Greasing the Skids for AM's Digital Transition

The National Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention just wrapped up in Las Vegas, and HD Radio proponents used the event to begin the push to make the AM dial all-digital.
At a panel on "AM Band Revitalization" moderated by Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai – the first Commissioner to moderate a panel at the NAB Show – CBS Radio Senior Vice President of Engineering Glynn Walden told attendees that there was no sustainable future for analog AM broadcasting and that the FCC should set a date for an "for a digital AM sunrise and for an analog AM sunset."
Walden has been one of the broadcast industry’s point-people on HD Radio from the very beginning. He helped develop the system’s core technical design and specifications, co-founded the company from which iBiquity Digital Corporation was born, and was instrumental in lobbying the FCC to approve HD as the U.S. digital radio standard. With three HD patents to his name, Walden would like nothing more than to see his baby actually fly after languishing all these years.
As Walden floated this notion, Commissioner Pai was taking notes.
The implications of this proposition resonate far beyond the AM dial: it is an audacious gamble to secure HD Radio a strong foundation on which to become the undisputed and permanent standard for all radio broadcasters. Between the AM and FM bands, AM has the fewest stations and suffers from the most technical and fiscal distress. Forcing all AM stations to go digital is being cast as a move to deal with a crisis – but the strategic significance of such a move will make it easier to force FM stations (of which there are more, and more money at stake) to adopt HD eventually.
This is how fundamental transformations to media policy are made. First, the proponents of change launch a test-balloon to see if the initial reaction is positive or negative. If positive, then research is conducted to justify the change (this has been dubbed "the creation of facts on the ground"), and in many cases where the impetus for change comes from industry this work is not peer-reviewed or independently verified. Then the formal process of crafting and implementing the new policy begins. Once step 3 is reached, the inertia for making the change is already well-established.
I’ve been covering the process of walking through steps 1 and 2 for the past year, and broadcast engineer Paul Thurst recently wrote an illuminating fourpart series about the NAB et al.’s creation of facts on the ground involving the all-digital AM-HD tests carried out so far (more are in the works).
Glynn Walden’s declaration that the FCC needs to make AM digital conversion mandatory means that step 3 will shortly begin. The fact that it happened during Commissioner Pai’s panel on "AM’s revitalization" at the broadcast industry’s largest gathering signals in no uncertain terms that the FCC will take such a proposal very seriously. And because regulators remain willfully ignorant about HD Radio’s inherent viability (coupled with the fact that they have a history of giving its proponents nearly everything they want), they are already predisposed to do the same here.
(By the way, this formula for change works across various media systems and policies: step 1 is currently underway on the notion of fundamentally revising copyright law.)
The kicker will be how HD Radio’s proponents address the proprietary nature of iBiquity’s system. When the FCC authorized HD’s rollout in 2002, it did not make radio’s digital transition mandatory for this very reason. "[T]he endorsement of [HD Radio] does not compel any broadcaster to initiate digital transmissions….Those broadcasters choosing not to initiate such digital operations will not be materially affected," claimed the Commission back then.
In 2007, the FCC reaffirmed this stance. "Commenters generally support a marketplace transition to digital audio broadcasting," said the agency. "Stations may decide if, and when, they will provide digital service to the public….Moreover, there is no evidence in the record that marketplace forces cannot propel the [digital radio] conversion forward, and effective markets tend to provide better solutions than regulatory schemes.
"When [HD] receiver penetration has reached a critical mass and most, if not all, radio stations broadcast in a hybrid digital format, we will begin to explore the technical and policy issues germane to an all-digital radio environment."
Letting the marketplace decide digital radio’s fate explains the push to force the issue now, because the marketplace is not working in favor of HD proponents. Only 15% of all broadcast stations use HD (among AM stations, just 4% do, of which only 1% use the hybrid HD system 24 hours a day). Just 2% of U.S. radio receivers are HD-compatible. And HD broadcasts account for just 2% of all radio listening.
To fix this state of affairs, you force government intervention. In a U.S. media policy environment steeped in the tenets of neoliberalism, it reeks of hypocrisy. Start small, on the dial where it will involve the "least disruption" and the "most opportunity," and use that as precedent to mandate a wholesale conversion.
The FCC could make moves on this front by as early as next year, and if the impending AM campaign succeeds there’s no reason why a full-on digital radio transition deadline couldn’t be set before the end of the decade.
There are a lot of moving parts to this story. But the likelihood of meaningfully intervening in the process while there’s still time is short, and any meaningful intervention will require the work of a diverse constituency of independent broadcasters, honest broadcast engineers, and an activated public. The end game is all the marbles: will those who seek a better digital future for radio come out to play?

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