This is the General History Section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
THE CLEAR-CHANNEL MATTER
is the third
in a series of 6 articles about the history of clear-channel AM radio stations.
When last we met, we
reviewed early attempts on the part of full-service broadcasters to secure “super-power”
authorization, and we looked at WLW’s 500,000-watt Special Temporary Authority
on 700 kc/s. The requests for
super-power were actually stimulated by the FCC’s public comments, as they
positioned for the North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement of 1941.
The goal of NARBA 1941 was “radio standardization throughout the
Western Hemisphere.” The planning for the conference began in the mid-1930s.
The super-power positioning took place against the noisy backdrop of powerful
“border blasters” operating out of Mexico and interfering with some U.S.
broadcast signals. The U.S.
delegation wanted to reserve the ability to fight the border blasters with its
own super-power arsenal if need be. They also had to balance the interests of
powerful clear-channel broadcasters against Congress and the “have-nots” who
saw super-power in the hands of the few as further undue media concentration.
The U.S. delegation went into the conference with a list of
25 frequencies they wanted protected for single-station use (including possible
super-power), and they listed 21 additional 50-kilowatt channels that could be
duplicated. For the first time, the labels 1-A and 1-B were officially applied
to U.S. authorizations. 1-A stations were to continue operating non-directional,
with solo nighttime assignments. The 1-B channels were to be occupied by two or
more stations at 50 kW maximum, usually employing directional antennas to
protect each other. Interference from other countries would be accepted on the
1-Bs, even within U.S. borders. Interference protection for the 1-As was to be
much more extensive, as we’ll see.
In the interests of their own super-power stations, some
member nations of NARBA pushed a curious turn of phrase into the final
Agreement. That verbiage would be cited in the ensuing clear-channel discussions
in this country. The NARBA language
essentially stated that while 1-B stations were given a maximum
authorized power of 50 kW, the 1-As would be authorized a minimum power of 50 kW. In
this respect, the minimum vocabulary
the U.S. endorsed as a signatory to NARBA would differ from the FCC’s own
50-kW maximum language. In exchange
for this subtlety, the United States gained a major concession from its
neighbors. 1-A co-channel stations in adjoining countries could be located no
closer than 650 miles from that country’s common boundary with the United
States. By geographical happenstance this language prohibited, with few
exceptions, any co-channel operation
on U.S. 1-A channels anywhere in North
America. When the delegates
returned home, the United States had its continued protection on 25 1-A
channels. To answer the demand for
more frequencies, the United States agreed to an expansion of the band to 1600
kc/s. What was not resolved at the1941 NARBA was the U.S. position on
super-power on the 1-A channels.
The great dial switch
To implement the NARBA
changes, the United States participated in a major frequency re-shuffle.
On March 29, 1941, many of this country’s AM stations moved to a new
dial location, where they’ve been since. Most stations moved up the band, from
10 to 30 kc/s, but few did much to their plants, other than retuning and
changing crystals. As a result,
there exists today a number of stations whose towers are slightly longer than
optimum for their present operating frequency!
With the 1941 NARBA behind them, FCC staffers could now
turn to the issue of providing reliable nighttime service to the country’s “white
areas.” Attempts to build a record on the white area issue surfaced as early
as an October 1936 FCC hearing, but it was on Feb. 20, 1945, that the FCC
officially opened Docket 6741, looking into the future of clear channel
broadcasting. Thus began a struggle
that was to last 35 years and put a lot of consultants’ and attorneys’ kids
Engineering and economic advice
As it opened the clear-channel proceeding, the FCC
requested industry input on the coverage issues. Industry-Advisory engineering
committees met at length and reported out several ideas.
First, they suggested there was a need for at least four national
night-time services. But the committees also agreed it was impractical to
deliver four solid nighttime services across the country with only four stations
on four channels, and they suggested that some form of duplication would
be needed. What was left to be resolved was how to get to that goal.
The advisors also ventured into economic matters, arguing that
super-power operation, while seemingly successful in other countries where it
was usually subsidized, might not do well under the economic model of U.S.
broadcasting. It was suggested that the cost to cover wide areas of low
population density might not be covered by the advertising dollars available in
those areas. The report compared wide-area night-time sky-wave service to Rural
Free Delivery, in which mail costs are borne primarily by the urban centers, and
the costs of serving remote constituents are essentially subsidized.
The committees concluded that primary operating support for
super-power stations would have to come from “urban centers” where the
stations would presumably have to be located. Looking at a U.S. map and applying
some logic, one could conclude there might not be enough large “urban centers”
in the sparsely-populated white areas to support super-power operation.
Therefore, if cost-support was to be a
driver, re-locating super-power stations, away from urban centers, would not be
the best approach.
That economic argument
alone might have doomed the chances for super-power. For this reason and others,
the FCC stayed focused on duplicating the 1-A clear channels. The commission was
very clear in stating that the ultimate solution for white-area coverage had to
meet one primary criterion: maximum population gain. (In fact, when later it
began to authorize such duplicate assignments, it declined to name specific
cities for the new signals but instead identified only the states in
which such operations might be located.)
In the late 1940s and
early 1950s, proposals on how to deal with the clears appeared with regularity.
It is interesting to watch the disparate interests at play during this
There were those who
honestly saw a strong need for new service to white areas. Others were
interested only in bringing about the dissolution of the 1-As. Both groups had
sympathetic ears at the FCC. Some of the commission’s public statements during
this period make fascinating reading, as you watch the FCC slowly move toward
the politically comfortable position that “more stations are better for you.”
Our story will be served by notes from the record, as the clear-channel docket
was being assembled:
In 1946 the FCC decided to allow “Daytimers” to operate
on the 1-As, but only inside a
750-mile radius of the 1-A stations (the approximate 50/50 skywave contour).
They reasoned that assignments outside that contour could preclude possible
high-power operation or duplication on the channel. In granting Daytimers
authorization to operate on the clear channels, the FCC enabled a breed of
political fighters who got a taste of the action and who would exert a sometimes
ill-advised influence on the coming battles.
In 1948, CBS proposed that FM stations be taken into
account in defining white-area service. CBS reminded the FCC that its own staff
had reported that “new FM assignments will provide service to 500 new
communities, in every state except Montana.”
The FCC wouldn’t buy CBS’s argument. They said, “Clear channels
would always be needed for wide-area service, under any foreseeable developments
affecting the wider utilization of FM radio.”
It would be many years before the FCC would include FM in calculating
During this period, the FCC poked its toes into the water
with a series of tentative “proposals.” In 1958 the Commission suggested
adding new (Western-states) Class I stations on 660, 770, 880, 1100 and 1180.
They also wanted new Class II assignments on 670, 720, 780, 890, 1020, 1120 and
1210 in areas “where they were needed.”
The FCC made this proposal while at the same time
suggesting that it would leave the other 1-As protected for higher-power
operation. It’s small wonder that
industry-watchers were becoming confused.
Durenberger welcomes questions and comments about this series
via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org