Last Bites of Translator Feast At Hand

The final element of a radio spectrum “land rush” that began more than a decade ago involving FM translator stations is upon us.
Translators exploded onto the scene as a way for broadcasters to gain new FM signals on the cheap back in 2003, when some clever religious broadcasters flooded a filing window which resulted in the tendering of thousands of translator-station construction permits. These folks inspired other spectrum-spectulators to jump in, sensing that this would be the last chance to colonize the FM dial in the United States. They all then sold the majority of these permits, for thousands to millions of dollars apiece.
These translators have been mostly utilized to give HD Radio-only programming (like that found on FM HD-2 and -3 subchannels) an analog presence, which some have likened to launching an entirely new station, and to allow AM stations a foothold on the FM dial. Since that first rush, the FCC’s opened multiple opportunities for broadcasters to purchase existing translator stations, most recently as part of FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s vaunted AM revitalization initiative.
According to Pai, during this initiative the FCC “received nearly 1,100 applications and granted almost 95% of those requests,” allowing some 20% of U.S. AM radio stations to develop a presence on FM as well. The practice has created a veritable sub-industry within broadcasting, netting tens of millions of dollars in translator-sales, while some broadcasters have utilized them to evade the FCC’s local media ownership caps, since translators are technically secondary broadcast services.
The last step in this feast is the first of two filing-windows for new translator construction permits, which commences on July 26; this is for the smallest of AM stations and will be followed a few months later with one last window for the most powerful stations. With most of the crumbs already sucked up, who knows what the asking-price for these construction permits are likely to be? We do know that in situations where there’s more than one applicant for a frequency, the winner will be decided by auction.
In the last 14 years, FM translators have become the largest segment of licensed broadcaster in the United States, achieving this distinction late last year after surpassing full-power commercial FM stations. As of the agency’s last count (March 31), there are 7,453 licensed FM translator and booster stations, representing 37% of all licensed FM signals in the United States. Nearly half of these took to the air in the last ten years; in contrast, there are 1,924 licensed LPFM stations, the product of two filing windows since 2000. Simply put, for every LPFM station that has been established in the last two decades, at least two translators have taken to the air.
In his report to shareholders this spring, Salem Media’s CEO, Ed Atzinger, noted that revenues were up and made a point to note the translator-expansion as a determinant factor – something Atzinger called “a very favorable situation that the FCC created.” Salem itself has scooped up “in excess of 30” translators, each built-out at the cost of about $60,000 (plus purchase of construction permit, ranging from $15-70,000). This allows Salem, who rounds out the Top 3 rightest-wing broadcast conglomerates in America (just behind FOX and Sinclair), to boast ownership of more than 100 radio stations for the first time in its 40+ year history.
The entire industry of speculation-via-translator can be mapped: all the transactions and figures are in an FCC database, but that’s some data journalism for which I’m not (yet) properly equipped. However, Atzinger’s ballpark-figures extrapolated to this market provide a glimpse. Since 2006 more than 3,400 FM translators have taken to the air. Putting the average sale of an FM translator license or construction permit at his low-end of $15K, that’s at least $51 million generated just from broadcast spectrum-speculation in the last decade; this actual number is likely to be much higher. Don’t forget to factor in the costs of actually building out the translator itself, which has undoubtedly generated millions to tens of millions of dollars for broadcast equipment-manufacturers and consulting engineers.
As the FM band has become incressingly crowded with new signals, a variety of parties are jockeying with the FCC to establish new interference criteria to accommodate them. Some broadcasters, including their lobbying group, the NAB, would like to see the same standard for addressing and remediating HD Radio-related interference concerns applied to questions of translator interference; this would dramatically raise the bar of proof to a point where it disincentivises complaining at all.
For all the stink licensed broadcasters generated about how onerous it would be to “shoehorn” in live-and-local low-power FM radio stations onto a “saturated” band, they’ve sure made out like bandits. It’ll be interesting to see what sorts of “innovation” occurs among communications lawyers and consulting engineers to wring the last cash they can out of what slivers of undeveloped FM spectrum remain.