I 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?
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.
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.