WLW’s Darryl Parks rages at FCC’s AM ideas


Darryl ParksThe 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.


  1. “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.” That used to be true but the FCC has destroyed the “clear channel” system. Now a “clear channel” station only gets to have exclusive use of the channel out to 750 miles making the station a high power regional station because of increased interference.
    I agree with at least most of Darryl Parks said. What Darryl Parks calls a non-viable station is what I call a new or little station. New stations (those licensed after January 1, 1970) should have never been licensed for anything but daytime only broadcasts. Because signals of stations in the MW band travel beyond the horizon at night there should not be more than a few stations on each channel at night. Little stations are those that transmit with less than 5,000 watts at night. If all “new” and “little” stations were moved to a VHF Digital only band and after several years of simulcasting would turn off the MW stations then the noise level on the MW band would drop. Certain channels such as 1230 KHz and 1490 KHz wold be empty and open for two or three higher powered stations at the most that would enjoy very low interference at night. Large cities like New York and Chicago should not have more than one “clear channel” station because they are not needed. We need the “clear channel” stations in the “Great Southwest” where there are so few stations on the air at night so, when I think of 770 in New York versus 770 in Albuquerque I say give clear channel status to Albuquerque and let New York’s station reduce power at night. Sorry about the unorganized commentary but I did this quick and do not know how many words I am limited to.

  2. Mr. Park’s remarks may have some merit… but his choice of words and targets raises havoc with his credibility. It is difficult to take someone seriously when they
    they are angry. Mr. Parks has bit the hand that feeds him. I hope he can cook..

  3. What Mr. Parks failed to write about is how many of those “non viable” AMs Clear Channel owned and instead of turning them off and sending in the license,(like he thinks should be done with other stations), the company donates them to Minority Media Council so MMC could sell them as a fundraiser and keep stations on air. So Mr. Parks own company is the cause of some of that extra interference he complains about.

  4. The MCDL technology is nothing new, just forgotton and revived with a new twist. It is new to this generation of Engineers, however. It is the similar principle used in a 1930’s patent, and implemented in the RCA Ampliphase transmitters of the 1950’s & 60’s. Cut power during quiet levels. We used 2, a 10 & 50kw, at WIBG Philadelphia installed in 1958, with a frequency response of 35 to 17kHz because it used no modulation transformer. True High Fidelity and cut power cost. http://www.oldradio.com/archives/hardware/RCA/50.htm As far as ratcheting, why should a station in Somers Point NJ, 600 miles away from Pittsburgh run at 500 watts to protect KDKA during critical hours? Who 575 miles from Pittsburgh is being harmed 30 minutes after sunrise? 100 miles? Get real. The REAL answer is better radios. RCA has the patent, dating to 1958, called Fiteramic. Watch, and listen to FLAWLESS clear AM recption 4″ from a computer screen/processor on 1960 technology. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YY1SLCzhoKk

  5. Parks sees the matter through the prism of the big station. He has little value for the mom & pop AM station serving their community. And that’s OK. He’s an advocate for a particular type of facility.

    Unfortunately, (with exceptions) the main problems for AM radio are not related to interference from other AM stations. What plagues AM radio is low fidelity combined with high noise from random human activities. If we were to sign off half of the AM stations in an effort to reduce interference, we would achieve very little for the vast majority of surviving AM stations. To make matters worse, we would eliminate a lot of potential listening choices, thus driving listeners to the FM band or to streaming.

    Count the number of stations that you can hear on a boom box reasonably well on both bands. In most places, you will only hear a handful of AM stations, but lots of FM signals. Typically, there are 2x or 3x as many useful FM signals as there are AM signals in any given town. So, the listener has far more choices on FM, better fidelity and superior noise immunity. Parks’ plan makes no improvement to any of these conditions.

    To suggest that turning off a bunch of AM stations will somehow improve the band is simply following the Pied Piper into radio oblivion. When the listener tunes into the AM band and finds even fewer choices than now, they will just stop trying and AM’s slow fade will accelerate.

    In the short term, turning off AM stations would benefit the survivors because there would be fewer stations competing. Would WLS gain coverage? Maybe. Maybe not. The problem is that the long term effects of the “Parks plan” would be devastating for the AM band. Sooner or later, even WLS would feel the effects. When they turn off the lights and lock the door for the last time, they might not even realize it was their own plan that led to their demise.

    Finally, Parks’ musings are all theoretical. From a practical perspective, there’s no possibility that half of the AM stations would ever be ordered off the air. Such an action would take decades to resolve in court and would likely fail. When one removes the suggestion that a bunch of stations retire, the rest of Parks suggestions are to do nothing. So, how’s the current state of AM radio working for everyone?

  6. km says a lot of truth,, also i might add,, during the 70 i worked with ed buterbaugh in trying to implement improvements in am,, ford philco radios always had good fidelity due to good i.f. band width,, we pleaded with delco to implement a couple of changes in their radio circuits to no avail,, to wit the major problem is that the f.m. de-emphisis network is part of the audio amplifier, so it is in when a.m. is selected, thus rolling off the audio at 2 khz, they sound terrible on a.m., thus creating the impression that a.m. is low fidelity. then the influx of downright terrible japanese radios as the japanese auto products started to take hold in this country.the am transmitters transmit very good fidelity ,the problem is the radios ! with reguards to local channels that serve small towns across america, 1230,1240,1340,1400,1450,1490, ..they were all granted a power increase from 250 watts to 1000 watts night time in the 60s and realized many improvements then,,they all accept the interference and night limits of their co-channel counterparts,

  7. Mr. Parks’ thoughts do not reflect the reality of the majority of a.m. licensees. To see the FCC paying attention to the plight of the a.m. operators that serve their local communities is refreshing. Those Mom and Pops are providing a service to their community, communities that Mr. Parks and his like at the clear-channel blowtorch stations probably have not even spoken the name of in a decade. I’ve had meetings with FCC staffers where I learned they get essentially no feedback or input from the smaller-scale a.m., or f.m., licensee. Yet, the Mom and Pops are significant in number, many trying to provide the local football game, local news and those services the big guys don’t, or won’t, do. There are essentially no skywave listeners anymore, heck, even the truckers have jumped to SiriusXM. A commercial intended for skywave delivery is more rare than a cart-machine. So, shock of shocks for the likes of Mr. Parks..they, too, are local stations ! For the majority of a.m. licensees a nice, simple few hundred watts on f.m., handed out by the FCC computers, along the line of the night-time authorizations of the 80’s, would help hundreds of impaired a.m. licensees compete and serve their community. For the intended local service they can be located quite closely. I handle a couple co-channel LPFM’s that are minimally spaced. They co-exist just fine, each serving their community. How about keeping it simple, let the FCC computers consider the present a.m. tower height and location, use that to issue translator authorizations based on the existing a.m. tower, utilizing what the licensee already has, and not making them ‘beg’ for the authorization. If an improvement in the assignment was seen , then a licensee could ask for a revision, but, not to the disadvantage of another ‘blanket’ assignment. If the translator was not desired, fold up the authorization and send it back to D.C. Additionally, several conditions exist that could be addressed, (a) since the television ‘casters set aside the distinction of VHF and UHF decades ago, let’s do the same for radio. Thus, a radio licensee, and hopefully the radio sets, can treat the a.m. and f.m. spectrum as a continuous ‘dial’ as television is now. That would also put these disadvantaged a.m.’s in a position for a ‘channel-change’, be it to the f.m. portion of radio. Tying the use of an a.m. to f.m. translator to shutting off the a.m. over a time-frame, as the expanded-band tie to the original a.m.’s extinguishment was, would sort out the seriously disadvantaged a.m. from the not-so disadvantaged. Mr. Parks could decline a translator authorization and sail his blowtorch off to the sunset ! A couple years should be adequate from my experience of seeing a.m. listeners flood to the new translator suggests. That old 5 years migration to expanded-band is obsolete. (b) increasing night-time power is a tough way to improve quality of reception. If one wanted to improve the S/N ratio by 15 dB, I don’t think it practical to increase the power by the more than 30 fold required to accomplish that 15 dB, let alone being economical. Think of it as a 250 watt night-timer going to 7.5 kW to gain those 15 dB..wrong. Thus, the practicality of the a.m. to f.m. translator becomes more obvious. Expanded-band stations, however, are an exception by a unique condition in there is little justification for the 1kW night operation, since 10kW day is nearly universal. Let’s just do what was done in the 70’s with those old local channels (class-D’s now) and let ‘er rip at daytime power full-time. It was proven by that 70’s process that the interference contours do not change, but the signal-to-manmade-noise ratio locally will improve and easily. That would be a 10 dB improvement by just NOT pushing a button every night ! (d) let’s rename the LPFM service, and a correlating a.m. to f.m. translator service, as ‘Community Radio’, removing the stigma of ‘low-power’. (e) let’s back-off the audio-processing to cut back on making radio sound like ‘radio’. I do not see crunchers, clippers and wall-of-sound devices in the music stores. I bet the customers actually do NOT want that sound..or it would be for sale, to take home and make the music they just bought ‘sound like radio’ ! That is a process we all could do without looking for Rules changes.

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