FCC Gives Entercom "Bonus" AM Station in Kansas City: A Sign of Things to Come?

In a little-publicized ruling on November 20, The FCC gave Entercom a special waiver involving its expanded AM band radio station in Kansas City. The waiver is disturbing on several levels. But first, some history:
The AM broadcast band used to span from 540 to 1600 kHz. In 1997, the FCC adopted a rulemaking expanding the upper end of the AM band to 1705 kHz. Over the years leading up to this, the FCC had gradually relaxed interference and channel spacing rules for AM stations, leading to lots of interference, especially at night, when some AM stations must reduce power levels or sign off completely.
Expanding the AM band was supposed to help alleviate this problem by allowing more than 80 stations who find themselves hemmed in by more powerful neighbors move to a clearer frequency.
Following the announcement of the expanded band , several AM stations applied for and received approval to move their signals onto one of the new frequencies. According to FCC rules, these stations had five years to make the switch from their old frequency to their new one; after the five-year window was up the station would then either give up its old frequency or abandon the move.
Which brings us back to the case of Entercom and two of its AM stations in Kansas City, Kansas: KKHK operates on the frequency of 1250 kHz with 25,000 watts of power during the day and 3,700 watts at night and is prone to interference problems from other stations. Entercom received approval to move KKHK to the expanded band in 1998 and established station KXTR on 1660 kHz, running 10,000 watts during the day and 1,000 watts at night.
Here are the important parts to remember: the FCC issued the construction permit for KXTR in 1998, but only got around to granting the license in October, 2001. According to the FCC’s rules, the five-year transition window opens when the agency grants the construction permit for the expanded band station. However, in an official letter (ostensibly to an Entercom lawyer), the FCC slipped up and said the five-year clock starts when the FCC issues a station’s license.
According to the rules, the five-year window allowing Entercom to operate both KKHK and KXTR runs out next May, which means Entercom would have to give up one of the frequencies. However, the letter implies that the window won’t run out until October, 2006. Entercom appealed to the FCC for a waiver from this rule because it wanted clarification about which statement was correct about when the five-year clock began ticking.
It also said that it hadn’t had enough time, assuming the original rule’s wording was correct, to make sure the expanded band transition was actually in its best interest; therefore, it would not be in the public interest to force it to give up a signal in the Kansas City.
Also of note is the fact that Entercom already owns eight stations in Kansas City, the maximum allowed for that market size.
The FCC apparently agreed, and on Wednesday granted Entercom a waiver from both the expanded AM band transition rules and the radio ownership cap rules (.PDF format). What’s most disturbing is that the waiver grants Entercom the authority to operate both stations for as long as it holds the licenses to them.
As the instance of stations failing to have their licenses renewed is fairly remote, the FCC essentially gave Entercom a “bonus” station in Kansas City and also allowed it to bust the ownership limit in the process. This is not what was intended when the initial rulemaking to expand the AM band was being considered.
If everyone else who received expanded band stations gets permission to operate on both their old and new frequencies, those lucky few who qualified for new stations will also keep their old ones – leaving the AM band as cluttered as before the FCC expanded it.
Many other five-year windows will soon begin to close for other broadcasters who’ve “moved” stations into the expanded AM band; look for similar waivers which will be similarly granted.