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AM Relevance: 10 Steps to Fix AM’s Problems

What’s wrong with AM? Here are some cures

One in a series of responses from readers to RW’s Sept. 1 article exploring whether AM radio is “still relevant.”

Radio World in recent issues has asked, “Is AM radio relevant?” Previously they’ve asked, “Is the FCC relevant?” I’m sure you would have had a bigger response if you’d asked if shortwave radio or ham radio is relevant.

Since Radio World is read widely in many radio stations, I’d like to address not only engineers but talent, PDs, managers and owners.

I can’t help get an AM radio application built into a cellphone without wireless Internet or a 60-foot antenna attached to an iPod, so my comments are limited to what we can do today, with the equipment that now exists.

To fix AM’s problems, we have to take a 10-step approach.

Mark Heller. ‘Nothing is as sweet as a well-run AM signal that someone actually cares about. When you hear it, you know.’ Photo by Tim Swoboda Nothing is as sweet as a well-run AM signal that someone actually cares about. When you hear it, you know. Unfortunately, they’re not as prevalent as they were 30 years ago.

Mother Nature has always affected AM broadcasts when lightning was involved. But today, man-made devices interfere around the clock. Sodium vapor lights, farm fences that are electrified, aging power transformers and even the common personal computer monitor affect us.

Here are some “nuts and bolts” solutions. Not the latest, shiniest thing. We in broadcasting sometimes chase after things that sparkle, are new and trendsetting. Roll up your sleeves, and feel free to cross the items off as you complete the list.

  1. The 5 kHz reduction of audio of recent years was a disaster. It was started by one major group and others quickly followed in lock step. You’ve surrendered your bandwidth for the benefit of a few IBOC operators.

    Here’s a little-known secret. AM radio does not have to be all-talk or all-sports. Music can be played on AM radios.

    Put your radio station back at your original specs, according to FCC rules, the way the transmitter manufacturer worked so hard to build it. The guys who invented AM radio never wanted it to sound like a police scanner. Knock it off! Your advertisers with music beds and singing jingles will appreciate it, too.

  2. Frequency synchronization has been patented for AM radio carriers at least twice since 2001. It came out of Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the University of Tennessee.

    Simply put, end the fluttering noise at night on AM with every one of the licensed frequencies, coordinated using a GPS device to stay exactly on frequency. Listeners know the difference, especially at night. P.S. It’s not expensive to do, either.

  3. Power levels on AM must be legal and honest. If you have a license that says 11 watts at night and you are running 125 watts, you deserve to get fined. You are contributing to the overall noise at night. If you are the manager or licensee, ask your engineer how he computes your nighttime power.
  4. Doing high school sports on AM with a simple cellphone? Grow up!

    Just because your station has a trade-out with a cell provider doesn’t mean you have to do four-hour remotes with “tin-can” audio. Dust off your Marti transmitter. Find that Comrex audio extender. If you can’t afford the latest “near-studio-quality” equipment, check out the used items on eBay or from your audio dealer’s used inventory.

    It’s OK to put a cellphone on the air at an emergency or breaking news like an accident, but stop kidding yourself.

  5. A major issue is expanded-band AMs that kept the original frequencies they were supposed to give up. Please explain how 80 broadcasters were given a new frequency and, to win them, were graded on how much interference their current old AM signal caused; then, after five years, they kept the original frequency as well.

    There is a small corner in hell reserved for these licensees. The expanded band was created exclusively to clean up interference in the rest of the AM band.

  6. IBOC at night didn’t work, doesn’t work and won’t work. Turn it off at night until a fix is found and proven.

    Citadel Media, one of the early adapters, was sensitive to their adjacent neighbors and did the right thing. They deserve a lot of credit for their common sense.

  7. When was the last time you “proofed” your AM station?

    I don’t mean getting that annual 20-minute drive by R.F. Emission Measurement, either. Take the station down on a Sunday night and proof the audio chain with a tone, including the processor, and check your connections on the ATU at the antenna.

    I’m betting your answer to the question is, “I can’t remember.” Proof it!

  8. The next two points have a political overtone. They need to be said.

    NRSC standards were adopted back in the 1980s to address solid-state florescent bulbs, solid-state vapor lights and other interference. It’s time to reconvene this group. Some of the original members of this group have either passed away or long since retired from the business.

  9. Marathon, Fla., has one AM station, with a directional array pointed away from the U.S. It’s time to make a deal to make it go away.

    It’s not an FCC problem, either. We as loyal broadcasters stood mostly silent while our government attempted to reach Cuba with up to 100 kilowatts from this station, only to have Cuba successfully jam more than one frequency back at us. That jamming continues today. Write your congressman. The NAB and SBE right now don’t care.

  10. Finally, to managers and program directors: You’re busy giving away concert tickets, free pizzas and the kitchen sink on your FM station to maintain your cume and share of audience. When are you going to do this with your AM station?

    One of my colleagues says, “All that AM needs after these corrections is one ‘gangbuster’ promotion, more than giving away a box of cereal or tickets to a minor-league baseball team.” Do something dramatic.

Mark Heller is president and general manager of WGBW Radio in Two Rivers, Wis.