FCC Just Making A Bad Thing Worse

9
2063

The FCC’s plan to revitalize the AM band is a very hot topic in our industry right now. And the part of the plan that will impact the big booming AMs heard all across the country has generated an interesting debate, often between those owning or operating AM radio stations. Our coverage of the topic yesterday generated a ton of feedback, including this very detailed piece by Doc Searls.

(By Doc Searls) By reducing the coverage areas of Class A stations to be protected from interference, what the FCC proposes is not “revitalization” for AM, or even life support. Instead it’s just another way to make a bad thing — skywave interference — even worse.

Any veteran engineer can tell you that adding more stations, more power to stations, and more hours with more power to stations, only makes what was originally an AM feature into an even worse bug. The FCC has a long history of doing this over and over again. More stations, more power, more interference, every time.

To grok the problem, consider the existing 750-mile protection zone for Class A stations. This was a “revitalization” move years ago that got rid of the “clear channel” designation (which gave a station exclusive use of a channel at night, when AM signals can travel hundreds or thousands of miles). This allowed lots of new stations to show up where skywave coverage by distant stations had been protected for the entire past. For one example of what this causes, consider 890KHz. For many years WLS in Chicago was the only station radiating on that channel at night. Once WLS was protected only to 750 miles from its transmitter, WAMG in Dedham (a Boston suburb) could show up on the same channel, just across the 750-mile limit, with a directional 6000-watt night signal aimed straight at Boston by a line of five half-wave towers. WAMG protected WLS’s coverage inside the 750-mile radius, but did nothing to stop WLS’s 50,000 watt signal from continuing to pound into Boston. So at night, WAMG sounds like crap over much of the Boston metro. So it was no surprise, when WAMG went off the air from September to December 2009, to find WLS sounding fine at night in Boston.

The new proposed rules do away with the whole 750-mile thing, and just protects existing Class A stations where their signals are strongest on the ground. Essentially the rules tell the Class As that their coverage will be reduced to allow other stations on the same or adjacent channels to increase their own power at night, and improve local service.

But the result will be better local coverage where signals are super-strong, and increased skywave interference to far-off places on the same channels.

So the real story here isn’t failure to protect existing skywaves, but increased interference by every station that increases its night power.

In fact there are also many other problems endemic to AM broadcasting that no “revitalization” can fix:
1) A band that’s nearly useless for data.
2) Increasing environmental noise, mostly coming from computing devices of all kinds.
3) Terrible receiver circuitry, especially in portable and home devices.
4) Car makers getting rid of whip antennas, which are required for the best AM reception.
5) Abandonment of both AM and FM by people (especially young ones) for whom the finite quantity of live radio stations are vastly outnumbered by zillions of other radio-like choices on computers and mobile devices.
6) Real estate under towers proving more valuable than stations themselves.
7) Woeful inadequacies of FM translators, most of which have fractions of the power and coverage enjoyed by competing stations on the same band.
8) Poor sound, thanks partly to the nature of the medium and mostly to the awfulness of receivers.
9) Abandonment of AM in electric cars, which generate levels of computing noise too high for AM to tolerate. (In fact, AM is already gone in Teslas and one BMW.)

For a sobering view of AM’s future in the U.S., look toward Europe, where AM transmitters are being clear-cut like a diseased forest. Even the legendary million-watt Radio Luxembourg, once Europe’s top rock-and-roll station, went off the air at the end of last year, and its towers were dropped earlier this month. For a death-watch diary of AM around the world, read Ydun’s Mediumwave Info: http://mediumwave.info/news.html. (Outside North America, AM is called medium wave, or MW.)

The best strategy for the FCC is to do whatever it can (which might be nothing) to encourage AM and FM stations to become as digital as possible as soon as possible. That means they should maximize streaming, podcasting, and on-demand offerings, and then prepare for the day when digital finishes doing to FM what FM has long been doing to AM — plus a glut of “content” from an infinitude of competitors.

Two reasons why digital audio hasn’t wounded over-the-air radio enough to induce full panic:
1) There are too many apps for too many stations, and they’re all different.
2) No apps “tune” as easily as a real radio. When we get one or more of those, watch out.

The only places where AM may continue to make full sense in the U.S. are central time zone states with high ground conductivity. (See the map here. Look at the numbers: 15 and 30 are the best.) Across the AM-friendly lands of Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, even a weak AM signal can travel hundreds of miles in the daytime. With just 5,000 watts (1/10th the max licensed), KFYR/550 in Bismark puts a good signal across all of North Dakota and half of South Dakota. KLIF/570 reaches from Austin to Oklahoma City. There are lots of areas left in those states that are absent of cellular data coverage, required for digital radio streaming. But you can still get satellite radio, and for many listeners that might be enough.

Don’t be surprised when the FCC finally heaves a big sigh and sunsets the whole AM band. Hey: Look at what happened to analog TV, and will also happen to what’s left of over the air (OTA) TV after stations sell off their spectra.

The FCC giveth, and the FCC taketh away.

Doc Searls, a former radio guy, is the Director of ProjectVRM, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University. He can be reached at [email protected]

9 COMMENTS

  1. I do think that AM stations have been pushing political, social, and moral agendas and that might be another reason for their decline. I am extremely tired of hearing sex crimes on the news. The taxpayers of the United States cannot afford to put people in jail every time someone decides to have sex, regardless of age. I have a “dunce hat” for the radio. If I hear a sex crime reported on the radio, I turn it off for a week. If I hear a sex crime on TV, I turn it off for a month. Stop using your medium to push political, social and moral agendas.

    Add that to crappy audio, interference, and a horrible selection of NEW pop and country music, and radio is starting to become obsolete.

  2. Between switching power supply wall-wart adaptors and Cat 5 cables with no foil shield, I don’t know which is worse. I have a 93 Chevy Van that has absolutely crystal clear AM reception, so much that I put an AM stereo board in my GM radio (long story). I have an Astro van that has all sorts of computer noise that makes the AM hardly useable. I will at some point install a roof mount antenna and a quad shield coax which should solve the problem.

    Did you know that vehicles sold in Canada are required to meed Industry Canada (their FCC) interference testing requirements? Even spark noise has to be properly suppressed in Canada, as most of their country relies heavily on radio. What happened to the US FCC? I think they have been wasting taxpayer dollars chasing after unlicensed radio stations rather than dealing with the real problems of radio.

  3. As an AM station owner / operator I totally disagree with the above comments. Digital is not the answer. I agree crappy radio reception is the problem with AM stations. The FCC needs to adopt ANAX standards and mandate them in any radio that can receive FM stereo. This would also revitalize am by bringing back Cquam AM stereo. The AMAX standards would include noise blanking which would eliminate a lot of the noise issues that car radios have and improved fidelity. Also the band with restrictions on AM stations currently in use needs to be looked at. The FCC is the two face debacle by allowing IBOC / digital to cause more adjacent channel interference than analog radio with 15 kilohertz wideband ever did! Yet they limit AM to 10kHz audio… That’s a double standard and needs to go. Also, the FCC AND CONGRESS holding the budget strings, needs to enforce the Part 15 levels and crack down on noise generators like bad utility lines, etc. THAT would help revitalize AM..digital is not what the AM MW band needs..that would obsolete MILLIONS of radios immediately… Unlike DTV, there is no room for analog and full digital operation.

    • For many years we were proud owners of a 1992 Infiniti Q45, which won our hearts over competing Lexus, BMW and Mercedes sedans because it came with CQuam AM stereo. It sounded great — on the few stations that bothered to broadcast in the format. Then in 1995 Nissan/Infiniti “de-contented” their new cars, including the Q45, eliminating small details they thought customers wouldn’t miss. One of those details was AM stereo. Gone was the little button that activated it. Later I was told that the cost of the chip to Nissan was something like 5¢.

      I like AM stereo via HD these days, and have a 6-year-old Teac radio in our kitchen that plays it (and it was damn hard to find ANY radio with HD on board). Alas, the only AM stations using it here in New York are WCBS/880 and WINS/1010. And it makes them sound terrific. But the rest don’t bother. I would guess that the number of people listening to those stations in HD number in the dozens, or hundreds at the very most. (And if they’re getting it in cars equipped with HD for AM, they probably don’t know the difference, since those two are news rather than music stations.)

      The chance that the FCC will mandate transmission and reception by AMAX standards is zero.

      The chance that nearly 100% of the audience in most markets will be listening to streams, podcasts and on-demand “content” (a word I hate, but there it is), rather than over-the-air radio, is simply certain.

      I work in universities, and often ask students there if they listen to radio. The few that do say they listen to over-the-air stations online. My son’s licensed college station is on the Web 24/7, and off the air most of the time. Why? “Nobody has a radio. Everybody has a computer and a phone.”

      The phone is the new transistor radio. And it won’t stop being that, no matter what the FCC does.

      What are

      • So far, the only advantage I have found from an HD radio is… they have to put a real FM tuner in!

        Funny you say that, I have two Sony XDR3HD radios. I have zero HD radio FM stations, though sometimes I will get a flashing HD light on distant reception on fm. The FM tuner is has the best sensitivity and selectivity I have ever used on any radio in analog, I can separate adjacent channels with no problems… in other words, if there is a high power local station on 92.7, I can receive distant 92.9 with NO crosstalk! Radio technology has improved on FM. With that model radio and a full outdoor directional FM antenna (amplified on the antenna end, I am able to pick up stations 200 miles away, and have a station on almost every allocated frequency on the band. Even on the piece of wire it comes with, FM reception is flawless and it picks up distant stations painlessly. It does use digital noise reduction which can be mp3-ish at times, but usually that is when the signal is almost gone. DSP takes out impulse noise and stereo hiss, without blending. It still is not nearly as accurate and clear for local and moderate signals as my Yamaha t-1000. But I have listened to “Skip” on FM in the summer time as far as California and even Hawaii, in the central states!

        I can receive but one AM station in HD, which is 620 WTMJ from Milwaukee, it goes out at sundown on digital and fades in and out of digital in the morning. I have sometimes picked up KMOX in HD with the antenna pointed right at nighttime, but that is very inconsistent. The problem is that HD radio on AM sounds very much like an internet stream, it is that chirpy mp3 like sound. It is kind of garbled.

        The problem is that I can also pick up AM 1150 WHBY out of Kimberly, WI, which is very clear on analog, but it does not sound good on the Sony XDR. I use a Zenith or just about any radio for that, and it sounds almost as clear as FM on my car radio in the daytime. In the 90’s, WTMJ was AM Stereo and the audio was very clear. However, when they switched to digital in the 2000’s, the analog audio was degraded, I think they are running an 8Khz filter on it. My Sony radio has built in impulse noise reduction which cleans up AM a bit, but the analog quality is not great, they are using narrow band to filter out the digital radio noise.

        That is thus, a bit deceptive because when “HD” radio is on , the analog audio is degraded so as to no interfere with the digital. Thus you are not getting a true comparison. Compare a full analog signal on an analog radio to your digital radio. They filter the analog reception on digital HD radios, thus you are not getting a comparison.

        The problem I have with HD Radio on AM is that the audio quality is marginal. It is “neat” that they can send a compressed digital audio stream over AM. But the audio is NOT any better than what I can get via the internet. It’s a chirpy, washy garbled lossy compression stream, just like you get when you listen on the net. I don’t like that at all.

        As far as your AM stereo in a car radio goes, one of the issues was the fact that the chip used to decode AM Stereo was typically made by Motorola. Motorola decided in the late 90’s that they were not going to make that chip anymore. General Motors’ stereo decoder was made by Delco, but used similar designs. AM stereo demodulators can be built without using a chip, but radio manufacturers won’t put that into the design unless it is high end equipment. The company that makes most radio chips is Sanyo (ON Semiconductor) and Phillips (Now NXP).

        But programming is the other problem..

        • There is too much social, political and moral propaganda being aired on AM radio and radio in general. Like I said, if the stations continue to air what sounds very much like fascist propaganda, you will loose your listeners.

          Has anyone ever considered that many of these stations have program directors that are PCs being controlled by a 3rd party marketing company? Portable media gives the listener complete control over what they listen to. Has anyone ever considered the fact that the “program directors” at these stations are doing a bad job?

          I have 3 local LPFM stations that I can pick up, one is on bad frequency that gets washed out often, but one of them is very strong. Their programming, which is 60’s oldies, is very well done. But yet the commercial broadcasters can’t seem to get past repeating the same crap over and over and over. It is like nobody is running these stations, or they are being run buy a communist regime!

          One of the jobs of a program director in a radio station is to REJECT bad music or stuff that is marginal. New country is about as boring and mundane as it gets, it is hard to distinguish between artists. It is like 50’s country, but even that had lyrics that had some meaning. Pop is so bad, it is either ghetto or screechy girl pop.

      • Funny I am a rare human that does not own a cell phone, (or a land line for that matter). But I do own many portable music players and cd players as well.

        Essentially, many radio stations are running a PC that automatically programs the station. For me, the end listener, I can skip all the advertising and simply listen to what I want, when I want it. I have an entire radio automation system in my pocket. I can also get news and information worldwide, even from primary sources.

        To survive, radio has to innovate and improve its programming, have the best audio around, and provide what the end listener cannot get. And so far, radio is far behind the world. You can have the biggest transmitter and most advanced studio around, but if it doesn’t sound good and the programming sucks, you can’t compete with radio automation system strapped to my arm.

    • Digital is and has been most of the problem. I have decreased viewing TV by about 90 percent since DTV made the final switch, as reception is just so darn inconsistent. That jittery freezing blocking problem, even on an engineer designed antenna system is just terribly irritating. “HD Radio” which is hardly HD, on AM is pretty much useless. When you are in range of where the digital radio works, the analog is in full strength. When the sun starts to go down, digital AM drops and the radio goes to analog. Now, the analog is being washed by noise from the digital signal that cannot be decoded, but interferes with the analog.
      Go back to C-Quam and the AMAX standards, eliminate the c-quam pilot locking system on future radios which causes stereo to drop to mono. I have a sony AMAX pocket radio that is configured to always receive AM stereo whether the station is stereo or not. There are cool things you can do digitally or even in analog to remove noise and static from AM. I am also developing a system that would allow radios to phase out the static and noise using analog means.
      We have way too much interference on the FM and AM bands as it is. AM antenna design is part of the problem and many radios have AM antennas as an afterthought. But the biggest problem I have is too many AM stations on the same frequency at night. I can kinda tune it out using directional antennas, but if I were married my wife would have a fit with the array of coaxial loops hanging in my living room just to listen to Minneapolis.

      The FCC needs to go back to Proof of Performance standards on FM. 4 out of 5 FM stations lack proper 75 microsecond emphasis. The amount of distortion on many of these stations is pathetic. There needs to be a law against using lossy audio data compression in a broadcast environment, a majority of that stuff is illegally pirated!. The audio in some markets is so bad that I, like many younger people, (though I am in my mid 30’s), don’t listen to radio. I use a CD player or portable media player instead, as radio in most places sounds like total crap. Bad music on the pop stations is also a big factor, I just would assume listen to my own music, I have a CD catalog that is larger than Entercomm and Cumulus combined. There are a couple of LPFMs in the area that can be good sometimes.
      AM radio was great when we had AM stereo.

      For me, radio started its decline in the early 90’s, the killer of radio is digital processing. I was an avid listener of the pop version of WKTI (finally changed to crap country) in Milwaukee. The audio was always good, the music was the usual repeating top 40. In 1992, one evening, the station went dead for a second, and after it returned, it was loud and distorted. That was the switch to the digital optimod. After that, things got worse and there was this annoying distorted sound. WKTI was using a CBS volumax / audimax system that was well calibrated and did not abuse compression. I still have many reel to reel tapes of WKTI from 1989, 1990 and 1991.

      Overall, my complaint has been crap audio.

      Go TO digital AM and you WILL LOOSE MOST OF THE MARKET!

  4. I recently purchased a small incandescent lamp which I placed next to a clock radio. I noticed an annoying continual “thump” when listening to all but the strongest AM stations. It didn’t matter whether the lamp was on, or off. Turns out, it was the wall-wart power supply. The owner’s manual even addressed the issue-the solution was to move the lamp to some other part of the room. There needs to be more attention to increased, unregulated noise on the AM band. Adding even MORE interference to the band is the worst thing that can happen. Many rural areas have no local AM service at night. with increased interference, the AM band will be totally trashed so there will be no incentive to listen to AM radio, especially at night.
    Jerry Scott-Peoria, IL

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