More evidence that the market in FM translator stations is maturing quickly.

Saga Communications, a radio conglomerate that specializes in mid-market acquisitions, owns 91 stations across the country. Of these, some three dozen are FM translators: second-class radio stations limited to a power of 250 watts or less that rebroadcast the signals of other stations.

Saga is an aggressive player in the practice of using FM-HD Radio signals to feed programming to analog translators. Since very few people actually listen to HD Radio, these mini-signals appear to be "new" stations, though in most cases they’re completely canned programming of a format that wouldn’t otherwise be profitable on a real full-power FM station.

The giveaway of an FM translator is its weak signal, resulting in a smaller broadcast range and some increased difficulty penetrating into buildings.

This practice of treating second-class stations as primary services completely warps the intent of the translator service itself, and allows conglomerates to gain "new" stations that aren’t counted against FCC media ownership limitations. It has also led to a massive market bubble for translators that has been developing for more than ten years. We’re now seeing the results, where these weak rebroadcast-sticks are leased or sold for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

Saga’s latest yearly SEC filing notes that 87% of the company’s gross revenue comes from local advertising, so you can see how adding FM translators to the mix has the potential to turn a buck or two. Over the years, Saga’s become adept at branding translators as "new" stations: browse the company’s stations list and look for the stations marked -HD2 or -HD3. These all have their own analog translator outlets now.

Obviously, the broadcasters engaging in this practice have to figure out a way to market these stations to advertisers–and it’s best to try and play down their second-class nature. How best to do that? Lie.

A corporate directive to Saga’s ad sales staff says translators should be sold to clients as "metro signals." As Saga CEO Ed Christian explained to the Clear Channel-owned trade publication Inside Radio, "It improves their reception [to clients] and makes them sound more legitimate."

Caveat emptor.