to find some older models online at Amazon or eBay.”

    That response could mean multiple things, the first three of which come to my mind are:
    The responder did not look at all the HD radios out there.
    Manufactures have given up on AM HD radio.
    My question was unclear.

    If I can’t get a tabletop radio that receives AM HD radio, why should any broadcaster broadcast in pure digital AM radio? Car HD radios do AM HD, but if I were a broadcaster I don’t think I would want to just target a car audience.

  • valvashon

    Some substandard AM stations are already deleting themselves, with the help of having a leased tower site. KARR 1460 Kirkland is currently in the middle of its last day on the air, going off sometime today (February 28th). A Family Radio affiliate that I have no real interest in listening to, it’s still sad when a station decides to (presumably) turn its license in rather than find a new site to broadcast from. Reportedly, they sold their transmitter site some time ago for a quick cash infusion and are now paying the price. Listening off and on over the last few days, I have discovered that KARR suffers from many of the problems you mention regarding AM broadcasting. A poor signal (with 5kw daytime you shouldn’t have that hard of time covering the Seattle metropolitan area), lots of static along with your poor signal, poor fidelity and boring, satellite fed programming. In the early ’60s it was a daytime only station with an urban music format, probably sounded great and also probably owned its own transmitter site. It’s really too bad those days of radio are gone.

  • Kent Teffeteller

    Get rid of the satellite fed so called FM sham translators. By doing that, and getting 4 or 5 big LPFM and translator hogs off of the band, many an AM station who needs useful local night coverage post sunset would have it and more useful signal range. I know of at least 2 or 3 stations in my area who depend on football and basketball games to bring in a substantial amount of their revenue who must power down to absurdly low power by post Sunset and can’t cover their city of license. Being able for these stations to serve their listeners and have a translator would keep them viable. And keep small mom and pop owners financially viable. Translators need to translate something receivable off the air. And the provision for Non Comm stations to be able to use a satellite feed should be repealed. Let the religious groups in an area share a frequency or maybe two. And priority for FM translators for AM needs to be for 5 KW and under stations who must power down to 10% or less of their daytime power at night. We should eliminate NRSC and let AM run full bandwidth. And mandate minimum AM standards for new receivers.

  • StvCmty

    What about the receiver end? Some AM revitalization may be possible if people can tune in to AM stations.

    First, the FCC antenna rule could be expanded to protect antennas to receive AM and FM radio broadcast. http://www.fcc.gov/guides/over-air-reception-devices-rule As it stands the protection of being able to put up antennas does not include AM/FM radio antennas. Some communities are so antenna-adverse that north county radio offers an AM antenna that they market because it can be easily disguised or hidden (ACTANT). My house blocks AM broadcasts very well. I either need some sort of external antenna or I need to get my radio content on the internet or the FM dial. If my HOA takes offense to an AM antenna, I am out of luck for receiving AM broadcasts, and AM stations in my market have lost me as a possible listener. Obviously some guidance on what is a reasonable AM antenna for home use would need to be provided.

    Second, AM needs to be included in radios. Some cars will stop including an AM tuner. The sound bar I have for my HDTV has a FM radio, but not an AM radio. If device manufacture market pressure had its way, AM receivers will disappear and with that, any hope of AM stations having an audience. We live in shielded boxes, so maybe even a requirement for an option for an external AM antenna hookup would be good. The government has taken similar heavy handed steps with receiver manufactures before with the All-Channel Receiver Act.

    If the antennas are deaf and the receivers disappear from the market there is no chance people will listen.

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