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. Continue reading “Last Bites of Translator Feast At Hand”
Revisiting a subject from three years ago: the health of U.S. radio by the FCC’s broadcast station totals. Published quarterly, these figures over time show the relative growth of station-classes, and trends especially over the last couple of years are quite eye-opening.
What sparked my interest was a celebratory missive from FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake released last week. Having completed two filing-windows this year allowing AM radio stations to acquire FM translators, Lake says they’ve been a “resounding success” – nearly 1,100 translators changed hands, and the FCC has already signed off on the vast majority of these deals.
The chart above tells the tale, tracking station-counts over the last 25 years. As of this year, FM translator and booster stations now comprise the largest segment of licensed radio stations in the country, both in raw numbers and percentage. Continue reading “Translators Now Constitute the Largest Number of U.S. Radio Stations”
It’s still more than two months away, but in late November Americans will sit down with their families/friends and gorge themselves on food, then satedly lounge around giving thanks for their bounty. The U.S. radio industry’s going through that process presently, having spent most of the year scarfing up and then trading around FM translator stations.
In quick summary: FM translators are a class of radio station limited to a broadcast power of 250 watts but unlimited in antenna height (the key factor for good FM coverage). They are considered secondary services, in that they must rebroadcast another radio station. For decades, translators have been used as stand-in broadcast nodes by interests who wanted to build out radio networks on the cheap — by and large, these have been religious and public broadcasters who pipe in programming via satellite to air on a translator. Translators don’t require any staff and since they don’t originate their own programming all they need is a shack for the RF-boxes and a tower nearby.
This all began to change last decade when, after a multi-year freeze on new translator stations in order to implement the LPFM radio service, the FCC opened a filing window for new translators in 2003. Several cunning parties were well-prepared for this opportunity, flooding the agency with tens of thousands of translator applications — a 250-watt FM spectrum gold rush. Out of these came thousands of new translator stations, which in the intervening years have been fodder for speculative development of the FM dial around the country. Continue reading “Thanks to Translator-Mongering, AM Broadcasters Now Openly Advocating Band's Abandonment”
On Friday, the FCC opened a six-month filing window for AM broadcasters to acquire existing FM translators, and move them up to 250 miles into their local coverage areas. This is part of the agency’s AM revitalization initiative — though it’s still not exactly clear how FM spectrum fixes AM’s fundamental difficulties.
This window is exclusive to lower-power AM broadcasters; the large “flamethrower” stations will get a crack at the translator shuffle later this summer, and then the FCC plans to open an application window for new translator stations next year. The marketplace for translators, which has been simmering mightily underground for nearly a decade, has fully burst into the mainstream with the FCC’s blessing. Continue reading “Window Brings Surge of Translator Deals”
For the last dozen years, a vibrant marketplace has been brewing in the speculation and sale of FM spectrum through the acquisition of translators. FM translator stations have historically been low-power repeater stations that serve to supplement the coverage area of a full-power parent station. Today, translators often operate as wholly stand-alone operations; while they are still fed programming from a parent-station, that parent can be in a completely different market, or running a completely different format on its full-power analog frequency.
The evolution of translators from a secondary to a quasi-primary service has exploded the asking price of translators in markets large and small. The majority of translators (built or unbuilt, with just an FCC construction-permit in hand) regularly sell for five to six figures, and in major markets they can fetch millions of dollars. Translator prices only seem to increase as the amount of fallow FM spectrum in any given market gets more scarce. Continue reading “eBay for Translators Has Limited Launch”
At the close of business last Friday, and with little fanfare, the FCC released its first AM revitalization Report and Order. This rulemaking began two years ago and the most significant outcomes have little to do with the AM band itself.
Comparing the FCC’s proposed rulemaking to the R&O shows that most of the agency’s initial proposals will be enacted. This includes things like allowing for more flexbility on interference calculations and protections, antenna siting and design, the option to use analog transmission protocols that are more energy-efficent, and increased utilization of AM’s expanded band channels. But the meat of the R&O involvews developments regarding the FM band and the utter lack of comment on a digital strategy for AM. Continue reading “AM Revitalization Order Released”
When the FCC announced the creation of an “AM Revitalization Initiative” in 2013, the proposal included a grab-bag of industry desires, such as the right for AM stations to utilize FM translators and for AM stations to move from hybrid analog/digital broadcasting to the all-digital AM-HD protocol. But to the consternation of industry lobbyists and HD-backers there’s been no movement on this initiative — so now they’re beginning to whine about it.
Case in point is a commentary published in late June by Frank Montero, an attorney at D.C. communications law powerhouse Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, which laments that AM broadcasters are being held hostage without access to FM translators and accuses the FCC of playing political football with the future of AM itself. It’s full of questionable assertions and revisionist history. Continue reading “AM Broadcasters Still Seek Translators, Digital Authorization”
While moving my site over to the WordPress platform, I had several trips down memory lane regarding past stories I’ve told. One of them, published 10 years ago this month, broke down just how lucrative it is to run a religious broadcast syndicate.
Back then, the explosion in FM translators was a relatively new development, and the millions of dollars harvested unethically from the public airwaves was yet but a pipe dream in many minds.
Even so, in 2004 salaries for religious broadcast executives were pretty damn lucrative, ranging from $117,000 to $250,000 per year. How have those numbers changed over the course of a decade, with the windfall of FM translators extending their business-models? Turns out it’s been a rocket ride (data courtesy of Charity Navigator). Continue reading “Religious Broadcast Executive Pay: 10 Years Later”
Eleven years ago, one wily guy made a spectrum-grab on the FM dial of unprecedented proportions. Using a custom program and a bank of computers, Clark Parrish filed for more than 4,000 FM translator construction permits during a short application window for translators in 2003.
Operating under two corporate identities, Edgewater Broadcasting and Radio Assist Ministry, Parrish put the permits on the market. In fact, his gambit created an entirely new market for FM translator stations. Over the last decade, that’s netted RAM/EB and other religious broadcasters who got in on the game millons of dollars from hundreds of sales, many involving the nation’s largest broadcasters, who deploy FM translators as automated outlets typically fed by out-of-market or HD2/3 programming. Since translator stations are considered a secondary broadcast service, they don’t count against the FCC’s radio ownership caps. Continue reading “Translator-mongers Brag About Gaming System”
The Columbia Journalism Review has just published “Out of Thin Air,” which is without a doubt the most comprehensive treatment done by a mainstream media outlet to date on the on the speculation and trafficking of FM translator stations. The 3,600-word piece does an admirable job of unpacking some of the technically-challenging aspects of this complicated story.
However, it is not without its share of mistakes, some of which are big enough to somewhat obscure the real nature of the story at hand. Continue reading “CJR On Godcasting Invasion”