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Old AM broadcast towers get a new life

AM radio's salvation may lie not in broadcasting, but in antenna towers. Wireless carriers see fresh opportunities in these familiar structures.

Soaring high into the sky and scattered across the American landscape like spindly monuments to a bygone way of life, AM broadcast radio towers are visible reminders that no technology lasts forever.

After serving as community entertainment and news hubs for almost a century, AM radio stations nationwide are quietly winding down their operations. They are the victims of inferior audio quality, growing competition from Internet-based music services, and perhaps most frustratingly, the maddening background noise generated by various types of digital devices.

According to Federal Communications Commission statistics, a total of 30 AM radio stations closed in 2017. But that number doesn't tell the whole story. As once-loyal listeners tune away, most AM stations are barely holding onto life, slashing staff and budgets as deeply as they can while struggling to find a return to profitability. Once upon a time, having a broadcast license of any kind was like having a permit to print money. In today’s world, that's no longer true.

While many AM station operators fear imminent eradication, Lawrence Behr, CEO of Greenville, North Carolina-based LBA Group, detects a ripe opportunity. He believes that AM radio's salvation lies not in broadcasting, but in a station's most visible physical asset: its antenna tower.

Understanding that AM broadcasting's chances of a revival are no better than a sudden return to the days of vaudeville and big bands, Behr is helping AM station owners understand that their best chance for future financial success lies in working with the very companies that are helping to kill their current business: cellular and other wireless service providers.

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Tower power

As the number of wireless devices explodes, carriers need to build more towers to maintain acceptable service levels and accommodate growth. Yet, as the number of towers grows, so does community opposition, fueled by health, environmental, and aesthetic concerns. The carriers have tried to adjust by disguising new towers as trees, flag poles, and even church steeples. But the carriers and their partners continue to face protests, new zoning regulations, and lawsuits, which often force them to settle for less-than-optimal installations or back down entirely.

Behr, on the other hand, says a solution to the problem is plain to see: There are some 10,000 AM broadcast towers in the United States; carriers simply need to mount more of their antennas onto these structures.

"Using an AM tower, which has very often been in place for many years, avoids many zoning and other permitting issues, versus going in and creating a new site for a tower," Behr explains. He says local residents, businesses, and officials rarely complain about an AM broadcast tower that suddenly begins serving as a cell site. "That tower was there before they were, and it doesn’t bother them,” Behr says. “Hanging a few things on it is rarely controversial, so that’s a real good thing for AMs."

LBA, which has served as a technical consultant to AM stations for more than 50 years, now specializes in helping struggling broadcasters transition into their new business model. "This is a rather complex little mix, but one of the cell carriers, and probably two, will be putting their antenna clusters also on that tower, and we’re guiding that transition,” Behr says.

In many cases, the wireless carrier purchases the AM tower and lets the station owner continue to use the structure for broadcasting. The carrier then assumes complete charge of cellular technical and service operations. "This is a real issue, because AM stations in general do not have technical expertise on staff," Behr says. "They’re not at all oriented to the needs of a carrier."

Staying hot

There is a big drawback to the strategy, however—at least for towers connected to stations that remain on the air. Although most people think of an antenna tower as a structure that's designed to hold one or more antennas, this isn't the case with AM broadcasting. For AM stations, mired in the radio spectrum's lowest wavelengths, the entire tower is the antenna. This fact makes it challenging to add secondary antennas to a tower that is still "hot," pumping out up to 50,000 watts of preacher pleas, infomercials, and/or nut-job conspiracy theories to listeners.

Behr says his company's colocation technology solves that problem. "Anytime you have a tower like an AM tower that radiates the energy over the totality of the tower, you have an immediate conflict with using the tower for other purposes," he explains. "Our expertise goes into resolving those conflicts and coming up with the appropriate technology, work practices, safety, and so forth."

LBA's core technology is the CoLoCoil modular isocoupler system, which allows new antennas to be accommodated on a hot tower at any time without requiring a system shutdown or redesign. CoLoCoil modules are factory-adjusted to minimize field setup, and high-stability components are used to eliminate the need for periodic readjustments. Rugged coaxial connectors used at the input and output are the only radio-frequency (RF) path connections used, which virtually eliminates signal conflicts and interference, LBA claims.

Behr notes that the AM station doesn't have to be shut down for the installation or maintenance of collocated antenna equipment. Both the FCC and OSHA permit work on hot AM towers, as long as the operator meets specific power levels and precautions. Still, there are significant safety and operational issues that must be carefully addressed during wireless equipment installation and maintenance on a hot AM tower. Fortunately, these RF concerns can be managed and are not a significant problem, Behr says. However, a high level of expertise is required in the planning phase to ensure that all safety and operational concerns are addressed.

Building momentum

According to Behr, "dozens and dozens" of towers have been converted over the past few years in markets of all sizes. "In fact, we’re in the midst of a program to convert over a 50,000-watt station in a major market at this moment," he says.

Virtually any type of antenna can be attached to an AM radio tower, not only cellular technology. “It’s just that the market with the most interest, and the ability to spend the money, tends to be the cellular industry,” Behr observes. “But we also have other kinds of antennas on tower—radars, all sorts of things." He notes that non-cellular broadband data providers are also starting to use antennas mounted on AM towers. "The ISPs and so forth," he says.

The amount of money an AM station owner can pocket by sharing its tower with a wireless partner varies widely, depending on the tower's location, height, and several other factors. Yet, the new income can often spell the difference between staying in business or knocking down the tower and selling the property to a retail or housing developer. 

"I think that it will keep a lot of AMs going a lot longer than anyone thought," Behr says.

Image credit: A Wyoming AM radio tower with cell antennas. Courtesy of LBA Group.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.