Improving AM Radio
The question of “what to do with AM radio” has been around for decades yet remains unresolved as listenership continues to decline.
The latest salvo came recently when FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington spoke at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters convention in Kansas City. Among other things, Simington proposes working with car manufacturers to “double down on AM reception” and taking “a critical look at AM radio reception on a technical level.”
I’m not an engineer, not a station owner or manager. I don’t even work in radio anymore. But I’m still fascinated by the big AM groundwave coverage areas during the day and the even bigger skywave coverage areas at night.
Some may wonder why the original form of broadcasting might still be relevant in the digital streaming age. Some assume AM must be an inefficient use of bandwidth.
In fact, it’s the opposite. AM radio squeezes 120 channels into 1.2 MHz of bandwidth. Only six FM channels or one-fifth of a TV channel would fit into that space (but AM frequencies are not practical for those purposes).
And AM stations can go far. 5,000-Watt transmitters on low frequencies in the Plains reach multiple states. 50,000-Watt transmitters in the Midwest have nearly coast-to-coast coverage at night.
AM radio can actually sound pretty good, too. But generations of listeners have only experienced cheaply-made radios with poor sound, listening environments filled with interference, and a narrow array of formats that mostly don’t appeal to younger listeners.
There is another growing problem: Many AM station owners don’t really even want them anymore. Some AM licenses are only being kept to serve as legal loopholes to program 250-Watt FM translators (ironically granted as part of the “AM revitalization” effort).
So why make them keep the AM transmitters on the air at all? Why not let broadcasters turn off the AM side and continue to run the 250-Watt FM signal?
Say what you will about the fairness of handing out FM licenses. But the reality is that many, if not most, AM-on-FM translators are already being programmed as de facto FM stations, with the AM side mostly or completely ignored.
Taking the unwanted AM stations off the air would reduce interference and possibly give stations that actually want to be on AM the chance to upgrade.
The question, of course, is how to handle this from a regulatory perspective. Perhaps FM translators granted during the revitalization effort could be given waivers to originate programming in lieu of the AM station, similar to how TV stations that sold their bandwidth during the spectrum auction were allowed to originate their programming on other stations’ transmitters.
That would leave the AM band to broadcasters who actually want to be there. They’d be better equipped to deal with interference issues and declining audiences.
Who would’ve thought that LP album sales would resurge among youth after decades of declines? Maybe more will discover the magic of the original form of broadcasting.