The AM Revitalization NPRM of 2013 provoked a torrent of debate among broadcast insiders and publications as to the causes and cures of AM’s woes.
The FCC received hundreds of first- and second-round replies, including two from me. Chairman Wheeler promised results soon, but we long ago turned blue holding our breath. There is consensus on many topics, but the big sore points are: What, if anything, to do about Class A protection, IBOC and FM translators (friend or foe of AM?). Those are the loud squabbles of the vested interests, but AM’s chronic problems are more deeply rooted.
Most agree AM is on life support and slipping under for at least three reasons: (1) listener apathy to canned radio billboard programming; (2) market dilution caused by competition from new media; (3) poor reception caused by spectrum noise pollution, deteriorated coverage and cheaply executed AM radios.
AM radio was once king because it was the only game in town. No longer. AM started as “live and local” — a reliable friend and good neighbor to listeners for entertainment and information about their communities. But the switch to homogenized automated programming streamed from miles away using voice tracks and syndication alienated many listeners to the point of today’s near-total indifference to AM. Short-sighted greed killed the golden goose.
New and hugely popular wireless technologies and content sources offer listeners whatever music they want on their terms, without commercials, and continue to whittle the AM audience and thus the advertising appeal, diminishing station revenues and triggering the death spiral. AM’s turn from music to news, sports and politics further narrowed AM’s appeal. Today’s sophisticated ad buyers see a rich array of “channel” choices, leaving AM in the also-ran category among better performing alternatives. Both AM and FM radio are nondescript passengers in economy class living on the free peanuts.
AM spectrum noise pollution (unintentional radiators and IBOC digital hash) corrodes the AM listening experience, made even worse by reduced effective AM field strengths blamed on the drying-out of the earth causing reduced ground conductivity. Cheap designs of AM radios with poor sensitivity and selectivity also cause listener frustration —leading to deserting AM in droves to full-quieted, noise-free FM, wireless and satellite options. One can hardly blame them. On the face of it, the AM dial as we know it is clearly inferior.
But the game isn’t over yet; there’s still time on the clock.
AM suffers from multiple maladies. Spectrum pollution derives mainly from tens of billions of noise-producing electronic products; leaky, high-voltage transmission lines; and IBOC hash. AM IBOC may disappear on its own, owing to public indifference. Shrinking AM footprints due to the earth drying-out is the province of the Almighty. No immediate relief is in sight from any of these, so we are stuck with impaired medium- to long-distance AM reception and noisy channels. However, short-distance — local — reception is still viable. That point is key to AM’s rebirth.
But first, consider the argument made by Carl Como Tutera in his Radio World commentary in the July 1 issue titled “Embrace Local Service and Remain Viable.” Amen!
Mr. Tutera decries the dominance of the Class A stations with which I agree, but for different reasons.
Many Class A stations are owned by consolidators who have gambled millions on IBOC digital transmission systems, and are pressing the FCC to convert the AM band to digital to force acceptance of IBOC (see “Littlejohn: Retain Class A Protections” by Paul McLane, also in July 1). But they have made strategic blunders including perpetuating yesteryear’s premise that homogeneous demographic programming over a wide geographic area will succeed into the future.
NO MORE MASS APPEAL
This is problematic because the once-monolithic white, English-speaking American national culture is quickly fractionating. America is not a melting pot (if it ever truly was); it’s an increasingly bubbling caldron of dissimilar cultures, religions, wealth (or lack thereof) and political alignments. Each of those demographic slices wants its own media voice and spurns media outlets not to its liking. Thus, the Class A blowtorches are doomed to wither because large mass-appeal stations cannot serve the ever-increasing diversity of large urban populations, and IBOC is a clear flop. The Class As will quietly go dark for lack of audience and advertisers, as both groups head to the doors for refreshment.
As to the cure for AM’s blues: It’s old-fashioned. It involves making lemonade from lemons. Bad medium- and long-distance AM reception presents golden opportunities for local stations to fill the programming vacuum. Since AM audio/signal quality becomes unacceptable to the masses beyond about the 2 mV/m contour, AM fidelity within the 2 mV/m contour is good enough to override the spectral grunge.
Many communities would love to have what they had decades ago: Their own local radio station to satisfy their own local needs, including radio swap shop; city council and school board meetings; ask the mayor call-in shows; high school ballgame remotes; community calendar, school lunch menus, local news and views and inexpensive spots read live by the local announcer. In other words, live and local content, reasons for folks to dust off their kitchen AM radios and find the new station in town. Fancy that!
I am promoting the cause of LPAM — hundreds of new 250- to 500-watt full-time AM stations featuring live-and-local home-town programming meeting the needs of the local communities they serve.
What about co-channel interference? Given the apparently insurmountable obstacles to noise-free distant reception, I contend that many relatively low-power stations can be stacked on channels without negative consequence to either incumbents or upstarts. Modern transmitter designs possess frequency-determining components of sufficient stability to avoid carrier beat frequencies resultant of many signals occupying the same channel. A local AM transmitter of modest power featuring well-processed, consistently high modulation can effectively obliterate co-channel signals to provide satisfactory local reception with negligible realized interference.
Why AM radio over other media distribution channels, e.g., Wi-Fi or cable? Consider the stats:
•Ninety-nine percent of American households in 1999 had at least one radio; the average is five per household. There are approximately 115 million households in the U.S. as of 2010. Therefore, there are more than one-half billion radios in the U.S., according to various estimates. This is an impressive “installed base” for any consumer appliance, and outranks the number of cellphones estimated to be 328 million in 2011.
•There are 4,781 AM stations in the U.S. as of this writing.
•There are approximately 65,000 “small towns” in America with populations ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 people. (These figures derive from various sources and are not precisely synchronized as to year, but I nevertheless believe they reasonably overlap.) The 65,000 small towns cited exceed the number of licensed AM stations by about 14:1, meaning approximately 60,000 small American towns are not served by their own radio station. A huge vacuum waiting to be filled!
What about big city urban neighborhoods, like south Philly or east L.A. that want their own station? I agreed in writing with the Minority Media Telecommunications Council’s AM NPRM reply comment: “… to provide service to an under-served interest group. To allow a station to align itself for service to a particular unserved, or under-served community of interest, the commission must realize that in an otherwise well-served geographic area, it is more important to facilitate coverage of the demographic community in need of a voice than to assure additional broader coverage defined only by the politically boundaries established for many other reasons …”
Boiled down, that requires changing the FCC rules to permit licensure of stations rendering service to only a portion of a large community of license, e.g., South Side Chicago rather than all of Chicago. Current rules require stations to serve the entire COL. Here is where LPAM would shine in the interest of urban American diversity by giving voice to demographic slices otherwise ignored by the big stations. Of necessity, the channels occupied by the local blowtorch Class As would need to be avoided in the urban case.
Live-and-local home-style AM radio — urban, suburban and rural — will, like the phoenix, rise again from the ashes under this scenario. Yes, it will take many FCC rule changes and battles with existing AM licensees seeking to protect their precious but imaginary exaggerated signal contours. No matter, yesterday’s game is over and the stadium is empty. But salvation of the AM band is at hand.
Jim Potter runs radio commercial production service Little Spot Shop and provides contract engineering services in the Branson and Springfield, Mo., areas. He has over 50 years experience in broadcasting, beginning with ham radio as a kid in Philly working at major stations. He has worked in all phases of radio, including engineering, DJ, sales, GM — and janitor. His broadcast career has been split with electronics manufacturing as director of marketing and product engineering.