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FCC Finally Moves Forward on AM Revitalization Order with Delayed FM Translator Window

While relief won’t come as soon as radio broadcasters had hoped, the FCC gave AM stations a shot in the arm with the release of an Order designed to provide assistance to the struggling AM radio service.

The Order, released on October 23, 2015, comes a full two years after the October 2013 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) that launched the effort.  In the Order, the FCC adopted a number of proposals (with some modifications) from the NPRM.  The most significant of these are exclusive AM filing windows in 2016 to allow AM stations to move an FM translator up to 250 miles to rebroadcast that AM station’s signal, and 2017 windows exclusively for AM stations to apply for a new FM translator construction permit.

With this two-pronged approach, the FCC aims to get more FM translators into the hands of AM station operators.  FM translators allow AM stations to rebroadcast their signal on an FM frequency within their service area, improving service quality, and in the case of AM daytimers, permitting nighttime broadcast service for the first time.  Over 900 AM stations currently rebroadcast on FM translators.

In 2016, the FCC will open two sequential filing windows in which an AM station may file a minor modification application to move one commercial FM translator station up to 250 miles, specifying any compliant non-reserved band FM channel on which to rebroadcast the AM station’s signal.  Such applications will be processed on a first come, first served basis.  The first window will be a six-month window exclusively for Class C and D AM stations, which operate at lower power than Class A and B stations, followed by a 3-month window open to all classes, including Class C and D stations which did not file applications during the first window.  Stations which avail themselves of these windows will be required to use the relocated FM translators to rebroadcast the AM station for at least four years after going on the air at the new site.

Through these windows, the FCC is treating what would normally be major modification applications to relocate FM translators as minor modifications, thus significantly increasing the flexibility to relocate FM translators for use in rebroadcasting AM stations.  However, the modification windows still require that an AM station locate an FM translator which (a) is within 250 miles of the proposed site, (b) is for sale, and (c) can operate on a rule compliant FM frequency at the proposed site.  Of course, these initial windows do nothing to increase the inventory of FM translators, and therefore rely entirely on the ability of AM stations to purchase an existing FM translator on the secondary market.  Because of the limited number of FM translators available for AM use, the price of such translators has risen rapidly in recent years.

Acknowledging the limitations of relying on the secondary market, and after heated internal debates, the FCC also finally decided to move forward with exclusive windows for AM stations to apply for a new FM translator, but not until 2017.  These windows will be open to AM stations that did not file an application in the modification windows.  As with the initial modification window, the first auction window will be limited to Class C and D AM licensees, and the second window will be open to all classes of AM licensee that have not participated in any prior modification or auction window.

In addition to these application windows, the FCC’s Order made a number of technical changes to the AM service rules, including relaxation of the rule regarding a station’s coverage of its community of license, which should make station modifications easier to accomplish, and elimination of the AM “Ratchet Rule,” which effectively required Class A and B stations seeking to modify their signal to demonstrate that the change would result in an overall reduction in skywave interference to other AM stations.  The FCC also launched a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and a Notice of Inquiry contemplating further technical changes aimed at revitalizing AM radio.

While the AM radio service has seen better days in terms of listenership, and has a monumental task ahead in attempting to regain the competitive ground it has lost over the past several decades, Friday’s Order at least provides AM stations with some of the tools needed to reinvent the service.  If those efforts ultimately prove unsuccessful, it will be a loss for the public, particularly in times of emergency, but at least it won’t have been a result of indifference from the FCC.