As of this writing, almost no comments have landed in the Federal Communications Commission’s docket on AM reform, save the interesting ones of amateur radio operator Nickolaus E. Leggett. Some of his remarks focus on the consequences, as Leggett sees them, of converting the whole AM system to a digital operation. There is “a specific problem for every user of existing AM radio receivers” if the band goes all digital, Leggett advises.
The FCC doesn’t formally recommend this in its proposals to improve the AM service, but the agency suggests that the idea requires “additional comment, research, and analysis.” Radio scholar John Anderson interprets that as “a green-light action that HD Radio proponents need to start the regulatory campaign toward an all-digital transition.”
In his first filing, Leggett makes the case for AM radio as a democratic medium—easy to access during emergencies and available to all regardless of income. In his second filing he constructs a taxonomy of all digital AM consequences.
First, an all digital conversion “will make the existing stock of AM radio receivers useless,” Leggett warns:
“The simple diode detectors of the conventional AM radios will not be able to process the digital signals. This will impose a significant cost on all users of AM radios in the home, in portable uses, and in our cars. Literally millions of radios would become obsolete. For most of these radios, digital to analog signal converters (like those used for the digital TV conversion) would not be practical.”
Second, an all-digital regimen “will impact heavily on the numerous collectors of old and antique radios.”
“These radios range all the way from the crystal set era in the early 20th Century up through the AM radio receivers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The cash value of these AM radios will be significantly reduced if there are no broadcast stations that they can receive. In this situation, the radio collectors would be forced to operate their own Part 15 AM ‘broadcast stations’ (low power devices) where they would transmit recordings of period music to their own collection of radios. Some organizations of radio collectors may even petition the Commission for authorization to operate traditional AM broadcast stations to serve the classic radios in a given city or cities.”
Third, sunsetting existing AM radios “will also hit hard at the young people who would otherwise be introduced to radio electronics by the simple AM radio kits and do-it-yourself projects.”
“The simple crystal set or one-transistor radio kit would be replaced by rather baffling introductory digital radios that will not provide an effective introduction to the operation of discrete radio components. The whole subject of radio electronics would become shrouded in a cloud of digital mystery with little opportunity for the growth of basic real electronics knowledge. Few youth would learn about the actual flow of electrons in an electronic circuit. This would be a loss for the future of American engineering.”
Leggett concedes that short wave radio might fill this educational void, but “even this adaptation would be inhibited by the widespread prohibitions on outdoor antennas established by condominium associations and home owner associations here in the United States.”
Much of “the spirit of radio operation” would be inhibited by all-digital AM, Leggett concludes; that is, “by replacing the aesthetic appeal of AM radios using discrete radio components (such as resistors, capacitors, inductors, and tubes/transistors) with black box digital integrated circuits.”
Even if you disagree with some of these warnings, they shed light on the degree to which an all digital AM conversion, like any such process, would initiate a series of social trade offs. The question is whether the trades would be worth the effort and expense, and for whom.
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