DXing dilemma: FM translators and their effect on the hobby

Tower (right) for translator 89.7 W210BY Woodbridge, VA on 8/11/13.
Tower (center) for translator 89.7 W209BY Woodbridge, VA on 8/11/13.  Click to enlarge.

As a DXer who has been in the same location for 14 years, one of the many DX-killing advances going on right now is the proliferation of FM translators on the dial.  It seems I find a new one every time I turn around.

According to multiple web reports, the Federal Communications Commission has been relaxing allocation rules on the FM band, starting with the allowance of more, new LPFM and translator signals in the recent decade or so.  I didn’t feel the repercussions locally until early 2008.

Until 2008, I could not regularly receive any translator station from my home, however I did log a handful within 40 or so miles while in my car.  On 5/8/08, the first local translator appeared on my dial: 89.7 W209BY Aquia Harbor, VA, at 7 miles away, 5 watts.  It was originally very weak, often not received at my home due to distance.  I still got Es and Tr over 89.7 at first.  The station soon moved to a new tower 1 mile away (pictured at right) from my home and increased its power to 8 watts in May 2010, effectively making it a local-grade signal that renders all but the strongest FM Es or Tr impossible on that frequency.

Since 89.7 W209BY signed on, I’ve gained 4 more translators on my dial:

– 97.5 W249BE Alexandria, VA, first logged on 7/20/13 @ 5 miles, 5 watts.  Simulcasts 730 WTNT Alexandria, VA.
– 102.9 W275BO Chantilly, VA, first logged on 4/7/10 @ 3 miles, 15 watts.  Also simulcasts 730 WTNT.
– 105.5 W288BS Reston, VA, first seen on 10/28/08 @ 11 miles, 38 watts.  Simulcasts 88.5 WAMU Washington, DC’s HD-2 subchannel
– 106.3 W292EC Gainesville, VA, first seen on 4/6/13 @ 14 miles, 80 watts.  Simulcasts 1460 WKDV Manassas, VA.

When all of the above signals debuted, they were only minor nuisances that allowed garden-variety tropo and Es to come in with ease.  But almost all of the above signals have increased power or moved transmitter locations to the point where they are almost as strong in my home as the major Washington FM stations.  The worst example is the aforementioned 89.7.  105.5 has since upped their wattage to 99 watts, making it a weak but stable signal at home that is local-grade in my car.  102.9 increased to 30 watts in 2012, making it a very strong local-grade signal, displacing former semi-local 102.9 WKIK California, MD @ 40 miles, 4kw. 106.3 is strong when aimed NW toward its transmitter, but it thankfully still lets Tr and Es come in right over it when aimed away.  97.5 is said to soon increase power to 200 watts, effectively ruining Tr and Es abilities on that frequency.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

As a DXer, I hold nothing against the aforementioned stations in terms of their programming, format, or owners.  Those factors have no bearing on the DXing hobby.  I just care about the signal’s effect on my ability to log other distant signals on the same frequency.  I understand most radio stations operate translators to maximize their audience.  That is understandable and I don’t fault any company or station for doing so (I’d want to do the same if I was a station operator–be on as many frequencies as possible to get the most listeners).  With that said, however, I feel some of the translators I can pick up aren’t necessarily needed, based on predicted signal coverage areas of their parent stations on Radio-Locator.com.  The picture on the left shows 1460 WKDV’s AM 60 dBu coverage area (in red) in comparison to their 106.3 translator (in blue).  WKDV’s daytime pattern is to the left, while its nighttime pattern is to the right. In both instances, the AM signal seems to cover much more land (and listeners).   I figure WKDV would want to have an FM signal for higher fidelity and ease for listeners, however the station’s audio is mono like the AM parent signal.  The fact remains that only a small portion of Northern Virginia cannot receive either WKDV’s AM or FM signal clearly based on the map on the left.  There are many more listeners NE of both stations, closer to Washington, DC.  Again, nothing against WKDV or its owners–I’m just critically analyzing the station’s coverage area vs. likely target audience and location of population.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

The map on the right shows 88.5 WAMU’s 60 dBu coverage area (in red) with its 105.5 translator in purple.  Note how every listener within 105.5’s signal coverage area *should* receive 88.5 WAMU with strong, local-grade reception.  However, the only difference in this signal is that 105.5 relays an HD Radio subchannel of 88.5 WAMU.  Again, I don’t care about the formats of the stations in question, but listeners in the 105.5 coverage area can likely all easily get the HD subchannel, with proper equipment. I can pick it up easily and I’m much further away from the translator.  Granted, IBOC-compatible radios are becoming harder and harder to find, so I’m sure many listeners benefit from the 105.5 relay, but it is still a frequency that well-equipped DXers (who can tune in the 88.5 HD2) would likely find superfluous.  Once again, I have nothing against WAMU or its owners.  This is just a critical analysis from a DXer’s perspective into signal coverage areas.

It just makes me sigh, as a DXer, when I see new translators pop up in the close suburbs of a major market where the relayed station is already received strong.  These translators obviously makes it harder to DX, as the translators often take the few DX-able signals left not full of adjacent-channel IBOC interference from other local signals.  The only benefit of translators for a DXer is a new log whenever the station signs on, even if the relay’s debut is a “kiss of death” of DX on its frequency.

Click to enlarge. Granted, I’m no authority on local broadcasting (nor DXing, for the matter), but I feel translators should only be used in mountainous areas or locales where the main signal cannot be received or has signal issues (i.e. a sharp null to protect another station).  Or, communities on the edge of the parent station’s coverage area would be perfect spots for translators–not within a stone’s throw from the main parent station’s transmitter.  The map on the left illustrates my opinions — the map on the left, with an imaginary parent station’s coverage area in red vs. translators in green.  The left-side map shows how I feel translators should be spaced out in relation to the main signal.  The right-side map shows how they are utilized, more or less, in the DC area.  Again, these maps are of an imaginary station and the map on the right is an exaggeration, but it gets the point across.  Overall, I feel translators should not be common within 20 miles of the major market’s city center or where the parent station booms in.

With the outburst of translators clogging my FM dial, I’m afraid some of my best DX frequencies are ‘on the chopping block’, so to speak.  Locally, 92.9 and 100.7 are fairly open frequencies where there are no major FMs frequently receivable within 100 miles (there are some <60 mile signals on 100.7, but they are rare catches).  There are no signals within 50-60 miles on 96.7 or 104.7, so they are also prime frequencies for translators.  When these frequencies go, so does my ability to DX meteor scatter as I often use 92.9 and 100.7 for the propagation mode.

I feel it is only a matter of time before every non-local frequency is either a translator or a non-DXable frequency clogged with either IBOC hiss from adjacent locals.  A regular listener, in the future, will likely have 5-6 FM stations rebroadcasting the same parent station, all coming in at the same strength.  When is it going to end?

I guess the silver lining is that these translators are NOT broadcasting IBOC…yet.