Small low-power AM radio stations across the country may be in for a big boost. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed regulations last month to increase the power of more local stations while scaling back some of the interference protections currently enjoyed by the 57 Class A 50,000 watt stations which dominate the nation’s AM dial.
At present, small AM stations are obligated to limit their signal strength at certain times to avoid encroaching on Class A stations’ service. This allows Class A stations to span thousands of miles across the country, especially at night. But the FCC questions whether such protections are still relevant in the digital age as an increasing number of Americans who listen to the radio do so through the Internet or satellite radio.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 44% of cellphone owners in the U.S. streamed radio stations through their phones while driving in 2018 as opposed to just 6% in 2010. Further, the study revealed podcast listenership has increased dramatically over the last decade from 18% in 2008 to 44% in 2018. With respect to satellite radio, over 33 million Americans currently subscribe to Sirius XM Radio according to a study conducted by Statistica. However, the Pew study indicated 90% of Americans aged 12 and older listen to terrestrial AM or FM radio broadcasts in a given week, suggesting traditional radio remains alive and well.
Critics of the FCC’s proposal claim increased interference from small stations will significantly hamper the signals for the nation’s most popular broadcasts, causing AM listenership to drop. Additionally, they contend that signal interference may reduce the effectiveness of Class A stations’ emergency broadcast systems, which depend on uninterrupted service. Conversely, supporters of the new regulations say these concerns are overblown and the AM dial could benefit greatly by the increased viability of diverse and community-centered regional radio.
Public comments on the proposed regulations are due in December. The FCC will then have thirty days to consider this feedback and issue a reply.