This is the General History Section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
THE CLEAR-CHANNEL MATTER
This is the sixth in a series of six
articles about the history of clear-channel AM radio stations.
When we left our clear-channel story, it seemed obvious the
proponents of AM super-power were going to be left out in the cold, and the
remaining 1-A channels were going to be duplicated. But the game wasn’t over
The FCC was
determined to provide nighttime radio service to under-served “white areas”.
Because the so-called “monopoly enjoyed by the AM giants” was a
politically-popular target, the unduplicated 1-A clear channels were the obvious
hunting ground for new spectrum. As
they went on the defensive in the 1970’s, the clear-channel broadcasters
pulled out all the stops in an “educational” campaign.
The message was that duplicating signals on the clears was a nasty
business, because it such duplication “would destroy badly-needed radio
WSM launched its famous “Save the Grand Ole Opry”
campaign early in 1979 and organized “Friends of the Grand Ole Opry.” It
encouraged listeners to write to their representatives and to the FCC, to
protest what the group called “the gravest threat to the Grand Ole Opry in its
history.” Some stations even
tried an end-run of sorts, writing to their ally Robert E. Lee, who at this
point was chairman of the U.S. delegation to Rio, asking that he protect their
1-A frequencies for U.S. super-power operation in the upcoming World
Administrative Radio Conference inventory.
In the 1975 docket, the FCC asked whether 1-A stations
would apply for increased power if available. Most respondents told the FCC they
would apply for extended power, ranging from 100 kW to 500 kW, and many said
they would use directional antennas. The Clear Channel Broadcasting Service also
proposed that, if granted higher power levels, their members would control
adjacent-channel interference by employing 5 kHz low-pass audio filters.
Now where have we heard that recently?
Once again the gentlemen from the Hill got involved. Reps.
Findley and Van Deerlin proposed that priority should henceforth be given to
local service, and that “no U.S. AM operation should be authorized more than
50 kW.” Findley, advised by the
Daytime Broadcasters Association, actually said on the floor of the House that
“virtually no one listens to the night-time sky-wave signals of clear-channel
stations,” and therefore “Daytimers should not have to sign off at sundown
to protect them.” As the record
grew, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making at the end of
1978. Judging by the progressive language and the public comments of the
commissioners, it was obvious they were headed toward a final breakup of the
The last word
In what would be the coup de grace of a 50-year fight, the
FCC issued the 1980 Report and Order that assigned a second high-power station
on each of the 12 remaining unduplicated 1-A channels.
It also affirmed the protected service contour for the primary station to
be the 50/50, 0.5 mV/m sky-wave contour (in the real world, about a 750-mile
radius). More than 100 new
secondary stations would be authorized on those 12 1-A clear channels. The
original power limit of 50 kW for the 1-A primary stations was cast in stone,
thus ending super-power hopes and leaving WLW as the only station in the country
ever to operate formally with more than 50 kW.
Summarizing the inquiries it published in the late 1970s,
the FCC noted it had asked whether any 1-A stations would apply for super-power,
and reported that WHO, WBAP, WJR, WWL, WCCO, WSM and KSL had proposed various
power levels from 200 kW to 500 kW. WCCO had proposed 450 kW, and associated this with a proposal
that all 1-A stations be permitted to go up in power “to a level nine
times their present power ceilings.” (sic)
The commissioners dismissed these applications, announcing
that they were inaccurate in representing gains in listenership, and they said
the applicants didn’t provide a plan for the resolution of expected
So that was that. Nighttime radio would never be the same.
In many cases, the new Class II stations, at least at
first, did serve the public interest in fulfilling some of the white-area
coverage expectations of the Report and Order. That would not have been the case
if the commissioners had listened to the Daytime Broadcasters.
The FCC charitably dismissed as “impractical” a poorly-advised
proposal by the DBA to double-up certain 1-A stations onto other Class 1-A
channels, thus freeing up a number of clears and adding as many as 2,000 new
stations to the channels thus vacated. Imagine what that would have
In closing this
decades-long proceeding, the commission reiterated its 1927 criteria for
allocations (which hadn’t been updated to acknowledge FM service).
The famous “Three-Legged Stool” criteria:
At least one service to everyone;
Service to as many persons from as many diversified sources as
Outlets for local self-expression addressed to each community’s
needs and interests.
o Order reflects to some degree the changes
in the broadcast industry but, at the same time, the FCC was still welded to the
concept that AM was the only effective night-time radio service.
Curiously, this “AM-only” reasoning was written by the same FCC staff
that was concurrently drafting FM Docket 80-90.
This leads one to speculate on the real reasons for the final orders.
As with many other allocation decisions by the FCC, the breakdown of the
clears was done in large part “in the name of diversity.” The FCC was soon
to define “minority-owned” operations, and they suggested the clear-channel
breakup and “future expansion dockets” would solve the dilemma of minority
access to broadcast outlets.
In explaining the duplication of the remaining clears, the
FCC said the “rising demand for services” could
be met by “other proposed changes”, but also argued that “they just didn’t
have time to wait.” The “other
proposed changes” would include not only 80-90 waiting in the wings, but also
the Expanded Band proceeding and an NTIA initiative to put the Western
Hemisphere on 9 khz spacing. And in a matter of months, the FCC would consider
expanding the hours of the Daytimers.
Are we better off?
In reviewing the disposition of the “Clear-Channel Matter”
we need to pose some questions: Did
the FCC solution actually provide better nighttime radio service, or did
existing and planned FM coverage make the issue irrelevant, even as the Final
Report and Order was being written? Or
should the FCC have adopted the original super-power plan to deliver “at least
four dependable sky-wave services available to everyone?” It’s tempting to speculate, and hindsight is wonderful,
especially in view of the potential impact of new satellite-delivered “national
Clearly, under the FCC’s “Three-Legged Stool”
criteria, the concept of super-power on a few stations never had “legs.” But
did the FCC’s actions promote diversity?
Given what most of those secondary radio stations are doing today, we
would leave that to their listeners to decide.
So what was it all about?
The “Clear-Channel Matter” may have been a story of a few “haves”
vs. a greater number of “have-nots.” If that was the case, it would be
tempting to view those AM giants as victims.
But the argument might be made that some 1-A stations abdicated their
protection, by pulling back their former wide-area service, concentrating
instead on their ratings-defined “metro areas”.
I would suggest that while some stations might plead guilty to that
strategy, others continue to this day to be attuned to the needs of their
extended service areas. And that’s
what makes this next question so interesting:
What will happen when the AM’s adopt a digital system that’s “designed
to match the ground-wave coverage and to throw away the sky wave”?
At that point, should the 1-A stations be given identical day and night
protection, matching their demonstrated ground-wave coverage?
What an interesting business. Stay
tuned for further developments!
Mark Durenberger welcomes questions and comments
about this series via e-mail to