Inside the radio industry there has been quite a bit of hand-wringing about the AM dial. Though conservative talk stations and sports stations in big markets continue to generate ratings and revenue, there’s an increasing recognition that other AM stations aren’t doing as well. Many blame overcrowding on the dial which leads to more interference, especially at night. Others claim broadcasters themselves are to blame, for not maintaining facilities and uncreative programming.
Over at DIYmedia.net John Anderson takes a critical overview of the solutions being examined by the National Association of Broadcasters, which has formed a task force to tackle the future of AM. John writes,
The Task Force seems to be considering two primary ideas for “revitalizing” AM broadcasting. One is to phase it out completely and migrate all AM stations to new spots on the FM dial. The other involves a wholesale conversion of AM broadcasting from analog to digital, using AM-HD as the mechanism.
Neither of these proposals are optimal. Both would necessitate listeners buying new receivers to take advantage of any changes, and they would be expensive and disruptive to all AM broadcasters – many of whom are on shaky financial footing already.
The NAB, as the handmaiden of the largest broadcast conglomerates (and with the close cooperation of National Public Radio) seems to be leaning toward the digitalization route. Either will be a tough sell.
I tend to come down on the side of thinking that the big broadcasters made their own bed, similar to how Clear Channel and its ilk squeezed the life out of commercial music radio on FM over the last 16 years. Just like HD Radio has failed to rescue FM, I have serious doubts that digitizing AM will save it, either.
I also don’t agree with scrapping AM. Although it is an older technology, which poses technical and fidelity challenges that FM does not face, it also has distinct advantages. First, AM transmissions can cover a much bigger geographic area than FM, nearly half the North American continent with the right power level. Because they don’t travel line-of-sight, it’s easier to send and receive AM signals in hilly or mountainous areas than FM.
Second, AM receivers are simple to build and operate — a crystal set doesn’t even need batteries. While this may seem downright antiquated in the mobile internet age, it can be a real lifesaver during a natural disaster or other emergency that results in extended power outages.
Finally, the infrastructure is already there, and is in use. There are still millions of listeners tuning in AM radio each day, who would likely lose many of their favorite stations were the service eliminated. Furthermore, the AM broadcast band is a tiny swath of spectrum, not particularly useful for data services like the FM and UHF bands are.
Of course, any change would require a long FCC proceeding. But that doesn’t mean change is necessarily unlikely or impossible. What it means is that those of us who care about preserving the service need to be aware and ready to engage in the debate.