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FCC Weighing the End of Clear Channel AM Stations

As the first round of AM stations get a shot at having translator repeaters on the FM dial, the FCC’s AM revitalization proceeding is still not completely resolved. There are still several questions that the Commission is accepting comments on, until March 21. Broadcast attorney David Oxenford presents a very thorough rundown of these issues at his Broadcast Law Blog.

The top item of concern is a proposal to reduce the protections of the most powerful so-called “clear channel” class A stations. These stations–like Chicago’s WGN, Los Angeles’ KFI and Denver’s KOA–were originally intended to serve large swaths of the country, epsecially at night. As such, they have enjoyed protection from interference that might be caused by lower powered stations on adjacent frequencies, which are typically required to reduce power or even go off the air at night, when AM transmissions propagate farther via what are called skywaves that bounce off the ionosphere.

This impact on local stations that have much reduced or nonexistent service at night is the reason why the Commission proposes to eliminate clear channel stations’ skywave protections altogether. In particular, the FCC is seeking comment on how listeners in rural areas without local stations, and therefore rely more on clear channel stations, might be affected.

This is a very controversial proposal because, if adopted, it would effectively end the 75-year reign of clear channel stations. The stations themselves wouldn’t go away, but they would not have the same impact. Yet, there are serious doubts about how valuable such nationwide powerhouses are anymore.

On the one hand the powerful clear channel stations continue to be amongst the most financially successful ones on the dial. Moreover, one of the chief complaints about the AM dial is that it is noisy and interference-prone, especially after dark. So, there are legitimate concerns that allowing local stations to up their power at night will only exacerbate the situation.

On the other hand, the Commission suggests that local stations which power down or go off the air at night are being unnecessarily hobbled. At the same time, there’s a legitimate argument that in today’s media environment there is simply less of a need for clear channel stations that broadcast for hundreds of miles.

Comments on this question should make for interesting reading.

Also up for debate are other questions on power levels and interference, ending the ability of stations in the 1610–1700 KHz “extended band” to retain another signal below 1600, as well as a proposal to effectively allow more FM translators to rebroadcast AM stations by expanding the permissible distance from the main feeder station. Translators are only intended help fill in within a station’s expected reception area, not extend it, and the current rules for AM stations are on the conservative side.

Read Oxenford’s full post for all the details.

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