All-Digital AM Radio: A Voluntary Option Up For Thought

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“Just as the FCC is trying to keep pace with changes in the market, so are AM radio operators,” says Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. “The Commission wants to give them as much flexibility as possible to compete in the digital age.”


As such, an experiment presently being tested at a Hubbard Broadcasting AM in Frederick, Md., fueled by a Bryan Broadcasting petition, could become perfectly permissible for any broadcaster wishing to say goodbye to analogue kHz broadcasters.

In a blog post penned by Pai outlining the agency’s November Open Meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Nov 19, the FCC Chairman confirmed that the Commissioners will consider a proposal to allow AM licensees to broadcast using an all-digital signal on a voluntary basis.

It’s a major step forward in allowing an operator to abandon their analog signal, and exclusively use an all-digital signal.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for MB Docket No. 19-311 was distributed Tuesday (10/29) by the FCC. It formally opens the comment period for those who wish to chime in on topics ranging from the predicted benefits of all-digital AM broadcasting to the interference potential of all-digital stations, as well as addressing the technical standards for all-digital AM stations.

“And because all-digital broadcasting would be on a voluntary basis, AM operators would be the ones deciding if transitioning is right for them,” Pai said.

The subject of HD Radio use as an exclusive way AM radio stations may broadcast was the subject of an in-depth report appearing in the Fall 2019 Radio & Television Business Report magazine, distributed at the Radio Show in Dallas and via PDF to subscribers.

The article noted that HD Radio technology in the form of digital-only AM broadcasts is being explored as the technical salvation for a broadcast band many younger audio consumers don’t even know exists.

Championing this possibility are two companies. One is based in Texas. The other is headquartered in Minneapolis and has a formidable presence in the nation’s capital.

It is at the latter company, Hubbard Broadcasting, where its Senior Broadcast Engineer Dave Kolesar, just may be bringing to life the biggest technical advance to AM radio ever seen.

At the center of Hubbard’s grand experiment, overseen by the Washington, D.C.-based Kolesar, is “The Gamut.”

That’s the branding associated with eclectic Class B WWFD-AM 820 in Frederick, Md. It has “AM revitalization” via an FM translator at 94.3 MHz in Frederick, and can be heard closer to the White House at 98.3 MHz — a second translator using a feed off of an HD multicast signal tied to top-rated all-News WTOP-FM 103.5.

In December 2011, an opportunity to turn a hobby of Kolesar’s into an actual on-air radio station came to fruition, as internet-only “Gamut” took WTOP’s HD3 channel following Hubbard’s acquisition of the all-News station, originally at 1500 kHz.

By March 2013, what to do with WWFD was asked by Hubbard’s local management team. With Kolesar’s “hobby” gaining traction — meaning people were actually finding The Gamut, and listening — Hubbard placed it on WWFD.

It ran as an analog station through July 16, 2018. Then, a most interesting development unfolded.

“I started asking what can we do with 820 to make it a player, and how could we
just get it so that people could actually want to listen to it,” Kolesar says. The pending arrival, in July 2017, of a Frederick translator helped immensely. “The listeners were there and dedicated, but it was just not growing in number,” he notes. “I just could not get people to try this Triple A music format on an analog AM.”

But what if it were broadcasting in HD Radio? Kolesar says, “Knowing that this translator was coming, I thought to myself that the AM was going to be useless.”

A thought occurred to him. “That facility was di-plexed, and on that facility was the iBiquity experimental station on 1670 kHz, where they were conducting field tests for all-digital AM mode.”

This early trial of HD Radio on AM got Kolesar excited about the possibilities for WWFD and “The Gamut.” He says, “I knew what all-digital AM HD could sound like, and the thought occurred to me, ‘Why don’t we just do that on 820?’”

A few weeks later, Kolesar headed to Las Vegas, and the 2017 CES. Spotting the booth for Xperi, now the purveyor of HD Radio, he walked up, introduced himself, and noted that he wanted to take one of his stations all-digital — WWFD.

“After the stunned reaction, a lot of planning and coordination, engineering and antenna system modifications were done over the next year,” Kolesar says with a laugh. Yes, they were willing to help. They just couldn’t believe that Kolesar was serious about, and committed to, his plan. All that was needed was experimental authority added to
WWFD’s license. This came, and has been renewed once, after a progress report was submitted to the FCC.

Among those who have heard WWFD in HD Radio is Ari Meltzer, a Partner with
Wiley Rein. “It makes listening to music on AM a really viable and almost indistinguishable experience,” he says.

What’s been needed from the FCC is experimental authority. That’s now set to happen.

It’s not thanks to Hubbard, however. Rather, a petition filed by David Oxenford, a partner
at Wilkinson Barker Knauer on behalf of Lone Star State client Bryan Broadcasting, is the catalyst for MB Docket No. 19-311. Bryan expressly asked the FCC for permission to broadcast in digital, minus analog; Hubbard filed comments in support of the petition, filed in March 2019.

And, it appears the Commission is doing exactly what Oxenford and Bryan proposed.

Oxenford explained that the pleading “does not suggest that any AM be forced to convert to an all-digital operation — instead it proposes that stations be given the option to make that conversion whenever they want … Bryan Broadcasting argues that this market-based approach — a voluntary transition to AM digital — may provide the answer for AM stations.”


This article contains excerpts from the feature story Folly or Futurist?, appearing in the fall 2019 edition of the Radio & Television Business Report magazine. To receive access to this member exclusive, please consider a subscription to RBR+TVBR.

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