FCC proposes altering rules to give boost to struggling AM radio

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Posted: Sunday, November 3, 2013 12:00 am

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission, seeking to revive the sagging fortunes of AM radio, has proposed removing or updating regulations that station owners believe have left many AM channels on the precipice of death.

The commission announced last week that it would begin seeking public comment, which is required before it adopts its final rules, on numerous changes.

The proposed changes, supporters say, could salvage a technology that once led Americans to huddle around their radios for fireside chats and World Series broadcasts, but which has been abandoned for the superior sound of digital and online music and news outlets.

Because of interference caused by consumer electronics, smartphones and the like, AM radio often seems to deliver mostly static. The AM audience has fallen to 15 percent of all radio listeners, down from 50 percent as recently as 1978.

Though the FM audience has declined as well, it draws more than five times the AM audience.

The revival of AM has been a priority of Commissioner Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the FCC. While acknowledging that the proposals “will not be an immediate panacea for the difficulties facing the AM band,” Pai said he believed they could make “a substantial positive difference to numerous AM stations.”

Normally the FCC tries not to indicate which way it is leaning when it puts out new rules for public comment, but in this case the new proposal indicates that the agency is prepared to take several concrete steps.

Among them is eliminating a regulation requiring stations to prove that any new equipment decreases interference with other stations — a requirement that is expensive, cumbersome and difficult to meet.

The FCC has also proposed eliminating or loosening rules that govern nighttime transmission by AM stations. Those regulations require many AM stations to reduce their power or cease operating at night to avoid interference with other stations.

AM radio signals travel as ground waves during sunlight hours. But once the sun goes down, the same signals bounce off the ionosphere and back to Earth, often hundreds of miles from where they were broadcast, and that can cause interference with other stations. That is also why travelers crossing the Arizona desert at night might pick up the transmissions of, for example, a Chicago AM station.

The proposed rules, the commission said, aim at keeping more stations on the air at night.

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