FM translators have become a more pervasive and important component of terrestrial radio broadcasting than ever before. Aided by the FCC’s AM revitalization initiative and increases in programming services via FM digital multicast streams, the number of authorized translator stations has increased sharply in recent years, as have the opportunities for translator licenses to carry considerable value through sale and rebroadcasting deals. At the same time, interference disputes between translators and the owners of full-power FM stations (which have primary status over translators) have become more frequent, as more and more translators go online and nip at the edges of listenership to co- and adjacent channel full-powers.
It’s become apparent to me that the FCC is grappling with translators’ enhanced role in the radio world and is somewhat recalibrating the balance between translator value and full-power station protection. This is most evident through the agency’s overhauled rules for the handling of interference complaints against FM translators, which among other things require a minimum number of complaints by listeners of the “victim” full-power station (it used to take only one), and for the first time establish an outer service contour of the full-power station beyond which listener complaints will not be considered. But a decision last month by the FCC’s Audio Division could be read as a further, more subtle indication that the agency is looking at FM translators in a more permissive light. The case involved an objection to a series of technical modification applications that, taken together, relocated a translator roughly 40 miles from its originally licensed community to downtown Chicago.