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Commentary: Broadcasters Should Rethink AM Stereo

The author is owner of AM station WNMB in N. Myrtle Beach, S.C. In December his station added C-Quam stereo to its service.

While IBOC won’t save AM radio anytime soon, stereo may be the band’s most viable boost.

The author is owner of AM station WNMB in N. Myrtle Beach, S.C. In December his station added C-Quam stereo to its service.

Those of us who are AM broadcasters can sit and ponder the inequities bestowed on our medium. Some say the long list began when the FCC, in an effort to boost terribly poor FM listening, authorized FM stereo and adopted a standard for it, yet denied AM stations the same opportunity.

Then when AM stereo was authorized came the famous “marketplace” decision, which led to five competitors vying for AM stereo business while most broadcasters decided to wait and see what would happen.

Finally, C-Quam was designated as the “standard,” but for many early enthusiasts, it was too late in the game. Several early AM stereo stations turned off their pilots and resumed mono operations.

Except for some niche broadcasters and the rise of news/talk radio, AM has been in the doldrums in many markets for 20 years. The latest less-than-bright spot on the horizon has been IBOC for AM digital broadcasting. Early reports have indicated problems that could spell permanent inequity for those of us in AM.

There are those who tout digital/IBOC as the salvation of AM radio. It may be so, but not now and not anytime soon. What broadcaster wants to have digital-only during daytime hours? It’s what we are being told about IBOC now, and there are other serious questions. In time the problems will be worked out, but can our medium stay the course with its present trend over the next decade?

We can sit and ponder these things, become upset, watch our blood pressures rise and continue to watch the long-term viability of AM radio deteriorate, or we can do something for ourselves. We can do what we should have done in the first place – broadcast in AM stereo and promote it like crazy.

Those stations that still have AM stereo available but are not using it should clean up their gear and turn it on. Those who never bothered to invest in converting to stereo should choose to do so now.

Local promotion

The truth is AM stereo sounds fantastic.

Recently in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., a listener was looking to buy a new Ford Expedition. He was becoming familiar with the sound system. He hit the button, pushed the FM side and it sounded good. He pushed the switch to AM and began to “seek” across the dial. The radio stopped at 900. A little light came on just like on the FM side and illuminated the letters “ST.” Separation filled the interior of the Expedition and the sounds of “I Saw Her Again Last Night” by the Mamas and the Papas had the guy singing along in just a moment.

Then he looked at the dial and said, “Whoa, this is AM?”

Stereo. Awesome. How can it be? He called me at the radio station and I told him all about it. He drove the Expedition home, but he hasn’t again touched the tuning on the radio. It’s right there where that little stereo pilot light is lit.

If broadcasters endorse AM stereo and invest a little money to put it on the air, will miracles happen? Will AM be assured a continuing place in the lives of people? It is not without possibility. Most things that are accepted and win a place in society don’t happen overnight. The road is a long one. But we have to make a start. The time is now.

One person listening bought a car. He’s already excitedly told others. Things begin this way.

There are still new AM stereo receivers in the marketplace. Now primarily in Ford and Chrysler products, when radio stations get on with stereo and listeners become familiar manufacturers will listen too. At the moment, there are no portable AM stereo radios of any volume sold in America; however, we can buy several Sony models and have them shipped direct from Japan.

Our station in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., is doing just that and we’ve got a local retailer who will put them on shelves. We’ll also promote by giving away some on the air. We’ll also use some receivers for AM stereo by Jeff Beck, who has gone to the next generation of technical advancement.

Broadcasters can buy brand-new transmitters, brand-new AM stereo generators and mod monitors today, and they are improved greatly over the ones we bought in the 1980s, which is a major point missed by those who say of AM stereo “been there and done that.”

AM stereo is doable. It is the best and most viable boost for our medium. Whatever happens with digital, we all know analog will be around for a long time.

No loss

I’ve been told some broadcasters turned off their AM stereo because of some reports about a slight loss of coverage area compared to mono broadcasting. Please allow me to share that I owned and operated WZKY(AM) in Albemarle, N. C., and broadcast in AM stereo every day since 1984. I never noticed any loss of coverage myself, and I never ever had the first complaint from any customer or any listener about any loss of signal.

My friend Matt Smith bought the station from me and he still broadcasts in stereo today. It’s on 1580 and it’s got the best high AM band coverage you’ll hear anywhere.

Having just put AM stereo on WNMB, I can tell no signal coverage difference from our mono days, but I can tell a huge difference in the fidelity. The stereo is better and we were darn good in mono using an Optimod 9200.

So, fellow broadcasters, let a snowball begin now. Make an investment in your medium and in your own future. Put AM stereo on the air and start educating the people in your community.

For more information, visit the AM stereo section under WNMB Features on