The following letters are in response to Larry Langford’s commentary “Time to Come Clean on AM Quality” in which he wrote, “Someone explain to me why radio manufacturers still have not accommodated the NRSC standard.”
Road to obsolescence
So I’m not the only one wondering. Larry’s questions regarding AM quality have been rolling around in my head since 1973 when I bought my first new car. It had an AM/FM tuner, and my AM station sounded horrible. I took the car to the dealer, they replaced the tuner and it still sounded terrible. A year later a purchase of the same model with an AM-only tuner, and it sounded pretty good.
Fast forward to 1984 when my wife buys a Jeep with an AM stereo radio. The audio was awful until it got a stereo signal and the bandwidth strangely improved. My father-in-law’s Oldsmobile had an AM stereo tuner that when receiving AM stereo sounded as good as FM.
We’ve been whining about AM’s decline and yet haven’t fixed the reasons. Even Larry has adapted an FM translator to put a Band-Aid on his AM’s problems.
There’s enough technology to cure 99% of AM’s problems but no one has given manufacturers a reason to do so. Broadcast radio seems to be on a path to making its existence obsolete until someone steps up to address and cure its problems.
Larry’s questions and the answers would be a great start. Then we can go after the commercial load.
“Right On, Larry!”
Larry Langford had me giving him fist pumps and yelling “Right on, Larry!” As a big fan of AM who has served in senior engineering and marketing posts for three radio manufacturers over the years, I offer some insights into the lagged response to the “new” 30-year-old NRSC standards for AM radios:
Marketing: Predicting acceptance for any “new and improved” product is very risky for the pioneers. Is there a driving force for the new product? A wrong decision can bankrupt. Radio makers watched the rise of FM throughout the 1960s. With the availability of FM car converters and AM/FM table radios, listeners welcomed static-free reception and extended fidelity of FM, and they turned away from AM. Many AMs switched to voice programming of news, talk and sports, or went dark for lack of revenue. AM stereo came along right after the music horse escaped the barn. Don’t need stereo HiFi for voice. That was a cautionary tale for radio manufacturers. Why make a high-quality AM radio if consumers are turning away from it?
Cost: Modern radios aren’t the venerable All American Five hand-wired sets of the 1950s. They’re based on ASICs combining RF-through-audio functions for OTA terrestrial and satellite reception, including display, audio EQ, analog and digital flavors, internet connectivity and sometimes other non-radio dashboard functions. These are seriously complicated chips costing millions to design and develop, debug, redesign and manufacture in forecast quantity. There’s serious financial risk involved. Given the tremendous investment in these chips, chip designers are reluctant to invest in improving the AM corner of the ASIC real estate. AM performance in new cars is notoriously bad. Some engineers have deduced the AM function is a jam-fit into the FM demodulator, leaving AM a bastard stepchild. Then there was AM IBOC, another listener, investment and regulatory disaster. Time will tell whether digital AM ever comes to fruition or also flops for lack of consumer interest.
Sabotage: Can’t name names here, but “reliable sources” over the years report heavy lobbying efforts by the satellite and internet streaming interests to the car and car radio manufacturers to downgrade terrestrial AM and FM radio quality in favor of satellite and internet reception. Money talks; they seemed to have listened.
Will we ever see NRSC audio response from consumer radios? Possibly, if there is a renaissance of interest in the AM broadcasting service in the U.S. That will take a reinvention of live-and-local programming to deserve audience attention and rebuild AM’s popularity for new generations of listeners. Stay tuned.
James B. Potter, Radio Engineer, Kimberling City, Mo.
It’s not the radios
Larry Langford asks why, since we now have the NRSC standard that allows for wide-bandwidth FM, do we have manufacturers continuing to make radios with severely restricted bandwidth.
The answer is simple, sad and depressing. In many if not most areas, the noise floor on the AM band is so high that bandwidth restriction is necessary to make stations listenable.
I have an AA5 radio in my office with the wide response that was typical of radios in the 1950s, and I can receive nothing but trash across the band in either day or night. If I take that same radio home to a more rural location, I can hear AM stations clearly and cleanly from Cuba to Toronto.
Where is the noise from? Everything with a cheaply made switching supply in it, which comes down to nearly every electronic device. Until the FCC starts enforcing Part 15 regulations, and until there are tighter regulations on noise applied by consumer devices to the power line, the AM band is going to be a mess.
It’s not the broadcasters, it’s not the radios. It’s every cellphone charger, every LED light, every laptop power supply that will doom AM.
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