As AM empties out, FM is nearly full with no relief in sight

My first introduction to Winnipeg’s CKJS 810 came in high school when one of my classmates, either knowing it would appeal to my fondness for the absurd or in a failed bid to save my soul, handed me a leaflet promoting The Bob Larson Show. As I recall it, Larson performed on-air exorcisms and chattered away about Satan during a controversial, quasi-religious syndicated show that aired on CKJS starting at 11 p.m.

So, for a while, I would listen to 15 minutes or maybe a half-hour of Larson doing his weird late-night show until I lost interest after a while. Given that I remain about as religious as your average coffee pot, it hardly sold me on Larson’s quirky brand of Christianity, but it was mildly amusing all the same.

The times haven’t been kind to CKJS, whose schedule is a mix of ethnic and Christian programming. If the 43-year-old station ever had an impact on Winnipeg’s radio ratings, those days are long over. This week, parent company Dufferin Communications applied to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for permission to move CKJS from 810 AM to 92.7 FM for economic reasons:

While analyzed on its own, CKJS has been operating at a low PBIT margin, its role within the Winnipeg Cluster cannot be overstated. Dufferin is very concerned about it’s declining revenues year over year. The scenarios with and without approval, filed confidentially, clearly show the outcome stemming from this decision. Denial will keep CKJS on the downward trend, likely to become more aggravated when combined with rising operating costs and inflation. Approval on the other hand will ensure its incumbent status, reverse the trend and keep it modestly profitable as a key and integral part of the Winnipeg cluster.

[…]

At present, Dufferin leases several acres of land in order to operate the antenna array required to deliver the signal of CKJS. In contrast, single tower rents for FM services in the market are not nearly as expensive. Allowing Dufferin to operate CKJS on the FM frequency would result in an immediate decrease in costs, as well as ongoing savings into the future. These profits would then be used to ensure all three members of the Winnipeg Cluster can deliver high quality programming to the demographics they are intended to serve.

“The Winnipeg Cluster” refers to Dufferin’s other Winnipeg stations sharing CKJS’s Corydon Ave. studios, Hot 100.5 and Energy 106.

If the CKJS application is approved, the new 92.7 FM signal would originate from a Rogers Broadcasting-owned tower on St. Mary’s Road at a maximum power of 35,000 watts. The current 10,000-watt AM signal originates from a series of towers just off Waverley St. south of the Perimeter Highway.

The new signal would complicate the operations of Awaz 92.9, a very-low-power East Indian radio station operating, without a CRTC licence thanks to a regulatory loophole, “from the second floor of [owner Baldev Gill’s] Gill Taxi Meter and Radio shop on Selkirk Avenue.” Gill’s station would be forced to a new frequency both to prevent interference to 92.7 and to avoid being completely drowned out by the stronger signal.

Yet CKJS 92.7 might struggle with its own reception issues. If you tune your radio to 92.7 right now — especially in the south end of the city, close to where most of the high-powered 100,000-watt FM transmitters are located — you might not necessarily hear the calming hiss of dead air, but a cacophony of signal spillovers from other stations.

Some of this might come from 92.1 CITI FM, whose powerful signal throws off radio debris up to several FM frequencies away in both directions. The lower end of 92.7’s bandwidth is also nearly 10.6 MHz below the powerful Virgin Radio 103.1 signal, which could cause some radios to pick up both signals due to design issues.

The state of the lower FM dial, April 2017. Note the splatter thrown off by the high-powered station, and the background interference on 92.7 (upper right).

The 92.7 frequency is also one of a shrinking number of plausibly useable FM frequencies in Winnipeg. Stations with the kind of strength needed to push an easily audible FM signal deep into office buildings generally need to be kept at least 0.6 MHz apart just to prevent mutual interference.

Depending on signal strength, new FM signals may need to be up to 290 kilometres (180 miles) apart from existing FM stations on the same frequency, and up to 240 kilometres (149 miles) apart from neighbouring-frequency stations. The latter radius alone includes Kenora, Grand Forks, Brandon and other communities.

Add to that the aforementioned splatter from other high-powered stations which has left very few “quiet” zones between stations on the local FM band.

Normally, the regulators at the CRTC frown on a single station owner holding more than two FM licences in a single metropolitan area, a limitation that CKJS’s owners have asked to be exempted from on public service grounds. Granting the exemption, however, raises the question of why a low-listenership station should be given priority over Winnipeg’s two remaining commercial AM stations, CJOB 680 and TSN 1290.

Even if they would prefer to abandon the AM dial, it would be very difficult to shoe—horn either CJOB or TSN 1290 into a crowded and interference-plagued FM band. There has been talk about extending the FM band down to 76 MHz now that TV channels 5 and 6 have been nearly abandoned due to their poor suitability for digital TV broadcasting, but any action is still years away. So too is a migration to all-digital radio, which would allow two or more stations to share the same frequency, just as digital TV stations are able to do today.

* – Some fellow radio geeks might wonder how I was able to generate the image above. This was thanks to a handy device called the SDRPlay Wideband USB Radio Receiver, which allows the user — after downloading a free program called Cubic SDR — to receive radio signals almost up to the microwave range on a laptop or desktop computer. I’ve used its visualizations with a bit of success to improve my digital TV reception, by finding the “good” spots where my antenna receives the most signal and the least noise on the troublesome VHF band. One of my discoveries: both channels 7 and 13 are vulnerable to FM harmonics. That is, the same FM stations that litter the rest of the FM dial with signal splatter are throwing their radio debris up into the 176 to 216 MHz range, i.e., 88 to 108 MHz times two.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to As AM empties out, FM is nearly full with no relief in sight

  1. Drew says:

    One by one, Winnipeg’s big AM signals are going dark. First CKRC, then CKY, now possibly CKJS. It will be an especially sad day if and when CJOB falls silent. They make it all the way to Sioux Falls on a good car radio.

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