The State of the Band

I spent most of a month earlier this spring on the road: 24 nights away from home, 3300 miles on my car, and many hours spent listening to my car stereo. Not much of it spent listening to my car radio, however.

Part of the problem is technical. I am an AM-first listener, and I suspect that the AM radio in the new stereo I put in my car just isn’t very good. I noticed a similar phenomenon in my 2018 model rental car last fall. AM isn’t much of a priority for anybody, so why should the makers of automotive sound equipment invest much in it? Also, the AM band is a lot noisier than it used to be, with more devices generating random electrical noise—compact fluorescent and LED lights, wi-fi routers, and even our cars themselves. (The FCC is considering whether to allow AM stations to transmit in an all-digital format, which would make the band less noisy—but would also require stations to buy new transmitter equipment and people to buy new radios.) The FCC polices AM less than it used to, partly because practically nobody is there to complain if a station is running an AM signal at the wrong power, or one that interferes with other stations. And AM stations are simply going dark, too—surrendering the license and/or selling the transmitter site to a developer rather than keep losing money broadcasting.

So between my radio and the state of the band, unless I was practically in the shadow of a tower, I got noisy signals, weak signals, and along vast stretches of highway, no signals at all.

And when it did pick them up, there wasn’t much to enjoy. Programming once easily found on 50,000-watt clear channels and 5,000-watt regional stations has migrated to FM stations—in some cases, to low-powered ones that cover the city of license only. What’s left on the AM band isn’t much: mostly religion and non-English-language programming. The latter is a victory for cultural diversity and community service, even if I don’t understand the language and it replaces programming I used to enjoy. Because the former is frequently listener- or foundation-supported and doesn’t have to appeal to advertisers, or to more than a handful of listeners, it can be laughably bad, although some people like it.

On Facebook groups, Reddit threads, or message boards devoted to AM radio, you will meet guys who think that AM radio would come back and be just as important and popular as it was from the 30s through the 80s if ownership groups and listeners would only love it enough. (Strictly speaking, they’re right, if delusional about its likelihood.) You will also meet the AM-is-already-dead group, whose members believe the true believers are humping a corpse, and who mock even the slightest suggestion that AM could possibly have any value to anyone.

In some places, AM remains viable. A number of AMs around the country remain profitable and serve a sizeable audience with quality programming—although many are long-established legacy stations in major markets, and most have FM translators themselves. There’s also a number of AM stations serving communities that major broadcasting chains don’t care about. But the days of AM being a mass-appeal medium everyone listens to are long gone, for technical, financial, and cultural reasons.

The latter is critical: unless a person already listens to AM, grew up with it, or has some sort of religious or ethnic reason to seek it out, AM doesn’t register with most people. And it doesn’t have to. Most people can get the entertainment or information they want somewhere other than AM: on FM, a station stream, a smartphone app, and so on. The true-believer prescription for broadcast AM—“put on unique formats people can’t find anywhere else and they will come!”—ignores the fact that it’s easier and likely more profitable, if profit can be made, to do that unique format on an FM signal or an Internet stream. Conversion to digital AM seems like throwing money at a problem without solving it, and it will disenfranchise a lot of the dwindling numbers of people who currently depend on AM.

One variation on the digital AM plan suggests stations convert to digital as they please, and between competing formats, “the marketplace will decide” whether digital AM succeeds. But that presumes the marketplace—forced to their choice by the factors I mention here—hasn’t already decided the fate of AM.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be entirely wrong. Your opinion is welcome in the comments.

12 responses

  1. I don’t know if I agree that the migration of Boomers and younger to FM had much to do with neglect of AM, JB. I first heard music I liked on FM in 1969, and if I hadn’t had to do what I called “professional listening” to AM stations because I myself got on the radio in 1971 and wanted to know what the pros were doing, I doubt I would have gone back.

    Granted, I would have missed a lot of neat stuff, but I wouldn’t have known that. And AM was arguably at its peak at that point. For me, fidelity mattered and FM stereo was a great way to hear music.

    1. I don’t believe I said that listeners originally migrated to FM because of the neglect of AM. Better fidelity and unusual music drew people to FM starting in the 60s, as you point out. Mass listener migration to FM began 35 years ago, when music formats that had historically been found mostly on AM started moving there. FM translators for AM stations started becoming a thing in the 90s but really exploded about 10 years ago. If there’s a point at which AM started suffering from neglect, it was probably then.

      1. I should have been more clear. I was inelegantly riffing off the guys who say if you put interesting stuff on AM, the audience will come back. It won’t. No one will know. Had I not been in the business, I’d have no idea what’s been on AM since 1969 and probably wouldn’t care.

  2. The AM section in most car systems is a chip that maybe costs maybe ten bucks, and it shows. Combine that with car antennas optimized for FM reception, and it’s no wonder that reception sucks. Digital AM requiring new consumer receivers? There’s a non-starter (see CQAM AM stereo and IBOC AM.) Letting broadcasters decide whether or not to go digital AM would be the Kahn-Hazeltine/Magnavox/Harris/Motorola fiasco, part two. AM “revitalization” amounts to further migration to FM, which revitalizes the AM band in what way, exactly?

    Yeah, mass AM appeal in a large urban area is not due for a renaissance anytime soon. How about LPAM? Give individual operators a watt (and commercials) and see what happens. Glorified Part 15 microcasting might get kids interested in at least some form of radio again.

    1. Oops: C-QUAM.

  3. In my market (Spokane-Coeur d’ Alene), even talk radio is abandoning AM for FM. Case in point: 1510 KGA, which used to be a 50,000 clear channel powerhouse you could hear all over the western half of North America, quietly switched from sports talk to simulcasting the hip-hop format on its FM sister station. (It also still airs Gonzaga basketball games but I suspect that’s only because it’s contractually obligated.) Other local AM stations which used to have talk or sports formats have likewise switched to simulcasting the music formats on their FM sisters.

    1. What you describe here is one click north of surrendering the license—“ain’t nobody going to listen to this AM signal anyway, so let’s put something on it that won’t cost us anything”—but it does get music back onto the AM dial. There’s a classic-rock station in Duluth, Minnesota, that does this, and that’s how I listen to it when I’m passing through.

  4. Tim Morrissey | Reply

    The funeral for AM radio was held some time ago. You musta missed it, or didn’t get the memo to attend.

  5. Color me crazy, and I haven’t given this enough thought really, but wouldn’t it be great if all signals under, say 10,000 watts were somehow given back to the public – to foundations, local and community broadcasters, local non-profits? Maybe the broadcast groups donate these frequencies, with agreements that new owners of the signals do not broadcast competing programming.

    Just riffing here, of course. I lament the demise of AM radio, too…and so much of the programming on so many stations.

    Love your blog!

  6. They said vinyl records were dead. They also said Rock and Roll was dead, Punk was dead, Heavy Metal was dead and comic books are dead. AM is sleeping…

  7. Will AM stations transmitting in an all-digital format affect coverage pattern? It does reduce the signal distance for TV stations as standard definition carries farther than high definition. Besides, terrestrial radio is nothing more than commercials being interrupted by music or blather. I’ll stick with SiriusXM.

  8. […] other radio stories: about the craft of radio news, about disc jockeys who talk too much, about the current state of the AM band, about an absurd job description, and about the birth of the classic-rock radio canon in the late […]

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