By Rich Webb
A recent article on the web site “The Verge” posed the question: Can we save AM radio? I don't have a clear answer or an obvious path, but I wanted to think about what makes AM radio a viable communications medium for the 21st century.
AM radio, by its very nature, has several strikes against it. It's got a restricted broadcast frequency range, limited to about 5 Khz by its very nature. This makes it a terrible medium for music, as many instruments play above that range. AM radio also receives static and interference from many sources, such as fluorescent lights, or kitchen appliances, or the motors of automobiles. Even distant lightning storms interfere with AM radio signals. Why would anybody even bother listening to an AM radio station? Indeed, two-thirds of all radio listeners listen to FM radio exclusively. And none of this even begins to address consumer preference, or competition from other entertainment and information vehicles.
But AM radio has its strengths. An AM radio signal can cover a much broader service area, and not being limited to line of sight, has a superior coverage when compared to FM radio and broadcast television. Its upper limit of frequency range becomes an asset when used to broadcast the voice, which doesn't need the higher frequencies to be understood or enjoyed. And because the format is relatively unpopular (for the reasons stated above), it's relatively cheap to buy a license and equipment and make a radio station that can serve small communities that are otherwise not well served by other media. Small town life would be radically different in the absence of high school football games against cross-county rivals broadcast on the radio. AM radio is uniquely suited for local sports and news broadcasts.
In October of 2013, the FCC released a series of proposals designed to help keep AM radio stations relevant, or at least potentially profitable, in the 21st century. While not accepted into actual policy changes just yet, the proposals seek to remove some of the more cumbersome rules that had dictated AM radio stations behavior, trying to find a balance between what such a station might be capable of and what the government was preventing it from doing. These rules and policy changes were defined as follows:
1) Open FM translator filing window exclusively for AM licenses.
Other possible policy reforms are hinted at, but these six form the core of what the FCC is considering allowing AM broadcasters to do.
1) Open FM translator filing window exclusively for AM licenses.
It is currently possible for AM radio stations to re-broadcast their programming over an FM translator, but the governmental burdens of such an opportunity made this type of broadcasting relatively rare. For instance, a shifting of the FM frequency might be necessary in order to not interfere with an existing station's service area. The shift of a few channel spots had been considered a “minor” change and had been allowed under the old rules, but “major” changes of several channel spots was “discouraged” by FCC regulations. Broadcasters had tried to get around this by filing several “minor” frequency adjustments that would be allowed into a larger package of a “major” frequency adjustment equivalent. The proposed rules would make this type of subterfuge unnecessary.
2) Modify daytime community coverage standards for existing AM stations
AM stations are required to vary their broadcast power depending on the time of day, transmitting weaker signals at night to prevent interference with other, stronger stations. This bi-polar broadcast requirement often limited the possible locations of AM radio transmitters. A proposed change in the rules would allow more flexibility in placement of transmitters by reducing the requirements for service area coverage for both daytime and night time coverage.
4) Eliminate the AM “ratchet rule”
An existing AM radio station that sought to modify its broadcasting facilities had to prove that any changes made would create an overall reduction in possible interference with other nearby stations. This policy made it difficult for a station to upgrade its broadcasting capabilities without running afoul of this rule, making modifications more difficult. A petition filed with the FCC sought to eliminate this rule, and a modifications of this rule was proposed.
5) Permit wider implementation of Modulation Dependent carrier level control technologies
New technologies and procedures make it possible for a broadcaster to use transmitter control techniques to vary its carrier power level as a function of its modulation level. These techniques, known as Modulation Dependent Carrier Level, would allow a broadcaster to reduce power consumption as well as maintaining its assigned service area, while maintaining its audio quality. Essentially, lower modulation levels would be allowed to transmit at lower carrier power, with higher modulation levels transmitting at higher power levels. Alternatively, lower modulation levels would be allowed to broadcast at regular, higher power levels, but lower power levels and sideband broadcast power would be used at higher modulation.
6)Modify AM antenna efficiency standards.
The proposed rules would change the criteria from designating “minimum efficiency standards” to a more mathematical description of “broadcast radiation minimums”.
All of these proposed changes might go a long way towards making for a more economically efficient broadcasting system, thus buffering the bottom line of what is, at its heart, a business that must keep an eye on expenses, both in operations and in capital expenditures.
However, none of these changes will matter much if listeners don't seek out attractive programming on the AM side of radio broadcasting, which is a pity, as AM radio does in fact serve a useful purpose. There's a reason that the Emergency Alert System process relies on AM radio to get out the word in case of national emergency: the AM band can reach across continents, where FM cannot, and cable and television might not even work. In recent emergencies, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, almost all other communication processes failed at a time when they were needed most. Radio station WALK 1370 AM, licensed out of Patchogue, on the seaward side of New York's Long Island, served as almost a sole source of information for thousands of people whose only means of news was a battery powered AM radio with a reach that FM radio couldn't hope to match.
So while the future of AM radio is far from rosy, at least as far as a viable and profitable business might be, there should always be that nighttime voice on the car speakers, telling us the news, the weather, and how the local football team is performing, uniting small towns like the internet never will.
This page is authored and maintained by Rich Webb.You can send E-mail to me by following this link to the contact page. And feel free to contact me if you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions. I remain, however, perfectly capable of ignoring your useless opinion...