Last Bites of Translator Feast At Hand

The final element of a radio spectrum “land rush” that began more than a decade ago involving FM translator stations is upon us.

Translators exploded onto the scene as a way for broadcasters to gain new FM signals on the cheap back in 2003, when some clever religious broadcasters flooded a filing window which resulted in the tendering of thousands of translator-station construction permits. These folks inspired other spectrum-spectulators to jump in, sensing that this would be the last chance to colonize the FM dial in the United States. They all then sold the majority of these permits, for thousands to millions of dollars apiece.

These translators have been mostly utilized to give HD Radio-only programming (like that found on FM HD-2 and -3 subchannels) an analog presence, which some have likened to launching an entirely new station, and to allow AM stations a foothold on the FM dial. Since that first rush, the FCC’s opened multiple opportunities for broadcasters to purchase existing translator stations, most recently as part of FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s vaunted AM revitalization initiative. Read More

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

HD Radio: “We’re Still Here”

After its lackluster appearance at the NAB Show earlier this year, HD Radio‘s new owners, DTS Inc., are trying mightily to demonstrate that the technology remains a viable future for broadcast radio. In May, DTS announced its first-quarter financials, representing the first full quarter of its ownership of iBiquity. As expected, the acquisition had a positive effect on DTS’ bottom line, no doubt from the revenue stream involving licensing HD receivers in cars (for which the company gets paid as much as $12 per unit).

Presently, however, HD Radio is found in just 37% of all new vehicles sold in the United States — a far cry from widespread penetration, but more than enough to move the needle in DTS’ ledgers. According to a company conference call earlier this year, the acquisition of HD Radio is part of a pivot by DTS away from developing/acquiring audio enhancement systems for home entertainment technologies (which are on the decline) and toward the mobile and portable device spaces (which are growing mightily). By the end of 2016, DTS expects its automotive division (which includes HD Radio) to account for some 40% of all revenues. 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

AM Revitalization Order Released

At the close of business last Friday, and with little fanfare, the FCC released its first AM revitalization Report and Order. This rulemaking began two years ago and the most significant outcomes have little to do with the AM band itself.

Comparing the FCC’s proposed rulemaking to the R&O shows that most of the agency’s initial proposals will be enacted. This includes things like allowing for more flexbility on interference calculations and protections, antenna siting and design, the option to use analog transmission protocols that are more energy-efficent, and increased utilization of AM’s expanded band channels. But the meat of the R&O involvews developments regarding the FM band and the utter lack of comment on a digital strategy for AM. Read More