Clear Channel Rethink

20 Aug

Thirty years or so ago the term ‘clear channel’ had a somewhat different meaning than it has today.

You were in special company as part of the ‘clear channel’ club.

These were the ‘power house’ stations like WGN, WBZ, WLW, WABC, and KFI.

All were 50KW non directional stations day AND night.

They were virtually alone on their frequencies often covering up to thirty eight states with skywave.

Sometime in the 80s a move was made to break down the clears.

One by one stations were added to the clear channel frequencies cutting down on their skywave coverage.

The thinking was these powerful metropolitan stations could not serve smaller towns as well as a local service on the same frequency.

Many strange combinations of power and directional patterns were used to put new stations on the air.

In the end the AM band became a jumbled mess.

Today there are AM stations operating with as many as eleven towers that have difficulty being heard in their city of license.

Power levels can be as low two or three watts.

Who does all this serve?

Looking at ratings in most cities. Hardly anybody.

If AM has become a money loser and many of the cities have outgrown the AM signal coverage, rethinking it is long overdue.

These days other than IBOC, it’s rare to hear anyone suggest ways to improve AM service.

OK, so I’ll make some suggestions.

It’s my blog, all they can tell me is NO!

So here goes.

Instead of cutting power back, adding towers and adding more stations the FCC should consider the following;

  • Cut back on the total number of stations, way back!
  • Raise power significantly on remaining stations
  • Make all or most non-directional.

Most importantly bring back the clears!

Make them very high power, highly desirable properties with outstanding coverage. Their assignment should be based on population needs of the United States in 2008 and beyond.

Remember, AM signals don’t cover like they did in the 1930s when the original 50KW stations were assigned. There is far more interference from lights, electronics and other stuff that limit radio signals.

Cities exist in southern locales where only small towns could before air conditioning. A disproportionate number of 50KW stations are in the north.

Assign a special class license to these stations.

  • Require a commitment to news and service.
  • Locally targeted programming, limiting amount of network programming used – careful this is not about government dictating content in any way.
  • A detailed emergency plan for storms, disasters, terrorism.
  • Make them a hub to feed other AM and FM stations during emergency programming.
  • Provide special assistance such as grants to fund back up transmitters, generators and studios, to make sure they stay on the air in times of trouble.
  • Have each station strategically placed around the country to guarantee 100% coverage of the US by at least one of the signals both day and night.
  • Give them high power of 100 KW or more, possibly as much as 250KW
  • Allow only one station per channel, a true clear channel.
  • Give each clear channel station a full market FM signal to simulcast 24/7, most listening and a younger audience is on FM.
  • Guard the transmitter sites like during World War II to protect them for national defense.
  • Tie them into all promotion with NOAA, FEMA and other agencies as the source for up to the minute emergency information so the public knows where to go all of the time.
  • Turn off the IBOC noise.
  • These are NOT government stations to be managed and ruled by politicians, they are important sources of information and service like under the FCC rules pre-1996 run by independent broadcasters.
  • Make it a competitive process. Don’t hand the licenses out like candy or because an owner has a former clear channel signal now. If you want it, prove you deserve it. This ain’t your garden variety radio station we’re talking about here.

Will high power and a free FM station give these stations an unfair advantage?

Hopefully, it does.

If your company is willing to step up and do it right, you should get some breaks.

Only serious broadcasters need apply.

That should get the debate started.

Now it’s your turn.


Posted by on August 20, 2008 in Radio programming


Tags: , , , , , , ,

5 responses to “Clear Channel Rethink

  1. Mike Carr

    August 21, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Amen. Great minds think alike.

    A plan like this might require changes to the Havana Treaty and that would mean talking to Cuba (heaven forfend!).

    I also would have liked to have seen the FM band expanded to include VHF TV channels five and six (when analog TV shuts down). This would have made up for the loss of local signals by switching AM to a smaller set of regional superstations. But, as always, the NAB lobbyists only work to preserve the status quo and the entrenched interests of the mega-owners.

    Yes, let’s bring back pre-66 rules for all of radio. Radio made money then and was worth listening to.

  2. Dodge City (Ks) Community College Broadcasting

    August 21, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    KDCC is a 1kW daytimer owned by the local Community College and I have tried to get FEMA/DHS to look at funding it to operate during local emergencies AND to rebuild the Gates BC1T that’s currently idle.

    I sent the following to the FEMA boss currently overseeing the Greensburg tornado job.

    The attached audio file is a sound-bite from the House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee Meeting last July 10. In part, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) asks Dr. William Graham about communications between people offering the example of HAM Radio Operators utilization of vacuum tube equipment. Link to video file:

    Mr. Bartlett failed to mention the possibility of identifying (and utilizing) the few remaining commercial AM Broadcast (vacuum tube) facilities that can become operational with pre-planning and funding. AM is unique in the fact that receivers can be built that require no electricity to operate. A detector (diode or quartz crystal), copper wire (to make a coil and the antenna) and dynamic headphones are all that’s absolutely necessary. It can be up-hardwared, though.

    KDCC 1550 AM (GoogleEarth 37* 47′ 11.4′ N X 100* 01′ 57′ W) is owned and licensed to the Dodge City Community College. Additionally, K0NQ 91.9 FM is onboard. We still have a 1960’s vintage Gates BC1T 1,000 Watt AM transmitter in-house that can be rebuilt and pressed into service in the event of a man-made disaster like an EMP laydown.

    Man-made disasters aside, this facility is unique in its potential to provide emergency communications relative to natural disasters. Let’s look at what makes us unique:

    * Completely self-contained. One power source will maintain operations.
    * Existing water well. Municipal water is not necessary.
    * Septic system. Municipal waste system is not necessary.
    * Ample land. Additional mobile facilities could utilize the local infrastructure.

    James, that’s us in a nutshell. If DHS has a list of AM/FM broadcasting facilities with the potential of becoming a Emergency Broadcast Centers, then feel free to add us to it and take your own inventory of what we have and what we need to become 99.9% reliable.

    Stop in the next time you’re in Dodge City.


    Tom Zachman
    Dodge City Community College
    3004 North Fourteenth.

    To which he replied:

    Good Morning Tom,

    I received a reply back from my Region concerning your email.

    The word from the Regional Office is that if you are offering the use of your facility the steps to follow will be for you to contact your County Emergency Manager and discuss this with him. The County EM would then contact the State Office of Emergency Management. If the County and State showed interest in utilizing your facility they would add it to their list of facilities that may be made available to Federal Agencies for future disaster needs.

    The Federal Government can not initiate this action. I hope this helps you out.


    Jim Yost


    DHOPS Chief


    What’s really happening is that DHS/FEMA is buying high tech toys for local emergency agencies and they really are NOT INTERESTED in AM stations.

    In the event of an EMP laydown, DHS/FEMA folks will be digging latrines for their own families and not able to provide any assistance beyond their personal needs.

    I don’t fear EMP. I just understand the implications.

  3. John Hendricks

    August 21, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Your points are very well taken…I’d take it one step farther:
    When we were sold on “De-Regulation” or “Re-Regulation”, we were told “Let The Marketplace Decide”. BUT…
    when the marketplace “decided”, we did things to try to change that decision. Our Bad!
    The FCC–using Docket 80-90, added thousands of FM stations at about the same time as it started popluating the clears. The result: we overloaded the marketplace…leaving it to the “marketplace to decide” who would survive. Then, insteam of allowing the “non-survivors” (daytime AMs, FM’s that covered nobody, signals that when nowhere), we did Consolidation…ANYTHING to keep the marketplace from deciding we had too many stations!!!
    Well, look at the mess we have now! There is absolutely NO WAY that upwards of 20,000 radio stations can survive–and the consolidators are going down in flames trying to make that happen.
    Let ’em Go!
    The first thing the FCC should do is allow tax certificates for companies that voluntarily “turn in their tickets” and pledge not to allow those licenses to pop up anywhere else. Eventually, these “losers” will naturally clear out the AM band.
    Then, take stock in the remaining AM’s and the total spectrum and re-distribute those stations to the spectrum’s best advantage.
    And finally, take the entire AM band digital. Without nightime interference, HD-AM will make the AM frequencies competitive again and restore the services that have been lost.

  4. Ted Alexander

    August 21, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Hello Allan,

    I agree in principle with most of your suggestions about bringing AM into the 21st century.

    Just a few ideas here, rather than a long dissertation or diatribe:

    1. The FCC should be allowing INCREASES of power rather than requiring a “Ratchet” back of power on AM facilities changes.
    2. Real world interference is much different now than when it was in the 1930’s. As a start, all stations that have a Pre-sunrise realistic power level assignment (at least 500 watts), should be able to leave that power on at night. In morning drive, no one complains about the interference levels from the pre-sunrise stations, so why not leave the nighttime power level at at least 500 watts?
    3. If a station makes a commitment to local programming, give them a higher priority for a power increase.
    4. Allow relatively simple directional patterns for stations to “ram a signal” into their market, and keep from interfering into another market 400 miles away.
    5. Require the “super power” stations at 50kw to serve areas well outside their market areas, as a privilege of having the high power level.
    6. Do digital radio right. Assign new frequencies for every AM and FM analog station, and “so what” if the playing field levels out a bit among the 50kw’s and the 250 watt suburban signals. We’re talking about survival of terrestrial signals here. We do not need a “divide and conquer” attitude.

    Strong LOCAL AM signals, free of the HD garbage, and also free to supply 15 kHz audio, can help AM survive for many years yet. The AM band is unique, not the least of which is the dramatic differences between daytime and nighttime propagation. Lets leave it analog, and encourage receiver manufacturers to develop the DSP circuits which could drastically improve reception. And give AMs enough power to blast through the man-made noise that plagues many receiving locations.

    One more thought, have the FCC require that all electrical and electronic devices completely suppress the interference that many of them produce, such as plasma TV sets, lamp dimmers, and cheap compoct fluorescent lights, among others.

    Ted Alexander

  5. Laurence Glavin

    August 21, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    WBZ-AM, Boston is NOT non-directional…it operates a two-tower array on a peninsula southeast of Boston, in the town of Hull, MA (about 45 miles from my home). According to FCC records, WWL-AM in New Orleans also uses a directional antenna for the same reason WBZ does: the “major lobe” of a directional pattern yields a stronger signal from the transmitter than an non-directional antenna does. Since WBZ-AM and WWL-AM are both coastal outlets, they use such facilities rather than waste valuable wattage over the ocean. (In the case of WBZ, this does result in diminished coverage of Cape cod, but Metro Boston is where the money is.)


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