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.

For years, the primary conduit of cash in the translator marketplace has been between religious broadcast entities, who snarfed up thousands of FM translator applications in a 2003 filing window, and commercial broadcasters, who enjoy adding more signals in markets where they are prohibited by law from owning any more full-power stations. But many an entrepreneur now play in the translator marketplace, and they’re devising new ways to sell the spectrum they’ve acquired to the highest bidder.

When the FCC approved the first parts of its AM revitalization initiative earlier this year, the big news was all about giving beleagured AM broadcasters access to FM translators. The FCC now allows AM stations to acquire an FM translator station from up to 250 miles away from its community of license, and then move the translator into its own market. Next month, the agency will open a special filing window for such moves, and in 2017 another window will open for new FM translator permits exclusively for AM broadcasters.

This decision has only served to stimulate the translator marketplace to new highs (or lows, depending on your perspective). One of the latest innovations is courtesy of Ronald Unkefer, the proprietor of First Ventures Capital Partners (the actual domain, firstventures.com, resolves to a blank WordPress install). This is a corporate vehicle set up by Unkefer to speculate in the translator marketplace.

First Ventures Capital Partners has been on a translator buying-spree for at least the last four years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process buying nearly 100 translator stations and construction permits primarily from religious broadcasters.

Earlier this month, First Ventures launched FMTranslatorAuction.com, a bidding site for AM broadcasters (and other interested parties) to acquire translator stations. The initial week-long bidding cycle featured about 30 translators from Unkefer’s portfolio, of which a baker’s dozen were sold in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota (though keep in mind that the ability to move these stations up to 250 miles means they could conceivably end up in another state). Most were priced in the low five figures, and all included a “Buy It Now” price of around $50,000 per station.

According to Unkefer, the results were satisfactory enough that another auction-window is in the works in early January. Perhaps some of that money will be invested in upgrading the auction interface, which presently requires a lot form-printing/filling/scanning/e-mailing for everything but the bidding process itself. Or maybe this trial run will convince other translator-mongers to band forces and offer an uber-auction/mall for translators.