The pandemic’s whack to the American economy impacted radio in many ways during the past year, and for some stations it brought about their demise. The Federal Communications Commission reported there were 115 fewer licensed full-power radio stations at the end of December than when the year began, with the biggest drop coming not from the already struggling AM dial but among the ranks of commercial FM stations.
The challenges faced by AM broadcasters are nothing new as evolving listener habits have already impacted the number of stations. But there was a 60% increase in the number of AMs that disappeared in 2020 compared to 2019. That included nine more AMs that vanished during the fourth quarter.
The biggest surprise is on the FM dial, where after years of growth as broadcasters found new ways to squeeze additional stations onto the dial, the number of commercial FMs declined last year. The FCC said roughly one of every one hundred commercial FM stations was no longer licensed at year-end compared to the start of 2020.
Yet the overall total number of FMs only fell by 13, thanks to the continued growth of noncommercial FMs. The FCC said the count of those listener-supported FMs grew by 1.5% last year.
Overall, the FCC reported 15,445 licensed radio stations as of Dec. 31, 2020. That was just five less than a year earlier.
The lifeline for many AM station has been FM translators, and the number of translators and boosters continued to expand last year. The total number at year-end was three percent higher than at the end of 2019, per the FCC. Even more telling is the number increased by 232 since the pandemic’s impacts were felt at the end of March.
It was not just commercial radio that contracted last year. The pandemic seems to have had an impact on low-power stations too. The total number slid throughout the year to 2,136 at year-end. That was a 1.5% drop from a year earlier and the fewest number of LPFMs licensed since the end of 2017.
The number of low-power stations could start to grow again during the next few years. The FCC has said it plans to open a new LPFM filing window, but that is not expected until later this year at the earliest. The agency will first need to complete the auction of 130 FM signals in Auction 106 but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, its start date has been indefinitely put on hold. There’s also the pending completion of the repack of television stations, and a July 2021 sunset of low-power television operations that first need to be completed.
Beyond radio, the Media Bureau reports the total number of full-power television stations was steady with 1,758 licensed at the end of December. The latest FCC data shows the total amount of low-power TV stations was 20,011.
Overall, there were a total of 33,564 radio and television licenses issued by the FCC at the end of 2021.