Friday, June 17, 2011

HD on FM Translators

I should admit now that I am in favor of AM stations with FM translators. I am however not in favor of HD sub-channels with FM translators. (...and not fond of HD radio in general) Less than 1% of Americans have HD radios. The populous is totally unanimous in it's collective disinterest. Nonetheless is continues to exist. As the Broadcast Law blog cited about six weeks ago the FCC, on May 3rd  ruled in favor of Saga Communications — W277BS could carry programming as an analog FM translator for WYXL-HD2. It was now official.

ROI Broadcasting filed a petition against this because they interpreted it as a way to circumvent the rules regarding ownership limits. That's because in every practical sense of the law it does. Saga is licensed to operate 3 FM and 2 AM radio stations in the Ithaca, NY metro: WHCU-AM, WNYY-AM, WYXL, WQNY, WHII and three FM translators, W277BS, W240CB, and W262AD. The translators do not count towards that limit. W240CB and W240CB translate WQNY. W262AD translates WHII. This is the maximum number of stations that Saga can operate in this metro as it only contains 11 stations total. More here. Previous to this HD fandango,  W277BS was a translator for 107.9 WPHR (now WSYR) in Auburn, NY. Presently, it carries the HD2 sub-channel WYXL which is branded as Hits 103.3.

So how on earth did a repeater in Auburn repeating WSYR out of Syracuse move to Ithaca?  Well it was on 98.3 originally and at lower power. It's now on 103.3 at 250 watts. ROI broadcasting sees this as moving a new station into the market, and for 99% of listeners it is. But the reality that as long as it's carrying programming from an HD2 or HD3 channel, the programming already originates from within the market.  Hypothetically, ROI is open to do the same thing supposing they have a spare $100,000 dollars laying around, and can find space in the band to add FM translators.[source]

So ROI Broadcasting, (owners of WFIZ) lost the argument. as a result, the floodgates opened and a piddle of stations made the change. Most notably in Atlanta.  It starts with the ballad of WNNX, in September1992 when an alternative rock radio icon was born. They broke singles, began careers, sold records and had a good time. In 2006 it was bought by Cumulus who noted a ratings slide on a station that probably peaked in 1994.

They euthanized it on January 30th 2008. The frequency 99.7 became WWWQ, a cookie-cutter CHR/Pop station swapping calls with 100.5. The 99X brand and playlist was moved to the 99.7 WWQ-HD2 signal and a webcast. The WNNX call letters moved to 100.5, left atop a drab modern rock playlist that at least had moderately better ratings. 100.5 previously was outside the city of Atlanta, it's move-in in 2001 killed 102.5 WGHR at Southern Polytechnic State University. (Though it continues to webcast.)

Then in 2009... long before the rumble in Ithaca, 99X was doing the same thing. From April 17, 2009 until June 15, 2011 it was on 97.9 W250BC . At 250 watts it covered most of Atlanta with a city-grade signal. 99.5 originally was a 6-watt translator for WCLK. In 2009 it was sold and became a repeater for 100.5 WNNX which is how we got to where we are today.  Just a few days ago they moved it again to 99.1 W258BU-FM, mostly trying to make sense of their brand you can't leave 99X on 97.9. That'd be just silly. But the reality of the situation cant be avoided. This is a station, brand and format that died a natural death in Atlanta with 96,000 watts 3 years ago. There is no reason to think it will succeed at 99 watts.
But after all that I do have one lingering issue. No matter where they put 99X, it will have crappy ratings. It will persist not because it has listeners, but because automation is cheap. It'll be automated, and run off a server with a little voice-tracking. The programming doesn't really originate on WWWQ-HD2 any more than the programming of Hits 103.3 originates at WYXL-HD2. In effect these stations are webstreams, that are re-broadcast on the FM band. The servers from whence those streams actually originate could be in Atlanta, Auburn, Ithaca, Denver, or even Berlin. Despite all pretense to the contrary... if it ain't live, it ain't local.


Essy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
HD Radio® Farce said...

When it comes to iBiquity's HD Radio, the FCC breaks and ignores its own rules. I can't recall the call letters, but there was that recent case in NY of Clear Channel(?) having to turn off its HD2 translator because it was causing interference to another station.

Scott Fybush said...

Couple of quick clarifications...W277BS was never on 103.3. It was on 103.1, and was relaying the main channel of WQNY 103.7.

Ithaca's an odd duck, radio-wise. Because of the terrain (it sits in a hole at the south end of Cayuga Lake), when you're down in the city itself you can't hear anything from outside the market - and even the FMs up on the hills above the market are sometimes terrain-challenged in town.

Starting in the late 1970s, the FMs in town started to put translators down in the city to do what translators were meant to do: fill in coverage holes. What's now WYXL 97.3 went up on W238AA 95.5 (now W240CD 95.9), WYXL on 103.1 (now W277BS 103.3), Cornell-student-run WVBR 93.5 went up on 105.5, and later on a few more translators went in to relay WIII 99.9 from Cortland (now on 100.3), religious WMHR from Syracuse (on 101.7, if memory serves), and what was then WPCX 106.9 Auburn (later WHCD and WPHR). It was that 106.9 translator that was on 98.3 - and later became 98.7, W254BF.

Now here's the fun part: improvements in FM antenna technology and some changes in transmitter site meant that in the last few years, the original purpose of those translators became more or less redundant. You can now hear the main 97.3 and 93.5 and 103.7 signals fairly well all over Ithaca. (And 106.9, the former parent to 98.3/98.7, got moved out of the Finger Lakes and into Syracuse, where it can't have an Ithaca fill-in translator anyway.)

So what's more useful - having those translator channels, which were already in town, get used to duplicate already-decent main signals or out-of-town stations...or to bring some new formats into town, like the CHR on 103.3 and the AAA on 98.7, while reinforcing a weak nighttime AM signal on 95.9? I think there's at least a case to be made for the latter.

ROI/Finger Lakes Radio is hardly innocent here, either...the reason they're in the market at all is that they were able to pull an FM signal out of the small town of Dundee to relocate it to the much larger city of Ithaca, where it's now WFIZ 95.5, and they used an AM-on-FM translator to partially replace the old FM service in Dundee. And they're sitting on two other translator frequencies in Ithaca (96.3 and 107.7) that could be used to do the same thing Saga's doing. It wouldn't take $100k, either - Citadel Media has a deal going where they'll pay for HD gear in exchange for inventory.

Even the community broadcasters have gotten in on the act. Ithaca Community Radio has a translator, W201CD on 88.1, that gets its program feed from WSQG 90.9-HD2, fed out of WSKG in Binghamton. It's a cheap way for them to get Democracy Now and a few local shows on the air until/unless they can finally build their own primary station in an outlying town to feed the translator.

It's an odd market indeed.

(Oh, and "Farce" - the NYC situation has nothing at all to do with HD, try as you may to spin it that way. Clear Channel doesn't own the translator, and the method by which it was going to be fed had nothing to do with the interference complaints that shut it down. Nice try, though.)

Jose Fritz said...

Oh mighty Fybush.. I knew that were I to use upstate NY as an example I must check and re-check my facts as that is so close to your homeland. And Fybush is virtually omniscient in the North East. It is a shame I missed the freq change on W277BS-FM. But they are presently on 103.3 I believe. I was unaware of their former life on 103.1

I totally agree Ithaca has a terrain problem but they're not alone in that. Aspen(for example) has a similar lie to use a golfing idiom.

But I cant argue with you, the FCC has made clear their opinion and it's now the law of the land.

My prediction is that as a result we'll see a growing number of 100 watt repeaters carrying fully automated programming. That will block out what could have been LP stations broadcasting local programming. As you know, I'm a proponent of locally originating programming.

Scott Fybush said...

As am I, mon amigo, as am I.

The thing about Ithaca is, it's just far enough from the other bigger markets upstate that there's still a good chunk of spectrum left for LPFM and community radio.

If the Ithaca Community Radio folks can get the money together, they're sitting on two "full-power" CPs (only a few hundred watts each), WINO and WRFI, neither of which will reach Ithaca on their own but either of which can be used to feed their W201CD translator, which does cover the city nicely. One CP expires this August, the other one next January.

I hope they can pull it off. Ithaca needs what they're planning.