Anybody Listening To AM Radio? FCC’s New Digital Survival Plan Won’t Work

Anybody Listening To AM Radio? FCC’s New Digital Survival Plan Won’t Work

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.

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  1. I broadcast on AM. I listen to AM on the internet. Our station is an aggregator of many shows and has a loyal audience. But I imagine we are mostly an older crowd, although I get younger people to listen to the podcasts of our broadcasts.
    The podcast market is swamped and fractionalized.
    Talk radio is best with callers mixed in. That calls for real time broadcasting.
    But the interference of cell towers, even traffic lights, is a problem.

  2. Briggs

    Plus everybody should listen to Ed’s show!

  3. Ted Poppke

    I listen to KFYR AM for local news as I drive. Stations are being driven to evangelism and non-English speaking audiences.

  4. Jon

    We still listen to AM in the mornings and evenings. Grey line effects help reception some. We use a home brew LC coil to filter out RFI. It helps some.

    Local programming is available in the mornings and evenings. Otherwise content is all nationally syndicated stuff. Awful really.

    You’re right that digital will kill broadcast AM. Unless some really bright computer type figures out a weak signal digital mode and compression technique to cut through the RFI and atmospheric noise.

    We listen to podcasts as well, especially as distraction while doing other things. The lovely bride has XM in her car, which provides content tailored to her preferences and pretends to offer variety.

    I like AM. My first radio was an AM transistor. No FM, just AM. Great for music and ball games. Now ball games are just a salon for political commentary. No thanks. Music has long since been unrecognizable to me. It’s all a variation of rap. No melody or harmony. No beauty. Just rhythm and energetic appeal to the baser instincts.

    Maybe that’s the root of the trouble. All the emphasis on DIE makes it impossible to recognize and celebrate genuine beauty. Like the beauty of a crackling AM radio signal while sitting with friends around a campfire. That’s a shared experience that lasts a lifetime. No podcast heard through headphones can compare.

    PS. AFRTS-Korea completely ruined TV for us. We have completely abandoned broadcast TV as a result. Too much CNN and MSNBC on a repeating loop is not helpful to service men.

  5. DavidCH1

    Speaking of emergencies, the corded phone works even if the power is out since it has its own line.

    If we have a country, or even province/state wide blackout, those cellphones are going to be useless, because it relies on cell towers.

    Maybe if a chaotic situation happens where such blackouts last months or even years, AM radio will make a resurgence, with citizens band becoming the dominant airwave.

    @Jon There was a commercial on cable TV about Amazon warehouses. I worked there once, its hard, demanding, physical work. They were all wearing masks. It made me feel sick.

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    John Dunning’s mystery+ novel, “Two O’Clock Eastern Wartime,” was set in the world of live radio in the 1940s. He also wrote the “Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio” and several other excellent mysteries. He also once taught a night class in novel -writing taken by yr. obt. svt. that has proven valuable.

  7. Sheri

    Talk radio is virtually all on AM, so yes, I listen to AM. Not necessarily AM “radio”. I admit it’s often on the computer because of the buzz in the signal in the house. We have one radio that works well, but my hubby takes that to work. If he’s home, we use the actual radio.

    I have never used my cell phone to listen to music and will not. I have snapped a photo or two and may use it to record that odd noise my furnace makes when starting up, plus my husband uses the calculator. None of three phones use data to any degree and I have never downloaded an app. I use my PHONE as a PHONE. I do not like carrying an electronic “life support” device with everything I every know on it. That can only end badly.

    My one AM radio is a worksite radio. That’s about the only AM radio that works reasonable well. The last two cheap AM radios I bought met their death with a hammer after that infernal humming drove me nuts. That’s when my use of free streaming took over. So, the only source I know of for a decent AM radio is the hardware store, tool department. Runs on a rechargeable battery.

    Come on, you can get all kinds of tetrus-looking patterns on a digital TV. This all or nothing crap is demonstrably false. You can still make out MacGyver among the squares, if you have a good eye for patterns.

    Podcasts are completely out. Can’t stand them. I’ll listen to the sound of silence first.

  8. Nate

    OK Boomer!

    Seriously though, it’s not just AM radio. It seems like every ‘advance’ of the past 150 years has been swiftly overtaken by some other advance, but we are quickly reaching the end of the low-hanging fruit.

    As for ‘anyone can build an AM radio with just a few parts’, if that anyone is a hardware geek. Those kids barely exist at all anymore, they’re too busy playing Minecraft. As for adults… I installed a backup camera in my vehicle. My neighbors (men) had no idea you could even do such a thing.

  9. Milestone D

    If AM is dead, FM is in hospice.

    When I met my now wife in 2013, her then 13 year old daughter was shocked the car stereo had music coming out of it without being connected to an iPhone. She had no idea that OTA radio was a thing. To my knowledge, she doesn’t own a radio and now that I think about it, neither her nor her 4 college roommates owns a tv. For her, all media is naturally consumed through IP services.

    In DC media market, most AM-type media (sports, talk, etc) has migrated to FM.

    And Digital FM seems like a solution in search of a problem. I don’t know anyone who owns a digital FM receiver, other than in a car. I can’t see how making people buy new equipment to listen to AM is going to fix its popularity.

  10. Bob

    I was a night time “engineer” at an AM/FM/TV transmitter location while going to college. In those days AM radio was more popular than FM radio. Most of the FM radio music was classical, and people used it for background music. We operated an FM sub-channel that carried the local MUSAC stuff, i.e., elevator music. It was good while it lasted and paid for my bachelor degree.

    You and Ed have made the point that talk radio and sports are now the dominant content on metropolitan radio stations. I am not sure what local, rural AM stations do for content, but it used to be those hell-fire and brimstone preachers. I do listen to Ed’s podcast, occasionally, by going to his web site. Good stuff.

    Most people seem to have satellite radio in their cars where they can get the exact content they want, 24/7. They don’t even have to guess the name of a piece since the system tells you the artist and the title. It’s a great system and a wonderful entertainment system.

    Maybe some Elon Musk type of person will come along and revitalize the whole thing.

  11. Kip Hansen

    I am not even aware of what AM stations are available in my area — my car radio still has the ability to play them, but if I listen, I listen only to FM stations. My car came equip3d with SiriusXM Satellite Radio as well, but it is subscription and not worth the money for my family.

    I was a FM disc jockey back in the late 1960s and have stuck with FM since.

  12. Reuben G.

    I love am radio, it’s so interesting to just scan around at night and hear what you’ll find. People argue that radio is dying, but it has some advantages over streaming. It’s free to the listener, the infrastructure to operate it is still in place. I’m one of the rare birds who not only listens in the car but keeps a radio in the kitchen too. Peter Hitchens argued that people who like radio are generally more creative, it allows your mind more room to do the work.

    Briggs, in the city you can probably pick up 89.5 on the FM dial, Seton Hall’s station, they play a polka show on Saturday mornings that’s pretty good, might be Sunday mornings, or both.

  13. Reuben G.

    Also, I want to say that I love the sound of am radio, I don’t want it to be more clear. I enjoy so much to listen to John Batchelor or Coast to Coast late at night, and the crackly am quality of the sound increases the pleasure. I quote Dan Akroyd:

    “One of my favorite things to do is to drive in the middle of the night, ‘planet crawl’ as it were, across America or Canada and listen to Coast to Coast. It’s just one of the treats of being alive.”

    Also, as far as how stations will survive, there is an FM station in western NJ/eastern PA called WDVR that has a lot of shows of local interest about nature, gardening, whatever, they play bluegrass, country, rock, American songbook, a few other things, Christian on Sunday mornings, they run on donations and limited local advertising, and man, people are very passionate about this station, I’m one of them. They have antennas that run from Trenton to Easton and then one more north of that somewhere. DVR stands for Delaware Valley Radio, so the idea is was to make it for people local to the Delaware River, and it works. They stream online at too.

    P.S. I am not a senior citizen

  14. C-Marie

    Love AM!! Am on the older side, I do admit!!!
    God bless, C-Marie

  15. Pk

    Great topic. Nice diversion.

    I’ve been an avid radio DXer since one winter morning in New Jersey had tuned my GE AM/FM/SW radio to a station reporting on the heavy snow, and I thought great no school. I soon realized I had inadvertently tuned it to WJR in Detroit. School was open. Though today they seem to close school when it shows 550 miles away, just in case.

    I have several SW sets. Not much on anymore. Twenty years ago, there were many great programs. My favorites were one from Quito Ecuador, Radio Norway, & Radio Moscow with some interesting science shows. Today, it’s mainly religious broadcasts from remote places in rural PA and similar locales.

    Rarely listen to FM. Funny thing about 2020 and Coronadoom. I can’t listen to music at all.

    The air bands can provide some interesting situations in the air to tower communications. That’s sad.

  16. Uncle Mike

    Your post reminded me of 60 years ago when I built my first AM radio by wrapping copper wire around a toilet paper tube.

    Digitization may be a problem, but a bigger one is ad revenues. Listening to the ads for scams and junk I have to believe they aren’t making any money. Who buys that cr+p?

    Worse yet are the ads on cable TV. There’s one where two people are walking in a park, and the guy turns to the girl and says, “I’m still hearing voices and so am I.” She says. “Maybe eurnutzobub will help.” It’s an ad for schizophrenia medicine. Is their target audience watching? Will they pester their psychiatrist for this med? How can that work for the marketer?

    There’s a new one I saw for a potato peeler. It’s on all the major cable news shows. There’s another ad that lasts a half hour for a frying pan. No show, just the ad. They can’t be making any money, can they?

    Send me a twenty (cash) and I’ll send you plans for making your own AM radio out of household junk, like a potato peeler and a frying pan. You’ll hear voices…

  17. Shecky R

    I own 4 pocket-size AM/FM transistor radios (stocked up years ago when they were going out of style)… and the day I die (long after Matt has succumbed to covid) you’ll have to pry one of them from my cold, dead hands.

  18. Lkabana

    Does anyone know what an 84 tube is?

  19. AB

    @Lkabana – EL84 is power tube used in many music/guitar amps. There are many types of tubes with their own distinct power profiles. Not sure that’s your reference, but it’s one type.

    I remember listening to “mystery theater” on AM on 50W channel (KSL radio) at night in the woods with my pop. He still listens to them but over the interwebs. We could pick up that station on a clear night hundreds of miles away. The coastal town can bounce signals off the ocean. I studied AM/FM is the context of physics. Fascinating stuff. I still keep a pocket am radio around for emergencies.

    Thanks for all you do, Briggs!

  20. Reuben G.

    Uncle Mike, you dun cracked me up. I was also astounded by the schizo drug ad.

  21. Jerry

    Ever since the advent of satellite radio, my AM/FM radio has been dormant. It was like flipping a switch.

    I’m 64. I remember when the car radio (AM) was a big focal point, when FM in the car was “special”. It was all relevant then, and there was Top 40 playing. Do they even have Top 40 anymore? Yes, I will say it – the new music all sounds the same to me, and incredibly hard to listen to.

    So satellite gives me the music I want without the blathering commercials.

    Yes, I do remember the thrill of AM radio at night, finding stations from a thousand miles away.

  22. Grima Squeakersen

    @DavidCH1 re: Speaking of emergencies, the corded phone works even if the power is out since it has its own line.
    Maybe. maybe not. That corded phone connects to a switch in a local “little brick building” (aka “Central Office”). All of the “Baby Bells” responsible for CO maintenance also operate far more profitable cell networks. Let me relate a recent experience. I have a land line, but use cell phone almost exclusively (portability is a powerful incentive). My land line had recently been non-functional for several weeks, but it took that long for it to become an issue of any importance (mostly it just records robocalls). I ultimately called my Verizon support number, and the CS person allegedly ran some diagnostics and determined that the problem was in my line. Two days later a lineman showed up and tested my exterior jack, then began working his way from pole to pole toward the CO. Ultimately, he determined that there was a bad card in the CO to which my line connected. Next day, it was working (a different group of techs do CO maintenance). So, Verizon has a test program that CS can run from their desks to determine that a residential line is dead, but nothing to detect bad cards (that almost certainly service multiple accounts) at the CO? Frankly, I’m not entirely convinced that the office CS person had the ability to accurately test my connection – I have DSL running over the same copper, and it was not impacted – but either way, the assumption of reliability regarding the copper-connected telephone system is called into serious question…

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