The CCME Corporate PD and WLW-AM Cincinnati Saturday talker served as PD for WLW from 1999 through 2010. He just penned a blog that takes issue—major issue—with the FCC’s recent ideas on revitalizing the AM band: (PS. The blog has since been pulled from the site)
A SERIOUS Message To The Broadcast Industry About Revitalizing AM Radio
If you would allow me the indulgence of being the radio suit that I am in real life for just one blog, because something has me irritated in a major way.
There is finally a call, as the Federal Communications Commission put it recently, to revitalize the AM band. You know create and ease rules to allow station owners to be relieved of horrible burdens. You may have read about this in the press or online. If you’re in the broadcast industry you may have read about it in one of the industry rags.
You think just one of these industry rags would speak the truth about the FCC’s ideas, suggestions and concepts? Nope. As Kevin Bacon’s character in Animal House said, “Remain calm. All is well.” What a joke the FCC is. And sadly, what a joke the people in the radio industry are who are nodding along without thought or the ability to intelligently reason the basic concepts of physics.
While AM radio may suffer from numerous other issues, this will focus on technical limitations of the broadcast band and the ideas the FCC has moving forward.
AM radio or “amplitude modulation” was first. Even back in the 1920’s and 1930’s companies like RCA which sold radios, owned stations and had the NBC Radio Networks knew of limitations on the band, limitations such as “static.” RCA was so concerned about static they, through a really smart guy they employed, invented FM or “frequency modulation” and then buried the FM technology because they had too much money invested in AM stations. The “static” you hear on AM radio is interference.
The AM signal travels farther at night than during the day. Most AM radio stations change their signal patterns and/or reduce power at night to keep from interfering with other stations on the same frequency or adjacent frequencies. Stations like 700WLW are considered a “clear channel” station, meaning the station’s signal is broadcast in a non-directional pattern and is the only station on that frequency at night. The power is a booming 50,000 watts. Stations such as WSM-AM, WGN-AM, WLS-AM and WCBS-AM are also “clear channel” stations.
Today, besides interference from other stations, the AM band is also being interfered with by computers, cell phones, even those new energy savings light bulbs. This is why it may be more difficult for you to receive a good signal from an AM station these days.
Just last week at the yearly “circle jerk” gathering of broadcasters called the NAB/RAB Radio Show, FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn announced a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” with 6…count ‘em…6 ideas to rid station owners of horrible burdens. What do these 6 ideas do? Increase interference! And no one. Not one freaking person in the industry press will talk about this. Obviously, they’re too busy copying press releases for their publications and pretending to be Kevin Bacon’s ROTC character.
Here are the 6 ideas proposed by the FCC.
Opening a one-time filing window, limited to current AM licensees and permittees, which will allow each to apply for one new FM translator station to fill in its service area.
An FM translator is a very low power FM signal, normally about 99 watts. The FCC figures there’s so much interference today on the AM band, as stations interfere with each other, why not spread the pain and cause more interference on the FM band. BRILLIANT!
Relaxing the AM daytime community coverage rule to allow existing AM broadcasters more flexibility to propose antenna site changes.
Translation: Stations that are non-viable can change their tower locations. (1) Non-viable stations probably don’t have the money to move a tower site, which will cost in the millions. (2) If a non-viable station does change its tower site, rules would be relaxed on these station allowing for more interference with other stations. (3) If a non-viable station simply changes its daytime pattern at its current site it will cause more interference with other stations. BRILLIANT!
Relaxing the AM nighttime community coverage standards, which will also provide broadcasters, who may have difficulty finding suitable sites, relief for towers and directional arrays.
Remember what I said about the AM signal traveling farther at night? More AM band interference and more difficulty for the consumer to receive and hear programming. BRILLIANT!
Also, does the FCC really think a non-viable AM station will be moving its tower site? 700WLW’s tower site is 40 acres. Two towers, one almost 900 feet tall. What do you think this would cost to build? This is a non-starter.
Eliminating the AM “ratchet rule,” which requires an AM station to “ratchet back” its nighttime signal to reduce interference to certain other AM stations.
Here’s where I worry about the FCC and attendees at the recent NAB/RAB “circle jerk.” Really? You applauded this idea? They are saying they are in favor of increasing interference on the AM band and making it more difficult for listeners to listen to stations. WOW!
Permitting wider implementation of Modulation Dependent Carrier Level or MDCL control technologies, which allow broadcasters to reduce power consumption.
I know. What the f*** does this mean? Basically, by controlling the algorithms of modulation with the main carrier and the side-bands of the signal the station can reduce its electric bill. But, as with every immutable law in physics there is give and take. (1) By reducing the power and use of electricity needed, it makes the signal weaker and creates more interference on the listener’s end. (2) The FCC has noted that a reduction in signal power at certain modulation levels “inevitably exacts some penalty in audio quality.” This means if an AM station uses the MDCL control technology audio distortion is created on the signal. You guessed it. More interference.
Modifying AM antenna efficiency standards by reducing minimum effective field strength values by approximately 25%, thus allowing the use of shorter towers.
“Reducing minimum effective field strength values” means a weaker signal. 700WLW’s main tower is what is called a “half-wave tower.” That’s why it’s so big. Stations that have shorter towers have what are called “quarter-wave towers.” A half-wave tower creates a better and stronger signal. The shorter towers proposed mean? Yep. More interference.
Hey FCC. The answer is not MORE interference. The answer is LESS interference. And you do that by turning off non-viable stations. And before station owners start crying poverty, many of these non-viable AM stations have one thing that is worth a ton of money. The land their towers sit on.
What do you think those 40 acres in Mason, Ohio are worth?
RBR-TVBR observation: AM owners—call some of them non-viable or not—do need help, and all of the interference reasons Parks spoke of are real. If these stations want to survive in the marketplace, there are things that can be done to help them. The FCC is trying to do just that. While not all of the Commission’s ideas are practical, at least the effort is being made. The marketplace will decide if these “non-viable” stations should be turned off or not—not Parks with his 50-kW blowtorch, or the FCC. The ideas on keeping the daytime power 24/7 and FM translator options seem to be the best on the list. AM owners should support and pursue them with the Commission. As well, since it is so hard to hear weaker AM stations now, due to the new electronic interference in our lives—from cable boxes in every room to printers to cell phones—a look at upping the power of many of these stations should be considered as well: to help keep these stations viable. I think I’d rather hear a little interference from other stations rather than just a loud buzz when trying to hear a program on a local AM.