FCC Proposes Lessened Interference Protections for Class A “Clear Channel” AM Stations

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David Oxenford

What Does This Proposal Mean for AM Revitalization?

By: David Oxenford, Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP

Late last week, the FCC issued a “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” in its AM Revitalization Proceeding. The FCC has been taking steps over the last several years to attempt to restore AM radio to health. In last week’s Further Notice, the FCC followed up on ideas that it floated in 2016 in a prior order in the AM revitalization proceeding (see our articles here and here) suggesting that protections afforded to Class A AM stations be lessened in order to allow increased power by other more localized AM stations. Class A stations, often referred to as “clear channel” stations, are those 50 kW AM stations that are currently given interference protections both during the day and to their nighttime “skywave” signals (the signals heard hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from the station’s transmitter site after bouncing off the atmosphere). These protections allow these stations to cover large geographic areas, and were particularly important in the early days of radio when these stations provided the only radio services to vast portions of the country that did not have local radio stations. In the Further Notice released last week, the FCC questions whether such protections are still necessary given the proliferation of other sources of audio programming (including radio stations, satellite radio and the Internet), and advances specific proposals that would reduce the protections accorded to these stations to allow some power increases by local AM stations.

This proposal is not without controversy. Obviously, station owners who hold Class A licenses do not believe that the service provided by these stations should be impeded. In fact, they note that many of these stations are among the few profitable AM stations in the country, often providing unique programming and substantial programming diversity to rural residents. These stations have also always been a favorite of long-haul truckers and others driving at night for providing uninterrupted service over vast distances. Perhaps even more importantly, and a question specifically raised for comment by the FCC, is the impact that any loss of service from these stations would have on the EAS network. Many of these stations serve as the primary stations for relaying national emergency messages to the EAS network. In fact, many of these stations have been provided funds by FEMA to improve their facilities to insure that they are available to provide uninterrupted service in the event of a national emergency.

The specific proposals set out by the FCC are likely going to be most easily understood by those with technical backgrounds. They are set forth below:

Daytime hours proposal:

  • During daytime hours, Class A AM stations would protected to their 0.5 mV/m daytime groundwave contour, from both co-channel and first-adjacent channel stations;

Critical hours (two hours before sunset and sunrise) proposals:

  • Alternative 1: During critical hours, Class A AM stations would be afforded no protection from other AM stations, or
  • Alternative 2: During critical hours, Class A AM stations would be protected to their 0.5 mV/m groundwave contour.

Nighttime hours proposals:

  • Alternative 1: During nighttime hours, there would be allowed no overlap between a Class A AM station’s 0.5 mV/m nighttime groundwave contour and any interfering AM station’s 0.025 mV/m 10 percent skywave contour (calculated using the single station method); or
  • Alternative 2: During nighttime hours, Class A AM stations would be protected from other AM stations in the same manner as Class B AM stations are protected, that is, interference may not be increased above the greater of the 0.5 mV/m nighttime groundwave contour or the 50 percent exclusion Root Sum Squared Nighttime Interference-Free (“RSS NIF”) level (calculated using the multiple station method).
  • Currently, Class A stations are protected during the day to their 0.1 mV/m groundwave contour by co-channel stations (and to their 0.5 mV/m contour by adjacent channel stations) during the daytime; to their 0.5 mV/m-50 percent skywave contour by co-channel stations (and to their 0.5 mv/m groundwave contour by adjacent channel stations) at night; and to their 0.1 mV/m groundwave contour during critical hours. The FCC proposals set out above would, in some cases, result in a significant decrease in interference protections accorded to these stations.

The FCC notes that there are differing opinions, even among engineers, as to when a Class A station’s service can reliably be heard by listeners, and the extent to which distant listeners still rely on these services. Because of these differences in opinion, and the natural split between local station owners and those that hold licenses for Class A stations, this proceeding is likely to be controversial. And it may well implicate many of the issues about the future of AM radio more generally (see, for instance, our article here).

The FCC is not proposing at this time changes in the protections of other classes of AM stations, though that possibility had also been raised in earlier proceedings. But the FCC does ask for comments as to whether it should move ahead in a future proceeding with that idea – potentially increasing interference in areas further from some stations in exchange for the potential for other stations to increase power and service to more local areas. That, too, is likely to be a controversial issue – one that will be debated in more detail at a later date.

Comments on the Further Notice will be due 60 days after the document is published in the Federal Register, with replies due 30 days later.

David Oxenford is MAB’s Washington Legal Counsel and provides members with answers to their legal questions with the MAB Legal Hotline. Access information here. (Members only access).

There are no additional costs for the call; the advice is free as part of your MAB membership.

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