Too Much Is Not Enough

too muchI was reviewing the last FCC report about the number of broadcast stations in America as of December 31, 2018 and in my head I found myself singing a parody of the Bellamy Brothers song, “Too much is not enough.” Only my version was “too much is way too much.”

FM Signals Continue to Proliferate

My editor at Radio World, Emily Reigart, recently wrote about how the total number of broadcast stations (radio & TV) grew in the past year by 3,150 stations, it would appear to not be an industry in decline. Unfortunately, while TV and FM stations increased, the number of AM radio stations continues to shrink.

Which again reminded me of that Bellamy Brothers song where they sang “I’m getting weaker, as the day goes by.”

How Much is Too Much

Back in the 1950s through the 1970s, John B. Calhoun, an American ethologist and behavioral researcher, studied what happens when an environment gets overcrowded. In Mr. Calhoun’s case, he studied what happens when you keep adding rats to a defined space. It was to learn about population density and its effects on behavior. Calhoun predicted that what he witnessed with his rats foretold of a grim future for the human race.

I believe much as what Everett Rodgers would learn in studying the adoption of new innovations of Iowa corn farmers that produced his famous Innovation Adoption Curve, that these things have universal applications and impact all areas of our lives.

Overpopulation is overpopulation.

Matters not whether we’re talking rats, people or radio stations.

In more recent times, researchers felt that Calhoun’s experiments didn’t so much predict the effects of overpopulation as much as the moral decay that arises with too much social interaction. Did he foretell of today’s internet connected world?

FM Signals

Breaking down the FCC’s latest report for just radio stations, we see that there are now 4,619 AM radio stations on the air. That’s 20 fewer AM radio stations than a year ago and 167 fewer than a decade ago. This is a trend that shows no sign of changing. That’s why I wrote, that “like coal, AM radio ain’t coming back.”

On the FM side, there were 25 more commercial and educational FM radio stations than a year ago, and compared to 2008, there were 1,422 additional FM radio stations added.

Translators & Low Power FM

Where things get really messy is the addition of translators and low power FM radio stations.

For those not fully versed in these two forms of broadcasting, they are basically the same, in that both occupy space on the FM radio band. The difference is that translators rebroadcast another signal, be it an AM, FM or HD broadcast, and low power FM radio stations originate their programs. Low power FM radio stations are non-commercial operations and limited to a maximum power of 100-watts. (Note: commercial and educational FM stations can have a maximum power of 100,000-watts) Translators or boosters are limited to a maximum power of 250-watts but it’s not surprising to find many operating at a lot less power due to other factors involved.

When we look at the number of these two additional classes of FM broadcasters, we find another 10,124 FM radio stations bringing the total number of FM signals on-the-air in America today to 21,013 FM radio stations. Over four and half times as many FM signals as AM signals.

Inversion Layers

Now while studies are done to determine what power and location an FM station can be located to prevent it interfering with another FM radio station on the same or adjacent frequency, all of these studies are done in a perfect world. By that I mean, one in which weather is behaving.

However, having operated radio stations along the Jersey shore for decades, I know that vertical layering of moisture content and temperature in the atmosphere (inversion layers) can cause an FM signal to travel hundreds or thousands of miles further than normal.

These weather conditions can affect radio signals from several hours to several days.

This weather phenomenon is called anomalous propagation and is usually likely to occur when weather conditions are hot and dry.

With the planet’s climate changing, expect to see even more, less than “normal” weather conditions going forward and therefore even more interference.

Automobile FM Radio

The place radio still dominates, is in the car, though all electric cars are excluding AM radios due to electrical interference, in favor of FM radios with internet and blue tooth capabilities in what manufacturers call “dashboard entertainment systems.”

I’ve traveled all over our great land this past year and what I find is, it is almost impossible to dial in an FM radio station and keep a clear, listenable signal for any great distance or period of time. It quickly turns into an interference situation with another FM radio station, either on the same frequency or an adjacent one.

Less Is More

The radio industry would greatly benefit from fewer signals, with the power to fully cover the area they are licensed to serve, and regulated to insure that they are properly operated in the community of license’s interests, convenience, or necessity.

The FCC can’t abolish the laws of physics.

The advertising base to support local radio is finite.

In Sydney, Australia, a city with about 5-million people, there are 48-radio stations. In Los Angeles, California, a city with about 4-million people, there are 114-radio stations.

The value of a broadcast license was that it was a limited commodity, and as such being granted spectrum on the public’s airwaves benefitted the community, the advertisers, the listeners and the broadcasters.

The Infinite Dial

The internet has created an infinite radio dial and has challenged the value of an FCC broadcast license.

The FCC’s inability to protect the AM spectrum from the myriad of electrical devices that produce an ever increasing noise floor has doomed the future of the senior band as it closes in on a century of service.

Unless something is done, I fear the FM band will suffer a similar fate.

In many ways, it already is.

23 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

23 responses to “Too Much Is Not Enough

  1. Protecting Radio is Preserving Content For and On All Receivers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Spot on, Dick. Impediments to the signals (band crowding, interference) aren’t good for broadcasters OR the communities they serve. 20,000 FM signals, and 2/3 are junk or rimshotters using translators to crowd their way into a bigger market that isn’t their own. Politically, this can’t be reversed, so look for more user friendly in-car streaming apps in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The industry has and continues to call for more deregulation, not more protection from these types of problems. It would seem that we might just deregulate our industry out of business!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Too Much Is Not Enough – dxradio.de

  5. Hal Widsten

    AM is definitely dying a slow death from any number of things, but especially the increasing noise level on the band. As you point out, the proliferation of FM stations is achieving the same result. If everyone gets a license at some level, it will kill the business. The question is will Broadcasters be able to stem the tide, or will they simply ride this horse until it dies.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Goodhelp

    Agreed on the slow deterioration of the AM & FM bands. Yet, the push-back from their lobbyists have hamstrung any profitable operation of Internet radio streams. More listeners = more excessive music licensing fees, fees which have never been determined via a fair bidding process.

    Like

    • OTA broadcastings never had the rising music licensing fee problem as the number of listeners increased, fees were based on how much revenue stations were making off of the audience they attracted.

      Seems like that might be a better model for streaming stations too.

      Thank you for stopping by the blog and adding to the discussion.
      -DT

      Like

  7. Daniel Brown

    A lot to unpack in Dick Taylor’s column. I’ve never been totally sold on the “settled” indicators for climate change since we’ve seen weather phenomena similar to it in times past. However, if anomalous propagation of radio waves becomes more frequent and of longer duration, that may be a very real indicator that climate change is actually happening.

    But I still maintain that the ultimate and only solution for congestion on the AM/FM bands is to go all-digital. More and more countries are going that route with success. Look at what’s happened with TV. The FCC chopped the band down to channels 2 through 36. Yet, nearly all stations are still able to find a channel and broadcast interference-free…even when the stations are on adjacent channels. The woes affecting radio today, particularly AM, are not from over-licensing but are purely analog-caused. Radio is living in an analog-hostile world and it’s time to move past that old technology.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Win Damon

    A sobering look at the numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am a Am Station owner and I am very concerned about the future of The Am band . One thing that the FCC can do to help the Am band is to eliminate the 50 kw radio power level. Cut the power level down to 10 kw. This would cut down interference and allow the daytimer to continue their service to their community. What good is a 50 kw station that has 50 kw who cannot sell to the large area out of its licensed area. By cutting the power also saves power . Another thing it would also allow class D stations who have to go directional to protect these power giants or sign off or operate with power levels below its licensed power to service their license area. This is a win win to both stations and a loss for the DX er who doesnot contribute to the bottom line for either party. Also eliminate license fees all together for stations operating at less than 1kw. This allows the small operator to survive. Any comments are welcome. programmingrus@aol.com.

    Like

    • Thank you Robert for adding your perspective to the discussion. The noise floor for AM these days is so bad, that high power AM radio stations are the only ones that really have a chance of cutting through the interference.

      As far as DX’ing is concerned, these days, that’s best done via the internet and streaming. WSM for example, has more listeners in Moscow on its stream than it does OTA in Nashville. The stream of WSM is in stereo and much higher quality than its monster 50KW signal at 650AM.

      A member of my family just wrote to me that they got a new car back in November 2018 and upon reading my blog article this week, realized they had not even turned on the AM or FM part of their dashboard entertainment center since they picked it up. All of their audio listening was to SiriusXM. I sense they are not alone. And we’re talking of someone in their 70s that grew up on AM radio.
      -DT

      Like

  10. Bill Cain

    There is no exaggeration in Mr. Taylor’s examples. I still live in the Atlantic City-Cape May Market where he wrote about. The AM band is a wasteland of noise from crusty, salt laden power lines and leaky, high speed cable data cables. The FM band, once partially dominated by Philadelphia Signals imported 60 miles away, well those are now all but a memory, even with top gear and a directional yagi antenna. Now covered by adjacent channels translators pumping every extra db of audio gawdly possible. The Signal Inversions on hot humid days begin in May, and bring in stations from GA, FL, the Carolinas, TX, New England. Our local stations are replaced on the dial with clear stereo versions of “Guess Who Today”. Especially the old Docket 80-90’s (Class A on unused Class C). There used to be 31 signals here, including NY & Philly, Now there’s 59 in Market 153, excluding out of town. And what is the idiocy of giving HD-2/3/5 signals a translator? Yes, AM Analog must be sunsetted like analog TV, the sooner the better.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Paul W Urbahns

    You wrote: “The radio industry would greatly benefit from fewer signals, with the power to fully cover the area they are licensed to serve, and regulated to insure that they are properly operated in the community of license’s interests, convenience, or necessity.” but that would require taking radio out of the hands of the large corporations (you know who I mean) and return them to local ownership. The new digital FM tuners have no problem telling a station on 93.5 from one on 93.7..I know because I live withing listening area of two such stations. The increase of FM translators to local AMs is about the only thing saving many locally owned stations. The increased interference on AM is making it an impossible sell (as you already know). So I think the 250 watt translators are a good thing in rural areas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for adding your thoughts to the subject Paul. I see no problem with large corporations having stations with the proper power to serve their community of license and having been a market manager for a couple of such companies know it can be done.

      However, the proliferation of LPFM and translators in many parts of the country is a mess. Using a HD2, 3 etc to feed FM analog translators should never have been allowed and this is contributing to congestion.

      I have been monitoring comments on the various social networks about my article and see that this problem exists all over the USA. Atmospherics only complicates things more.

      I’m sure that the translators in rural areas are indeed a good idea, but wouldn’t it have been even better if those AM operators could have just received a full-service FM signal to replace and sunset their AM tower plant?
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

  12. A little late, but out of the 29 radio stations within close listening range of Albany, Georgia, according to radio-locator.com, only three still broadcast on the AM dial. The fourth station, WGPC-1450, which was the first radio station to sign on the air in 1933, signed off the air permanently after almost 84 years of broadcasting. Even with the glut of FM signals in a market as small as Albany, 26 of them seems to be a lot. Having said that, unless major changes are made, FM will suffer the same fate as AM. Thanks for sharing as always.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Paul Lotsof, KAVV (FM)

    If you would like a real “ear opener” try tuning from one end of the AM dial to the other. Do this in both a metro area and in a rural location. The AM band is populated with the cheapest programming that the station owners can acquire: endless syndicated sports talk, endless syndicated political talk from the far right, endless syndicated religion, foreign languages and a jukebox format that I call “1960s non-rock”. The only stations that attempt quality local programming are the high powered news/talk stations that are found in only the largest markets. And the station owners wonder why hardly anyone listens. Computer monitors and spark plugs are not the problem here.

    Drive twenty miles out of town some night and tune across the AM dial. Go from 540 to 1700 and all you’ll hear is noise caused by ten stations on each frequency with none on top. The only exceptions are the 50,000 watt clear channel stations that all the other stations want to silence so that the entire band can be pure noise from bottom to top. Again, the problem isn’t power lines but rather too many stations on the same frequency. It is correct that the FCC can’t repeal the ionosphere.

    The FM band is so saturated with translators that only the most powerful Class C stations still have decent coverage.

    Everyone is worried about lost revenue for station owners but the typical radio listener can go jump in the lake.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paul, you inspired me to take my digital AM radio and run the dial from 540 to 1700 here in my home office in Virginia.

      I picked up only one listenable radio station – running all conservative syndicated talk programming – the rest of the band was mostly static or stations would be difficult to listen to (who I noticed were promoting their FM dial position on a translator).

      I know when traveling and dialing around on my car AM radio band, I find much of what you spoke of.

      Thank you for adding to the conversation and sharing your thoughts.
      -DT

      Like

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