WASHINGTON — In one of his first public appearances as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai delivered a ringing endorsement of radio as a “social, local, mobile and vital” medium. But he put the quash on any slim hopes the industry might have held that he would support a mandated FM chip in smartphones.
Speaking to a group of about 70 North American broadcast leaders in a conference room at the National Association of Broadcasters headquarters in Washington, the new chairman brought his trademark sense of humor and personal anecdotes to his remarks. He echoed comments that have endeared him to many in the U.S. radio industry since he came to the attention of many in an early appearance as commissioner at the 2012 Radio Show.
The event is the “Future of Radio Audio Symposium,” held by the North American Broadcasters Association and the National Association of Broadcasters. Attendees include executives with Mexican, Canadian and U.S. broadcast entities such as the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, Mexico’s association CIRT, Emmis, iHeartRadio, NPR and other organizations.
Pai told the group that radio’s “enduring popularity” is “truly striking.” He likened radio to the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. If the flashy Golden State Warriors by analogy are mobile broadband, and if the powerful Cleveland Cavaliers are gigabit fiber, then radio is the Spurs — the “least flashy but the most consistent” ... rarely perceived as dominant, yet always in contention.
The chairman renewed his emphasis on AM “revitalization” efforts in the United States. He described the response in the marketplace to efforts so far as “tremendous” and said more than 1,000 AM stations have now obtained FM translators, more than 20% of all U.S. AM stations.
He said the commission will vote next week on a proposal to give AM stations greater flexibility in siting translators — “a small step that would be a big help to AM broadcasters” — and said he still wants to open two new windows this year for AM stations that still don’t have an FM translator to apply for one. In response to a followup question from Radio World, he expressed support and confidence for further action soon on other elements of the AM revitalization plan beyond translators, though he didn’t cite specifics.
Pai gave strong support to the idea of activating FM chips in smartphones, an issue of advocacy for many in the room including leaders of NextRadio, which helped organize the symposium. But he repeated his past opposition to any kind of mandate: “As a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these chips. I don’t believe the FCC has the power to issue a mandate like that, and more generally I believe it’s best to sort this issue out in the marketplace.”
But Pai returned to his theme of strong interest in the affairs of radio. “When it comes to fighting for a vibrant broadcasting industry, I take a back seat to no one at the FCC… Under my chairmanship, radio won’t be neglected. I will work aggressively to cut unnecessary red tape, modernize our rules and give you more flexibility to serve your audiences. Our regulations should reflect the marketplace of today, not the marketplace as it existed 30 or 40 years ago.” At the same time he also again highlighted his belief in free markets. “As FCC chairman, I have no intention of putting my thumb on the scale for any segment of the communications industry.”
In a rousing conclusion, he said, “There are more audio choices and business challenges than ever, as you well know. But I’m optimistic that radio will continue to succeed, for you’ve defied the odds before.”
A version of this story was originally posted on Radio World, sister publication of Radio magazine.