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The AM Curtain

The Radio Curtain Descends on Europe – the State of AM on the Continent

Editors note: Paul Bailey writes the Goodbye AM blog, covering the decline of broadcasting on that band, particularly in Europe. We asked him to share his perspective with Radio Survivor readers, and we look forward to his future contributions.

In Europe we call the AM band the “medium wave” band (there is also a “long wave” AM band). Until recently, the medium wave band was crowded with all the stations in Europe. There are still small local stations active on the band, but for 90 years it was dominated by the state broadcasters and their high power transmitters which enabled their services to be heard in neighbouring countries in daylight and all over Europe in night time conditions.

Not anymore. Tune along the band today–if it isn’t drowned out by the interference from broadband equipment and digital television power supplies–and count the gaps.

The state broadcasters have been hit by the soaring cost of energy, coupled with audience change and recession, which has reduced their operational incomes. So (apart from the UK, so far) the high power transmitters have been shut down to save money, and their radio services moved to cheaper platforms such as FM and the digital radio DAB system implemented in Europe.

The infrastructure of the high power broadcasters–the masts–is 70 years old and crumbling, and is deemed too expensive to repair or replace. Just weeks ago, one of the two masts at Start Point in England, which relays BBC high power services, was damaged in a winter storm and demolished. It will not be replaced.

The state broadcasters in Europe were traditionally financed by a television license scheme. Some countries have now changed the funding model for their state broadcasters.

In the UK, the BBC has secured a further 11 years of funding through the TV licence, which raises around £4 billion a year to fund its domestic services. If you watch or record television you are required to have a license; not having one is a criminal offense.

Unfortunately for the BBC, the last decade has seen more households ceasing to own televisions, further reducing their income. The number of households without television is now 1.3 million, or 4.7% of all households. If they watch BBC content on mobile devices, they don’t owe the BBC a penny.

On top of that shrinking income from TV licenses, which are price-capped, the government will stopp meeting the cost of free television licenses for senior citizens. The BBC now has to fund those, taking a further £650 million out of the operational budget. It also now has to hand over some of the license income to commercial broadcasters, to help improve their services.

We are waiting to hear from the BBC how they intend to balance their books but we already know that some radio services are being combined and others are going internet only. There is particular concern for the BBC’s network of local radio stations, which cost more per year than the BBC’s major radio network, but have declining audience.

There is also a decline in the ownership of radios. Generations have now grown up who have never owned a radio, they just have phones. This is impacting the local commercial radio stations, as advertisers are reducing their spend. Young people do not consume TV channels or radio stations like I did when I was a teenager; they download. This is reflected in the pop charts, which are largely compiled from download activity.

After 20 years, and much hype, the take-up of digital radio has not met expectations. The low power has proved to be too low to provide a reliable signal, coverage remains incomplete, and the only major manufacturer of DAB digital radios has ceased production.

A new Radio Curtain has descended on Europe, shutting many of us into our own countries, unable to hear each other’s services, many of which are only available on the internet in their home countries.

This has caused concern in the European Parliament, with MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) calling for all the services of all the state broadcasters to be available in all of the countries in the European Union. But where will all the money, frequencies and audience come from?

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