An eight-month battle over a North Carolina translator has ended with the signal being forced off the air. Arohi Media paid $70,000 to buy the translator last year and then proceeded to relocate it from Pocomoke City, MD into the Raleigh-Durham market. But when Arohi Media signed on the now Durham, NC-licensed translator W252DK at 98.3 FM last August to simulcast south Asian format WDUR (1490), crosstown operator Lakes Media quickly knew something was wrong.
As Inside Radio first reported last September the company told the FCC that the new translator was making suburban country “US 98.3” WLUS-FM “unlistenable” in Durham, Orange, Northern Wake and Southern Granville Counties where thousands of listeners were potentially impacted—as many as 9,000 listeners, according to Nielsen estimates.
That led to a lengthy process that required Lakes Media to submit dozens of pages of documents, including letters from dozens of WLUS-FM listeners, videotapes of the interference, engineering studies and field strength readings all to back up its allegations of interference. In response, Arohi Media submitted an engineering study, which showed interference wasn’t possible in this situation. It also raised questions about the validity of the complaints.
FCC rules give the upper hand to the full-power station when questions of interference arise and in this case it responded by ordering Arohi Media to resolve the interference issues caused by its move-in translator. While it resolved the issues for some, when it failed to fix the problem for every listener that filed a complaint the Commission on Tuesday ordered the translator off the air.
“Although Arohi has alleged that some of the complainants are not bona fide listeners, are fraudulent, or have not cooperated in Arohi’s efforts to identify and resolve the interference, we do not need to resolve those allegations at this time,” Audio Division deputy chief James Bradshaw concluded, writing in the four-page decision that failure to fix the problems of three listeners after having more than a month to correct the problem is sufficient to order the plug be pulled on the translator. “For this reason, we conclude that Arohi has failed to eliminate the interference to cochannel station WLUS-FM and W252DK must suspend operations,” the order said.
“We are relieved that the FCC has finally acted,” Lakes Media president Tom Birch responded. While he believes the interference to WLUS-FM was “undeniable,” he questions the process that allowed Arohi Media to put off any action by the FCC even though a well-documented interference complaint was presented to the agency. “This has been an extraordinarily frustrating experience,” Birch said.
It’s been eight years since the FCC began allowing AM stations to simulcast on FM translators and according to the latest FCC data, a record 7,453 translators were licensed as of March 31—an increase of 13% compared to a year earlier. A decision last year to allow broadcasters to move an FM translator up to 250 miles to pair up with an AM station has meant a number of those signals are now crowding into smaller geographic areas. That’s leading to more interference issues.
The National Association of Broadcasters has asked the FCC to make several rule and policy changes in order to give translator operators more flexibility to resolve such complaints. Most notably, the NAB proposes the Commission give operators the ability to relocate translators anywhere on the FM dial as a “minor change” to a facility—instead of only to an adjacent or IF-related channel—to resolve interference complaints. “This additional flexibility will enable more translator licensees to efficiently cure interference by simply changing channels,” the NAB writes in its 20-page petition for rulemaking.
The NAB is also seeking several procedural changes to how interference complaints against translators are processed by regulators, many of which would shift the burden of proof from the translator owner to the owner of the full-power station bringing its grievance to the agency. The NAB proposes that an accusation must be supported by interference complaints from at least six different listeners to the full-power FM, suggesting that number could be even higher depending on whether the station covers an urban or rural area. NAB also thinks the complaints should come with “verifiable statements” that include “clear evidence” that the person is a regular listener to the FM—and that they have no affiliation to the station. The NAB also proposes the FCC require a full-power FM to show interference at multiple locations, with engineering testing data to back up the findings. And it is asking the Commission to allow the full-power FM and translator owners a specific amount of time—for example, 90 days—to try to find a solution to the interference issues before the agency steps into the process.
A separate petition filed by Aztec Capital Partners last month would take steps to protect locally operated translators from a potential out-of-market threat. In its petition for rulemaking, Aztec—owner of Spanish-language “El Zol 1340” WHAT Philadelphia—has asked the FCC to make several updates to its regulations in order to give added protections to fill-in translators being used by local market operators. It says the changes proposed would prohibit distant FM stations from claiming sweeping service areas while also working to prevent a local AM station’s fill-in translator from being knocked off the air.