Friday, February 20, 2015

Can the Federal Communications Commission save AM broadcast radio"

by Don Keith

Darn good question up there in the headline!  The article in today's INSIDE RADIO quotes one FCC commissioner as saying he is committed to revitalizing the AM broadcast band.  You remember AM radio, right?  That noisy slice of spectrum from 540 to 1700 kilohertz, filled with static, come-and-go signals, strange-sounding ethnic stations, and hollering preachers.)  The article also notes that less than 20% of all radio listening nowadays is to AM stations.  I'd bet if you look outside the top ten markets, that number would be less than 5%.

OK, so AM broadcasting is in serious trouble. I'm already predicting it will be an amateur radio band within ten years.  What does Commissioner Ajit Pai propose doing?  What high-tech gimmickry does he suggest?  What incentives to broadcast licensees in the AM realm will the FCC develop to save the band?

1) Easier-to-get FM translators.  2) Modification of the so-called ratchet rule.

That's it.

Ratchet rule first: that was a complicated set of regs designed to reduce night-time interference between AM stations, passed in an era when most people still listened to AM and thought FM was only good for classical and elevator music.  I'm not sure what changes they make at this late date--any big alteration would be costly for cash-strapped AMs to accomplish anyway--and frankly, I think it's way past possible to suddenly create excitement among listeners for AM radio by reducing the interference protection for Station A over Station B by 1 mV.  Huh?

Can't wait to hear that promotional announcement:  "WAAA-AM 970, now with a slightly better antenna array pattern so all six of you who listen to us at night can now hear us better by 1 micro-volt!"

Besides, if the trend continues, as AM stations turn in their licenses because the real estate where their towers are located is worth more than the station itself, then this "ratchet rule" issue will settle itself.  There will be so few stations, nobody will interfere with anybody else!

Now, about FM translators.  You can hear this phenomenon already in whatever market you live in.  Listen to that new station that just popped up on the dial out of nowhere.  You know, the one that keeps fading in and out on your car radio and that you can't even get at your desk in the office.  (You try because they play a bunch of music with no...and I mean NO...commercials.)

Listen to its legal station identification, usually occurring near the top of the hour.  "97 Rock is WAAA-AM W375962 Yourtown!"  That is a translator station, a low power transmitter assigned to an AM station to rebroadcast its signal on FM.  That is also why--if you still know how to flip your radio over to AM--you suddenly hear a rock-and-roll AM station among the mostly sports talk, Hispanic, and gospel stations that make up most of the AM dial now.

(You will also hear station identification that sounds like, "This is 97 Rock, WFFF-FM HD2, Yourtown!"  That is a translator that re-broadcasts the sub-channel of an existing FM station.  You didn't know your local stations had such so-called "high-definition" sub-channels?  They do, but few use them for any other purpose than to supply audio for a separately-branded translator transmitter.  That's because practically no one has an HD radio capable of hearing the sub-channel itself.  And if they do, they likely are not even aware they have it or which stations in their town--if any--have programming on that HD channel.)

Now, tell me.  How does allowing AM stations to broadcast their programming (or the programming on the AM station's HD sub-channel...yes, a few have that capability, too) on a low-power transmitter with limited antenna height help keep people listening to the AM band?  How can the AM stations convince advertisers that a commercial on the AM station--that nobody...NOBODY listens to--will somehow suddenly attract enough listeners on that weak FM signal to bring them any customers?

No, what the translator-ization of the FM band--along with the introduction of literally thousands of non-commercial low-power FM stations--has done is make it even tougher for over-the-air broadcasting in general at a time when they are in enough troubles already.  Here's how:

1) The band is already so cluttered in most markets that interference is becoming a real problem.  Why should I try to hear my favorite morning deejay on 97.3 FM when he keeps getting wiped out by some local (albeit low-power) church station just down the dial when I go behind a hill or between buildings?

2) All those new signals, bad as they are, further dilute the listenership to over-the-air stations.  Radio ratings--which stations use to sell and price their commercials--are fractured beyond belief already.  Radio survived for years by selling ratings based on the percentage of people listening to radio at any given time.  That is called "share."  Share of people listening to over-the-air radio.  Now agencies and advertisers are waking up.  They want to see and pay for the percentage of people listening to a station in their target demographic based on the total number of people in the market who are in the demo.  That is called "rating."  A station may well have a "12 share" in women aged 25 to 49.  That is 12% of all women aged 25 to 49 WHO ARE LISTENING TO THE RADIO in an average quarter hour of the day.  Wow!  A commercial on the "Sonny and Goofball Morning Mayhem Show" reaches 12% of the folks a grocery store wants to talk to.  But if you look at RATING...a percentage of women 25 to 49 in the general population, whether they are listening to radio or not, that station may have a 2.  2%.  Hard to get the same dollars for a commercial if a rating shows 84% fewer ears.

See, all those translators are diluting SHARES, but not increasing RATINGS.  They are not increasing listening much at all, just dividing it up more.  Each station has fewer listeners.  Fewer listeners means less money per commercial.

At the same time, listeners have so many, many more places to get audio entertainment, news, information and companionship than over-the-air radio.  The obvious are satellite radio, Pandora and the like.  But with ubiquitous cell phone usage now, millions are not even listening to anything at all but whoever they are talking to on the phone as they commute.

So, the very limited help Commissioner Pai proposes will not help AM broadcasters at all.  It will actually hurt them as their FM translators pry the last few listeners they have managed to hang onto over to a weak FM signal somewhere amid the 100,000-watt guys there already.

And that gesture from the FCC will also continue to hurt existing FM owners at a time when they are already struggling to maintain audience as rapid technological change gives us all myriad choices beyond "The Sonny and Goofball Morning Mayhem Show."  A thousand new signals on the FM band, regardless of their light-bulb-sized transmitter power, is not good for FM.  Unless they bring millions of new listeners.  And they won't.

(And the morning mayhem show, by the way, is probably syndicated out of Dallas and its talent and producers have no idea what I'm facing on my own commute this morning or what topics are of interest to me and my local listeners beyond last night's "Idol" elimination and Kanye's most recent statue swipe.  But that is a rant for another day.)


watt hairston said...

very true Don...
The genie is out of the bottle. many of the successful AM operators have hedged their bets by also broadcasting the AM product on FM. I understand some are considering specialty formats to make some use of the AM until the value of land around tower tops out. Others have already sold the real estate. Content now available elsewhere"... and "without the static and wavering of radio. Who could justify or aford upgrade cost anyway?


Greg Womble said...

It's amazing that AM has lasted this long. I know radio is part market forces and part government forces (FCC and the like) but has it survived thus far mainly on the good graces of Uncle Sam?

Dave Head said...

I can see the FCC attempting to deep-6 AM, since most talk radio that is not on satellite is on AM. Talk radio is a serious annoyance to the communists of the left would have a much easier time of enslaving the American people if it were not for those telling them all about it on talk radio.

OTOH, it is devilishly difficult to get AM radio a lot of the time due to the power line noise, the limited range (which is much better than FM, but still really limited compared to satellite) and a lot of interference by common electricals and electronics in a lot of the stuff we carry, like laptops and such. AM at night anywhere but a really big city sees the signal go to zero when they switch patterns to cut a beam thru the center of the city when they're located south of it, they beam north, and you're south of them.

AM will never be a ham band, there's no money in it for anyone.

Don Keith N4KC said...

You are all correct, of course. The broadcasters have a strong lobby and will push to the end to save AM. If they invested some of that lobbying money into content, it would go much farther, though.

Electrical noise is something the FCC should attempt to fix, not just for AM broadcast but all other services. But is suspect until it becomes an issue to wifi and mobile phones, it will get mostly ignored. Noise absolutely makes much of AM broadcast unlistenable except for the strongest signals.

Don Keith

KRT E.......... said...

Its still radio. Its great for local access and travel at night. I enjoy it. People may not get noise free service but it works. Noise is nature !!! Green/analog Ha Ha

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree. I listen to AM about 90% of the time. The range is adequate for most stations. Up to 100 miles or more. Much better than FM. The signal quality or noise is usually not an issue. I agree that the current administration would love to see talk radio go so they can spread their B.S. without competition.

Don Keith N4KC said...

Well, I am not saying that nobody listens. Or that there aren't a few folks out there who enjoy AM radio.

I am saying--and I know what I am talking about--with a few major-market and legacy-station exceptions, AM has far too few listeners to remain economically viable. And no amount of FM translator or arcane signal-protection gymnastics will help save the band. The former will, though, help to erode FM radio at a time when over-the-air broadcasting can ill afford any erosion at all! The latter is just too little too late.


Don Keith N4KC said...

Oh, and though I have no love for the current administration, I doubt AM radio even shows up on the POTUS radar. Most serious talk has moved to FM anyway. The FCC doesn't have a clue how to help AM. Broadcasters don't either.

It may be too late anyway, but seems that coming up with compelling content that can't easily be found elsewhere is about the only hope. AM would have been toes-up already if not for conservative talk, Hispanic, and religious broadcasters. Now, with FM stations willing do anything they can to hang onto any audience they can manage, much of that programming is on FM, so why put up with static, fading and line noise.

(Anon, I don't know where you live that you don't have mega-noise on your AM radio. You have to be so far out in the country you don't get the Grand Ole Opry until Monday morning.)