Tag Archives: Low Power FM

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.

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The Question Radio Itself Has Yet to Answer

86That was the subject of an email I received from a reader of my blog recently. The writer went on to eloquently state why he felt the way he did, even citing articles on the topic. He had my interest and I asked him if we could speak on the phone.

The BIG Question

This reader’s (who asked to be kept anonymous) big question was “What can radio do that other media can’t?”

And it’s a very good question.

In 2017 when many are using the internet for things that only radio could provide in the past, is radio’s future being the poor man’s smartphone, tablet or iPod when it could be more?

“NPR and SiriusXM, in addition to the new exploding podcast marketplace, have had no trouble creating personalities and programs,” but my reader writes “why does FM commercial radio continue to stick with playing the hits, past and present, at the expense of personalities, thinking it will make them money when the biggest radio companies have trouble paying off debts on the stations they seem to have paid too much for?”

Well it was a well-known fact all of my radio life that you make money in radio at the time you buy a radio station. Buying it right makes all the difference. And those big radio companies went on a buying spree using other people’s money (Wall Street) and it’s much like student loan debt, no one worries how much debt they’ve accumulated until they are asked to replay it.

Is Local Radio Local Anymore?

My reader quotes Westwood One’s Chief Insights Officer Pierre Bouvard from an AdExchanger interview as saying “A local radio station gives you traffic, sports, weather, great music, funny DJs and talks about your town,” he said. “Spotify has these robotic music playlists, which are awesome, but there’s no one telling you what happened at the Giants game last night.”

My reader says Pierre (who was my first Arbitron representative back in the 80s) makes a good point, but wonders if Pierre ever took the time to hear what passes for much of local radio these days. My reader feels that much of today’s FM radio stations do a combination of great music and robotic, Spotify-ish playlists, and relatively little in the way of “traffic, sports, weather…funny DJs and talk about your town” stuff.

Sadly, I’ve heard similar things said at radio meetings where the person starts off by saying “now don’t quote me on this, but…”

TELCOM Act of 1996

It was President Bill Clinton who signed the Telcom Act of 1996. That act was supposed to bring competition to the phone and cable television industries thereby lowering costs of each to the consumer. While that didn’t happen quickly (some might wonder if it ever did) it did cause the quick consolidation of the radio and TV industries. We went from a country where the largest radio operator could own 12AM-12FM-12TV stations to virtually whatever their pocketbook could afford. And with Wall Street Bankers waiting in the wings, what a company could afford was a lot.

Low Power FM & Translators

For the non-radio folks who read this blog, Low Power FM signals and Translator signals are virtually the same thing, with the exception being that Low Power FM stations originate programming and translators don’t. Both are received over the air on the FM radio dial. Both have increased the number of FM signals on-the-air in America today.

The latest FCC (Federal Communications Commission) report as of the end of December 2016 shows that there were 4,669 AM radio stations on the air in America. Over on the FM dial, 16,783 signals now beat the airwaves (FM, FM educational, translators and low power FM).

To put things in perspective, at a time in America’s radio history when the number of FM signals equaled the number of AM signals on the air, 75% of all radio listening was to FM. So you can only imagine what it’s like today.

93% of Americans 12+ are reached weekly by AM/FM radio says Nielsen.

So while the Telcom Act of 96 caused radio to consolidate under fewer owners who own more stations, adding to the signal overload was the advent of low power FM and translator signals. So much to program and no one home to do the work.

Enter computers, voice tracking, and syndication. This is same computer technology that is employed by Pandora, Spotify, Radio Tunes, SoundCloud and many others.

When TV Challenged Radio

In 1952 TV was born again. It was birthed just before World War II but the war years put broadcast radio/TV development on hold. After the war ended, things began to ramp up quickly for TV.

In 1953, Elmo Ellis was hired to fix 750AM – WSB in Atlanta. Ellis would write about “Removing the Rust from Radio Programming” for Broadcasting/Telecasting (now called Broadcasting and Cable magazine).

One of the points Mr. Ellis made was that a stack of records and a turntable do not a radio station make, though many broadcasters persisted in that very belief.

It was the very same philosophy I employed when I launched a “Music of YOUR Life” radio station. I felt that to be successful, you needed more than just Al Ham’s music list, you needed the personalities that complimented the music.

Both my reader and I are in complete agreement in that a radio station is more than just a song list.

Less Is More

The problem today is that with the “land rush” by broadcasters to own as many signals as they can, we have seen our country’s biggest broadcasters put themselves into a debt situation they cannot get out of and smaller broadcasters have signals and streams to manage but not the revenues to properly execute them.

If we go back to the beginning of broadcasting in America, we see that the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) that predated the current FCC felt that quality over quantity of radio stations should be the rule of measure. By limiting the number of stations, the FRC was attempting to insure the content of those stations on the air would be of the highest quality and also by limiting the number of stations; the advertising revenue that is the life blood of free over-the-air radio could be sustained.

What Can Radio Do That Other Media Can’t?

This brings me back to the question my reader originally posed and asked me to answer.

But before I do, I’m going throw that question out to my other readers – to date over 80,000 from all over the world – to weigh in with their thoughts.

What do you feel radio can do that other media can’t?

Is any radio station you know of doing it right now?

Is this a sustainable future for over-the-air radio?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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More is Less

In 1994, Dan O’Day was holding one of his famous “PD Grad Schools” in Dallas, Texas. One of the speakers he invited that day – and whose presentation was recorded by “Radio’s Best Friend” Art Vuolo – was a young Randy Michaels. Dan O’Day still sells this video, now on DVD, and labels it “The best radio video ever.” I would agree.

The video is titled “Positioning Your Radio Station by Randy Michaels.”  It addresses the explosion of new FM radio stations after the first round of radio deregulation brought us Docket 80-90. Then the LMA (Local Marketing Agreement) was born. Randy tells the audience:

“This was a fundamental change for the radio business. Just as TV was a fundamental change, duopoly fundamentally changed the radio business. This moved the radio business from being a franchise to being a commodity. McDonalds was once a franchise. Today burger fast-food restaurants are a commodity and we all know how that’s working for the ‘Golden Arches.’”

On May 24, 2004 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a “Broadcast Localism Hearing” in Rapid City, South Dakota. The president, general manager and co-owner of KLQP-FM licensed to Madison, Minnesota (population 1, 767) Maynard Meyer addressed the commission. He told them (I’ve edited his comments. The full text can be found here.):

“Localism in radio is not dead, but it is in dire need of resuscitation in many areas. I have been involved in the radio business in announcing, sales, engineering and management for about 36 years, all of my experience is in communities of 5,000 people or less. We personally live in the communities we serve so we know the ‘issues,’ we work to address them in our programming and have been doing so for the past 21 years. “

“A few years ago, many stations operated this way, but much of that has changed for a variety of reasons. I think the beginning of the end of local broadcast service started in the 1980s when the Federal Communications Commission approved Docket 80-90.”

Mr. Meyer went on to explain to the FCC how many communities that “on paper” had a local radio station actually found that the transmitter was being fed from another location tens of miles away. Mr. Meyer went on to say:

“I don’t think this is the best way to promote local radio service. From what I have seen through my personal experience, as soon as a hometown studio is closed and relocated, the local service is relocated as well.”

Now put another decade plus on the calendar and we find that the FCC has decided that adding even more FM radio stations would fix this problem of local radio service that operates in the public “interest, convenience and/or necessity” by issuing FM licenses for FM translators and Low Power FM radio stations.

The most recent BROADCAST STATION TOTALS AS OF MARCH 31, 2015 issued by the FCC shows that there are 4,702 AM commercial radio stations, 6,659 FM commercial radio stations and 4,081 FM educational radio stations on the air. But wait; there are also 6,312 FM translators & boosters on the air; plus, another 1,029 Low Power FM radio stations. That’s 22,873 radio stations! And they now compete with SiriusXM satellite radio and streaming audio from Pandora, Spotify, Radio Tunes etc.

If Randy was thinking back in 1994 “being a media company today is a really tough business” he was seeing just the tip of the broadcast iceberg.

Randy’s prescription that day in Dallas was as prescient then as it is today; maybe even more so. He told the audience of program directors:

“In a crowded media environment radio needs to super-serve its local community. Be everywhere, all the time. Miss a day, miss a lot. Radio’s BEST when it’s personal.”

“What’s your station’s impact rating? Great radio stations are listener-focused.”

“If you’re smart enough to win in today’s radio, you’re smart enough to have done something legitimate with your life. This is work. This is a real job. It’s the merger of art and science and you’ve got to have both.”

I’m encouraged by my students who have big ideas about the future of radio and a desire to serve the communities they will be moving to and living in. I’m encouraged by some great radio broadcasters getting back into the business who are bringing back the fundamentals of great radio while extending that sense of purpose to the digital component that must be a part of today’s media company.

The pendulum is swinging back and it can’t get back here soon enough.

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