FM Translator Abuse Creates Ownership Loophole

Nearly a year ago it came to light that radio broadcasters were using FM translator stations as a sort of “back door” to provide more exposure for their HD Radio signals.
Ironically, these translators do not broadcast in digital; rather, many HD-capable radio stations are rebroadcasting their digital-only (“multicast”) programming via analog translator as a way to recoup their investment in a technology which has no meaningful audience.
Some radio conglomerates have purchased or signed lease agreements with FM translator owners to create ostensibly “new” stations in markets around the country in this manner. The practice has caused difficulty for independent broadcasters.
Recently, Clear Channel signed a lease agreement with a translator-owner in New York City to rebroadcast a country music format Clear Channel was running as an HD-2 adjunct to another of its NYC stations. The translator caused major interference to “Thunder 106,” a country-format full-power FM station owned by Press Communications. Thunder 106 is located in New Jersey but covers a goodly portion of the NYC metropolitan area.
You can see how Clear Channel would think this a bright idea: there is no country music station based directly in Market #1, and by plopping a flea-power FM translator in downtown Manhattan the company could dominate an underserved format while recycling unprofitable HD-only content on the cheap.
Press Communications did not take this move lying down. It contacted the FCC which directed the translator to leave the air while the interference claims are investigated.
These shenanigans are only the tip of the iceberg. Cumulus Media has parlayed several FM translators into “new” stand-alone stations in several radio markets around the country. Considering that Cumulus is now attempting to buy Citadel Broadcasting – a deal that rivals Clear Channel in the ownership-consolidation dimension – this behavior deserves further scrutiny.
It’s bad enough that major broadcasters are wasting spectrum through the implementation of HD Radio. But purchasing or leasing the use of translators to expand a conglomerate’s holdings in a market where they already own the maximum number of full-power stations allows them to effectively flout the FCC’s local radio station ownership caps.
Neither translators nor HD Radio were intended for such chicanery, and it speaks volumes about the FCC’s engagement with radio broadcasting more generally that such behavior is taking place.