Peter Tannenwald asks, “Are we really ‘revitalizing’ AM?”

(Source: RadioWorld via Bill Patalon)

On AM revitalization, Peter Tannenwald asks, Are we really “revitalizing” AM, or are we walking around in circles?

Late on Friday, October 5, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) released a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in a five-year ongoing effort to “revitalize” the AM radio broadcast service. The new proposals continue a trend toward allowing higher power operation by smaller stations, by reducing nighttime signal protection for some 60 Class A AM stations located in the continental United States and 16 stations in Alaska. The end result would be less wide area coverage and more local radio service to the public.

To understand why the FCC is considering this action, it helps to understand a bit of the science behind AM signal propagation. AM radio signals travel through both the ground and through the air. At night, the airborne signal component (“skywave”) is reflected back to the earth from the ionosphere — a layer of the atmosphere extending from about 50 to 600 miles above the earth’s surface. The reflected signals may come back down to earth hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from a station’s transmitter. Class A AM stations — formerly known as “clear channel” stations (no relation to Clear Channel/now iHeartMedia) — are powerhouses, transmitting with 50 kilowatts of power 24 hours a day – 200 or more times the power of the smallest AM stations.

[…]Signal reflection doesn’t work so well during the day, so the FCC has allowed other stations to occupy the Class A frequencies in other markets. But those stations have to curtail power during “critical hours” (two hours before sunrise and after sunset) and often have to reduce power to nearly nothing or shut down altogether at night. In today’s 24-hour-a-day, nonstop world, not being able to reach an audience at night is a losing proposition; so the FCC has yielded to constant pressure over the years to allow more power and longer hours of operation by those “other” stations, at the expense of long distance reception of Class A signals.

Now the FCC is proposing to go further, rolling back some previous restrictions on non-Class A AM stations and perhaps eliminating whatever remains (and it’s not much) of the protection of far-away reception. Under the proposals, which are sufficiently complicated that you should talk to your engineer if you really want to understand the details, Class A AM stations would be protected only within a higher strength signal contour (and so within a smaller area) than they are now; at least some, if not all, skywave protection would be eliminated.[…]

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8 thoughts on “Peter Tannenwald asks, “Are we really ‘revitalizing’ AM?”

  1. TomL

    Might be a boon to those who have or willing to buy/construct a good table top loop antenna. I like clear channel for things like talk radio or baseball games but hearing some more localized content is nice too. For instance, some baseball games come in better on the rural affiliate AM station than the local market station (which might only be local FM). I feel mixed on the effects this would have.

  2. Jim Trame

    Like many of us, I still enjoy listening to the late night “clear channel” stations the old fashioned way. C Crane has built a business on this model. If traditional MW is obsolete, I guess I am too.

  3. rtc

    For 30 years the Commission has been trying to “help” the AM band.
    Any more of this will likely finish it.
    Maybe giving stations an “out” by permitting them to run on their
    translators only-no AM-would help (IMO they missed the boat by
    not opening 76-88 Mhz for this).
    The Clears are needed (for no other reason) in times of weather
    or other emergencies.
    And the huge uptick in Noise doesn’t help.
    Today’s Commission knows only Broadband and absolutely
    nothing about radio.

    1. Laurence N.

      I see little benefit in the changes, and I’m perfectly fine with the previous regulations staying in place. I do want to ask though why clear channel is so important in an emergency? The benefit of clear channel is that you can hear broadcasts from far away, I.E. not where you are. So if there is an emergency where you are, you will hear radio from not where the emergency is. Wouldn’t the important broadcasters during an emergency be those that are located just outside where the emergency is? Those transmitters within the emergency area wouldn’t work, but those outside it would be the easiest to receive, and would probably talk quite a bit about the situation in the area? The only emergencies requiring reliable long-distance (such as shortwave and clear channel, not talking about longish-distance communication here) reception would be something that takes out an area large enough that no other broadcast exists within hundreds of kilometers. I don’t even know what that is other than several nuclear strikes. If such a large emergency does happen, though, there wouldn’t be any local transmissions to block out skywave propagation. So what is the situation that requires this?

      1. Richard Cuff

        Decent argument.

        I frankly think we should be more worried about emergency content — many AM and FM stations have minimal local newsgathering and reporting infrastructure, so they’re of little help in an emergency. I’d rather see stations reinvest in their news and reporting — and be required to do so as a condition of license — and be required to publish contingency plans for operation in times of local emergency and have those plans available for public review.

      2. Steve

        To me the clear channels are important for perspective. Without tuning AM clear channels I have exactly 2 AM stations and 0 FM stations geared for news. One Am is local the other is 90 miles away With a regional event like Hurricanes Harvey, Ike, or Rita they tend to saturate rather quickly with answering immediate local needs. The clear channels outside the immediate affected area help you to gain insight into a more regional perspective that can help with anticipating events and responses. If you are fortunate enough to live in a state with a clear channel then that clear channel will have a prominate role in the state’s emergency communications network as a node feeding federal and state level messages to your local stations. It worth seeking out your state’s emergency communications network plans to see which stations are considered information nodes. The clear channels always are. I’ve also used clear channels to gain a local perspective of stories of national import to get away from televised media historonics. In a time of emergency if any station will be supported it will be a clear channel.


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