NAB Plots Future of AM Broadcasting

Radio World recently published a long Q&A-style feature with Caroline Beasley, Executive Vice President of the Beasley Broadcast Group. A family affair, Beasley owns more than 40 stations in 11 markets around the country.
Among the many topics covered in the conversation, Beasley revealed that the National Association of Broadcasters has been quietly working on an engineering study that “outlines a number of different options regarding the future of the AM band.”
We have formed an AM Task Force that will be reviewing this study, along with the Radio Technology Committee. That committee is made up of engineers from the various groups around the country. So the AM Task Force, along with the Radio Technology Committee, will review the study and then report back…with the options that they feel that we should go with regard[ing] AM.
No mentions of an “AM Task Force” or “Radio Technology Committee” are found on the NAB website. So just what sort of “options” are the trade group considering for the future of AM broadcasting? “It’s a confidential study,” Beasley replied. “We know that there‚Äôs concern about the viability and the future of AM so we want to be proactive here.”
It is not too difficult to read between the lines. AM broadcasting has been in a state of deterioration for the last two decades. The proliferation of electronic devices that produce interference to AM broadcast signals, coupled with a decline in the number of broadcast engineers employed to properly maintain them, has placed many smaller AM broadcasters into a category euphemistically referred to in station clusters as “loss leaders.”
A good place to start any speculation might be the Broadcast Maximization Committee. Founded in 2008, the BMC is “a group of consulting engineers and broadcast industry representatives” which initially formed to address an FCC proposal to repurpose “vacant spectrum left over after the DTV transition.”
The BMC’s main proposal would do away with the AM band entirely, migrating existing broadcasters to what used to be TV Channels 5 and 6 (76-88 MHz, which is directly adjacent to the bottom end of the current FM dial). The Committee also suggests moving the entire LPFM service into this spectrum. For the last three years, the BMC’s been quietly advocating for its proposal at the FCC.
It is a radical idea, but certainly not impossible: other countries, such as Japan, already include this spectrum in their FM dial, and Mexico is currently in the process of migrating its AM broadcasters to FM. Furthermore, the BMC concept already has traction in Policyville: in 2009, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and National Public Radio strongly endorsed the concept.
Another (much less likely) “option” for the AM band might be digital conversion. AM broadcasters have had significant difficulties with the implementation of HD Radio technology. The hybrid analog/digital system causes widespread interference to neighboring stations; HD signals are notoriously sensitive to natural noise found in the AM band; and the audio and datacasting quality of HD is negligible. These problems are behind the gradual abandonment of the protocol as currently implemented.
The desired end-state of HD Radio is an all-digital service. Many broadcasters (including some that own the most powerful AM stations in the country) seem to have already written off the future viability of the band, and might be willing to gamble on such a transition. However, such a move would require significant capital investments by broadcasters (that they can’t afford to make presently), and the FCC’s already elected not to force adoption of HD Radio given its proprietary nature.
This is often how major communications policies are made: powerful incumbents plan their course of action in secret, then blitz regulators with tons of information that frames their desires in the most palatable light. But when the future of an entire broadcast service may be up for grabs, such deliberations deserve the light of day – not to mention wider participation by all affected constituencies, most notably the public, to whom the airwaves ostensibly belong.
The NAB’s acknowledged that its studies project only five to ten years ahead, so the “future of AM’ may be closer than we realize.