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The Health and Future of AM Broadcasting?

This one is emotional, of course. After all, AM radio is one of the oldest uses of the radio spectrum (starting around 1919), as evidenced in part by the mid-frequency band on which it started and still operates. There is not much other on-air activity that has preceded it on the spectrum, perhaps just the maritime service, a few public coast stations (overseas telegrams) and amateurs. AM broadcasting is one of Mother Spectrum’s first children, and it will be sad to see it go.

But it should be fine. It has functioned essentially unchanged during a turbulent time in the advancement of technology and telecommunications, and it no longer fits in well. As a medium, it can’t compete effectively, its audience is shrinking, the economy is bad, and in the long run it’s probably best to shut it down, with appreciation and admiration, and move on. The Curmudgeon will try to argue this case.

By FCC mandate, for decades the United States has been equipped with dual-band AM-FM consumer radios. Everyone in the United States has access to the broadcast FM band; everyone appreciates the inherent quality advantage that FM (stereo) has. AM’s declining market share and limited programming variety amply indicate this fact.

There was a time when broadcast AM radio signals roamed the sparsely populated countryside, bringing news and entertainment to isolated rural communities. The existence of a dozen “clear channel” overnight AM station assignments at this time ensured that every location in America could be “connected” to major population centers in a way never before possible.

But not anymore. Clear-channel AM station assignments have long since passed into history. Almost every market town now has its own FM station or can receive service from a nearby town. Satellite radio can rain signals to almost any location in the continental United States, bringing more programming and diversity to one operator than is available on the entire AM broadcast band. The Internet can provide global radio programming in dizzying abundance.

So what is the current state of AF? Let’s look at the engineering side first. There have been no major improvements in the basic transmission system for perhaps seventy-five years. Its old technical limitations remain: restricted audio frequency bandwidth, no inherent noise immunity for reception, and a technical nightmare in spectrum management due to nighttime ionospheric propagation. The VHF broadcast FM band has none of that.

And there isn’t much hope for future AF improvement either. Well, there is AM HD transmission (i.e. IBOC). Admittedly, this helps close some of the performance gap with FM. But IBOC, as currently practiced, really requires 20 kHz channels (busy bandwidth); just look at a spectrum analyzer to see for yourself. So if you want to “save” the AM band with IBOC, plan to rearrange the entire band to a 20 kHz channel frame.

From an economic perspective, AM cannot compete with FM in music programming, which comprises the majority of broadcast space. All AM programming now (usually) provides news/sports/talk. And all of these formats would certainly fit into FM just as well. There really isn’t anything unique about AM programming anymore. Amos and Andy, along with the big networks, are now long gone.

We’ve come to this: we simply don’t need AM broadcasting anymore! We can very well advance with terrestrial radio FM / satellite / Internet. So, with many tears bouncing off his desk, the Curmudgeon says, “Sunset”! Let’s pick a date, maybe fifteen to twenty years in the future, when, with much nostalgia and fanfare, we’ll turn it off. Similarly, we should manage the future discontinuation of terrestrial television broadcasting.

And many of the same planning points will apply to switching off AM radio as apply to terrestrial television. Existing broadcasters should receive accelerated capital cost allowance tax credits for their transmission facilities and the value of their licences. They can also expect great windfalls from the eventual sale of their broadcast sites, around which communities have grown. These are now very valuable plots of land!

But what about the continuation of their programming, after the extinction? Ah, technology to the rescue! Their programming, the news/sports/talk channels, will fit fairly well with the HD-2, HD-3, etc. channels of the VHF-FM stations in the city of license. In fact, at least one major all-news metropolitan AM station has already begun simulcasting its entire main program feed on channel HD-2 of a company-owned FM station in the same city. Indeed, anything worth saving can be integrated into FM HD.

Finally, once we’ve “freed up” over a megahertz of mid-frequency spectrum, what on earth can we do with it? This question took some thinking on Old Curmudgeon’s part, but at least a clear answer finally emerged.

With the large terrestrial coverage area inherent in FM transmission, “AM Megahertz” would be ideal for a broadband regional data distribution service for the public safety community! What a wonderful asset this could become: the ability to simultaneously transmit maps, photographs, drawings and text messages to first responders everywhere engaged in major disasters and emergencies! And to do it in a way that no VHF/UHF/microwave system could. That alone is worth “the price of admission”. Reusing the tape for this purpose is almost “poetic”: after all, one-way public safety voice dispatch began, in the 1930s and 1940s, with the use of AM transmitters on the channels just above the upper end of conventional AM broadcasting. bandaged!

So let’s say a sad farewell to AM broadcasting, with all the echoes of its past greatness. We love you, we will remember you, but we are moving on now.

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