Is It Time For AM Radio To Go Dark?

Written Jun. 23, 2009 by Larry Rosin in Terrestrial Radio with 32 Comments

I live and work firmly within the New York metropolitan area. I happen to love much of the programming available that emanates from New York on the AM band -- sports on WFAN and ESPN Radio, News on WCBS and WINS, talk from WABC and WOR, business news from Bloomberg, and Radio Disney especially when I'm with my daughter.

There is only one problem -- I can BARELY HEAR ANY OF THIS. To listen to these stations from my metro, I usually have to listen through all manner of scratch and hiss. Often, I can hear nothing at all. If it is raining (and it has been non-stop for several weeks), almost nothing comes in. And let me restate -- I'm not 'DXing' radio stations from hundreds of miles away. I'm trying to listen to my market's own radio stations!

At last year's Jacobs Media Summit in Austin, I was privileged to be asked to run for "President of Radio" and to give a speech with policy suggestions for the radio industry. In my speech I proposed a plan for 'sunset-ing' the AM Band. Let's pick a time period, perhaps five years, for a date certain when AM Radio will cease. At that time the bandwidth can be sold and a fund created to compensate license-holders. During those five years, any AM brands worth their salt would likely make the transfer to the FM band, replacing duplicative FM music stations, and allowing people to actually listen to that great programming.

I honestly thought I might get some traction with this idea, or if nothing else some attention. But for a variety of reasons, few of the many good suggestions made that day got onto the industry's agenda. So I thought I would give it another go.

AM radio's secondary purpose of providing communication to rural America has long since obsolesced. There is too much radio advertising inventory chasing too few advertising dollars. All manner of fabulous programming -- programming that compels listeners and advertisers -- is going unheard on the AM band.

So what do you say readers: Is it time to start the sun setting on AM Radio? Your comments are welcome.

Reader Comments

Your 2¢, in chronological order — add your comment below.
1  Timmy on June 23, 2009 9:25 AM

Should the entire band be silenced? Or should it be made available for amateurs or LP-type broadcasters? Open it up for the existing or would-be pirates? Yes, it would need some regulation, we don't need any 400,000 watt AM stations taking over the continent!

This would also open up bandwidth for part-15'rs, etc.

Why waste the space with nothing?

2  Paul Easton on June 23, 2009 10:31 AM

Here in the UK the government's recently published 'Digital Britain' report proposes a migration of many radio station to digital (DAB) which will, in turn, free-up space on FM and enable stations to move from AM to FM.

Stations currently broadcasting on both AM/FM and DAB will become DAB-only.

A new tier of ultra-local radio, consisting of small local commercial stations and community stations, will occupy this vacated FM spectrum. Radio services on AM will either upgrade to DAB or, if they are within the ultra-local tier, to FM.

This is not planned to happen until at least 2015 - if not much later - but the report's aim is to focus thinking on the future.

3  Jim on June 23, 2009 2:12 PM

Why not let the marketplace make that decision? If there are not enough listeners and not enough ad dollars, the weakest stations will fail and eventually go dark.

Are you saying that there is too much variety in radio, Larry, and that this should be solved by having fewer signals available? Or are you simply looking for the FCC to solve a non-problem?

4  Larry Rosin on June 23, 2009 5:43 PM

Thanks for your comment Jim.

I'm trying to see it from a more global, "What would the President of Radio do to help the industry?" perspective. While killing off the AM dial could be seen as one government-dictated market distortion, isn't the continued existence of AM a similar government-dictated distortion? And while you are right that eventually stations might just 'go dark' and others will go to FM on their own (as some already are)...I'm proposing a kick in the pants to help shrink inventory and get us where we need to go faster.

But more than anything I'm trying to start discussion...so again thanks for weighing in!

5  Bas Scheffers on June 23, 2009 8:12 PM

Why not shut down AM *and* FM and go all digital?

That leaves enough room for all of AM to move into "FM" quality. Then let the market sort out which ones will survive on an equal playing field.

6  Mark Roberts on June 24, 2009 12:51 AM

Larry, maybe you should look into buying a better radio! But, seriously, in the San Francisco Bay Area, only AM stations are capable of reaching the entire market: KCBS, KGO, and KNBR, primarily. Sure, KCBS now simulcasts on FM, but that simulcast can't be heard in some parts of the Bay Area, such as areas of San Jose. I suppose there could be another FM simulcast, KFOG-style, but there are multiple obstacles for CBS to adopt that approach (e.g., ownership limitations).

All of that said, I've long felt that more than a few AM stations really should just go off the air, starting with daytimers in the upper half of the band. Most aren't economically viable any more. Since the 1940s, the FCC has allowed the number of stations (AM *and* FM) to grow without regard for the ability of their markets to support them. "No Post Office Left Behind" must be the FCC's motto. That was true on AM in the 1950s; it's equally true for FM, post-80-90.

AM should still be employed where it's useful: for situations where broad geographic coverage is important or even essential. Besides, that particular spectrum isn't suitable for much else. But the AM spectrum would be far more useful with fewer stations, with possibly more power. Trim the dial back to where it was in 1949, and you might have better results in 2009.

Get rid of IBOC, too. (IBOC should die on FM, too; I have found that it really exacerbates the effects of multipath.)

I was joking when I started this comment by saying you should get a better radio, but I have to say that's part of the problem, too. There must be a reason that vintage AM radios from the 1960s get ridiculous prices in eBay auctions -- many of them sound good and are more sensitive than most modern-day radios.

Any solution would require a comprehensive, systematic look at how radio frequencies are used and, to be candid, I think neither the industry nor the FCC nor receiver manufacturers are capable of that kind of thinking. But it's fun to say "what if"!

7  dman on June 24, 2009 12:20 PM

In Chicago, there are four Class 1A stations: WSCR, WGN, WBBM, and WLS. Their signals can be heard during the day all the way to Green Bay, WI, rain or shine, and farther at night.

In addition, there are several other 24 hour stations which can be heard through most of the Chicago metro.

Pre people meter, the two top stations in AM drive were on AM.

8  Russ Bradley Hines on June 24, 2009 1:48 PM

Well, when the coming apocolypse comes , AM radio will still be useful for wide-area information distribution, like where the clean drinking water is, when the radio active cloud will be hovering in your area (thanks, Tomorrow Radio).

9  buzz on June 25, 2009 7:19 AM

We need this kind of creative thinking. I disagree, however, with some of the ideas. Why a fund to compensate license holders? It's not like a license is their electromagnetic property. The license is permission from the government to broadcast, that's all.

Even newer licensees who paid to get licenses in an auction did so only to become the selectee, not because they bought an asset that really belongs to them.

New licenses in the medium wave band could be auctioned off, but for what purpose? How valuable would they be?

10  Lance Venta on June 25, 2009 1:51 PM

Here's a three tiered approach to semi-eliminating the AM band.

1. Close off TV Channels 2-6. Use the funds from auctioning off the spectrum of Channels 2, 3, and 4 to fund the FM changes.

2. Extend the FM band into the the frequencies of TV Channels 5 and 6.

3a. Move the majority of existing AM's along with new Low-Powered FM's into the new frequencies.

3b. If you want to make HD Radio viable. Make these new frequencies (and the receivers for them) digital-only. Also establish a cut-off date like the U.K. for the remaining FM's to go digital-only.

4. Keep the 50kw ND stations on a narrower AM, say 540 to 1210 with the requirement that at least 18 hours a day Monday through Friday and 12 hours a day weekends are locally originated.

Obviously these changes would have to be made in conjunction with Canada and Mexico, but with Canada abandoning AM that should enable some other AM's that qualify for the programming standards to upgrade their signals. Perhaps something can be done to limit the amount of AM's a group can operate after the change as well.

When all is said and done, you'd have a viable Digital FM Band, Room for LPFM, less interference on AM with regional programming, and increased localism.

11  john ford on June 25, 2009 7:48 PM

I fear, that to me, what lies behind your idea is typically new york centric. Let's see, I can't get AM radio in my office in the city, so no one else needs it. It's that Manhattan view of the rest of the world. That nothing else lies beyond the Hudson, besides some vague notion of New Jersey and of course the red-eye into Burbank. Now, I can say this as someone who has lived and worked a lot of years in the city. Trying to get NY talent to realize there was another world beyond the city was and often is an exercise in futility.

Just because you can't get AM with all of those "tall buildings" (as john hartford used to put it) doesn't mean that the majority of the US is willing to scrap it. Hell, I live in Austin (the city mentioned as the site of the Jacob's Media Summit) and the folks here seem to like KLBJ-AM just fine (7.2 and number one 12 plus in the latest Arbitron)

It's no wonder that the folks at the Jacob's Media Summit thought the idea was a good one, how many of the participants work in AM radio? The Jacob's boys are very smart indeed, but aren't the majority of their clients rock and classic rock FM stations? This is like asking listeners in a perceptual study what do they want from radio station 'xyz'.... and the first thing they wil say is "more music, less talk. Yet the morning show gets the listeners.

I love your column, but me thinks this particular ship sinks under its own weight.

12  Dick Carr on June 26, 2009 12:56 PM

I don't like your idea. But, I think that Mark Roberts and dman are on the right track and I'd vote for them as President of Radio. I'm for eliminating the daytimers and technically inferior AMs. Reinstitue the strong, long distance AM signals. Fix the recievers, too. Oh and by the way...music, intelligent personalities and reliable hourly local news on AM stations with good coverage can still attract an audience. What will you do after you lose the election?

13  Joel Raab on June 26, 2009 1:04 PM

As someone who grew up with AM, it would be sad. On the other hand, survival of the fittest is where we are. The marketplace should, in my opinion, dictate where AM goes. Plenty of people are still making money with AM.

14  Clark Smidt on June 26, 2009 1:23 PM

Dear Larry...

Kill AM Radio? Radio's killing itself and you want to help it along? You're a great guy but suggesting an end any radio is a DUMB comment. If you want to give me an FM license that covers the same as my AM, fine. However, there are plenty of AM radios that pick up everywhere (i.e. "Everybody gets it"). Innovative radio works, regardless where it is. XM / SIRIUS is still trying to figure it out. AM radio provides a lot more service than the HD flop. Local Radio Wins and always will. Hope all else is well.

Clark Smidt, Owner / Operator 980 WCAP, Lowell, MA. (Boston Metro)

15  Nick Nolte on June 26, 2009 2:52 PM

What a dumb idea. Sounds like another out of touch "expert" with most of America. Must be a paid contract employee of corporate radio giants that want to get rid of the local owners who are a thorn in the side.

16  Tom Webster on June 26, 2009 3:15 PM

Thanks for your comment, Nick. Loved you in Prince of Tides!

17  Roy Jarrell on June 26, 2009 3:37 PM

While I understand some of your frustration with picking up a signal, I tend to agree with some of the above posters. The lack of good AM tuners nowadays are a real problem; nevertheless, where AM still does extremely well is in 'cow country'. I can see where some duplication of programming problems exist in big-city AM, but the problem's not nearly so pronounced in rural America. Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

18  Alan R Peterson on June 26, 2009 4:37 PM

Drop the underpowered and technically deficient & ignorant stations on the upper end of the dial... all those guys who allow whole forests to overrun their tower sites, and leave their transmitters on high power long after sunset. Open up the spectrum to local educational operations (no NPR) and local LPAM with power output no greater than 100W.

19  Richard Clifford on June 26, 2009 5:35 PM

Are you crazy? Close down the AM stations? Many of these have history and heritage behind them. No way! We could let all the daytimers stay on the air at reduced power at night, or we can have them online all the time!

20  Randall Bloomquist on June 26, 2009 9:24 PM

This problem will resolve itself. Over the next ten years, the viable AM "brands" will move to FM. The AM band will then become home to niche stations, including ethnic, paid-programming, and religious formats. Group operators will either sell their disadvantaged AMs or LMA them to the niche entrepreneurs.
Of course, in ten years we'll be having the same conversation about FM stations as they battle in-car wi-fi for audience. Right?

An aside: About three years ago, WLW-AM management launched an internal campaign to get its staff thinking about how things would need to change as the product moved to FM and, eventually to wi-fi. As I recall, they used 15 years as their timeline.

21  jerry smith on June 27, 2009 9:54 AM

This is an great posting site. Comments are superior. You folks must be the missing generation who avoided D.C. and the local governments, the real problem with free radio and TV. AM radio is survivalist spectrum. With the onslaught of HiDeaf transmission systems and the reduced quality and coverages on AM and FM our general population has chosen the path of least resistance including IPOD and other digital medium.When we have a nuclear attack or our own government speeds up the transition to total socialist control of every aspect of life there will be no power houses from the woods or offshore that can be heard on these HiDeaf total digital boxes. Silly as it sounds local radio is being yanked daily and silence is the only thing golden in our monetary system. Europe is a different culture with government run media already. I apologize to the new US government for complaining. We all know the changes they be a comin and we humbly refuse to shrug shoulders and say "oh well, lets join the parade!" Radio, especially AM, must fight the power!

22  walter sabo on June 28, 2009 11:20 AM

1. Pulling stations off the air is not the way to limit inventory. The way to limit inventory in radio is a universal cut in spot load. The benefits of that are obvious to any programmer. The benefits to sales should be obvious too.

2. Shortwave was very viable until about 1950 and fyi the ShorTwave laws were the best models for de-regulation. they are visionary. No one has suggested taking Shortwave dark. Yes, shortwave is a commercial medium.

3. The technical problems with most AM signals are not the receivers. It's the fact that many many companies, including the "good ones" have failed to invest in new ground systems, transmitters and tuners for their AM array. One station in the great Northeast formerly owned by a "good company" went dark for a couple days in April because they had failed to invest in ground system maintenance for about 20 years.

4. I dunno in my lifetime there haven't been more stations put on the air in major markets. Before consolidation about half the stations in the US lost money according to the NAB. Wonder how many it is now.

5. The reason AM covers the San Francisco market and FM's don't is that some very wise and clever AM managers in the late 60's used Arbitron's market definition rules to lobby Arbitron to include MORE COUNTIES so that only the AM's COULD cover the suddenly larger market !!!! PS: A few years later, FM audience size would have made it impossible for them to win that lobbying effort.

If you were in New Orleans the day michael jackson died and tuned up and down the FM dial you probably would NOT have heard the news. THAT's THE PROBLEM.

23  Big Jay Sorensen on June 28, 2009 3:05 PM

One of the more interesting ways to save AM was written about in Radio World a few months back. An engineer suggested that smaller AM stations would migrate to a NEW FM band below where the current broadcast band exists. Then, you only allow the MONSTER signals STAY...sort of like before daytime only stations were allowed. Give those migrating AM stations a coverage area almost identical to what they have now...but at least they'd be ON.

By some system (can't remember how he worded it) you delegate the clear channel (God forbid the company but the 50 kw stations) to be the ONLY ones on the AM band. You'd get rid of MOST of the noise generated by LED stop lights, etc...perhaps because the signals would be better..because there would be less stations out there to interfere with each other.

Next channel adjacencies would have to be worked out to see which one would reach more bodies in the country at night… Some of the BIG stations MIGHT have to migrate to the FM as well because of that. IT would be done purely by engineering experts overseen by the FCC (I can't believe I wrote that), and not soley due to ratings or profit.

You have 5 years to REBRAND your frequency from AM to FM. The radio manufacturers would then be MANDATED to bring back the full fidelity that AM is capable of. The FCC would be the final decision-maker in disputes of who stays and who goes. So those 1450's and others would DISAPPEAR and not have that HASH sound even in their city of license any more. They'd be on FM even with only 1000 watts...but it would cover their communities they presently cover.

Obviously this WHOLE thing would be fought about endlessly with NOTHING happening but the complete downfall of AM service...and that helps NO one.

But just imagine. A wide-open space for about 30 stations nation-wide with very clear reception (unless CUBA decides to screw with it like IT'S known to do.) Then AM would be listenable again. As it stands now, unless you're within eyesight of a tower array, forget it. And sometimes even THAT is out of bounds as the directional nature of most AM stations prevents even THAT.

Look, I ain't no engineer...but I've been in this biz as an Air Talent for 39 years and have worked at TWO NON-DIRECTIONAL 50KW stations on AM (what a hoot to get calls from Newfoundland and Bermuda) I've worked at 5kw stations directional serving a 20 mile area…and many big and small FMs too.

TO save the AM band, SOMETHING MAJOR has to happen and the sooner the better or EVERYONE loses.

That's MY two cents.
BE BIG!
Big Jay Sorensen

24  David Bradley on June 28, 2009 10:24 PM

AM radio is outdated and really should be silenced. Either that or it needs to move into the 21st century. It's 2009. There's no reason we should have to listen to scratches, hisses and pops on the AM dial.

25  Tom Webster on June 29, 2009 10:34 AM

Thanks for your comment, Walt. Agree with most of that, but the number of shortwave signals over the past ten (even five) years has declined precipitously. Shortwave stations are indeed going dark all over the world.

It's wonderful to see such spirited defenses of AM radio in the comments to this post! Taking a 50,000 foot view, though, can you imagine a day when there will not be AM radio? What would be the tipping point--and will you know it when you see it?

26  rick jackson on June 29, 2009 2:44 PM

This AM radio station was recently sold for more than $50 million and it's the top billing station in a top 25 market. Are you ready to fork-over $50 million for the rights to turn it off. Are you also ready to give us another $50 million to purchase a good FM signal to replace the great signal you just turned-off?

That's just the opening argument against a truly thoughtless idea.

27  Mark Roberts on July 2, 2009 12:58 AM

@walter sabo: This is more than a matter of Arbitron manipulation. Guess which is the city with the largest population in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Answer: San Jose!

Facts on the ground are facts on the ground, and the biggest fact is that no San Francisco-based FM station can cover all of San Jose with just one transmitter. Boosters are not an option because the terrain does not block the signals, unlike the I-680 corridor in the East Bay. KFOG does it using a repeater (KFFG) in Los Altos. So do you think an all-news station that heavily emphasizes traffic and weather reports will give up market-wide coverage and use exclusively an FM signal that doesn't cover all of the market's largest city?

And what are the long-term prospects for KGO?

San Francisco is just one example and I think almost any market where FM power is limited to 50,000 watts (or less) faces similar problems with FM coverage.

Generally speaking, for reliable, wide-area coverage, AM is still the only option. You don't have to be an engineer or a DXer (and I am neither) to understand that! I say this primarily as an FM listener but, again, facts on the ground are facts on the ground. Those facts lead me to conclude that, if AM radio isn't relevant, then FM radio isn't relevant, either -- or is far on the path to becoming irrelevant.

28  Tom Webster on July 2, 2009 6:59 AM

I disagree that AM is still the only option! Anyone with a phone can get radio. That is here today. Anyone in the town where my office is (Carrboro, NC) can get wifi free, everywhere. That is also here today. The future, as William Gibson would say, is already here--it's just unevenly distributed. IP is the new AM, and it isnt 5 years away--it's today.

29  Mark Roberts on July 2, 2009 9:19 PM

@Tom -- IP is the new AM as long as you have electricity. And how did that work out in New Orleans during Katrina?

Yes, the future is unevenly distributed -- *very* unevenly distributed. Try making a cell phone call in the technologically proficient Bay Area sometime, and you'll see what I mean.

That's not to say that there are a lot of new options -- but it's important to keep them in perspective and realize that ideas are important but so are infrastructure and business models to support and pay for those ideas. None of those elements is sufficient on their own.

30  Tom Webster on July 6, 2009 10:36 AM

Cell phones, like AM Radios, use batteries, and those batteries are easily recharged by "AA" battery adapters sold in every major supermarket. It is hard to imagine a scenario--especially after Katrina!--where AM transmitters stay up but cell phone towers do not. The coverage issue (the Bay Area is an outlier here) is a fair point in some cities, but the rate of advancement in cell coverage is exponentially greater than recent advancements in AM (or FM) transmitter technology.

What is true, though, is that AM Radio's perception and (valid) benefits during an emergency or crisis are to date unparalleled--it is still the first thing I reach for when our power goes out. But I was conditioned to do this from a young age. If you are not in that habit, then other options become more prominent. It's radio's job to be available on as many of those options and devices as possible, so the service of radio becomes the draw, not the fact that it runs on batteries.

31  John Prusinski on August 5, 2009 1:47 PM

I found this thread because I've always loved AM radio, particularly in the New York City area, and I've been wondering why reception has declined so precipitously in the past five years or so. I live in a rural area about an hour and a half northwest of the city, where I've lived for the past 20 years. I used to be able to receive strong signals in my car from at least a dozen NYC-area stations; now on a good day I can get WFAN, WCBS, and maybe Bloomberg well enough to make out over the static. Most days I can only get WFAN, and that barely audible; some days I only get static all the way up and down the dial, unless I'm on top of a "mountain" (that's a "big hill" to anyone from a truly mountainous region).

The stations must be broadcasting with the same power as ever; even though car AM radio receiver quality has declined, I doubt that's enough to explain such a drastic change. I'm wondering if the spectrum is experiencing a lot more interference from the rapid growth of cell service, wifi, etc. I don't have the technical expertise to know... can someone here answer that?

Thanks.

32  Cherry Carver on October 20, 2009 10:38 AM

Call me old-fashioned, but, to me, tuning in AM radio stations at night from far away has always been a little bit of magic for me. If they take that from us and replace everything with one single digital band, everything will become generic and expensive. AM radio is unique, peculiar, fun, and it's free.

Now that TV is no longer free, we need at least one source that we can pick up with our old analog radios. What happens if we go all-digital--do we have to throw away our dear old radios???

The day AM radio goes, that will be the day Big Brother establishes himself, and part of me will die.

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