Monday, March 5, 2012

FCC Fantasies Shape Atlanta Radio

Have you paid attention to legal ID's near the top of the hour?  If so, you know Star 94 identifies as Smyrna/Atlanta.  That means its city of license is Smyrna.  And why is that?  Star's transmitter is in Atlanta, and its signal penetrates the full Atlanta metro.  Moreover, Star 94 programs to all of Atlanta.

That 94.1 started years ago as a little signal serving the Smyrna environs means nothing these days.  But in the FCC's mind, the station's move to a powerful Atlanta signal should in no way impede its main purpose, providing radio service to the poor little town of Smyrna.  Of course, it makes no sense, but the FCC is a stickler for protecting the people for whom a station was originally intended.

Kicks 101-5, which ID's as Marietta/Atlanta, is in the same boat.  If Marietta was dropped as the city of license, can you imagine how Marietta residents would be shaken?

In 2001, the 100.5 signal was lifted from Anniston, AL and moved into the Atlanta market.  The process had been started over 10 years prior by station broker Tom Gannon and was later revived by Susquehanna.  Here's what I'm not getting: The FCC was ultimately willing to take a station away from Anniston but would not allow it to be licensed to Atlanta.

Susquehanna was able to show the FCC that College Park, GA had no radio station.  The FCC was therefore willing to license 100.5 to the suburb near the airport in order to rescue the town's radio-deprived citizens.  But here's the kicker: The station, licensed to College Park, located its antenna atop the Westin Peachtree Plaza in the heart of downtown Atlanta, with the FCC's approval of course.

Praise 102.5 is another type of example of the FCC not seeing the forest from the trees.  The people of Mableton are lucky to have such a good Gospel station.  I'm kidding of course; we all know that Praise competes for ratings across the Atlanta market, and does so very successfully.

Years ago, the FCC established Class A FM's, which were lower-powered stations--then up to 3,000 watts and now up to 6,000 watts--to serve cities with a small population.  How did potential station owners react?  They complied with the rules by applying for stations in small towns, small towns in the shadow of big cities.

Class A FM's popped up in places like Bethesda, MD (Washington, DC) and Glen Burnie, MD (Baltimore).  In other words, owners found a way to locate in a small community yet get major market ad dollars.  Praise 102.5, licensed to Mableton, is such a station.

The example of FCC foolishness most pertinent to Atlanta, however, is the move-ins (or rim shots), the result of an FCC rule change in the 1980's.  Atlanta, whose FM frequencies were allocated back when our city was small, had a lots open space on the dial.  And, the market was of great appeal to broadcasters salivating for riches.

The relaxed FCC rules contained just one little hitch: Any station moving to serve Atlanta had to still cover its original market with a city-grade signal.  So when 97.1 moved to the Atlanta metro, for example, it still needed to penetrate Gainesville.  And when 104.7 moved into the market, it had to maintain a local signal over Athens.  This limited how far stations could move and hindered their Atlanta signal.

But of course still covering the original city makes sense, right?  Well, when was the last time you heard anything about Gainesville on 97-1 The River?  And how recently have you noticed 104.7 The Fish saying good morning to its listeners in Athens?

In taking comfort that it had not deprived a community of a radio station, the FCC created an Atlanta dial consisting of the haves and the have-nots.  Atlanta holds the record for number of move-ins with 9, not counting 100.5 (a relocation), and 102.5 and 107.5 (new sign-ons).  The market now has 8 more FM stations than when I moved here in 1994.

What is the effect of a station now targeted to Atlanta being forced to keep its original city of license?  While it's silliness on the part of the FCC, it really has no effect.  However, what is the effect of limiting how far a station targeted to Atlanta can move so it can still cover its original town?  The answer is a major effect since the station has a signal disadvantage in Atlanta while its programming is now irrelevant to the original market.

If I were a member of Congress, I would introduce the "FCC Should Stop Kidding Itself" bill, and I bet I could drum up bipartisan support.  Part one would stipulate that stations could identify themselves simply by the city they target.

Part two would give stations that move into a market the freedom to relocate to where they would have a fully competitive signal unless--and it's a big unless--moving closer to the new market would be impossible from an interference standpoint.  And the missing piece of information here is how many of the move-ins, if any, could have moved fully into the market from an engineering perspective.

Come to think of it, if my recommendations were adopted, I probably would be taking away hours of pleasure from engineers, who enjoy the challenge of working through the FCC's useless regulations.  Folks like Littlejohn would never forgive me.

So in the words of Emily Litella . . . never mind.

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Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV blog:

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