Future of AM: Decided in Secret?

There’ve been more developments regarding the radio industry’s potential plans for “modernizing” the AM band. Radio World reported last month that the NAB’s Radio Technology Committee and CBS have selected an unnamed AM station “in an area that could be characterized as a medium-sized market” to be a guinea pig for all-digital AM-HD Radio test broadcasts.
This is the first of “three or four” AM stations that may be tapped to test the all-digital protocol. The experiments are likely to be done by an “outside engineering contractor” and primarily financed by HD’s developer, iBiquity Digital Corporation. They could begin before the end of the year.
This is but one option for the future of AM broadcasting detailed in a confidential report produced by the NAB – a report that is unlikely to ever see the light of day. The trade group justifies the secrecy by characterizing the report as “extremely technical and would need to be explained and/or possibly watered down for consumption by non-engineers.” Furthermore, meetings on this issue will remain closed to the public, for if they were open, “no one would feel free to participate and no work would be accomplished,” according to a Radio World source.
Meanwhile, Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai delivered a keynote address at the annual NAB Radio Show, held in Dallas in September, in which he mentioned the dilemma of AM broadcasting in the U.S. He’s met with broadcasters more than two dozen times since he took office in May. Most notably, Pai called for the creation of an “AM Revitalization Committee” at the FCC. In addition to a comprehensive review of AM broadcast rules, Pai suggested a year-long timetable for deciding the future of AM, calling for a plan of action by “early 2014.”
Pai is a neoliberal fundamentalist who believes regulation in and of itself is a scourge that inhibits the functioning of the “free market.” Thus it’s not surprising that he believes the FCC’s role is to assist broadcasters in whatever plans they have for the future of AM, as opposed to facilitating the thinking about and implementation of solutions.
This is a dangerous paradigm, but unfortunately it reflects the modus operandi of contemporary broadcast policymaking at the FCC. One need look no further than the development and deployment of HD Radio itself. The technology was developed mostly in secret by broadcast-investors, who refused to take into consideration the larger concerns of their industry as a whole. By the time development and testing had been completed, and the FCC was petitioned to adopt the standard, most broadcasters (in the individual, flesh-and-blood sense) had no idea how functional HD Radio really might be, and many who did have some foreknowledge were skeptical.
As the record shows, this lack of transparency during HD’s development poisoned the policymaking environment and trade press. There was massive consternation among independent (i.e., non-iBiquity investor) broadcasters and the public about HD’s fundamental viability, not to mention its profound effects on the future potentiality of digital radio broadcasting itself. However, by that point the FCC had already effectively made up its mind on HD by opting out of any active role in the technology’s development and plans for rollout.
The FCC’s calculus for making this constitutive decision was simple: a small group of companies that controlled the vast majority of the radio industry’s revenue supported the technology, as did NPR. If the largest political and economic players in the world of radio broadcasting, both commercial and noncommercial, thought it was good, it must be good for everyone.
As we have seen over the last ten years, this assumption was incorrect. Broadcaster and listener indifference/resistance to HD Radio would seem to suggest that responsibly formative media policy cannot be made in a neoliberal vacuum. Yet more of the same will likely decide the fate of the mediumwave band.
It will be another fait accompli: the NAB and the nation’s largest corporate AM broadcasters will do “careful and thorough research” on the future of AM. NPR will sign on because it’s desperate to not be marginalized. Their “carefully vetted” conclusions which are “too complicated” for anyone but them to validate will be duly accepted by the FCC. Any public deliberation of the issue – inside the regulatory sphere or otherwise – will be garnish to provide the patina of due process to decisions that are being made now, to which all broadcasters and listeners should have a part.
Commissioner Pai’s call for an “AM Radio Revitalization Initiative” suggests the skids are already well-greased. The FCC’s role in crafting the future of AM is to get out of the way. Pai suggested the Initiative be guided by “one basic question: are there regulatory barriers we can remove to help this sector rebound?” Calls for the widespread dismantling of regulation is neoliberal code for “let the marketplace decide.” If Pai and the FCC continue to mistake their conception of “the marketplace” as representative of everyone affected by the future of AM, the outcome of this important process will be suboptimal to say the least.
The key to avoiding this outcome is transparency. The NAB should release its report and Pai should make sure future deliberations take into proper account of the perspectives of all constituencies, regardless of their political and economic weight in the discussion. Making good policy on the future of AM radio calls for no less.