AM Radio Today: the FCC – the good, the bad & the ugly

This is the next chapter of our ongoing blog series examining the state of AM radio today. AM radio faces an uphill battle with the possible end result being obsolescence. Is this inevitable or are there compelling reasons to save the AM band? Our last installment discussed programming & the need for AM’s to tread less-traveled paths to achieve success with ratings, advertisers & listeners. But, there are rules to follow in this pursuit, & broadcasting being a regulated industry, these rules are dictated & determined by the FCC.

The FCC was created in the 1930’s to set policy, dictate rules & regulations, set good engineering practices & generally manage law & order throughout the radio spectrum in addition to other areas of enforcement. Their mandate also includes examining new & emerging technologies to catalogue, define & set policies & rules to govern. Technical issues & advances in radio were at the forefront of the commission’s mandate & priorities. Some of the policies & rules needed to be modified & changed over times, as unforseen circumstances occurred necessitating regulatory change. These were all based on solid technical & engineering sciences requiring commissioners & staff to be well qualified & experienced at a skilled level of competence. Initially, the commission distanced itself from political or economic interference & based decisions & denials on sound engineering practices defined by it’s set of rules & regulations for broadcasters. However, over several decades, the FCC has become susceptible to political input & interference. Often with changes in federal administration, or more specifically whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, policies, rules & regulation can change – sometimes radically. With each change of commissioners, less & less emphasis is placed on making decisions based on engineering. More & more of the decisions & rule-makings made by the FCC are a direct result of politics, not what is considered by professionals to be best technical standards. To be fair, it’s worth noting that Canada’s broadcast regulator – the CRTC, is a parallel entity plagued by the same types of government interference, leading to the same problems. Most broadcast regulators outside of these two do not fit this pattern, with the possible exception of Australia.

As with so many aspects of government, powerful, well-financed lobbyists exert influence on regulators & the FCC is no exception. The powerful NAB lobbyists advise the commission on matters favorable to their members. The misconception out there is that the NAB represents all broadcasters in the US, and that simply isn’t true. The NAB exists to represent it’s large corporate donors, and rarely that of small, independent owners or small ownership groups. It’s own policies favor it’s constituents & ensure their needs are clearly communicated to FCC commissioners. Over time, this has resulted in sometimes poor forethought that has more to do with financial solvency than good engineering, or usage of emerging technologies & equipment.

The most obvious failures of FCC licensing, policies & law are the results of implementation of the controversial Freeze of 1948 & the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The freeze of 1948 was the result of rapidly advancing development of television & it’s associated innovations. The FCC put licensing on ‘hold’ as it came to grips with strategizing policies & laws to govern this new medium. For 5 years, development of television was stagnated by the lack of new stations coming on air to provide programming for US residents to view & this stagnated sales of new TV sets which hurt retailers. The freeze also hurt the networks ability to develop at a fast rate. When this freeze ended, the FCC had implemented new spectrum in the TV UHF band & set the standards for development of color TV. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has had a much more severe & negative effect as a result of relaxation of the maximum ownership limit on AM, FM & TV licenses. We are now witnessing the bankruptcies of huge broadcasting corporations whose main objective is profits, not programming. After 1996, a limited number of players in the broadcasting ownership game continues to dwindle with consolidations & buyouts of smaller media groups. As fewer & fewer broadcasters exist, the diversification & quality of the programming offered has suffered considerably. So too has the debt level of borrowing taken place to allow fewer broadcasters to own more properties. The recent concerns over the Sinclair-Tribune deal would suggest it’s time to review & revise the ownership cap. Breaking up the large conglomerate broadcasters would lead to more diversity & competition, bring broadcast property prices within reason & allow smaller, less well-financed operators to get into broadcasting. This alone, would inject some health into the AM radio industry & help to keep these on air & viable.

With the FCC increasingly influenced by politics & lobbying, AM broadcasters have especially been disadvantaged by attempted changes by the FCC to maintain AM’s relevance & profitability. Some of these need to be examined in much more depth, but can be summed up in a few brief sentences. “AM Revitalization” is a lengthy topic & will be the subject of multiple future blogs. Some of the technical failures the FCC has ignored – such as interference to AM signals from cheap imported electronics, electric utilities, & emerging broadband wireless technologies also merit some relevant discussion. One thing has become apparent: in today’s rapidly changing media soundscape, AM radio broadcasters need sympathetic, open-minded, technically advanced FCC commissioners & engineers to support efforts to remain viable.



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Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening
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