By SCOTT FYBUSH
LAS VEGAS - It's been a long time since AM radio was at the center of attention at an NAB Show. But this is a somewhat unusual NAB Show. It's not just the weather, which was windy and rainy and in the fifties as the crowds began to fill the Las Vegas Convention Center Monday morning. It's also the tone of the broadcasters and the regulators here, which is a little different from past years.
NAB leaders say they can’t remember the last time a sitting FCC commissioner moderated a panel, and neither can we – but there was commissioner Ajit Pai on Monday afternoon, speaking to a jam-packed room about the prospects for revitalizing AM radio in the face of trends that strongly favor FM and drawing big rounds of applause every time he spoke of his own love of AM radio and his hope to save the medium, not to mention a standing ovation at the end.
Can this medium be saved? There’s plenty of enthusiasm on display, but rather less agreement about how to go about the task.
“Usually you guys say stuff that is predictable.”
That’s prominent DC lawyer John Garziglia, explaining why he wasn’t initially paying much attention last fall when Pai addressed the NAB Radio Show. But Pai wasn’t predictable, calling for an intense focus on eliminating regulations that hinder the future of AM radio and investigating ways the FCC might help bolster the revitalization of the senior medium.
Staking out one flank, unsurprisingly, is CBS Radio director of engineering Glynn Walden, who argues that the inherent inefficiency of analog AM radio makes an all-digital world the only future for AM. While Pai publicly broached the prospect of moving AM stations to FM operations on the 76-88 MHz spectrum now occupied by TV channels 5 and 6 (the first time we can recall an FCC commissioner openly discussing the prospect), Walden says that’s a non-starter: “The FCC doesn’t give away spectrum, they auction it.”
Walden observed some of last fall’s experimental test of all-digital AM in Charlotte, N.C. at WBCN (1660), and he says the results, while not perfect, were remarkable.
“It’s interesting when you’re driving down the road and listening to an AM radio station and you’re driving for 30, 40, 50 miles and don’t hear anything but perfect audio. It’s a different listening experience, and it’s an experience we could have if we abandon analog radio,” he said.
Garziglia says he’d like to see the FCC at least allow more experimentation with all digital: “If one of my clients wants to take the bet and go all-digital, I say the FCC should let them,” he noted, but also expressed fear that “an FCC sunset of analog could turn into a total eclipse.” Garziglia, along with others on the panel and in the crowd, had more to say about the use of FM translators to enhance the AM service.
“I would like AM operators to be able to go to CHR and compete. You can’t do that without FM,” said Texas station owner Ben Downs. He’s planning to ask the FCC to open a new filing window in which any AM station could request a new FM translator, one per station, with the translator license permanently bound to the sister AM.
Garziglia has been in the forefront of the translator movement, and is currently pushing the FCC to grant a waiver that would allow one of his Indiana clients to move a translator to relay one of his AMs. Garziglia says that client, Bud Walters of Cromwell Broadcasting, reports he still has listeners on the AM dial – “but advertisers tell him they don’t think anyone listens to AM.”
And for the first time in recent memory at an NAB panel, it appears the Commission is at least open to discussing some even more audacious plans to save AM. A rulemaking proposal to increase the power of existing AM stations tenfold to overcome higher levels of interference appeared to die somewhere deep in the bowels of the FCC, but Pai mentioned the possibility, though not to much warmth. (Downs noted that beyond the cost to broadcasters to build out upgraded AM signals, there’s also the expense of interference remediation, all for a power boost that studies suggest wouldn’t help all that much: “There is no power increase you can do” that would handle what may be a 40 dB increase in the level of background noise, he said.)
Another prominent DC lawyer, Melodie Virtue, was the panel’s voice on some other proposed rule changes that – until now – haven’t seemed to get anywhere at FCC headquarters. For (again) the first time in our recollection, Pai was at least willing to listen to discussions of eliminating the “ratchet rule” that was meant to help reduce interference between stations when it was introduced two decades ago, more flexibility in city-of-license coverage, as well as the possibility of more FCC action against consumer electronic devices that aren’t really compliant with Part 15 limits.
Even more audacious? Here’s Ben Downs again: “To protect 47 class A stations, hundreds of stations have to sign off and not serve their communities. The station we’re protecting [WLAC 1510 from Nashville, Tennessee] has not been listened to in my [Texas] market for years.”
Downs says action has to be taken quickly as smaller AMs keep faltering. “There are 52 fewer AM stations now than there were in 2009. Those are stations that couldn’t find a buyer. They couldn’t find a bank to take them back.”
Will there be action? That’s the 50,000-watt question, if you will – and thus far it has no good answer. As enthusiastic as Pai is about deregulation, and about AM radio in general – he opened to big applause for his memories of listening to his hometown AM station in Kansas – he’s only one of five votes on the Commission, and he’s in the Republican minority.
Much more from the session rooms and the floor here in Las Vegas throughout the week here on NERW…we’ll be back with more updates on Tuesday.
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This is the 12th edition of our annual calendar, which features photos of broadcast towers taken by Scott Fybush on his travels.
The 12-month wall calendar boasts a full-color photo each month of a well-known broadcast transmitter site.
This year’s edition includes sites in Florida, Wisconsin, Kentucky, California, Iowa, Idaho, Las Vegas, Colorado, Boston, Cleveland, Albuquerque, upstate New York and western Massachusetts. We've also redesigned the calendar to make it more colorful (don't worry; the pictures are still pristine) and make the spiral binding our standard binding -- your calendar will hang even better on your wall now! And of course, we still have the convenient hole for hanging.
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