Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

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Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

Postby jon » Thu Mar 03, 2016 9:12 am

A couple of months back, the FCC published a lengthy document with the mission of revitalizing the AM band in the U.S. One part of the plan is to allow stations on Clear Channels to boost their night-time power without the need to protect the original Clear Channel stations beyond their immediate local market.

Radio Ink is running a series of articles on the subject, the most recent being an interview with the man who named his company after these frequencies, in honour of one of his early purchases, WOAI-1200 in San Antonio, Texas, once the clearest of all the Clear Channels in North America.
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Re: Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

Postby jon » Thu Mar 03, 2016 9:13 am

A Major Flaw In AM Revitalization?
By Radio Ink -
February 29, 2016

Is there a battle brewing among AM broadcasters thanks to the FCC? Those struggling to survive want the FCC to give them every opportunity to make a comeback in this era of intense competition for both ears and ad dollars. Broadcasters who are now running some of the most successful radio brands may have to pay the price for the little guys to have a chance to thrive again. At least that’s what the FCC has up its sleeve.

There are 77 Class A AM radio stations across the country. Here is just a sample of those stations (see next story for the full list) WFAN, WABC, WCBS in New York, WGN, WBBM in Chicago, KDKA in Pittsburgh, KNBR San Francisco, WGY Albany, WHO Des Moines, KOMO and KIRO in Seattle.

Because of the way AM waves travel, rules now require other AM stations that occupy the same frequency to power down and get out of the way of these big boomers. The FCC is proposing AM stations on the same frequencies as these Class A stations be allowed to operate with nighttime and critical hours power levels that will cause massive and destructive interference to the skywave reception of these Class A stations. In essence, it will put an end to these stations broadcasting great distances.

This issue concerns iHeartMedia so much the management at WGY has launched a petition asking listeners to contact the FCC and prevent this from happening. The WGY petition is called, “Save AM Radio” and it states the FCC is about to allow greater interference on WGY, “which will reduce WGY’s ability to provide you with quality broadcasting at night. That means if their proposal passes, it will make it very difficult for many of you to hear our programming at night and during morning and evening drive times.”

NRG’s KXEL in Iowa has also launched an online listener petition, which says, “KXEL has been a 50,000-watt station since going on the air in 1942. It was designed to provide a large interference-free coverage area, especially after local sunset, and all night long. Now the FCC is proposing to change the technical specifications of this protected area so that other stations can come on the air at night, or increase their power.” Expect similar petitions at other stations to pop up all over the country.

One manager, who runs a Class A on the West Coast and is about to get into this fight told Radio Ink, “damaging them would be an unintended consequence that nobody is going to be happy with.”

And, someone who’s watching this issue very closely told Radio Ink, “The FCC should be very careful about demolishing that one advantage the AM band has. The unique nature of skywave reception, once lost, can never again be replicated.”
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Re: Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

Postby jon » Thu Mar 03, 2016 9:14 am

FCC Just Making A Bad Thing Worse
By Radio Ink -
February 29, 2016

The FCC’s plan to revitalize the AM band is a very hot topic in our industry right now. And the part of the plan that will impact the big booming AMs heard all across the country has generated an interesting debate, often between those owning or operating AM radio stations. Our coverage of the topic yesterday generated a ton of feedback, including this very detailed piece by Doc Searls.

(By Doc Searls) By reducing the coverage areas of Class A stations to be protected from interference, what the FCC proposes is not “revitalization” for AM, or even life support. Instead it’s just another way to make a bad thing — skywave interference — even worse.

Any veteran engineer can tell you that adding more stations, more power to stations, and more hours with more power to stations, only makes what was originally an AM feature into an even worse bug. The FCC has a long history of doing this over and over again. More stations, more power, more interference, every time.

To grok the problem, consider the existing 750-mile protection zone for Class A stations. This was a “revitalization” move years ago that got rid of the “clear channel” designation (which gave a station exclusive use of a channel at night, when AM signals can travel hundreds or thousands of miles). This allowed lots of new stations to show up where skywave coverage by distant stations had been protected for the entire past. For one example of what this causes, consider 890KHz. For many years WLS in Chicago was the only station radiating on that channel at night. Once WLS was protected only to 750 miles from its transmitter, WAMG in Dedham (a Boston suburb) could show up on the same channel, just across the 750-mile limit, with a directional 6000-watt night signal aimed straight at Boston by a line of five half-wave towers. WAMG protected WLS’s coverage inside the 750-mile radius, but did nothing to stop WLS’s 50,000 watt signal from continuing to pound into Boston. So at night, WAMG sounds like crap over much of the Boston metro. So it was no surprise, when WAMG went off the air from September to December 2009, to find WLS sounding fine at night in Boston.

The new proposed rules do away with the whole 750-mile thing, and just protects existing Class A stations where their signals are strongest on the ground. Essentially the rules tell the Class As that their coverage will be reduced to allow other stations on the same or adjacent channels to increase their own power at night, and improve local service.

But the result will be better local coverage where signals are super-strong, and increased skywave interference to far-off places on the same channels.

So the real story here isn’t failure to protect existing skywaves, but increased interference by every station that increases its night power.

In fact there are also many other problems endemic to AM broadcasting that no “revitalization” can fix:
1) A band that’s nearly useless for data.
2) Increasing environmental noise, mostly coming from computing devices of all kinds.
3) Terrible receiver circuitry, especially in portable and home devices.
4) Car makers getting rid of whip antennas, which are required for the best AM reception.
5) Abandonment of both AM and FM by people (especially young ones) for whom the finite quantity of live radio stations are vastly outnumbered by zillions of other radio-like choices on computers and mobile devices.
6) Real estate under towers proving more valuable than stations themselves.
7) Woeful inadequacies of FM translators, most of which have fractions of the power and coverage enjoyed by competing stations on the same band.
8) Poor sound, thanks partly to the nature of the medium and mostly to the awfulness of receivers.
9) Abandonment of AM in electric cars, which generate levels of computing noise too high for AM to tolerate. (In fact, AM is already gone in Teslas and one BMW.)

For a sobering view of AM’s future in the U.S., look toward Europe, where AM transmitters are being clear-cut like a diseased forest. Even the legendary million-watt Radio Luxembourg, once Europe’s top rock-and-roll station, went off the air at the end of last year, and its towers were dropped earlier this month. For a death-watch diary of AM around the world, read Ydun’s Mediumwave Info: http://mediumwave.info/news.html. (Outside North America, AM is called medium wave, or MW.)

The best strategy for the FCC is to do whatever it can (which might be nothing) to encourage AM and FM stations to become as digital as possible as soon as possible. That means they should maximize streaming, podcasting, and on-demand offerings, and then prepare for the day when digital finishes doing to FM what FM has long been doing to AM — plus a glut of “content” from an infinitude of competitors.

Two reasons why digital audio hasn’t wounded over-the-air radio enough to induce full panic:
1) There are too many apps for too many stations, and they’re all different.
2) No apps “tune” as easily as a real radio. When we get one or more of those, watch out.

The only places where AM may continue to make full sense in the U.S. are central time zone states with high ground conductivity. (See the map here. Look at the numbers: 15 and 30 are the best.) Across the AM-friendly lands of Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, even a weak AM signal can travel hundreds of miles in the daytime. With just 5,000 watts (1/10th the max licensed), KFYR/550 in Bismark puts a good signal across all of North Dakota and half of South Dakota. KLIF/570 reaches from Austin to Oklahoma City. There are lots of areas left in those states that are absent of cellular data coverage, required for digital radio streaming. But you can still get satellite radio, and for many listeners that might be enough.

Don’t be surprised when the FCC finally heaves a big sigh and sunsets the whole AM band. Hey: Look at what happened to analog TV, and will also happen to what’s left of over the air (OTA) TV after stations sell off their spectra.

The FCC giveth, and the FCC taketh away.

Doc Searls, a former radio guy, is the Director of ProjectVRM, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University. He can be reached at dsearls@cyber.law.harvard.edu
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Re: Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

Postby jon » Thu Mar 03, 2016 9:15 am

Randy Michaels: The FCC is About To Ruin AM Radio
By Radio Ink -
March 3, 2016

Whether you’re a small market AM operator or you run a Class A, your hope is that the FCC’s plan to revitalize the band will improve the quality of the sound the band spits out to your listeners. Over the years, The AM band has become sensitive to every product we plug in the wall giving it added buzz, crackles and other assorted sounds that instantly turn off the listener now living in a digitally clear world.

The FCC’s plan to allow AM stations to retain power at night, therefore causing interference with those big booming Class A’s, has gotten many of you riled up. Randy Michaels knows his stuff when it comes to the AM band. We asked him to break out of his shell and give us his opinion on what the FCC is about to do. Here’s part one of what he had to say…

RI: What are your thoughts on what you see the FCC doing to these signals?
Michaels: I think many at the FCC don’t understand the physics of broadcasting. Unfortunately the commissioners do understand the politics of broadcasting. Allowing some stations to have big coverage and allowing other stations to have less coverage seem somehow unfair and un-American. But the fact is, the AM band can’t hold the number of stations we have now. By great measure, new stations that have been created in the past many years have caused more interference than created service. The FCC was created to stop the interference that was so prevalent in the early 1920s, and they did a great job for years. What the FCC doesn’t understand is that by breaking down the Clears, they are going to destroy far more service than could be created because Clears are going to make a mess of those channels. Even at relatively high power, you’re going to have small service areas, small islands of service in a sea of interference. If they proceed, this will put the majority of the American landmass outside the reach of interference-free AM at night. In your city, you will get AM, but out in the country, you will have to go to FM. I think it’s crazy. The physics of the band, given where it is, sounds like a good idea, but for many reasons, it’s not.

RI: With iHeart and TuneIn and every other way you can get your favorite radio station, does what they’re doing really even matter?
Michaels: That’s an argument. But the question then is, does broadcast matter? If you’re going to listen to the radio on your smartphone, then you don’t need the transmitter at all. So you’re asking the question, does over-the-air really matter. I think, at least today, it does. Data isn’t free. Cellular coverage isn’t ubiquitous. If you want to get emergency broadcasts in a lot of parts of the country, right now AM radio is about the only way to do it. One of the problems in this whole thing is that they allocate stations based on probabilities. When you see those nighttime signal contours, they are 50/50 or 50/90 curves or 90/10 curves, or whatever. So 50/50 means 50% of the radio 50% of the time. Well that means the other 50% of the time its something else. When you put multiple interfering stations on the same channel on a given night, the odds that the interference will be higher than the map shows is greater than 50/50. The staff knows this, but the commission chooses to ignore it. To me, it’s just a little disingenuous. Look, there are countries that decided to do away with AM all together.

RI: Do you think we are headed down that road?
Michaels: I think we’re about to make all stations equally useless. I think the difficulty with AM—there are many difficulties with AM, but by far, the biggest one is signal. I’m old enough to remember when a 5,000 watt station could adequately cover a market. Now it’s the interference levels, both from clear channel’s and outside sources, from computers to energy-efficient light bulbs and everything in the house that makes noise. Plus cities have gotten larger and grown outside their footprints. Today, there are very few AMs that can actually cover a market. We are about to destroy those. Florida is already done, because the Caribbean has duplicated all the clear channels. So you don’t get any night service. Really, if you drive out in the middle of Florida, you don’t get any radio at night. You get crap. And we are about to do that to the whole country.

(Part two to come)
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Re: Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

Postby radiofan » Thu Mar 03, 2016 9:40 pm

If this should happen, it will make for some interesting DX.

Will KGO's dominant signal over the Pacific Northwest suddenly be obliterated by the Eastern Washington religious station? Will KOMW in Omak duke it out with KNBR on 680?

How about 1130 in Oregon? Will it be causing News 1130 headaches again?

It'll be interesting to say the least.
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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Re: Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

Postby the-real-deal » Thu Mar 03, 2016 11:12 pm

Who cares that Americans cannot listen to their AM Radios.

Americans have been making a mockery of our Canadian AM stations for years, by drowning out our am stations. The nonsense started back in the 1980's. when then Canadian PM Lyin' Brian Mulroney made a deal with then U.S. President Reagan, (stupidly?) forcing Canadian AM stations near the US border to shift their signals north after sundown.

The result was that many small town Canadian AM radio stations, less than 5,000 watts, could not be heard 3 kilometres outside of the city limits.

This was back in the 1980's (more than 30 years ago !)

Meanwhile, stations like WOWO and WLS came "screaming into town," interfering with local signals.

I think that the upcoming scrambling of American signals is a just karmic dessert (for them !)

The only thing more fun would be the Russians sending spy planes over the USA, using the the woodpecker signal chopping device to cause sheer havoc. The Russians already do that with their military communications.
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Re: Does Anyone Care if the FCC Kills the AM Clear Channels?

Postby jon » Fri Mar 04, 2016 7:33 am

Michaels: Very Few AM’s Are Still Useful.
By Radio Ink -
March 4, 2016

This is Part 2 of our interview with Randy Michaels. Michaels is a radio encyclopedia, and that includes understanding the history and, perhaps, the future of the AM band. We asked him to give us his opinion on the FCC’s plan to let smaller AM stations maintain power at night, which will lead to interference with the larger Class A clear channels. He says the band is doomed.

RI: Some PDs in small and medium markets are saying this is the right thing because now they will be able to serve their cities where they had to reduce power before?
Michaels: Look, that argument is partially true, but let’s follow the logic. There was great debate in the 30s and 40s about daytime-only stations. It was pointed out repeatedly that nighttime in the northern latitudes means until 7 or 8 in the morning and 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. That’s both drive times and these stations are going to be disadvantaged, and everyone said, “No, we want them.” Now they are saying, “Well, this isn’t fair. We want nighttime too.” So, yes. Just like when the regional channels got some limited power, they provide some service. But the amount of interference created to the amount of service created is going to be in the order of, depends on the situation, 10 to one, 50 to one. In other words, they are going to wipe out hundreds of thousands of square miles of service to create maybe a few square miles of service for a local community that’s almost certainly adequately served by half a dozen FMs. There are very few AM stations that are still useful. We are about to destroy them. Then, I don’t know what the band is good for. I understand why they’re saying “I’ve got 1,000 watts in daytime-only and I am 50 watts at night. Why can’t I get 1,000 watts all the time?” The answer is, listen to one of the local channels. In the Northeast, the Midwest, if you turn on one of the former local channels, the Class D channels, they might go three or four miles at night. That’s what’s going to happen to every channel if you do this.

RI: Is there any real way for the FCC to fix the interference on the AM band?
Michaels: Fewer stations. The FCC determined in 1927 that the band could hold 400 stations. With directional antennas and further advances, they got that up into the high six to seven to 800. And service was pretty good. Then came the 1960s and the 10% rule. You just can’t put this many stations on the AM band and have any kind of real service. Are there answers? Sure. You could do signal frequency networks, you could allow stations to buy out others on the channel for a lower night limit. Politically, the number of little stations that don’t cover their markets is far greater than the number of stations that do. I believe the politics have cast the die and politics will triumph over physics and the stations that have the chance to compete are about to lose that opportunity because somehow it doesn’t seem fair. The truth is, the FCC abandoned their mandate about the time they enacted the 10% rule and stopped worrying about interference and started worrying about the political pressure to add more stations.

RI: How do you see this playing out?
Michaels: I think they’re going to break down the clear channel stations. I think the few remaining viable AM stations will be hurt. And frankly, I think if you have an AM station and you can get anything for it, this would be a good time, because I think the band is doomed, and that has far more to do with politics than physics. I think if you put something interesting, compelling, difficult to duplicate, on an AM station that covers the market, people will go there.

RI: Does anyone listen to AM radio anymore, especially with the way it sounds?
Michaels: If there’s a reason to do it. I got caught in a snowstorm in southern Kentucky. The only station covering it was WLW out of Cincinnati, 180 miles away. I’m glad they were there. They actually still have a newsroom. Do I think people are listening to that band? I will say this, in certain parts of the country, no. In parts of the country where AM signals still cover the market, yes. WLW, which I helped reformat, has been number one for I don’t know how many years and doesn’t show any signs of stopping — this will do it. When you can’t hear morning drive all over the market, this will do it.
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