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AM Radio: Where Do We Go From Here?

IBiquity Says HD Radio provides a cost-effective path for AM to evolve

More on the Dash

Read more industry opinions about radio’s future in the dashboard.

The author is senior vice president, Broadcast Programs and Services, for iBiquity Digital Corp.

It’s been more than 90 years since KDKA(AM) in Pittsburgh became the first commercially-licensed radio station in America, and the technology of AM broadcast has not changed significantly since then. Compare the cars, trains, telephones and motion pictures of the 1920s to today.

Back then, a simple crystal radio, made with a hunk of galena crystal and 50 feet of copper wire wrapped around a milk bottle, and a pair of headphones, were all you needed to receive your local AM station. Other than the occasional thunderstorm, there was no electrical interference to speak of.

AM stands out as the only service in the car that currently can’t display even analog artist and title data. AM becomes the ‘blank screen’ in the dash — the only ‘unconnected’ part of the connected car. This example is from the Cadillac Cue system on a 2013 ATS. Fast-forward to today. Manmade electronic noise on the AM band has increased to the point that many regional and local channel AM signals are severely compromised, and even the Class “A” 50 kW clear channels are suffering from noticeably diminished coverage.FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently stated, “Every day it gets harder to pick up a clear AM signal.”

AM revitalization is all about addressing this noise issue, and HD Radiodigital technology has proven to provide a cost-effective path to allow AM radio to evolve, giving it a fighting chance at survival.

We don’t want to prematurely sound the death knell for the senior band since, after all, five of the 10 top-billing radio stations in America are still AM; but outside the largest markets, AM listening has been largely relegated to talk or oldies formats and shrinking, aging audiences, and consequently diminished billing. Digital radio transmission provides a potential long-term solution for AM radio’s survival.

Its ability to improve reception in noisy conditions can help make the band viable again, and also allows for quality stereo music broadcasts that AM radio’s early pioneers could only dream of. All-digital AM, thanks to its time-diverse encoded content, increases signal durability and robustness in many of today’s challenging AM interference environments.

Can AM remain viable as electrical interference continues to increase, limiting reception possibilities and, by definition, potential audience? According to the FCC, until 1978, AM claimed more than half of all hours spent with radio. Right now, AM listening accounts for only 17 percent of radio listening, and continues to diminish every year.

The median age of listeners to the AM band is now 57 years old, a full generation older than the median age of FM listeners. We’ve already seen broadcasters giving AM stations away to charity, selling them for the real estate value of the land they sit on or just handing back their licenses to the FCC. At today’s current rate of audience erosion, many AM operators can plot the day their station goes out of business, the day rising operating costs exceed shrinking revenues and another AM is forced to go dark.

An all-digital AM broadcast environment, where the broadcast is solely digital, would be vastly superior to analog or even hybrid digital AM, where digital and analog exist side by side. The more robust all-digital signal creates a better reception environment, as well as less potential for co-channel interference, which is also a source of noise.

We designed the hybrid approach as a transition technology, one that wisely didn’t orphan today’s receivers while waiting for digital receiver penetration to reach critical mass in the marketplace. All-digital AM holds the promise of a return to the pristine band that existed before electronic noise became an issue, a return to the full coverage of your service area your license entitles you to, with the added benefit of stereo and increased noise resistance. With AM’s share of listening declining, the future viability of the AM band overall may well lie in owners taking advantage of the opportunity that the HD Radio AM all-digital system provides.

An all-digital transition won’t happen overnight. It took TV 13 years and a government mandate to fully make the changeover. But TV station owners collectively spent some $10 billion of their own funds switching from analog to digital, partly based upon the value the additional digital spectrum (multicast channels) would have for them. And with HDTV digital transmissions limited to 20 percent of analog power, the savings in electricity represented a significant savings going forward. With new digital TVs being sold everywhere, they finally acknowledged that all-digital media was the future, and they invested in that future.

Right now there are over 12 million HD Radio-equipped cars throughout America, with a new car with factory-installed HD Radio technology being sold every six seconds, 24/7/365. Every one of these radios already support HD Radio AM all-digital reception. More than 4.5 million cars will be sold this year alone with an HD Radio digital receiver on board — AM as well as FM.

With more and more people waking up to their cell phones and abandoning clock radios, and table radios and portables becoming a thing of the past, the automobile will be the place where analog AM radio makes its last stand, or allows alternative technologies to render it irrelevant. To put that in a larger context, bear in mind that radio is now the only consumer medium that is not delivered to its users exclusively via digital technology.

The all-digital solution was always “baked into” HD Radio Technology, so existing transmitters and HD Radio receivers are capable of receiving an all-digital signal. A comprehensive, independently-run test program was initiated to evaluate the operational performance of all-digital AM broadcasts. Testing in Charlotte, N.C., with CBS yielded test results showing digital coverage beyond the 0.5 mV/m (field strength) coverage contour with no reduction in stereo audio quality. Solid all-digital mobile reception extended up to about 45 miles daytime / 13 miles nighttime, which corresponded to an average measured field intensity of 0.2 mV/m and 0.7 mV/m respectively. In layman’s terms, all-digital coverage was superior to analog coverage.

No, it won’t be easy, and it will come with some cost. This is a decision only the broadcasters involved can make. We’ve created a digital way forward, worked out the kinks and shown how it addresses the noise problem threatening AM’s future. We believe the industry needs to complete its ongoing evaluation of AM all-digital performance, assess the options and move forward quickly to revitalize the AM band and ensure that this vital national asset can continue to serve the listening public for many years to come.

IBiquity remains committed to serve the broadcast industry and do all we can to help ensure a strong vibrant digital future for broadcast radio.

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