I know other things are more pressing and this is of little interest to most. But I can’t help myself.
While back I asked whether anybody was still listening to shortwave. Not just scanning for “DX”—long-distance signals—but tuning in to specific programs in a regular way like with TV, broadcast or streaming.
Not sure anybody said a definite yes to that, but some did say they still fooled around. Not many. Some.
How about AM?
Which is to say the AM broadcast band, either medium wave in the States or long wave, too, on the Continent. Any regular listeners? Only in the car, maybe, or also on sets in the home or elsewhere? Some countries, like Singapore, have no AM stations left.
AM in the States is mostly sports, which the coronadoom panic and politics whacked; sports talk, always dull; religion, with only the rare interesting show; politics, which is repetitive to an almost unmeasurable extent; a little music, mostly for fogeys or foreign speakers (this is how I still get my polka); some financial advice. Not much else.
The glory days of AM are long, long gone. No more Jack Benny, or the CBS Mystery Hour, or Box 13, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Dollar, Suspense. Some places run When Radio Was, which rebroadcasts old shows. The a-farts (AFRTS) network used to, too, which is how I ran into them while stationed overseas. These old shows are all on YouTube.
KIXI out in Seattle produces their own new shows, a rarity. Mostly drama and adventure. I don’t know whether these are picked up anywhere else.
AM is dying. The FCC is going to vote to allow AM radio stations to go digital if they like, in an effort to “save” the band.
It’s true that today the AM signal stinks. Interference is everywhere, unregulated, relentless. Unless you’re listening to a clear channel (50 KW) or nearby station, or are one of the lucky ones who lives in a radio-quiet area, it’s hard to pick things up during the day. Better at night, but at night, besides sports, there’s less to listen to.
FM has music covered. Sort of.
Every year I return Up North. I scan the dials and hear the exact same music I heard when I was in high school back in the 70s and 80s. Nothing had changed. This puzzled me, until my nephew explained that kids no longer listened to radio in any form, AM or FM. It was all cell phones, all the time. The stations were playing to their only surviving customers.
It’s hard to see how even FM can live longer in all but the biggest population centers as people move to streaming. Streaming hours of radio (in a car, say) is still on the expensive side, though, but that will change.
Besides dimmer switches, leaky appliances, and every other damned thing that runs on electricity and casts off noise, AM suffers from fading, which is driven by atmospherics and topography. Even in zero-noise locales the same station you heard yesterday might be gone tonight. AM just doesn’t sound good all the time.
FM, it’s true, has a better short-range signal than AM. The move to digital AM is an attempt to to improve its sound.
It won’t work.
The biggest reason are the radios themselves. No old radio will be able to demodulate the digital AM signal. Every old radio you own would turn into a brick. Since only a few new cars have HD (digital) AM, most cars would no longer be able to pick up the new signals.
It is possible, like with TV when it switched to digital, to build a “box” that demodulates the new signal and feeds into the old radio. But if it can do that, voila, just adding a speaker to that box makes it into a digital radio. This trick won’t save old radios.
Of which there are millions. The number isn’t growing, though. Go into most stores and it’s nearly impossible to find an AM radio. FM is a little easier, but usually they’re attached to clocks and used only as alarms, sold to those too old to figure out how to set the alarm on the cell phone.
Radio is free, and cellphones are not. But cellphones are cheap enough that nobody cares much about this distinction. And streaming costs will continue to drop.
The digital move is, or is now anyway, voluntary. The big clear channels, given their signal strength, probably won’t make the shift. Some of the smaller ones might, like those that have made their AM stations mere repeaters for their FM broadcasts. That, too, was supposed to save AM. But if you can pick up FM, why listen to AM? The AM signal travels farther, yes, but out on the fringes where the FM can’t go and the AM can, the AM is subject to all that interference and fading.
And, of course, merely duplicating the FM program removes the chance of different AM programming.
Digital signals are no savior. Like with your TV, they are all or nothing. You either can see, or you can’t the digital signal. I still recall living Up North in the old days with an antenna and barely receiving Green Bay TV from across the lake. The picture was “snowy” and weak, but you could make it out. It was watchable. With digital TV, this is no longer possible. Can’t get enough of the signal at once.
Weak AM signals are now still listenable. If you want to hear the program, you’ll make the effort to tweak the antenna and reduce noise. The move to digital for the smaller stations will kill off distant ears. Again, you just won’t get enough of the signal. If you even bother to buy a new radio that can pick them up. Stations that have tried it have shut if off because of complaints about lack of capable receivers.
Both of the new programs designed to fix or save AM will instead help kill it off.
It’s dying anyway. Ratings are low and growing lower. Pioneers like Rush Limbaugh, God bless him, who at least in the beginning had a funny show worth catching, won’t be with us much longer. There are many clones, but then we have to speak of that repetition again.
Sports will likely recover somewhat from both the doom panic and their dalliance with racial politics. But maybe not enough. I, for instance, will not listen to anything having to do with the NFL. My weaknesses are still baseball and hockey. But without the fans, it’s too artificial sounding.
No, AM, and even FM, has to change if it wants to survive.
I was chatting via email with Little Tommy Sablan, Radio Hall of Fame Class of 2016. He told me “Podcasts are bigger than ever. That’s radio. Radio isn’t your car stereo anymore. Radio is content. Radio is your cell phone.”
All this is surely true. But it can be said of TV, too.
None of these “advancements” can replace the sheer utility of AM radio. In emergencies, in no power situations, it is King. Anybody with two dollars worth of parts and an old speaker can build one, and if you toss in a crystal and a transformer, you can build a transmitter. A crappy one, true, but one that works.
Then the is the romance of scanning for stations, hearing, from northern Michigan, a Florida station come booming it. Alas, the world shrinks daily, and this feat no longer sends hearts soaring.
There is still life in the century old technology, though. Besides just for hams like me playing around.
AM should adopt the same strategy surviving smalltown newspapers use. Keep the analog signal. Report only local news, have programming of interest to those in the signal range. Papers and FM slit their own throat by moving to one-sized fits all material that can be cheaply centralized. Saved money for a while, but why tune in when you get the same thing streaming and without the annoying commercials?
No, AM will have to downsize and return to its local roots. Forget most network shows. It won’t be possible to make a killing with it, but it can still have much usefulness.
To support this site and its wholly independent host using credit card or PayPal (in any amount) click here