Clear Channel leads charge for FM translators for AM stations

by Matthew Lasar, Lasar Letter

Clear Channel Communications is leading a wave of filings asking the Federal Communications Commission to permit AM radio stations to broadcast over FM translators. Relatively few commenters in this proceeding oppose the plan, but they include the Prometheus Project, aided by attorneys from the Media Access Project.

In mid-July of 2006, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) petitioned the FCC to change its regulations so that AM broadcasters could operate FM translators. A translator is essentially a repeater station that takes a primary station's signal, then boosts and rebroadcasts it. The proposal would limit the FM translator reach to about 25 miles maximum.

Clear Channel's January 7th filing in support of the proposal argues that because many AM stations operate at reduced power during the early morning or evening (in order not to interfere with other AM stations) they are "challenged in providing coverage of local issues, such as school closings, weather emergencies, local election returns, local government meetings and high school sports." Many AM stations also lower or turn off their power at night.

The use of these translators, the NAB adds in their January 7th comment, would "fill-in coverage holes, so [AM stations] can better serve their local communities, and in turn help ensure the continued viability of the AM radio service," particularly at night.

A host of smaller broadcasters have filed in support this proposal, including the Pocahontas Communications Cooperative, which runs AM station WVMR in West Virginia, the Christian Broadcasting Service, which operates six AM stations, and the a consortium of AM "daytimer station" groups in and around Kentucky led by Big River Radio, Inc.

"AM daytimer stations are at a competitive disadvantage, and generally cannot provide good nighttime service to their communities of license," the Big River group wrote to the FCC in early December.

But the Prometheus Project's filing qustions the NAB plan. The group provides support and advocacy for Low Power FM [LPFM] radio stations.

"While Prometheus acknowledges that AM stations face certain problems, these AM stations at least have the ability to broadcast," the groups' January 7th filing observes. "There are many groups that would like to broadcast, but are unable to do so because they cannot get on the FM band."

Prometheus notes that if the proposal were implemented, "organizations wishing to apply for LPFM would now be displaced not only FM broadcasters with translators, but also AM broadcasters with translators."

But the organization's attorneys say that they will accept the rule change under certain conditions, among them:

* AM stations can only use the FM translators as a "fill-in"—presumably when some important event requires broadcast coverage in the morning, evening, or night.
* FM translators will only be made available to "standalone" stations. "Many AM stations are owned by large companies," Prometheus writes, "and the interests of large companies should not be allowed to hide behind the interests of survival of genuine small businesses."
* No translator should go to an AM station that also owns an FM outlet in the same market.
* One FM translator per standalone AM station—no more.

Current FCC rules forbid an FM translator from rebroadcasting anything other than the signal of an FM radio station or another FM translator.

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