April 13, 2015 - 11:00 am
By Tom Wheeler | FCC Chairman

During her impressive tenure as Acting Chairwoman, Commissioner Clyburn kicked off an important proceeding asking what the Commission should do to keep AM radio thriving.   The so-called AM Radio Revitalization NPRM started an important dialogue on the future of the AM band.  I am committed to taking action in this proceeding so that AM radio will flourish while also preserving the values of competition, diversity, and localism that have long been the heart and soul of broadcasting.

As the oldest broadcasting service, AM radio has been a vital part of American culture for decades and today remains an important source of broadcast programming, particularly for local content. In fact, Americans turn to the AM dial for a majority of all news and talk stations.

However, AM radio stations currently face unique technological challenges that limit their ability to best serve their listeners. In some cases, outdated regulations make it difficult for AM stations to overcome these issues. In other cases, interference concerns that are unique to AM stations are an obstacle.

In the coming weeks, I intend to conclude this open item with a Report and Order that will buttress AM broadcast service and ease regulatory burdens on AM broadcasters. The proposed Order would adopt specific measures to address practical problems and interference-related issues that have long plagued AM stations across the country. If adopted, these measures will enable AM stations to operate more efficiently in today’s spectrum environment.  For example, the proposed Order would give stations more flexibility in choosing site locations, complying with local zoning requirements, obtaining power increases, and incorporating energy-efficient technologies.  These actions will help to ease some of the technical limitations that have hindered AM stations in serving their listeners.

The AM Radio community has also raised several noteworthy ideas in the proceeding that deserve more discussion. I plan to circulate a companion Further Notice, proposing to permit stations serving smaller communities to expand their limited day and nighttime service areas while fully protecting larger, Class-A stations’ core service areas. As a result, these smaller market stations will be better able to overcome environmental interference.  The Notice will also seek input on whether and how to open up the expanded AM band.  Currently, there is room for additional stations in the 1605-1705 kHz AM band.  I propose asking how the expanded band should be used to best serve the public, whether that is for stations migrating from the standard band, for new stations, or for all-digital stations. 

Another issue raised in the NPRM is the use of FM translators to expand the quality of AM signals. FM translators can be used to rebroadcast the signal of a primary AM station on an FM frequency. The NPRM proposed an exclusive opening of the FM translator window for AM licensees. I have two concerns about the record and whether opening such a window is necessary, given the current state of the marketplace. The first is whether there is an insufficient number of FM translator licenses available for AM stations. The number of licensed translators has increased 65 percent since 2003 (from roughly 3,800 to 6,300).  We will likely more than double the 2003 number of licensed translators over the next 12-18 months as translator construction permits are built and licensed.  Nearly 4,000 translators have changed hands since the 2009 order that made them available to AM stations for the first time, including over 600 sales to AM stations. 

The second unanswered concern is why, if it is necessary to open the translator window, it should only be opened for one group. AM stations should be (and are) allowed to improve their service by broadcasting simultaneously on FM translators. Commercial opportunities to purchase FM translators abound and our policy should be (and is) to speedily approve such purchases. But if we are to assure that spectrum availability is an open opportunity, then the government shouldn’t favor one class of licensees with an exclusive spectrum opportunity unavailable to others just because the company owns a license in the AM band.

I am committed to both improving the operations of existing radio licensees, as well as attracting new entrants to radio.  Americans benefit from a diversity of voices in broadcasting. In addition to the large increase in translators, the Commission is working on many fronts to increase the programming options available on radio airwaves.  For example, the Low-Power FM (LPFM) window we opened in 2013 promises new, hyperlocal services in major metropolitan areas for the first time.  LPFM licensees must be nonprofit new entrants, by rule. The number of LPFM licenses has increased by more than 30 percent since 2013, and more licenses will soon become available, including many new stations operating in top markets.

We have also been working to create opportunities for new entrants into commercial radio.  We will soon hold FM Auction 98, scheduled to start in July, which will offer 131 constructionpermits for vacant FM allotments.  As we license these new stations, we provide credits to encourage participation by new entrants.  

The numbers speak for themselves. In all of our FM auctions to date, a total of 920 allotments sold to 505 winning bidders.  Fifty-nine percent of those winners used a bidding credit.  More than 180 additional FM station licenses are likely to be issued under these procedures over the next two years.  These actions hold the promise of enabling more new entrants, including women and minorities, to join the ranks of radio broadcasters.

The Commission should eliminate unnecessary rules that impair stations’ ability to serve their listeners, and we should encourage a diversity of voices however we can. My proposal does both, and I hope my fellow Commissioners will support it.