Do It Yourself Monopoly

John Anderson posted the following piece on his blog about the slipshod fashion in which the FCC is going about its business, allowing the corporate giants in radioland to do an end run around its regulations governing the number of radio stations any one company can own in a given area. The big surprise is that the governmental watchdog managed to stir from its stupor to act on a complaint — after three years of allowing the practice without as much as a sniff in that direction.

FM Translator Abuse Creates Ownership Loophole
Nearly a year ago it came to light that radio broadcasters were using FM translator stations as a sort of “back door” to provide more exposure for their HD Radio signals.

Ironically, these translators do not broadcast in digital; rather, many HD-capable radio stations are rebroadcasting their digital-only (“multicast”) programming via analog translator as a way to recoup their investment in a technology which has no meaningful audience.

Some radio conglomerates have purchased or signed lease agreements with FM translator owners to create ostensibly “new” stations in markets around the country in this manner. The practice has caused difficulty for independent broadcasters.

Recently, Clear Channel signed a lease agreement with a translator-owner in New York City to rebroadcast a country music format Clear Channel was running as an HD-2 adjunct to another of its NYC stations. The translator caused major interference to “Thunder 106,” a country-format full-power FM station owned by Press Communications. Thunder 106 is located in New Jersey but covers a goodly portion of the NYC metropolitan area.

You can see how Clear Channel would think this a bright idea: there is no country music station based directly in Market #1, and by plopping a flea-power FM translator in downtown Manhattan the company could dominate an underserved format while recycling unprofitable HD-only content on the cheap.

Press Communications did not take this move lying down. It contacted the FCC which directed the translator to leave the air while the interference claims are investigated.

These shenanigans are only the tip of the iceberg. Cumulus Media has parlayed several FM translators into “new” stand-alone stations in several radio markets around the country. Considering that Cumulus is now attempting to buy Citadel Broadcasting — a deal that rivals Clear Channel in the ownership-consolidation dimension — this behavior deserves further scrutiny.

It’s bad enough that major broadcasters are wasting spectrum through the implementation of HD Radio. But purchasing or leasing the use of translators to expand a conglomerate’s holdings in a market where they already own the maximum number of full-power stations allows them to effectively flout the FCC’s local radio station ownership caps.

Neither translators nor HD Radio were intended for such chicanery, and it speaks volumes about the FCC’s engagement with radio broadcasting more generally that such behavior is taking place.

As radioskeptic posted on the discussion board, the FCC participation in this scam to entrench monopoly radio (as well as allow them to make something off the HD radio gambit they blundered into) has been going on for years:

Re: Cumulus/KC takes advantage of the only redeeming quality of HD
« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2011, 01:50:26 PM »

Thanks, local oscillator, for telling us just how powerful that translator is. If the “HD” signal were dependable, there’d be absolutely no excuse for any translator, much less one that’s more powerful than many marginal, less-than-maximum-powered Class A’s.

I had no idea that this was such an egregious example when I sent out an email blast on Tuesday (2/15) saying:

The proliferation of these things, I think, confirms my suspicion that the only reason some commercial broadcasters cling to “HD” when the market penetration of “HD” receivers is minuscule is that the FCC is now allowing them to simulcast the HD-2’s on analog translators. It’s just a clever way to circumvent per-market ownership caps.

Obviously, syndicators like it, too, since it gets them into markets they otherwise couldn’t penetrate, if only in a small way.

In this case, the syndicator is Bill Bungeroth’s 24/7 Comedy service

I might have added that NPR and other pubradio program vendors like “HD” for exactly the same reason.

But this ruse is nothing new. See “Neat trick: Cumulus is using an HD-2 channel to feed an FM translator.” Go to (bottom of page 2 of the PDF).

Yes, that was Tom Taylor’s TRI for August 27, 2008!


2 Responses

  1. The history of translator abuse goes back to the 1980’s, when religious and public broadcasters lobbied for them to be non-local (I.e., fed via satellite). Much of the Godcasting industry is based on translators. There’s a book on this, waiting to be written.

  2. Yup, and Arbitron will give credit to the HD streams, not the analog translators. Struble must be preparing his speech (spin), as I type this. LOL!

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