An Open Letter To FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai
As a child, I was thrilled with AM radio. The stations and air personalities in my hometown got me so excited about radio that I am now celebrating my 45th year in this great industry. I loved radio, and I loved that I could listen to distant signals at night to hear stations in faraway places.
At the time, my radio stations were on the AM dial. But it wasn't long before I became enamored with FM, which could offer better audio fidelity (in stereo!). I soon discovered that it wasn't AM radio I had been in love with, nor was it FM radio. It was just great radio. But as my generation grew up, so did FM, and it eventually took over the majority of listening on the dial.
Today's modern radio stations are having to compete with lots of digital alternatives, and today's youth don't have to try to tune in distant signals at night. Just about any any radio station in the world is just an app and a few clicks away. AM was invented for a time when there were no better technologies.
You have mentioned the need to improve the AM situation and made it part of your mission at the FCC. I'd like to encourage you to take this further and faster.
Though there are plenty of successful AM stations around the country, the recent abandonment of AM by Radio Disney is just one more reason to make AM radio's needs a higher priority. Disney's research indicated that AM wasn't where their listeners were coming from. Frankly, it was no secret in the industry that their initial plan to reach kids and moms on AM was flawed because young moms are primarily FM listeners.
AM listening appears to be hanging on with baby boomers, who may be more accepting of the sound and reception issues that come with it, but aging listenership will make the survival of AM an even bigger issue. AM has become the home of Talk radio, Sports radio, and many specialty formats that were created to aid its survival. Just the same, AM needs help.
When I was a young radio DJ, I worked for a number of stations. One was a daytimer, where we were required to shut down at sundown. Other stations I worked for reduced power in the evening and could no longer be heard by parts of their audience. Though I always understood the whole interference issue, it always seemed odd to me that some stations, some signals, were granted privileges others were not.
At this risk of irritating my successful FM station readers, who have their own survival and financial issues with a difficult economy and what some might say is an oversaturated radio dial, I think it's time to find an innovative solution to create more equality among broadcast station owners. No one can afford an inferior signal today.
In an ideal world, all signals would be on a single band -- FM -- and all would be equal in power and signal coverage. We are living in an age where technology is making new, formerly unimaginable things possible, but we're not yet able to accomplish that ideal. HD Radio is helping FM to some extent, but interference issues keep AM from working nearly as well.
Yes, I do understand that there are not enough frequencies available to move every AM to FM. But what if there were very smart technology that could make that possible? Is anyone working on such a concept?
Respectfully, the signals of AM and even FM stations were designed for a different time. Stations originally slated for smaller cities are now unable to serve the entire community, which has grown around them and expanded miles outside the signal area. In the interest of safety and radio's role in communicating in an emergency, these antiquated allocations are no longer valid in most cities radio serves.
While addressing the options on this AM problem, may I suggest you review an alternative that not only gives AM better (and hopefully equal) coverage, but allows all FMs to provide equal coverage in their markets. Though creating such a giant jigsaw puzzle is a tall order, the problem will only worsen as our population centers grow and radio's coverage can no longer serve them. This is the time the FCC needs to address the whole picture for proper and equal community coverage for all signals.
I know the commission is considering offering FM translators to AM stations. It's a start, but frankly, it's not a great alternative because they will still be disadvantaged compared to higher-powered, full-coverage signals. Consumers aren't likely to understand why one FM fades out while they're still in the market and another doesn't. Translators aren't the long-term solution radio needs.
And some AM owners, especially the big gun signals, probably wouldn't want to give up that position (though most would like to be on FM as well). Some suggest that part of the FM dial should be dedicated to must-carry simulcasts of all AMs, but that is obviously fraught with technical issues and political challenges.
I can almost hear some of you saying, "But Internet radio solves all these problems!" Yes, Internet radio does put everyone on a level technological playing field. But as of now, it's not the right playing field for broadcasters, who need to serve the entire local market -- including those who may not have Internet service, or who can't run up their data bills with streaming audio. And, crucially, without an over-the-air signal, radio stations would not be able to serve their communities during emergencies.
Many FCC leaders have come and gone in my 45 years in radio. Some left a legacy, while others did not. Your legacy, Commissioner Pai, could be as the man who saved AM broadcasters and gave consumers a better experience.
Though you're surrounded by loads of very smart people at the commission, I'd like to propose you conduct a symposium on this issue. Gather all the smartest people in radio technology, the manufacturers, the NAB team, and the broadcasters who are affected. Explore new technologies and broadcaster needs, and see what the outsiders can bring to the table. For instance, I know of one unproven technology that claims to make AM signals better and eliminate the interference issues, allowing AM to do better in an HD Radio environment. Chances are there are lots of smart people with lots of smart solutions that did not exist even a few years ago.
I understand that addressing this issue of AM-FM equality seriously may be not be popular politically. Many people may not want a solution, and they certainly don't want more competition. But at the end of the day, this has to be about consumers and the best experience for them. The market will work its way through every challenge.
Could you start with a call for ideas, needs, and solutions, go through them, and invite people to participate in an "AM Radio Day" at the FCC to discuss issues and propose ideas? Though this is bigger than a one-day symposium, it's a starting point.
My fear, honestly, is that government will push a solution that may not be helpful in the long run -- like FM translators. By opening this up to a true dialogue among broadcasters, tech experts, and brilliant minds who understand new technologies, you could affect true change that benefits consumers and broadcasters.
No matter what direction you choose, I encourage you to listen to the broadcasters and provide a solution that gives them the ability to fully succeed.