FCC looks to breathe new life into AM radio

Edward Wyatt / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 2, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission, seeking to revive the sagging fortunes of AM radio, has proposed removing or updating regulations that station owners believe have left many AM channels on the precipice of death.

The commission announced this week that it would begin seeking public comment on numerous changes, required before it adopts its final rules. The proposed changes, supporters say, could salvage a technology that once led Americans to huddle around their radios for fireside chats and World Series broadcasts but that has been abandoned for the superior sound of digital and online music and news outlets.

Because of interference caused by consumer electronics, smartphones and the like, AM radio often seems to deliver mostly static. The AM audience has fallen to 15 percent of all radio listeners, down from 50 percent as recently as 1978. While the FM audience has fallen as well, it draws more than five times the audience of AM.

The revival of AM has been a priority of Commissioner Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the FCC.

While acknowledging that the proposals “will not be an immediate panacea for the difficulties facing the AM band,” Pai said he believed they could make “a substantial positive difference to numerous AM stations.”

Normally the FCC tries not to indicate which way it is leaning when it puts new rules out for public comment, but in this case the new proposal indicates that the agency is prepared to take several concrete steps.

Among them is eliminating a regulation requiring stations to prove that any new equipment decreases interference with other stations — a requirement that is expensive, cumbersome and difficult to meet.

The FCC has also proposed eliminating or loosening rules that govern nighttime transmissions by AM stations. Those regulations require many AM stations to reduce their power or cease operating at night to avoid interference with other stations.

AM radio signals travel as ground waves during sunlight hours, but once the sun goes down, the same signals bounce off the ionosphere and back to Earth, often hundreds of miles from where they were broadcast, causing interference with other stations. That is also why travelers crossing the Arizona desert at night might pick up the transmissions of, for example, a Chicago AM station.

The regulations make it difficult for AM stations to locate towers where they will not interfere with nearby stations at night. They also put conflicting requirements on stations, mandating that they still cover most of their broadcast territory even while operating at reduced power.

The proposed new rules, the commission said, aim at keeping more stations on the air at night.

In another part of the proposed regulations, the FCC said it was ready to make available to current FM stations what are known as FM translators — empty spots on the FM dial where AM stations can broadcast. Those are particularly valuable in urban areas, where tall buildings with steel frames or aluminum siding can block AM signals, degrading reception.

Mignon Clyburn, the acting FCC chairwoman who will soon be replaced by Tom Wheeler, confirmed as the new chairman this week by the Senate, said the new proposals were “the next significant step in our effort to buttress AM broadcast service and ease regulatory burdens on AM broadcasters.”