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Is AM Already Doomed? Or Can It Be Saved?

Barry Mishkind
[May 2023] The discussion about the fate of the AM band has reached many parts of the industry – and now into Congress as well. What are the key issues? Will the Bills now moving through Congress provide the right answers? Or, is AM doomed no matter what happens? Take a look and see how this may affect you – even if you are not an AM station. 

Recent announcements by the auto manufacturers that they planned the new model year to include entertainment systems that did not have AM reception in them has gotten a lot of attention – and some calls to action. But what should you do?

Over the years, the AM radio has changed a lot. So, let us start with a bit of history. Then we will discuss that we need to do today.

FROM LIVING ROOM TO DASH

From crystal sets to expensive receivers and speakers, AM radio truly changed society in the 1920s, as the number of broadcast stations exploded, bringing people together with news and entertainment.

The importance of the news and information was such that the government authorized a second frequency for news and weather announcements. Soon, the entire AM band was starting to fill with stations. Reports of how the announcements saved lives during floods, tornados, and other emergencies made AM radio a lifeline for millions.

Clearly people wanted to have such information wherever they went, so efforts to get radios into cars were underway.

EARLY CAR RADIOS

It all started in the early 1920s with rather large, bulky, tube driven systems.

Chevrolet offered one of the earliest at $200 – nearly $3500 in current money. So, as you can imagine, it was not in every car. (A complete model T, for example, cost around $260.)

It was a difficult “sell” as the early radios suffered from ignition noise, tube and tuning fragility, and batteries that discharged in a few hours. But it did work. Mostly. Even police departments, like Detroit, put up a station like its KOP. Others made arrangements with local stations to transmit important. WGN, Chicago was one: periodically, listeners would hear a “Squads Alert!” with details. However, this did tend to attract gawkers. Eventually police frequencies were moved away from most consumer radios.

Police radio faded from consumer radios quickly as the Department of Commerce intervened. The DoC had licensed KOP as a broadcast station and, yes, the insisted KOP run entertainment between police calls! That sort of ended KOP until higher frequency transmissions were worked out. Another complication was AT&T demanding royalties from cities building transmitters.

Nevertheless, as costs and size moderated, AM became very popular in vehicles.

STAYING ALERT

As noted, news and weather reports were something the public wanted.

Long before EAS (or even EBS or Conelrad before that), local stations understood how they could protect their listeners with accurate, up-to-date information. This became a major attraction for AM radio in many places. Auto radios were considered a vital accessory.

Manufacturers responded by finding ways to make the radios smaller, more reliable, and cheaper. A major advance came in 1963 with the advent of all-transistor radios. But it was still AM radio that was the foundation.

INFORMATION AND ENTERTAINMENT

In the 60s, features grew to make AM radio better in cars.

With a good sound system, radio sounded better in a car than on many table top radios. The trunk was a natural aid to bass response, as many users – and neighboring cars occupants – soon discovered. Taking advantage were the 4 and 8-track audio tapes (the 4-track tape body ending up in radio studios for several decades), cassette players, CD players, high end amplifier and speakers, and FM broadcasts.

As we moved into the new century, digital products “jumped” possibilities faster and faster. Satellite radio, BlueTooth audio, USB ports, HD radio, and video displays proliferated.

And then electric vehicles brought something that got people’s attention: RFI

Last week I got an email from a friend saying “I almost forgot to send you this picture.”

WHEN/WHY THEY CAN’T HEAR YOU

Sure, RFI (radio frequency interference) was there before electric vehicles.

LED traffic lights, for example, have proliferated, along with power transmission lines and other sources. The result, as any AM station owner or engineer can tell you, is reduced coverage contours. One can debate the reasons how and why, but there is no doubt that

The EVs, however, have brought a new level of RFI into the mix. The car’s electronics were wiping out AM reception. The response of the auto manufacturers is similar to what they did in the 50’s and 60’s when they reduced the bandwidth of receivers to little reduce not much  more than telephone lines: get rid of the problem.

This time they would take the AM radio out of the vehicle entirely. After all there was a lot to be gained by selling space on the dashboard.

STOPPING THE NOISE PROBLEM

Some AM station owners – prompted by the FEMA – realized that one of the major emergency information sources was being pulled from new cars.

Indeed, when an emergency strikes, a flood, a tornado, a major fire, etc., among the first things to go off line is the power grid. Cell phones and the Internet stop dead.

Radio is the about the only resilient source of mass communication. That is one reason the FEMA has poured millions of dollars into upgrading and hardening key stations around the country – the PEP (Primary Entry Point) stations – virtually all of which are AM. You would think this would be an incentive to keep AM in cars and trucks. But it is cheaper to pull them out than provide noise reduction. Some manufacturers did build AM radios that were noise resistant.

PUSHBACK

As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Station owners, the NAB, and others made their concerns known to their Congressmen and Senators. Enough so that this past week both Houses of Congress introduced the AM For Every Vehicle Act (Senate Bill: S1669) seeking to mandate AM radios in cars sold in the USA. The NAB endorsed the Bills, as did the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. The Bills would require the government set rules for AM radios within a year.

Obviously, some of this has been heard by auto makers: Ford has announced that they have decided to include AM radio in all their 2024 vehicles and offer a software update to any Ford EV without AM. Overall, this should be good news for the broadcasters. Not all manufacturers have followed suit as yet, but you can be sure they are talking to the politicians, too.

On the other hand, there has been no word yet on how the FCC might handle existing RFI from EVs already on the road. Thus, many observers wonder if the growing number of EVs already on the road will, along with LED traffic lights, etc., continue to erode AM coverage to a point where the band may be killed. Among the threatened: the 1400 Traveler Information Stations (TIS) placed to help driver traverse problem areas (accidents, construction, or otherwise congested areas).

And this brings us to what you may want to do.

PASSING THE WORD

Already state broadcast associations are getting involved, as are many SECC and LECC members – alerting Congress to the need to preserve AM for its emergency event value, if nothing else.

Some of you may have received some sample letters to use, to modify and contact your representatives in Congress (you should mention Senate Bill: S1669) and at the FCC. Others may wonder how to approach this. The following three links provide you with the information you need:

  1. Richard Rudman, Chair of the California SECC, shares his letter to elected representatives, focusing on the emergency alert value of AM.
  2. Jonathon Yinger, President and CEO of the Christian Broadcasting System, Ltd, shares his letter, which is focused a bit more on the RFI issue.
  3. An item from NIA Broadcasting’s Neal Ardman relating his experience, along with Kyle Magrill of how RFI from electric vehicles is already causing issues.

 

 

 

 

 

www.digitalalertsystems.com

 

 

 

 

ONE OTHER THING TO DO

There is one other area where broadcasters should look and act.

That is the matter of program streaming. Regardless of whether RFI is already affecting you (and it will come for FM, too, eventually), you are competing with thousands of Internet radio stations and streamers.

Is your stream as good as it can be? Simply running MP3’s with relatively traditional processing will not give you programming that will attract and retain listeners.

Yes, the royalty fees on streaming can be an issue as well. But if you are going to stream, you should make it the best possible. And, there may be solutions to deal with the royalties.

AM, FM, LPFM, Streaming. Whatever your mode, it is important to make sure you can be heard, heard well, and meet the needs of your audience, even when the power – and Internet – go down!

 

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