FM Translators: Troublesome Or Terrific?


It’s no secret that the FM translator has provided a big boost to more than one AM radio station. At the same time, the FM translator has given the nation’s largest operator of FMs and AMs — iHeartRadio — an added boost in many markets through the rebroadcast of its HD multicast stations.

But, are there limitations to the placement of an FM translator? And, is the FCC doing the best job it can to ensure that a balance between “revitalization” and aural congestion of the FM airwaves is met?

In recent weeks, stories emerging from the New York Tri-State Area regarding the placement of new FM translator stations have grabbed our attention.

On August 1, RBR+TVBR learned of BNPFT-20180503ACB, the FCC classification for a new FM translator at 100.1 MHz in Newburgh, N.Y.

CHET-5 Broadcasting is concerned. Why? It is the owner of Class A WDST-FM 100.1, licensed to Woodstock, N.Y. As it is a co-channel operation, CHET-5 is concerned that the translator — 45 miles to the south — could impede its signal.

CHET-5 used Cavell, Mertz & Associates engineering maps to make its case; its fringe signal travels to Storm King, and its “distant” signal ends just before Newburgh. The translator is within the fringe signal.

“As with the initially proposed facilities, the facilities specified in the amendment create a large area within the WDST 40 dBu F(50, 50) contour where the proposed translator F(50,10) signal exceeds the 20dB D/U ratio,” WDST’s owner wrote. “Listeners in this area, including eight identified WDST listeners, will lose some or all of their ability to receive WDST programming. Moreover, the 60 dBu contour of the proposed translator extends to
approximately 200 feet of the residences of two regular WDST listeners who listen to WDST in their homes.”

Then came the Sept. 5 announcement that Rahul Walia, owner of two FM translators in central New Jersey, successfully launched an FM translator station from high atop 1WTC in lower Manhattan. This immediately led RBR+TVBR to question how this facility, at 104.7 MHz, could broadcast without interfering with WSPK-FM 104.7 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which uses a Class B signal some 70 miles to the north but has a contour extending far into New York City.

Our attention then turned to the ongoing battle in Durham, N.C., between Tom Birch-owned Lakes Media LLC and Arohi Media. As RBR+TVBR reported August 31, a testy FM translator battle in the Raleigh-Durham market that resulted in a lengthy tussle with Lakes Media has just taken another turn.

In a seven-page letter issued Aug. 30 to Arohi Media and Lakes Media’s legal counsel, Christine McLaughlin of Sciarrino & Shubert PLLC in Arlington, Va., FCC Audio Division Chief Al Shuldiner granted Arohi a request for Special Temporary Authority filed by Arohi to resume operations of W234AR — originally licensed for broadcast at 94.7 MHz in Pocomoke City, Md., and now holding a CP for broadcast at 98.3 MHz in Durham, N.C.

This revives efforts by Arohi to use the 98.3 MHz signal in Durham — something Lakes does not want, as its WLUS-FM 98.3 reaches much of Durham’s northern suburban communities.

With three noteworthy translators making news of late, RBR+TVBR‘s level of concern for fully licensed broadcast stations substantially increased.

But, to be clear, this is not a problem exacerbated by the typical FM translator operator. Rather, this is emerging as a concern that the FCC is creating, with Shuldiner’s office directly responsible for the approval of some new FM translators that may be highly questionable to some.

This is where a delicate balance between fully licensed station and aspiring FM translator owner needs to fall into the careful hands of the Commission’s Media Bureau Audio Division. And, it takes more than reliance on a map or even a Cavell, Mertz study.

In the Mid-Hudson Valley, a cluttered cacophony of FM translators — along with Docket 80-90 FMs launched in the late 1980s and early 1990s — has made in-car listening to stations a chore in many of the hilly communities near Kingston, Woodstock, New Paltz and Newburgh.

In large markets like Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, the FM radio dial is pretty much at full capacity.

FM translators work great in markets with room for the signals, such as Las Vegas and Nashville. In rural areas with limited FM signals due to terrain, they are a vital communications link.

But, the FM translator has its limits. Unfortunately, Philadelphia-based Aztec Capital Radio Partners is trying to tweak those limits — and fully-licensed FM stations could be impaired by what it seeks.

As RBR+TVBR reported August 6, one of two petitions to the FCC that played an integral role in the Commission’s eventual proposed changes to its translator rules is a petition for rulemaking from Aztec.

In these comments, Aztec supports FM translator channel changes to any channel as a minor modification; a minimum number of listener complaints along with specific procedural changes to protect the integrity of the FCC’s complaint processes; and the proposed 54 dBμ contour limitation on complaints.

That would render WDST’s complaints regarding 60 dBμ contour interference moot.

But, Aztec is going along with a FCC proposal of supporting a 54 dBμ limit for listener complaints, calling it “an equitable and a legally supportable compromise.”

This is where the radio industry needs to unite, and speak up.

Sadly, the impacted stations RBR+TVBR has reviewed are largely owned by independent broadcasters. As such, Entercom, iHeartRadio, Beasley Media Group, Cumulus Media and Cox Media Group don’t have any reason to fight.

That’s a shame. The clarity of FM signals received via a radio, which in 15 years may be extinct due to technological advancement, will further be harmed by the implementation of more translators in areas where “DX-ing” and “fringe signals” were signaled out by Aztec.

The FCC should not yield to a translator, or LPFM, for the sake of community voice when careful engineering and spacing on the MHz band is at stake. This results in potential business harm, and puts the Commission at risk of hurting — not helping — the radio industry.

While translator placement approval should be the most complex and thought-out process the Audio Division has on its plate, the need for translators in the first place is emblematic of the radio industry’s ostrich-like attitudes and actions initiated some 15 to 20 years ago with the selection of in-band on-channel HD Radio over a European-style DAB system.

HD Radio, with its digital multicasts, provide the perfect home for every operator relying on an FM translator to reach potential listeners. But, who has an HD Radio? If they do have one, are operators aside from iHeartRadio even using them to their fullest potential?

Meanwhile, as audio and visual tech companies make their final preparations to attend IBC2018 in Amsterdam, it is interesting to note how radio listeners will be tuning in their favorite stations.

Yes, there are FM radio stations such as Radio 10, Radio 538, Slam! and Veronica FM on the dial. But, they are also present across four DAB channels — along with related stations sharing their brand, such as Radio 10 60s&70s and Radio 538 Top 40. Here, on DAB, are other offerings — including Groot Nieuws Radio, one of two AM stations still broadcasting in Amsterdam.

While we respect and salute the operators of FM translator stations and even LPFMs for bring diversity to the airwaves, we express our disappointment that HD Radio’s multicast channels never became their home. It would have been so much better than engaging in intricate engineering, mapping and “geocasting” to bring unique voices to the radio dial.


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