Cracking the Lid on Pandora's Box

They make their bread and butter on access to the public airwaves, and for decades they have agitated against newcomers and ne’er-do-wells vying for a piece of the dial. But a skirmish between two commercial broadcasters over interference caused by an FM translator suggests that some radio broadcasters see over-the-air transmission slipping in importance as the primary conduit for their content.
Fortunately, the FCC does not.
The case involved a full-power FM radio station in Toledo, Ohio being interfered with by a translator licensed to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. The Toledo rock station, owned by Clear Channel, received numerous complaints from Detroit-area listeners when the translator took to the air with a smooth jazz format. Clear Channel then complained to the FCC.
Martz Communications, the translator’s owner, got creative with the way it “remediated” the interference. It offered each complainant a smartphone with Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio application pre-installed. Why listen to the actual radio dial anymore when you can get your favorite stations online?
The FCC’s Audio Division did not see the equivalency, and suggested that such an approach “will inevitably lead the Commission into a quagmire of novel issues,” none of which it was willing to examine for the sake of an FM translator simulcasting an HD subchannel. The translator was ordered to cease broadcasting.
Historically speaking, maintaining spectrum integrity has been at the center of broadcast incumbents’ political agenda. It was the rationale used to eviscerate the LPFM service, and television broadcasters are fighting madly against the repurposement of some DTV channels for wireless broadband.
Then again, considering the willful degradation of the radio dial that broadcast incumbents have caused or consented to over the last decade (noise pollution on the AM band, HD Radio, and the mad proliferation of FM translators), perhaps it was only a matter of time before the Internet would become a suggested panacea for intra-industry squabbles.
It would seem that Martz Communications is big on recycling HD Radio content as stand-alone analog stations. Its full-power FM in Detroit runs two HD subchannels – both of which had their own FM translator outlets until the FCC ordered one of them shut down. This kind of spectrum-hoggery – creating “new” radio stations on the cheap using what should be a secondary broadcast service – makes the company’s attempt to vilify Clear Channel in this case a bit hypocritical.
This is the first time (that I know of) that a U.S. broadcaster has openly suggested that the Internet could replace over-the-air transmission as a viable way of maintaining listenership in the medium. However, if contemporary radio industry business and engineering practices continue to whittle away at spectrum integrity, one wonders if this perspective will remain so “novel.”