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Killing AM Radio

Can We Save AM Radio by Killing It? Considering All-Digital AM Radio

Can you save AM Radio by killing it?

The original broadcast band gets little love as it prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday. Plagued by electromagnetic interference from wi-fi routers, LED lights and all sorts of other modern electronics, and dominated by tired right-wing and sports talk programming targeting a shrinking demographic, there’s not much love for AM radio these days.

While the FCC has talked about revitalizing the AM band for something close to a decade, all that’s resulted is letting AM broadcasters have translator repeater stations on the FM dial. That’s not so much AM revitalization as welfare for AM broadcasters.

Another idea that’s been floating in the ether is taking the band all-digital. Just like the FM band, there are digital HD Radio stations on AM right now. Because AM stations have just a fraction of the bandwidth of FM channels, they don’t feature additional channels, like FM’s HD–2 and HD–3. Instead HD Radio stations on AM just have a digital channel accompanying the analog one which offers audio that is stereo and markedly free of noise and static, provided you have an HD Radio tuner and are in range of the lower-powered digital signal.

The idea behind an all-digital AM band is that stations would drop their analog signals altogether in favor of a digital HD Radio signal. The supposed benefit is that the new digital signals would be higher fidelity, free of noise, and somewhat more resistant to interference. The downside would be that they would be unreceivable by the hundreds of millions of analog AM radios in use around the country. Only HD Radio equipped car radios and the much-rarer home receivers would get the broadcasts.

As of now, approximately 50% of new cars are HD-capable. Taking into account that the average vehicle on the road is nearly 12 years old, a much lower percentage of all vehicles have the capability, meaning the majority of radio listeners still can’t hear HD Radio signals.

Nevertheless, for the first time this month the FCC is officially taking up the idea of letting AM stations go all-digital. The proposal, docket 19–311, wouldn’t force stations to go HD Radio. Instead, if approved, it would allow stations to choose this route.

Arguing All-Digital AM

To understand the motivations for this, we can look to a Radio World editorial, in which the petitioner behind this proposal, radio group GM Ben Downs, argues for the sonic advantages of HD Radio on AM. I admit that on its own the fidelity argument is hard to find fault with. But there are many more significant nits to pic. He takes up several common objections.

To the argument, “there aren’t enough [HD] radios,” he answers: “And if we broadcasters don’t step up, there won’t be any listeners either. Every year more and more HD Radios are hitting the market. Can we say the same about AM listeners?”

I think what he’s saying is that listeners are fleeing AM because of the noise and interference, but a growing segment of them are using HD-capable receivers that would relieve them of the sound constraints. I’m not certain there’s much evidence for this. Fidelity is not much of an issue for listening to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or endless listener calls debating NFL stats. Audiences interested in anything else naturally turn to FM.

Downs anticipates this critique, writing, “There are always people who say poor programming damaged AM. I suppose that’s possible, but those choices were forced on us by radios that had such poor performance we were embarrassed to try to compete against FM music stations with what we had to work with.”

That seems a selective view of the past, at best, and ahistorical at worst. FM music radio became predominant in the early 1980s, way before the AM dial became so noisy. Moreover, I’m not sure when this mythical time of wide-spread high fidelity AM receivers was, but that’s one I wished I’d lived in (and I was a radio listener in the early 80s).

He also takes up the argument that, “I’ll lose listeners when I switch [to all-digital],” answering: “The beauty of the AM revitalization process was that it allowed us to pair our AM stations with FM translators. Your translator can carry the audience load while the audience becomes accustomed to all-digital AM.”

I find this just as paradoxical as the idea of FM signals for AM broadcasters representing any kind of “revitalization” for the band. My question is: if listeners have to hear your station on the FM dial, why would they ever go back to find it on AM? Would they even know to do so?

While much of radio listening has moved to the car, and HD Radio is far more prevalent in vehicle dashboards than in home receivers, my own experience is that most listeners are relatively unaware of HD Radio. Their tuners may bring in the signal, but since it sounds roughly identical to the analog one, it’s all in the background. I don’t think most seek it out. This is evidenced by the fact that there are no HD–2 or HD–3 stations – only receivable with an HD capable receiver – at or towards the top of the ratings for any U.S. market.

Now, I agree that the fidelity difference on AM is more pronounced and noticeable. But I’m still not sure that listeners really notice the difference as their radios shift between analog and digital signals. Any AM listener is accustomed to the signal strengthening and fading as they travel, and the analog to digital shift doesn’t really sound all that different.

Importantly, we’re only talking about listeners in vehicles here. AM stations that switch to all-digital will most certainly lose nearly all their listeners outside of a car. No doubt there are nerds like me who own HD Radio home receivers, or some die-hard fans who will go out to buy one of the handful of HD-capable models when it becomes necessary. But the vast majority will just listen to something else.

I have a hard time seeing how going all-digital will save stations. More likely, it will just alienate listeners, and make those stations even more niche and less viable.

The Problem Isn’t Digital Radio, Per Se

I do want to be clear that, despite my cynicism, I don’t actually wish for stations to fail, nor do I think digital radio is a bad idea. I think it would be good for the U.S. to have a truly viable digital radio service. However, it would be better as an additional service, rather than a replacement for analog radio. Something more like the DAB service prevalent outside the US.

Even with its limitations, there are significant advantages to analog AM radio. It’s a proven technology that has lasted a century, and there are millions upon millions of receivers out there. Heck, it’s so simple that you can build a crystal set receiver that doesn’t even require electricity. Moreover, AM signals can easily travel hundreds to thousands of miles.

All of this means that AM is an efficient want to broadcast to large groups of people over a large area. That is particularly important during emergencies, natural disasters or other times when communications by cellular phone or internet is compromised.

Who Loses When Stations Go All-Digital?

What I’d hate to see during a wildfire, hurricane or earthquake thousands of people resorting to their emergency radios, only to find that where there used to be a reliable source of local information there is only digital hash.

Though I have doubts that all-digital AM broadcasting will be any more successful, nor as sustainable as analog, I certainly prefer it to be optional rather than mandatory. On the one hand I suppose it’s not terrible to let station owners to make their bets and choose their own fates.

On the other hand, these consequences are not borne only by stations alone. Communities continue to depend on broadcasters, and there is still something of a remnant public service obligation in exchange for the monopoly license to use a frequency on the public airwaves. If going all-digital ends up driving a station out of business, what’s the likelihood that another one will take over the license and take its place?

I honestly don’t doubt the sincerity of many all-digital AM proponents, that they honestly would like to see a higher fidelity, “improved” service on the dial. However, they may be naïve.

Is This Even About Radio?

A more suspicious take would be that a drive to all-digital AM has nothing to do with radio as an audio service. Rather it’s an effort to turn the band into a data service, with audio as a justification, but more of an afterthought. That’s not unlike the required, but mostly useless video signal of channel 6 low-power TV stations, that mostly serve as “Franken FM” radio stations sneaking onto the FM dial at 87.7 FM. Think of all-digital AM as a cheap way to send traffic, weather and other commercialized data to in-car receivers without the need for mobile internet.

That said, I also have doubts about how many broadcasters would take advantage of all-digital operation. I have difficulty seeing top rated big-city AMs dump the millions of analog listeners that keep advertisers coming back just to gain a little bit of fidelity for a minority of the in-car audience.

The question becomes: Is all-digital AM Radio actually AM Radio? If we’re being pedantic, no, it isn’t. AM means Amplitude Modulation, which is an inherently analog technology. If all the stations on the AM dial were to go digital, that would in fact mean the death of AM broadcasting in the U.S., along with the death of many of the technology’s advantages.

It’s possible this wouldn’t be as tragic as I predict. Maybe analog FM and more robust internet technologies would pick up the slack. Maybe even such a transition would stimulate the production and sales of more HD Radio receivers.

I’m not committed to being a luddite, and I wouldn’t mind being wrong. I just won’t bet on it.

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