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Analog TV Is Alive. It’s Radio.

A couple of weeks ago I was scanning the FM band as I made my short commute from my far-north Chicago neighborhood to WNUR in Evanston for a station meeting. At the bottom end of the dial I encountered a fading station playing a steady stream of smooth jazz with no DJ. I’d never heard the station before and I pretty much know every noncommercial station on the north side of Chicago and north shore ‘burbs. My first assumption was that it was a pirate station, perhaps run by a disaffected smooth jazz fan in protest of the recent loss of format stalwart WNUA.

Still listening to the station on the way home I heard commercials, but still no station ID, leaving me more confused. Listening a bit longer at home gave no more clues, so the internet I did search. I quickly learned that the station at 87.7 FM is not a radio station, but actually TV channel 6, WLFM-LP. And I was right that the broadcast was a direct reaction to the shuttering of WNUA.

You see, analog TV channel 6 bumps right up against the bottom of the FM radio dial. TV sound is also frequency modulated, just like radio, so the sound for channel 6 can be heard at the very bottom of the dial. But, you might be thinking, “didn’t analog TV go away on June 12? Wouldn’t that kill WLFM?” Well, if you’re talking about a full-power station on channel 6, you’d be right. But WLFM is a low-power TV station (LPTV) and the digital changeover didn’t happen for LPTV.

There had been some hope amongst non-commercial radio supporters that the DTV transition would free up 87.7 FM for new stations in all of the markets with full-power TV stations on channel 6. Right now that’s an unknown possibility, since in April the FCC said it won’t be processing applications that would take over vacated channel 6 spectrum until it makes another public notice or opens a rulemaking proceeding.

But for those seventy-seven licensed LPTV stations on Channel 6 there’s a golden opportunity to make radio. Some of those stations have already seized the opportunity, including Anchorage’s KABA and New York City’s WNYZ. In fact Chicago’s WLFM originally planned to syndicate WNYZ’s “The Pulse” dance music programming, but the deal fell through.

Those wanting to get into radio–especially in large metropolitan markets without any open frequencies–might be tempted to find an open channel 6 for an LPTV station. However, the FCC only accepts LPTV applications during a narrow window period, and currently no window is scheduled. Still, it might be cheaper to buy an existing LPTV on channel 6 than an actual existing radio station.

Nevertheless I find it ironic that while many in the media business are waiting to call the time of death for radio there are enterprising LPTV operators choosing to turn their stations into overgrown radio outlets. Of course, with the full-power DTV transition completed there are many fewer viewers scanning the last holdouts in the analog TV spectrum, so perhaps radio really does have promise for more audience and revenue.

Maybe even the LPTV stations on other channels besides 6 might have some chance at becoming radio stars, too. Quite a few models of AM/FM radios also included TV sound of channels 2 – 13. A quick search online  shows at least a couple of dozen still readily available for sale. While a much smaller audience than regular FM radio listeners, there might be some inveterate radiogeeks who could be hooked in to listening to a dedicated audio feed on the otherwise abandoned VHF TV dial.

Of course, the UHF LPTV stations would still be left out of the game, since few radios include UHF coverage, given that it’s much higher frequency range than FM or VHF TV. Yet, perhaps that’s a use for the millions of now-obsolete analog TVs out there. They could become newfangled radio receivers — radio with pretty pictures!

OK, I recognize that’s stretching the TV-as-radio idea into the realm of the improbable. But it still goes to show that in the digital broadcast age good old radio could be the future of analog TV.

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7 Responses to Analog TV Is Alive. It’s Radio.

  1. Jennifer Waits June 18, 2009 at 9:28 pm #

    This is fascinating. That must have been so weird to realize that you were getting “TV on the Radio.”

    My dad used to have a radio that got TV stations on it that he would listen to with headphones while watching TV. Is there still a big market for those and will they all have to be revamped to get TV stations again post-DTV transition?

  2. winonaww June 28, 2009 at 1:21 pm #

    A question (but am I in the right place?). If television is now digital and not sent across the airwaves–like radio, does this mean that the collective corporate entities presently bankrolling television are no longer under the FCC public service regulations? I recognize that television news is not really unbiased public service, anymore, but wasn’t that the original purpose of the news? Or are television images still sent over the air? Do satellite-relayed digital messages count as “over the airwaves”?

  3. Matthew Lasar June 28, 2009 at 1:58 pm #

    Good question. The answer is that if any newly digitized full power TV station broadcasts a stray tushy, fleeting expletive, or allows the sister of the late Michael Jackson yet another 9/16ths of a second to expose her right breast, it is as liable for a Federal Communications Commission indecency fine as it was back in the analog days. The key is “broadcast” or “over-the-air” television, as in the “public airwaves,” not whether the means of the transmission involved analog waves or digital packets.

    The FCC does not apply its indecency rules to cable and satellite. But it says it will act if a cable/satellite broadcast is “obscene.” What’s the difference? The agency tries to explain it here. And it has a FAQ page here. Good luck making sense of it.

  4. Matthew Lasar June 28, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    As for the question of bias and news. There used to be a regulation called the Fairness Doctrine, which called for TV and radio stations to offer reasonable access to contrasting viewpoints, but the FCC abandoned it a little over 21 years ago. And come to think of it, the agency exempted news from the provision quite a while before that.


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