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Back door “radio” stations on TV channel 6 to go silent in 2015

TV will be leaving the radio in 2015

It was too good to be true, the loophole that allows a number of low-power TV stations broadcasting on channel 6 to operate as radio stations. According to an order [PDF] released by the FCC July 15, all remaining analog television signals will have to convert to digital by September 1, 2015. This includes low-power TV stations, which were permitted to keep broadcasting in analog after the 2009 transition.

As I’ve reported before, TV channel 6 sits just below the left end of the FM dial which allows its analog audio signal to be heard at 87.7 FM. This is not an officially licensed FM frequency, but most FM radios will tune it in. This fact has allowed a few savvy LPTV operators on channel 6 to operate like radio stations, with minimal video content to keep the FCC happy.

However, the audio portion of a digital TV broadcast cannot be received on an analog radio. This means that channel 6 stations like Chicago’s WLFM-LP, calling itself Smooth 87.7, will lose their back door into the FM dial once they go digital in 2015.

WLFM and several other LPTV broadcasters submitted comments to the Commission urging it to permit LPTV stations to convert to digital on their own timelines, letting audience and market forces dictate the move rather than the FCC. The FCC concluded that the “the Communications Act compelled low power television stations ultimately to convert to digital operation,” and that more than four extra years after the 2009 full-power transition was plenty of time.

Otherwise, in this order the Commission did not take up or make any reference to channel 6 broadcasters exploiting their back door access to the FM dial. It would appear that the FCC would rather let this relatively constrained hack fade away rather than address it directly.

Smooth 87.7 now on cable TV

Chicago’s WLFM seems to have seen the writing on the wall and has made some plans to continue reaching an audience. The station recently started airing on Chicago Comcast cable TV channel 877 (third item on the page), with traffic and weather updates on the screen. This seems a lot like the digital music channels available on many cable systems, which often run static images and artist trivia on the screen while the music plays. Given that many people treat television like radio, leaving it on in the background while they go about their business, it’s not an absurd move for WLFM. At the same time I’m surprised that I cannot find WLFM doesn’t offer an online stream, which one would think would be the other easy way to retain their audience.

Nevertheless, car listeners are still an important audience for any broadcast radio station, and the channel 6 stations will lose them in 2015. Perhaps by then in-car internet radio will be a more mature and easy to use technology.

The FCC’s decision on the LPTV digital transition is pretty final. But there’s always a chance for reconsideration. I won’t be surprised if LPTV broadcasters, like WLFM, make some additional filings. I’ll certainly keep my eye out for them.

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2 Responses to Back door “radio” stations on TV channel 6 to go silent in 2015

  1. Jan March 21, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Found your comments via a search engine survey regarding a mysterious Analogue Channel 6 transmitting Spanish Radio (?) that is quite annoying; i.e. much louder in volume and jamming signals to other HD Channels. This station may be used for transmisison of information that is dangerous or a conflict of interest to the US. I will check to see if 87.7 is a match to the audio portion, and if it is NOT, will REPORT to the FCC. There is suspicious activity in the area where it is IMPOSING on Certified HD Broadcast Stations.

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