There’s something that’s been troubling me for some time. It’s the radio industry’s habit of reporting radio listening results by calling it “AM/FM” versus what it really is, virtually all FM radio listening.
Who could not be buoyed by this headline from Nieman Lab: “AM/FM radio holds strong for American listeners.”
But is it true?
When I read the ratings reports from both PPM and diary markets, I see an FM world.
Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on AM radio and recognize that almost every market has a heritage AM radio station that still garners a big audience. I’m not blind to the wonderful ratings of 1010 WINS in New York City for example.
But there are only 26 all-news terrestrial radio stations left in America according to Nieman. This popular format is missing from the majority of America’s radio markets.
WTOP was built on AM radio. It moved its entire operation over to the FM band and grew its audience, revenues and lowered its listener demographic. People who never heard this radio station on its AM dial position were suddenly newly minted fans of their all news format.
The FCC Saves AM Radio
The FCC’s mission to save AM radio is to give these radio stations an FM dial position using a translator. What are we really saving? The AM band or a particular format that a radio operator created on the AM band and now, to survive, needs to move it, like WTOP, to the FM side of the dial.
From my blogging, I get lots of feedback about a variety of things concerning broadcasting. One reader wrote to me about his father, a sports fan, who turned on WIP-FM to hear the latest chatter. WIP-FM was broadcasting a game of no interest to his father, so his son said to him, why don’t you turn on WIP AM610. Sadly, this person wrote the audio was unlistenable. He wrote: “You’d think the FCC would mandate that AM have standards for audio quality in receivers.”
When I was living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I couldn’t receive 650AM WSM in my office, even though my office looked south and my antenna was able to enjoy a full wall of windows. The noise floor both inside my university office as well as around town while driving in my car made the station unlistenable. WSM was once listened to all the way to Louisville in northern Kentucky. Instead, I downloaded WSM’s app and could enjoy the radio station in crystal clear stereo. (I see WSM has stopped subscribing to Nashville Nielsen Audio ratings.)
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) did a review of the range of services it offered on the AM band (called medium wave across the pond) and it included a financial review of all its services too. They concluded the ROI (return on investment) in AM was not there and announced they would be turning off some 13-AM radio stations in January 2018 according to Radio Business Reports.
There’s a great radio operator in Cadiz, Kentucky by the name of Beth Mann. WHVO is her AM radio station at 1480, but if you go on her website, you won’t find any mention of this station being on the AM radio dial. It’s promoted as WHVO 96.5 & 100.9 FM.
It’s time to face the fact that AM radio needs to be re-deployed for a new service. Current radio station owners should be given a viable FM dial position that replaces their AM service area, and doesn’t require multiple translators to attempt to accomplish this task. (Note: WHVO needs two translators to deliver the signal of its AM 1480.)
It’s time to allow those same dedicated radio broadcasters to sell off their expensive AM tower sites and turn off their AM stations that consume electrical power with no real ROI.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…”
AM radio’s time has come and gone as the mass communication delivery system it was from the 1920s to the 1970s, much as radio replaced vaudeville.
To put things in perspective, at a time in America’s radio history when the number of FM signals equaled the number of AM signals on the air, 75% of all radio listening was to FM. So, you can only imagine what it’s like today for AM radio listening when FM signals outnumber AM signals by four and a half times in the USA. (FCC BROADCAST STATION TOTALS AS OF JUNE 30, 2018: 4,633 AM signals / 20,758 FM signals)
That’s why I believe we do no service in promoting radio as “AM/FM” and not being honest about where virtually all of the radio listening is really taking place.
Sadly, AM radio is to broadcasting as coal is to power generation. It was the perfect solution in its day.
43 responses to “AM/FM or just FM?”
Better specs on receivers isn’t going to help unless you eliminate all the other makers of interference: fluorescent bulbs, computers, microwave ovens, air conditioners, anything else with a motor, and more. Which obviously isn’t going to happen. AM had it’s day. It’s almost over, the horse and buggy of broadcast history.
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I agree Rick. No one is going to bring back the horse to plow fields after they have used a tractor. AM radio had its day. It launched a whole new way for the world to communicate, but time marches on.
Yes, it’s time to let AM go. Take the small market of Albany, Georgia, for example. The first-ever, as well as the oldest, radio station in the area, WGPC, which operated at 1450 on the dial for most of its 80-plus years on the air, had its tower destroyed by a straight-line wind storm during the late night hours of January 2, 2017. By March of that year, the decision was made to take WGPC off the air permanently, leaving Albany with three true stations on the AM dial. Also, many of the FM translators that pump signals into Albany and surrounding areas are being relayed from other FM stations from least 30-40 miles away, instead of from other AM stations. Additionally, there’s the huge disparity between the number of licensed AM stations (4,600+), as opposed to the much larger number of licensed FM stations (25,000+). So, yes, it’s time to let AM go. As always, thanks for sharing.
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Will there be a Part Two to this article, revealling where you plan to locate all those vacant FM channels? My market has none left, since translators have already taken up all the dial space.
You raise a good point John. It may be too late. But then we ARE in a communications revolution. -DT
AM radio had it’s chance for salvation when FM came along. Every AM station I am aware of, at least in Florida, Georgia and Indiana (the markets I’m familiar with) that applied for, were assigned FM stations. Most of them got Class B or C stations. Then came deregulation and those ‘big stick’ FM’s suddenly became very valuable. They were sold off and moved to bigger markets with no responsibility to the original city of market. That left all of these AM’s, especially in smaller markets as stand alone stations. I know I’m oversimplifying it, but another essay this ain’t.
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Better receiver specs and even a reduction in noise isn’t going to help if AM radios aren’t in consumers hands calmer and more importantly, aren’t being carried around by consumers. When was the last time you found anyone carrying both their phone and a portable radio? I don’t know if it’s completely time to sunset the band, but I can see it happening in the next 10 years. The FCC would have to replace it WLW or WCBS with a comparable FM signal, and that would probably mean another round of ownership deregulation ( by comparable I mean in the local market, not accounting for distant reception). A fun fact about WTOP: Washington never had an AM that covered the entire market day and night)
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What they should have done is to extend the FM dial down into what was TV channel 5, and moved all AM signals there. But, that would have made too much sense.
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You’re not alone with that thinking Hal. -DT
It doesn’t make sense if people aren’t about to buy new radios to hear these stations. It would take 10-15 years to replace all the vehicles on the road. If I own WLW, I’m absolutely not moving to a band no one has. A new band would have made sense in 1988.
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What about broadcasting AM signals in HD only?
I believe the problem was radio broadcasters themselves, who wanted to maintain both analog and digital simultaneously. Unfortunately, while this “worked” for FM, it was a disaster for AM. Going all digital on AM would have meant that the listener would need to go out and buy new radios and all existing AM car radios would have to be updated or replaced. It didn’t happen at that moment in communications history when it might have worked. Now, I believe it’s too late for such a plan. BUT – Hubbard is now testing that all digital AM broadcast theory on one of their radio stations, so stay tuned. -DT
All-digital AM doesn’t really solve the problem, per se. It doesn’t change the fact that there’s too many stations on the AM dial and too high a noise floor…even with the greater robustness of an all-digital signal.
What would’ve made more sense was some kind of subsidy that moved many/most AM stations to the HD2 channels of the larger FM stations in town, with a minimal transition period (two years, perhaps). This could still work, but the history of the Expanded Band bodes ill for this idea. Way too many SOB owners were demanding they keep both their original frequency and their EX-AM new frequency instead of shutting down the old one.
Plus, to be fair, the HD2/HD3/HD-n system isn’t very well set up to handle a station with completely different ownership/branding from the FM/HD1. At a minimum, you’ve got people having to tune to the HD1 for 5 to 10 seconds before they can get to the HD2. That’s a long time when a listener might decide the like what’s on the HD1 better. Plus the Program Service Data (HD’s terminology for PAD) makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the radio’s display on the HD2 to really be completely separate from the parent FM/HD1. It’ll almost always still say “WXXX” even if the HD2 was “WYYY”.
These aren’t unworkable problems but they’re less than ideal.
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Cox Radio did a listener study to see what listeners would prefer when it came to tuning in an HD2 or HD3 channel – step down from the primary or a completely new dial position (phantom dial position). 100% of the people surveyed said a new dial position. What did radio broadcasters adopt? The current system of having to tune to the primary signal and then step down from that to the HD2 or HD3 channel. It made no sense to me why this research was ignored completely.
The whole HD system was designed by the industry to preserve the status quo of some stations that were more powerful and better coverage than others. In the last 1980’s and early 1990’s the FCC was considering implementing Eureka-147 (as DAB was then called) which would have had the stations digitally multiplexed on a single carrier. All the stations were equally well (or equally poorly) receivable The NAB and others argued against it and hence we got IBOC. Meanwhile in the UK and Europe, Eureka has evolved several generations and is enjoying significant consumer acceptance.
Here in America, commercial broadcasters are always fighting the last battle and coming up with the worst solutions.
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Yes Steve, I remember Eddie Fritz trying to bring Eureka-147 to the USA. Two major obstacles were, the spectrum needed to set it up was owned by the Pentagon and they were not about to give it up and the broadcasters wanted to preserve the different service levels that had been established by the FCC back in the early days of broadcasting.
Short-sighted and gave us the situation we find ourselves in today.
Thanks for adding to the conversation.
And yet, HD on FM is just now beginning to get into listeners minds…though at a pace that is, at best, glacial in nature. Many people have HD radios in their new cars…and have to be trained on how to use them.
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For a long time, the Broadcast Maximization Committee not only evangelized re-purposing the spectrum for TV5 & 6 for a digital FM solution to move all the AM stations to…they actually DID THE WORK and figured out how to actually migrate each and every AM station to this new band in a way that would preserve most, if not all, of their local coverage. In many cases, these migrated stations would see improvements to their coverage.
Of course, the idea went nowhere because, well, the NAB and the FCC, and I think it was largely abandoned in 2013.
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Sadly, it was the right plan for radio broadcasting, but not supported most likely for the same reasons that Eddie Fritz got resistance when he proposed adopting the Eureka 147 digital system for America.
Today we live with the stunted vision of the leaders of the past.
The FCC should use the am band to enable small local broadcasters create small local stations to serve their communities. The rules and restrictions of LPFM’s aren’t worth the time or trouble. An individual should be able to broadcast and serve their community without a board which takes over ownership and controls every single decision presented. The LPFM service is not the solution. This cumbersome antiquated system make it an inadequate solution to serve a community and the public .
What you propose is the wild west for AM broadcasting Jim. That’s how it all began before 1920 and the FRC (Federal Radio Commission). Everything needs some kind of rules. Sports have ref’s. Radio has the FCC. -DT
Rule Number One….OBEY ALL RULES.
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I am in broadcasting. AM radio should be relocated between channels 2 and 6 in the TV band. Most of that area of the band is useless for digital TV. It would take a amount of time, much like the transition period from analog to digital TV in the US for this to happen. With the number of AM stations leaving the air and the amount of money it would take to bring a lot of the pre WWII stations back to the technical level they were in the beginning not to mention the reduction in quality of the design of both receivers and transmitters, it is long overdue for a clean out of the current AM band and opening another one.
I don’t think the AM band will ever go completely silent. The reason is simple, those frequencies are really not suited for any other use.
Some LPFM 501(c) boards have only one person. Many others are controlled by one family including my station, WPCG-LP 102.9 FM, Canton, GA
In case anyone has forgotten, channels 2-6 belong to the TV band, an ever contracting TV band. Yes, 8VSB is not a good fit for low VHF but it is an ideal fit for ATSC 3.0 and stations are still being relocated during the repack phase. Many will be assigned to the VHF band. As I see it, the only hope for AM and FM is to go all digital. It will clean up the noise for AM and greatly increase capacity for FM. One of the biggest wastes is the adjacent channels protections for analog FM. With digital and OFDM transmission it is entirely possible to stack FM stations next to each other. Add to that the multiple side channels that are possible within a single channel and you have a much more efficient method for managing what is a limited and precious resource. What about the millions of analog radios? Well, who said anything is forever. As more and more cars (where the majority of listening occurs) come equipped with digital radios the worry about analog radios diminishes. But going all digital is the only answer. It worked for television, it will work for radio.
The reasons it worked for TV were two-fold: 1) the government mandated it and 2) it provided the viewer with a better experience that they could see. The problem for radio is most people can’t tell the difference in audio quality between analog FM and digital FM with the possible exception being, they can receive an analog FM signal better than a digital one. That’s the non-engineering observation. I invite radio broadcast engineers to weigh in on the rest of your thoughts. -DT
Dick, yes the difference in audio quality between analog and digital FM would be minimal. I was thinking more in terms of better spectrum management. With digital FM (either HDR or DRM) and the OFDM standard which both use, you can safely pack more stations–a lot more–into the existing FM band.
Thank you for the clarification Daniel. -DT
so the only commercial radio station on the AM band in Bethlehem, PA, 250 watt daytimer WGPA spent $7500 to buy an FM translater from another station in NY with the 250 mile deal. Got assigned a FM frequency of a station some 60 miles away and caused interference, and lost the 250 channel to another 50 watt channel so directional that it doesn’t cover all of Bethlehem. And we know small AM radio stations which can’t make enough money to stay in business are shutting down. While FM translators might work in some areas for some stations, I think those small town AM’s need to be given a good channel so they can cover the area over allowing high power FM’s getting them only to broadcast another FM from outside the area. My 2 cents.
I agree with you Mark. Unfortunately, it seems every time an AM radio station is given a chance to have a better signal, the operator sells it to another company whose main goal is to move that signal closer to a major metro area. It is here that the FCC has let down American citizens by allowing this sort of thing to happen. -DT
One thing which hasn’t been mentioned in article or in any of the comments, perhaps is one of Medium Wave AM radio’s strongest reason to be preserved. In the event of a nuclear detonation, the atmosphere is ionized to the point where radio propagation above around 3 MHz becomes impossible for some time following the detonation. Medium Wave AM radio becomes the only medium over which public announcements can be disseminated (I know, this assumes that the EMP hasn’t rendered all receiving (and most of the now at least partially solid state transmitting) devices inoperable…I still have several antique hollow-state radios in my collection, Prepared, Prepared, the Motto of the Boy Scouts…).
The Old Soldering Gunslinger
Unfortunately, the reality today is 29% of all American households don’t have a single AM or FM radio in them. And the 18-34 adult households see that number rise to 50% not having a single AM or FM radio in them. So, without an economic model to keep those AM radio stations solvent, they will be signing off. -DT
Europeans are facing this same dilemma as they move (or try to move) to DMR. Since most cars over the past 30+ years have AM/FM radios, and most homes that have radios have that as well, it is a hard sell to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon AM. The 3 most listened to programs in the US, all syndicated, are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glen Beck. And most of their stations are on AM. In almost every large city market, say the top 50 markets, there are no FM channels available. And few have AM channels free. There is no where for the AM stations to go on FM unless they go on a subcarrier and most radios can not pick them up.
Yes FM sounds better because they use a lot more bandwidth. Yes AM is more sensitive to electrical noise, especially from poor power lines and connections. The power companies really should fix those issues since they are just wasting our money sending electricity out into the air.
I almost always listen to AM since that is where the news, talk and traffic is and I am in the car. If I am home I can hear what I like commercial free via cable or the Internet.
AM can use some help but eliminating it serves no viable purpose. The frequencies are not in great demand by other services like broadcast TV channels were.
Thanks for sharing your perspective on the subject Tom. -DT
Here would be true AM Revitalization:
1. On January 1, 2020 any new stations that sign on, any station that requests a change (upgrade or downgrade signal, applies for new transmitters, or modifications) plus any station that changes owners/management for consideration (cash, stock, debt assumption, market swap, etc.) MUST broadcast in digital (HD) and analog.
2. January 1, 2022 all new radios sold in the USA (including those in cell phones, tablets, etc.) MUST include both AM and FM and be able to receive HD Radio signals.
3. January 1, 2023 all full-power AM and FM stations (including translators and repeaters) in the 50 largest markets OR owned/managed/operated by the 15 largest ownership groups must broadcast in analog and HD. This would include non-profits such as Educational Media Foundation and their K-LOVE and Air1 stations.
4. January 1, 2027, all stations in the 150 largest markets (including translators and repeaters) must broadcast in analog and HD Radio.
5. January 1, 2030 ALL radio stations in the USA broadcast in analog and HD Radio.
6. No later than January 1, 2050 all analog signals must be turned off.
The only exceptions to the HD switch over will be:
NOAA Weather Radio on 162.400 to 165.550 MHZ
Time signal stations operated by NIST
Travel information stations that broadcast at less then 20 watts and operated by a local highway department or toll road authority
Unlicensed carrier circuit stations that broadcast to school campuses, large office buildings, or sports arenas
Streaming Only Services (Pandora, Spotify, etc.)
Cable/Satellite TV music services (Music Choice)
I will be interested to see how people respond to what you suggest. I think this might have been a good plan back in 1990, but it’s too late now for such a plan. The communications revolution is operating at full-speed and on a global basis. -DT
The timeline is too slow. AM is on life support and failing. The switch to all digital needs to happen now, certainly no later than 2023. So what, if it obsoletes analog radios. Most cars will have digital radios by that time. As it stands now, hardly anyone listens to AM. I doubt it will be missed most people. So why not go digital and start fresh with the AM band? Treat it as a new audio service–a new “free” audio service with pristine audio quality.
Daniel, I was just remembering the “pain” that the DTV transition had on the public. However I agree with you that something needs to be done with AM (other than jamming a bunch of translators on FM). Until the FCC forces broadcasters to switch to Digital, nothing will ever change. I would prefer sooner rather than later, but if rural radio stations need more time and/or money to upgrade, the time frame I suggested might work better.
In the Columbia/Jefferson City, MO market, one large company (Cumulus) doesn’t even bother to have RDS on their stations, while the other big player here (Zimmer) has a bunch of translators repeating their full power FM stations. Currently there are 2 stations in this market broadcasting in HD Radio, one is the NPR affiliate at the University of Missouri, the other an album/classic rock station at the Lake of the Ozarks.
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Agreed Randy. -DT
Randy, having been a TV station owner at the time, I well know how painful the transition to digital was. It was an engineering nightmare and expensive, made even worse by the fact that the FCC was also moving some of us off our high UHF channels. But it had to happen and, in the end, turned out to be a very good move for broadcast television. Before the transition, less than 10% of the U.S. population was watching TV by antenna. Today, that figure is up over 20% and growing. I think we’ll see something similar with AM. The trick is to learn from the mistakes of the DTV transition (and there were plenty made) and not repeat them. I don’t think the digital transition on AM will be nearly as bad, provided the FCC does its part by creating a plan that has more broadcaster input and not as arbitrary as the DTV transition plan was.
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Agreed Daniel. -DT
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