Thanks to Translator-Mongering, AM Broadcasters Now Openly Advocating Band’s Abandonment

It’s still more than two months away, but in late November Americans will sit down with their families/friends and gorge themselves on food, then satedly lounge around giving thanks for their bounty. The U.S. radio industry’s going through that process presently, having spent most of the year scarfing up and then trading around FM translator stations.

In quick summary: FM translators are a class of radio station limited to a broadcast power of 250 watts but unlimited in antenna height (the key factor for good FM coverage). They are considered secondary services, in that they must rebroadcast another radio station. For decades, translators have been used as stand-in broadcast nodes by interests who wanted to build out radio networks on the cheap — by and large, these have been religious and public broadcasters who pipe in programming via satellite to air on a translator. Translators don’t require any staff and since they don’t originate their own programming all they need is a shack for the RF-boxes and a tower nearby.

This all began to change last decade when, after a multi-year freeze on new translator stations in order to implement the LPFM radio service, the FCC opened a filing window for new translators in 2003. Several cunning parties were well-prepared for this opportunity, flooding the agency with tens of thousands of translator applications — a 250-watt FM spectrum gold rush. Out of these came thousands of new translator stations, which in the intervening years have been fodder for speculative development of the FM dial around the country. Read More

Window Brings Surge of Translator Deals

On Friday, the FCC opened a six-month filing window for AM broadcasters to acquire existing FM translators, and move them up to 250 miles into their local coverage areas. This is part of the agency’s AM revitalization initiative — though it’s still not exactly clear how FM spectrum fixes AM’s fundamental difficulties.

This window is exclusive to lower-power AM broadcasters; the large “flamethrower” stations will get a crack at the translator shuffle later this summer, and then the FCC plans to open an application window for new translator stations next year. The marketplace for translators, which has been simmering mightily underground for nearly a decade, has fully burst into the mainstream with the FCC’s blessing. Read More

eBay for Translators Has Limited Launch

For the last dozen years, a vibrant marketplace has been brewing in the speculation and sale of FM spectrum through the acquisition of translators. FM translator stations have historically been low-power repeater stations that serve to supplement the coverage area of a full-power parent station. Today, translators often operate as wholly stand-alone operations; while they are still fed programming from a parent-station, that parent can be in a completely different market, or running a completely different format on its full-power analog frequency.

The evolution of translators from a secondary to a quasi-primary service has exploded the asking price of translators in markets large and small. The majority of translators (built or unbuilt, with just an FCC construction-permit in hand) regularly sell for five to six figures, and in major markets they can fetch millions of dollars. Translator prices only seem to increase as the amount of fallow FM spectrum in any given market gets more scarce. Read More