Firming the Foundation for an All-Digital AM Mandate

The quiet collection of "evidence" on which to justify an all-digital HD Radio mandate for AM stations continues.
After some stealth experimentation on a CBS station in Charlotte, North Carolina late last year, there’s word of two other AM stations in the state conducting all-digital broadcast-tests this summer. The guinea pigs were WBT, a 50,000-watt station owned by Greater Media (also in Charlotte) and WNCT, a 50,000-watt (day)/10,000-watt (night) Beasley Broadcast-owned AM station in Greenville.
WBT secured experimental authorization from the FCC to conduct these tests just two weeks before they took place; WNCT also asked for fast-track authority less than a month before its all-digital broadcasts.
There is no hard data available from these tests, and I would not expect much to surface in the near future. The CBS tests last year produced a paltry 11-page report that spent more time describing the testing regimen than any concrete findings. An unnamed engineer quoted by the Clear Channel-owned Inside Radio (the only trade outlet to publish something akin to substantive story about the recent tests) says the all-digital broadcasts on WNCT were "very promising," though the article is more circumspect about the WBT trials:

Test results of WBT’s all-digital skywave signal are purely anecdotal. Based on feedback from NAB Radio Technology Committee members tuning in up and down the East Coast, it held its own against the analog signal.

In many respects, this testing was stimulated by Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai‘s call for an "AM revitalization initiative" to open (hopefully) next year. This inquiry will consider a range of options to (hopefully) "improve" the overall sustainability of the AM dial. And you can tell a lot by the principals involved in these rounds of tests about what the industry’s revitalization "priorities" will be.
CBS and Greater Media are founding companies in the HD Radio cartel. The core research and development behind the HD system began as a project under Westinghouse, back when it owned CBS outright. This makes CBS and iBiquity Digital Corporation, the proprietor of HD Radio, kindred corporations; it’s easy to see how their priorities align.
In the IR piece, CBS Radio president/CEO Dan Mason advocates for an all-digital AM switchover. Glynn Walden, CBS Radio’s senior vice president of engineering, was the first to suggest this radical course of action at the NAB Radio Show last fall—just before the first round of all-digital tests. Walden is one of the fathers of the HD Radio system: he was at Westinghouse back when HD Radio was but a concept, holds several patents on the technology, and has split his career between CBS and iBiquity.
Not only does it look good for Walden to have his boss’ endorsement, but it signals that CBS will be doing much of the heavy lifting to push a digital AM transition campaign forward at the National Radio Systems Committee and FCC.
They’ll have great help from Greater Media. Its VP of radio engineering, Milford Smith, had very kind words about the latest all-digital AM tests. As he should: Smith was chairman of the NRSC’s digital radio task force during the tumultuous struggle to get the FCC to adopt HD at the turn of the century. The NRSC’s work at critical times was laughable—incomplete and highly qualified, yet presented to all as Holy Writ, which made regulators comfortable enough to bless the rollout HD despite its detriments.
The third player in the recent round of tests, Beasley Broadcasting, is also a long-time investor in and proponent of HD Radio. Mike Cooney, Beasley’s VP of engineering, currently chairs the NAB’s own Radio Technology Committee.
Now, I’m not trying to disparage any of these men—just pointing out the long-term historical connections between them, their companies, and the important roles they all played to get HD Radio as far as it has over the last two decades. This history has led their parent companies to pour tens of millions of dollars into HD; of course they would be the principals in any push to mandate its use. (A "source" at the NAB says they’re careful to call their push an "evolution" instead of a mandate. Of course they would.)
It’s the push itself that should worry us. It’s taking on the same shape as the campaign that led to HD Radio’s adoption by the FCC 15 years ago. Back then, a coalition of broadcast conglomerates (large and small), along with iBiquity and the NAB, worked hard to convince the FCC that the radio industry wholeheartedly supported the HD system. The pitched battle that subsequently occurred at the FCC belied this harmony, as does the abysmal state of HD uptake by broadcasters since then. That same coalition is crystallizing again, using the same opaque engineering and testing behaviors that tortured HD’s initial development.
The only constituent presently missing from the old mix is National Public Radio. NPR’s support of HD was key in convincing the FCC that a "true" commercial/noncommercial broadcaster consensus existed on the technology in the first place. But since then, NPR hasn’t been directly involved in the creation of facts on the ground to advance HD policy—today, NPR is a reluctant supporter of HD Radio, and you can expect the same in the push for a digital AM transition.
However, the stakes for this push are much higher this time. Mandating the adoption of HD Radio on the AM dial sets important policy precedent for requiring the same on the FM dial, where the technology at least has some semblance of functionality. HD’s proponents are going after the weakest prey first, and if they can get a transition mandate locked in on the band where HD works worst, all-digital FM is a foregone conclusion. It’s effectively a two-step strategy to move all stations to all-digital HD broadcasting.
Those in the trenches of corporate media policymaking play long-ball, biding their time and creating the optimum conditions to push through what would otherwise be questionable, or even irrational policies. When the FCC ultimately issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to explore AM’s "revitalization," the groundwork for the band’s forced transition to HD will have already been done, leaving policymakers and the public with the erroneous perception that 1) such a transition is the best possible outcome for AM radio, and 2) the radio industry supports this move.
Were HD proponents more forthright and transparent with their campaign, perhaps it would have a semblance of actual legitimacy. But the signs are clear that legitimacy will (again) be tactically sacrificed toward a larger goal with implications that are too massive to be conducted by clique. Do we really have to go down this road again?