This series originally appeared in Radio World, the Newspaper for Radio Managers & Engineers
This is the last in a six-part series of articles about the history of clear-channel radio stations in the United States. The previous part appeared Sept. 27.
When we left our clear-channel story, it seemed obvious the proponents of AM super-power were going to be left out in the cold, and the remaining 1-A channels were going to be duplicated. But the game wasn’t over just yet. The FCC was determined to provide nighttime radio service to under-served “white areas”. Because the so-called “monopoly enjoyed by the AM giants” was a politically-popular target, the unduplicated 1-A clear channels were the obvious hunting ground for new spectrum. As they went on the defensive in the 1970’s, the clear-channel broadcasters pulled out all the stops in an “educational” campaign. The message was that duplicating signals on the clears was a nasty business, because it such duplication “would destroy badly-needed radio service.”
WSM launched its famous “Save the Grand Ole Opry” campaign early in 1979 and organized “Friends of the Grand Ole Opry.” It encouraged listeners to write to their representatives and to the FCC, to protest what the group called “the gravest threat to the Grand Ole Opry in its history.” Some stations even tried an end-run of sorts, writing to their ally Robert E. Lee, who at this point was chairman of the U.S. delegation to Rio, asking that he protect their 1-A frequencies for U.S. super-power operation in the upcoming World Administrative Radio Conference inventory.
In the 1975 docket, the FCC asked whether 1-A stations would apply for increased power if available. Most respondents told the FCC they would apply for extended power, ranging from 100 kW to 500 kW, and many said they would use directional antennas. The Clear Channel Broadcasting Service also proposed that, if granted higher power levels, their members would control adjacent-channel interference by employing 5 kHz low-pass audio filters. Now where have we heard that recently?
Once again the gentlemen from the Hill got involved. Reps. Findley and Van Deerlin proposed that priority should henceforth be given to local service, and that “no U.S. AM operation should be authorized more than 50 kW.” Findley, advised by the Daytime Broadcasters Association, actually said on the floor of the House that “virtually no one listens to the night-time sky-wave signals of clear-channel stations,” and therefore “Daytimers should not have to sign off at sundown to protect them.” As the record grew, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making at the end of 1978. Judging by the progressive language and the public comments of the commissioners, it was obvious they were headed toward a final breakup of the clears.
The last word
In what would be the coup de grace of a 50-year fight, the FCC issued the 1980 Report and Order that assigned a second high-power station on each of the 12 remaining unduplicated 1-A channels. It also affirmed the protected service contour for the primary station to be the 50/50, 0.5 mV/m sky-wave contour (in the real world, about a 750-mile radius). More than 100 new secondary stations would be authorized on those 12 1-A clear channels. The original power limit of 50 kW for the 1-A primary stations was cast in stone, thus ending super-power hopes and leaving WLW as the only station in the country ever to operate formally with more than 50 kW.
Summarizing the inquiries it published in the late 1970s, the FCC noted it had asked whether any 1-A stations would apply for super-power, and reported that WHO, WBAP, WJR, WWL, WCCO, WSM and KSL had proposed various power levels from 200 kW to 500 kW. WCCO had proposed 450 kW, and associated this with a proposal that all 1-A stations be permitted to go up in power “to a level nine times their present power ceilings.” (sic)
The commissioners dismissed these applications, announcing that they were inaccurate in representing gains in listenership, and they said the applicants didn’t provide a plan for the resolution of expected interference problems.
So that was that. Nighttime radio would never be the same.
In many cases, the new Class II stations, at least at first, did serve the public interest in fulfilling some of the white-area coverage expectations of the Report and Order. That would not have been the case if the commissioners had listened to the Daytime Broadcasters. The FCC charitably dismissed as “impractical” a poorly-advised proposal by the DBA to double-up certain 1-A stations onto other Class 1-A channels, thus freeing up a number of clears and adding as many as 2,000 new stations to the channels thus vacated. Imagine what that would have sounded like!
In closing this decades-long proceeding, the commission reiterated its 1927 criteria for allocations (which hadn’t been updated to acknowledge FM service).
The famous “Three-Legged Stool” criteria:
The 1980 o Order reflects to some degree the changes in the broadcast industry but, at the same time, the FCC was still welded to the concept that AM was the only effective night-time radio service. Curiously, this “AM-only” reasoning was written by the same FCC staff that was concurrently drafting FM Docket 80-90. This leads one to speculate on the real reasons for the final orders. As with many other allocation decisions by the FCC, the breakdown of the clears was done in large part “in the name of diversity.” The FCC was soon to define “minority-owned” operations, and they suggested the clear-channel breakup and “future expansion dockets” would solve the dilemma of minority access to broadcast outlets.
In explaining the duplication of the remaining clears, the FCC said the “rising demand for services” could be met by “other proposed changes”, but also argued that “they just didn’t have time to wait.” The “other proposed changes” would include not only 80-90 waiting in the wings, but also the Expanded Band proceeding and an NTIA initiative to put the Western Hemisphere on 9 khz spacing. And in a matter of months, the FCC would consider expanding the hours of the Daytimers.
Are we better off?
In reviewing the disposition of the “Clear-Channel Matter” we need to pose some questions: Did the FCC solution actually provide better nighttime radio service, or did existing and planned FM coverage make the issue irrelevant, even as the Final Report and Order was being written? Or should the FCC have adopted the original super-power plan to deliver “at least four dependable sky-wave services available to everyone?” It’s tempting to speculate, and hindsight is wonderful, especially in view of the potential impact of new satellite-delivered “national radio services.”
Clearly, under the FCC’s “Three-Legged Stool” criteria, the concept of super-power on a few stations never had “legs.” But did the FCC’s actions promote diversity? Given what most of those secondary radio stations are doing today, we would leave that to their listeners to decide.
So what was it all about? The “Clear-Channel Matter” may have been a story of a few “haves” vs. a greater number of “have-nots.” If that was the case, it would be tempting to view those AM giants as victims. But the argument might be made that some 1-A stations abdicated their protection, by pulling back their former wide-area service, concentrating instead on their ratings-defined “metro areas”. I would suggest that while some stations might plead guilty to that strategy, others continue to this day to be attuned to the needs of their extended service areas. And that’s what makes this next question so interesting: What will happen when the AM’s adopt a digital system that’s “designed to match the ground-wave coverage and to throw away the sky wave”? At that point, should the 1-A stations be given identical day and night protection, matching their demonstrated ground-wave coverage? What an interesting business. Stay tuned for further developments!
Mark Durenberger is general manager of Group W Network Services in Minneapolis and an occasional RW contributor. He welcomes questions and comments about this series via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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