Translators Now Constitute the Largest Number of U.S. Radio Stations

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.
FCC Broadcast Station Totals, 1992-2016
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.
The last FCC station-census (talllied September 30, 2016; all yearly figures in the chart draw from the September count) shows there are 6,962 translators and boosters (29% of all stations); this overtakes the prior #1 license class, FM Commercial (6,737, or 28%). You can see two significant increases in translator-numbers: one happened in the middle of last decade as a flood of new translators were unleashed by spectrum-speculation, while the other jump is directly due to the “resounding success” of bringing AM broadasters into this dubious market.
AM stations count for the third-largest slug of licensed stations (4,671, or 19%), though they could be overtaken in the near future by the number of noncommercial FM stations (4,100, or 17%). This crossing-of-lines is likely to occur not because of substantial growth in non-com FM stations, but rather as AM stations wither and die on the vine – especially as many are already thinking about turning off their AM signals and placing all their stakes on their new FM translator properties.
If, down the road, the FCC does decide to “reclassify” FM translators as primary stations, the vast majority of those will fall into the commercial FM column, allowing that station-class to regain its place of primacy by definitional assimilation.
Meanwhile, low-power FM (LPFM) stations have also experienced a bump, up to 1,609…but that represents just 7% of all licensed radio stations in the country. Furthermore, that percentage will slip as the proportion of translators continues to grow, lest we forget that the FCC is planning a filing window next year for new translators…while no such new window is on-deck for LPFMs.
Interestingly, growth-curves for both LPFMs and translators dovetail quite nicely from 2014 onward, with each class picking up nearly 800 new stations, though at present translators outnunber LPFMs by more than four-to-one. We can expect that ratio to increase after the 2017-grab for even more translators.
The developmental trajectory of U.S. broadcast radio spectrum is thus more clear now than it was three years ago: FM will be the ultimate end-state of radio in this country, the dial jam-packed by relative pipsqueak-signals, many of whom used to be full-power broadcasters on another band, while many more simulcast digital adjunct-programs that very few listen to in their original format. A service initially designed by policy as secondary has achieved primacy. The live-and-local, community service-based stations that LPFMs hope to be are sadly marginalized by dint of the flood of other station-classes that have eaten FM’s lunch.