Like many readers of this blog, I grew up listening to AM radio. It created for me the passion and desire to pursue a radio career while I was still in grade school. As a young child, I remember my parents having a least one radio with the FM band, but scanning that band produced not a single radio station to be heard.
FCC Broadcast Station Totals
Looking through the FCC database, I found that the commission’s Broadcast Station Totals reports begin with December 1968, the same year that my professional radio career began. In America, that report listed 4,236 AM Commercial radio stations on the air with only 1,944 FM Commercial radio stations, and even adding the 362 Education FM radio stations only gets you to about half the number of AM stations.
On March 31, 1994, FM Commercial radio stations outnumbered AM Commercial radio stations 5,001 to 4,933; plus, there were now 1,674 FM Educational stations on the air.
To put things in perspective, when the number of America’s FM signals equaled the number of AM signals, 75% of all radio listening was estimated to be occurring on the FM band.
Today’s AM/FM Radio Landscape
The FCC just issued its March 31, 2021 Broadcast Station Totals report and it shows the number of AM Commercial radio stations is down from 27 years ago by 387 stations; now just 4,546 stations, and FM Commercial radio stations are up 1,681, for a total of 6,682 stations. In addition to the commercial stations, there are now another 4,213 FM Educational radio stations and 8,521 FM Translators & Boosters along with 2,114 Lower Power FM radio stations. That’s a grand total of 21,730 FM signals on the air in America compared to 4,546 AM signals.
What percentage of listening would you estimate is now taking place to AM versus FM in the 21st Century? I’m thinking it’s probably north of 99%.
All Digital AM Authorized
October 27, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized ALL-DIGITAL AM RADIO in America. The commission’s ruling says that all “AM broadcasters will be able to voluntarily choose whether and when to convert to all-digital operation from their current analog, or hybrid analog/digital signals.”
A quick check of the FCC database shows only 245 AM radio stations currently broadcasting in hybrid analog/digital; six of which either had their license cancelled or were silent.
The issue for the consumer will be having to buy new AM Digital radios, since all their existing AM radios will not be able to receive an all-digital AM signal.
No to Digital AM
Frank Karkota wrote a guest column for Radio World titled “No to Digital AM” in which he listed six reason why he was opposed to the digitization of the AM band. Let me summarize them for you:
- Building an AM Digital radio is too complicated
- The technology is becoming too complex
- Because of the remarkable advancements in analog AM receiver technology, there’s no need to digitize the AM band
- The poor recovered audio quality of digital radio
- The listening audience will lose some listening options
- Most car radios will need to be replaced to permit digital reception
I’m not an engineer, so I’ll leave it up to technical readers to weigh in here, but as a non-engineering radio guy, why would I go through all those hoops when I can simply click on an aggregator like TuneIn.com and stream any radio station I want to listen, to via my smartphone?
The biggest reason why this is a bad idea is that people are not going to spend money buying a single use device to listen to a radio station when there are so many ways to listen to virtually any radio station in the world today on so many other multi-use devices.
Radio’s Biggest Problem
Back in August 2017, I wrote an article titled “Coal Ain’t Coming Back & Neither is AM Radio” which had hundreds of people commenting.
This month Bloomberg reported “Coal Is Getting Even Closer to the End of Its Line” saying that the United States is on track to use less coal than at any point since the 19th century. This graph paints the picture:
Now look at the change in the number of AM radio stations in America over the past thirty years:
Whether we’re talking about coal or AM radio stations, the trendline is spiraling downward.
Radio’s biggest problem, AM and FM, is that it suffers from a deficit of imagining the lives of its listeners. Radio broadcasters are in the communications business, and yet, they are too focused on saving the past instead of focusing on the future of communications.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them.”
Both Ford and Jobs understood that to win the heart of the customer, you needed to create a future they never even knew they wanted.
The future for radio is creating great audio programming that has people wanting to receive it no matter what platform it is delivered on.
Stop Your Air Talent from Multi-Tasking
It saddens me, that today the radio industry is asking their air talent to multi-task on multiple radio stations. Could you imagine the NFL deciding that their quarterback could also act as the team’s coach at the same time? Never!
The short answer to whether people can really multitask is no. … The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain function at once. Low-level functions like breathing and pumping blood aren’t considered in multitasking.
-Chris Adams, ThoughtCo.com
Listen to what a difference it makes when an air personality can focus on one station, one market and communicate one-on-one with the listener, as KHJ Midday Personality Charlie Tuna does in this air check (Courtesy of the Charlie Ritenburg aircheck collection). Click HERE
This is not a morning show air check, but a midday one for Charlie Tuna. Notice how integral he is to the pace and flow of the radio station. He provides a link to the Los Angeles community and companionship to the listener. The on-air production is tight and smooth. It’s a style of radio so hard to hear anywhere today.
It’s the style of radio that launched my 50 year radio career.