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.