The AM radio band has been serving the needs of the American people for more than 80 years, and remarkably well. The future of AM can continue to be remarkable, but only if those of us in the broadcast industry adopt a new attitude.
Gloom and doom have overtaken our industry.
Even though there are hundreds of millions of radios in service in the United States, and the erosion of listenership has only been slight, many in radio broadcasting have become passive in response to the attempts of outsiders to raid the successful and profitable radio broadcasting industry.
What’s more, we allow streaming jukeboxes to call themselves radio even though they do not operate in the 540–1700 kHz and 88.1–107.9 MHz radio bands, and are no more radio than the piano player in the neighborhood bar.
On the senior band
These issues apply especially in reference to the AM band.
AM radio can become robust again if we overcome the self-doubt and lethargy that is consuming the thinking of radio operators. We have the infrastructure and resources to push back. We must invigorate programming and invest in improvements in the technical side of the AM facilities.
A word about my background so that the reader can better understand my perspective on AM. I helped pioneer FM radio in the l950s at a time when there were few FM receivers and almost total indifference to the advent of FM broadcasting by the radio establishment.
Because of my personal passion for broadcasting, I was able to obtain a construction permit for 105.1 (KKGO) and place it on the air in l959. I still operate the station. It was a channel that had been licensed to a major Los Angeles broadcaster, and the license was turned back by the operator due to lack of faith in FM. The broadcaster didn’t even want to pay the power bill to keep it on the air.
It took more than 10 years for the station to become profitable. Along with a handful of other independent operators, I steadfastly believe that we would be able to convince the public to invest in FM radio. We achieved this with program content that was not otherwise available — and in mono, too, since stereo had not yet been approved for FM radio.
FM had its signal problems, too, like multipath and picket fencing while driving, eventually resolved through circular polarization and other technical advances.
My experience makes me think that AM could use the same kind of faith in its potential that my colleagues and I maintained toward FM.
You can fix it now
AM has become a dumping ground for lackluster programming, a lack of investment and a dismal outlook. The good news is that there are immediate steps that AM broadcasters can take to turn this around.
KMZT(AM) recently invested in new equipment including Nautel transmitters (a 25 kW main and 12.5 kW aux) as well as a Kintronic Labs phasor. Writes author Saul Levine, ‘We put our money where are convictions are for AM.’ First, get over this belief that everything must be digital, and that analog is a bad word. There are immediately available technical improvements that can bolster the analog AM signal.
AM operators should dump the ancient RF and audio equipment it is using, and replace with state-of-the-art new transmitters, antenna phasing systems, new ground systems, new audio equipment, new processing equipment and anything else that replaces gear producing a negative impact on the signal.
This one change alone will amaze many.
I have operated KMZT (1260) since l993. Back then, it operated with 5 kW, but I have since replaced all four towers and ground systems and increased power to 20 kW during the day, 7.5 kW at night. And I am playing classical music, which almost everyone warned me could not be done on AM.
There is no real magic here. We are simply supplying program content that people want.
No need to wait
I reside about 12 miles from the AM transmitter and monitor the station at home with a McIntosh Tuner pre-amp and a 1961 McIntosh tube amplifier, fed into dual Thiel speakers. There are times when I forget I am listening to AM rather than FM transmission because it sounds so good. And that’s night-time with reduced power.
My message for the redemption and survival of AM radio is to get the best transmitting and studio equipment that is available, and present programming that is unique, innovative and filling a need for the public.
Just think of this: Taylor Swift releases a new song that can only be heard on AM radio. Suddenly, nearly every young person in the USA is listening to AM radio. The message is obvious. And the next time someone disparages analog technology, remind them that the Big Bang was analog technology. And that was almost 14 billion years ago.
Digital elements will come eventually to AM radio, but that could be years away, and we don’t need to wait to improve signal quality and programming vastly.
Saul Levine has owned and operated radio stations since 1959.