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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Should You Purchase An FM Translator?

(by Ed Ryan)
Chuck Anderson, from Anderson Associates, has been in the engineering business for 35 years. He's an allocations consultant, which means he improves and enhances coverage areas for FM full-power and FM translators and AM stations. On any given day, he's presented with the challenge to find a power increase for an FM station, to move an FM station to its population center to enhance its value and its audience, or to find a translator for an AM station. As you've been reading here over the past couple of years FM translators have become big business and a big part of how broadcasters either enhance their AM programming or add an HD channel. Do you know everything you need to know about translators? If not, you will after our conversation with Chuck Anderson.

I would imagine that, five years ago, there wasn?t even a need for that kind of specialty.
: The FM translator move really started with the application window in 2003. A lot of people had the foresight to see there would be some use for these FM translators. I would single out my good friend and client Bud Walters from Cromwell. He said, ?I think there will be a use for these,? and sure enough, through the NAB?s efforts, he authorized FM translators for AM stations, and that really opened up the whole field. Then the FCC decided to permit analog translators to rebroadcast HD-2 and HD-3 signals.

How hard is it to get a translator today, and are we anywhere close to running out of frequencies on FM to accommodate them?
: I?ve analyzed a few markets where there are as many as 12 to 15 frequencies that conceivably could be wedged in by using the right antenna and the right antenna site and being creative. In the larger markets, there are very few frequencies, if any, left. The frequency scarcity is increasing, but it?s a large-market phenomenon. In terms of existing FM translators, it is getting very difficult to find translators that can be purchased and moved. Occasionally you?ll find an FM translator in the market that can be purchased for use by an AM or an FM HD-2, but increasingly, we have to move them some distance. They are not where they need to be. Consequently, we introduced the Mattoon waiver, which is something Bud Walters and John Garziglia worked on. That gave us a lot more flexibility to move them, but, long story short, they are getting very scarce.

What is needed to help AM, right now and down the road?
: What we need now is for the FCC to open up an AM window for translators. The long-term future of AM is more than likely all-digital. The NAB?s testing has  demonstrated that it?s going to be a pretty viable product, especially in the larger markets; the receiver penetration is a long way off for all-digital AMs to be viable in a small market. The bridge for those AM stations to be viable and to continue to serve their communities, and to exist when all-digital becomes viable, is a translator. I think that is the primary short-term answer.

Are you seeing that the translators are actually leading to more listeners and increased revenue?
Yes. I don?t have specific numbers, but I have any number of clients who have indicated to me that it preserves listenership, expands listenership, and, in many if not most cases, it expands revenue. Many of my clients would give up AM before they would give up the FM translator.

If a reader didn?t know much about translators and had an AM where they needed to increase revenue, what would you say to them? How can they learn more?
What they should do is pay attention to the trades, like your magazine, because there are more articles now focusing on FM translators. Be very vigilant for the FCC?s AM translator window. In anticipation of that, they could get a consultant to work with them who looks at the market to identify frequencies. There are tools on the FCC website ? there is one called ?FM Query? that could be used for a crude frequency search. Eventually, they are going to need a consultant who specializes in this kind of allocations work.

Because they?ve become so popular, is the cost to purchase a translator becoming inflated?
I think the market is doing that. If you wait for the AM window and you file for a frequency, you don?t know whether you?re going to be in conflict with somebody else, and you don?t know what kind of flexibility the FCC is going to give you to resolve those conflicts. I?ve advised clients they can purchase a translator for a reasonable amount of money. Brokers are better equipped to answer the question on value, but I see them going anywhere from 25 to 30 cents a pop-count ? population coverage projected to be covered within the contour ? up to a dollar or more in a smaller market.

With all the years you?ve put into this business, how would you describe the perfect relationship between an engineer and the GM?
: I try to find a way to meet the objectives of the people within my work. If they have a coverage problem, it?s my job to try to solve it. If they want to enhance the value of their radio station in one way or the other, that is basically what we are in the business of doing. If they are trying to cure a coverage problem, that?s what allocations is about. Of course, in some cases, more so previously than now, they may want to try to put a new radio station into a community community, find a frequency, and get help through that process. It is very similar to being an attorney or a tax accountant. It is a problemsolving relationship.

What would you like to see the FCC do to help?
First of all, translators are no longer secondary services. I would suggest that if a translator is serving as a fill-in for an AM station or if it?s providing an analog product broadcast for an HD-2 or HD-3 service, it?s no longer a secondary service. We need some protection from interference coming from different points.
I?ve seen interference complaints that are frivolous; translators need protection from interference complaints that occur well beyond the protective contours of FM radio stations. That would be one thing I would like to see the commission do. And they have the opportunity to do that in this current AM-revitalization process. There are some processing things that could be done to increase the number of translators available. The IF spacing requirement that keeps many translators at 99 watts ? that?s antiquated. If that were to be lifted, all translators, with other things being equal, could be 250 watts. We should be allowed to make minor changes to a translator to any frequency in the commercial band. A full-powered radio station can go from 92.1 to 106.9 and jump all the way across the band as a ?minor change.? But the translator can only do plus or minus 1 2 3, or what?s called the IF jump plus or minus 53 or 54. In many cases, that prevents you from really being able to maximize the translator or move it to where it could be used by an AM station. We also need to retain the Mattoon waiver. It is a very useful tool and it has a very sound basis in allocations, in the sense that there is an overlap of contours analogous to full-power stations. It appears the commission is inclined to do away with it. It has been very useful to accommodate broadcasters, and it should be retained.

Is the Mattoon waiver really dead in the water?
: It?s kind of between the lines. It seems, in the AM-revitalization rulemaking, that it might be eliminated. Certainly there is an indication that they are going to review that. It has already been restricted to AM stations and only to what is called a ?hop,? a single hop from one point to the next for a translator. So the commission is already tightening the flexibility for moving these translators.

Are you impressed with the speed with which the commission is executing AM revitalization?
Anderson: I would hope that something would happen this year, as has essentially been promised. Initially, I thought it would happen sooner. I am impressed with the way the commission has processed the volume of FM translators. I?ve seen the same thing happen with the LPFMs; they processed an incredible number of complex translator applications involving the LPFM inclusion issues in a very short period of time. I?m hoping they will be able to do the same when the AM translator window opens. The other thing I hope is that when they open that translator window, they give us plenty of time to meet the demand. If they open a 30-day window, they will kill us.

Reach out to Anderson by e-mail at

(1/29/2015 11:30:13 PM)
"First of all, translators are no longer secondary services."

Not exactly correct. Section 5(3) of the Local Community Radio Act goes both ways.

(1/29/2015 11:47:03 AM)
Very good and creative engineer that has helped several clients optimize their signals and station values.
(1/29/2015 7:00:58 AM)
"...translators need protection from interference complaints that occur well beyond the protective contours of FM radio stations." The current rule, 74.1204(f), protects preexisting FM services that are providing a regularly used, off-the-air signal to "bonafide listeners" over a populated area. In most cases, especially for outdoor vehicle reception, signals as low as 48 or 54 dBu provide adequate service but are not "protected." Protecting bonafide listeners should remain the standard.

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