If you read the latest round of ex parte filings in the FCC’s AM revitalization proceeding, you’d think the future of the band hangs on its eventual migration to FM. Yet of the many things the agency’s considering to help AM broadcasters, opening a new applications window for AM stations to acquire FM translators has not been one of them. Now the drafting of new policy has begun that would take AM revitalization from consideration to implementation — and broadcasters are making a last-minute push to grab some FM crumbs.
In the last month, a motley crew of advocates for more FM translators have been making the rounds at FCC HQ. These include trade groups, individual broadcasters and other interested parties. Some of their arguments espouse wrongheaded notions of “salvation” for the most beleagured AM broadcasters.
In late August, the National Association of Broadcasters recruited a bevy of small-market AM station owners to come to D.C. and plead for the necessity of having an FM outlet of their own. According to the ex parte notice, “One attendee even discussed his reluctance to allow his children to join the family business because the outlook for AM radio is so dire.” Existing translators have been priced out of reach by small broadcasters, making a new translator filing window exclusively for AM broadcasters “the best lifeline the FCC could provide” for them.
Meeting with three Commissioners earlier this month, the NAB claimed that the lack of an upcoming FM translator filing window signals “an increasing hostility towards localism — whether by design or by accident — at the Commission,” and that an AM revitalization policy without translators was no plan at all.
iHeartMedia told the FCC it would support a new translator filing window for AM broadcasters only if it will “be open equally to all classes of AM stations, as all AM stations have been impacted by interference issues.” Left unsaid is iHeart’s massive plays in FM translators over the last decade — and most notably its cozy relationship with the non-profit Educational Media Foundation — which have allowed it to circumvent radio station ownership caps in several markets around the country.
These efforts were supplemented by a couple of letters from individual small-market broadcasters. StarCom LLC CEO Dennis Carpenter, who manages KASM-AM in Albany, Minnesota, told the FCC an FM translator would allow it to provide viable service at night, when the power of its AM signal is limited to just 26 watts. KASM “installed a new state-of-the-art broadcast tower, transmitter, and studio equipment last year,” but it makes little difference to listeners “due to poor [receiver] manufacture [sic] specifications.” He would not only like an option to apply for its own FM translator, but it would like the FCC to allow AM stations “to purchase and move an LPFM station and turn it into a translator.”
Thomas McAuliffe II, the president of First Class Radio Corp.’s WMRC-AM in Milford, Massachusetts, believes that the existing FM translator marketplace is out of control and the only affordable way to snag a translator is through a new filing window. “There are currently three commercial translators within eligible distance to the WMRC AM tower,” writes McAuliffe. “Our research shows that two of these translators are owned by Clear Channel/IHeart and the third by another commercial operator. Realistically, none of thee three translators will ever be available for sale…and even if they were, the price would be prohibitively expensive.”
The most curious submission was a filing from Michael Marcus, a former FCC employee considered by many to be the father of WiFi spectrum. In addition to urging a wholesale rewrite of the FCC’s AM broadcast rules starting from scratch, he cautioned against doling out new FM translators willy-nilly for fear they might be exploited in some manner by pirate broadcasters. Huh? According to Marcus, “While we have not [sic] general view on the issue of giving new FM licenses to AM licensees as a way of improving the AM service, new FM transmitters operated by long term [AM] licensees in areas with minority and immigrant population pragmatically may exacerbate the piracy issue.” News flash: most FM pirates operate in locales where there is no meaningful media diversity, particularly on AM, so this concern is groundless.
But the filings that really take the cake came from advocates for minority-owned broadcasters chiming in so late in this game. Earlier this month, the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters met with several Commissioners and their staffs urging them to allow their clients to acquire new FM translators. “Any other approach will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for AM stations, to obtain the translators they urgently need to remain competitive and provide our communities with the service they deserve,” they say. Giving minority AM broadcasters an injection of FM spectrum might somehow “increase the likelihood of available financing to small minority owned AM stations, which suffer from a lack of capital.”
NABOB brought with it a high-powered law firm and a letter signed by some “50 Minority Owned AM Radio Licensees,” who collectively declared that not getting one last crack at FM translators “will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for AM stations. . .to remain competitive and provide our communities with the service they deserve.”
It is not uncommon for industry interests to raise up the plight of the disadvantaged in our media environment when they want a policy change that will be favorable to them. We saw this most clearly in the fight over network neutrality, when multinational telecom companies bought the advocacy of many nongovernmental organizations ostensibly out to serve minority communities, some of which are also involved here.
Chairman Wheeler’s FCC is very sensitive to these issues, so the hope is this flurry of activity will change his mind on bringing FM into the AM revitalization plan. (This is only the second time NABOB has engaged in the FCC’s AM revitalization proceeding, the first being a similar ex parte filing.) The FCC’s also been exploring last-minute compromises, in part spurred by Congressional inquiries, such as allowing AM stations to acquire and relocate existing FM translators from hundreds of miles away. This has gotten a mixed reaction from industry advocates though by and large they all think it’s not enough assistance to AM broadcasters.
Of course, nobody advocating for new translators has suggested meaningful policies for preventing beleagured AM broadcasters from selling their translator permits in the speculative marketplace that now exists for them, or just selling out entirely (if the price is right). Never mind the diminishment of diversity that this would entail, nor the fact that adding an adjunct FM signal does absolutely nothing to correct the beleagured infrastructure of the parent AM stations we’re talking about — a problem that might only be solved by wholly rewriting the FCC’s AM station allocation rules (a complete non-starter). Elsewhere in the world, AM services are pulling the plug entirely.
In simple terms, the endgame for the last injection of fresh spectrum into the speculative FM translator marketplace is afoot. Industry players who’ve twigged to this racket about a decade late now want their own cut before the spectrum-well runs dry. Linking this desire to the revitalizaiton of the oldest broadcast band and genuflection at the altar of media diversity are just convenient rhetorical vehicles to facilitate this. We should find out before the year is out whether or not the FCC sees through this — and if not, who stands to profit most from the last crumbs of the FM dial.