Yesterday the FCC issued a Report and Order formally allowing AM radio stations to use FM translators to rebroadcast their signals.

The idea was first proposed nearly three years ago, and over the last 18 months or so the FCC’s quietly been allowing AM stations to apply for translators to “fill in” existing gaps in their coverage areas. These gaps have been caused by the general degradation of the AM band, due to electromagnetic or radio-frequency interference (RFI) from a growing myriad of electronic devices and skywave signals from stronger co- or adjacent-channel stations.

I vehemently opposed this proposal, noting that the inherent noise-problems of the AM band will not be fixed by cramming more FM translators onto a separate (and unaffected) portion of the broadcast spectrum. Perhaps the FCC should first work to proactively minimize RFI on the AM dial, as it already has the statutory authority to do?

The Audio Division of the Media Bureau fundamentally disagreed, calling this ruling a part of its strategic plan to bring “relief” to AM broadcasters (something that’s been in the works for more than a decade). While I find its justification somewhat tortuous, I am relieved to know somebody at the agency takes dissenting opinions seriously (I got stomped in the footnotes like never before).

In a nutshell, the FCC gave AM stations the ability to utilize as many translators as they need to effectively serve their primary coverage areas. However, it compromised on a very important point: as of now, only existing FM translators may be used (specifically defined as “those translator stations with licenses or permits in effect as of May 1, 2009”). This means that AM stations will not be allowed to mass-apply for new FM translator permits to effectively duplicate their AM service areas.

This is bad news for any AM broadcaster who didn’t get in on the “Special Temporary Authority” gravy-train for new FM translators which had previously been in effect. But it’s good news for owners of translators who are looking for buyers or lessors, and good news for aspiring LPFM broadcasters, in that some FM spectrum may still be available if the FCC ever opens its long-promised filing window for LP-10 (10-watt) LPFM stations.

Incidentally, Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell was the only one to issue a statement on the ruling, praising this “deregulatory action” in a most curious manner:

AM stations’ inability to reach all potential listeners within their existing authorized contours throughout the 24-hour day undermines our goals of fostering competition, localism and diversity because it deprives listeners of the news and talk programming that has become the hallmark of the AM band. The record before us confirms that many AM broadcasters do an excellent job of serving targeted demographics and interests within their communities. [Emphasis added]

Truth be told, it’s not like the AM band is completely unusable at this point. The number of LPAM stations is growing, both of the legal (Part 15) variety and illicit (unlicensed) kind. The FCC’s ruling is basically a mixed bag, neither a slam-dunk nor total loss; the kind of thing that makes media policy intriguingly infuriating.