AM Revitalization: First Translator Modification Window Up Next

Posted on December 1st, 2015 by

The FCC’s announcement last month of two 2016 opportunities for AM stations to acquire FM translators has set off an engineering and acquisition bonanza. Stations are carefully analyzing what vacant FM channels are available in their market, and then surveying the translator opportunities for 250 miles around their station to see if any translators are for sale

In the first window, which is set to open sometime in the first quarter of 2016 (rumor says February 1st), Class C and D AM stations will have six months to take advantage of the FCC’s temporary relaxation of its FM translator minor modification rules, allowing relocations up to 250 miles. AM stations can either be in the process of acquiring (or have already acquired) the translator they want to modify, or have an agreement to retransmit the translator licensee’s signal.

In case you were thinking that the window would simply open one day in the first quarter of 2016, without a prior announcement, you can put that thought aside. The FCC staff has indicated (informally) that a public notice will be issued well in advance of the filing window opening so that all are aware and can be prepared. Something tells us (or maybe a FCC staffer whispered it) that the public notice will come in December 2015, so keep your eyes peeled.

While these windows will present opportunities, there are a slew of “buyer beware” items for the prudent AM station owner. First, stations get only one shot at one of these 250 mile translator modification applications, whether they are successful or not. So before hitting the “file” button, stations should have a good understanding of their chances for success.

Those chances will turn on the number of eligible stations and vacant FM channels in a station’s market. In addition, your chances at a FM translator could turn on the FCC’s “first-come, first-served” treatment of translator modification applications filing in the window. Yes, that’s right. For ease of administration, a properly filed mod application will “cut off” all other applications filed later. But here’s the catch. This is not an hour-by-hour first-filed determination. Applications filed throughout the 24-hour period of a day will all be considered to have been filed on the same day.

What does that mean? Well, in congested markets where few vacant FM channels are available, applicants specifying the same channel that file on the same day will end up being mutually exclusive, requiring the applicants to file technical amendments (if possible) so their application can be granted. The amendment process will be up to the applicants, as the FCC will not be announcing who is mutually exclusive or setting up deadlines for amendments to be filed. And the dynamic could change daily as applicants will be able to file multiple minor modification amendments to secure a grantable application, with a rolling “first-come, first-served” dynamic controlling.

Obviously, in markets with ample vacant FM channels or very few Class C or D AM stations, the first-come, first-served methodology will be much easier to apply. So get thee to a qualified consulting engineer if you’ve not gotten one yet, and study your particular station’s situation.

There are more chances at translators besides the first 6 month window. A second, 3-month long filing period will immediately follow the first one with all classes of AM stations (except for those who filed in the first window) eligible to participate. And if you haven’t filed in either of those 2016 filing windows, you’ll be eligible to file in an auction window for new FM translators (assuming vacant FM channels are still available) to be opened sometime in 2017.

Yes, our heads hurt too. But remember, if you prefer the old fashioned way, and there is a translator near enough for sale, you can still acquire and file minor modifications under the 3 channels up, 3 channels down minor mod rules.