Will FCC keep its promise to help AM radio?

We were privileged to serve together on the Federal Communications Commission for more than five years, and from time to time we disagreed on some fundamental communications policies. Almost as importantly, we disagreed vehemently on the best basketball program out there, one preferring Duke and the other, North Carolina. Nevertheless, despite these differences, there is one critical issue on which we are fully united – the need to take serious steps to revitalize AM radio service.

Like millions of Americans, we grew up listening to our favorite AM radio stations for the local news, to discover new music, or to listen to a ball game. Today, AM radio remains an indispensable source for local news, talk, and public affairs, as well as music, sports, and religious programming. And in recent years, AM radio has shown great promise as a key source for cultural content for racial and ethnic minority groups, and programming in Spanish, Chinese and a multitude of other languages. AM radio is also the most diverse media outlet in terms of ownership, although with a lot of room for improvement. With relatively low barriers to entry, AM radio can be a gateway into the media field for women, minorities and other entrepreneurs who may lack access to investment capital.

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However, AM radio confronts serious challenges right now, A primary culprit is ever-increasing interference from computers, fluorescent lighting, and other sources of the hums and buzzes we have all heard on our local AM stations. As a result, listeners are fleeing AM radio for higher fidelity alternatives, like FM, SiriusXM, and Spotify, and taking advertisers along. The downward trend of AM radio is unmistakable, and without help, there is no end in sight.

Fortunately, some at the FCC are paying attention.  The FCC has a couple of tools at its disposal that could help many AM radio stations survive, if not thrive. In particular, the FCC should follow through with the proposal first adopted under then-acting Chairwoman Clyburn to open an application window for FM translators that is limited to licensed AM broadcasters. Translators are devices that allow AM radio stations to simulcast their AM broadcast on the FM dial, where sound quality is crisp and clear. Translators also allow AM stations that must shut down at night (due to interference with distant AM stations on the same channel) to launch 24-hour service, and offer first-time coverage of the local high school football game, weather and traffic for late-evening commuters, and other new content.

Indeed, since the FCC first allowed AM stations to use translators in 2011, about 20 percent of AM stations have been able to find, buy and use an existing translator to improve their service, and in turn, cement their financial footing -- a development the FCC has called an “unqualified success.” The FCC first proposed in 2013 to extend these benefits nationwide by opening an application window that would allow any AM station still looking to purchase an existing translator to build one from scratch in their local market.

This was a great idea two years ago; it’s an even better one now. Translators have been a boon for those stations lucky enough to find one, but too many AM stations are stuck on the sidelines because demand for translators far outstrips supply in many areas. Opening the promised AM-only translator application window would help fix this problem. In fact, such a window is the only way many AM radio stations will ever be able to obtain a translator and provide improved, expanded service to their listeners. This approach is especially important for women and minority owners of AM stations, who are more likely to run small standalone stations on shoe-string budgets. Any other steps the FCC may take to help AM radio, no matter how well intentioned, would be relatively small change compared to an AM-only translator window, and do little to meet the FCC’s expressed goal of revitalizing AM radio. On this point, all Democrats and Republicans, and even Blue Devils and Tar Heels, can agree.  

Copps served on the FCC from May 2001 to December 2011; he was the Commission’s Acting Chair from January – June 2009. McDowell served on the FCC from June 2006 through May 2013.