Do AM Blowtorches Really Need FM Translators?

In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission promulgated rules allowing AM radio stations to utilize FM translators to supplement their coverage areas. The original intent was to help "beleaguered" stations, like those that must dramatically reduce their power at night, or suffer from increased interference (from a variety of causes, including consumer electronics, traffic signals, and HD Radio sidebands).
As of today, many AM stations have taken advantage of this rule to supplement their signals with some 400 FM translator simulcasts.
But some broadcasters that are far from "beleaguered" have hopped on the translator bandwagon. These include WLW, a 50,000-watt station in Cincinnati owned by Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest broadcast conglomerate.
WLW’s AM signal comfortably covers several states – yet the station is now also simulcast on a 99-watt FM translator which only reaches central Cincinnati.
Other 50,000-watt AM powerhouse stations around the country have also hooked up with micro-powered translators:
WFLF-AM, a Clear Channel-owned station in Orlando, Florida, can also be heard on a 221-watt FM translator, acquired from a religious broadcaster with a history of translator speculation.
KTCN-AM, another Clear Channel property in Minneapolis, Minnesota, simulcasts on a 175-watt translator.
KEX-AM, a Clear Channel right-wing talker in Portland, Oregon, also touts a whopping 99 watts via translator.
—Anchorage, Alaska’s KFQD-AM, owned by Morris Communications, can also be heard on a 250-watt translator.
There are undoubtedly more; these are just the fruits of a cursory search.
It’s hard to classify these stations as "beleaguered," as they operate at the maximum power afforded AM stations. So why do the translator-dance?
One reason is that many AMs are simulcast on FM nowadays – though most of these arrangements involve full-power FM stations. Broadcasters like to trumpet the "crystal clear sound" of FM, which many younger listeners prefer. It’s also an easy way to solidify a station’s ratings with a simulcast.
Another (more likely) reason is due to broadcasters’ push for HD and FM reception in cell phones. Considering that the hybrid analog/digital version of AM-HD causes more problems than opportunities, stations find a better return-on-investment by simulcasting on FM, even if it’s at flea-power.
In addition, there are no concrete plans on the horizon to make cell phones AM reception-capable. This way at least people might be able to pick up the station’s translator signal if they so desire (and have a handset that contains FM reception capability).
Still, it’s hard to rectify the FCC’s intent with this rule as practiced; another sorry case of good intentions gone awry.